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kottke.org posts about superheroes

The sad humanity of American Captain, the best anti-superhero comic about superheroes

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 23, 2017

American-Captain-Dream.png
"Old Country," by Robyn Kenealy. Image via Tumblr.

My favorite webcomic doesn’t exist on the web anymore, except by way of the Wayback Machine. Robyn Kenealy created something beautiful and delicate with “Steve Rogers’s American Captain,” an indie-style diary comic written and drawn by the Marvel movie version of Captain America.

My own belief is that love works a little like a network. Your point of contact opens up a whole universe of experiences and emotions old and new. It begins with points of commonality, known and shared data. At that point it can either exhaust the known nodes or build into something deeper, more branching, more interconnected. Fictional worlds play off of our ability to imagine and project those deeper connections. In the end, those connections give us something that we didn’t have before: new ideas, new experiences, new connections, even new people. Love is both the cause and the symptom of the enlargement of our world.

“American Captain” is a great example of this. It starts with common ground. Paradoxically, that common ground is the fantastic world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially the first wave of films: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers. We know those events and characters. At least we think we do.

“American Captain” gives us Steve Rogers (and to a lesser extent his peers) struggling with downtime, professional frustration, 21st century confusion, and post-traumatic stress. We look through the keyhole of the summer blockbuster and find the muted lifeworld of a sickly kid, now a grown man who can bench-press a car, but can’t figure out online banking. He’s the character who is both most and least like the reader, out of place in every room he enters.

Steve is racked with guilt: not over losing Bucky, like he always is in the comics, but for not being able to protect his mother from his alcoholic father. For leaving the comm on so Sharon Carter could hear his plane crash. For forgetting to return The Hobbit to the NYPL before he was frozen in the ice. He’s thrilled to discover there’s a new Hobbit movie, but panics at the flame and explosions in the theater. He argues, sometimes passive-aggressively and sometimes aggressively, with everyone, including Nick Fury and Bruce Banner. He is marching, in kindness and honor, to his own destruction.

What I find most relatable in “American Captain“‘s Steve is a trait you don’t see much in the movies, especially before Winter Soldier and Civil War: his anger. Bruce Banner has nothing on Steve; neither does Harvey Pekar. Steve is angry at everyone. He has great moments of joy, and he’s quite funny, but for the most part, he’s inwardly seething. His main nemesis is Tony Stark, who delights in trolling him. (The dialogue Kenealy writes for Tony is spot-on, entirely consistent with the Robert Downey Jr. character yet somehow simultaneously older, sadder, and more juvenile.)

Steve strikes up a friendship with Pepper Potts — likewise finally acting her age — and when he finds out Tony has been drunk-texting Pepper, he confronts him. With Pepper, Steve makes it clear that he’s willing to fight Tony, suit and all, if the behavior doesn’t stop. Pepper, who’s seen Steve in the middle of an angry post-traumatic panic attack, is rightfully terrified.

Pepper reminds Steve that the fact that he can beat up a man wearing a tank always stands between them. She relates to Steve the way the other heroes relate to the Hulk. He has unpredictable, unbridled power that forces her to constantly adjust for his presence. Even though she likes him. Even though he’s a good guy. No one that powerful can ever be good enough to not be dangerous.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the wake of #MeToo, but well before that. To promise a woman that you would throw her abuser from a window — which I have said, and thought and promised to mutual friends many more times than I have said directly — is not a comforting idea for most people. It’s a reminder that they exist in a world whose contours are shaped by male power, anger, and physical strength, where even friends and allies can be dangerously unpredictable. Sonny Corleone is not a role model, for so very many reasons.

Steve Rogers is a better one, but far from perfect. But I think that’s part of why he works.

S.I. Rosenbaum is a writer, editor, comics artist, and Bollywood fan from Boston, now based in New York, who works dozens of places making stories and sentences better behind the scenes. (She should really have been snatched-up by a magazine or website in the city full-time by now; get it together, people.) Anyways, S.I. and I are both big fans of American Captain, and we got to geek out about it together recently. Here’s some of what she had to say.

The thing that was genius about it (to me) was the conceit that Steve Rogers was drawing it. In classic superhero comics, the art functions as a sort of omniscient third-person impersonal narrator. The art isn’t supposed to have a point of view. We get internal monologues — do we ever — but the art is looking from outside, most of the time. But because of “American Captain“‘s conceit as a webcomic DRAWN by Captain America, the art as WELL as the words became first-person. Early on in the strip, Steve “draws” himself as skinny and it’s not just that the webcomic artist has a style; Steve still sees himself as a little guy.

This made me realize: in the world of “American Captain,” superhero comics don’t exist. Neither do superhero movies or television shows. There are paintings, commercial and conceptual art, and comics like American Splendor, Dykes to Watch Out For, and Maus. Steve doesn’t have a template for understanding who he is as a superhero. He has one for understanding himself as Steve Rogers. I love superhero comics, TV, and movies, but a world without them is probably in some ways a better one.

Superheroes are all around us

posted by Aaron Cohen   Aug 22, 2011

This chart shows former and future superheroes by movie. That is, George Clooney played Batman, so Out of Sight gets a Batman, along with another Batman for Micheal Keaton, and a Nick Fury for Sam Jackson. Lots of movies have 4 superheroes, though none on this chart have 5. Click through, you’ll understand. If you want to see how they all fit together, he’s made that chart, too. Raynor, you may raymember, also made the Harry Potter wizards in other movies chart.

HBO recently released a documentary about real-life superheroes. The trailer is below. It reminded me of the fascinating Rolling Stone article about Master Legend, but I can’t find it on their site because Rolling Stone doesn’t believe the internet needs to see old articles.

Incidentally, I found not 1, but 3 networks for real-life superheroes.
1, 2 3. But also, hipster superheroes. Hulk is only smashing ironically. And here’s a list of all the superheroes. All of them.

Lastly, I’d be remiss not to mention Petsaresuperhero.es, a project I put together with a friend. You know your pet’s a superhero, now you can show the world.

Regarding my question about the first superhero

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 03, 2006

Regarding my question about the first superhero back in October, Peter Coogan sent word about his upcoming book, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. “An exhaustive and entertaining study of the superhero genre, this volume traces the roots of the superhero in mythology, science fiction, and the pulps, and follows the superhero’s development to its current renaissance in film, literature, and graphic novels.”