Nerdsplaining: How Captain America Became Your Fictional President
On the last page of Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates No. 15, on sale yesterday, Captain America gets a phone call informing him that he’s just been elected president of the United States. The story is by writer Sam Humphries, newish to Marvel and new to superhero comics in general. (He was previously best-known as the writer of Our Love Is Real, a sci-fi comic set in a future where people have sex with animals, plants, and occasionally minerals. You should read it, it’s great. “Not just about people fucking plants!” — Grantland.)
The President America story is less, um, groundbreaking than Our Love Is Real, and — as ripped-from-the-headlines election-year stories go — almost quaintly nonpartisan. Some context: A few years ago, right-wing bloggers jumped on another Captain America story that could be read (especially on a day when the fish were not exactly jumpin’, right-wing-blogger-news-wise) as depicting the actual, nonfictional tea party in a light that seemed less than flattering; Fox News’s Mike Huckabee got similarly Worst Issue Ever–ish last spring when DC Comics’ Superman — sick of “having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy” — decided to stand before the U.N. and renounce his American citizenship. (Huckabee, reported Politico, “said he wouldn’t purchase the comic book, and that American kids should be taught that their country is great.”) And then there was the time Rush Limbaugh transformed into one of comic-shopdom’s most durable clichés: Fat Guy Who Is for Some Reason Really Upset About Bane.
Dumb as they are, flaps like these are always bittersweet moments for comics fans; the fact that people still bother to feign outrage about things that happen in actual, printed comic books proves that actual, printed comic books — with a little help from a couple of hundred-million-dollar blockbuster movies, OK — are still culturally important enough to argue about. “We’ve wanted these characters to be taken seriously for a long time,” Humphries says, “and now they are, and we have to deal with that.”
For what it’s worth, Humphries’s story is pretty uncontroversial, because so is Captain America, a government-engineered super-soldier who gets frozen at the end of World War II and wakes up in the present with his Greatest Generation values intact, the literally flag-draped embodiment of a mythical nation too noble and stoic to bicker partisanly, above politics in a way that only a man who has personally socked Nazi jaws for his country can conceivably be. It’s worth noting that back when deranged Scotsman Mark Millar was writing Ultimates in the early 2000s, this was how Captain America responded to the word “surrender.” But in the current run, he’s merely the surprised winner of a write-in landslide, a war hero who accepts the role of commander-in-chief in a moment of national turmoil. Seeking to Doris Kearns Goodwin–ize this historic turn of events while it was still in progress, we got Humphries on the phone.
There’s a chance people will come to this interview without having first spent a large and unrecoverable chunk of their lives learning about Marvel’s various parallel superhero continuities. So let’s start there. The Cap who becomes president in your story both is and isn’t the Captain America, right?
There will still be Captain America comics in which he’s not the president; he’s only the president in comics that take place in the Ultimate Universe. You should probably tell people what that is.
It’s this bold experiment that Marvel started, I think, after the first X-Men movies, but before superheroes started to rule the world. Marvel was still pulling itself out of bankruptcy. And Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada, who were running the show, kind of had nothing to lose, and they came up with a lot of crazy ideas, and one of them was to take Marvel’s major characters and create so-called “Ultimate” versions of them, where you’d start over from the beginning, with a streamlined version of the continuity these characters have built up over the years. It was a radical thing at the time; now it seems like everything gets a reboot. So the Ultimates are basically the Casino Royale versions of Captain America and crew, if there were a second line of Bond movies that continued where the previous ones left off.
It started out as an attempt to retell classic stories in a more quote-unquote modern and realistic way, but over time it’s really become its own entity. In the past few years, we’ve seen big-name characters like Wolverine and Dr. Doom killed off in the Ultimate universe. Peter Parker is dead, too, and Miles Morales, a part-Latino, part–African American kid from Brooklyn, has taken over as Spider-Man. So the world in which this story takes place is very different from the Marvel universe people may be familiar with.
I think in the early days of the Ultimate universe, it was kind of like the [regular] Marvel universe on fast-forward. They hit all these high points that you remembered from the history of these characters, redefined them in new, crazy ways, and then immediately jumped to the next one. But there’s only so much history out there to redefine. So at a certain point there began to be this shift, where it became more about shaking these characters up in new ways. The mandate for this world is to do things with these iconic characters that you can’t do in the regular Marvel universe books, or in movies or TV shows or video games. And by pulling the rug out from under their feet in new ways, you can hopefully get to know them in a new light.
You inherited the book from writer Jonathan Hickman immediately following a story in which Reed Richards from the Fantastic Four, who’s become a supervillain, blows up Washington, D.C., killing the president and almost everyone in Congress. That’s a pretty decisive rug-pull.
Yeah — especially since the book relaunched about a year and a half ago, things have been diverging pretty radically. You’ve got Reed Richards creating this mushrooming dome-city that’s started to eat Europe. You have this new nation in Southeast Asia where all the citizens have superpowers. And then Hickman, in the last page of his last solo issue, vaporizes Washington. It was like he said to me, “Oh, you’re taking over this book? Well, go deep — I’m gonna throw this bomb at you. And we’ll see if you can catch it.” Because another thing about the Ultimate universe is that there’s a gravity to it. If a character dies in the Ultimate universe, there’s no bringing them back. We made a commitment to showing how epic events have lasting consequences. So something like Washington, D.C., being vaporized — you can’t just show people dusting themselves off on the next page. You can’t have the Hulk and the Thing saying, like, “Well, that sucked. Glad that’s over.” If that happened in real life, you can just imagine the kind of effect that it would have on the country. And that’s the kind of thinking that led us down the path to President Cap.
Right — you’re looking at what would happen next, if these huge, irrevocable events took place.
Exactly. You’ve got an America that’s suddenly gone from being the no. 1 superpower to the no. 3 superpower. It’s destabilized from the outside, and it’s destabilized from the inside. And then there’s an attack where the majority of all elected government officials all die at once. And then you’ve got this crazy leadership crisis.
Cap never throws his hat in the ring. There’s a special election because everybody’s dead, and on Election Day, Captain America shows up on the news rescuing some people, and he wins the election as a write-in candidate.
He wasn’t running for the position. But as America’s falling apart, he’s a guy that Americans see as willing to step up and do the right thing to protect American lives. Since this is Grantland, I’ll use the basketball metaphor that we kick around a lot: If they’d had a special election for mayor of New York in February, Jeremy Lin would have won by a landslide.
This does feel like a funhouse-mirror version of our actual historical moment, though. That question of whether America’s still the greatest country on earth, or the strongest, is obviously a huge undercurrent in the political conversation right now.
Yeah. There’s definitely a lot of subtext going on. The growing understanding of America’s limited time left at the top, perhaps, and the division that we see developing in the political process between different camps of people — these things fed into the book. Not necessarily the actual specifics, but the emotions. It’s not direct satire or parody, but that feelings definitely fed into this story about America collapsing and states splitting off.
You’ve got families drowning in rivers trying to cross the border from Arizona into California, which in your story has basically become the Breakaway Republic of Apple.
Yeah. There’s this situation where these killer robots are flying around the Southwest, indiscriminately killing Americans while trying to eradicate mutants. And you’ve got a U.S. government that people have no confidence in. So there are these local leaderships, these states that band together to protect their own people, because they can’t rely on the government anymore, and one of these breakaway states is the West Coast Nation, which is led by these two entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. And they kind of take a Silicon Valley approach to nation-building — which ends up blowing up in their faces a little bit.
I read it as a nightmare scenario about the CEO-presidency — like what would happen if Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison started their own country.
I don’t know if I’d want to saddle those two gentlemen with what happens in the book. Maybe C-grade Steve Jobs and C-grade Larry Ellison, if they decided to stand up. It’s scary to think in a crisis what kind of people we might turn to and what the consequences might be.
I’m going to go ahead and assume the fact that this story’s hitting a few months before the real-world election isn’t a coincidence.
The timing was intriguing. But it really wasn’t the key. The idea came from Hickman’s notes — he gave me this huge document before he left and said, “You can use as much as you want, or you can ignore it all.” There was one line in there about making Cap the president, and it was interesting to me. But as someone at Marvel said, Cap’s been around since 1941, and we’re not the first people to talk about making him president, but there’s a lot of good reasons not to do it. It’s kind of a third-rail subject to approach in a superhero comic. When I pitched it, they could have just said no right away and I wouldn’t have blamed them. But to their credit, they said, “Here are our reservations. How would you address them?”
Can you say what those reservations were?
Y’know, Cap is a soldier. He’s not a politician. That was something we thought was important to preserve. He’s not looking for a career change when this happens. He’s answering the call of the people, in a moment of crisis, and this is not the first time he’s done that. It was very important that we preserved who Cap was as a character through this whole process. No one wants to see Cap sitting behind a desk for a year. Nobody wants to see Cap at a fund-raising dinner. Nobody wants to see Cap struggling with the deficit.
But you might see Cap doing things as president that address some of the issues you can see when you reduce the health-care debate to its core components. What is the job of the president? What do people expect of a leader? What does it mean to be American? But it’s a superhero comic book. A senator breaks out the knives a little bit. There are people with ulterior motives in the government. And these are things that Cap has no patience for.
This is the first time he’s agreed to take the job, but it’s not the first time he’s been asked to run, right?
It happens a couple times. In Roger Stern and John Byrne’s Captain America [no. 250, from 1980], someone approaches Cap to run for president, and he declines. And then a couple of years later there’s an imaginary story in an issue of What If?, written by Mike Barr, where Cap does become president for an issue.
Plus there’s this larger tradition where Captain America’s relationship to the United States, as a nation and as an idea, has been depicted as shifting over time. I think of those great Watergate-era issues Steve Englehart wrote, which — even if it was in a ’70s-superhero-comic kind of way — really tapped into this growing sense of cynicism about America and how that might affect the guy who wears the flag-suit. There’s this string of issues where the villains are this group called the Secret Empire, and then at the end of that story, when Cap unmasks their leader, he says something like, “Good Lord — you?” and the guy says something like, “High political office didn’t satisfy me! My power was too constrained by legalities!” It’s strongly implied that it’s Richard Nixon, although you never see his face.
Yeah. They shadowed his face, or maybe just conveniently hid him behind a vase or something.
There’s a huge element of wish fulfillment here, right? I think everybody, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, yearns for a leader who’s just going to dive in and solve problems. In your story, Cap basically spends the first 100 hours of his administration literally punching problems in the face.
In his view, the job doesn’t involve having Cabinet meetings or doing ceremonies in the Rose Garden. In issue no. 16, a reporter asks him, “Cap, are you gonna move into the White House?” And he says, “America is my White House!” and then jumps in a plane and flies off. It’s like if Abraham Lincoln had a jet plane, this is what he would do. Or George Washington.
I imagine one of the advantages of writing an Ultimate Universe book right now is that you get to use most of the big Avengers characters — Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, etc. — without having to hew to standard Marvel continuity or create something that’s of a piece with the movies. It’s the one book with these characters in it that gets to zag.
It’s the one that has to zag. That’s the whole purpose of the book. That’s the expectation. But the movies do a good job of really distilling what’s important about these characters, and having these characters become deeper in the cultural conversation gives you some leeway to experiment with them, because you’re not spending so much time introducing the basic facts over and over again. Batman and Superman are one thing — you can say the origin of Batman or Superman in 12 words and people will get it. Ten years ago that was not the case for Iron Man. And now [because of the movie] everyone knows that he’s in the suit of armor, and everyone knows why, and everyone knows that he’s a rich smartass. It gives you more space and more time to take him in new directions.
I saw Avengers a second time with some friends in Washington, D.C., and they were asking me, like, “Do you think Black Widow’s going to get her own movie? Do you think Hawkeye’s going to get his own movie? A year ago, nobody was asking if Hawkeye was going to get his own movie. Nobody wanted to know that. I’m writing the Ultimates, but I can tell my mom, “Mom, these are the Avengers,” and she knows exactly what I’m talking about. Which is great. It makes the phone conversations a lot easier.
As opposed to explaining that you write a book about mineral sex.
That conversation was a little more challenging.