Book: Captain America, Masculinity, and Violence: The Evolution of a National Icon
J. Richard Stevens is assistant professor in media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Stevens’ interests and research encompass the various relationships between culture formation and media through the technology infrastructures that influence and construct our digital and cultural worlds. Captain America, Masculinity, and Violence: The Evolution of a National Icon is his first book.
Please tell us briefly about your forthcoming title. What are you most excited about for your readers?
This book was a special project for me, representing about a decade of work. Marvel Comics are at an interesting crossroads in our culture. For decades, they represented a special place in media subculture, a space not overwhelmingly popular with the public at large. But with the purchase of Marvel by Disney and the continued success of the Marvel Studios films, the location and importance of those narratives and characters in our culture is quickly expanding. That expansion necessitates change in both the way stories are told and the ways readers and fans interact with them.
This book uses textual analysis, cultural analysis, fan studies, and an engagement of industry history to delve into how the Captain America text was produced, why it resonated in different ways at different times and how readers and fans used the text at various points in the character’s history. I was really trying to show how the media formats framed the conventions of the character, and how the audience frequently battled the writers and editors over the portrayals. Because Captain America embodies patriotism (and there are probably as many ideas and opinions about American patriotism as there are Americans), Captain America frequently becomes the focal point for battles over cultural meaning. And yet, one cannot ignore the pressures of commercialism, the constraints of the medium, the politics from the culture at large … there were just so many things to consider, and I tried to bring as many of them to bear as I felt I could in a responsible manner. Readers of this book will find content from comic books, fan letters, press releases, public interviews, media studies literature and a host of other materials.
Are Captain America’s values distinctly different from the values we see most superheroes embodying?
One of the interesting things about Captain America’s values are that they shift from era to era. Because he embodies the nation for so many people, how he should be portrayed is a moving target, both because the national moods shifts from era to era and because the audience changes.
For example, Captain America began his career as part of a mission to encourage Americans to support entering World War II (and a full year before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor). But when that character returned in the 1960s and one of his original creators (Jack Kirby) began to produce portrayals consistent with his World War II adventures, the readers rebelled and Marvel eventually replaced Kirby with a more progressive creative team, and Captain America became a progressive hero in the spirit of the New Left movement. Later in the 1980s, fans objected to how extremely against violence the character had become. And, of course, the 2002 series that positioned Captain America as a criticizer of the military-industrial complex at a time when most of our popular culture refused to discuss such matters was a key moment in comics history, as was his participation in Marvel Comics’ Civil War event, in which the heroes debated the role of privacy in the post-9/11 national security state.
No matter what is going on in American politics, it seems Captain America becomes a magnet for political controversy and cultural criticism. So you might say he’s become the ever-evolving embodiment of the paradox of what it means to be American. And I tried to show some of the many dimensions of that in the book.
Do you feel a personal connectedness to Captain America or any of the phases he has gone through?
Well, as I explain in the introduction, I did read some Captain America comics in the 1980s, and struggled mightily to reconcile that character with the one I found in earlier issues of his title (particularly the issues of racial relations from the 1970s books). That struggle would later become important to this book’s premise, and I will probably always feel an affinity for that era of the Captain America comic book because it provided a space for people to consider social justice in a time when those topics were difficult to talk about in public.
Captain America seems most compelling when he criticizes the status quo and takes on the cultural authority. That form of discourse is not always present in some other kinds of stories, so I suppose it’s fair to say I identify with that struggle and appreciate the character for facilitating space for unpopular discussions.
Based on Captain America’s history of evolution, what do you see in the hero’s future?
Constant change. Particularly now that Disney owns Marvel and is reformulating all of the Marvel characters and stories, I think Captain America’s evolution will continue and continue to do so across many different media narratives. Of course, Disney/Marvel is now a multi-media empire, and Captain America is one of the commodities needed to sell movie tickets, merchandise, entertainment events and all the activities Disney sells to consumers. The comic books, movies, cartoons, collectibles … those items are not inherently part of that system, and so it will be interesting to see how this character evolves in that environment. I suspect parts of Captain America will always remain familiar, but I suspect he will also evolve to meet the needs of the commercial and narrative mission.
Do you think the comic genre is better able to communicate certain aspects of culture than other literary forms?
In the past, it certainly was. Because the audience was smaller and more tightly concentrated than other mass media, a lot of experimentation and criticism could appear in that space that would have been far riskier in television programming or other forms of public media.
Which books are you currently reading? Are any of them comics?
I read a lot of journals and texts for work (popular culture theory, technology culture, public policy, etc), and find myself lagging behind in my personal reading. I do read some comics, though more for work than pleasure (which I know might sound strange to some). I do keep up with a few titles like Image Comics’ The Walking Dead and Marvel’s Ms. Marvel as well as various Captain America and Avengers-related topics, but even those blend together my personal interest with my research interests. I also have a 5-year-old son, and keeping up with his media influences me somewhat in what I read about and study.
It is said that this title is the most “thorough treatment of Captain America” we have yet to see, what challenges (if any) did you face in your research?
The sheer magnitude of the reading was a challenge. Comic books stories can be short in length, but a deep reading of each one takes time, and getting through a few thousand issues took years. Acquiring some of the texts and keeping up with contemporary stories was also challenging. Some of the stories were rare and hard to come by, and I probably spent as much time in the search/acquisition process as I did reading.
Keeping my notes organized was also a challenge. In the end, I ended up creating a searchable database with coding tags so that I could search through my notes about particular comic issues quickly. Before that, I found myself getting easily confused about where particular scenes, statements or fan letters appeared. Again, dealing with so many texts at once brings so many challenges to the table.
Personally, what is special about the comic genre to you?
Comic books are one of the few truly distinct American cultural art forms. I think it’s fascinating to think about how the limitations of a cheaply produced medium created so many lasting conventions of storytelling (costumes, missions of vigilante justice, etc.) and to consider how those conventions influenced American mythology and the social identities of the citizenry to such a tremendous degree.
Comic books were once a medium that was largely ignored in media studies. But as the stories from that medium have been transferred into other mass media, the power and reach of those stories have been magnified. The process by which cultural messages are created, disseminated and what happens on the reception end when fans take control of the objects of their passion is incredibly interesting and important for understanding how Americans relate to their media culture.
Which section of this book did you enjoy working on most?
To be perfectly honest, I think the section I was dreading the most was the section I wound up enjoying the most: the 1990s narratives. I hadn’t read those, and my knee-jerk presumptions about what I would probably find there led me to believe that experience would be excruciating. But I found a lot of interesting material I hadn’t expected, and that process served to remind me that texts are often more interesting and complex upon closer inspection than we might initially think when considering them more superficially.
But I did find enjoyment in each chapter, though no two are alike, given the changes in the comic book industry, changing views in American politics, and just the changing of the guard in terms of who produced comics in different eras.
For more information or to purchase a copy of Captain America, Masculinity, and Violence: The Evolution of a National Icon, please visit the Syracuse University Press website.