Bleed American: Cap and the Watchdogs of the Internet

Kevin M. Brettauer
Shades Of The Political: In Marvel's recent Civil War, Cap and Iron Man take up liberal and conservative roles.

By now the story is well-known, the outcry against Captain America and Marvel from conservative bloggers. But why have cooler heads not prevailed?

I remember when you were down

And you needed a helping hand.

I came to feed you,

But now that I need you

You won’t give me a second glance.

Now I’m calling all citizens from all over the world,

This is Captain America calling.

I bailed you out when you were down on your knees;

So will you catch me now, I’m fallin’.

-- The Kinks, “Catch Me Now I’m Falling”

Sign up

The picket line

Or the parade.

-- Jimmy Eat World, “Bleed American/Salt Sweet Sugar”

By now, everyone in the comics world and/or the political blogosphere is familiar with the story.

January’s Captain America #602, written, as always, by the inimitable Ed Brubaker, once again tackled front page headlines. Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson, undercover in Idaho, found themselves on the trail of William Burnside, aka The Grand Director (a Captain America impersonator who is so mentally warped he fully believes himself to be Steve Rogers, the original Cap). Burnside is restarting a terrorist group called The Watchdogs, a group of anti-evolutionist, anti-homosexual, anti-abortion terrorists who do not consider themselves above murder, kidnapping and brainwashing. While reconnoitering the town, Bucky and Sam observe an anti-government rally. Among the protesters is an individual wielding a sign that reads “Teabag the Dems Before They Teabag Us”. This has been read as a clear reference to an actual “tea party” rally sign. All of this, coupled with Sam Wilson’s comment that as a known African-American, he would not fit in with the crowd, has led many conservatives to cry foul, drawing connections where none exist between The Watchdogs and the rally attendees.

While Brubaker has never shied away from touching upon real world politics since he began his award-winning run on the series in late 2004, to anyone who gives more than a cursory look at his work with the series and, indeed, this issue, there is no connection between the alleged tea party protesters (the sign, Marvel has since claimed, was a “quick fill-in” by an apolitical letterer) and the Watchdogs. If one were to look at all the villains in each arc Brubaker has written in these narrowly constrained terms, then the antagonists in the early days of Brubaker’s run were a secret cabal of Nazis, Russians, big oil companies, Soviet assassins and Independent voters. As it stands, in that portion of Brubaker’s run, there was one true villain: Johann Schmidt, the Nazi war criminal known as the Red Skull, who manipulated events in a giant Xanatos gambit that, of course, did not pay off.

The tea-partiers have long stated that there is no basis for the “anti-American” accusations of racism in their movement. Many tea-partiers could also be seen holding signs with words like “niggar” [sic] and depicting President Barack Obama as a tribal witch doctor (while somehow implying he’s also a Communist). This, coupled with the fact that finding a non-white face in any photographed or recorded rally is more difficult than finding the lost city of Atlantis, seems to be a self-defeating statement. Moreover, as recently as March 20th, some “tea partiers” have been lambasting American politicians like John Lewis, Andre Carson and even, by extension, President Obama, chanting what has been heard as both “Kill the bill, nigger” and “Kill the bill and then the nigger”. Barney Frank, on the same day, was publicly called a “faggot”. If anything, this proves that the outcry from the right was more akin to a Freudian crisis, than a genuine crisis. If the Falcon, as portrayed in that issue of Captain America, had, in fact, felt comfortable infiltrating the alleged tea-partiers, that would have been more cause for an outcry than anything actually contained in the story, and may have actually led certain readers, myself included, to have dropped the book from our pull-lists, refusing to read future issues sight unseen.

Most of this controversy, if one were to look at any number of articles or broadcasts on the topic, was ostensibly started by a member of the conservative blogger Warner Todd Huston on Publius Forum. Huston's writing (which can easily be read as sexist, intolerant, ageist, suffering from superiority complex and self-righteous anger) was properly unveiled in the recent past on Comic Book Resources’ “Fifth Color” column.

While Huston's knowledge of the art form is lacking (he claims that the heroes of Alan Moore’s Watchmen are not allowed to be shown doing “bad” things despite committing mass murder, rape, assassinations and more), he took care to make blind assumptions about any number of posters on CBR, including Carla Hoffman. Hoffman's open letter to him led to several additional outbursts from the conservative blogger. Hoffman’s apparent “ignorance of” Huston led him to berate her and several site members, who were not afraid to correct Huston's assumptions about the character, the comics and about themselves.

Previous writings paint a savage picture of Mr. Huston’s compassion for his fellow man. Additionally, his “analysis” of Watchmen indicates he believes that homosexuality is an apparent issue on par with mental illness and rape. Well-known for censoring free speech on his own blog in a "benevolent dictatorship" (his own words in the aforementioned CBR thread), Mr. Huston considers, comicbook fans are mentally ill, and as having been “failed by [America’s] educational system” in that they don’t “read real books”.

Not only is Huston's knowledge of the comic book field lacking -- as well as that of the individual comic book fan -- and not only is his level of tolerance fully exposed, his ability to speak as a pure, level-headed member of conservative America is compromised in just a few Google searches.

Following a public apology by Marvel EIC, Joe Quesada, Huston nevertheless continued the flamewar on CBR. The comics community’s battle with the man continued, most notably when Bill Reed offered A Really Open Letter to Mr. Warner Todd Huston”. Backlash was abound. Responses, responses, more responses and yet more responses were colorized as legitimate replies to Huston's vexation. Yet his outright attempts to assault the world’s comic book readers as a whole are shocking, to say the least.

What this ends as, really, is a series of questions. If these issues upset the conservative members of the American populace so much, why didn’t they attempt to call Marvel out in 1987, when the Watchdogs were created by Mark Gruenwald and Tom Morgan? Where was the anger in 1973 when Steve Englehart outed an unnamed American President who bore a strong resemblance to Richard Nixon as the leader of the Secret Empire, a villainous group that planned to subvert the Constitution, only to commit suicide when he was finally caught?

Where was the frustration in 2004, when an alternate future Captain America described, via the words of English writer Neil Gaiman, the rise of a fascist President-for-Life and his systematic murdering of Americans? Where was the palpable feeling of disgust when Captain America told the Red Skull that two of his oldest friends, a homosexual couple named Arnie and Michael were “as good and decent a[s any] m[e]n” the hero had ever met? And perhaps most importantly, where was the seething hatred when Captain America took up arms against a fictional, unconstitutional law passed by the Bush administration from 2006-2007 during Marvel’s sales-topping Civil War event?

There were no mass outcries, no angry rebuttals then. Granted, not everyone had as public a voice when some of these stories were published as they do now. the Internet has, for good or ill, given everyone their own forum with which to express their Freedom of Speech.

Remember the days when protest was a real politcal statement?

With these recent online interactions, and with this recent unnecessary controversy, Captain America was not proven to be a socialist scumbag who aims to subvert the American way of life as some latter-day Fredric Wertham would have you believe. No, he has become something different: the latest victim of the playground of Internet Elementary, where false people hide behind false names and belittle, harm and seek to outwit one another not because of any real conceivable political, social or religious difference, but because of their own insecurities.

The only thing that came out intact was this: the truth about Captain America, whose shield, no matter what some bloggers may tell you, is untarnished, and whose belief in the ideal of America and what it can be looms tall over what it has managed to so far achieve under any President, past or present.

Now let freedom ring, and let cooler heads prevail.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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