Pretty, Fizzy Paradise

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Monday, August 04, 2008

On Cap Looking Back

One of the things I've always found interesting about Captain America (616 version) is that for all that he's a throwback and a relic and the living representative of values we tend to overlook and take for granted or dismiss entirely, the character is usually not very nostalgic for the time period he left behind.

I mean sure, he misses Bucky. And certainly he's often at a loss in the modern world, be it looking for a job or place to live, or just getting accustomed to new social mores. But it occurs to me that even in those situations, he's usually too busy trying to think of ways to deal with it rather than thinking wistfully back at what was lost.

And it occurred to me that this actually makes sense to me. Because all things considered, Steve Rogers would have no reason for nostalgia, what-so-ever.

I mean, consider it. What does he have to remember fondly? He was born in 1921 (according to Brubaker anyway), which means he was eight during the Crash. Then you have the Great Depression, starvation, poverty, illness, death (for example the amusingly Dickensian melodrama that is his mother's death from lack of medicine), ethnic prejudice (it's kind of interesting that, as an Irish brat in NYC, Steve wouldn't have been considered "white" by a lot of people), even more sexism and racism and all sorts of other things.

And then you have the Nazis and the War.

Considering it like that, what in the world would Steve have to be nostalgic about?

I doubt it would be old-fashioned values. Steve is a good guy raised with good values, but a former tenament brat from Brooklyn*'s going to have a real good notion of the seedier side of humanity.

Less crime and violence? Um. Brooklyn* street kid. IRISH street kid. Racial tension, economic tension, all that. Heck, think West Side Story with less ballet.
(I can imagine Steve chuckling at the notion that some guy could run through Spanish Harlem calling "Maria" and only ONE girl answers.)

Hard working people? Maybe that one. But then, during the Depression, it's not like anyone could really afford leisure time. Well, maybe the Rockefellers. But the average Joe? You gotta work to survive.

It's particularly interesting to me since I don't think the Golden Age Cap comics ever really went into his backstory that much, beyond the "how he got his powers" part. I may be wrong, but I suspect most of the backstory we have now is a Silver-to-Modern Age invention. They COULD have given Cap a more Clark Kent-ish farm boy backstory, and explained the 4F thing as some sort of grotesque illness. But instead they went with the most Dickensian backstory possible (inner city, Depression, alcoholic-and-possibly-abusive father, mother-dead-of-the-only-enough-medicine-for-one fiasco, and so on and so forth) in a way that makes it seem pretty unlikely that Cap could ever look on that time period with anything resembling nostalgia. Clark Kent, sure. He could go with the rose colored glasses and wistful mis-memory, but Steve? Not so much.

It's as though Marvel writers specifically made a Captain America that HAS to look FORWARD for solutions to our problems rather than backwards, and that's no bad thing really.

(It does make me want to see Steve Rogers verbally bitchslap one of those Family First nostalgia-mongers into next week. With his mad speechifying skills? It'd be glorious)

(ETA to add: Depending on the origin story, replace "Brooklyn" with "Lower East Side Manhattan". I think most of the points still stand. :-))


  • At August 04, 2008 8:09 AM, Blogger tavella said…

    I had a similar thought, about Millar's Ultimates. He had Steve all discombobulated by his 'old neighborhood' now being all scummy and poor, and clearly Millar's conception was that he had grown up in some some sort of shiny clean 50s-nostalgia type place that now had disintegrated into a hive of scum and villany.

    While I was thinking "Mark, dude. Depression-era NYC. The *poorest areas* of Depression-era NYC. The guy is not going to be surprised by dirt and bums."

  • At August 04, 2008 8:47 AM, Blogger Menshevik said…

    Interesting piece, but I have to nitpick:

    As far as I know, Steve Rogers is not from Brooklyn, but (like Ben Grimm and Jack Kirby) the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And I strongly suspect that making Steve Rogers the son of Irish immigrants (as per the wikipedia article) was a very late retcon. Back in 1975, in CA #194, Steve Rogers had an ancestor, Steven Rogers, who fought in the American Revolution (this obviouly was a story for the Bicentennial).

    And while Irish-Americans still suffered quite a bit of discrimination in the 1920s and 1930s, to say that they were not considered "white" is a huge exaggeration - Al Smith (who also came from the Lower East Side), a former Irish-American spokesman, succeeded in winning the Democratic ticket in the 1928 presidential elections (he was also the first Catholic to run on for one of the major two parties). Also recall that one Scarlett O'Hara became the embodiment of white womanhood for the racist South in the 1930s. Not to mention the importance of the Kennedy family which dates back to the inter-war years. (Not to mention that Irish-Americans themselves always considered themselves "white", vide their attitudes during the American Civil War. Even before that Frederick Douglass recorded with some bitterness the case of an Irish freedom fighter who said he wanted to own a plantation in America where (black) slaves would work for him).

    But in general, I would agree with your musings. There were comparatively very few occasions when I recall Steve Rogers acting in ways that could be interpreted as nostalgic. Once he and his then-girlfriend Bernie Rosenthal went out to a place where they played 1940s Swing music and on another occasion he was watching sports on TV with some other Avengers (and Mary Jane Watson-Parker) and talking about the sports he recalled from his youth (he still had a picture of himself with Joe DiMaggio). But for him it was all too fresh in his memories to be affected by the mists of nostalgia. And I think he always was portrayed as an idealist (except perhaps during the 1950s, but it later was revealed that this was a different guy). Which was why even in the 1970s he had a much better rapport with some idealistic anti-war activists than with fellow World War 2 veteran Richard Nixon. Had Steve Rogers been a bit older and fitter, he might well have gone to Spain in the late 1930s to fight in the Civil War (and come under suspicion of being a Communist sympathizer at least during the Cold War).

    What he misses most about his life before 1945 seem to be people he knew back then, not the values of the age. Case in point: In the 1980s J.M. DeMatteis introduced an old buddy of Steve Rogers, Arnie Roth, who now turned out to be gay, and Steve Rogers had no problem accepting that, supporting him even when the Red Skull brainwashed Arnie into self-hatred.

  • At August 04, 2008 9:16 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Menshevik: I'm certainly not going to equate the troubles of Irish-Americans to that of Black Americans. It's important however to point out that attitudes were different in different parts of the country. An Irishman in the post-war South wasn't viewed the same as an post-industrial-revolution Irishman in NYC. (I don't recall any trappings indicating Scarlett was Catholic either. Which even with the occasional elected politician, is still a big deal TODAY in parts of the country.) And there were groups that considered Irishmen and Italians to be non-white at the time, though admittedly, the attitude was already decreasing. (But considering there are people as young as their forties and fifties that remember seeing "No Irish" or "No Italians" signs in windows, I think we can safely say that the attitude of Irish as non-white did exist in certain parts of the country with certain groups.)

    As to the recentness of that retcon, I couldn't say, but it does add an interesting dynamic to the character. (It's not altogether incompatible for both backstories: Irish and Revolutionary War ancestor to exist. All you need is one parent to be Irish. That's not even adding in that not everyone in a particular family was a revolutionary or a loyalist. It's possible, though of debatable likeliness that one intermittant ancestor went back to Ireland.)

    I can't speak for Brooklyn versus East Side Manhattan. I think that just depends on which backstory you're reading at the time. :-) I think most of what I said with regards to Brooklyn could also apply to East Side Manhattan though. :-)

  • At August 04, 2008 9:25 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    One more thing re: Scarlett O'Hara. It might be worth pointing out that Scarlett was the "bad girl" of the piece. She was the protagonist, yes, but Melanie Hamilton, the "good girl" was fairly clearly Anglo/Not-Irish.

    We forgive a lot more in our anti-heroes than in our heroes.

  • At August 04, 2008 10:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I didn't even remember that Steve Rogers was ever supposed to be Irish-American, and at least in my "personal" continuity, he's not. "Rogers" seems more typically an English, Welsh, or Scottish surname.

    Anyways, the broader point - that Steve Rogers doesn't spend much time thinking about the past - is very true. It's actually striking, when reading the Silver and Bronze Age Cap, how much the "man out of his time" business is ignored. Cap appears to have no difficulty whatsoever adjusting to 1960s Science! and technology, and otherwise, what little discomfort there is, it's presented as unconvincing worrying about being a "has-been" or somesuch.

    The thing that makes me personally chuckle is the notion that Cap would be embarrassed by foul language or sex talk. He was a poor New York city kid who spent his entire adult life (prior to the iceberg) among soldiers! Now, obviously, he's cognizant of the "duties" of his public position, but I bet he can, if he wants to, weave creative profanity that would make a sailor blush!

    And I'm pretty certain he wouldn't be fazed by a mild striptease act at a bachelor party....

  • At August 04, 2008 10:39 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Aw, but that modesty is endearing. He's trying to respect the ladies doing the striptease! :-)

    I'd suspect his vocabulary could easily rival Hawkeye's, but he's a nice boy so he'd very rarely use it. :-)

  • At August 04, 2008 1:27 PM, Blogger Unknown said…

    "Considering it like that, what in the world would Steve have to be nostalgic about?"

    Believe it or not, people of all eras have lived with hardship and come away from it with wonderful memories.

    Using the Depression as an example, the hard times usually brought families together in ways we modern people couldn't possibly comprehend. Everyone pitched in and did their part, an attitude that continued on into the 1940's and the war effort. I know people who grew up during those difficult years who nonetheless have warm, wonderful memories of united purpose, strength of community, and of great accomplishment in the face of real danger.

    That's not to gloss over the real problems they faced (which the softies of today would whither under), but at the same time, their fond memories (while possibly hard to comprehend today) can't be denied.

  • At August 04, 2008 2:10 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    That's a good point, Mark. I definitely recognize that a lot of people would have good family memories during the depression.

    But considering that Joseph Rogers died, if I'm recalling correctly, BEFORE the depression, and Sarah Rogers died via the whole "not enough medicine for two" thing, I doubt Steve Rogers would be a character who remembers the depression as "bringing the family together". :-)

    Besides, I think if you ask most of those people who have good memories of the Depression if they'd want to go back (i.e. the nature of nostalgia versus just fond memories), they'd say "Heck no."

  • At August 04, 2008 2:19 PM, Blogger tavella said…

    My grandmother, who was a young woman during the depression, became a hoarder to the end of her life because of it. And she was relatively well off for the duration! She certainly didn't look back on it nostalgically.

  • At August 04, 2008 2:58 PM, Blogger Menshevik said…

    Attitudes to Irishmen may have varied in different parts of the US, but all in all Irish-Americans were pretty well established by the 1920s. They had been around for several generations and thus a lot of the newer groups of "white" immigrants (Italians, Eastern Europeans and particularly Eastern European Jews) were distrusted more and had immigration quotas imposed against them. Like most of these groups (with the possible exception of Jews), I'd say they were generally regarded as kinds of "lesser whites" - non-WASP does not equal non-white. One should perhaps be a little careful about using such a description considering how non-white groups (Blacks, Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese) often were treated then. (As for Scarlett O’Hara – yes, she was the ‘bad girl’, but she and definitely not Melanie, is the heroine of the story, the one readers identify with. And it does fit in with the Southern self-image of themselves as rebels).

    I sometimes wonder about people who say they remember seeing "No Irish" signs in windows. How many of them actually just remember their parents telling them about such signs? If they are in their forties, they could at best have been in kindergarten when John F. Kennedy was elected president. And IIRC back in the 1960s Saint Patrick’s day had already progressed from being a celebration of being Irish and Catholic to the semi-official national, all-American holiday it is today.

    In New York, the Irish community was large enough to be a big factor in city politics since the mid-19th century, a community that had to be courted by city and state politicians. So quite a few Irishmen had become part of the establishment, from the highest levels (Al Smith) to the low (this was back when in most big American cities policemen at least according to stereotype were Irish). Not to mention that New York, a city even then consisting largely of various immigrant groups, probably was easier for immigrants to live in than many other parts of the US (in 1934, the city elected an Italian-American mayor).

    As to the retcon, I don’t think it adds anything to the character except a few unnecessary complications (such as why Steve Rogers NOT EVER identifying himself with his ethnic background in any story written before the recon. One has to wonder, if his parents apparently were first-generation immigrants, about his attitude towards his British allies and towards Ireland's neutrality – standing aloof from the fight against Nazism – during WW2). Thanks to the retcon he is now identified with one and only one group of the population – is that really better than the old state of affairs when he belonged to none and thus every one?

    As far as I know, back in the 1920s and 1930s the neighborhoods with the reputation as the "toughest" tended to be on Manhattan, notably Hell’s Kitchen (on the West Side) and the Lower East Side (e.g. the Bowery and the Delancey Street neighborhood of Jack Kirby’s childhood). And Little Italy (for those who remember The Godfather Part 2) borders on that part of New York. Didn’t Brooklyn have a comparatively "nice" reputation back then? Also, according to the wikipedia article I read, Steve Rogers still is from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I know he lived in Brooklyn Heights during the 1980s, but where did they say that he grew up in Brooklyn?

    But all this does not detract from the fact that the main thrust of your article is very valid. And having nostalgia for the way friends or members of a family stuck together during the Depression or even during World War 2 does not mean that people would necessarily be nostalgic for the conditions (or, in the case of WW2, the enemies) that brought these fondly remembered relationships about.

  • At August 04, 2008 3:30 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I'll point out that if you stop and think about the fact, which you yourself point out, that Kennedy was president during the times that my parents' friends remember the No Irish and No Italian signs, it might make sense. Basically, you have people on opposite sides of the political spectrum latching onto an obvious reason to hate someone. Likewise, if you see how a lot of the most virulent anti-anyone prejudice occurs in places with a heavy influx of those people.

    Irish political groups growing in power would be MORE reason to see anti-Irish sentiment, not less. It becomes more of a factor.

    It's similar to the way Michiganders like me usually don't express a whole lot of strong opinion about illegal immigration. Because we don't get a lot of illegal immigration and there aren't as many pure spanish speaking hispanic communities up here, it doesn't matter as much.

    We do have a lot of anti-Arabic sentiment, because of the high Arabic population. Likewise, a lot of the factors involving Irish and Italian prejudice were centered in Northern industrial cities.

    Moreover, I'm not sure how you can rationally argue that anti-Irish sentiment had settled DOWN by the twenties, given how much of it flowed very strongly during the prohibition period and afterward. (Especially since a lot of it rose as backlash against the heavily Catholic bootleggers who had made fortunes during that period.)

    Honestly, I'm not going to argue about this because I can go back to my mother's hometown of East Utica New York, and head down by the old GE building and WATCH for a while. You'll see a lot of racial tension going back and forth that you'd be telling me didn't exist just because Utica's got an Italian mayor. The rest of the world might not care if a guy is Polish, Irish, Italian, et al, but go deep enough in certain parts of the city, and people DO.

    I'm not sure how, if as you seem to be arguing, the racial politics had died down in the 1920s, making Steve Irish is different from making him Anglo.

    Steve can't be part of none and therefore all anyway. He's a WHITE MAN. For non-whites and women? He's not one of us. I'm okay with that because Steve's an interesting character regardless.

    Making Steve the child of immigrants however does make an interesting political comment about what it means to be American. Which is especially important during all of the Post-Industrial Revolution-era Melting Pot tension.

    Personally, I like it. And I figure if you really want to tweak it to make everything work, keep Sarah Irish. Make Joseph a multiple generation Anglo-American with a Revolutionary War ancestor. Steve would STILL be considered Irish by the people who'd care about such things.

    And if you want a reason that Steve wouldn't identify himself by it? Why would he? During the war, he's kind of busy. When he wakes up in the 60s/70s/80s/whenever the rolling timeline says he does, well, he's observant enough to realize it's a lot less of a factor now than it was in the 20s/30s. And he's socially astute to know that in discussions with, say, Sam Wilson about the problems of African Americans in society, he's not going to win any points by saying "Well, I'm Irish!"

    Really, it's the sort of thing that doesn't have to change anything unless you LET it. I just think there are interesting stories there.

  • At August 04, 2008 3:38 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    One more point Re: Scarlett, I'd like to point out that having a heroic/central character that people identify with doesn't mean that racism against that group suddenly doesn't exist.

    Heck, while I'm exaggerating for comedic effect, that's like saying anti-semitism doesn't exist because the main character in the Bible is Jewish.

    Just sayin'.

  • At August 05, 2008 9:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The "No Irish" signs, incidentally, appear to be an urban legend (albeit an extremely widely believed one), at least in the U.S. The phrase actually came from a popular song.

    There's an article about it here:

  • At August 05, 2008 2:58 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    That's interesting! I know the story my mother tells is of a local Woolworths' regarding job applicants. Since I can't ask the people in question directly though and I definitely recognize how urban legends can become "fact" for a lot of people after a few decades. (Which kind of does tie back to the original topic, since nostalgia operates under the same principle), I'll rescind that part of my argument. :-)

    I'll stand by the rest of my argument :-).



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