America is polarized to the point of great peril. Special interest groups have wrested away much control of the political machine. Regions of the splintering union are going rogue. As the republic teeters on the verge of collapse, a nation turns its lonely eyes to one man, one leader, unafraid to wrap himself in the American flag.
In this most pivotal of elections, the next president of these not-so-United States is . . .
Wait, was he even on the ballot?
Sometimes, desperate times call for politically disparate measures. So Marvel Comics — in a story line laced with comment on the current climate — will elect the First Avenger as the country’s next commander in chief in Ultimate Comics Ultimates No. 15-16, a story arc that hits stores and shelves Wednesday. In the alterna-universe of the Ultimates, the star-spangled “Cap” (a.k.a. Steve Rogers) is a non-campaigning write-in patriot who. despite the electorate’s deep fissures, wins by a landslide and agrees to answer “the people’s call.”
On one level, jaded real-life Americans might see the election of Ultimate Captain America as another narrative stunt intended to juice comics sales like so much Super-Soldier Serum. Yet on a creative level, having a superhero assume the presidency allows Marvel to amplify, on a wild fantasy-scape, some points of contention and dissension on the election-year landscape.
“We wanted to dramatize an extreme version of what we see in America today,” Ultimates writer Sam Humphries says. “In the face of all [this] divisiveness, what do we have in common? What does it mean to be an American? What can we agree on? And what makes America the place that it is?”
And what are the consequences, Humphries asks, of “the nation dissolving in front of our eyes?”
“This is a United States that’s being torn asunder by special interest groups — by opportunists looking to divide and conquer,” Marvel Entertainment Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso says in an exclusive to The Washington Post. “This is a metaphor for what goes on in real life, but on steroids.”
Alonso’s reference to such anabolic scale subtly alludes to the fact that Captain America – as fans of the Joe Simon/Jack Kirby creation know— was a Brooklyn pipsqueak whom the Army injected with test serum, creating the brawny, shield-wielding Super Soldier who was introduced to readers on the first issue’s iconic 1941 cover, with Cap delivering a haymaker to Hitler. This is the same character who, 70 years later, has helped Disney/Marvel deliver a wallop at the box office. “The Avengers” has grossed more than $1.5-billion worldwide this year, and Captain America has his own movie sequel (starring Chris Evans) landing in 2014, three years after “Captain America: The First Avenger” grossed nearly $370 million globally.
But in terms of narrative, Ultimate Captain America also faces national crises that have grown way out of proportion. In the Ultimates world — which Alonso, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, calls “the fun-house mirror of Marvel” — “West Coast Nation” is teeming with refugees and a virtual dictator is running Detroit. As for the East Coast, well — “Washington, D.C., has been decimated.” Amid a recall election, the nation needs a leader who can reunite these breakaway States.
“He is Abraham Lincoln,” writer Humphries says of Cap, “if Lincoln had had access to a jet plane and a devastating right hook.”
As far as his presidential résumé goes, Cap — like Eisenhower, Kennedy and George H.W. Bush — is a notable World War II hero. Alonso emphasizes that Cap will approach his presidency as a soldier. “He’s not a politician — he’s not interested in focus groups.”
“Are we going to see 12 issues of Captain America behind a desk? No, that’s not exciting to anyone,” Humphries says. “Captain America is not going to behave like any other president behaves. He takes the oath of office and barely takes a breath as he goes to hot spots. . . . Cap is out there because he’s so concerned about the state of the Union that he doesn’t have time to think about the State of the Union.”
When Humphries pitched this story line in February — after spotting the seed of the idea in the notes of previous writer Jonathan Hickman — he says Marvel had concerns that he recognized as justifiable.
“This just can’t be a novelty story,” says Humphries, noting that the Avengers entities are worth billions of dollars to the entertainment company. “This does have to be a story that has resonance. It’s like the Marvel motto: reflecting ‘the world outside your window.’ ” (That motto is what inspired Alonso and his Marvel team last year to introduce the Ultimates’ Miles Morales, the first biracial Spider-Man.)
“It's a fantasy world where everything outside the window is amped up — not to 10, not to 11, but 30,” series editor Mark Paniccia says. As for the politics, the editor notes: “People will make connections where they want to make connections.”
Although Alonso says the Captain America presidency story will make a statement about the United States and the White House, “we avoid taking a party stand,” he notes. “There are essential truths about leadership and dignity, and we certainly have an opinion on that. Cap’s ultimate statement about the presidency is elegant. . . . What America wants and what America needs may not be the same thing.”
So how does Cap’s sense of presidential courage, bravery and vision square with how Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, or Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, might view the kind of leadership that needs to come from the White House?
“All four candidates would lay claim to what Cap thinks the presidency is and should be,” Alonso says. “The candidates, in some shape or form, all aspire to be like Cap and what he stands for.”