Truth made visible: crises of cultural expression in truth: Red, White, and Black.
Article Type:
Social realism (Portrayals)
War stories (Authorship)
Blacks (Race identity)
Blacks (Portrayals)
African Americans (Relations with Jews)
African Americans (Portrayals)
Ryan, Jennifer
Pub Date:
Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139
Date: Summer, 2011 Source Volume: 38 Source Issue: 3
NamedWork: Truth: Red, White, and Black (Graphic novel)
Named Character: Captain America (Fictional character)
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
Full Text:
Robert Morales and Kyle Baker's 2004 graphic novel Truth: Red, White, and Black incorporates the visual vocabularies of social realism and a grotesque cartoon style in order to represent the devastating experiences of African Americans during World War II. The book's revisionist version of the Captain America mythology depicts a black Captain, Isaiah Bradley, as not only the successful product of an experiment with super-soldier serum but also a would-be savior of Jewish concentration-camp inmates.The story both reveals the subversive potential of the Captain America story and challenges the traditions in which characters of color have been excluded from superheroic accounts of American culture by invoking some of the many real-world histories that shape accurate wartime accounts. Morales and Baker depict such histories through moments of cultural crisis, when racial identities visually oversignify the graphic boundaries that attempt to contain them, highlighting the interracial foundation of contemporary American literature.

At the end of Truth: Red, White, and Black, Robert Morales and Kyle Baker's 2004 re-imagination of the Captain America mythos as a story of cross-cultural negotiation, readers learn that the events of this graphic novel have been narrated by Faith Bradley, wife of the first governmentally created Cap--an African American man named Isaiah Bradley. Faith tells the story to Steve Rogers, the white Captain America who has worn the superhero's public face since the 1940s, after his search for the true results of the wartime "super-soldier" experiments leads him to the Bradleys' Bronx apartment. To illustrate her points about the misrepresentation of cultural history and identity, Faith introduces Rogers to her husband, a genially smiling man who cannot speak since he suffered brain damage in a military prison. Isaiah poses for a photograph with his super-heroic double; the two Captains' clothing underscores the contrast between their respective experiences and public images. Steve Rogers wears the full Captain America costume, complete with a blue mask that covers his face except for his mouth and nose, while Isaiah Bradley wears khaki pants and a blue t-shirt, the ragged upper half of his costume draped across his chest. He smiles broadly, his left hand clenched into a fist that recalls 1960s Black Power salutes; his right arm is slung across Rogers's shoulders, while the latter smiles from behind his mask, his clenched right fist mirroring Bradley's. (Figure 1) Although the white Cap's features are concealed by his costume, he embodies a government-sanctioned notion of heroism, his legitimate ownership of the red, white, and blue uniform accentuated by the visibly white skin of his nose and mouth. Bradley, on the other hand, stands nearly half a head taller than his companion and possesses obviously larger physical features, which are emphasized by the dark skin of his hands, arms, neck, and face. This distinctive racial trait severs his costume's connotations from their official origins, suggesting that his blackness both exceeds the boundaries that attempt to contain it and undermines the ideological basis of American patriotism. While Steve Rogers personifies familiar notions of the twentieth-century American superhero, Isaiah Bradley exists as the frame's visual center through the very unfamiliarity of his physical signifiers within conventional narratives of superheroics. Here Morales and Baker argue that the unacknowledged blackness underlying American mythologies will inevitably resurface to challenge mainstream accounts of political responsibility and cultural identity even as the public's willful amnesia about white exploitation of black culture continues to obscure historical truth.


Truth thus offers a new version of the great American hero that Captain America traditionally has epitomized by telling Isaiah Bradley's story. When experiments with super-soldier serum are performed on his World War II platoon, several of his fellow soldiers die before the correct dosage can be determined; however, he develops into a grotesquely swollen column of muscle and is sent across enemy lines alone to investigate one of Hitler's medical facilities. This mission lays bare the comic's central concern with the ways in which the histories of ethnic minorities suffer erasure in the service of monolithic nationalism: Bradley fails in an unplanned attempt to rescue a group of Jewish prisoners who are also the victims of medical experimentation and is able to avoid execution by the Nazis because a group of black Germans hide him until he can be reunited with a United States military unit. Only Steve Rogers's visit to the Bradley home reveals to readers--and, hence, the American public--that Isaiah was secretly imprisoned for 17 years after his abortive mission and that the black soldiers' families had been told that their loved ones had died in combat. After finding a "skinny, dead white man" in her husband's coffin,(1) Faith set out on her own mission to uncover the truth. Though her efforts end only in her husband's return home, rather than a public condemnation of the government's experiments, she completes one of the tasks that Isaiah could not by rescuing him. Phillip Lamarr Cunningham points out that black superheroes manifest a somewhat paradoxical mixture of physical vulnerability and social insight; their storylines "address social issues that ... primarily white, nigh invulnerable superheroes could not" (2010, 54). Perhaps more troublingly, such characters of color do not usually possess both physical and intellectual fortitude, a comics convention that restricts the spectrum of powers otherwise available to superheroes (Cunningham 2010, 56). Because of Isaiah's now limited mental capacities, Faith must add her intellectual resources to the cross-cultural truth-seeking mission that he began.

Jason Dittmer has suggested that the Captain America character that Marvel Comics first introduced in Captain America 1 in 1941, on the eve of the United States' entry into World War II, consistently "proved useful in constructing an image of America as devoted to individual freedom and equality of opportunity" (2007, 41). Though Isaiah Bradley's experiences in Ruth complicate this perspective on the superhero's social function, the 1941 Captain America assumed the role of patriotic savior that Superman was already playing to widespread acclaim for DC Comics. He would never achieve the same degree of international popularity as Superman, but Cap served as a barometer of the American cultural and political climate for the next sixty years. Prompted by what Marvel framed as a socially appropriate desire to serve his country, he volunteered to test an experimental serum that endowed him with super-heroic strength and proclaimed his allegiance to the government that had created him through his red-white-and-blue costume. However, like many other second-tier superheroes of the period, Captain America was retired in the late 1940s, and, apart from a three-issue run in 1954, he did not resurface again until 1964. In 1964, he became a part of The Avengers; in 1974, he gave up his highly visible costume and heroic persona to become the Nomad, an anonymous hero who fought corruption without allegiance to or affiliation with any official organization: the most distinctive change that writers introduced in the Captain America concept. Finally, in 1975, he rejoined the mainstream Marvel universe in order to critique the corrupt system that the American government had come to represent after the Nixon presidency. As Richard Reynolds points out, such retcon strategies, (2) common to superhero comics, tend to "divorce the superheroes' lives from their historical context" (1992, 44). However, in Captain America's case, each of his reappearances in fact signals a moment of crisis in American culture whose resolution demands a special intervention.

These reappearances enable writers, sensitive to shifts in political sentiment among their readers, to articulate and explore critiques of populist, government-sponsored patriotism--a strategy that prepares the ground for the revisionist approach that Morales and Baker employ in Truth. In 1954, for instance, when his series was briefly revived, Cap received a new honorific on the cover: "Captain America ... Commie Smasher."Though this job title was intended to resonate with the US's concurrent "red scare" climate, the 1954 creation of the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulating arm of the Comics Magazine Association of America, signaled a temporary end to comics' political statements (Duncan and Smith 2009, 44-45). Captain America's next incarnation in the 1960s retained memories of his work in World War II, yet sought to reconcile his patriotic past with the sympathy he felt for anti-war protesters.(3) In 1973, he worked to uncover the basis of a so-called "Secret Empire" weakening American democracy; his discovery that the American president governed this organization prompted him to give up his Captain America identity and pursue a 1974-1975 stint as the Nomad. This period coincided with the end of the Vietnam War and subsequent cultural rifts over anti-war protests, veterans' difficult reintegration, and the Watergate scandal.

Captain America next appeared in a storyline inspired by a cross-cultural solidarity that not only recalls mid-century civil-rights movements but also anticipates Truth's challenges to mainstream historiography. The character who persuades Cap to reassume the mantle of heroism is the Falcon, Marvel's first African-American superhero, who would become his partner and share space on comics' covers with him, even if he did not become part of the comic's official title (Duncan and Smith 2009, 59). Originally a street criminal, the Falcon, otherwise known as Sam Wilson, is a social worker "who endorses a liberal civil rights agenda but rejects black separatism" (Wright 2001, 237). Jeffrey A. Brown suggests that some readers understood the "often unequal relationship" between Captain America and the Falcon as "an unintended metaphor for the black experience in white America" (2001, 20). Their partnership began in a moment marked by the decline of the mid-twentieth-century American counterculture, including the Black Power and Black Arts movements. Jason Dittmer notes that such comics often associated fascism with racism, equating Americans opposing racial equality to Nazis (2007, 45), though the assumed "real Americanism, which is multicultural and devoid of prejudice" (47), represents an unachievable fantasy. More significantly, the Falcon's critiques linked non-white comics characters to the expression of deliberately anti-government sentiments. Mike S. DuBose describes Cap's subsequent 1980s belief-system as the notion that "true hero-ship did not occur without defining oneself as an entity separate from the powers that be and transcending traditional notions of law, order, and justice" (2007, 916). His new desire to express opinions critical of the US government indicated that he now understood "morality as being largely relative and that being a dissenter does not itself make someone anti-American" (928). As critical of Reagan-era conservatism as this formulation might be, however, it still fails to address the issues of racial tensions, ethnic identities, and social justice that the Falcon's interventions raised.

Morales and Baker tackle just these sorts of issues in Truth, whose version of the Captain America origin story derives from the experiments with untreated syphilis that the US Department of Health conducted on African-American volunteers from Tuskegee, Alabama, between 1932 and 1972.(4) Although Bradley and his fellow soldiers suffer much more violent effects in the short-term than did the Tuskegee participants, many of them also died as a result of complications from an untreated illness, outside the scope of public awareness. Morales and Baker depict the period of Bradley's transformation into Captain America as a moment of cultural crisis akin to those motivating the white Cap's many new personae across the century. In an interview, Mel Alonso, lead editor of Truth, notes that invoking a character as established within the canon of American comics as Captain America allowed the creators to "tell a larger story, a chapter of American history" since this familiar figure could function "as a metaphor for America itself" (qtd. in Carpenter 2005, 54). However, the anti-canonical status of Isaiah Bradley's Cap forestalls widespread recognition of his role as a marker for cultural change; because his experiences uncover the complexly racialized roots ofAmerican civil and international conflict, his history represents exactly the kind of truth that the mainstream is so anxious to conceal. As Rebecca Wanzo points out, Bradley remains a loyal proponent of American militancy throughout the war, yet his life as a black man in the early decades of the twentieth century necessarily gives him "an African American patriotic identity founded on an investment in democratic principles promised by the state and mourning at the impossibility of having full access to the rights guaranteed by the state or the mythology of the American Dream" (2009, 341). Thus, although Faith, Isaiah's narrator and ideological representative, clearly loses faith in the country that was meant to protect her husband, their story retains an awareness of "the American Dream ideal," which remains "the ultimate ideal for which 'Cap' is fighting" (Wanzo 2009, 347). This recurrent sense of a civil contract or promise, always just out of reach yet never fully withdrawn, motivates Truth's characters to uphold the principles that the first historical Cap espoused, in spite of the personally and culturally traumatic outcomes of their efforts.

Morales and Baker's creation of Isaiah Bradley, the black Captain America, signals their book's intention of making visually explicit the moments of crisis in twentieth-century American culture that grow out of white exploitation and denial of black citizenship. Michael A. Chaney argues that "characters in works by black graphic novelists inhabit a world whose texts consistently reference the unseen, that zone of consciousness, particularity, and difference from stereotype which the visible world of the text masks or reveals only partially" (2007, 179). Truth's creators reveal the perceptible reality of this "zone" to their readers' eyes by examining the interactions between cultural groups in which a minority population's visible signifiers of identity exceed the normative bounds of representation, threatening mainstream narratives of closure, containment, and assimilation. The dominant group so threatened responds by attempting to cut off the possibility of representation altogether, yet Truth returns again and again to the undeniable fact of "a sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence"--a feature that Toni Morrison identifies as central to the entire canon of American literature (1993, 17). Each moment of cultural crisis, when racial, ethnic, and cultural identities overwhelm the graphic boundaries that attempt to contain them, draws the reader's attention to the interracial foundation of contemporary American literature and the historical contexts that shape it. Morales and Baker illustrate the uncontainable nature of black presences in and contributions to one such historical moment, World War II, when African-American and Jewish experiences collided through joint struggles to exist within a national context that rejected perceived cultural difference. Catherine Rottenberg suggests that juxtaposed literary analyses of these two groups point to the ways in which "Americanness might come to signify differently in the future"--indeed, that "there are always many possible, socially sanctioned, and thus normative ways of performing Americanness" (2008, 15; original italics).

Morales and Baker put forward several such approaches to national identity by highlighting the racial conflicts endemic to both 1940s Germany and twentieth-century America through the visual language specific to the graphic novel. Key elements of their book's style include a grotesque cartoon realism that relies upon "in-your-face distortions" as well as "slightly off-kilter line and shadow, hinting at something rotting beneath their ... surfaces" (Wolk 2007, 54) and social-realist traits that originate in 1930s artistic discourse. The book's arguments about racial identity also resonate in visual symbols varied through repetitions; images whose meanings gesture beyond the limits of their physical containment on the page; contrasting juxtapositions between "cartoony styles" and "adult themes and subject matter" (McCloud 1993, 56); philosophical and ideological conclusions that occur across the physical gap of the gutters between individual frames (67); and drawn lines that gradually evolve into a new kind of symbolic language (130). This graphic language helps the book's creators to interrogate visually American efforts to erase ethnic difference through the rationalization of national identity, a problem compounded within the hospitals and camps of Hitler's Germany. Morales and Baker evolve additional compositional strategies that suggest, however, that pre-existing graphic languages cannot accommodate the real effects of such erasure; rather, they incorporate the visual vocabularies of both social realism and more traditional grotesque cartoon styles in order more accurately to represent the devastating experiences of African Americans during World War II. Their critiques of the American wartime trauma that was complicated by domestic prejudice enable them to incorporate commentary on Jewish negotiations of national identity politics as well. Isaiah Bradley's experiences as the successful product of an experiment with super-soldier serum and as a would-be savior of Jewish concentration-camp inmates reveal the subversive potential of the Captain America story, challenging the traditions in which characters of color have been excluded from superheroic accounts of American history.

Social Realism and African-American History

Truth's unique combination of artistic styles and visual elements encourages readers to examine critically the histories that require such complex illustration.The splash pages and cover art included in the book, which comprises issues 1-7 of the serial comic, point to aesthetic roots in the social-realist art of the 1930s and 1940s, which helped to shape the careers of popular African-American artists like Hale Woodruff and Charles White. Though Matthew Baigell identifies "sympathetic humanitarianism" and "a democratic art integrated with the lives of ordinary citizens" as key elements of American social realism's idealistic perspective, he also notes that the movement's artists drew their subjects from the harsh realities of everyday life in the Great Depression (1974, 58). Workers were often depicted in paintings and drawings as "sad, drab, and spiritually depressed individuals" (Baigell 1974, 59). Examples of social-realist art in Truth, which usually position African-American soldiers in some kind of physical torment against a background defined by familiar symbols of US patriotism, communicate dissatisfaction with contemporary inequalities by incorporating sharp angles, solid colors without transitions or shading, silhouettes, and symbolic representations of easily interpretable actions. These visual elements recall the fact that many young social realists of the 1930s and 1940s worked with graphic-arts forms like lithographs, linocuts, and woodblock prints (Morgan 2004, 16). Several artists and art critics promoted such forms during this period since media like cartoons, banners, posters, and signs could reach a large audience and deliver a clear message in a straightforward manner; they were also easy to reproduce (109). Stacy Morgan argues, in fact, that political cartoons employed "a visual language for depicting capitalists, workers, and the often discordant relationship between these factions that would prove influential to subsequent generations of ... social realist graphic artists" (112). Morales and Baker's visual elements in Truth are thus aligned with a longstanding tradition in African-American graphic arts.

This approach also highlights a common criticism that American social realists faced, that their desire to portray "typical American experiences" could be interpreted as "dangerously similar to the demand of Hitler for a pure German art based on pure German experiences" (Baigell 1974, 59). In Truth, however, social-realist images serve as a historically specific reminder of the dangers inherent in unquestioned government propaganda. The cover features a background of vertical red-and-white stripes, against which a black man in silhouette looks to his right, a large white star emblazoned across his chest. Morales and Baker recall this image in the splash page that opens issue four of the volume, "The Cut," which depicts a heavily muscled male silhouette holding a white soldier, in full color, above his head. The soldier is crying out in fear, while the silhouetted man's mouth is open, baring his white teeth in an angry snarl; the same flag-like stripes form the background. These images position a racially marked soldier as both a symbol of and a threat to American patriotism; the performance of his anger threatens to disrupt the black lines of the panel that contains this scene, yet the patriotic colors against which he appears both validate his potentially transgressive actions and contain him in a tidy box. The social-realist dimensions of the image intentionally limit the significations and intentions accessible to viewers.

In scenes like this one, Truth illustrates the ambivalence that has marked American interracial conflicts during times of war in particular. Morales and Baker incorporate social-realist elements because, although the style does not intrinsically espouse a particular political agenda, it does articulate the needs of underrepresented social classes. Its subjects emerge from portraits of working-class subjects and the activities in which they engage, alongside critiques of unrealistic mainstream propaganda. Specifically African American social-realist art engages more identifiable political concerns because these form an integral part of everyday black perception, signaling a desire to "inspire a transformation of race and class consciousness," particularly in light of the racial inequalities that persisted in spite of black soldiers' contributions in both world wars (Morgan 2004, 20, 35). One of Truth's portraits of Faith Bradley, for example, features a starkly stylized image whose simple lines belie its controversial subject. When she receives a letter informing her of Isaiah's death, after several of his fellow soldiers have perished in experiments, her eyes widen to show red pupils shaped like eagles; these stylized birds resemble not only the US's national symbol but also an image popularly associated with Hitler's Third Reich. While the image undercuts simplistic notions of ingrained patriotism, it also calls Faith's nationalist loyalties into question. Does she acquiesce to the jingoistic propaganda meant to conceal the true nature of Isaiah's death, its enforced presence transforming her very ability to see the outside world? Or does she perceive no true difference between American and German nationalisms, reading them instead as two representations of the same ideal? The panel's social-realist style deliberately offers few visual nuances that would enable readers to distinguish among these possibilities.

Morales and Baker portray such symbolically ambiguous references to nationalist ideologies as signs of repeated cultural calls for nationalist unity in the face of threats from foreign invaders. Arguments on behalf of such unity disregard the real effects of pre-existing social prejudices on the populations, such as African-American men, who will bear the physical burden of eradicating that threat abroad. The panels in Truth that draw on social realism enable its creators to underline the limited possibilities for combating or avoiding such deliberate ignorance. One page of the novel's "promotional art," for instance, portrays a heavily muscled black man pulling an. American flag over one shoulder like a cape as he frowns into a flame-yellow sky; a tattoo on his right bicep advocates "Democracy: Double Victory At HomeAbroad."(5) (Figure 2) This military hero, who wears a standard-issue army helmet and a chain mail shirt and carries a silver, battle-scarred shield, foreshadows readers' discovery of Isaiah Bradley's history--the "true" Captain America, whose iconography cannot be accurately represented in the usual red, white, and blue. The tattooed insignia he bears on his skin also introduces the real-world history of black troops' World War II struggle for victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home, a notion that stands in contrast to the other signs of military obedience that he wears. Sergeant Evans articulates the novel's perspective on symbols like this "Double Victory" slogan when one of his men shows him a picture of it in The Negro American a few pages later, averring that "symbols are well and good for noncombatants, but they're just foolishness if you want to win on the battlefield." Though he interprets the intended social meaning of the slogan, he also understands that a picture cannot yet do the work that changes in social prejudices, civil laws, and international relationships will. Here Morales and Baker employ the stylistic techniques and narrative strategies of social realism in order to underline the ways in which nationalist sentiments serve to mask propaganda. Only a person who possesses insight into the motivations behind American patriotism by virtue of specific experiences of cultural discrimination can formulate such an analysis of pervasive governmental manipulation.


The cover of Truth's fifth issue, "The Math," which invokes a similar sense of social critique, features a man's head, painted entirely black save for the strings of white numbers that cover his face in horizontal rows and curve to follow the contours of his mouth and nose. The man's eyes contain red pupils that look out of the frame to his left; his mouth is differentiated by two faint blue lines, which stand in odd contrast to the solid red background behind him. This field of red is interrupted only by an erratic stripe of white at the far right of the panel that is dotted with what appear to be drops of blood. The next page, the first page of the issue itself, reproduces the same image, except that its background comprises a series of wavy red-and-white stripes overlaid with three black stars. (Figure 3) This image poses a serious challenge to the familiar symbolism of the American flag, suggesting, as in the novel's title, that accurate historical representation would require the substitution of black stars for blue-and-white ones. Its most significant visual resonance exists, however, in its echo of the numbers tattooed on Jewish prisoners' arms in the camps: the lines of numbers that stripe the head recall the millions of prisoners systematically assembled, labeled, abused, and murdered. The red pupils' gaze beyond the frame silently points to American and German complicity in the horrors of the war, suggesting that both black and Jewish gazes bring the weight of historical responsibility to bear upon governments complicit in their citizens' oppression.


These images illustrate the ways in which 1930s social-realist artists consolidated the terms of the movement, as black artists in particular increasingly began to focus on "the role of the creative artist as an agent of democratic consciousness raising and social change." Examples of visual art and literature like these offered commentary on pressing social issues, validated racial identity, and made arguments on behalf of "interracial working-class coalition building" (Morgan 2004, 2)--as do the comparisons that Morales and Baker draw between African-American and Jewish wartime experiences. Eric Sundquist underlines the central importance of this cross-cultural relationship, characterizing it as "a critical measure not just of their respective positions in American society but also of the changing significance of 'race,' something whose meaning and even whose existence can be debated, and racism, something whose meaning may be debated but whose existence cannot be doubted" (2005, 13). Here Morales and Baker's complex representations of black-Jewish interactions help to mark out the ever-shifting range of American racial attitudes during World. War II.

Shattered Identity, Shared Experience: Cultural Intersections

Tension and antagonism have often characterized the relationship between American blacks and Jews in popular culture and the arts, even as creators like Morales and Baker acknowledge the many correspondences that exist between their experiences. In a discussion of the controversy that greeted the publication of Toni Morrison's Beloved, for example, Naomi Mandel notes that African-American history has sometimes been granted greater cultural capital than Jewish history in recent criticism because of blacks' non-representation in mainstream American histories: "Unlike the Holocaust, where the presence of documentation is overwhelming, it is the absence of such documentation that contributes to the horror of slavery" (2002, 583; original italics). Truth attempts in part to mend the expressive rift between the two groups by framing their common experiences of silencing and institutional mistreatment in the visual vocabularies of 1930s social-realist art and a more traditional cartoon approach that filters everyday realism through elements of the grotesque and caricature. These two approaches, which blur the line between "high" and "low" artistic styles, articulate some of the political strategies that the two groups share; as Joseph Dorinson suggests, they have both "assumed iron masks to cope with life's exigencies" and "created a

formidable brand of protest humor" (1985, 165). Eric Sundquist also argues that the Holocaust, a central historical context of Truth, underlined for black Americans the very real physical dangers that Jews have faced and demonstrated their need for equal compassion (2005, 6). Repeatedly positioned as outsiders to the American mainstream, black and Jewish artists have created specific performance techniques, including self-parody and satire, that reinforce communal identity and rhetorically defuse the tensions perpetrated by repressive groups (Dorinson 1985, 184). In 'Ruth, social-realist images highlight persistent social inequalities that impact both groups over time, while Morales and Baker frame examples of individual experiences with racist oppression through caricature and other grotesque physical exaggerations. These two styles incorporate overt political argument alongside the potential for subversive expression that comic caricature holds.

Though "Blacks and Jews [have] share[d] a history of otherness caricatured and defiled" (Newton 1999, 12), their joint history does not guarantee solidarity, a truth that the novel explores. A rhetorical, if not activist, solidarity existed between blacks and Jews as early as 1915; the years between 1915 and 1935 in particular marked a time when the two groups experienced regular persecution at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and struggled to combat discrimination (Goffrnan 2000, 14). This period falls just prior to the beginning of 'Ruth's narrative, which illustrates some of the ways in which national identity is alternately signified and oppositionally defined via the body. In the book, moments of cultural crisis in which ethnic minorities share experiences of trauma are often represented visually through bodily markers of class and race. These markers help to define characters' individuality and articulate the physical consequences of social prejudice, demonstrating each group's attempts to "tell an allegorical story about culture and nation" that includes that story's material consequences (Newton 1999, 16). Even when characters resist the push to acknowledge commonalities, the book's images are inspired by collective experience.

Truth thus explores the advantages and drawbacks of cultural and social affinities between African Americans and Jews from the book's opening scenes, which introduce three of the main characters: Isaiah Bradley enjoying his honeymoon with Faith at the World's Fair in spite of a white barker's attempt to keep him out of a dancing exhibition; the wealthy Maurice Canfield returning home from an evening spent working to organize a stevedores' union; and Sergeant Evans explaining to a friend with whom he is playing pool how he lost his rank as captain. Each of these three scenes helps to set up the book's intended revisions to the 1941 Captain America story by considering the potential costs and advantages of anti-racist solidarity. The Bradleys have chosen to attend the World's Fair because it is "Negro Week"; Faith reminds her husband that W. E. B. DuBois is speaking at the fair that day, hoping to dispel the tension created when the barker, viscous drops of gray-tinged sweat pouring down his bulbous nose, tells Isaiah that "the girls ... don't like being looked at like they're animals," and, hence, he cannot let him in. Canfield explains a cut on his face to his mother as the result of the tussle that ensued when a group of white dock workers were forced to listen to "a Negro and a Jew give them counsel about their economic survival"; this struggle ended in a declaration that "'I never heard brotherhood meant I had to end my long day of toil consorting with kikes and jigs." Though Canfield receives a beating for his trouble, his work points to blacks' and Jews' long-term partnership in the twentieth-century struggle for civil rights (Rogin 1996, 16). Sergeant Evans explains to his friend Dallas Huxley, recently freed from prison, that he no longer deserves the nickname "Black Cap"--foreshadowing the title that one of his own men will earn in a few months--because he was demoted after shoving an officer who called a black man's life a "trifle."

Like Bradley's clenched fists and Maurice's cut face, the scar on Evans's face illustrates the restrictive physical terms to which these men's problems are reduced. He and the soldiers he commands, united through their dark skin, will continue to be visually differentiated from the white ranks of the military as they accumulate scars, unnaturally distended muscles, and other signs of physical exploitation. While the white barker embodies the first moment of such caricature in the book, these men's bodies are represented through grotesque cartoons that emphasize distinctive physical features, reflecting mainstream perceptions of visible cultural identities as not only different but also malformed. Jeffrey A. Brown argues that this type of reductive perception, one of which Morales and Baker are certainly aware, needs to give way to an "alternative depiction of black masculinity bearing the attributes of both mind and body" (1999, 38): a goal to which Truth's conclusion points. Crucial narrative events also signal that Jews have been subject to similarly lopsided social representations vis-a-vis the body.

Several prominent critics and historians of American racial politics have noted the many material obstacles to solidarity that exist between Jews and African Americans.(6) However, by positioning the bulk of their story during World War II and by invoking the intersecting contexts of the Holocaust, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and early-twentieth-century American racial attitudes, Morales and Baker establish a level ground on which to stage their narrative of cross-cultural unity achieved through collective struggle. Without engaging the complex implications of postwar social contexts in the US, 'Ruth depicts a key moment in which the physical traumas inflicted on two groups demonstrate the pervasive threat of public prejudice.

Isaiah Bradley, whose country imposes the title of "Captain America" on him, becomes the primary means by which Truth's creators represent the common experiences of African Americans and Jews under repressive wartime regimes. His first appearance in official regalia, a splash page that occurs near the end of the fourth issue, depicts him jumping from an airplane, his army-green parachute billowing behind him, minus the usual blue, winged Captain America hat. Instead, he wears sunglasses and holds one fist up in a gesture that more closely resembles a Black Power salute than the traditional superhero assertion of strength. The accompanying caption is spoken by an army officer who realizes that they have lost control of the mission on which they sent him: "we've escalated to a new level of deniability." Though the statement directly refers to his foray into German territory, it also applies to the visible cultural properties that Bradley manifests and that his country attempts to erase. Here he chooses to recast the traditional Captain America persona in terms of his cultural identity, overlaying visual markers of black solidarity onto a symbol of mainstream American patriotism. This complex nexus of conflicting visual signifiers enables Bradley to read correctly the signs of common experience between African Americans and Jews. Hence, he sets out to bridge the gap between them, though those he intends to rescue from a German concentration camp interpret his efforts as an intrusion into a landscape not his own, his mission the product of misinformation about the traits of its inhabitants. The ideological confusion and the conflict between intent and effect in this scene illustrate what Rebecca Wanzo has identified as Truth's creation of "double identities that go beyond the classic superhero dual identity of ordinary and supernatural man." Bradley and his fellow super-soldiers manifest the effects of "particular kinds of black exceptionalism that mark average men who suffer above-average trauma because of racism" (2009, 349). Because he acts out of a history of discrimination and inequality, he already possesses an exceptional knowledge of the difficulties suffered by those he is bound to protect; the physical and psychological experiences of trauma that he shares with the Jewish prisoners he tries to save exceed the binary of everyday man vs. superhero, producing a more complex third term for identity. This excessive signification of a jointly cultural, political, and social sense of self necessitates the excessive representation of visual identity traits in Truth.

Both social-realist elements and grotesquely cartooned images help to strengthen the links that Morales and Baker establish between the book's Jewish and African-American characters through such excessive representation. Beginning with the cover art for issue five, "The Math:' the authors draw a series of unmistakable visual connections between the experiences of the African American soldiers who received super-soldier serum before they were sent overseas and the experiences of the Jewish concentration-camp prisoners. The echoes of social realism that the images summon up may allude, however subtly, to the fact that many American social realists were Jewish (Baigell 1974, 61); their development of visual techniques that recall the fascistic principles undergirding German social realism also produces a critique of totalitarianism more generally, as in the critique of both American and German racism that Figure 3 suggests. One of the first signs of implied solidarity between African-American and Jewish experience in the book, in contrast, is depicted in more conventional cartoon terms and appears in the subplot focused on the reasons why the soldiers have chosen to fight in the war. Neither group enters into wartime conflict willingly; while the black soldiers are able to take some independent actions, drawing on resources for self-definition and self-expression that the Jewish prisoners cannot, they also find themselves constrained by unforeseen circumstances. Canfield is given the choice to serve or to go to prison for participating in anti-war protests, which the court defines as "tantamount to sedition"; Sergeant Evans, holding a gun to his temple, swaps his planned suicide for a shot of whiskey after he hears someone on the street below his window announcing the Pearl Harbor bombing. Both he and Canfield interpret military service as a marginally better alternative to the grim paths they could otherwise pursue. Once they are training at Mississippi's Camp Cathcart, one of the other men, Larsen, brags that he enlisted because "I'm looking to kill me some white mens!"--an opportunity that, as Evans is quick to point out, is "a gift you only get from other white men." Earlier in the story, in a frame that takes up half the page, Evans aims his pool cue at the cue ball, an oversized, perfect white globe, noting that "This is the only place I get to shove ol' whitey around." Both of these scenes, in which black men articulate a desire to invert American racial hierarchies, feature close-ups of a single central object--a cue ball and a man's face--whose clearly articulated lines not only acknowledge the images' roots in traditional cartooning but also emphasize the centrality of their statements to the book's larger critique of institutionalized racism.

For these soldiers, as for their unjustly imprisoned Jewish counterparts, the war grossly exaggerates the effects of an already prejudicial social system. The contrasts that Truth's creators draw between simple, undifferentiated shapes like the cue ball and the detailed individuality of characters' faces and uniforms, both of which regularly appear on the same page, point to the fluid boundary between popular and high-culture artistic styles during the period of World War II. Such contrasts help to illustrate the disjunction between individuals' material experiences and the outwardly uniform nature of the social world that tries to define them--just as the glare of the oversized white ball diminishes the impact of the soldiers' unique traits. Naomi Mandel suggests that the horrors of slavery and the Holocaust--and the wars fought over these public tragedies--have rendered the idea of memorialization nearly impossible; texts such as Beloved function instead to "articulate[e] the paradox of absence and presence, memory and forgetting, the unspeakable and speech" (2002, 585). A text like Truth, which positions such events in their historical moments without attempting to memorialize them, necessarily incorporates descriptive techniques that surpass the conventional limits of text.

While the visual elements of the graphic novel do not forestall the inclusion of text-based narratives, the form can make visible a range of perspectives on painful subjects that underline the inadequacy of language. Tying an experience to a specific semantic interpretation can introduce "the problem of language's complicity with subjugation" and undermine the individuality of its subjects (Mandel 2002, 590). Morales and Baker incorporate multiple visual styles in order both to offer an alternative to textual fixity and to approximate a fluidity that can more accurately represent the complexities of individual experience. Scott McCloud has observed that the lines drawn in comics evolve through associations with specific emotions into symbols, creating a new kind of language that compensates for the affective excess not reproducible in text (1993, 130-31). Truth's depiction of Isaiah Bradley, dressed in his Captain America costume during a mission to blow up a Nazi medical facility, illustrates the limits language reaches when speakers confront events that demonstrate overwhelming inhumanity. Here Bradley is overcome by the same poison gas targeting the prisoners and collapses on the ground. The green cloud of gas issuing into the chamber where he lies contains a drifting jumble of yellow-tinted numbers; as he thinks about his superiors' instructions to remember that he "cannot save everybody" and should "just do the math," or realize the impossibility of freeing the Jewish inmates, he begins to cough, vomiting up a cluster of tiny gold bars that morph into Hebrew letters. (Figure 4) Although he fails to save these prisoners, he establishes a political commitment to them by first internalizing the markers of identity that the Nazis seared into their skin and then re-voicing--unavoidably bringing forth for public view and absorption--the very texts that help to define Jewish culture. The violence enacted against these prisoners diminishes when their language is rejuvenated, effectively belying the assumption that such abuse would cut off the possibility of discourse (Dawes 2002, 2). James Dawes describes the attempt to "mime violence through language" as a process of "approach[ing] it analogically like a painter attempting to simulate the physical sensation of cold by using the color blue" (7). Bradley himself possesses no words at this moment which can express sufficiently what he sees; instead, he protests the violence of this war by visibly materializing a text that belongs to another group entirely.


Bradley chooses to oppose both the German and the American governments' manipulations of their citizens by consuming texts that are implicitly forbidden; the images and text that portray this choice demonstrate for readers how such actions endanger the material of his body. The Holocaust, a defining moment in modern relations between blacks and Jews in the US, also provides the context for Bradley's realization that whites enforce unequal, oppressive relationships with ethnic minorities worldwide. Morales and Baker argue, however, that complete racial unity cannot be achieved unless people possess accurate information about the historical maintenance of such oppression. As Bradley runs into his designated combat zone in Schwarzebitte, Germany, in October 1942, he appears as a black silhouette, only the stars and stripes on his costume standing out in stark white relief. This image positions the patriotic stars as instruments of control that repress his cultural blackness, yet, upon recognizing the destructive nature of his mission, he tries to rescue the prisoners instead of destroying them. In turn, however, they decide to rise up against this latest violation of their humanity: "Now they send this one to attack us for their sport! Enough!" Bradley tries to reassure them, begging them to heed his good intentions with a "Ladies, please!," but he hears a click as the gas valves open and succumbs to the poisonous smoke along with them, their naked bodies piled atop his costumed one in a grotesque tangle. This confrontation makes tangible the historical realignment of solidarity between African Americans and Jews during the Holocaust; their entwined bodies visually signify Bradley's willingness to not only share but also reveal the truth behind their fate. He desires simply to rescue his fellow detainees, yet he is caught in the same system that has already entrapped them and realizes he must also give voice to the dissent they cannot.

As he lies at the bottom of the heap of bodies, he sees the numbers on the prisoners' arms glowing and remembers his commander's parting words: "Isaiah, you cannot save everybody." His position as a representative of the US government, sent to carry out a specific mission, complicates the empathy that exists between them simply because his leaders have withheld the information that he needs about the true nature of the situation, and the prisoners interpret his presence only as another harbinger of violence. Yet he commits himself to acting morally when he obtains the information that fills in the gaps in his knowledge of the mission. Upon first reaching his mission target, for instance, he runs inside a building holding two crates of dynamite in his arms, only to realize that he has been sent to blow up a medical facility that still contains living patients. With his leaders' instructions still running through his mind--"Do not lose sight of your objective ... Do not allow yourself to be distracted by whatever you may see ... "--he gasps in horror at the sight of human heads sitting in jars, naked bodies stacked on examination tables, and deformed cadavers at various stages of dissection. He sobs as he lays bundles of dynamite next to the bodies, thinking, "Do not consider what we did to you, is what they didn't say. Think of the American lives you will save." He acknowledges the Jewish lives that will end here, as well as the abuses that he and the patients have suffered, far away from their homes and families, rather than accepting the uniform patriotism that his government tries to force upon him. Eric Sundquist describes the nature of such confrontation and mutual realization as a moment of being "called upon to see 'the stranger that dwelleth with you' in a mirror image that made it at once easy and hard to 'love him as thyself"' (2005, 4). This knowledge comes at a steep price, however, as Bradley's newly "cosmopolitan" understanding of world politics is inflected by the presence of "dead bodies surrounding those with whom [he and his men] should have a cultural or political link" (Wanzo 2009, 354). -Ruth repeatedly positions moments of political insight like this one as conflicted and ambivalent, showing characters experiencing a key moral revelation without possessing the ability to act upon it.

Read against the now familiar history of the concentration camps, of which both the Allies and the German people claimed to have no knowledge until the later months of the war, Bradley's moment of revelation here suggests that not only Jews but also African Americans have been subject to the moral indifference characteristic of totalitarian ideologies. Paul Gilroy identifies one central concept that historically has united these groups' experiences of conflict and that implicitly underlies this scene: diaspora. A biblical term, diaspora came to signify a geographically wide-ranging cultural dislocation in the late nineteenth century, when modern Zionist thought and the ideological roots of twentieth-century black nationalism emerged. In literature, black and Jewish diasporic concerns manifest in a common set of themes: "escape and suffering, tradition, temporality, and the social organization of memory," as well as dispersal and exile (Gilroy 1993, 205). Bradley's experiences generate in him exactly these sensations of isolation and loss; such feelings are magnified by the sight of amputated and deformed body parts, which offer a grotesque parody of the terms of cultural diaspora. African American and Jewish histories are already linked through recurring patterns of flight and enforced migration; this scene rearticulates for viewers the tragic consequences of diaspora, the fragments of cultural identity that cannot be reassembled.

Living as Grotesque: The Graphic Dimensions of Cultural Trauma

Truth reinscribes the social phenomenon of diaspora with signs of psychological and ideological trauma, rendering it a repository for suffering and alienation rather than a source of positive cultural identity. Stef Craps characterizes such culturally defined traumas as "repetitive and cumulative," collectively experienced by "society's disenfranchised" (2010, 55). Bradley witnesses just such a nexus of communal trauma; the political implications of his transformation into Captain America issue not from the US government's manipulation of his DNA but from his choice to oppose the terrible racial injustices in which the war is grounded. In a moment that foreshadows his assumption of cultural responsibility for the crimes committed against German Jews, Bradley finds, while reading a Captain America comic book, that "this comic came out more'n a year ago, but it pretty much got our whole story--It has Doc Reinstein, the drug we got, and this Steve Rogers fella the brass is so high on. ... But this is happening now, right? Not last year." His discovery highlights for readers the fluid, permeable nature of the comic-book universe, in which creators regularly rewrite histories and background stories in order to situate new storylines more convincingly in relation to current events. At the same time, however, he calls for the historical and political accountability that many governments have withheld from their citizens. This bald contradiction between Rogers's reported experiences and the soldiers' also serves as a metaphor for the misrepresentation of Jewish experiences during World War II--a history that cannot be ignored, even as leaders attempt to bury or manipulate the truth. As Evans notes in response to Bradley's bewilderment, "Comic books aren't real. This is a war. And in a war, the Army decides everything is government issue." The temporary Captain America still believes that human life ought to serve as the basis for institutional decision-making, yet Evans's experiences have taught him otherwise. James Dawes hypothesizes that language and violence are interdependent in times of war (2002, 14); the language that enforces violence produces trauma in those compelled to listen to its justifications. Bradley finds that the violence and repressive strategies practiced by those in charge of the war he fights produce traumatic situations for him and the prisoners he cannot free; such trauma dispels physical and ideological coherence in a process that recalls the forceful separations of modern-day diaspora.

Although Morales and Baker often frame their critique of such unilateral government interventions in a visual language that draws from the vocabulary of 1930s social-realist art, they also highlight the specific consequences of institutionalized racism through a more conventional cartoon style that draws heavily on elements of the grotesque. The two approaches share some compositional strategies--overstated facial features, simple lines, and stark color contrasts, for example--yet the former centers on broad patterns of social injustice while the latter considers the traumatic fallout that individuals experience. Truth examines the material consequences of crimes committed against individual American soldiers through physical exaggeration, stereotype, and satire, common elements of the grotesque. These scenes portray the long-term consequences of collectively inflicted trauma in personal terms, using a style that Baker himself describes as 'loose sketchy drawings, a lot of action and a lot of bright colors ... a very pop, poppy, pop art type of thing"' (qtd. in Carpenter 2005, 57). James Dawes characterizes the grotesque as a common framework through which writers can more accurately gesture toward "the task of witnessing to the unbounded and unprecedented," since such exaggerations illustrate the horrors of lives that, in a period prior to the traumatic event, would be unthinkable (2002, 157). When Larsen, the first soldier to survive the experiment, returns to the bunkhouse, his fellow enlistees are visibly shocked by his massive arms and a head that has swollen into a bizarre diamond shape, results that they would not have been able to imagine and thus cannot comfortably classify for him. Yet, Sergeant Evans observes wryly, "since you're the first dogface to come back ... you look great." Larsen's facial features are bunched together in the middle of his face, the off-center placement of his mouth and the dominance of his engorged muscles over any other distinguishing characteristics clearly positioning him to one side of the brawn--brains binary. Rebecca Wanzo points out that Baker received criticism for employing a relatively simplistic drawing style to portray characters like Larsen; however, he achieves an effective "contrast between the tragic narrative and an aesthetics often used to depict stereotypical images of black characters" (2009, 345). While Larsen's physical transformation testifies to the monumental feat he has achieved merely in remaining alive, it also demonstrates to his friends the physical devastation they will suffer as a result of governmental disregard for their rights as unique American citizens and human beings.

Elements of the grotesque also underscore the horror implicit not only in false public representations of soldiers' deaths but also in the trauma that they suffer at the end of their lives. Large, rectangular panels describing families' reactions to the news of their sons' or husbands' deaths alternate in 'Ruth with images of the soldiers themselves awaiting radical physical change. After one soldier's body bursts in a spray of blood when his body can no longer support the physiognomic effects of the super-soldier drug, a series of families receive the news that their loved ones have died in an explosion. The horizontal lines and rectangular shapes that repeat in the tables, straps, walls, and mirrors of the panels depicting the soldiers' experiences echo in the lines of Faith Bradley's ironing board and kitchen sink, the Canfield family's coffee table, a canopy stretched above Maurice Canfield's coffin, and the wooden bar top at which a friend of Sergeant Evans's is tipsily toasting him. While rectangular shapes occur in countless household objects and everyday scenes, here they echo both the uniform regularity with which the men were shipped off to the laboratories and the outlines of the panels themselves, which are meant to contain this story neatly but which emphasize instead the ways in which the two groups are cut off from each other--and from the truth. The grotesque dimensions of these scenes exist in their consciously inadequate representations of pain and loss.

The central example of Morales and Baker's grotesque-inspired approach to portraying personal trauma in Truth appears in two interrogation scenes that expose the secrets underlying the war's origins. Isaiah Bradley becomes a prisoner of war after his failed rescue attempt, waking up to find himself tied to a chair with Hitler leaning forward to greet him. His experiences in this role are interspersed in the book with another interrogation scene, in which former Lieutenant Merritt, a white officer from Camp Cathcart, talks to Steve Rogers and an African American FBI agent about his actions during the war and afterward. Merritt is now an inmate in California's Lompoc Federal Prison, indicted on charges of "murdering a federal agent, conspiracy to commit acts of domestic terrorism, gun-running, money-laundering, racketeering, arson in the commission of hate crimes, kidnapping, [and] selling ecstasy and methamphetamines to minors out of [his] chain of comic shops:' Merritt contests only the last of these charges, arguing that "I got the best stores in the Bay Area, and I keep my babies pure!" Purity is exactly the issue in question here, as Rogers reveals that Merritt betrayed the US government in favor of the Aryan ideals that Hitler promoted. The full-page panel that uncovers the issues at the heart of his interrogation portrays Merritt sitting at the table with his hands crossed, only the lower half of his face visible, while the FBI agent's darker-toned hand gestures toward the photograph in the middle of the table: a room, presumably in Merritt's house, that holds guns, a picture of Hitler, army helmets, and Isaiah Bradley's tattered Captain America costume. Merritt's hands, arranged in a single loose "V," both point possessively toward the photograph and belie the promise of the "Double V" campaign introduced earlier. The fact that both men's bodies extend beyond the page suggests that purity itself is not a concept that can be easily contained; Merritt, a character who possesses no redeeming merit, implicitly contaminates the rest of the comic's panels through his very presence, while the blackness that the agent signifies also exceeds the boundaries that the medium would seem to place upon it. One man thus represents utter moral corruption, while the other embodies a cultural identity that the mainstream--here represented by the government--cannot yet accommodate. Merritt's unquestioning trust in the racial purity that he believes both Cap and the Nazis value resulted in his own undoing; he bears the brunt of the blame that his country also earned by expressing his racist ideals more openly than the government did. He comes to epitomize domestic evil, in contrast to Cap's representation of absolute justice.

Merritt's interrogation scene, in which he reveals that he first volunteered for the army specifically in order to participate in the super-soldier project, positions him as the book's central example of grotesque realism. His ineradicable prejudice against African Americans prompts him to condemn the government's decision to send black super-soldiers out on missions as evidence that "no one running the project cared what it meant to real Americans"; no one, he argues, would really be willing to "put up with Captain Americoon" (original italics). In the course of determining when and how Merritt came to possess governmental property--namely, the original Captain America costume--the FBI agent points out that the costume did not belong to Steve Rogers but to Isaiah Bradley. This revelation dispels the pretenses keeping Merritt's bigotry in check so that, with every subsequent panel depicting the conversation, Merritt's features grow larger, more distorted, and less recognizable. His final lines--"Cap, please? One veteran to another? Think you could sign this before you go?" (Figure 5)--which he delivers while holding up a copy of Captain America 1, underline the gap between Bradley's unsought heroism and the persistent racism of those he served. Here Merritt turns his interrogation on its head to expose, however unwittingly, the racist superstructure that enabled whites' ongoing exploitation of blacks in America. His mouth turns up in a black leer interrupted only by a single tooth; the few hairs sprouting from his head and the lumpy texture of his bulbous nose and chin lend him a monstrous quality enhanced by his expression of avidity. The striking contrast between his nondescript prison uniform and the comic's portrait of a crisply outfitted Cap on a battlefield suggests that he, like so many other conservative white patriots, seeks a connection to the whiteness that he believes Cap represents: a notion of superheroism that Morales and Baker's depictions of cultural trauma have already discredited. Here we can also perceive Rogers's emotional shift from tranquility to outrage in his changes in position across the page's three panels; he first faces Merritt, then turns his back when Merritt addresses him, and finally disappears from the page entirely once Merritt asks for his autograph.


Merritt's contradictory embodiment of racial purity and physical grotesqueness illustrates the incongruous ideals motivating the wartime trauma that all participants, rather than observers, suffer. In one telling instance, Morales and Baker depict the military officers involved in the super-soldier experiments dancing at a party--a group that includes Dr. Reinstein, the same doctor who was in charge of these experiments in the original Captain America series. Rather than agonizing over the threat to basic human existence that Hitler represents, the partygoers compare Reinstein's successes to those of his "former cohort," the Nazis' Dr. Koch. The first encounter between American and German troops is not the efficient, easily concluded endeavor that this conversation would imply, however. Morales and Baker portray the total chaos of hand-to-hand combat in a two-page scene, uncontained within panels of any kind, in which black soldiers aim guns, strangle German soldiers with their bare hands, and run screaming with blood bursting from their skin. At least four Germans lie dead on the right side of the frame, yet the overall scene centers on the American soldiers' howls of anguish, which swell beyond the boundaries of the page: one soldier's mouth stretches in a cavernous black grimace that effaces the lower left-hand corner of the image, while another man strangling his German opponent seems to suffer the same agony he inflicts, his mouth stretched into a rictus identical to his victim's. Though this scene highlights the most grotesque visual elements of battle--blood, dismemberment, physical agony, confusion--its detailed illustration of combat renders it one of the book's most realistic scenes as well. In spite of their victory in this fight, however, the men come to realize that they have been sent to cut off their enemies' medical supplies, not their ammunition. This act signifies a further escalation of the war's inhumanity, compounding the atrocities the soldiers have already suffered with knowledge of the trauma they have unwittingly forced upon others. In Truth's grotesque representations of their common plight, these soldiers discover--along with the book's readers--that humanist concerns overshadow cultural and nationalist affiliations.

Captain America: Representing the Truth about Historical Responsibility

Truth concludes by arguing that a broadly conceived humanism can help to overcome the collective trauma inflicted through cultural prejudice and oppression. In his quest to uncover the story of the real Captain America, Steve Rogers secures part of the story from Faith Bradley; now a professor of comparative religion, she teaches him how to identify not only accurate accounts of wartime events but also the visual significance of the costumes through which people distinguish themselves. During this conversation, she sits at a table across from Rogers, himself in full costume, wearing a Burka so that only her eyes are showing. Her question for Rogers, "Whatever made you think Isaiah was dead?" (Figure 6), signifies that he--and, by extension, the American mainstream--does not yet possess the interpretive tools necessary to distinguish authentic versions of history. The dark outfit that she wears strikes a somber note against the room's pink curtains and Rogers's bright uniform; yet, more importantly, it highlights the more current threat to white American patriotism that she tacitly embodies. Her performance of Muslim identity both defies the post-9/11 climate of religious conservatism and illustrates the strength of a nonwhite ethnic presence that surpasses even the excessive blackness of her husband's participation in the Captain America role. Though her hand appears slender and delicate, holding the edge of her saucer, she faces Rogers head-on, tilting her eyes up to meet his gaze, while he sits sideways in his chair, his body faced away from hers. His position signals not only a discomfort at accommodating his physical bulk in a room unsuited to his proportions but also the uneasy public negotiations that take place between white America and its culturally marginalized groups.


After Faith and Rogers have been speaking for a few minutes, she removes her head-covering, noting that, "given the climate towards Islam, it unsettles people--but it de-emphasizes femininity and focuses attention on what I say, or on what people choose to project onto me. "Though the conversation also reveals that Isaiah Bradley was arrested and imprisoned after the war for allegedly stealing Steve Rogers's costume, its real significance lies in the power it identifies in black American identities. Rather than seeking to repress Faith's story about personal and social truth, Rogers acknowledges the worth of her insights into governmental manipulation and the diversity that the nation must embrace in, order to survive. Here, Truth emphasizes that Bradley has been falsely accused of war crimes, rather than given the accolades he deserves, and lost the life he might have had as both a hero and a husband. The theft of these roles reminds readers of the parallel costs that Jewish prisoners have been forced to pay while, at the same time, the public disclosure of his story ensures that a new generation will learn about the lives of black servicemen in World War II. The book's visual presentation, through period-specific social realism and the grotesque realism commonly used in a range of comics, frames the story as both emerging from a particular historical moment and engaging social concerns that span eras of American history. Its images oversignify the texts that previously represented this history, suggesting that it can be accurately illustrated only at the intersections of the visual and the textual.

Morales and Baker work toward a more precise representation of this history by exploring visually the moments of conflict and trauma that both African Americans and Jews experienced during World War II. These moments, marked by cultural properties that cannot be fully contained within pre-existing historical narratives, illustrate the complex relationships that characterize a world in flux, ultimately forming an argument on behalf of the cross-cultural solidarity that Rogers recognizes at the end of Truth. Here Faith concludes his education in the misrepresentations of history by introducing him to her grandson, the provocatively named Litigious, who is reading a long-out-of-print novel by young adult writer Daniel Pinkwater entitled Wingman. Faith describes it as a narrative "about a Chinese-American boy who loves comic books and dreams about a Chinese super hero." While Litigious clearly adores his grandfather, he also looks outside both the mainstream and his own life for heroes to whose examples he can aspire. In this scene, Morales and Baker prove that an iconic superhero like Captain America--whose once unquestioned patriotism has been undermined by historical revisionism, disillusionment, and death--can no longer satisfy American desires for a cultural hero on his own. Cap needs the support of a broader network of social and political models in order to promote a modern vision of heroism. Rebecca Wanzo characterizes this newly imagined superhero as "a culturally conscious and conflicted African American Captain America [who] can function as a dissenting patriot but still remain in a patriotic tradition" (2009, 346). He is able to support such a seeming contradiction because, as Morales himself asserts, "'Cap is a propaganda symbol"' or even a fetish onto which fans project their own desires and beliefs (qtd. in Wanzo 2009, 358).At the same time, however, Bradley's own grandson points to the possibility of a limitless range of superhero identities. Because every cultural group outside the mainstream possesses histories that have been repressed, Captain America provides just one approach to replenishing truths depleted through misrepresentation. Those who have shared in cultural trauma have a responsibility to find the tools--in the form of political solidarity, revisionist histories, and ethnically specific vocabularies--with which to signify their experiences.

Ultimately, Faith Bradley's conversation with Steve Rogers argues on behalf of the importance of reclaiming lost histories--and, through them, unrepresented lives. Captain America died in 2007, three years after the publication of Truth: Red, White, and Black. In one of the most widely read and debated narrative arcs in Marvel's history, Steve Rogers finally agrees after a prolonged struggle to submit his personal information to the government under the Superhuman Registration Act. As he walks up the steps of Manhattan's Federal Courthouse, he is assassinated by long-time arch villain Crossbones and dies as former girlfriend and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter looks on. Though, in keeping with comics' diehard commitment to retcon, his character is soon resurrected, his death reveals two essential truths that have forever changed readers' perception of Captain America. At the moment of his death, his body reverts back to its original, genetically unmodified form, leaving him a skeletal old man lying vulnerable on a table; the super abilities that readers and his fellow Marvel characters interpreted as the result of a permanent transformation do not in fact belong to him. At the same time in another part of town, his former partner, the Falcon, returns after the funeral to an underground hideout where a group of unregistered superheroes raise their glasses to Steve Rogers, someone they still recognize as "the best of us" (Brubaker et al 2008, n. p). However, the Falcon cannot stay for the commemoration; rather, he must join Carter and the Winter Soldier in a quest to find Rogers's killer since history will preserve the memory of Cap's heroism only if injustice is avenged. No hero's past narrative exists as an indestructible monument to his acts; rather, he can remain an active part of the mythos only if the story moves on beyond him in the course of conveying a greater history. So, too, Isaiah Bradley's story contributes to the larger narrative of American conflict and heroism, providing the next chapter in a history whose moments of crisis and triumph will exceed imaginable limits.


(1) Truth has no page numbers.

(2) "Retcon" is a popular abbreviation of the phrase "retroactive continuity," in which later storylines rewrite the history given in an earlier story.

(3) When readers wrote in to suggest that Captain America ought to go to Vietnam to support the American troops there, Marvel writers, including Stan Lee, decided that he should stay at home--but allowed an active debate over current politics to continue unchecked in the letters to the editor (Wright 215, 244). Jason Dittmer labels this period in the hero's history "a new narration of America itself" that attempts to "[blot] out the stain ... of the McCarthy hearings and other aspects of American history" (42).

(4) The study included 399 African American men infected with syphilis and 201 disease-free volunteers used as controls. Since the study focused on the disease's effects and evolution in a specific racial population, the subjects were chosen for the stage to which their disease had progressed--preferably the late, or tertiary, stage--and remained largely untreated (Jones 1993, 1-2). Though American medicine had already identified the bacteria that caused the disease as well as its symptoms and complications, the United States Public Health Service doctors participating in the Tuskegee study sought to observe the full range of its development. They offered free medical care, hot meals, and burial insurance to their participants but did not tell them what the study's subject was (4-5). The study has continued to raise ethical questions from its initial public exposure in July 1972 to this day, the most prominent among which is the possibility that the disease could have been treated with penicillin in the 1940s (8-9). Public reactions to the news of the study ranged from disbelief to anger to accusations of racism and even Nazism (11-12). Robert Morales notes in an appendix to Truth that President Clinton issued an official apology for the Tuskegee experiments in 1997.

(5) Stacy Morgan notes that the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper, originated the "Double V" campaign in 1942 (2004, 36).

(6) Paul Gilroy points out, for instance, that such factors as "the lack of religious unity among new world blacks," contrasting narratives of slavery experience, and the sense that blacks do not possess a unifying cultural ancestor pose obstacles to the goal of genuine solidarity with members of the Jewish diaspora (1993, 212). Michael Rogin also suggests that "by the early postwar period, American Jews had achieved a position still denied today to American blacks": they gained public success and cultural authority, in part as compensation for the horrors of the Holocaust, even as blacks continued to experience the entrenched racism and discrimination inspired by centuries of slavery (1996, 262). The cultural assimilation that many Jewish Americans have enjoyed also may not exist as an option for economically disadvantaged African Americans (Goffinan 2000, 223). Emily Miller Budick identifies "a competition between blacks and Jews for authority in American culture" that further complicates pre-existing tensions between black and white racial identities (1998, 11); ongoing struggles to establish slavery and the Holocaust as universally acknowledged horrors, each identified with a unique set of cultural factors, signifies that "the memorialization of trauma may become a site of contestation" (Goffman 2000, 2).

Works Cited

Baigell, Matthew. 1974. The American Scene:American Painting of the 1930s. New York: Praeger.

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Jennifer Ryan is associate professor of English at Buffalo State College. She is the author of Post-Jazz Poetics: A Social History (2010). Her articles have appeared in Modern Fiction Studies and The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx.
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