Monday, October 31, 2016

Captain America for President !

This election cycle there has been a considerable amount of dissatisfaction with the choices for president. I suppose this is nothing new; we've griped about our choices before. Still, it would be nice to have an Ideal Candidate someday. But what would such an Ideal look like? I think it would have to be someone who represented our country and what is best about us; someone who looks like America.

Maybe even like Captain America.

In the early 1980s there was a “Draft Cap” movement chronicled in a story by Roger Stern and John Byrne and appearing in CAPTAIN AMERICA #250. “Cap For President!” begins with a group of terrorists seizing a political convention in downtown New York City. Captain America is on the scene and swiftly takes out the terrorists and frees the hostages.

The convention chairman, Samuel T. Underwood, a jolly fellow with a used-car-salesman manner and a smile almost as big as his cigar, enthusiastically thanks Cap and introduces him to the rest of his staff. His organization is called the New Popularist Party, a recent Third Party movement holding its first national convention. As Cap politely schmoozes with his admirers, one of the staff jokingly asks if he is considering running for office. Underwood seizes on the idea: “Sure, that would work ! It would work like a charm – a fifty million vote charm!”

At first, Cap laughs the suggestion off. After all, he's not a politician. “The people don't want a politician … they want a leader!” Underwood insists. “The people want a change, Cap … And you could be that change!”

Underwood's staff agrees. “Who could refuse to vote for Captain America?” “People wouldn't have to vote for the lesser of two evils – they'd actually have someone to vote FOR !”

Cap makes polite noises and promises to think about it; but he doesn't take the suggestion too seriously. Underwood, however, is not going to let the matter drop; and as soon as Cap has left the room he gets on the phone to leak a story to the Press that Captain America is considering a run for President. If Cap seems reluctant about running, then maybe Public Opinion will make him change his mind.

Cap spends much of that afternoon in his civilian identity as Steve Rogers, along with another friend helping his girlfriend, Bernie, move. After a couple hours of moving boxes and furniture, Steve and his pals are relaxing a bit and wind up talking about local races in the upcoming election. The conversation is fairly vague – I suspect the writer didn't really want to specify who Steve Roger's congressman was, or even his district – but before it gets terribly far, another friend breaks in with the big news: one of the local tabloids has reported that Captain America is running for President !

Steve is dismayed by this turn of events, and even more so that his friends seem to think it's a great idea. “You'd actually vote for a man who is basically anonymous … who wears a mask?” Steve asks. “Hey, better than voting for some crook who doesn't wear a mask!” Steve's girlfriend agrees: “Wouldn't it be great to have a president you knew you could trust?”

When Cap shows up at Avenger's Mansion the next day, he finds a mob of reporters outside the gate. Once inside, the Mansion's butler, Jarvis, hands him telegrams from both the Democratic and the Republican Parties asking him to consider running as their candidate. “Jarvis, has the whole world gone crazy? What next?!”

He had to ask. His teammate, Hank McCoy, the Beast, greets him with a song and dance. “I heard the good news, and I'm ready to hit the campaign trail ! I can guarantee that you’ll sweep the mutant vote! And then of course there are my lady friends ! Their votes alone should carry New York !”

It seems that everyone has an opinion. Iron Man asks if he's really serious about running. “You of all people should know better than to get mixed up in politics! You know the kind of red tape and corruption you'd be faced with!”

Wasp disagrees. “You're just the kind of man this country needs! People look up to you … respect you … trust you! When was the last time we had a president like that?”

The Vision addresses the issue in a coldly logical fashion. “The question is not one of respect, but of qualifications! You are a man out of time, Cap … 1940s solutions will not work for today's problems!”

As Cap ponders this conflicting advice, we get a series of one-panel vignettes showing the opinions of people on the street: the old guy who remembers Cap from the War Years; the black professional who wonders where Cap stands on the issues of minority rights, housing and education; the punk kid who thinks that Captain America is a hoax invented by the C.I.A. We get reactions from other super-heroes in the Greater New York Metro Area: Nick Fury, who worked with Cap during the War; Daredevil, Spider-Man, even Doctor Strange.

A full page is devoted to the offices of the Daily Bugle, where publisher J. Jonah Jameson discusses Cap's presidential run with his friend, City Editor “Robbie” Robeson. “Cap's a good man...” Jonah muses, “But you remember what happened when movie stars started running for office? It was like a flood gate! It seemed like they were all running for something. If Cap should run, Lord knows who else would! I can see it now … Iron Man for Governor … Mr. Fantastic for Senator!”

“Or even Spider-Man for Mayor?” Robbie teases.

That decides it. The Bugle will not be endorsing Cap.

As evening falls, Cap goes out patrolling the rooftops of the Lower East Side, trying to think through his situation. He comes across an old abandoned school, which has somehow avoided the wrecking ball, that he recognizes as the school he went to as a boy, back during the Great Depression. As he walks through the empty, dusty classroom, he recalls a teacher he had, Mrs. Crosley, who had tried to instill a sense of civic responsibility in her students.

“The United States offers its citizens more rights than any other nation in the world!” he remembers her saying. “But along with those rights come certain duties as well! It's the duty of each one of you to see that this land stays free … to see that Justice is extended to all!”

As he reminisces about Mrs. Crosley's Civics class, his course of action becomes clear to him. He will call Underwood. He has a speech to make.

A couple hours later, he is back at the convention center, standing at a podium in front of a gigantic poster of himself and addressing an enthusiastic crowd. He speaks of the decision he has been asked to make and of what that decision means:

“The presidency is one of the most important jobs in the world. The holder of that job must represent the best interests of the entire nation. He must be ready to negotiate – to compromise – 24 hours a day, to preserve the Republic at all costs!”

Against that responsibility, he sets his personal mission:

“I have worked and fought all my life for the growth and advancement of the American Dream. And I believe that my duty to the Dream would severely limit any abilities I might have to preserve the reality.”

I'm not sure if I buy Cap's rhetoric here. I think he could make a much better argument for refusing the call to run for office. But in the end, he decides that his mission as Captain America was important, and that he could not remain faithful to that mission and at the same time conscientiously fulfill the duties of President. If Captain America is going to represent America, he needs to remain above politics.

But although Cap pretty decisively rejects the idea of running for office, other writers have played with the idea. An issue of WHAT IF tells a story about what might have happened if Cap had taken up the New Populist Party's offer. It ends tragically, as the alternate histories in WHAT IF generally do. In Ben Dunn's manga-style re-imagining of the Marvel Universe, MARVEL MANGAVERSE, Steve Rogers is President and also leads the Avengers in his secret identity as Captain America. And in the universe of the MARVEL ULTIMATES titles, Captain America did run for President and won. Which is unfortunate, because Ultimate Captain America is something of a jerk.

But in this universe, Cap rejects the call to throw his hood into the ring. The convention-goers are disappointed and the final image of the comic is a discarded “Captain America for President” sign lying on the floor, as Cap walks past.

The rest is history. The N.P.P. Presumably went with John Anderson for their candidate. Ronald Reagan won in a landslide, confirming Jonah Jameson's worries about actors in politics.

More recently, Marvel had Steve Rogers step down as Captain America as his advanced age began to catch up with him. He passed on his mantle and his shield to his friend and long-time partner, Sam Wilson, the Falcon. And in the first issue of the new Captain America, Sam challenged Steve's stance on staying above politics:

In all these struggles, all these debates, and all these things tearing us apart -- I have a side. That's right. I have opinions. Strongly held beliefs, even. And here's the thing -- the more I saw the people I believed I was standing up for being walked on -- the more I heard a noise machine spouting intolerance and fear, drowning common sense out -- the more I wondered -- shouldn't Captain America be more than just a symbol? 
Steve always tried to stay above the fray, and I respected him for it. He took a stand when he had to, but as far as politics went -- he played it close to the vest. But if I really believed I could make a difference -- if I really believed I could change some minds, do some good -- then wasn't I obligated to try?

Perhaps if Marvel re-visited Cap for President today, he might make a different decision. But the original Stern & Byrne tale from 1980 is still an interesting read and touches on questions of why elections are important and what it means to run for public office that we don't often see in comics.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

You Can't Keep a Bad Man Down Under

I've been a long time fan of John Ostrander and Kim Yale's comic book SUICIDE SQUAD, their brilliant combination of “Mission Impossible” and “The Dirty Dozen”... with super-villains. And so I was interested when I heard about the movie that was released last summer.  Going into it, I had three main concerns. (1) They had to get Amanda Waller right. They did; Viola Davis did a superb job of playing the Squad's indomitable administrator. (2) They had to convince me about the Joker. I didn't think he belonged on the team. As it turned out, he wasn't; he had only a small part in the film to explain Harley's backstory. A lot of viewers were annoyed by this, but I was just as happy. (3) The movie had to have Captain Boomerang in it.

Why Boomerang? He had only a minor role in the movie. Most critics reviewing the film didn't even mention him, and those who did thought that he was irrelevant to the plot and that the movie could well have done without him. But although Boomerang might have been superfluous to the movie, he is still an essential part of the team. Captain Boomerang is the very Heart of the Suicide Squad.

Well, maybe “Heart” is the wrong word. More like the Spleen. Or maybe the Gall Bladder. Yes; if there's one thing Boomerang has, it's a lot of gall.

Captain Boomerang started off as a member of the Flash's Rogues Gallery. A lot of super-heroes have colorful villains, often employing weird gimmicks; but the Flash's villains have always been more colorful than most. And the term “Rogues Gallery” isn't just an umbrella category; they really are a kind of group. Batman's villains may know each other socially, but they don't as a rule hang out together. The Flash's villains have a kind of camaraderie based on their shared arch-enemy.

And just as the citizens of Central City take pride in their hero, the Rogues take pride in the fact that they aren't just any crooks; they are enemies of the Flash. They don't rob banks for the money; okay, yes they do; but more importantly, they want to outwit the Flash; they want to beat the Flash.

Like many Silver Age villains, Captain Boomerang was based on a gimmick. (Two, really, if you count his annoying Australian accent). He threw boomerangs. He was an Australian named George “Digger” Harkness who had come to America and got a job working for the Wiggins Toy Company. The owner, W.W. Wiggins, thought that boomerangs would be the next Hula Hoop and hired Harkness to be the company spokesman. Harkness saw the “Captain Boomerang” persona as a flashy way to get into the newspapers and began robbing jewelry stores in his costume. Okay, there's a slight gap in the logic there, but if you're a criminal in Central City it helps to have an insane amount of ego.

In SUICIDE SQUAD, John Ostrander expanded on Boomerang's origin a bit. Wiggins was actually his illegitimate father, something he didn't learn until many years later. He grew up in poverty in the outback and taught himself how to carve boomerangs for fun and engaged in petty crimes. As he became an adult and his scrapes with the law became more serious, his mother urged him to go to Central City and ask Wiggins for a job, not telling him about their connection.

Unfortunately, this fresh start wasn't much help. Harkness quickly grew bored with the Wiggins gig, demonstrating boomerang tricks at county fairs. At one such event, he picked a guy's pocket just for amusement and was spotted by the Flash. When the Flash confronted him, Harkness threw a boomerang at him. The Flash easily dodged the boomerang, but didn't expect it to come back. The boomerang conked him on the head on its return, knocking him out.

This was an epiphany for Harkness. He had just beaten the Flash, the Hero of Central City and the Fastest Man Alive. Sure, he had mostly just gotten lucky; but he instantly saw for himself a new career. Instead of committing petty crimes, he would be a Super-Criminal, pulling off Big Crimes. With boomerangs.

Okay, the boomerang thing is pretty silly; but a lot of Silver Age villains had gimmicks no less goofy. Another member of the Rogue's Gallery was named the Top and he used, you guessed it, spinning tops to commit his crimes. Then there was Captain Cold's sister, the Golden Glider, who committed crimes with her brother on ice skates. (He provided the ice, naturally, and she skated on it).

And as lame as boomerangs might seem, Captain Boomerang managed to jazz up his arsenal by creating a variety of specialty ones. He had razor-edged boomerangs for slicing through things; exploding boomerangs for blowing things up; boomerangs containing cartridges of knockout gas; boomerangs with sonic emitters that could stun people. Really, his trick boomerangs are hardly any sillier than the Green Arrow's “Boxing Glove Arrow”; and Batman uses “Batarangs” all the time, yet no one calls him lame. Okay, so the early appearance where Boomerang tied the Flash to a giant boomerang with rockets on it designed to fling Flash and boomerang into orbit was doofy; but it was epic doofy.

When Barry Allen died during the Crisis on Infinite Earths, many of his Rogues went straight for a time. With the Flash gone, crime just wasn't as much fun. Yes, Barry's sidekick Wally West took over his mantle, but it wasn't the same. Boomerang was not one of the Rogues who went straight, by the way. That's not how Boomer rolls. But he didn't really do much until the LEGENDS mini-series which introduced the modern version of the Suicide Squad.

There had been a previous, Silver Age team called the Suicide Squad which appeared in BRAVE AND THE BOLD; a team of non-powered adventurers who fought weird opponents like dinosaurs and monsters. There was also a feature in STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES about a group called the Suicide Squadron, a unit of elite soldiers who were sent on top-secret missions, such as to the dinosaur-infested island of “The War That Time Forgot”. John Ostrander linked these previous Squads to a secret government agency called Task Force X to give a background for his incarnation of the Squad.

A tough-minded Washington bureaucrat named Amanda Waller finds a dossier on Task Force X and re-activates it with the idea of using imprisoned super-criminals to perform secret, highly dangerous missions for the government in exchange for reduced sentences. Captain Boomerang was one of the criminals she chose for the initial team.

From the very beginning, Boomerang proved to be treacherous, betraying the Squad to the villain Glorious Godfrey in their very first mission. On another early mission, he stood by and let his teammate Mindboggler get shot in the back because she had earlier humiliated him for acting like a jerk.

And yet, I thought he had his endearing qualities as well. On a mission to destroy a training camp for super-powered terrorists, he was assigned to take out a speedster. He managed it by simply sneaking up behind the guy and shoving him off the edge of a tall building overlooking a high cliff. As his opponent plummeted, he leaned over the edge and called out: “Y'know what ol' Flasheroo would do in situations like this? He'd whirl around at super-speed and create air currents to stop his fall. You could try that.” There is a pause for a panel, then he turns away. “I guess you're not in ol' Flasheroo's league. You ain't even in mine.”

On another early mission, the Squad found itself surrounded on all side by killer androids. “I think I'll come over by you,” he says to Deadshot. “I just threw me last boomerang.” Deadshot shrugs. “Suits me. I'm almost out of ammo.” As the androids converge on them, Boomerang utters possibly the greatest “Pot-Meet-Kettle” line in all comics: “You're not much bleedin' use without yer bloody gimmick, are you!”

In his earliest Silver Age appearances, Captain Boomerang spoke with a standard American accent, but Ostrander followed the practice of Chris Claremont in X-MEN of giving foreign characters distinctive accents; and Boomerang's was definitely distinctive. On one letters page, Ostrander told about how a friend of his from Australia had complained about Boomer's dialogue. “I looked it up,” Ostrander insisted. “Everything Captain Boomerang says is authentic Australian slang.” “Yeah,” his friend replied, “But we don't use 'em all in the same sentence!”

But to be honest, Captain Boomerang has few if any redeeming qualities. The staff psychiatrist at the Belle Reeves prison that serves as the Squad's base of operations once called him “an unprincipled sociopath with little or no moral sense of right and wrong,” yet conceded that he was also probably the most well-adjusted member of the Squad because he was perfectly comfortable with what he was.

I like to think of Captain Boomerang as the Doctor Zachary Smith of the Suicide Squad. You'd think that Waller would have gotten rid of Boomerang long ago. Heck, have him deported back to Australia, except that probably the Australians don't want him either.

Boomerang was never really happy unless he was putting something over on somebody. He once persuaded fellow teammate Slipknot to make a break for freedom during a mission, as an experiment to see if the Squad leader would really detonate the explosive bracelets that were supposed to keep the criminals in line. He did. Granted permission to live off-campus in an apartment of his own, Boomerang abused the privilege, first by constantly “losing” his pager so that he couldn't be summoned on missions, and later by adopting the costume of a deceased fellow Rogue, the Mirror Master, so that he could continue committing crimes without Waller knowing that it was him doing it. (This led to the inevitable result of getting arrested as “Mirror Master” and then having to go on a mission both as himself and as his bogus identity. Hilarity ensued.) He once managed to lose Deadshot's luggage containing Deadshot's armor and weapons on a mission into Israel; and he carried on an affair with a married teammate and possibly got her pregnant; (the true father was never revealed).

When constrained from committing crimes, he got creative. At one point he embarked on a new career throwing pies at his his teammates when no one was looking. Okay, that sounds dumb; but it was also funny, and Boomer managed to keep his identity as the Mad Pie-Thrower a secret for several issues.

After SUICIDE SQUAD ended its run, Boomerang fell back into obscurity for a while. He had a small but significant subplot in the mini-series IDENTITY CRISIS, in which he's a has-been villain, overweight and over-the-hill, cadging drinks at a villain's watering hole and conning newbie villains into buying fake superpower-enhancing drugs. He discovers that he has a son, and the two have a bonding moment when Boomerang learns that the young man shares his affinity for thrown aboriginal weapons. But before he can introduce his boy into the family business, Boomerang gets caught up in the machinations of the main villain who sets him up to be killed. The boy takes up his dead father's doofy hat and becomes the New Captain Boomerang.

Not that Boomer stayed dead. He was resurrected a couple times in the next few years; and in the “New 52” reboot, his death was ret-conned away. With his inclusion in the new SUICIDE SQUAD movie, he is bound to continue to be a presence in the DC Universe.

One of the base premises of the Suicide Squad is that anyone can die at any time on any mission. Boomerang is the guy everyone hopes will be the one who doesn't make it. And yet, somehow he always does.

That's the thing about boomerangs.

They always come back.