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Steve Rogers: Former Sissy Boy?

captainamerica225Billed on the cover of Captain America #225 (9/1978) as “The Secret of Cap’s Other Life!”, this story written by Steve Gerber and drawn by Sal Buscema and Mike Esposito intended to add a layer to Steve Rogers’ transformation from a 4-F Army reject into the stalwart sentinel of American Liberty ®. A blurb on the cover promises “a Captain America you’ve never seen before!” and it was kind of true if by “Captain America” Marvel meant “Steve Rogers” because as a text box on the splash page proclaims this script concludes the “Search for Steve Rogers”. Never having been even a medium Cap fan means I’ve only got a few handfuls of his comics and I don’t think I have any others in this storyline. Plus it’s too much to dig through a sizeable chunk of comics in one closet to find the right box to check, so I’m content to take the “Slay, Monstrobot” blogger’s word when he writes that Cap “suddenly realized he had no memories of his life before he took the super-soldier serum.”

I suppose this was a late 70s version of deconstructing the superhero, and was maybe even a good read back in its day, but I agree with the blogger that this Cap was a whiney, brooding dope. The opening page shows Cap from the back overlooking the wreckage of a passenger train as the survivors either huddle together or are carried on stretchers by EMTs. And he just stands there lost in guilt because last issue’s villain attacked the train to get at Cap! That’s right, helplessly wallowing in guilt is the only response in an emergency situation. And Nick Fury isn’t any better! Showing up to surprise Cap, who isn’t so happy to see the cigar chomping, fellow World War II vet, he points out to Captain Mopey his obsession with a missing past blinds him to the present (especially those train wreck survivors about 40 yards away).

As our self-absorbed pair fly back to SHIELD headquarters without so much as an encouraging word to the crash survivors, Cap informs Fury that he thinks a scientist named Mason Harding can recover memories from Cap’s youth. Sounds good? Not really. See, the mustachioed Harding was coerced back in Captain America #199 into using his genius to create the “Mad Bomb” (a weapon Dick Cheney must wish the Bush administration had) while his daughter was held captive by “The Elite.” Now there’s a frightening name. Despite his doubts, Fury just wants to be Cap’s BFF again and gives in to Cap’s request to arrange a meeting with Harding at the federal penitentiary where Harding is held. In no time at all, Cap is spilling the story of his odd amnesia to Harding. Mr. “Mad Scientist under coercion” tries to hypnotize Harding Cap, but it’s useless because Rogers has been trained to resist it.

Harding calls out “Captain?” in an attempt to console the hero. It only frustrates Cap, who blurts out that his name is Steven Grant Rogers while punching his fist into the stone wall.So much for anger management, Cap! All is not lost for poor Steve though! The scientist confides with his now BFF Steve (watch out, Nick!) that he was working on a “different sort of mind probe–for humanitarian purposes” (always for humanitarian purposes!) before being forced to create the Mad Bomb. That’s all a desperate Cap needs to hear! Before you can say “Bucky Barnes is alive!”, Cap is using his superhero clout to get Harding put into his custody.

Flash forward several hours to a “laboratory in what passes as rural Connecticut.” Cue the typical visuals! Mad scientist’s white lab coat–check! Lair filled with bulky machinery meant to look impressive–check! Non-ergonomically designed seat in yellow (Hey! It’s Metropolitan Home’s color of the year) complete with arm restraints–check! Harding straps a buff Cap into the chair. A transparent helmet of sorts is lowered around Cap’s shoulders. Harding twists the dial. Energy crackles around Cap’s head (oh, how dramatic!) and the memory centers in Cap’s brain are stimulated!

Ooh, pretty colors and shapes crystallize into images of a young blond boy hitting a home run and being cheered by the spectators. Shades of mom, apple pie, and oh yeah, baseball! The boy looks like a young Steve, but no! Pan out and another younger, blond boy standing next to his father comes into focus. This squirt of a boy is Steve, the future Captain America. In the flashback we learn young Stevie isn’t a budding athletic jock into outdoor sports. The only outdoor thing this kid is interested in is plein-air art making, much to the delight of his mother Elizabeth. Oh, the sheer horror for dear old dad Walter who’s not thrilled one bit.
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Walter was more than a little embarrassed and determined to make Steve into a proper son, symbolized with a little game of all-American catch between he and his two boys. An energetic pitch  from papa Rogers lands right on Steve’s head, knocking him to the ground. Older brother Mike just laughs and taunts while their mother tries to soothe everything over, and dear old dad just stands glowering in disapproval.

capsissy05The caption in the panel with Walter throwing the ball to Steve is interesting. It reads “Walter Rogers wasn’t a bad father–just anxious to see his sons grow up tall–and straight.” Emphasis from the comic. A few other emboldened words describing Steve stand out: “resigned, artistic, scrawny, sensitive.” Was emphasizing “straight” a hint that Gerber wanted the reader to think Walter was concerned Steve was a sissy, an Ethel Merman fan in the making? Now to be clear, at no point does Gerber ever use the word sissy, but it at least seems inferred to me. Maybe it seems that way because I can relate. A good part of my childhood was spent doing the same solitary activities that fictional young Steve did. And like Steve, I was the sensitive one, though I sure as hell didn’t shout it at my father. Being sensitive I also knew at the age of 5 that I was different from everyone around me, and in whatever way it was, it had to remain a secret. Only that didn’t work so well because the next year I heard my beloved grandmother tell my mom to cut the apron strings or she would have a sissy on her hands. And that’s the first word I had for being gay.

Just like any other wanker of a father, Walter’s apprehension only grows over time. In another panel Walter confronts his sullen wife. “It isn’t normal!” he barks. “He has no friends, no interest in girls or sports! He spends all his time locked up in there [Steve’s room] with his paints and books! I worry about him, Elizabeth.” Steve overhears his father’s comments and has a few choice words of his own to shout at his father. Stand up for yourself, little Stevie!
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Flash forward a couple years and brother Mike has graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Steve is supportive and happy to see Mike. Bitter Walter can’t leave things alone. He shouts at Steve for being a pacifist and his plans to study art. This little incident  is the last straw for Steve, who decides on the spot to get an early start on his new life in Manhattan.

A change is exactly what Steve needed. He dives right into academics, painting, and whiling away hours talking about art and politics at cafes in Greenwich Village. You know Greenwich Village! Yep, the same New York neighborhood where the Stonewall Riots occurred. In the context of this story those events were 17 years in the future, though nine years in the past publication wise. It’s a great life till that fateful morning of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Steve’s fear for Mike, who was stationed there, is confirmed when he calls home by the sound of his sobbing mother. To make things worse, Walter is quietly consumed in anger and despair and refuses to talk with Steve.

Steve wanders the streets, settling in a movie theater to watch newsreels of the war in Europe that drive him to the realization that he needs to do something about “put[ting] a halt to the lunacy that’s gripped this planet–again! As one of the sane people–I’m obligated, like it or not!” Yikes! Talk about delusional thinking. And maybe that’s what Steve thought for a bit too because it took him a week of “agonized soulsearching” to appear at a recruitment center. And here’s where the inserted Steve Rogers story matches up with Cap’s time-honored origin: Rogers is still rejected because of a heart murmur and being underweight. An officer who appears to understand Steve’s frustrastion (he reeks of opportunism to me) proposes an option to Steve. Of course, it’s the super-soldier experiment that turns a frail Rogers into America’s avenger. Reliving the moment, Cap yells out, “They killed my brother–made a mockery of my ideals! I’ll–risk-anything! ANYTHING!” Oh noes! Much to Fury’s and Harding’s dismay, Captain America has inexplicably reverted to his original 98 pound, help-me-Charles-Atlas build. And Cap won’t be too happy about it either when he regains consciousness!

Don’t worry. Really. Though Cap spends most of the next issue running around in a saggy uniform while fighting some stupid robot named “Impact”, writer Roger McKenzie returns Cap to his muscle bound physique by having rage reactivate the serum. That’d have to be some nasty stuff to stick around in your body all those decades. The important part is Cap could stop moping around and put that amnesia nonsense behind just in time to deal with next issue’s menace!

Did Steve Gerber mean to imply in this story that a young Steve Rogers was anything but straight? Probably not. Even if he had intended to do just that, three factors would make it impossible for Gerber to come right out and proclaim it. First, Jim Shooter was Editor in Chief at the time (Shooter’s infamous Hulk story would appear in 1980) and comics were still subject to Comics Code censorship. And fans just wouldn’t have stood for this kind of character makeover. As for me, I like to think that maybe Steve Rogers could’ve been gay, or at least a sissy, and not just because of the anecdotal bits related above. The idea, no, the reality, that patriotism is independent of sexual orientation is especially relevant at this time when LGBT advocates are working to have “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repealed in order to let LGBT people openly serve our country.

May 31, 2009
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