Retro Reviews: TRUTH: Red, White & Black By Morales & Baker, For Marvel Comics, Featuring The First Captain America!

Truth: Red, White & Black #1-7 (January – July 2003)

Written by Robert Morales

Art by Kyle Baker

Spoilers (from thirteen years ago)

I don’t remember if this comic arrived with a lot of press or not.  I would think that the same comic being released in today’s more racially charged climate would have garnered a lot more discussion online and in the mainstream media.

I also didn’t know who writer Robert Morales was when this comic came out, and his contributions to comics (he passed away in 2013, sadly) consisted of just this title and an excellent run on Captain America (which will be the focus of my next column in a couple of weeks).  Kyle Baker, of course, needed no introduction, having made quite a name for himself over the years.  

The draw of this comic, at least as far as I was concerned, was split between enthusiasm for Baker’s art, and a curiosity in a comic that was going to reveal the secrets behind the first test subjects of the Super-Soldier Project during the Second World War.  The notion that the first Captain America was African-American was brilliant to me.

This book started off in a rather sprawling way, so to help you keep track of the main and supporting characters:

  • Isaiah Bradley (#1-7)
  • Faith Bradley (#1, 3-5, 7)
  • Maurice Canfield (#1-4)
  • “Sarge” Luke Evans (#1-4)
  • Homer Tully (#2-4)
  • Dr. Josef Reinstein (#2-4, 6)
  • Dave Plumb (#2)
  • Jack Harvey (#2-3)
  • Jefferson ‘JJ’ Jamison (#2-3)
  • Damon Larsen (#2-4)
  • Colonel Walker Price, Military Intelligence (#2-4, 7)
  • Lt. Phillip Merritt (#2-4, 6)
  • Steve Rogers/Captain America (#5-7)
  • Adolf Hitler (#6)
  • Josef Goebbels (#6)

Let’s take a look at what happened in these books, with some commentary as we go:

  • The story opens in New York in July 1940, as Isaiah and Faith attend ‘Negro Week’ at the World’s Fair, treating it like a honeymoon.  We see them joke around, and enjoy their day, until they try to attend what is basically a peek show displaying live nude women from different parts of the world.  The barker denies them entrance, due to their colour.  Isaiah gets angry, but Faith keeps him from reacting.  Next we meet Maurice Canfield, who arrives at his parents’ home in Philadelphia to celebrate Christmas (still in 1940).  The Canfields are quite wealthy, employing a butler, but Maurice, who has been beaten up, works within the labour movement, assisting workers who do not appreciate receiving help from a black man.  In Cleveland in June 1941, we meet two more characters in a pool hall.  Dallas Huxley is just out of prison after six years, and has come to call on his old Army Captain, Luke Evans, who has been busted down to Sergeant after he stood up for another black soldier, and ended up shoving his CO.  In December 1941, Japan attacks Pearl Harbour, pushing the US to enter the Second World War.  I love Baker’s double-page spread showing tons of Zeros diving towards the Hawaiian base.  Sarge is holding his gun when he hears the news, and reacts with pleasure at the news that he’s going to war.  In January of 1942, Maurice is on trial for sedition after he was arrested demonstrating against the war.  The judge gives him the choice to do time or enlist.  The next month, we see Isaiah kissing his wife goodbye, promising to return from the war.  This issue does a terrific job of introducing these characters.
  • The second issue opens at an army base, Camp Cathcart, in Mississippi, in May 1942.  Our main characters return from a march, covered in cow dung.  They walk past their CO’s office, where Major Brackett is in conversation with two men, Mr. Tully and Dr. Reinstein.  It looks like they are looking for a large number of black soldiers, two battalions worth, to try new methods to improve their combat performance.  Our soldiers, stinking from their march, get a lesson in the value of being able to put up with terrible smells on the battlefield from Sarge.  The men in suits in the Major’s office talk about the Blackvine, the ability of black soldiers to spread information among themselves, and admit that they don’t actually need as many soldiers as they’ve said.  Isaiah shows off a photo of his wife and new baby, who he is naming Sarah Gail.  We learn that Larsen, one of the soldiers, is only in the army so he can kill white men.  Maurice asks the Sarge’s opinion on a communist manifesto of his, and when he gets teased, he storms out of the barracks.  Using an outdoor urinal, Maurice is accosted by three white soldiers from the motor pool.  He gets into a fight, which is broken up by the Major.  Back in the barracks, Sarge soothes things a little, and informs them that they are all supposed to be taking place in a special ‘training exercise’ at 2300 that night.  At that time, all of the camp’s soldiers, who are all black it appears, are arranged on the parade field.  Major Brackett is interrupted by the arrival of Colonel Walker Price, from Military Intelligence, who relieves him of his command.  He hands the Major a letter which declares that the camp is being shut down, and when he protests, the Colonel shoots him in the head, killing him.  Three hundred soldiers are loaded onto trucks and move out, while the sounds of gunfire are heard behind them.
  • Issue three opens in June 1942 with parallel scenes of Faith Bradley receiving a letter from the Government, and with a soldier and minister visiting the Canfield residence.  In the secret Project Super Soldier location, Col. Price is trying to order ‘negro’ blood.  Tully informs him that blood is the same, whether it comes from someone black or white, so he orders Caucasian blood instead, being more readily available.  We see, in an observation room, that one of the black soldiers is strapped down.  A nurse injects him with something, and we see his body and head swell grotesquely before he bursts and dies.  We check in on Faith, the Canfields, and Dallas Huxley, who are all mourning their supposedly lost family or friend.  At the Project, we see that Larsen is the first to survive the Super Soldier experiment, albeit with a swelled head.  Baker shows us various scenes of family members mourning, cut with images of the other soldiers in the group being injected.  When it’s done, all of the characters we’ve gotten to know so far have survived, although it’s not clear about secondary characters like Plumb.  Faith is shown her husband’s ‘body’ in its casket and reacts with horror.  At a party, the Colonel, the doctor, and Tully celebrate their success, although apparently Dr. Reinstein, who is German, is unhappy with having used black test subjects.  The men are loaded into the hold of a battleship, the HMS Pynchon.  In Philadelphia, Maurice’s father shoots his wife, and then himself (at least it is implied heavily; the scene is shown from outside the window).  In the hold of the Pynchon, we see that Jack is very sick, but the doctor won’t treat him until morning.  He starts hallucinating, seeing his friends as African warriors.  The Sarge starts telling the story of the ‘Red Summer’, the time after the First World War when white people started attacking and lynching black people in Washington DC, leading many black veterans to help organize their community and fight back.  It’s a gripping story, and when it’s done, the men learn that Jack has died.
  • Issue four begins in July 1942, as Faith meets with an Army Major about the fact that the body that was buried as Isaiah belonged to a skinny white man.  A black Corporal, Eddie Himes, follows her outside and explains that army policy is, after an explosion like the one that supposedly killed her husband, to just send some of each dead man to each family, without concern for proper identification.  At the same time in the Black Forest in Germany, Isaiah, Maurice, Sarge, and the other surviving super soldiers fight a large contingent of Germans.  There are a few pages full of violence, and some of the American soldiers are killed.  Larsen takes his time killing one man, talking about how many people he’s killed beforehand (although never someone white), when a grenade is dropped at his feet and he is killed in the explosion.  Maurice is upset to learn that the convoy they had attacked was transporting medical supplies, not weapons.  In September, the men are in Portugal.  We see that Isaiah is reading a Captain America comic, and he and Sarge discuss the fact that the book is a year old, and that his story basically mirrors theirs.  It’s clear from their discussion that Steve Rogers is known to them, and that he is on his way to rendezvous with them.  Maurice arrives, and starts talking about the ridiculous costume that was sent for Rogers to wear.  Lt. Merritt shows up and begins making disparaging racial comments.  Maurice gets heated, and then Merritt makes reference to how Maurice’s parents are dead at his father’s hand.  Maurice loses it and punches his superior officer.  Sarge and Isaiah try to restrain him.  Isaiah is thrown over the side of the castle they are standing on, and Sarge and Maurice get into a serious fight.  Maurice is shown bashing in Sarge’s head with a huge rock, before Merritt draws a gun on him.  Later, we learn that both Sarge and Maurice are dead, that Merritt has been busted down to private, and that Isaiah is recovering from his injuries.  The mission that was supposed to be conducted by the three remaining black super soldiers, and Steve Rogers (who now has been delayed by a monsoon) now needs to be carried out by Isaiah alone, and is expected to be a suicide mission.  Later again, we see the Colonel, Tully, and Rothstein discussing the mission that Isaiah would be on at that moment, when Himes comes to tell them that Steve Rogers’s costume is missing.  We see Isaiah, dressed as Captain America, parachuting into the German forest and running towards his objective in Schwarzebitte.
  • Almost all of issue 5 takes place in Germany, although over the course of the issue, it becomes clear that Faith is narrating the story.  Isaiah infiltrates the German base, killing guards, and leaving behind bundles of dynamite as he works through it.  We see him kill a doctor, light records on fire, and discover some grisly sights, as it becomes clear that the Germans at this base are experimenting on Jewish prisoners.  We see a large number of bodies arranged on autopsy tables, with dozens more stacked like firewood.  Faith, in her narration, makes it clear that Isaiah saw comparisons between how he had been treated by the American army with how these prisoners were treated.  He rescues a group of women, but gets locked into a gas chamber with another large group, who attack him.  He succumbs to the gas, but unlike the women, he wakes up later, at Nazi gunpoint.  Faith’s narration is interrupted by a voice assuming that Isaiah died at the camp.  We cut to her kitchen kitchen in the Bronx today, where we see her in a full abaya, having tea with Captain America, saying that Isaiah is still alive.
  • Issue six opens five days before Cap meets Faith for the first time.  He’s in an interrogation room in a federal prison in California, where the FBI is holding Merritt.  Cap is meeting with Merritt under the eye of FBI Agent Spinrad.  We learn that Merritt has committed a number of crimes, from murder, domestic terrorism, hate crimes, and selling drugs to minors at his chain of comic book stores.  Merritt is a pretty despicable character, and as he talks, Cap realizes that he was present when Dr. Reinstein was killed, and figures out that he is the guy who destroyed the records of the super soldier project.  We also learn that in Merritt’s warehouse, the FBI found a tattered Captain America uniform.  The story flashes back to 1942, as the captive Isaiah meets Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels.  Hitler offers a place in the Nazi empire to Bradley, claiming that he has no quarrel with ‘the negro’, who he figures should want to rise up against America with his help.  Bradley declines, claiming that his wife would kill him.  In the present, Merritt explains how he had hoped he could become a super soldier, but when he saw that the process was being tested on African-Americans, he got angry and decided that his ideology was more in line with Nazi Germany’s approach to racial purity.  Agent Spinrad, who is black, informs him that he’s also part German, and that there were many German blacks around in the Second World War, including his grandfather who fought with the resistance.  Merritt identifies the torn costume as belonging to Isaiah Bradley, whom Cap has never heard of.  Spinrad is surprised by this.  In the past, Hitler and Goebbels decide to cripple Bradley before sending him home, since they do not want to distill the super soldier formula from his blood (for racist reasons, of course).  As Cap goes to leave Merritt, the old man asks for a signature on his copy of Captain America #1 (the Rieber/Cassaday volume), which, for some reason, he has with him in a federal prison interrogation room.  As Cap storms out, Spinrad starts to tell him a story about his grandfather.  In the past, Bradley is being taken to Auschwitz, but the truck carrying him is attacked by resistance fighters, including a black man who is probably Spinrad’s grandfather.
  • The final issue of this series takes place in the present, and opens two days before Cap’s conversation with Faith.  In Arlington National Cemetary, Cap meets with the retired Colonel Price, and they discuss Isaiah and all that has happened since he was enhanced.  We learn that the Super Soldier Project began as a joint American/German venture, when American fear of immigration led to their interest in eugenics.  Dr. Reinstein and Dr. Koch originally worked together to build the program, but when war broke out, the project split and Reinstein chose to stay in the States.  We learn that Price was washed up after Reinstein’s death, but was able to take over Koch Industries as CEO.  We learn that Cap has spent some of his backpay money (which longtime readers already know he spent on his hotline) to purchase a controlling interest in Koch, and he makes it clear that he intends to have Price arrested for his crimes during the war, using Merritt’s testimony.  Two days later, Cap meets Faith outside her apartment building in the Bronx.  We learn that Price committed suicide, and that Faith has at least four grandchildren.  She and Cap sit down to tea, and she begins to fill him in on Isaiah’s story.  Cap is surprised to learn that Isaiah is in the apartment.  Sara removes her burqa and talks about how she is a professor of comparative religion, and leaves it unclear as to whether or not she is Muslim or just using the garment to provoke.  She continues telling Isaiah’s story, and we learn that after the German resistance got him to Belgium, he made his way back to the US army, and was arrested and court-martialed for stealing Cap’s uniform.  After serving seventeen years in solitary confinement in Leavenworth, he was pardoned by President Eisenhower, thanks to Faith’s letter writing campaign.  We learn that Isaiah was damaged by the super soldier treatment and his poor living conditions in prison, and now his brain has deteriorated to the point that he’s childlike and mute.  As Faith goes to fetch Isaiah, Cap examines a wall of photos of Bradley with a number of prominent black Americans, such as Mohamed Ali, Richard Pryor, Colin Powell, Malcolm X, and others.  Cap meets Isaiah and apologizes for all that he’s been through.  He returns the tattered costume, and the two men pose for a photo together.

With that, Morales and Baker close one of my all-time favourite Captain America stories.  I’m still surprised that Marvel decided to publish a series like this, which I assume was a little controversial, although in a lot of ways, 2003 felt like a more progressive time than 2014-16.  

The best thing about this story is how much it makes sense that the same government that conducted the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment would have tested the super soldier serum on individuals that it felt were replaceable.  

The structure of this series is interesting, as it moves from developing a large ensemble cast to cutting them down in a hurry.  This comic was originally supposed to run for six issues, but I’m glad it was extended to seven, as it allowed for a lot more space to develop the story and flesh things out.

Kyle Baker was an interesting choice of artist for this project, mostly because his cartoonish style did not fit with the various looks that were popular at Marvel at the time.  This more or less ran concurrent to Trevor Hairsine and Jae Lee’s work on the main Cap title, and compared to their more slick and stylized approaches, this looked clunky and odd.  That said, Baker is a brilliant cartoonist, who is able to capture a wide range of emotions using a minimalist approach.

One thing that really made this book stand out was the way in which the covers played with the red and white stripes of the American flag, an image that was used on almost every cover, culminating in the tangled paths to the truth that ended in the final issue.  This was a very bold book in a number of ways, and one that is not discussed enough today.

From here, Morales ended up taking over the main Captain America title for a run that I really enjoyed (to the point that I remember being quite disappointed when I learned that Ed Brubaker was taking over the character, a disappointment that took me a few issues of Brubaker’s run to recover from).  We’re going to look at Morales’s work in my next column.

Another great legacy of this title was Bradley’s inclusion in future issues of Cap (by Morales) and The Crew (which remains one of the most unsung Marvel comics ever), as well as the eventual appearance of Bradley’s grandson, who became The Patriot in Young Avengers.  

People have longed complained about the lack of diversity in Marvel Comics, and I think that with this careful and thoughtful act of retconning a central character’s history, Morales and Baker made a lasting contribution to the Marvel Universe, although I would like to see more of Patriot in today’s comics.

If you’d like to read any of the columns about Captain America that preceded this one, you can check these links.

#266-300 – JM DeMatteis and Mike Zeck’s classic run

#301-306 – Mike Carlin’s placeholder run.

#307-332 – Mark Gruenwald and Paul Neary’s run

#333-350 – John Walker as Captain America run (Gruenwald and mostly Dwyer)

#351-386 – Steve is back as Cap; Gruenwald, Dwyer, and Lim’s runs

#387-413 – Gruenwald and Levins, at least until I dropped it

#449-454 – The back half of Mark Waid and Ron Garney’s first run

Volume 2 #7-11 – Heroes Reborn (James Robinson issues only)

Volume 3 #1-11; Sentinels of Liberty 1-3, 8 – Heroes Return (Waid’s second run, with Garney and Kubert)

Dead Men Running – Miniseries by Macan and Zezelj

Volume 4 #1-16 – Marvel Knights series by Rieber, Cassaday, Hairsine, Austen, and Lee

If you’d like to read this series, you can follow this link for the trade paperback:

Truth: Red, White & Black

 

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