Captain America Through the Decades

Jack Kirby's cover for Captain America #1

Over at the Globe and Mail last week I published an article about the evolution of Captain America. A few errors crept into the article, so I’ve tidied it up. The preferred version is below:

It was the punch that sold a million comics, the sock in the jaw that amazed newsstand readers in 1941 and still carries resonance to this day. Right on the cover of Captain America #1, the star-spangled superhero gives a knuckle-sandwich to none other than Adolf Hitler while a group of Nazi storm troopers stare on in amazement.

To understand why Captain America was an instant sensation when he was first created and remains enough of an iconic figure to headline a Hollywood summer blockbuster, it’s necessary to remember the historical circumstances that gave birth to him. Captain America was co-created by two young Jewish cartoonists, named Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). As historian Gerard Jones argues in his 2004 book Men of Tomorrow, Mr. Simon and Mr. Kirby were the children of immigrant Jews and both strongly identified with American nationalism.

“What Simon and Kirby together brought to the superhero was the passion of the immigrant, of the Jew,” Jones noted. “Captain America brought … metaphors of masking to a new poignancy. Steve Rogers shuffles into a secret lab scrawny and slump shouldered, then is given an injection of a super-solider serum and is transformed into an Adonis. … The underfed ghetto kid transformed into a roof-rattling power by seizing American opportunities, the weary old-country survivor reborn as the new fighting Jew through the crucible of American freedom and violence. And through that immigrant passion Simon and Kirby captured an entire national awakening: America the provincial stirring itself to become a world power.”

The cover of Captain America #1 made a spectacular impression because it came out in March of 1941, 10 months before America was attacked at Pearl Harbor and entered the war. At the time, much of the country was still isolationist and many in the media were afraid of featuring Nazis as explicit villains for fear of offending those who wanted America to stay out of the war. While there had been patriotic superheroes before Captain America, notably an also-ran called The Shield, no previous character was so forthrightly advocating that America become a global dynamo.

“It was a provocation for intervention as well as an anti-Nazi commentary,” notes Matthew J. Costello, a professor of political science at Saint Xavier University and author of the book Secret Identity Crisis, in an e-mail interview. Since his birth as a Nazi-fighter, Captain America has remained the most topical of superheroes, with adventures that have reflected the vicissitudes of American foreign policy from the early Cold War to Vietnam to the current war on terror. Yet despite the changing political tenor of the times, Captain America has persisted as a symbol of American exceptionalism, the belief in America’s invincibility, its inherent goodness and its world-historical destiny.

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The Murdoch Scandal: A Big Picture View

Murdoch: The Newspaper Baron Under Seige

The unfolding scandal over phone hacking, police corruption and political intimidation in Britain is filled with enough juicy details to fill a fat novel. But I thought it might be worthwhile to take a big picture view of the man at the heart of the scandal, Rupert Murdoch. My assessment of the man can be found here.

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McLuhan Radio Chatter

M. McLuhan

 

After listening to one of my recent radio appearances, the cartoonist Ben Towie generously tweeted, “Jeet Heer could talk about a ham sandwich for an hour and it’d be interesting.” I’m not sure that “Jeet Heer chats about sandwich meats” would make for a commercially successfully program or not. For those who want to listen to me discuss more substantial things might want to go to:

1. This hour long documentary about Marshall McLuhan which just aired on the ABC network in Australia. I’m one of several guests who discuss McLuhan’s Catholicism at some length. One mistake worth pointing out: I was wrongly identified by the show as an editor at The Walrus. This is a very substantial radio documentary and highly recommended if you have any interest in McLuhan at all.

2. On the Inkstuds program I and two other guests (the cartoonist Onsmith and the editor/curator Ryan Standfest) talk about the tradition of black humor (in both comics and culture at large) as well as the recent anthology Black Eye. You can listen to it here.

 

The Messiah is the Message

Marshall McLuhan, 1911-1980

Over at the Walrus, I have an assessment of Marshall McLuhan at the 100 anniversary of his birth, with a focus on him as a Catholic intellectual. You can read the article here.

An excerpt:

Indeed, his faith made him a more ambitious and far-reaching thinker. Belonging to a Church that gloried in cathedrals and stained glass windows made him responsive to the visual environment, and liberated him from the textual prison inhabited by most intellectuals of his era. The global reach and ancient lineage of the Church encouraged him to frame his theories as broadly as possible, to encompass the whole of human history and the fate of the planet. The Church had suffered a grievous blow in the Gutenberg era, with the rise of printed Bibles leading to the Protestant Reformation. This perhaps explains McLuhan’s interest in technology as a shaper of history. More deeply, the security he felt in the promise of redemption allowed him to look unflinchingly at trends others were too timid to notice.

Paying for Sex: A Personal Note

Two unfairly maligned professions: prostitutes and cartoonists

Chester Brown has an amazing new book out called Paying For It, a challenging sexual memoir about romantic love and prostitution. I’d strongly encourage everyone to read it.

 
In the Globe and Mail, I write about the political and social implications of Brown’s book. See here. I hope to do a future essay that deals with Paying For It more as a remarkable work of art, rather than just a polemic. Continue reading

Photo Funnies

"Jim Shooter said what...?!?"
Photo: Jeet Heer
Caption: Gregory Gallant
Photo Subject: Bella Elinor Heer
Note: Alas, this joke will only make sense to those who have an encylopedic knowledge of the internal politics of Marvel Comics in the 1980s. But for a good background, see this great Gary Groth essay here.
 

What If…Batman Fought bin Laden

From Frank Miller's Dark Knight Strikes Again

 

Leave it to the excellent Douglas Wolk to remind us of one of the downsides to Osama bin Laden’s demise: that it renders moot Frank Miller’s planned Batman Versus bin Laden comic.  Although to be more accurate, Miller himself had second-thoughts about that idea and is still working on a superhero comic, sans Batman, about the “War on Terror.” Still, perhaps some other cartoonist can do an imaginary story where Batman dukes it out with Osama.

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Baby Photos

Grandmom, new mom, fresh-born daughter.
Bella within moments of her birth

I’m hijacking this very serious political and literary blog to make a personal annoucement. Yesterday Robin Ganev gave birth to our daughter, Bella Elinor Heer. The baby was born at 1:22 CST weighing in at 6 pound 3 oz. Both mother and daughter are doing well. Here are some photos:

Denis Dutton, RIP (Part I)

Denis Dutton

The late Denis Dutton, who created the website Arts and Letters Daily and who died at the end of last year, was a someone who I had fairly complicated feelings towards. In the early years of ALD (especially from 2000 to 2004) he used to link to my articles fairly frequently, and this gave a huge boost to my career, giving me a much larger and more international audience. Still I had issues with Dutton’s worldview and also the impact of some of his intellectual activism. Below is an essay I wrote for the Globe and Mail earlier this year which tries to sort out Dutton’s legacy (I’ll have a follow-up post soon).

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