Reading Captain America today: Jason Dittmer on Superhero Narratives and Politics

Originally published on (now closed), 20 June 2017

We all know superheroes, even if we have never read a single comic book. They have been part of popular culture for decades, reaching wider audiences every day through blockbuster Hollywood movies. What narratives do these superheroes embody? What influence do these comics have in setting the political stage? Political geographer at UCL and comics scholar Jason Dittmer examines the metaphors, narratives and geopolitics of the superhero genre in a fascinating book: Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero.

The density and language of academic books may leave readers hesitant to dive in, but while Dittmer’s analyses are detailed and very well argued, they are never boring, offering many ‘aha’ moments as the topics discussed throughout the chapters relate to many political issues we are facing today in our societies. And in this day and age of Brexit and Trump, a conversation about Captain America and nationalist superheroes seems more than necessary.

Dittmer sets the tone of the book from its cover, by choosing the painting “Massacre in Haditha” by British Jordanian artist Tanya Tier, a reinterpretation of Pablo Picasso’s “Massacre in Korea” (1951) in which Picasso expressed his horror at the American machine-gunning of civilian refugees during the Korean War. These refugees had been trying to get behind American lines during the early stages of the war to avoid being caught between the two armies; however, the Americans, concerned about North Korean infiltrators, massacred the whole group. As Dittmer explains in the book, “Picasso’s painting can be understood as representing a violent, geographic concern about shoring up the barrier between “our” territory (behind the lines) and its constitutive outside.” Moved to rework the painting for a more contemporary audience when she saw the mirror image of Picasso’s vulnerable civilians in the twenty-four Iraqis murdered by American Marines at Haditha in November 2005, Tier used the visual language of superheroes; these iconic fictitious characters so entrenched in American culture. Quoted by Dittmer in the very first page of the book, Tier explains:

“[T]he powerful imagery of the superhero is a reference to the jingoism and propaganda deployed by governments and western media commentators when reporting the conflict. The US government in particular needed to establish and convince the public—in the most simplistic of terms—that their soldiers are the “good guys.” Donning the superhero uniform gave the troops permission to become defenders of the faith, protectors of the American people and safe-guarders of American interests. The way the conflict was being portrayed in the US media reduced it to the level of comic book fantasy or video game, an imaginary world where the good guys (“us”) always triumph over the bad guys (“them”).”

It is captivating to dive into geo-political analysis through the lens of comics, which is not something we are used to doing. “I can safely say I was the first person in geography to turn their attention to comic books” says Dittmer, “it comes from having read superhero comics from when I was a teenager. Then during my PhD on Media Representation in Central and Eastern Europe during the NATO and European expansion (1999 to 2003), I became interested in the way places were represented in media. I went back reading superhero comics on a road trip. I could remember Captain America stories but looking back at them with the theoretical knowledge behind me, I realized it is a totally compelling kind of narration of a nation. It made me think about how much of my view of America had been informed by reading Captain America comics. It seemed natural to go back and start looking at those comics, and excavate more of those stories and how they changed over time.” What Dittmer imagined would take him a year expanded in time, as he started researching Canadian and British superheroes.

While the creation of these narratives is very much anchored in the three countries Dittmer focuses on in the book, these comics tell a lot about their relationship with the rest of the world, and how they shape non-Anglo-American readers’ perspectives – especially of the US. As Dittmer explains in the book, the size of the US comics market makes it the indispensable arbiter of what will be published, even in regards to other countries’ nationalist superheroes. But this hegemony is not purely economic and includes politico-cultural terms. “Not a day goes by when I go to central London that I don’t see a Captain America T-Shirt” says Dittmer, “besides the one that I am wearing” he adds, laughing.

And, they can’t all be tourists, he notes. The superhero movies are certainly the main reason for this explosion of popularity, “I think there is something interesting about the way these movies have helped promote these heroes in many places. It has nudged political cultures in different ways. The US, UK and Canada are the three countries where superheroes are on fertile soil, but the movies battered that door down a little more. People are more likely to come to superhero stories through the movies than through the comics.”

Superheroes and Feminism

In his book, Dittmer spends a certain amount of time analyzing and exploring issues around representation, looking at gender, diversity and multiculturalism. He addresses the simple question “Why are almost all superheroes male?” from two perspectives that he introduces as follows: first by looking at the masculine superhero body in action, through which the state is produced as a ‘hard’ masculine shell protecting the ‘soft’ feminine nation. And secondly, that of the textual representations of domesticity and feminist values. In its chapter focused on gender, Dittmer examines masculinity and misogyny, hetero-heroism, and feminism. “There has been a concerted effort to break out of the old mould” says Dittmer, “almost every single character has been feminised and diversified – I think that the industry realised the previous model was a death spiral: since the late 1990’s it’s become more inward looking, trying to keep the fan-base happy, and that fan-base has gotten older, and it’s hard for new people to get interested since many stories also became so dark. Sometimes, when I read Captain America I wonder who all those characters are. And some story lines appear that I hadn’t read before, so it can be difficult to follow. They knew that the way it was going was unsustainable, so they moved towards more diversity.”

A Marvel executive had announced that their emphasis on diversity may have alienated readers, creating quite a stir among many people celebrating and advocating for more diversity in comics. “I’m not surprised that sales have gone down,” says Dittmer, “the trick is to get new people to read them. Because of the way comics are bought and sold, it is very hard for new readers to discover them.” He adds that including more diverse narratives into comics is clearly going to be a process. “The economic logic revolves more around the movies, these comics are – to me – kind of incubators of story lines, characters, and of course, a fan-base. I think the comics do not have to sell enough to cover their expenses, they can run at a loss and make billions on the next Avengers movie. That’s why I think they do themselves a favor by diversifying their characters: for one, many of the actors – at least in the Marvel movies – are looking into moving out as they’re getting old, so you’re going to have to replace these characters. They’ve also taken a lot of heat being pretty white male, which is the legacy of these characters from the sixties. So now you have a new opportunity to take some of the new characters and move them to the big screen and solve a lot of these issues”.

This process cannot happen without bringing diversity into the industry, starting with writers and artists. 

 “It is essential,” Dittmer agrees, giving the examples of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “an amazing thinker on race” who has written a few issues of Black Panther, and G. Willow Wilson, one of the creators and veteran writer of Ms Marvel. Dittmer says he welcomes anything that will freshen the genre and bring in new perspectives: “having a wide range of voices offering a nuanced take on things is very important, especially that there unfortunately is, within superhero comics, a strain of misogyny and racism.”

Unfortunately Marvel has since canceled Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay's Black Panther comics because sales were low. 

As already highlighted through the painting chosen for the cover of this book, Dittmer opens the door for an in-depth conversation about representation and the way narratives shape our visions of the world. “When I finished the book,” says Dittmer about the painting, “I got in touch with my contact at Marvel to ask for permission to use as many images as I could for the book. They’ve been very generous and allowed me to use many good ones. But they were also concerned about the title of the book, which could have sounded like a title for one of their own stories, so they wanted to see the cover to make sure it didn’t look like one of their comics. It took them two minutes to get back to me after they saw my cover: nobody was going to mistake my book for a Marvel comic. I thought it was great because they understood what the cover of the book was doing and they were OK with it.”

Dittmer amply evidences the overtly nationalist focus of superheroes, but “rarely are they called to defend the international system of nation-states itself,” he argues in a section on superheroes and sovereignty, except with a character introduced in Captain America in 1985: Flag-Smasher. It is particularly interesting that he is a supervillain whereas for someone envisioning the possibility of a borderless world, Flag-Smasher could be seen as one of the good guys. 

“He starts as an idealistic character,” Dittmer explains, “smashing flags against the nation-state. But Captain America stops to listen to him at some point. You see, it’s not his ideas that mark him out as a villain but instead the manner in which he goes about it. It’s a technical way in which you can make him a villain. In the later comics, Flag-Smasher becomes duped via some chemicals to work for Red Skull, a supervillain fronting a big multinational corporation. The authors morph Flag-Smasher from this kind of liberal international to a neo-liberal globalist – I do like the fact that they took him and used him as a sort of symbol of a changing nature of globalization: from a utopian to a dystopian one.”

Captain America in the Age of Trump

Dittmer wrote Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero years before Trump’s rise to power. In the book, he quotes a dialogue between Red Skull and Captain America that one cannot help but feel like it was a bad omen for today’s America. The villain tells our hero that he has no need to destroy America, “Not when your pathetically diverse, patchwork country is capable of doing so – all by itself, from within. Your nation is a cauldron of hate waiting to erupt, a cesspool of violent thoughts looking for release.” Dittmer explains that this passage from a 1996 issue “foregrounds the fact that America itself is not innocent, it does have all of this racism. These repeating scripts of American identity as fragile and in need of protection not only position American identity as virtuous and open-minded but also highlight the vigilance needed to police that identity. Racial strife is instigated by America’s enemies and is never a pre-existent problem.” 

More recently, Dittmer penned a piece entitled “What can Captain America teach us about the state of US politics?” for Huck, in which he illustrates using several examples that comics can tell us a lot about the racist Alt-right and Trump’s ascension. During our discussion, he explains how Captain America popped out in social media during the US elections, “Trump supporters imagined Trump as Captain America, as that masculine vision of mastery: that everyone else is tied up in bureaucracy and he’s a corporate man who is just going to come in and cut through the BS. It is a superhero way of talking about things, “I’m the only one who can fix this” – this is a direct quote – and his obsession with the body. There is this kind of fascist dimension to his own body esteem and the way he measures it to other people. You can perceive him in the mould of superheroes, and there was a lot of un-ironically produced material about Trump as Captain America. Then there also was anti Alt-right material produced, with Captain America punching Nazis and Richard Spencer, Indiana Jones also came up – these are quintessentially American characters fighting back. They are prosocial figures who act on anti-social means. This mirrors the doubleness of superheroes. Captain America in particular: he was created to fight Nazis, but he is blond-haired and blue eyed and his name is Steve Rogers, and he’s got this perfect Aryan body. There is an ambivalence to the whole thing which allows it to be taken up by people with very different visions of America.”

After discussing American, British and Canadian superheroes, we wonder if there is a possibility for a European superhero? A predictably unsuccessful Captain Euro was created a few years ago, but now that we live in a post-Brexit and Trump era, in which Angela Merkel states that Europe can no longer rely solely on the UK and the US, does that European hero have a better chance of succeeding?

“There are a couple of reasons why Captain Euro didn’t work,” says Dittmer, “one is narrative: it was painful. Like it or hate it, the superhero genre thrives on violence, and Captain Euro was about peaceful negotiation and resolution of difference. That is wonderful for kids’ nursery rhymes but it is never going to work in this genre, unless you massively remake the expectations of everyone reading them. And the other reason is because British Eurosceptics got hold of it and made a huge thing out of its propaganda value – it was literally caught up in what we will later know as Brexit politics. However, we now see a new EU taking on a more muscular form. Paradoxically, losing one of its major military powers in Britain may make it a stronger foreign policy force. That kind of independence will potentially make Europe a more superhero-type actor.”

Superhero comics have been called the creators of the myths of our contemporary age and through Dittmer’s work and our conversation, it becomes very clear to see how powerful a medium they are and how much they can, and do, speak to political and cultural issues.