Costume Drama: The Captain Without An America
Welcome to Costume Drama, a recurring feature where we turn a critical eye toward superhero outfits and evaluate both the aesthetics and the social issues that often underlie them.
For this installment we're looking at one my favorite designs from the 1980s: the black costume Steve Rogers wore as "the Captain." As far as my research can determine, the costume was designed by Tom Morgan, who drew its first on-panel appearance in Captain America #337, although it obviously owes a lot to Simon and Kirby's Captain America design. Cover artist Mike Zeck also paid homage to Kirby with a cover based on Avengers #4. The storyline that introduced the costume, and this role for Steve Rogers, was by longtime Captain America writer Mark Gruenwald.
"But wait," you may be saying, "isn't that USAgent's costume?" That's true, but that came later, and I'll get to it. It was when the costume belonged to Steve Rogers --- while future USAgent John Walker was wearing the classic Captain America costume --- that it had real symbolic significance.
This all started in 1987, late in Reagan's presidency, which is not a coincidence. The story sees Captain America called before a shadowy Commission on Superhuman Affairs, appointed by the President to oversee the activities of government sponsored super-powered operatives.
The Commission's main responsibility up to this point had been Freedom Force, the former Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, which became Marvel's version of Suicide Squad in the 1980s. But now, as their sniveling chairman Rockwell explained, they would be taking control of Captain America.
At least, that was the plan. Steve Rogers had acted independently since he came out of the ice, and he had no interest in being the puppet of bureaucrats. When they tried to tell him he has no choice, he told them that he absolutely does, as America is a free country.
In short, Captain America quit rather than compromising his ethics under the leadership of suits he neither knows nor trusts. This was when the Mutant Registration Act had just been passed, it should be noted. The threat of fascism was palpable.
So the commission went on a search for a new Captain America, which led to John Walker, and Steve Rogers disappeared into America, not even appearing in the book for several issues. When he re-emerged, it was in a costume designed by Dennis Dunphy, aka D-Man. And it was easily D-Man's best design, considering his own was just a mash-up of two heroes he liked, Wolverine and Daredevil.
So let's talk, finally, about the actual costume. The lines of it are basically exactly the same as the Captain America suit: flared gloves, buccaneer boots, little wings on the head.
But the "A" on the mask is missing, because he's only the Captain now. The costume is predominantly black, because the commission secured a court injunction to stop Steve Rogers from wearing red, white, and blue. But it's also black because black is a color of mourning, and of resistance. This is a Captain who has lost the thing that defined his whole life, and is openly defying the government of the country he loves more than anything, rather than give up on helping people.
And then there's the star. Whereas Captain America has that big white star on his chest, and vertical stripes over his abdomen, the front of the Captain's costume is dominated by a panel of horizontal stripes, with a small star made of negative space, or the black of the costume. It's a star, but it's also an empty space where a star should be. If I can be a little melodramatic about it; despite being on the wrong side of his chest, it's almost like an America-shaped hole in Steve's heart.
Of course Steve Rogers eventually became Captain America again. Rockwell was revealed as an agent of the Red Skull, who then murdered him. Steve didn't want to take back the suit and shield, still feeling betrayed by his government, but John Walker, who had learned the hard way that he was not a very good Captain America, convinced him.
That's when John Walker got the black costume and became USAgent. But it never made sense. That costume didn't belong to the government, and why would Steve hand it over? Especially since it was designed by D-Man, who was presumed dead by that point.
But from a real world perspective, it's such a striking variation on the Captain America costume that I see why Marvel would want to keep it around. It's a much better design than Walker's original Super-Patriot costume, though that would have made a lot more narrative sense.
It remains one of my favorite costume designs, even on USAgent. But when Steve Rogers was wearing it, as the Captain who couldn't call himself America, it had a level of meaning that it's never really had since.