I have a confession. Chris Evans is mostly responsible for any appeal Captain America has for me. The same is true for Robert Downey Jr and Iron Man though to be honest, I’d watch RDJ in just about any movie. I don’t care if that makes me seem shallow! My earliest exposure to Simon and Kirby’s patriotic hero happened in my youth back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was culture vs counter culture with the Vietnam War, protests and Kent State student deaths, the Beatles and Woodstock, the women’s liberation movement and Stonewall, Civil Rights, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and Richard Nixon’s infamous “I am not a crook” speech in advance of his resignation. Without knowing Simon, Kirby, and Lee’s Jewish background as an influencing factor on the good Captain I found Steve Rogers’ Army background mostly unappealing and representative of conservative ideas and blind patriotism which were troubling for me at even a young age. Kirby only knows what persuaded me to read a four year run of Cap’s series throughout high school then because I certainly can’t remember why I read them now.
These days I have a new appreciation for Captain America as a comic character that I want to share. J M Dematteis was the writer for the series and was partnered with artists Mike Zeck, Paul Neary and a few others throughout this run from 1982 to 1984. Dematteis was interested in social issues and parts of American society that were typically ignored. Steve Rogers found love with Bernadette (Bernie) Rosenthal and had a Jewish landlady. Captain America fights anti Semitic Neo Nazis. The reality of violence against women was the topic when Captain America encountered a husband who beat his wife and threatened to kill her and their children. Antagonist Jesse Black Crow is the vehicle for talking about the abuse and atrocities inflicted on Native peoples. All of that would have been enough for many writers to talk about in the early 1980s, but not Dematteis. He went further by creating Arnie Roth and making him into Steve Rogers’ childhood best friend. A best friend who just happened to be gay. Roth’s sexuality at first isn’t obvious since the Comics Code LGBT prohibition is still in effect and editor in chief Jim Shooter had imposed his own personal beliefs on LGBT characters in Marvel comics.
Roth would figure into two primary story lines that run mostly from issues #270 – 279 and #290 – 299 and a few other single issues as well. Dematteis pulls off some sleight of hand introducing Roth to Steve’s past, first painting him as a mysterious figure watching Steve and then girlfriend Bernie Rosenthal leaving a Park Slope theater in Roth’s debut in issue #268. Two issues later he brings Roth front and center in a meeting that first has Rogers speechless at the sight of his long lost friend before introducing Arnie as a family friend. Continuity logic leads the reader to believe Steve lies because Bernie has no idea that her boyfriend is really Captain America. Bernie buys the explanation and excuses herself to wash her hair (I know!) and leaving Steve and Arnie to reminisce about their earlier lives as they walk and end up at Steve’s apartment.
Pausing in front a store window, their reflections hint at different lives. Rogers the tall blond with a body so tight you notice him two blocks down the street and walk faster hoping to get a better look. Roth is shorter, balding, average looking, and overweight. He’s the antithesis of idealized looks for gay men of the early 1980s though it’s easy to picture Arnie reimagined as a bear if he were to appear today. The character’s average looks may have helped him pass detection by the aforementioned obstacles.
Within just a few panels DeMatteis and Zeck contrast an adult Arnie with his much younger self. As best friends, Arnie is inserted into Steve’s story during their Depression era youth on the Lower East Side. Every comic geek knows that Steve Rogers has always been depicted as the proverbial 98 pound weakling before he volunteered as a guinea pig.
An adolescent Arnie though is tall, tough, and brave, becoming both friend and protector to the “stick legged young dreamer with his head forever in the clouds and his hands forever drawing”. Bullies regretted trying to pick on Steve. The well to do Roth family becomes a second home and safe haven for Steve. As teenagers they even double date girls though their friendship begins to drift until going separate ways with Arnie joining the Navy with Steve taking the famous path set out by Simon and Kirby. A chance meeting while they’re both on leave leads Arnie to the realization that Steve is secretly Captain America.
Leading a double life himself has given Arnie the ability to keep secrets just as untold numbers of gay and bisexual servicemen did while serving their country and as civilians post discharge in an America whose social climate was hostile to the LGBT community and civil rights were decades away from being a reality. It’s easy to imagine that Arnie encountered obstacles in his civilian life when he tells Steve “[he] was always hustling to get by — always getting the short end of the stick” and that “[marriage] never seemed like…the right thing for [him]”. That’s clue number one readers were given then. It’s quickly followed by clue number two as Arnie continues sharing. “But for the past ten years I’ve been… rooming with a guy. My best friend. With him along for the ride, I’ve been able to handle the hard times without going nuts.” Emphasis is from the comic. And here’s where we’re given the reason for a self professed loser like Arnie reappearing in Steve’s life: something awful has happened to Michael and Arnie needs Steve’s help to rescue the man. While it isn’t clear if Steve has picked up on the clues about Arnie’s sexuality, but I like to think he has and that DeMatteis that DeMatteis inferred Steve was comfortable enough with a gay man to strip down to his underwear and change off panel into his uniform even if Arnie was oblivious in his monolog.
Speeding to the rescue, Arnie confesses to a gambling addiction and substantial loss being the reason behind Michael’s abduction. Having a checkered past with the police is the reason Arnie gives Cap when asked why he didn’t contact the police. A single throw away line mirrors what had been and sometimes is still today the real world experiences of LGBT individuals: harassment, entrapment, extortion, and arrest by law enforcement. Mounting guilt makes Arnie stop Cap before entering the building where Michael is being held hostage. A confession comes spilling out of his mouth – he’s set Cap up to take a fall in order to get his gambling debt erased by an unsavory type after hearing a drunk Arnie bragging about knowing Captain America. A person in this situation might walk away out of anger and disgust. Not Cap though. A hand on Arnie’s shoulder underscores Cap’s willingness to help is unconditional. What happens inside the building is your usual superhero fare done 80s style: Cap punches out some non descript henchmen followed by a Mutate, a strange being that looks like a cheap Validus knock off, appearing to try to nab Arnie and a fight between the being and Cap, and the discovery of Michael’s still body leads Arnie to fear he’s dead yet somehow also the strange being after Cap’s punched it so hard it destructs. Fear not! The wink wink nudge nudge lovers are reunited because Michael was the victim of a simple mind transference at the hands of Baron Zemo and Arnim Zola though Cap doesn’t know who’s responsible yet because it’s a secret master plan to destroy him by ruining the lives of all the people close to him. As contrived as all that is, the relevant point is that Dematteis wanted to make Arnie a very important person in Steve’s life.
As the story continues to unfold Cap uses his SHIELD connections so Michael can take full advantage of its facilities to recover. Alas, Cap’s super angry at Fury when the plot calls for Arnie and Michael to be kidnapped right from a SHIELD facility, sending Cap off an inane journey to a fairy tale looking castle in Mexico via a pod like skimmer piloted by a silent, golden android. At the castle Cap fights off a horde of androids, discovers Arnie’s unconscious body sealed in a glass and metal tube, and Zemo and Zola finally confront Cap face to face with their diabolical scheme: revenge against Cap by transferring both Arnie and Michael’s minds into matching Mutate bodies to hurt and demoralize the Star Spangled Avenger. Another biological experiment of Zola’s, Vermin, feels betrayed by the criminals (quel surprise!) and kills the Mutate with Michael’s mind in it. Wrenched back into his body and consciousness in record time, a distraught Arnie accuses Cap of letting Michael die after the shock of seeing the Mutate creature struck down.
Now J M Dematteis had a long and one assumes popular run on Captain America but if all of this sounds dense and a tad convoluted, that’s because it is – at least from the perspective of reading and relating here just the issues including Arnie. This is what we got in the 1980s and we loved it because this kind of long form storytelling in comics was still new! But wait, there’s more! Arnie forgives Cap and you would too if you were trapped in a crazy castle somewhere in a different country and your lov — roommate was just killed, and a half dozen weird creatures have been ordered by a super villain to hurt you. Thank god your high school best friend who happens to be a superhero is trapped with you and doesn’t hold a grudge since you set him up. The ensuing fight is short thanks to Arnie’s insight while under Zemo’s control that Cap uses to win over the creatures to their side. Cap picks up Michael’s body and they beginning making their way out of the Zemo trying to make a hasty escape. Fueled by anger and sorrow, Arnie delivers a punch that knocks out Zemo, who still manages to escape in the melee when SHIELD unexpectedly arrives to help rescue Cap and Arnie.
Dematteis makes up for all the previous contrivances with the scene of Arnie and Steve standing side by side at Michael’s graveside that closes issues #279. “He was all I had…all I wanted. He was…everything to me” Arnie chokes out in anguish. An equally emotional Steve tries to make Michael’s death all into a pity party about himself but Arnie won’t have any of it and tells Steve to shut up and let him grieve. Melodramatic yes, as funerals often can be but it forces Steve to acknowledge Arnie’s pain. Aside from Dematteis being unable to have Arnie directly mention Michael as his lover Dematteis sent a strong message of support by showing the emotions and love queer people have for their loved ones are the same as cishet folks.
Arnie’s next appearance in issue #284 is at thrown by one of Steve’s neighbors and he looks uncomfortable until introducing himself to Jack Monroe, a new friend of Steve’s who is secretly the man who took on Bucky’s role as Captain America’s sidekick during the 1950s. Monroe is part of Dematteis’ effort to reconcile Atlas’ short lived 1950s Captain America series with Lee and Kirby’s continuity of Cap being frozen in suspended animation at the end of World War II. Awkward! Seeing Arnie make an effort to make a new friend in the wake of becoming single after Michael’s death is an uplifting note that continues with his next appearance in #290. Zemo is up to his old antics of trying to ruin Cap’s life. This time with the help of a woman named Mother Night who somehow has the power to induce sleep and also vivid nightmares for people based on their biggest fears, which she demonstrates twice by conjuring dreams involving death for both Monroe and Arnie; his features Michael trying drag him into the ground. Arnie wakes screaming to find the villainous pair staring at him before the woman in black sends him to sleep. The next Some time passes and Arnie is startled awake by Cap, Falcon (and Redwing), and Nomad (that’s Jack Monroe) who happened to stop by for a visit and the four of them play a few hands of poker. Slash writers might have a field day with three hunky men unexpectedly showing up in the middle of the night….
Five issues later Arnie, who seems destined to play the damsel in distress role, is kidnapped by Zemo and Mother Night who leave an elaborate robot made to look like Arnie who delivers a taunting message for Cap to rescue his old pal from their clutches. Oh, and Mother Night? She’s the daughter of Captain America’s worst enemy, Red Skull and he’s the mastermind here as the story ramps up to Cap’s 300th issue. Four women serve Mother Night: Sister Agony, Sister Dream, Sister Death, and Sister Pleasure. They’re dispatched to fight Cap and Nomad who’ve just arrived at the cathedral turned lair to rescue Arnie. The quartet don’t prove to be a match for the heroes. A moment later and Cap attacks Zemo….only it’s Arnie dressed in Zemo’s uniform. Sister Dream’s hallucinatory power must be effecting Cap to some degree since he couldn’t discern Arnie was disguised as Zemo like Nomad did and he’s slow to react to the massive steel panel sliding down to trap them. And it isn’t Arnie that Cap was punching on either, just another Arnie robot. One of dozens of Arnie bots as Cap and Nomad discover once they’ve been let out of the trap and venture down a long hallway leading to a large room done up as a German cabaret. Dematteis alludes to the movie Cabaret by having Arnie s face made up to resemble Joel Grey’s Master of Ceremonies character. Making Zola’s fetish for Arnie bots even stranger is the fact that the ones in the cabaret are done up with the exact same look. Putting Arnie in the stage spotlight, Dematteis wrote a stunning monolog that’s too good not to share here in its entirety with Paul Neary’s art. Dematteis may have created Arnie to be a self professed loser with average at best looks but he also gave Arnie some measure of pride in being a gay man and it’s this sense of pride that causes such mental and physical stress when he’s forced to speak the opposite that his body shuts down.
Now I can’t say with certainty but this instance addressing the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany’s imprisonment of and killing LGBT people in concentration camps be may one of if not the first time this tragedy is acknowledged in mainstream comics. Simon and Kirby could never have addressed this in the original series and it’s doubtful the general American public would have been ready to learn of it, especially in a comic book intended for children. Equally remarkable is Dematteis tackling stigma and hatred directed by society at gay men and then calling into question the sexuality of Captain America and hypermasculine men in general. Through Marvel’s most patriotic hero Dematteis spoke the message of equality that every queer person at the time needed to hear and understand and is still relevant today in light of the backlash to marriage equality by conservative political and religious factions. Sadly, we’ll be repeating that bigots are the ones with issues for some time to come still.
The two panels of Arnie’s face alternating with the two of Bucky’s are interesting. From the established viewpoint which is Cap’s, Dematteis wants the reader to feel Cap’s emotional turmoil brought on by the guilt that people have been hurt and died because of him. I like to look at this sequence with the added context of the formerly street tough Arnie protected Steve when they were kids from bullies whereas Captain America was Bucky’s mentor and protector until fate intervened. Mike McDermott, who contributes here, reminds me that the role of young Steve’s protector has been shifted from Arnie in the comics at this point to young Bucky Barnes in the movies, and that adds an interesting and amusing wrinkle to all the Stucky shipping. Of course this wasn’t the case in 1984, but I can still easily read this with a homoerotic subtext whether or not it was intended.
By the way, if you’re at all intrigued by bohemian society during the 1930s I’d suggest checking into Jason Lutes’ Berlin series which is collected into two trades and working towards a third. Lutes explores through Anna and Martha and other characters the complex elements in play in contemporary Germany.
I’ve ignored many of the events in this arc for simplicity’s sake. Yes, I’ve not been that successful! I’m not going to cover how Steve’s girlfriend Bernie and Falcon arrive at the castle and are trying to escape it with a mostly comatose Arnie in tow. What’s important is they’re treating Arnie with dignity and compassion as they would any other person. Bernie and Falcon manage to escape with Arnie as the action ramps up to a showdown between Cap and Mother Night, Zemo, and Red Skull for the climax in the 300th anniversary issue. Roth is removed from the cast in #306 with his announcement to Bernie that he’s decided to relocate to Florida on the advice of his doctor to take a “rest cure”.
A decade later Arnie Roth surfaces again in Captain America #428 (June 1994) courtesy of Mark Gruenwald and Dave Hoover. In the intervening years since Roth was last seen recovering from his trauma in a hospital he started life over again by moving to Florida. The man standing before Captain America now has all gray hair and is much slimmer after losing 50 pounds and all smiles over being asked to manage Cap’s costume shop. Now the costume shop looks very much like a costume shop but it’s actually a front for Cap’s secret base of operations and the team of agents working under his direction. This new chapter in Arnie’s life is short lived because a new sadness underlies Arnie’s otherwise pleasant demeanor: he’s been diagnosed with bone cancer and has been given a year to live. Understandably the news the news greatly distresses Steve. Several issues later Roth is unconscious in a hospital bed surrounded by some of Cap’s associates. The next Arnie is seen is when Steve (dressed as Cap) comes to say goodbye. Steve holds Arnie’s hand in his and leans in close to thank Arnie for being such a good friend. Close enough for Steve to give Arnie’s forehead a tender kiss which is what I like to think happened. Steve departs the room and moments later Arnie rather predictably dies.
Roth had likely been forgotten by a good portion of fandom in the decade since his last appearance. Still, Gruenwald brought him back in order to resolve the continuity liabilities in the age gap between he and Cap. It’s a shame Gruenwald didn’t do a little more exploration into what the life of a gay man in his 70s might look like.
Rick Remender revisited Arnie Roth in a sequence in Captain America #3 (2013). Here he retells the boys’ meeting in the Lower East Side. Young Steve as drawn by John Romita Jr is much the same frail looking lad as he’s been depicted in previous childhood flashback scenes. Arnie’s appearance has undergone a major change though. Here he’s the same height as Steve and equally small and fragile looking, wearing large glasses under tousled hair. Neighborhood bullies are still a factor in their meeting, however, the roles are reversed with Steve coming to Arnie’s aid after being chased into an alley and surrounded by the angry boys ganging up on Arnie because of his sexuality. “You are one dumb piece o’ work, Nancy!” one of the boys shouts before
Steve tries to land a punch and they’re both beaten up and humiliated. Undoing the original dynamic established by Dematteis with a closeted Arnie as Steve’s protector makes Arnie into just another troubled gay youth who needs protecting and Steve, foreshadowing his transformation into Captain America, is the straight hero to do it. Granted, Remender adds a line to Arnie’s dialog that he’s going to learn boxing so he can fight back but we’ve yet to see any further exploration into this retconned history. We likely won’t see much of Arnie in the future, if at all. After all, a character that would easily be in their 90s presents some complications for a very young looking Steve Rogers.
The following issues feature Arnie Roth:
Captain America vol 1 – 268, 270, 275 – 279, 284, 290, 292, 295 – 299, 306, 428, 431, 438 – 440, 442, 443 and #3 (2013)
Most of these issues are not collected or reprinted (in English). Try MyComicShop.com if you’re interested in reading any of these issues or other comics!
All art scanned from the comics. Please credit this site if you use them.