The Captain America Conundrum: Issues of Patriotism, Race, and Gender in Captain America Comic Books, 1941-2001
Type of Degreedissertation
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“The Captain America Conundrum: Issues of Patriotism, Race, and Gender in Captain America Comic Books, 1941-2001” represents a comprehensive examination of Captain America comic books as a primary source for the study of United States history from just prior to World War II to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Just as Time magazine or the New York Times newspaper could be used as primary sources to examine American society, mores, and culture, it is the argument of this study that comic books – heretofore considered primarily children’s literature – can also be used in this regard. Through the pages of this essentially monthly publication, accepted norms of contemporary American society can be seen, as well as (post-1960) attempts on the part of the writers and artists to influence those norms. Within the zeitgeist of American culture, the character of Captain America has been considered a representation of strong government and ardent conservatism. The reality, however, is that the character has become increasingly just left-of-center politically, promoting strong nationalism and American leadership alongside ideas of racial and gender equality. While the 1940s and ’50s issues portrayed racial and, occasionally, gender stereotypes, as American society became more open to a more egalitarian society, those mores are portrayed – and, many would argue, pushed – in the pages of Captain America. By the end of the 1960s, the comic presented the first iii African-American superhero, The Falcon, and a strong female secret-agent character, Sharon Carter. Aside from the actual text and images within the pages of Captain America, advertisements and printed letters to the editors provide additional windows into these periods of American history. Ads promoting traditional ideas of gender roles and gender image frequent the books throughout the decades; and, beginning in the 1960s, letters from fans of the comic book provide evidence that these comic books were not simply read by children, but high school and college students, professors, lawyers, soldiers, and housewives as well. As American society swung from left to right over the decades, these changes in political climate are repeatedly addressed in the pages of this superhero comic book. After a brief overview of the more important historiography of comic book / superhero studies, the remaining chapters proceed to examine the comic book decade-bydecade. From the hero’s origins just prior to American involvement in World War II, through its brief return during the height of the McCarthy era as “Captain America: Commie Smasher,” to its eventual return in the post-Kennedy 1960s as a “man-out-oftime,” showing how American society had changed since the hero’s inception, the pages of the various titles of the monthly Captain America comic book show America during these decades as they are popularly perceived. From the late ’60s through the remainder of the century, the comic book portrays situations such as: the explosion of representation of African-Americans and the idea of the “New Woman” in the 1970s; ideas for and against the so-called Age of Reagan in the 1980s; the questionable status of the U.S. in a post-Cold War world in the 1990s; and the immediate response to the terrorist attacks of iv 9/11. American history unfolds in the pages of Captain America, reflecting society – as the best of popular culture does – while at the same time attempting to influence the thinking of its readers.