Captain America made me the patriot I am today.
I'm sure there were some other influences. Probably a little Red Dawn, a splash of GI Joe and perhaps even some stuff that didn't come from comic books, movies or after-school cartoons. But it was Captain America, specifically a two-year story arc that started in 1987 at the height of my comics-collecting career, that crystallized my understanding of what it means to be a patriot in the world we live in.
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That arc is summarized by the name The Captain, but in case your knowledge of comic storylines from 25 years ago is less than complete, let me summarize. Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, is ordered to return to active government service. When he refuses, due to concerns that the government may ask him to do things that compromise his integrity, he's stripped of his identity as Captain America. Along with the name Captain America, he has to give back his shield and costume, since those are all technically property of the U.S. government. In effect, he was fired. Then, to add insult to injury, the government hired a replacement and gave the new guy the shield, the costume and the the name.
This blew my fourteen-year-old mind.
How the hell do you fire Captain America? That's like firing the president, only worse, because there's a new president every four to eight years but there's only ever been one Captain America! I was outraged, but also riveted by the storyline, which followed a now-disillusioned Rogers as he tried to figure out what to do without being Captain America, as well as the new Captain America, who turned out to be kind of shitty at the job. Well, Rogers pretty quickly decided that even if he couldn't be Captain America, he still loved his country and had to do what he could to protect and serve it. Sure, its leaders were demonstrably dipshits, as evidenced by his firing, but that didn't mean America wasn't still kick-ass. So Rogers took up the mantle of The Captain, traded in his red, white and blue uniform for a red, white and black one of a similar design, and went off to do his own thing.
This storyline introduced me to some pretty big ideas. Key among those ideas was that the government could be wrong. Not just a little bit wrong, not just "differences of opinion" wrong, but "firing the living symbol of America's greatness and hiring a psychopath to replace him" wrong. Just as important was Rogers' decision to fight for what he believed in, even when it was in opposition to the official government position.
Now, as a fourteen-year-old boy in the late '80s, I was pro-America, because, duh, I was an American and America was obviously rad. Like any kid who grew up on the ass-end of the Cold War, I was buried in a lot of pro-U.S. propaganda, so I knew that freedom was awesome and Russia was evil and all that. The U.S. was the best nation on the planet and that was that. Reading that Captain America storyline changed all of that. My unquestioning patriotism had been replaced by a still nascent belief that, while America was great, America could also be wrong. And when it is wrong, it's our duty as patriots not to go along, but to do what's right and to try to get it back on track.
That's pretty heady stuff for a comic book. It's also what I still believe to this day. The lessons I learned from issues No. 332 through 350 of Captain America have served me well to this day. When my patriotism was called into question during the darkest and dumbest of the Bush years, when "true patriots" were falling all over each other to go along with whatever stupid shit the government suggested, I remembered The Captain and did my part. Sure, Steve Rogers took on a new identity and put his ass on the line fighting evil, while I mostly made long-winded posts railing against the latest excesses of the War on Terror on Internet forums, but the principle was the same. Comics had taught me well.
Pop culture in general is frequently seen as disposable, and comic books are especially vulnerable to these accusations. But good ideas are where you find them, and I found mine in the pages of Marvel's Captain America comic. Would I have grown up to be a more traditional patriot had I never discovered that comic? Maybe. It's also possible that I would have found the same ideas -- they're not terribly revolutionary or new, after all -- elsewhere, but who knows if they would have affected me the same way? These days I can embrace a dry documentary on civil disobedience, but as a kid? Not a chance. But encountering them in the four-color world of the comics, where the heroes I adored lived and breathed? I absorbed them without effort and they changed me forever.
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I love this country, and I always will. But that doesn't mean I don't realize that our leaders are sometimes dipshits. It doesn't mean I don't know that we have done shitty things and continue to do shitty things. And it doesn't mean that loving America means I have to follow orders blindly, at the cost of my integrity. Patriotism, for me, means sticking up for the America I believe in, even when it's unpopular and contrary to the official party line. And I learned it all from Captain America.