Author: Jason Olsen
Publisher: McFarland & Company
Publication Date: May 7, 2021
Topic: Politics, Patriotism, Ideology
WHAT IS IT?
Mark Gruenwald and the Star Spangled Symbolism of Captain America, 1985-1995 (hereafter referred as Star Spangled Symbolism) is an accessible look at Gruenwald’s long and influential run as writer on Marvel’s Captain America comic. Among other things, Olsen examines how Gruenwald updated and refocused Captain America, introduced John Walker and Flag Smasher, and engaged in a decade-long reflection on patriotism, ideology and the moral use of violence.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
From issue 307 to issue 443 (minus 423), Mark Gruenwald wrote 137 issues of Captain America. Spanning nearly eleven years, this is one of the longest writing stints on a single character in the history of superhero comics, so there is a lot here to cover. Olsen breaks down Gruenwald’s run into three primary sections: Patriotism and Symbolism, Villainous Opposition and Death and Distraction. Each of these allows him to show how Gruenwald modernized and revitalized Captain America by moving him away from his WWII and Cold War history and rogues’ gallery while introducing new themes and more modern adversaries. Moreover, Star Spangled Symbolism goes well beyond super-heroics, and shows how Gruenwald incorporated topics such as generational conflict, unions, drug abuse and aging.
Steve Rogers, John Walker, Flag Smasher and Nomad are shown as all occupying different viewpoints on nationalism and patriotism. Olsen takes care to understand the backstory and motivations of all these characters, and then proceeds to show how their beliefs and ideologies influence them on their path to hero, antihero or villain.
Cap’s villains also are examined and deconstructed, with the Red Skull spending the most time under the microscope. Olsen explores his transformation from Nazi to capitalist, and shows that the Skull never really reforms; he just repackages his evil for a new generation. He also shows how Gruenwald uses Cap’s villains as ideological foils, allowing him to comment on nihilism (Viper), masculine honor (Batroc) and other concepts through Steve Rogers’ physical and intellectual conflicts with these characters.
This functions as a fascinating companion piece for those who have watched The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, as Olsen’s thoughts on John Walker/US Agent were extremely useful in helping me to better understand the character, his motivations, and how he is similar to and different from Steve Rogers. Olsen identifies Walker’s Captain America as an example of aggressive, violent, and cynical “negative patriotism” and shows how Walker allowed Gruenwald to explore important contemporary political issues, albeit in a much different way than the Disney series does.
You don't often see labor history getting attention in comics studies, and so Star Spangled Symbolism’s look at the Serpent Society is a welcome surprise. Olsen cleverly shows how Gruenwald used the Serpent Society as a vehicle to reflect on how unions work, why they are useful, and what some of their problems are.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
Gruenwald noted at one time that “a comic should be a reflection of the era in which it appears” and for better or worse Captain America in the 1980s and 1990s was just that. The lack of female and minority characters in Gruenwald's Cap may not have been unusual for the time, but it is jarring in a modern context, especially in light of Gruenwald's decision to largely sideline Sam Wilson/The Falcon. Olsen does discuss Gruenwald's thinking on Wilson, but it may have been useful to interrogate Gruenwald's run more closely regarding race and gender.
There are no page or panel images. I think it really helps comics studies books to have illustrations of the stories and topics being discussed. That said, Olsen does an excellent job of describing the art and helping you envision key covers, pages or panels. On the plus side, the lack of image support does help to focus the analysis squarely on Gruenwald’s story and dialogue.
WHY SHOULD YOU READ IT?
For long-time fans of Captain America, this is a real treat. Jason Olsen has taken a beloved Cap run, brought its ideas and stories to life, and then pulled back the curtain to show us the context and ideas behind the adventures. Star Spangled Symbolism is a well-written and thoughtful reflection on Mark Gruenwald and his most famous work, presented in an approachable style.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
For a classic on comics and ideology: War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film by Marc DiPaolo
For another single-creator study: Mysterious Travelers: Steve Ditko and the Search for a New Liberal Identity by Zack Kruse
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jason Olsen is an Associate Professor in the English department of Utah State University. His first book was Parakeet, a Poem of Opportunity released in 2017. You can learn more about Jason and his work at jason-olsen.com.
HOW DO I BUY IT?
If you can, find a local bookstore, and buy there!
This book is ©2021 Jason Olsen. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED