Baudrillard and The Captain: One Of These Comic Heroes Really
Baudrillard and Captain
America died within a day of each other. One, the theorist of hyper-reality;
the other, the guiding spirit of the most hyper-real nation on earth, as
presented in one of its most hyper-real media. Or, to be a little less “pseudy”
about it: one, a controversial postmodern theorist; the other, a tights-wearing
66-year-old "super-soldier" with really stupid little wings on the
side of his head and a round shield made of vibranium-steel alloy. Baudrillard was
the first one.
Baudrillard, we can assume,
really is dead. The death of "Cap" is a much dodgier proposition.
Practically every major Marvel or DC hero – even Superman – gets
killed off at some point, and then reappears shortly afterwards to pick up
where he left off. “Nobody stays dead in comics except Bucky, Jason Todd, and
Uncle Ben," used to be the saying – referring, in turn, to Cap's original
sidekick, the second Robin, and Spider-Man's uncle. Thanks to two recent
reappearances, it has had to be amended. Now the so-called Bucky Clause reads:
"No one stays dead except Uncle Ben. The exceptionally Baudrillardian
world of comics – with its panoply of alternative dimensions and parallel
time-lines, and its cast of shape-shifters, mind controllers, time-travelers
and all-but-omnipotent cosmic entities – offers endless possibilities to revive
One of the main tricks
is "ret-conning" – that is, making retrospective continuity
alterations, more or less subtle versions of saying "he wasn't killed in
the explosion, he was just, um, buried under a pile of rubble and lost his
memory for 40 years, but now he's back".
The world of mainstream
superhero comics, then, is one of infinite plasticity in terms of events. At
the same time, it is one of extreme moral rigidity: good and bad are minimally
problematic, and minimally motivated. In real life, people stay dead and it's
hard to work out who the baddies are; in comics the exact opposite obtains. The
claim for which Baudrillard is most famous – that the first Gulf war
"never happened" – did him little credit. He was guilty of extremely
bad taste, and expressed himself in the sort of attention-grabbing, jokey way
of continental philosophers – but his basic point about the extreme power of
the mass media to construct reality for us is, I think, a sensible one.
What would have tickled
Baudrillard is the way that the Marvel universe and the supposed real
world have started to swap tropes. "You're either with us, or against
us," the captain of America told us in the real world. There were, we'll
remember, attempts to "ret-con" civil war in Iraq as "mission
accomplished". Where did the weapons of mass destruction go? A parallel
universe would be my guess. Meanwhile, at the time Captain America died in the
comic, nobody was any longer quite sure what he was supposed to stand for.
"All the really hard-core Left-wing fans want Cap to be giving speeches on
the street corner against the Bush administration, and all the really
Right-wing fans want him to be over in the streets of Baghdad, punching out
Saddam," said its writer Ed Brubaker.
So the comic, in its
cheerily silly way, set about trying to mount a satirical critique of the real
world. Cap ended up being shot by a sniper on the steps of a courtroom on his
way to challenge the Superhero Registration Act, which he regarded as an
erosion of civil liberties. Iron Man, that pillar of the military-industrial
complex, was on the other side of the debate.
© Sam Leith and The Telegraph