I first began reading comics at the age of 4. My sister had just taught me how to read, and my brother summarized the adventures of numerous Marvel heroes for me. My very first comic read was an issue of The Uncanny X-Men. Lily-white Cyclops confronts his wife, demanding she admit that she is secretly his dead girlfriend returned to life. It didn’t take me long to notice that few of the heroes whose adventures I read looked like me. For every Black Panther or Luke Cage, there were five white heroes or villains, and none of them bore any resemblance to me. I loved them anyway, especially Captain America. The idea of a blond-haired, blue-eyed soldier who genuinely and truly believes in the ideas our country pays lip service to has always struck a chord with me. When Truth: Red, White, and Black was released in 2003, its story bridged the gap between the USA I lived in and the one Steve Rogers believes in.
Written by Robert Morales and illustrated by Kyle Baker, Truth: Red, White, and Black takes its inspiration from the infamous Tuskegee Experiments. The main character, Isaiah Bradley enlists to fight in WWII, and is quickly shunted into America’s Super Soldier program along with two full battalions of Black GIs. The men receive an unrefined, untested version the Super Soldier serum later used to turn Steve Rodgers into Captain America. Most of the men simply die when the serum begins working on their systems. While a few gain enhanced speed, strength, agility, and stamina, Bradley and his squad are used for covert missions while Steve Rogers takes on the mantle of Captain America. After the rest of his squad dies in combat, Isaiah steals the Captain America costume and embarks on a suicide mission to destroy the Germain Super Soldier program. Truth… makes it clear that while Stever Rogers is world famous as Captain America, that the black community venerates Bradley as Black Cap—which is, incidentally, the original title for the series.
This comic came out during an exciting period for Marvel fans. Grant Morrison had taken the reins of the X-Men, infusing those comics with a new and vibrant energy. Axel Alonso and Mike Allred had completely revamped X-Force, and Marvel also released The Rawhide Kid, starring a gay gunslinger in the Old West. Combining Morales’s night-dark, ultra-believable script with Kyle Baker’s bubbly, cartoonish style create an enlivening friction that helps make the story more than the sum of its parts. Steve Rogers has no idea that the Super Soldier program experimented on black soldiers before giving him the serum until a black FBI agent makes an off-hand comment during an interrogation of a white supremacist terrorist. Following up on the hint, he visits Isaiah Bradley’s family to learn the whole story. As soon as the story was solicited, a hue and cry rose up on the internet. Many fans feared that this comic would somehow tarnish or erase Captain America’s legacy. Instead it brings the Marvel Universe more closely in line with the real world and ensures that Captain America’s legacy includes Black America. Steve Rogers isn’t the star of Truth: Red, White, and Black, but Captain America coming to terms with the truth about his own origin is one of the most powerful moments in his and Marvel’s history.