The American image of World War II tends to exemplify black-and-white morality. That’s no more apparent than on the cover to 1941’s “Captain America Comics” #1, on which Cap, decked out in the stars and stripes, punches Hitler in the face. It’s as clear and obvious as can be: Nazis bad, America good. But in between that black and white was a lot of red — much of it within our own borders, between our own blacks and whites, each with their own shades of grey. What can a story from 15 years ago, about fictional events that took place 80 years ago, teach us today?
Written by Robert Morales
Illustrated by Kyle Baker
Lettered by John G. Roshell, Richard Starkings, and Comicraft’s Wes Abbott
In every war, people demand their champion. In World War II, that hero was Captain America. TRUTH is the controversial, declassified story of the African American men involuntarily subjected to the U.S. War Department’s “Super Soldier” project, in a race to develop a serum that might turn the tide against the Axis powers…if the Nazi’s didn’t get to it first! An epic spanning the time just before the attack on Pearl Harbor into the present day, TRUTH finally reveals the tragic sacrifice that a Black infantry unit made for their country — and what those sacrifices mean to a white man named Steve Rogers.
For a story ostensibly about a black Captain America, one might question Morales’s choice in pacing: characters are introduced and die a few issues later, concepts and situations and time periods appear and disappear, and nobody dons the Captain America suit until over halfway through the series. It seems oddly paced, until you realize this isn’t a story about superheroes. This is a story about the mistreatment of black people in the name of patriotism, with each issue focusing on a different way they were mistreated: by pre-war society, by the military, by their experimenters, and ultimately, by history.
A fictional fantasy rooted in reality, Morales and Baker craft their story out of the historical truths Americans tend to gloss over. American pre-Nazi eugenic beliefs play a large part in the ostracization the characters face and the way their superiors justify their actions. Morales also works in the concept of the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, where black men were exposed to syphilis and denied treatment in the name of science. In addition, he takes inspiration from black Americans like the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of fighter pilots who fought in the war only to return to the same level of harassment and outright racism as when they left.
With all of these influences working together, Morales and Baker use Captain America’s Super Soldier experiments as the story’s core and inject some realism into the myth. The gist of the story is that these men, drafted into the military but unwanted because of their race, were used as disposable bodies to test the serum that would ultimately give Captain America his power. No longer was Cap simply a noble hero who made the admirable decision to serve his country — he was now the culmination of hundreds of failed experiments which killed black men in the name of creating a white icon for American exceptionalism. This truth was hidden from even Captain America.
Baker utilizes his signature highly cartoonified style throughout the entire story, which some might think devalues the seriousness of the story. At first, the art’s expressiveness adds a human layer to our characters when we witness their pre-war lives. It continues to humanize them and bring their rich emotional lives to the surface as they go to war, but things soon take a turn. When the experiments start and heads start exploding, the cartoons turn messy and horrific. To me, Baker’s cartooning made the story all that much more unsettling, shocking because of the juxtaposition. Contradictorily, the violence and tragedy is so real that only something as exaggerated as Baker’s art could get close to depicting its feeling. Also of note, Cap (the white one) is only ever drawn in his costume, which is made to look completely ridiculous by Baker. And that’s because it is ridiculous. It’s absolutely absurd to have this perfect icon of America running around when its messy history lurks behind the next page.Continued below
In a brilliant collaboration between writing and art, the action-heavy fifth chapter follows Isaiah Bradley, the one soldier who survives to put on the Cap suit, as he carries out his orders to destroy a German lab. He soon realizes the visual similarities between the lab and what he and his friends were subjected to, culminating in a heartbreaking narrative caption that hits home how there was little difference between the two. Through this, Morales and Baker lead the reader to consider how, in many ways, the Americans didn’t ideologically oppose the Nazis as much as we like to think we did. The final two chapters double down on this, noting how American eugenic beliefs inspired the Nazis — a real-life truth. This may be a fictional story, but it’s able to draw the connections between the fiction and the real horrors that occurred.
Those final two chapters, concerning Cap’s search for the truth of what happened, have the greatest implications for modern Americans. Through them, “Truth: Red, White & Black” suggests that we as a society must acknowledge and come to terms with the sins of our past if we ever wish to move forward. In following Cap’s journey, this realization is the culmination of a number of undeniable truths. But, the book ultimately posits, even the undeniable can be ignored.
Today, 15 years later, I genuinely can not believe that Marvel published this. There was some backlash when the book was announced which ultimately got replaced by thoughtful conversations about the work and its implications. Which leads me to consider: What would today’s knee-jerk reactionary internet culture say if this book were being released now? If the book was derided before the first issue’s release back then, imagine how deeply its creators would be harassed today. Would the resulting thoughtful conversations even happen? And that leads to greater questions: In the last 15 years, have we taken a step back in terms of our openness to re-examining our own history? And has that led to a closing-off of understanding the issues of today?
I don’t have the answers. But if you’d like to join in on the conversation, check out Morales and Baker’s brilliant 7-issue “Truth: Red, White & Black” on Marvel Unlimited.