Rolling and Fixed Timelines: The Captains America and Retcon Fun!
They’re the big DC Comics super-group from the 1970s.
Certain comic book characters and events are fixed in time. Lots of important characters for both major companies are fixed around the Second World War. Other characters have their pasts strictly tied to the Vietnam War or the Cold War.
But most of comicdom works on a sliding time scale, with the heroes of the modern day emerging no more than “fifteen years ago,” to keep the big-name heroes young-ish. Can’t have Batman in his sixties, after all.
This creates an ever-widening gulf between "then" and "now." The Golden Age ended right after the war. By current comic timelines, the new heroes emerged no earlier than 1990. That’s one heck of a gap.
There are a lot of cheats to bridge this gap: anti-aging tricks for older heroes, suspended animation, and the like. But there’s also another, cooler way.
In the last decade or so, the Big Two have done some backfilling. A prime example is the aforementioned “The Justice Experience,” created for DC Comics. The Experience first appeared in 1998, in a short-lived series called Chase. The title character, Cameron Chase, was the daughter of an old-time hero, the Acro-Bat. The Acro-Bat was active in Seventies and had died decades ago. But "the Acro-Bat" had never existed until the first issue of Chase. The comic created, out of whole cloth, a super-group to fill the gap between the “golden age” and the modern era. Characters referred back to the Experience, stories derived from the team, all sorts of cool stuff.
Dang, that's snazzy.
Marvel did something similar with a miniseries called Marvel: The Lost Generation. The mini depicted whole passels of superheroes and villains that allegedly existed in the gap created by forward-rolling timelines. Who protected the world in 1965, long after WW2 and long before the Fantastic Four? Why, the Black Fox! And Flatiron! And…um…some other guy they just made up!
Later this year, Marvel’s putting out a similar miniseries, called Agents of Atlas. Agents takes place in the Fifties and stars Fifties heroes, many of whom were actually created in the Seventies.
Yes, it gets a little weird.
Much fun to be had with this particular sandbox. The freedom these backfilled characters allow is enormous. They can be anything, and one isn’t bound by the need to leave stories open-ended. Particular moments in real-world history can be included. Characters can age.
Also, backfilled characters can have story arcs that resolve fully, rather than cycle between poles over and over. Batman alternates between “alienated loner” and “patriarch of huge vigilante group,” and has been at either extreme a half-dozen times in the last twenty years. A backfilled hero could do it once then retire. Or die. Or try to change and fail.
Captain America is just the man to benefit from this sort of shenanigan.
According to internal Marvel chronology, there have been ten Captain Americas. Many of these Captains are pegged to specific points in time.
TIMELINE OF THE CAPTAINS AMERICA:
(Note: modern-era dates are based on the idea of the “modern heroic age” kicking off between ten and fifteen years ago.)
Captain America I (1941), Isaiah Bradley
Bradley was a test subject of the Super-Soldier Project. Participated in one mission against Germany, then spent 1942-1960 in prison. While incarcerated, Bradley’s mind degenerated to a childlike state due to flaws in the early version of the super-soldier serum he received. Still alive, though he has the mind of a five-year old.*
Captain America II (1941-45), Steve Rogers
The main Captain America. The biggest hero of his era. Rogers was a scrawny 4-F turned into the apex of human ability through the Super-Soldier Project. Thought killed in ’45 on a mission. Actually frozen in an Arctic ice floe and trapped in suspended animation until the modern era.
Captain America III (1945-46), William Naslund
A minor hero (“The Spirit of ‘76”) who dropped his old gig to take up the shield of the lost Captain America. Killed in ’46 by a robot.
Captain America IV (1946-49), Jeff Mace
Another mostly forgotten hero (“The Patriot”) who dropped his old gig to take up the shield after Naslund died. Retired in ’49, died of cancer as an old man.
Captain America V (1953-54), “Steve Rogers,”
A schoolteacher and wannabe superhero who rediscovered the Super Soldier Serum and made himself into the new Cap. His recreation of the Super Soldier Serum was inexact, and he ended up a paranoid loony who saw “enemies of America” everywhere. Captured by the FBI and placed into suspended animation. (Released in the modern era to bump heads with the original Cap, dies whilst a-villaining.)
Captain America II Redux (1995ish-present), Steve Rogers,
Revived from suspended animation, returns to break his foot off in evil’s ass.
Captain America VI-VIII (2000ish), Three mooks: Bob Russo, “Scar” Turpin, and Roscoe.
The original Cap once quit in disgust over his disillusionment with America. Three guys tried to fill in. The first two got the crap kicked out of them and quit. The third, Roscoe, was killed by the Red Skull. As a result, Rogers returns to the job, though with a new conception of his purpose.
Captain America IX (2003ish), John Walker.
Walker was a professional wrestler and superstrong meathead who put on a goofy suit and called himself “The Super Patriot.” The US government had tried to rein in Rogers and render him a government employee again. Rogers, rather than lose his longtime independence of action, quit. They hired Walker as the new Captain America. Walker proved unable to live up to the duties, flipped out, and eventually had to be stomped by Rogers. Regaining his sanity, Walker gave the job back to Rogers. Walker currently operates on the fringes of the Marvel Universe as the “USAgent.” Still a meathead.
Three of these “Captains” are simple retro-fits (Naslund, Mace, and “Steve Rogers”) created to explain how the character of Captain America could have been frozen in 1945 but still appearing in comics from ’46-’49 and ’53-’54. Just a little extra historical texture to the story.
Those three, plus Bradley, are all fixed in time. Naslund, Mace, and “Rogers” were created to address a disconnect between comic book history and “comic book history,” locking them with the dates their comics were published. Also, “Rogers” was retrofitted as a McCarthy/Red Scare allegory. Isaiah Bradley has to be part of the Second World War, and he had to be inactive since the early Forties, since his existence was supposed to be a secret until recently. Had Bradley been trashing bozos in the Post-Cap Gap, he would be widely known, and his backstory as it now stands would be demolished.
Thus, none of these men could act as Captain America after 1954. This leaves roughly forty years (1955-1995ish) with no Captain America.
Marvel seems fine with that. I, however, think that such a gap cries out to be filled. Or, if not “cries out to be filled,” I think it’d be fun to fill it.
Aside from placeholders Naslund and Mace, all of the “replacement Captains” have all been comments on periods in American history. Bradley addressed the brutality of racism in mid-twentieth century America. “Steve Rogers” was a look back at the paranoia of the mid-Fifties.
The modern-era “replacement Captains” were also tied to the zeitgeist of their publication dates. The real Cap quit the job in 1974, out of disgust at the Marvel Universe’s equivalent of Watergate. His retirement led to the three mooks trying to fill the job and failing. John Walker got the job in 1987 to serve as a comment on the gung-ho “superpatriotism” of the 1980s.
To follow in this tradition, I’d figure that any Captain America thrown into the Post-Cap Gap should be strongly tied to his era.
TIMELINE OF THE NEW OLD CAPTAINS AMERICA
To the American public, Captain America was the biggest superhero of all. He threw his weight around from 1941-1949, then he disappeared. An obvious nutball took his place for a year in the mid-Fifties then disappeared.** Since then, various men took it upon themselves to dress in a ridiculous costume and throw a garbage can lid at criminals, hoping to cast themselves as symbols of their nation.
Who are these men? I’m glad you asked.
Captain America VI (1962-1973), Ian O’Malley
O’Malley was a graduate student of chemistry at the University of Chicago who fell victim to a lab accident. Sabotaged by a Cuban superspy, the Apexotron-9000 ruptured and exposed O’Malley to a combination of mutagenic gases. Rather than die or become a hideous monster, O’Malley found himself the possessor of an odd pair of gifts: tremendous agility and resistance to physical harm.
He assumed the role of his childhood hero, Captain America, to thwart the menaces of his day: The Annihilist, the Devil’s Swordsman, and The Man With the Atomic Brain, who led a cult of Doomsday Men. O’Malley served as Captain America during the height of the Cold War and through the Vietnam War. His ties to intelligence agencies were strong, though they faded as conflicts in Southeast Asia increased. O’Malley was friendly to the emergent counterculture and became a divisive figure. He spoke out against the Vietnam War and was wanted by the authorities more than once.
Captain America VII (1967-1973), James Stephens
Stephens was a fireman who had been gifted with preternatural strength and toughness since childhood. The gifts came from his mother, a sorceress-cum-housewife, who wished to keep her son safe. Stephens grew disgusted and enraged by O’Malley’s Captain America and his disregard for the traditions of the nation. Stephens took up the shield to fulfill what he believed to be the true mission of Captain America.
Stephens allied himself with the US military, and went so far as to perform several missions in Southeast Asia. He also fought supervillains by the truckload, such as the Octo-Ape of Zero Street and the Murdermaster.
O’Malley and Stephens came to blows a dozen times between 1968-1972, neither backing down, both claiming to speak for the “true” America. Their conflicts ended in 1972 when they each discovered the machinations of the Secret Empire, a villainous organization bent on world domination. Moreover, the Empire had extensive ties to the White House. The two men set aside their differences to ally in ’72-’73. In a desperate battle against hideous odds, they stopped the Empire’s master plot. Their heroics saved America from a coup d'etat, though it cost the lives of both men.
Captain America VIII (1975-1981), Damon Bollea
Bollea, a car mechanic and a mutant, took up the mantle of Captain America to serve as a rallying point to a discouraged nation, and possibly make a few bucks on the side. Bollea’s power, a control of magnetism, allowed him to perform outrageous stunts with his shield. He “surfed the skies” riding the disk, fought the occasional villain, and become a celebrity, benefitting in particular from the upswing in patriotism surrounding the Bicentennial.
A pleasant and kind man, Bollea fought only a few supervillains before disappearing from the public eye. The Secret Empire had learned his identity and threatened to expose him as a mutant. Rather than risk the safety of his loved ones in the certain anti-mutant hysteria that would follow, he gave up the role.
Captain America IX (1982-1989), Jason Freytag
Young Jason Freytag’s shattered body was pulled from a car crash in 1981 and, in desperation, given over to the prosthesis department of Wyman/Davis Industries. The eighteen year old boy was rebuilt with the finest technology yet developed. Though seventy percent of his body was replaced by technology, Freytag looked entirely human.
Wyman/Davis hired Freytag to act as their spokesman and loaned him to the Pentagon for a number of missions. Captain America IX’s face dotted army recruitment ads for years and raised W/D’s profile. Freytag himself was brash, none too bright, and happy to be kicking asses. He was killed on a mission on the border between Peru and Colombia, destroyed by the unexpected presence of a local guerilla leader with tremendous mutant powers.
Captain America X (1991-1995), Josiah al hajj Saddiq.***
Josiah, the son of Isaiah Bradley, inherited his father's physical gifts. After years of wandering and finding himself, Saddiq took up the name and the shield in 1991 in response to a series of bombings and strange robot attacks. He avoided the spotlight, emerging only as necessary to combat the menace.
In 1995, Saddiq found the source of the attacks: the revived Secret Empire, once again on the cusp of instigating a coup d’etat of the United States, led by Richard Nixon's brain in a jar. Saddiq singlehandedly smashed the operation in a massive battle against impossible odds at the shipyards of Norfolk, Virginia. The threat ended, Saddiq abandoned the identity. Saddiq is known as the legendary “Black Captain America,” a figure about whom little is publicly known.
…and then the modern heroic age begins, Steve Rogers emerges from the ice, and history continues as Marvel Comics depict.
Heh. I love playing in the sandbox.
Anybody out there got ideas for different backfilled Captains?
Perhaps a “gray flannel suit” Cap for the latter half of the Fifties? Psychedelic Cap, with olive, puke-yellow, and green colors? Heh.
Comics is fun.
* The timeline is a little messy. Logic would dictate that Bradley preceded Rogers, as Bradley was a test subject. However, Bradley’s story (told in The Truth) takes place in 1942, and Rogers had been active for a year by that point. Since (a) The Truth didn’t sweat continuity, (b) changing history is accepted practice, and (c) we’re only talking about comic books for cryin’ out loud, in this here essay, I’m saying Bradley’s story happened in ’41-’42, not ’42-’43, and that he did precede Rogers by a little bit.
** I don’t know if Fifties Cap’s status as a replacement was publicly acknowledged in the Fifties. But I figure most people would suspect as much, what with “Steve Rogers” acting like a lunatic. Rumors would be widespread. Well, in my version they are.
*** Could I resist casting Josiah as “Captain America X?” I could not. Besides, I like the character and think he has tremendous potential. I was pissed that his series, The Crew, was cancelled so quickly.