I’d like to welcome you to another installment of This Comic Is History, and I’d also like to thank Eli for letting me take over his column for this one! For anyone new to this column, the focus is comics or OGNs (Original Graphic Novels) that were influenced by actual historical events. Being that it’s Black History Month I figured I’d go with Truth: Red, White, & Black, which was written by Robert Morales with art by Kyle Baker, published by Marvel, and hit the shelves back in 2003 as a seven issue mini-series. Later the title was changed to Captain America: Truth for the release of the hardcover in 2009.
Being that Truth was originally published back in 2003, I will warn you that within this article are several key spoilers.
The book’s premise is based off of the infamous Tuskegee Experiments where the U.S. Public Health Service along with the Tuskegee Institute infected almost 400 Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama with syphilis without their knowledge from 1932 to 1972. Many of the men were illiterate and poor and were kept in the dark about the disease, and even when a cure was found for syphilis in 1947, the PHS went through extreme measures to make sure the infected men were not treated. Even men that enlisted in the service who were required to be tested for diseases weren’t out of the reach of the PHS, who kept treatment from them even there. As a result of this event many of the men died from the disease while others were left sterile or passed away due to other side effects from the disease. Wives of the men were either infected, lost their lives, or gave birth to infected children as well. The story finally went public in the Washington Evening Star during the summer of 1972. As a result of the many hearings and lawsuits, the U.S. Government ended up paying nine million dollars to the survivors and their families. It wasn’t until 1997 that then President Bill Clinton delivered a formal apology for the event during a ceremony at the White House.
RED, WHITE, & BLACK
Robert Morales built on this dark chapter in American history in Truth: Red, White, & Black and adapted it for the Marvel Universe as a building block for one of its greatest heroes: Captain America. Many comic fans already know his story as a young man who attempted to enlist in the Army but was too sickly to pass the physical requirements. However, he was seen as an ideal subject for the Government’s secret project to create a Super Soldier. Well, for the story of Truth Morales digs deeper, and the idea was that with the creation of the Super Soldier Serum during the beginning of WW II the U.S. Government would in no way have tested this on their White soldiers and would use the Black enlisted men as test subjects for their studies. Out of the three hundred men chosen for the experiment, Truth focuses on three of them in particular: Luke Evans, a former Sergeant from WW I, Isaiah Bradley, a new husband, and Maurice Canfield, a Labor Organizer from a wealthy family. After it’s all said and done, one of these men will emerge as the first Captain America.
Now it would be foolish to think that the U.S. Government at that time would allow the face of America to be represented by one of these men because of the color of their skin. So as time went on, Steve Rogers was led to believe that he was the only Super Soldier ever created and the formula was lost. It would be several decades until Steve discovered the real origins of the serum that gave him his abilities and the soldiers that were sacrificed on his behalf.
The reality of Morales’s tale came from a wealth of research which he shares with the reader in the appendix of Truth, which I highly recommend giving a look. For any history buffs out there, or just anyone not content with what your educational institution taught, you probably know that some historical facts are worse after you peel back a few layers. Some of that ugliness was interwoven into the pages of Truth in various ways. Whether it was Sgt. Evans telling his men about the Red Summer race riots of 1919, America’s hypocrisy when it came to human experimentation, or the basic treatment of black enlisted men during that time period, Morales used it to enhance an origin story that had been damn near perfect for over sixty years. With this he is also able to create a cast of characters that aren’t pitiful carbon copies of stereotypes that have been shoved into our media (written and visual) for so long, but characters that elevate what to me is basically a noir war story that just happens to be about Captain America. Morales and Baker take us through the lives of Maurice, Luke, and Isaiah at various points, and then join them together as they enlist and end up as part of Project Rebirth. Sarge is the seasoned military man that each member of the squad looks to and respects for his wisdom and experience. Isaiah just wants to live through all of this so he can see his newborn daughter and wife, while Maurice continues to find a cause within a cause to fight for. Each one from different backgrounds, but put on an equal footing because of racism and ignorance. After they are among the chosen to be experimented on, they begin to watch their numbers drop as good men die for the sake of science. By the time the serum is fine tuned, there are only a handful left, and some of the men are even deformed, but as long as they exhibit the physical benefits like speed, enhanced strength, and stamina, they still prove useful.
I’ll go ahead and admit that it took several years for me to accept the artwork of Kyle Baker for this story. At certain times I don’t think that his style carried the tone of certain parts, whereas in some areas he simply amazed me. This is just one fan’s opinion, though admittedly a less cartoon-like style probably would have won me over a bit earlier. One thing that I was impressed with were several of the covers and the underlying meaning within the artwork. Baker’s covers were simple, only using a few colors, yet spoke volumes with his symbolism about what you would find in the pages of Truth.
THE DOUBLE V CAMPAIGN
If you were to ask me who I thought would end up wearing the Cap uniform, I would have told you that it would have been Maurice hands down. He’s shown to have very strong convictions, willing to jump into a fight, and when he held up the copy of Negro American Newspaper with the Double V Campaign logo on it, that clenched it for me. I had also seen the Joe Quesada drawing of Cap with the Double V tattooed on his arm, so it was pretty obvious who the first Cap would be by the second issue. Now the Double V Campaign was a movement that challenged the hypocrisy of America, as there were many brave men of color fighting for democracy overseas who at home were forced to live under the shadow of Jim Crow laws. The black soldiers were given menial housing, minimum training, and kept far away like a dirty little secret. This was yet another historical point that found its way into Morales’s story, and though only touched on briefly, the Double V logo is displayed on Cap’s shield in many of his depictions that tie into this story. This prompted me to actually look deeper into its meaning way after reading Truth to find out why its symbolism was so important during the time period.
It’s while in Portugal that Isaiah starts to openly question what’s been done to them, when he’s seen reading a comic book featuring Steve Rogers as Captain America. He points out that the book came out a year prior, and yet everything else matches their story, from Doctor Reinstein (retconned as a code name for Dr. Erskine) to the serum that made them who they are. Maurice also begins to question things when he’s overheard by the very openly racist Lieutenant Merritt, who taunts Maurice and ends up revealing some information that the young man was unaware of. Things violently escalate, and when the dust settles Isaiah is the only super soldier left alive, and the Lieutenant is hospitalized. This was a pretty big shock (at least to me) with having Isaiah end up the guy who would be the first Cap, but after giving it some thought and putting my ego aside, he did seem the more natural fit for the role. To make sure Isaiah stays on board for what is now a suicide mission, his superiors quietly threaten his family and let him know that Rogers has been delayed because of the weather. So with nothing to lose, he takes the uniform that was being held for Steve and is dropped into Schwarzebitte, Germany to stop the progress of their Super Soldier program.
During his mission Isaiah sees the horror of more human experimentation as he enters a room filled with the naked bodies of Jewish men and women stacked to the ceiling. Through the tears and anger he goes about completing his tasks, only to be captured by German soldiers while trying to free frightened prisoners. During his capture he is interrogated by Hitler, who actually tries to persuade Isaiah to switch sides. It’s here that Morales has Isaiah deliver one of the best lines in the entire story as he says: “Guys, no. My wife would kill me.”
It was widely known that Hitler was pretty much aware of the race issues in America, and it made perfect sense that he would try to persuade Isaiah to come over. Presenting himself as the lesser of two evils and attempting to convince him that the subjugation he suffers in America would end if he helped Germany win the war. He even shows Isaiah a news reel that hails Steve Rogers as the first and only Captain America to help drive the point home. Unfortunately, in reality America’s double speak was usually propaganda fodder for Hitler and the Nazis to use against us to gain support and strengthen their numbers.
Truth is brought full circle as Morales reveals that the story actually started off as an investigation by the then current Captain America: Steve Rogers. He has made his way to The Bronx and is having a conversation with Faith, the wife of Isaiah Bradley. She is the one who fills in a lot of the blanks, and Morales uses her to tie things together for the reader and Steve. Another surprise that’s in store, is that the man who is believed to be dead is alive, but not as well as he should be. Faith tells Cap that Isaiah did survive his capture in Germany, and with help ended up back in the U.S., only to be arrested, court-martialed, and given life for taking the costume. He served seventeen years in solitary, receiving horrible care while in prison, and his mental state severely deteriorated as he is now child-like and can barely speak. Steve is horrified by the news, but asks to see Isaiah and ends up returning the original costume back to him that he wore during his mission back in 1942.
It’s during the final moments of the story that Truth begins to feel a little different, and Morales conveys the impact of all of this news perfectly with the help from Baker’s art during this segment. Another outstanding moment is that while waiting in the hallway, Steve is looking at a wall where Isaiah has taken pictures with several prominent figures throughout history, such as Malcolm X, Richard Pryor, Alex Haley, Public Enemy, Stan Lee, and others. This sequence actually helps set up that Bradley had become something of an underground legend among the black community over the years and is well respected. While the country that he fought and risked his life for refuses to acknowledge his existence just so they can cover their asses when it came to a program that wasn’t supposed to exist.
When the news of Truth: Red, White, & Black reached fans in 2003, many of the negative responses didn’t surprise me. Comic fans have always had the uncanny ability to tell if an entire series is going to fail or succeed before they’ve had the chance to read any of the material or before it even comes out. I basically narrowed it down to comic purists who didn’t want Marvel to change anything about the history of Cap, the person who had a problem seeing a black man in the the Cap uniform, or a combination of the two. There were also those who even claimed that Morales had twisted America’s history to fit his “agenda.” This is why the appendix at the end of the hardcover is an excellent tool that disproves much of the speculation and asinine comments. Anyone willing to give Truth a chance would be treated to one of the best war stories to come out of Marvel, and if you were capable of going beyond color, whether it be black or white, then you would enjoy a much richer experience. This story also inspired (maybe in part) The Crew, which features Josia X, who is essentially the son of Isaiah, and even the introduction of the Young Avenger, Patriot, who is the grandson of Isaiah several years later.
If ever possible, I’d thank Robert Morales, Kyle Baker, and everyone involved in bringing Truth: Red, White, & Black to the public. It was a great story that got people talking about bad or good, and actually revealed a few things about the character. I would suggest the hardcover or trade only because the story reads a lot better as a collection than broken up into the separate issues. So whether you’re a fan of Captain America, a history buff, or just a comic fan, you should definitely add this to your collection. There is a quote on the back of the hardcover that actually sums up how great Truth is:
A powerful revitalizing of a mythic figure that formerly seemed threatened by redundancy, Truth: Red, White, & Black is an astonishing piece of work. Highly recommended. – Alan Moore
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