Saturday, February 13, 2010

War Comics Introduce Racial Integration: Tales of Suspense 61 - "The Strength of the Sumo"

Although Tales of Suspense isn't a war comic, the Captain America story in issue #61 (Jan 1965), set as it is in Vietnam, temporarily qualifies the title as one. This particular story stands out as an anomaly - disconnected from story arcs preceding or following it. It is unique in that it is the only pro-involvement Captain America Vietnam story, and one of only a handful of Marvel comics that touch on Vietnam during the period of American involvement in that arena. It is also special in that, seemingly out of the blue (or the red, white, and blue even!) the story contains a piece of retroactive continuity to justify Cap's trip to the war zone. He's there to rescue an African American chopper pilot who's been captured by the Viet Cong. For Cap this mission is a return favor, because the pilot's brother rescued Cap during WWII. That's another reason why this comic is special - Except for DC's Our Army At War and Marvel's Sgt. Fury, no other mainstream comics up to this point in time had featured non-stereotyped African American characters. With it's publication coinciding with increased American involvement (Operation Rolling Thunder was implemented in Feb 1965) and the deployment of ground troops in Vietnam that followed, there's an underlying symbolism running through this story that adds up to one of the finest pieces of propaganda in sequential art form I've ever seen in comics, at least partly aimed at encouraging African American enlistment.

Upon allowing himself to be captured, Captain America begins his exchange with the Viet Cong by asking, “Is the communist fighting man so weak, so unsure of himself, that he fears one lone American? Is this the much-vaunted power of the Viet-Cong?” The Viet Cong soldier responds: “Still your tongue, costumed one! Even we have heard of the prowess of Captain America! We will not be as easy to trick as you may hope!” Prophetic words indeed, although at the time they were meant to both bolster pride in America and suggest foolhardiness on the part of the Viet Cong. Notice the full-bearded, very Russian-looking major!
As Captain America is taken to the location of the captured African American chopper pilot, he sets up the reader for one of the messages underlying the story by stating, “He IS important…to me! I owe him a very great debt!” Years after World War II, here is America (Captain America symbolizes the conglomerate of values underpinning the republic) acknowledging the role of African American servicemen in World War II, and encouraging and anticipating their repeat involvement, this time in Vietnam. Being there himself, Kirby would certainly have been aware of the part African American soldiers played in supplying Patton’s sweep across Europe during WWII. In this story, the communists continue to reveal their ignorance as to the true power of America whilst simultaneously confirming their hostility through insults aimed at the USA.

The eventual meeting between Captain America and the African American pilot, Jim Baker, is highly symbolic.

Captain America: Jim Baker! I’ve found you at last!
Jim: Cap! They’ve caught you too! I can’t believe it!
Captain America: I’m not caught, son! I’ve come to free you!

Captain America explains that they will find a way out of the predicament, just as Jim’s brother found a way to rescue him years ago.

Captain America: I owe this to him, Lieutenant…and to you! And by all I hold dear, I swear to you that my debt will be paid!
Jim: But the entire world needs you, Cap…!
Captain America: It needs you too, Son! It needs ALL of us!
The story continues with a battle between Captain America and a sumo wrestler several times his size, who has underestimated the Captain’s strength – more propaganda convincing the reader that, although confronting the communist Vietnamese is a big undertaking, America is more than up to the task and the Viet Cong don’t understand what they are in for.

Sumo: I am twice your size! Three times your weight! To me you are no more than a bothersome flea! You waste your strength! Even though you may rise to your feet, you can never get free of my unbreakable hold!

Vietnamese soldier in the background: The American’s strength is greater than one could imagine!

Here the reader is reassured that America has the strength necessary for the task and that the Vietnamese have bitten off more than they can chew although, of course, subsequent real life events did not support this analysis of the situation. The use of a sumo wrestler is also a subtle device to connect, in the mind of the reader, the Vietcong of the Vietnam conflict with the Japanese enemy of World War II. Although Vietnam has its own traditional form of wrestling, Sumo is part of Japanese culture and its out-of-context use in this Vietnam Captain America story helps to place the Vietcong in the same category with reference to communism as the Japanese occupied with reference to Nazi Germany in World War II – connected to, even allied with the principal enemy.
The final page of the story adds a subtle piece of stigmatization of the Vietnamese as ‘idol-worshippers’, a negative label for the minds of the predominantly Abrahamic religion-following West, followed by a deliberate attempt to connect, again in the reader’s mind, the Viet Cong with the Soviet Union, by having Captain America and Jim escape in a commandeered Mig jet. At the end of the story Jim is thanking Captain America, who responds in modest fashion – the true spirit of America taking credit quietly for the final freedom of African Americans in the age of the Civil Rights Movement – it’s been there all along behind the scenes, fighting for liberty and justice for all. The final panel finishes with an ad for Sgt. Fury 13, where the reader will learn why Captain America was the greatest hero of all during the Golden age of Comics, a not-so-subtle claim to predominant American glory in World War II.
Although this story represents a really fine piece of subtle yet powerful propaganda in sequential art and narrative by Lee and Kirby, it is the one and only time Marvel Comics endorsed the anti-Vietcong sentiment behind the war.

Note: much of this post was re-written from part of my chapter in the book Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero. I'm revisiting this particular story for my upcoming presentation on the integration of African American characters into mainstream comic books, arguing that the story seeks to counteract anti-Vietnam involvement sentiments present in the African American community due to, among other things, statements made repeatedly by the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X against any American involvement in Vietnam. Malcolm X gave a famous speech in Feb 1965 to this effect, one month before his assassination. Kirby has been quoted elsewhere in relation to the introduction of the Black Panther that Marvel were aware of an African American base within their readership. Given the message this story puts out encouraging African American involvement in Vietnam, it seems timed to address the anti-war sentiment in the African American community, using a kind of Civil Rights integrationist rhetoric to imply a brotherhood of Americans of all races united against the communist threat.

1 comment:

  1. lol .. he does call the chopper pilot "boy" in a number of panels.