Captain America and the Body Politic by Jason Dittmer

18 Jan

I have a confession to make. When I sent the manuscript for Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero (Dittmer 2013) to its publisher, I fell off the wagon. After reading superhero comics for the better part of a decade, documenting the adventures of flag-draped superheroes in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom from 1940 to the present, I quit. I’m not someone who believes that a big wall separates the superhero comics from the rest of the comics world, but after over a thousand superhero comics I was definitely ready to switch things up a bit. So I dabbled in all the great new stuff that I had missed when my reading time was occupied by my book project – some of which were discovered by reading this very website (Fransman 2012) and are highly relevant to this essay. And all the while my monthly delivery of Captain America arrived like clockwork, joining its predecessors on my office desk. Last week, I was finally shamed by the verticality of the stack (almost a year and a half’s worth!) into taking them home and giving them some attention. The comics included the end of Ed Brubaker’s eight year run on the title (a pretty remarkable achievement nowadays), during which he famously brought Bucky back from the dead and walked Captain America through the Civil War crossover that made headlines around the world (e.g., Gustines 2007). One might expect a triumphant victory lap for Brubaker’s swansong on the title. Nevertheless, the end of Brubaker’s run seemed fixated on decline and the limits to power. In this essay I hope to briefly trace the ‘Powerless’ storyline (Brubaker and Davis 2012a, 2012b, 2012c, 2012,d, 2012e), as well as the events leading up to and following from that storyline, before contextualizing it all with a tiny, painless dose of political theory. I will then argue that the trope of ‘Powerless’ (in which, not surprisingly, Captain America’s body loses its superpowers) is a relatively common one over the history of the character. While this is to a certain extent true of many superheroes, in the context of Captain America the plot device is freighted with the baggage of the nationalist superhero genre.

‘Powerless’ follows on from a 2010 story in which Steve Rogers (then not occupying the role of Captain America) briefly lost his superpowers at the hands of the villain Machinesmith. Like many moments in his long history when Captain America loses his superpowers, this serves as an opportunity to demonstrate that the hero is more than just the chemicals that gave him his powers; he defeats his enemies as much through courage, moral rectitude, and self-made skill as through his biotechnological advantages (a narrative that obviously buttresses America’s vision of its own role in the world). Steve Rogers quickly regained his powers in 2010, but ever since then the hero has suffered a repetitive nightmare. It is thus that ‘Powerless’ begins: with Captain America dreaming of a battle in which he suddenly loses his powers – visually represented by his normally taut uniform baggily hanging off his body. Meanwhile, a riot has broken out in New York City, the result of a sonic ‘madbomb’ set off by unknown villains. In the ensuing melee, Captain America suddenly shrinks just as he did in his dream, and he is unable to stop the villains from pulping him. He later returns to ‘normal’ (I use the term advisedly), but scientific tests show nothing wrong. Captain America begins to worry:

It happened another time, too. Years ago…Not from anything scientific or magical…I was just in shock. And something in my own mind shut the super-soldier serum down. Like I’d lost faith…and lost my strength with it.

(Brubaker and Davis 2012b, p.12)

Another riot breaks out and the whole story repeats itself: this time, however, Captain America loses his powers at a crucial moment when the rioters turn on him. He is saved once again; and this time his allies have identified the nanotechnology that was inserted into his bloodstream by allies of Machinesmith and which led to his deflation in times of stress. This technical solution to his bodily woes restores Captain America’s self-confidence, and he strides out to face his tormentors in physical combat. However, the story ends not on this high note, but on the news that television footage of Captain America battling rioters has hit the airwaves, making him look bad. This serves as a bridge into the final storyline of the Brubaker era, in which a vigilante uncovers and executes ex-villains who have entered into the witness protection program. This causes Captain America to consider his own moral culpability for ‘cutting deals’ with supervillains who have committed ghastly crimes. In short, ‘Powerless’ and the following story (‘Shock to the System’) make for bleak reading, in which both Captain America’s body and moral compass are offered to the readers as unreliable.

In my book I argue that the body of the nationalist superhero, in this case Captain America, is a metonym for the nation-state. This is distinct from metaphor in that a metaphor is simply a claim that something resembles something from a different field in one particular way, whereas a metonym stands-in for something from the same field. A subtle distinction perhaps, but it is an important one. There are plenty of antecedents in this metonym: most obviously the notion from political theory of the ‘body politic’, in which the nation-state is imagined as a human body. Hobbes famously visualized the nation-state in this way, with the people of the nation composing the body (providing vigor) while the king occupied the role of the head (providing rationality and voice). Foucault notes in Society Must Be Defended (2004) that this pluralization was a change from the previous body politic, which was simply the sovereign’s body itself. The monarch literally embodied the state, and the people of the nation (which of course did not yet exist as a concept) simply lived on his (or occasionally her) land. From this equation of the body of the sovereign with the state itself came an intimate concern with the sovereign’s body, health, and reproduction. The vitality of the sovereign was perpetually being studied from afar as a measure of the ebb and flow of inter-dynastic relations.

With this in mind it becomes possible to reexamine ‘Powerless’ as a text that asserts the contemporary vulnerability of American hegemony through its portrayal of a nationalist hero whose body fails him just when he needs it. The metonymy of Captain America and the United States, which is simultaneously obvious (he wears the stars and stripes and is named after the country) and subtle (his body stands in for the virile sovereign in the way outlined by Foucault), transforms this common superhero plot device into political allegory. It is perhaps not surprising that Captain America, which has long (like many comics and other popular culture) closely tracked the political and cultural mood of its markets, should narrate an impotent America during an economic crisis that has dragged on for several years and during an election campaign that featured few new visions of the future. However, as the quote from Steve Rogers earlier implied, this is not the first time this has happened; nor does it always happen at times of economic malaise or during nadirs of geopolitical power. For instance, it happened in an extended storyline in the mid-1990s, when the United States was arguably at its zenith in terms of (perceived) global power and economic strength (excluding the period directly following the Second World War). However, the narrative of globalization that underpinned the 1990s was very uninspiring for vast swaths of the population who found themselves losing out. Similarly, today the United States (and other countries in ‘the West’) find themselves in a post-‘War on Terror’ era, returning to a technocratic 1990s politics in which the fiscal negotiations of Euro-crisis and debt ceilings dominate headlines but without the booming 1990s economy to soften the edges.

In the end, I’m glad that I read the stack of comics. But I am even gladder that I finished my book before getting to the end of Brubaker’s run. I would have hated for the bleakness of his final books to have infected mine.


Brubaker, E. and Davis, A. (2012a) ‘Powerless, Part 1’ In Captain America vol.6, #6. (New York: Marvel Comics).

Brubaker, E. and Davis, A. (2012b) ‘Powerless, Part 2’ In Captain America vol.6, #7. (New York: Marvel Comics).

Brubaker, E. and Davis, A. (2012c) ‘Powerless, Part 3’ In Captain America vol.6, #8. (New York: Marvel Comics).

Brubaker, E. and Davis, A. (2012d) ‘Powerless, Part 4’ In Captain America vol.6, #9. (New York: Marvel Comics).

Brubaker, E. and Davis, A. (2012e) ‘Powerless, Part 5’ In Captain America vol.6, #10. (New York: Marvel Comics).

Dittmer, Jason (2013). Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, narratives, and geopolitics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press).

Foucault, Michel (2004). Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76 (London: Penguin).

Fransman, Karrie (2012). ‘The Body as a Canvas in Comics: Karrie Fransman Explores the Influence of Corporal Studies in the Creation of her graphic novel The House That Groaned.’ (last accessed 17/1/13).

Gustines, G. (2007). ‘Captain America Is Dead; National Hero Since 1941.’ New York Times, 8 March. (last accessed 17/1/13).

Hobbes, Thomas (2008 [1651]). Leviathan (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Jason Dittmer is Reader in Human Geography at University College London, and the author of Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics (Temple University Press, 2013) and Popular Culture, Geopolitics, and Identity (Rowman and Littlefield, 2010).

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Posted by on 2013/01/18 in Guest Writers


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