Captain America, Masculinity, and Violence by J. Richard Stevens

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fantasy and science fiction book reviewsCaptain America, Masculinity, and Violence by J. Richard Stevens

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsCaptain America, Masculinity, and Violence, by J. Richard Stevens, is the second academic exploration of comics that I’ve read this week, and while Stevens’ text isn’t as strong as Liam Burke’s look at comic book films (you can see that review here), its sharper focus and thorough exploration of the Captain America character makes it a worthwhile addition to the field.

[note: apologies for what may be a lack of specificity in the review. My Bluefire Reader App is crashing every time I try to access my notes/highlights. Insert my usual DRM rant here.]

The text’s subtitle is “The Evolution of a National Icon,” and as one might expect therefore, Stevens traces the entire run of Captain America from his origin in December, 1940 through to his current appearance in comic books and film, more than ten thousand appearances of the character across various mediums. Stevens delineates eight different Captain America Phases:

  • Anti-Hitler 1940-1950
  • Commie Smasher! 1953-1954
  • Man Out of Time 1963-1971
  • Liberal Crusader 1971-1978
  • Individualist Consumer 1978-1990
  • Superficial Icon 1990-2002
  • Soldier in the War on Terror 2002-2007
  • Postidealist Commando 2007-present

In his introduction, Stevens offers a broad overview of the evolution mentioned in the subtitle, and how that evolution is a window into American society:

Despite beginning as a jingoistic pro-war hero, Cap became a liberal crusader in the late 1960s, teaming up with the Falcon, the nation’s first African-American superhero to fight against corruption within the American establishment. In the 1980s, he reflected the Cold War morality and consumerism of the Reagan era. He became a superficial icon in the 1990s, a conflicted agent of the war on terror in 2002 (as well as a neoconservative zealot in Marvel’s Ultimates line), a passionate advocate of wartime civil liberties in 2005 (culminating with his assassination in 2007), and finally a frustrated symbol of Obama administration optimism that struggled to define the role of government in regulating a new-world order.

This evolution of phases also ties into one of his major themes, the connection between the constant reinvention of Captain America and how “Americans consider their own history [which] has long been a fluid concept for most of them, wherein the ability to reconstruct and reinvent origins serves as a central component of American mythology.” This tendency of humans to “refine their history by altering details during recollection” is labeled “destructive updating” by psychologists, and it is a theme, along with the “American monomyth” (similar but not wholly akin to Joseph Campbell’s well-known Hero Monomyth) that Stevens keeps coming back to throughout the text as he looks at each new reincarnation of the character. His best examination of the idea comes when he looks at how Captain America’s use of violence fluctuates throughout his time periods, offering up detailed body counts (or lack of a body count) as evidence, and in depicting the many versions of the character’s origin story, each a response to the current time.

In addition to the twin themes highlighted in the title, violence and masculinity, Stevens explores social topics such as racism, gender issues, and politics, among others, while also paying attention to more comic-specific issues such as continuity and fan response. Nor does he limit himself to Captain America, supporting his larger points at times with brief but useful references to other characters in the Marvel Universe, such as Spider Man, Hulk, and Iron Man.

The various stages in Cap’s career are all solidly informative, though there is some variance in depth and insight I thought. The sections on Captain America as consumerist and a “superficial icon” I found to be the weakest areas of the text, both feeling more abstract and less strongly supported and detailed than the other segments. On the other hand, the examination of his war years, and the post-9/11 time period I thought were excellent — thorough, documented, precise, with some sharp analysis.

As for the general themes, I confess (and this might be my own obtuseness), that the whole “masculinity” topic, “social discourses about the way in which we should live, about how to be a man” seemed oddly lacking. Stevens does make a connection early on between masculinity and morality and violence, and these latter two themes are both deeply explored. I suppose I expected a broader examination of that “how to be a man” question and so was surprised when it seemed limited to mainly those two areas.

The idea of race is handled especially strongly with a thorough, full evaluation of the Falcon, showing how the character, though ostensibly a major stride forward (the first major black superhero in a major comic), had some troubling aspects to his story, offering up a more mixed message about race than is usually considered, as through some of his actions, his dialogue, his changing background, and his “affirmative action” hiring into The Avengers.

Gender is not handled quite as fully, and doesn’t offer the same perhaps surprising insight, though that may be more the fault of the Captain America character than of Stevens, as gender was much less of a focus than race in the comic. That said, Stevens does detail via specific storylines and quotes, most surrounding the character of Sharon Carter, how often Cap (and perhaps the writers) were stuck in a pre-feminist mode, as expressed via dialogue, career status, etc. As with the Falcon, Stevens does a nice job pointing out the dichotomies inherent within the character, as when she is granted a PhD in metaphysical psychology and a leadership position (feminist), but whose group is also described by Nick Fury as “hyped-up woman’s intuition” (not so feminist).

civil war marvel tpb coverThe political arena returns to the strength of the race discussion, beginning of course with Captain America’s propagandist intentions in his creation during World War II, but Stevens especially nails it in his prolonged discussion of Cap’s storylines post-9/11, pointing out the several ways in which the comic could be seen as a pretty clear-cut criticism of George Bush’s foreign policy, particularly the invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror, the latter conveyed via the allegory of the Civil War arc, whereby Captain America wages a guerrilla war against a government trying to force heroes to unmask and register themselves, thus giving up their civil rights. I’m not sure there is a lot of new ground here at all, or any surprising insights (partly because the arc itself is pretty clear and straightforward, even as it examines the deeply grey ground of the rights of the individual versus the needs of society), but Stevens lays it all out in clear, thorough, readable fashion.

Besides the somewhat minor point that the book doesn’t always raise particularly surprising/insightful points, and that it is at times a bit repetitive, my only real complaint is how little time is spent on the visuals of what is, after all, a visual medium. It was surprising to me how rare were the discussions of the visual mode of the comic—how Captain America is drawn, how other characters are drawn (seems to me the way Sharon Carter or Falcon are drawn would offer some rich opportunities for analysis regarding feminism/race), the visuals behind the characters, etc. Stevens doesn’t fully ignore it, but for me at least it was a marked gap.

That said, as I mentioned in my intro, Captain America, Masculinity, and Violence is a good non-fiction addition to the field of comic book studies for its clarity, its overarching vision, its particularly strong examination of the characters’ relationship with violence and nearly as strong explorations of race and politics. Recommended.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. Thank you for another excellent review of an academic text on comics, Bill!

  2. I guess it’s his name, but Captain America has always seemed to me to be the symbolic hero who changed the most as we changed our thinking about our own history. (You’d think that would be superman, wouldn’t you?)

    Regarding the “individualist consumer/superficial icon” periods, were superhero comic books languishing during those decades? For me, the 1980s and 90s were more about LOVE AND ROCKETS.

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