Ever since Clark Kent first donned a pair of oversized glasses and, somewhat improbably, hid his Superman persona from Lois Lane, questions of identity have been a staple of the comic-book genre. And it is near-gospel that a hero’s alter ego is the polar opposite of his or her costumed personality. Beneath the mask, Spider-Man is Peter Parker, a nerdy, pimply-faced teenager. The Incredible Hulk metamorphoses from wilting scientist Bruce Banner into a raging green behemoth. By day, Daredevil is Matt Murdock, a blind, workaholic attorney. So perhaps it should not be surprising that Marvel Comics–creators of Spidey, The Hulk and Daredevil, among others–is taking the theme of identity in new, contemporary directions.

And yet it is surprising. In three new, seemingly unrelated comic-book series, Marvel has begun an exploration of racial, religious and sexual identity that is unique in the mainstream comic-book industry. In a new series titled Truth: Red, White & Black, writer Robert Morales and artist Kyle Baker offer a revisionist account of the origins of Captain America–the star-spangled hero who first fought the Nazis in World War II–in which the original hero is recast as a black GI. In Remembrance of Things Past, Fantastic Four No. 56 (Vol. 3), writer Karl Kesel and artist Stuart Immonen reveal that the orange, craggy hero known as “The Thing” is Jewish. And in Slap Leather, a series by writer Ron Zimmerman and artist John Severin, the Rawhide Kid, a gun-toting cowboy in the Old West, is openly gay. This reinvention of the identities of three major characters in a formerly homogenous corner of the literary (yes, literary) universe deserves a closer look.

Truth, Remembrance and Slap Leather have all caused a minor firestorm in comic-book land, with fans clogging Internet chatrooms, listservs and conventions with commentary, positive and negative, and the kind of excruciatingly detailed dissection of plot lines that keeps comic collectors up at night. (One Fantastic Four fan wrote in to say that The Thing can’t be Jewish because in an issue from the 1970s the hero celebrated Christmas.)

But why all the hubbub over these story lines? Mature and controversial themes are hardly new to comic books. Since the late 1960s, “underground” comics like the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers have dealt with drugs, sex, race and other prickly topics. And in the recent past, a few major characters have even flirted with ethnic transformation. “The Invincible Iron Man” had a brief incarnation as a black man (though “The Invincible” was quietly dropped from his title), and Superman himself briefly had a forgettable black alter ego known as Steel (committed to celluloid in an even more forgettable film of the same name starring Shaquille O’Neal). In those cases, though, readers recognized the ethnic story lines for what they were, temporary deviations from the characters’ signature histories and identities. Superman would forever be Clark Kent, the mild-mannered (white, Anglo-Saxon and straight) visitor from the planet Krypton. Iron Man would remain Tony Stark, the billionaire (white, Anglo-Saxon and straight) industrialist and playboy.

But the new story lines represent something different, especially for the comics faithful. They are changing forever the core personal histories and identities of major, beloved characters. More profoundly, they are revealing that the characters were never what readers assumed them to be. In the comic-book world, that kind of change can’t be undone. Twenty years after the current series come to an end, experienced collectors at comic-book conventions will be sagely explaining to their wide-eyed protégés that “actually, the first Captain America was black.”

Fantastic Four No. 56 (Vol. 3),
“Remembrance of Things Past.”

Written by Karl Kesel. Penciled by Stuart Immonen. Inked by Scott Koblish.
Marvel Comics. Paper $2.25.

In case it has slipped your mind, The Thing began life as Benjamin Jacob Grimm, a poor kid in a New York neighborhood called Yancy Street, curiously reminiscent of the Lower East Side. Though a cosmic space accident transformed him into a giant stone monster circa 1961, Grimm has continued to visit his neighborhood in sporadic episodes over the years. In those books, local toughs taunted the hero for abandoning his urban, streetfighting roots. They heckled and jeered at him, accusing him of being a traitor to his class. But no mention was ever made of The Thing’s religion. In Remembrance of Things Past, published last August, Ben Grimm makes another trek to the old neighborhood, this time to return a Star of David that he stole as a teenager from a pawnshop owner named Mr. Sheckerberg.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn that young Grimm’s father was an alcoholic, his brother Danny a gang leader. Danny died young and violently, and Grimm soon lost both parents as well. He stole the Star of David to prove he had the “stones” to lead the Yancy Street Gang, but was saved from the streets when the City moved him into the home of his affluent uncle. That’s when the class war with the Yancys began: “We voted you out when you decided to go live with your fancy uncle–the doctor!” the Gang tells him. “Everyone knows you always wanted off the street, Grimm–become some hotshot pilot!” (There are a lot of exclamation points in comics.)

Back in the present, The Thing shows up in time to defend Mr. Sheckerberg from a superpowered extortionist named “Powderkeg: The Man with the Explosive Aura.” (“Okay, maybe not an aura–more like my skin exudes nitroglycerine,” explains Powderkeg, “Hate to have you die with any misconceptions!”) When The Thing seems to be on the ropes, the Yancy Street Gang comes to his rescue, spraying Powderkeg with mace and pushing him down a sewer hole, but not before the villain wounds the elderly Sheckerberg.

It is here that the authors reveal Ben Grimm’s religion. Bending over the fallen Sheckerberg, The Thing prays the traditional “Sh’ma Yisrael,” the Hebrew confession at death. Sheckerberg survives and asks Grimm the question on many readers’ minds: “All these years in the news, they never mention you’re Jewish. I thought maybe you were ashamed of it a little.” Grimm explains that, to the contrary, he did not want to bring shame on the Jewish community. “Figure there’s enough trouble in this world without people thinkin’ Jews are all monsters like me.” When Grimm tries to return the stolen Star of David, the pawnbroker refuses it, likening Grimm to the Golem–the legendary living statue said to have protected Prague’s persecuted Jews. The final word from Powderkeg to The Thing: “It’s just…you don’t look Jewish.”

Beneath the wisecracks and testosterone, Remembrance of Things Past is a surprisingly rich tale of religious and class guilt. Grimm feels remorse both over his past as a young hoodlum and over escaping the poverty and hopelessness of his old neighborhood–a stroke of luck that eluded his neighborhood chums. And he keeps his religion a secret because he fears that his frightening appearance will reflect poorly on the Jewish community. What drives him throughout the book is a sense of duty to others, which is what makes him a hero.

Ben Grimm’s journey parallels, in some ways, the path of the first generation of comic-book writers, almost all of whom were Jews. In addition to Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who gave us Superman, the list includes Stan Lee (born Leiber), a former editor-in-chief of Marvel, and Jack Kirby (born Kurtzberg), who co-created the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. For all their success, these comic-book pioneers Anglicized their names and hid their religion, at least from readers, for decades. And so, the story’s themes of prejudice, guilt and religious identity hold special meaning.

Sheckerberg tries to put The Thing’s guilt to rest. “What you learned on the street, what you learned at the synagogue–when you need those things, you can always…get them back,” says the old man. “I’m a pawnbroker, Benjamin–this is something I know about.” But the poverty of the streets and the bigotry of the public are evils that a superhero is powerless to defeat.

Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather.

Written by Ron Zimmerman. Illustrated by John Severin.
Marvel Comics/MAX. Paper $2.99.

The Rawhide Kid was a run-of-the-mill western character created in 1955 to capitalize on the popularity of the Rawhide TV series. The Kid was a crack shot, but always shy around girls. Fifty years later, we know why. In the new series, he becomes the first openly gay title character in a mainstream comic book.

In Hollywood parlance, Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather reads like Shane meets Will and Grace. The tale is narrated by Toby, the young son of the sheriff of Wells Junction. When the sheriff is humiliated and his deputy killed by Cisco Pike and his gang, all seems lost–until The Kid comes to town and volunteers to help out. Dressed in skintight leather pants and white gloves, The Kid immediately takes the drama down a notch. “Oh, stop,” he tells the blubbering sheriff. “It’s a few bruises and two bullets. You’ll live.”

And so it goes. The series is at times hilarious. After the sheriff’s first encounter with Pike, he sits down to talk with his son, telling the boy that discussing his feelings will make him feel better. The boy lets fly: “Well, see, I wuz just thinkin’ ’bout the shame and humiliation I wuz feelin’ while I watched you let your deputy git his brains blowed out, then seein’ you git beat like an old rug in front’a all my friends and havin’ ta realize that my Paw is nuthin’ but a yellowbellied coward and how I gotta run away from home now so’s nobody will know I’m yore son…. Hey, I do feel better!” The books contain a number of laugh-out-loud moments that are rare in the superhero genre and almost unheard of in comic-book westerns.

For the most part, though, Slap Leather seems a wasted opportunity. Though beautifully illustrated by John Severin, who drew the 1950s Kid books, the series is basically an extended one-liner. By page five, the cognitive dissonance of gay double-entendre and contemporary content in a comic book set in the Old West wears thin. At least in the early issues, the series says nothing interesting about sexual identity and offers few laughs that don’t derive from tired gay stereotypes.

When Toby and his friends ask The Kid about the Lone Ranger, he gushes: “All I can say is, I don’t care which one of us is faster, I just want to meet him. I think that the mask and the powder blue outfit are fantastic. I can certainly see why that Indian follows him around.” Asked about Wild Bill Hickok, The Kid takes a puff from an extra-long cigarette holder and retorts, “Very nice man. Bigger than life.” This is the stuff of prime-time sitcoms. (Series writer Ron Zimmerman’s TV credits include the ill-fated Michael Richards Show.) With such a great premise–an openly and proudly gay gunfighter in the Old West–the reader pines for a more nuanced and creative tale. Unfortunately, none is forthcoming, at least early in the series.

Truth: Red, White & Black.
Written by Robert Morales. Illustrated by Kyle Baker.
Marvel Comics. Paper $3.99.

By far the most interesting of the new Marvel story lines is Truth: Red, White & Black, in which writer Robert Morales and artist Kyle Baker reveal a hidden chronicle in the history of Captain America. In the original series, created in the 1940s, “Cap” was a scrawny blond GI, Steve Rogers, who volunteered for a secret experiment. Military brass and a scientist known as Dr. Reinstein pumped Rogers full of a new “super soldier serum,” turning him into a costumed superhero. Cap took on the Axis powers throughout the war, then resurfaced in the 1960s to fight an assortment of supervillains with sinister, fascist leanings.

Truth, a prequel to the original Captain America series, reveals that the US military performed the original supersoldier experiments on African-American GIs who had no choice in the matter. The series follows several black soldiers assigned to Camp Cathcart, Mississippi, at the start of World War II. The men have arrived at the camp for different reasons and from different backgrounds. One is a World War I vet and staff sergeant known in his native Cleveland neighborhood as “Cap.” Another is an affluent Philadelphia peace activist given the choice of prison or enlistment. Yet another, Isaiah Bradley, is a Bronx family man with a wife and baby at home.

Racial oppression is a central and pervasive theme of each man’s story, and of the tale as a whole. The opening frame finds Bradley and his new wife at the 1940 World’s Fair. Though it is “Negro Week,” the couple is turned away from a sideshow featuring scantily clad white women. “It’s the girls, okay?” explains the hawker. “They don’t like being looked at like they’re animals.” Bradley is ready to fight, but his wife restrains him. The indignities and injustice of the Jim Crow system play an important role in the other men’s backstories as well.

Robert Morales has done some impressive historical research, skillfully folding period details into the story line. Canfield, the peace activist, displays the “Double V,” a slogan of civil rights activists in the 1940s that linked the struggles against fascism abroad and racism at home. The colored unit is assigned to wash latrines, then harassed by white troops for their stench. Sergeant Evans tells of being busted in rank over a racially motivated incident with a white superior officer. Far from seeming gratuitously didactic, these incidents lay the groundwork, in classic comic-book style, for the government’s betrayal of the colored troops later in the series. They establish that the Army, like the nation, viewed blacks as expendable and, therefore, the perfect subjects for a risky military experiment.

In the second and third issues of the series, a military intelligence officer, along with Dr. Reinstein of the original Captain America series, gathers 300 Negro troops into transport trucks for a secret mission. They execute hundreds of others in cold blood, along with the white camp commander. At a secret location, medics inject the naked soldiers with varying doses of the supersoldier serum, killing some and grotesquely deforming others. A few survivors, including the main characters, emerge with highly volatile superpowers. Captain America is (re)born.

In that dramatic turn lies the radical nature of Morales and Baker’s undertaking in Truth: transforming the benevolent, justice-loving military fathers of the original series into cold-blooded, Machiavellian actors not so different from their fascist enemies. The story line draws its inspiration, and its believability, from the notorious Tuskegee experiments. From the 1930s through the 1970s, the US government measured the effects of untreated syphilis on a group of 400 poor black sharecroppers, intentionally visiting insanity, death and untold suffering on generations of its own people. With its echoes of Tuskegee, the Truth series asks and answers the question: If the US military had to test a dangerous new formula on World War II GIs, would it experiment on blond, blue-eyed Steve Rogers, or anonymous African-Americans like Canfield, Evans and Bradley?

Of the three Marvel series reviewed here, Truth has received the most attention from comic-book aficionados and the mainstream media, and deservedly so. By comic industry standards, the original Captain America is no slouch; he’s been around for more than sixty years and, in 2002, was the tenth-bestselling comic book in the United States. Though the hero has never enjoyed the name recognition of a Superman or the selling power of a Spider-Man, the symbolism of reinventing this particular hero in this particular way is powerful. He is, after all, Captain America. Even for those who’ve never read a comic book and couldn’t pick him out of a hero lineup, the name connotes patriotism and wholesome virtue. The character was created at a time when comic books were a powerful form of kiddie propaganda, the epitome of moral clarity, bloodless violence and racial purity. But, as Truth reminds us, it was also a time of rigid segregation, virulent racism and legal oppression, in which the US military was an active co-conspirator.

Truth not only brings that history to today’s young (and not so young) comic-book readers; it argues that America’s racist legacy reaches into the present. No matter how virtuous and egalitarian the modern Captain America is, he owes his powers, and his legacy, to the death and suffering of African-American GIs a half-century ago. America too, the book suggests, owes a debt to these martyrs. “These guys were sacrificed to create and shore up the whole ‘Captain America’ myth,” Morales, the author, said recently.

This is heavy stuff, especially at a time of immigrant detention and “special registration” in the wake of September 11, 2001. In fact, an episode of the modern (white) Captain America that accompanies the first issue of Truth finds Steve Rogers poring through the tragic rubble of the World Trade Center attacks in search of victims. Later that day, dressed as Captain America, he stops a man who has lost his daughter in the attacks from stabbing an innocent Arab-American in revenge. “We’ve got to be stronger than we’ve ever been,” says Cap. “As a people. As a nation. We have to be America. Or they’ve won.” Seven months later, he’s off to fight terrorists. Real terrorists. Not your father’s comic book.