Ever notice how sometimes, there’s a weird synchronicity at work in the things you read? I just got done reading a book about the Hollywood blacklist, and I’m now reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (not bad, but I’d still rather read a biography than a roman à clef). Both of them focused a lot on the social unrest of the 1930s, as the world headed for war, and on a society that was far less united in its opposition to Hitler and fascism than we like to mythologize. (America has a disturbing tendency to mythologize its own past, and then unfavorably compare it to the realities of the present.)
Reading the two books together have sparked an idea in my head for a comic book. And since I’m probably never going to get a chance to write it, I’ll share the idea here.
It’s the biography of Steve Rogers.
When you think about it, we really don’t know much about Steve Rogers before he became Captain America. We know he walked into a recruiting office eager to do something–anything–to help fight the Nazis. We also know that his parents were dead by then (one of the reasons he was accepted as a volunteer was that he had no family.) But beyond that, it feels almost like he wasn’t a real person until the day they gave him the Super-Soldier Serum.
But I think he must have been a very interesting person indeed. Because Steve Rogers has always been socially progressive–his attitude towards Sam Wilson might seem patronizing to modern audiences, but for someone born in 1917, Steve Rogers is pretty damned enlightened. He seems to have been working-class; there’s no real mention of an inheritance anywhere in his background, and he’s had to take jobs to make ends meet on several occasions. And he’s very strongly anti-Fascist; it’s telling that he signed up to fight against Hitler a year before the United States’ entry into the war…and was passionate enough about it that he wouldn’t take 4F for an answer.
All those things add up to a very interesting, potentially shocking, probably fascinating backstory that’s never been touched on. Namely, that Steve Rogers probably grew up in a Communist household. He might not have been a card-carrying Communist himself, but his parents almost certainly were. Because being a Communist had a different meaning during the Great Depression than it did twenty years onwards, in a Cold War America. During the 1930s, when unemployment was high and a privileged few were almost completely insulated from the Depression’s effects, lots of people joined the Communists because they believed in things like unionization, racial equality, and fighting back against the rise of totalitarian dictatorships in Europe. (Lots of prominent leftists went to help in Spain against Franco before Hitler rose to power. It was the cause celebré of its day.) The later political connotations didn’t come about until after World War II…which is part of why so many people wound up getting nailed by accusations of associating with Communists when the witch-hunts started.
Both of Steve’s parents were Irish immigrants; I see Steve Rogers’ dad as a union organizer, perhaps a dockworker or a teamster. His mother might have been a seamstress, also a highly politically charged profession (when Steve Rogers would have been born, the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was still a pretty recent memory.) The two of them probably believed solidly in the rights of the working man and woman, joined the Communist Party because many of their friends and fellow activists were members, and probably didn’t know nearly as much about Stalin as they thought they did. They might have led a fairly bohemian social life, rubbing shoulders with upper-class leftists like Hemingway or Dorothy Parker who liked to get involved with the lives of the people they were fighting for.
And by the time Steve was twenty, they were both dead. Certainly, that’s something that shouldn’t be treated lightly in any story about his life; union organizing in the ’20s and ’30s was a dangerous business. Activists could get beaten, jailed, or even discreetly murdered by hired thugs kept on the payroll. Maybe Steve’s dad died in a riot at the docks caused by paid agitators? Maybe his mother worked herself to exhaustion, eventually dying of pneumonia from trying to support the family single-handedly because Steve was too frail to get a job like his father had?
Steve’s poor physical health speaks volumes, too. It suggests malnutrition, childhood illnesses, the sort of thing that happened a lot in families too poor to afford good food and real doctors. Maybe Steve had a brother or a sister once, someone he never talks about because it’s too painful. Maybe he narrowly avoided the same fate.
The more I think about this, the more I think it would make a great story, a vibrant chronicle of pre-WWII America as seen through the eyes of a young man who would someday become its emblem. (Although he probably wouldn’t have stayed that way if he’d been around in the 50s. The HUAC would have had a field day with him. Maybe it was a good thing he stayed frozen in ice for a decade or so…) I’d love to write it. Tom Brevoort, if you’re reading this, call me!