Title: Captain America: The Truth
Author: Robert Morales
Illustrator: Kyle Baker
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: Borrowed a copy from the library
Almost everyone knows the story of Captain America: how the good-hearted, patriotic, but scrawny Steve Rogers gained super strength by taking part in a secret military project and being injected with a secret serum. For nearly 70 years, that was the only part of the story of Cap’s origin that Marvel readers got to see. But Captain America: The Truth, a seven-part comic series by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker, looks at the story behind the story.
It looks at the people who were used as unwilling, uninformed test subjects to perfect the formula for the serum that Steve Rogers received: black American soldiers. If you’re thinking that this sounds like it’s got shades of the Tuskeegee experiment or Henrietta Lacks behind it, you’re right. Robert Morales did extensive research on the topic of medical experimentation in the past, and it shows.
In Captain America: The Truth, of the hundreds that were forcibly injected with the test serum, only about a dozen survived beyond the initial testing phase. And of those, only one survived to do raids in Germany: the protagonist, Isaiah Bradley.
Bradley’s story forms the spine of the series, starting with his happy marriage to Faith, his conscription to the war effort, his capture (and escape) from Nazi soldiers, and his eventual return to the US, where he was by turns punished and ignored by the government for his role in the war. Things eventually turn full circle when Captain America himself comes calling, seeking information about his own origins. In the series moving final pages, we see how Bradley, who faced the worst depredations of the American government, eventually became an underground, counterculture figure of hope to the black community.
I want to note something interesting about the fact that Bradley is the one who survives being injected with the serum long enough to go behind enemy lines: he’s the only one that appears to enter the war for altruistic reasons. A fellow soldier, Canfield, joined the army to avoid going to jail. Another joined because, it’s implied, it was a delayed form of suicide. A third joined only because he figured that being part of the army was a legitimate way to kill white men. Isaiah Bradley, on the other hand? He goes willingly. The sun shines on his face as he dons his uniform and kisses his wife goodbye.
He’s the only one in the entire story, aside from Captain America himself, to act with such noble intentions. I think it’s interesting that there’s that implied effect of who the serum works on — like it’s somehow consciously choosing only people with a virtuous or courageous mindset.
That’s a minor point, though, among all the other threads woven into this story. Bradley actually enters a death camp and sees firsthand the experiments being done on Jewish people there. The rows upon rows of dead and mutilated bodies fill him with horror. And when he inadvertently enters a gas chamber, the panels show hallucinatory images of tattoo numbers rising from the flesh of concentration camp prisoners into the air, eventually raining down to form bars of gold being collected and hoarded away by the Nazis.
This greed manifests in the Americans just as much as it does among the Germans. When Cap reaches the present day and starts learning of Bradley’s origins, he also learns that the whole Super Soldier program originally started out as a eugenics experiment, and that the German pharmaceutical company responsible for such research became thoroughly Americanized after the war. So not only do we have explicit references to historical events like the American Immigration Act of 1924, which aimed to “preserve American homogeneity”, but also implicit references to how American companies benefited from having German ties during World War 2.
Heavy stuff. Seriously heavy stuff.
And that’s not all. In the present day, when Captain America searches for his origins, he meets both Faith, now an old woman, and Isaiah himself. And oh man, what a character Faith is! In the story’s modern day, she practices Islam and has changed her surname to Shabazz. On top of that, she also became a professor of comparative religion, raised her and Isaiah’s daughter single-handedly, and now has a house filled with grandchildren. She had a tough life even after Isaiah’s return, and persevered. (I seriously want more comics about her.)
In a way, Faith’s role in the story reminds me of Eliza’s role in the musical Hamilton. Faith, like Eliza, preserves her husband’s legacy, and her role in the story is seen as sort of a secret history. The poignancy lies in that Faith is old, and Isaiah’s super serum treatment means that he’s still young, although he’s lost his mental faculties. As we see Isaiah’s studio walls covered in photographs of him taken with important historical figures like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Richard Pryor, and Nelson Mandela, we understand just how hard both she and her community have worked to keep his name from being omitted from the official history book.
There’s so much to say about this story, and I’m sure that someone with more historical awareness than I possess would be able to give it the context and analysis it deserves. I’m only scratching the surface of everything on offer here. But Captain America: The Truth is willing to engage with history, to ask uncomfortable questions and point to uncomfortable answers, that’s rare in a mainstream graphic novel.