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December 1, 2002, Sunday


Editorial Observer; Reliving World War II With a Captain America of a Different Color

By BRENT STAPLES ( Editorial ) 893 words
Fifty years of movies have depicted World War II as period of unalloyed patriotism, with Americans marching shoulder to shoulder in the spirit of mutual sacrifice. It may have looked that way on the white side of the color line. But for African-Americans, the war ushered in one of the most bitter periods of the modern era, thanks to the policy of military segregation that barred most black soldiers from combat and poisoned relations between black Americans and the federal government.

Black volunteers who rushed to enlist after Pearl Harbor were often turned away because there were not enough all-black units to accommodate them. Those who entered the military believing that they would be taught crucial skills or sent abroad to fight found themselves confined to Jim Crow units where they built roads, loaded ships or dug latrines. Black nurses, whose numbers were kept small by a humiliating quota system, were greeted with the news that they would be permitted to treat black patients only.

The white press tiptoed around this subject. But the 300 or so papers of what was called the Negro press published front-page stories about the mistreatment of black men and women in uniform. The Pittsburgh Courier ran an explosive letter signed by black sailors who were later jailed for criticizing military apartheid and warning black men not to follow them into the service. The Negro press attacked military segregation so mercilessly that Franklin Roosevelt considered shutting down the papers.

This version of the war has been marginalized in books and largely omitted from movies. Contemporary ignorance about this period has been painfully evident in the last two weeks, since the Marvel company released the first in a series of comic books that deal head-on with the hard-core segregation that dominated World War II. The series, entitled ''Truth: Red, White and Black,'' has been derisively described as ''politically correct'' and attacked by people who do not believe that the country ever experienced an era like the one depicted in the comics.

Axel Alonso, the 37-year-old series editor (who also edits Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk), has been dismayed by the depth of ignorance surrounding the subject and the fierceness with which people have attacked the project. The series focuses on the origins of Captain America, the comic book hero, clad in red, white and blue, who enjoyed enormous popularity during World War II and has been fighting crime ever since.

Captain America was originally Steve Rogers, a Depression-era baby who tried to join the Army but was rejected because he was sickly and thin. As a good American, Steve naturally volunteered to participate in an experiment by the vaunted Professor Reinstein (it rhymes with Einstein) whose secret serum turned the weakling into a well-muscled ''supersoldier,'' dressed in a costume derived from the flag. The good captain's very first issue shows him delivering a knockout punch to Hitler. He has been a popular figure in the comics ever since.

The Captain America I followed as a teenager during the 1960's was a big, brawny white guy. The Captain America who is about to be introduced to fans in the ''Truth'' series is, by contrast, very black.

The writer, Robert Morales, has apparently borrowed a page from the real history of the infamous Tuskegee experiments, and begun with the premise that the tall, blond Steve Rogers could not have been Professor Reinstein's first guinea pig. The fictional idea behind the series is that a supersoldier serum was tested first on black soldiers, who were then pushed aside when the time arrived for the Army to select a blond champion.

The story line is comic book noir at its finest. It involves a dual examination of the Captain America myth and of 40's-era racism. The opening episode offers a portrait of upper-class black life, similar to the one that came as a such a surprise to so many readers of Stephen Carter's best-selling novel ''The Emperor of Ocean Park.'' Among the lives portrayed in the series is that of an affluent black socialist named Maurice Canfield, who is arrested in an antiwar protest, tried for sedition and forced to join the Army, where he and his black barracks mates endure the humiliations appropriate to the period. The identity of the black Captain America will be revealed later in the series, but I am putting my money on Maurice.

As the embodiment of patriotism and a propaganda tool during the war, Captain America is a perfect point of departure for a re-examination of the World War II experience. The new series is selling very well, despite griping from comic insiders, who are notoriously touchy about any attempts to alter the image of a superhero. Given its healthy sales, this series could well generate a movie deal, following Spider-Man and his friends. It could also provoke a broad discussion of an era that Hollywood has largely viewed as too unpleasant to dwell upon and about which millions of readers know almost nothing.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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