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The cover of Spider-Man: Life Story #1, Marvel Comics (2019).
From the cover of Spider-Man: Life Story #1.
Chip Zdarsky/Marvel Comics

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Marvel Comics shows us exactly what Captain America would have done in Vietnam

Steve Rogers confronts the American zeitgeist of the 1960s

There may be a panoply of Spider-Man comics on the shelves these days, but Spider-Man: Life Story #1 stands apart. It’s a re-examination of Peter Parker’s earliest days as a web-slinger, chronicled in real time. With issue #1 focusing on the 1960s — the era in which the first Spider-Man comic was published — Life Story is taking a decade-by-decade approach to Peter’s life and times, mixing the real-life history that informed his published adventures with those very same adventures.

So it’s no surprise that Spider-Man: Life Story #1 is a Spider-Man story — except for when it isn’t. Sure, it’s definitely about Peter in the ’60s, not long after he was bitten by everyone’s favorite radioactive spider, but it’s also a look into just what some of Marvel’s other A-Listers were doing at the time. By revising Marvel Comics history with a modern eye and blending it with Marvel Universe history, Life Story #1 does what the real comics of the ’60s didn’t, couldn’t.

It takes an honest look at where Captain America would have stood on the Vietnam War.

[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Life Story #1.]

From Spider-Man: Life Story #1, Marvel Comics (2019).
American Soldiers confront Vietnamese villagers in Spider-Man: Life Story #1.
Chip Zdarsky, Mark Bagley/Marvel Comics

Captain America comics have never really addressed the Vietnam War, despite existing contemporaneously. The newly returned Captain America series of the 1960s spent most of its time trying to sort out Steve Rogers’ newly formed identity, and Steve’s stories have not had the chance retrospectively address the Vietnam War thanks to the slip-and-slide Marvel’s timeline.

But Spider-Man: Life Story #1, isn’t just playing on our retrospective understanding of America’s role in the Vietnam War, it’s playing on our modern understanding of Captain America. In 2019, Steve has a very clear place in the world. And that place is standing up against bullies, no matter where they’re from.

Spider-Man: Life Story #1, Marvel Comics (2019).
From the final page of Spider-Man: Life Story #1.
Chip Zdarsky, Mark Bagley/Marvel Comics

Wait, Captain America never had to acknowledge the Vietnam War?

To answer this, it’s important to understand a bit of Steve Rogers’ complicated history. Marvel Comics’ sliding timeline — stories are set about thirteen in-fiction years after the Avengers first formed, forever — becomes blurry for characters with set-in-stone historical origins. Steve fought in World War II, that will never change, but how and when he was unfrozen in the modern age is a matter of some dispute.

In real time, Steve was unfrozen in a 1964 comic — but in Marvel time, that doesn’t work anymore. The characters of the Marvel universe rarely age, and as stories compound on one another, the history that they’ve experienced gets more and more vague. In order to keep Steve as “modern” as possible, the dates in which he was unfrozen and the Avengers were formed keep wiggling around, meaning the Steve Rogers in comics today did not wake to see the ’60s.

Or, at least, if he did, no one can say so in so many words. We’ve got to preserve some sort of logic behind these characters all looking like they’re still in their mid-to-late 30s, right?

Anyway, the net result of the sliding timeline is a certain fogginess on the historical events that Steve was or wasn’t present for. This allows modern comics to exist in a flexible area where the numbers can be frequently fudged and Steve doesn’t have to have an opinion on historical events that might be narratively inconvenient for him to weigh in on. No Vietnam for Modern Cap — he slept through it.

But what about Steve’s actual ’60s stories?

That’s where things get even weirder. The Steve Rogers of the 1960s wasn’t just unfrozen in fiction, but revived in reality. When he re-debuted in 1964’s The Avengers #4, a Captain America comic hadn’t been in regular publication since 1949.

He was a character born out of war who was resurfacing into an era defined by a totally different war, and the creatives behind him were still figuring out who the character would be for a new generation. Steve’s actual published stories during the Vietnam era didn’t really touch Vietnam at all. There were glimpses — Steve interacted with the occasional countercultural activist, vaguely weighed in on military responsibility, and so on — but no one seemed to think Captain America should serve any more than he already had.

By and large, Steve’s stories in the ’60s and ’70s revolved around his adventures on the homefront, with plenty of extreme metaphor mixed with camp-infused slice-of-life drama. This doesn’t mean that Steve’s stories in the ’60s and ’70s were completely sanitized of real world politics. Events like the original Secret Empire tackled metaphorical Watergate-level scandals and pressed questions about the morality of American government, even if Cap himself was never questioned about whether or not he’d go overseas.

Keep in mind that at this point Cap not only had a secret identity to maintain, but also had no real defined origin story or history — comics were still trying to sort out just who Steve Rogers even was, what his powers were, and where he fit into the Marvel Universe at large.

Perhaps even more importantly, the era of the “super soldier” had shifted dramatically by the time Steve was put back into print. Captain America did the job for World War II comics, but for the Vietnam era, Marvel created new soldier-heroes like Frank Castle (the Punisher), representing a more “extreme,” guns-a-blazing, hard-boiled (and costly) patriotism that reflected the national mood. Frank was as much a Captain America in the Vietnam era as Steve was for WWII — and a metaphorical fish hook on which any of Steve’s timely Vietnam-based stories would have snagged.

Hindsight is 20/20

Creators Chip Zdarksy and Mark Bagley are at an advantage in writing about the 1960s from here in 2019. They’re coming from a place and time that has a much more established understanding of Steve Rogers as a character. Questions about Captain America have shifted away from the basic — “Who is this guy? What powers does he have? How does he pay his rent?” — and into the bigger, more high-concept quandaries like what, exactly, the “American Dream” stands for.

From Captain America #1, Marvel Comics (2018).
From 2018’s Captain America #1.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Leinil Francis Yu/Marvel Comics

Captain America has evolved since the ’60s, and Spider-Man: Life Story takes the opportunity to bring that evolution full circle. This is a Steve Rogers who is very much embroiled in the Vietnam conflict, and he’s not alone. Iron Man — still known as “Tony Stark’s bodyguard” (Marvel loved secret identities in the ’60s) — has also joined the fight, arming American soldiers and appearing as a sort of industrialist morale-booster for the press.

Iron Man’s place on the front lines as a flag bearer for the military industrial complex makes sense — Tony Stark’s character origins are deeply tied to Vietnam and the Cold War, in much the same way that Steve’s are linked to fighting fascism. Tony’s modern origin may be constantly skipped forward to preserve the sliding timeline, but the character’s roots remain. Starting as a capitalist hero-slash-adventurer is just who Tony Stark is.

Steve, meanwhile, has gone “traitor.” His place in the war is revealed to be not as a jingoistic WW2-redux representation of America’s fighting men, but as a protector of Vietnamese civilians caught in the conflict. This particular take would have never flown in 1964 — but it’s the perfect statement of purpose and growth for Captain America in 2019.