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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Panel Vision - Truth: Red, White & Black

Edited by Robert Beach

So this week saw the release of Captain America – White, a stunningly dull Captain America comic with the sole notable feature of a really awkward title. Aside from the unpleasantness of specifically subtitling a Captain America comic “White,” especially when the main universe Captain America is a black man, the title also seems to be a direct allusions to Truth: Red, White & Black.  

The interior artwork also came off like a purposeful reference back to this 2003 limited series. I’m not sure what Jeph Loeb and his Marvel handlers hoped to achieve with this shout out, or it was meant to convey any deeper meaning. Regardless, it gave me a chance to talk about Truth: Red, White & Black. I’m jumping on that opportunity. 

Revealing the Greatest Generation 

Truth: Red, White & Black was a 7-issue limited series from 2003. Written by Robert Morales and illustrated by Kyle Baker, the comic re-examines the origins of Project: Rebirth, the super-science initiative that led to Captain America. The central idea of the 7-issue series is prior to the actual test that produced Captain America the serum was tested and perfect on a group of black soldiers who were more or less kidnapped by the US military. The story’s main hero, Isaiah Bradley, is the sole surviving member of the test subjects who eventually served as a black Captain America during World War 2. 

Let me say this from the start, Truth: Red, White & Black is not a nice story; in fact, author Robert Morales himself described it as “so staggeringly depressing I was certain they’d turn it down.” The series is thoroughly dedicated to presenting American history in particular the history of the so-called greatest generation in stark, uncompromising realism. A lot of the time in Captain America stories and the Marvel universe overall the uncomfortable truth of ‘40s racism and dehumanization of people of color is glossed over; that’s fine for those stories because they’re fantasy. 

In Truth: Red, White & Black, there is no such blanket to hide underneath, and it honestly feels like the comic’s whole goal is to strip away the protective layers of real-world mythology that often vacuum seal the era of World War 2 as a time of unimpeachable heroics. My point is this is not a light superhero read, and it deals with some very heavy and very disturbing subjects.

For instance, the idea of the super soldier serum being perfected on black soldiers was designed as a deliberate reference to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study: one of the most shameful moments in American history. The parallel is unmistakable here, for the scenes of violent horror that befall the men are truly terrible. The entire story plays like a ‘40s version of 12 Years A Slave as we see Isaiah and the other characters essentially kidnapped and treated like human guinea pigs and then alter as disposable human weapons. It’s a bold move and the tone remains centered on stark, oppressive realism even when it could’ve slipped into something more uplifting. 

During the sequences when the black super soldiers are deployed into Nazi Germany, things could’ve easily slipped into a greater sense of victory and success, but the series always manages to eschew that. The World War 2 battle scenes in Truth: Red, White & Black are probably the harshest ever portrayed in a Marvel comic. It dives into the bloody horror of combat and even giving us one of the few actual depictions of a concentration camp gas chambers in a major comic. 

Baker's Artwork Mishandles the Tone 

This isn’t to say that Truth: Red, White & Black is perfect. My biggest problem with the series is Kyle Baker’s artwork. He adopts an incredibly exaggerated and cartoon-y style of illustration that I often feel clashes with the more somber tone. What’s more, it actually undercuts some of the key elements of the story. For instance, it’s shown that the experimental, super-soldier serum wrecks havoc on the biology of its victims, but Baker’s artwork is so exaggerated it’s hard to tell what exactly is happening to the characters. 

Additionally the series' brevity does end up short changing it a bit as I always find myself wishing for more development for the other survivors of the program. There’s also an incredibly bizarre aside in the penultimate issue where Bradley is brought before Hitler himself that just feels completely out of place. The rest of the series is so grounded in uncompromisingly harsh realism that having Hitler and his inner circle show up to monologue like dime-store villains can’t help but draw attention to itself with how much of a tone shift it is. 

Still, those missteps aside, Truth: Red, White & Black is a powerhouse story, and one that even manages to find an uplifting release at the end of all its oppression and sorrow. That release comes in the penultimate chapter when Steve Rogers stumbles into the story. During the present day, he is rightly shocked at all the horrendous inhumanity that went on essentially in his name. It’s a nice closure that’s both rewarding and reinforcing for the audience.

Rogers does whatever he can to make right this hopelessly wrong situation while also admitting he can never really fix things. It’s a powerful moment to see Captain America admit there’s a problem he just can’t solve. Really, “Solving” was never on the table here. Truth: Red, White & Black was always about stripping things away, breaking down the walls of illusion sheltering World War 2 fantasy and forcing the truth of that era right into the open. America did commit horrible racial atrocities of its own; that there were plenty of people who fought against the Nazis were bigots in their own right, and that the holocaust shouldn’t be so entirely excised from World War 2 narratives. 

I highly recommend checking it out if you ever thought superhero comics couldn’t be afforded depth or historical significance, especially given how much of the story comes from real world research done by Robert Morales. It’s not necessarily an easy read, but it is a deeply rewarding one. 

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