Captaining America: Tales of Two Icons

What could Captain America and Helen Keller possibly have in common?  Read on . . . .

As Independence Day approaches, movie theaters try to lure customers with patriotic blockbusters, or at least action-packed adventures, echoing the fight for freedom proclaimed on July 4, 1776. In recent years, these movie megahits have often featured the patriotic superheroes who first appeared in 1930s and 1940s comics. Yet their victories are not the only tales told about such icons as Captain America and Superman. Sometimes stories created about these fictional figures reveal our national flaws or failings. Similarly, we sometimes find out surprising truths about real-life heroes—little known incidents or events that deepen our understanding of these worthy people elevated over time into icons. Helen Keller, who triumphed over physical disabilities, is one of these iconic, real-life heroes.

This past month, two news items led me to recent graphic literature that tackles this issue of heroic fame vs. unvarnished truth—and does so in smart, entertaining, but also moving ways. An unexpected obituary for comic book writer Robert Morales (only 54 years old) reminded me of a version of Captain America that deserves to be much better known. Another news story described a letter, rescued from historical archives, that Helen Keller wrote, fiercely advocating free speech and religious tolerance. In her response to 1930s German book-burning, Keller in her own way captained American values. It is a bittersweet pleasure today, then, to highlight two exceptionally fine graphic works. One postulates the ‘hidden’ truth behind fictional Captain America, while the other examines some often overlooked truths in Helen Keller’s remarkable life story.

Truth: Red, White and BlackThe Captain America who first appeared in a 1941 Marvel comic book, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, has undergone many transformations. At first, patriotic but frail Steve Rogers—given super strength and healing through an untested “super serum”—became  costumed Captain America and helped win World War II. Later, Marvel employees depicted blonde Rogers fighting in other wars, sometimes with a sidekick. Some storylines even had Rogers travelling back in time, entering alternate universes, becoming the president, or turning into a zombie! Yet it is a different origin story of Captain America, at first not meant to tie into the Marvel universe(s) of tales, that is my focus. In 2003, writer Robert Morales, with illustrator Kyle Baker, tackled racism in America in a seven issue “mini-series” about Captain America, collected under the title Truth: Red, White, and Black (2004). This trade paperback was reprinted in hardback as Captain America: Truth in 2009. 

Captain America: TruthMorales was surprised that Marvel Publications accepted his concept for its copyrighted superhero, since his Truth drew upon some “staggeringly depressing” history. Yet the project was championed by Marvel editor Axel Alonso, who found it “especially meaningful…” to “edit a story that functions as a little more than pure entertainment.” As each issue appeared, Alonso recalls, reviewers initially opposed to the series’ basic premise began to see that it was about “building bridges between people, not burning them…” That premise is apparent in the very first image of Captain America: Truth—an African American man in a Captain America costume! Over the course of the novel, we learn how this character, Isaiah Bradley, wears that suit with valor, even though he and other Black soldiers are treated shamefully by the U.S. government, enduring much more than the segregation of their era.

In Morales’ tale, before injecting Steve Rogers with its “super soldier” serum, the army first tests it on unsuspecting Black soldiers, many of whom suffer horribly and die during these unethical experiments. In his detailed Appendix to Captain America: Truth, Morales explains that he based this plot on the real-life exploitation of Black patients in the now infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Hundreds were unethically left untreated in the name of science. This Appendix also gives the real-life history behind the many instances of racism depicted throughout the novel, which initially follows the lives of three Black men from different cities and social classes. Only the terrible injustice Isaiah Bradley experiences in the final chapters is extrapolated from the author’s imagination.

“Chapter One: The Future” introduces us to working class Bradley in New York, enjoying the 1939–1940 World’s Fair with his wife, Faith, who affectionately corrects his grammar as they sightsee. We next meet upper-class Maurice Canfield, greeted by his family’s butler in their Philadelphia mansion. Maurice’s words to his horrified mother about a violent confrontation with bigoted thugs reflect his educated, bitter wit. He says, “And one of them brought the meeting to a swift conclusion with a stream of invective—much of it about you, actually…” Luke “Black Cap” Evans is the novel’s third protagonist—a career soldier recently demoted from captain to sergeant for confronting a racist superior officer. “Cap” is playing pool in a Cleveland billiards parlor. One large panel there shows how well author Morales and illustrator Baker work together. As we see Cap about to sink a foregrounded white ball into a pool table pocket, Cap sarcastically notes, “This is the only place I get to shove ol’ whitey around.” Each character is linked to a different color palette, though Baker unites their stories—which come together after Pearl Harbor is attacked—with the same distinctive drawing style. With just a few, well-chosen exceptions, Baker conveys emotion and movement through the “comic-dynamic” style—non-realistic, cartoon-like drawing that uses flowing lines of different widths.

Isaiah Bradley is the sole survivor out of 300 Black soldiers who, in this origin story, give their lives so that Steve Rogers may become the Captain America.  Long before they succumb to brutal drug testing or battle, though, their families and friends are told they have died. A double-spread triptych, color-coded to each protagonist, depicts the premature grieving forced upon these families. Other powerful images in Captain America: Truth include scenes in which Isaiah Bradley, successfully fighting behind enemy lines, discovers the horrors of medical experimentation in Nazi death camps. Victims strapped to tables there eerily resemble the Black soldiers restrained by U.S. doctors as they developed the super soldier serum.

Each chapter also begins with an intense, full-page, red-white-and-black image or series of images linked thematically to its content. These are drawn with clear, bold lines—as though they were public murals or monuments carved in granite. “Chapter Three: The Passage” shows a black silhouette strapped down to a flag-striped, red and white medical gurney. A thin blue border surrounds this scene. “Chapter Five: The Math”—the combat chapter—begins with three striking pages: Bradley’s black and white silhouette racing towards a concentration camp shown in twilight blue; a close-up of his silhouetted head, striped with white concentration camp numbers, against a blood-red background; and that close-up repeated with the background now shown as a distorted American flag, red and white stripes blasted into psychedelic squiggles. That mind-blowing transformation, for me, sums up the overall impact of Morales and Baker’s hard-hitting, innovative novel.

Truth: Captain AmericaCaptain America: Truth, though, does not end on a downbeat note. In “Chapter Six, The Whitewash,” Isaiah Bradley is captured but resists the attempts of Nazi officials (including Hitler himself!) to win him to their side. And, when Steve Rogers later learns how Bradley’s valor was concealed and his bravery actually punished by the U.S. Army, Rogers sets out to correct this terrible whitewashing of the truth. In the final, seventh chapter, tellingly titled “The Blackvine,” Rogers and we readers learn that Isaiah Bradley—while permanently damaged by official U.S. injustice—had never been forgotten by his wife Faith. Bradley has also achieved word-of-mouth fame and respect in the Black community and its supporters. On a double page spread, we see a costumed Steve Rogers examining a wall of photographs of world-renowned celebrities posing with smiling Isaiah Bradley. These are drawn realistically for easy identification. Everyone from South African leader Nelson Mandela to boxer Mohammed Ali and film maker Spike Lee, it seems, has known the truth about the first Captain America long before Steve Rogers and us readers!  The book’s final narrative page shows a photo of both costumed Captain Americas, shoulder- to-shoulder and smiling. An inserted, smaller snapshot of joyful young Isaiah and Faith Bradley suggests that injured Isaiah is genuinely as happy now. He has made his own peace with the brutal “truths” just revealed to us so brilliantly by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker. Their tale suggests it is possible to move past our country’s shared hurtful past, once it is acknowledged.

Annie Sullivan: The Trials of Helen KellerThis “hidden” story of fictional Captain America is mirrored by the hidden (or at least overlooked) stories of real-life hero Helen Keller. Anyone who has seen William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker, or the 1962 Oscar winning film version, might think a  book could not rival that portrayal of young, blind-deaf Helen first comprehending language. Yet Lambert’s Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller (2012) depicts this stunning moment at least as well as Gibson does.

Helen Keller's pagesLambert conveys the “trial” of blind-deafness through color and line.  Before Helen understands language, Lambert casts her as a roughly outlined pale grey shadow against a black background. The touch of others is drawn as swooping, roughly outlined blue swatches. The finger signs Sullivan tries to teach Helen are also depicted in blue. Lambert creatively uses vertical and horizontal blue lines and swirls, separately and in combination, to show how Helen learns to connect water pouring out of a pump, her hand plunging into a pitcher of water, and falling droplets with the word “water.” As Helen acquires more language, filling the void that was her mind, Lambert fills the black background of panels with more and more labeled, outlined images of objects, in assorted muted hues.

Annie Sullivan's pagesIn contrast, the daily life of Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, is depicted in a schematic style, devoid of shadows, both before she meets Helen and once Helen acquires language. This hyper-realistic style changes only when Lambert reveals their other “trials.” These centered upon Sullivan’s complex relationship with the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, where vision-impaired Sullivan received her own education and where the Kellers found help for Helen. As Helen’s achievements receive public attention, Sullivan resents publicity that emphasizes Perkins School rather than her own efforts. This attitude leads to the book’s two other “trials.”

Lambert’s book shows how Sullivan wrongfully attempted to ignore historical fact: Helen Keller was not the first blind-deaf child successfully taught language at Perkins. Fifty years earlier, its founder had taught 8-year-old Laura Bridgman to communicate. Sullivan as a student at Perkins had even known Bridgman. Sullivan’s dismissive attitude influenced how Perkins staff handled the next “trial,” which actually bordered on a crime. The magazine which had published a fairy tale, “The Frost King,” supposedly written by 11-year-old Helen, discovered an almost identical story, titled “The Frost Fairies,” written by someone else and published earlier in a book. The magazine and Perkins officials accused Sullivan and Helen of plagiarism. Lambert uses multiple visual styles to depict the story itself, and again uses grey shadows against a black background to show how tired, confused, and anxious Helen became during the many hours she was questioned about this matter. Helen’s ability to remember long passages word-for-word clouded the issue, too. Finally, Helen and Sullivan are never officially charged and condemned for plagiarism, yet they leave Perkins under a cloud of doubt.

In his book’s appendix, detailing the facts behind its panels, Joseph Lambert does not take sides about this little-known controversy. His final storytelling images also let readers reach their own conclusions about the possible plagiarism. From one panel to the next, Helen and Annie Sullivan’s faces move from full-featured illustrations to shadowy outlines, just as Helen sometimes feels the sun’s warmth as she clings to Sullivan but sometimes feels chilled as a cloud literally covers the sun. This is a smart, moving way to show the affection and need that bind Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan together, regardless of any deliberate or accidental wrongdoing. Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller richly deserves its recognition as a YALSA Best Graphic Novel (2013) and other accolades praising it for upper elementary and middle school readers, too.

This blog entry is now complete, but tales of these icons and others continue. I still have a library copy of Helen Keller in Love (2012) to read. I just happened to see this historical novel by Rosie Sutton on an entryway bookshelf the other week. There is also the latest Superman movie, Man of Steel, to ponder. I saw it in larger-than-life 3D at a local mall cinema yesterday. And there is Marvel’s latest alternate universe Spiderman to consider. In August, 2011, young Miles Morales, a teen of African American and Latino descent, stepped in for Peter Parker there. I have not read any of his adventures yet … perhaps you have, or perhaps you have another tale about icons to share here.

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