Today is Martin Luther King day.
Now, we’ve been writing this blog series for a long time and when an important holiday happens to fall on a Monday, we like to find some sort of superhero and/or comic book that fits within the theme for that holiday.
When it’s the 4th of July we like to do a patriotic superhero,
when it’s Halloween we like to do a horror themed blog post,
and for holidays such as Martin Luther King day, we like to talk about black superheroes.
We’ve briefly talked about the history of black men and women in comic books before, but today I thought we could break tradition and talk about an actual comic book series that was published in 2003 and uses one of the worst events in American history to tell a damn good story.
Today we’re going to talk about Truth: Red, White, and Black.
Origin and history
WARNING: We are about to discuss a historical event that involves some very questionable ethics, upsetting imagery, and a rather frank discussion of race relations in America. It may cause some people discomfort but talking about this is necessary in order to make sure something like this never happens again.
Between 1932 and 1972 the United States Public Health Service conducted a long running experiment known as “The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment” where they purposely infected 600 black men in rural Alabama with syphilis in order to study the long term effects of the disease.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the people running the study never told these men what was going on. Instead, all the test subjects were informed that they were simply receiving free healthcare and medical treatment.
This vile experiment continued until the program was shut down in 1972 after the project was discovered and public outcry grew too strong.
Although the study was shut down and $10 million dollars were paid out in reparations after a class action lawsuit in 1974 it remains one of the darkest chapters in American history.
In January of 2003 comic book writer Robert Morales pitched an idea to Marvel’s editor in chief Joe Quesada that told an alternate story behind the serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America.
As many of us know, the true recipe for the super soldier serum was destroyed after creating Captain America, but that didn’t stop the Allies and the Nazis from trying to replicate it and making more super soldiers.
What followed was as series of experiments to see if the formula could be replicated. In the case of the Allies, they forced a regiment of African Amerian soldiers to act as human guinea pigs for the serum, because people are awful and mid 20th century America didn’t really care about black people.
The results were catastrophic and disturbing.
However, five test subjects did survive to be sent off to the war and one manged to come home. His name was Isaiah Bradley and he was the first black Captain America.
Despite having every right to be pissed off at the people giving him orders, Isaiah did his job and did it well. He managed to swipe one of Captain America’s spare shields and uniforms and kick a lot of Nazi butt.
He was even captured by the Nazis but was rescued before he could be dissected and studied.
His country decided to reward his bravery and accomplishments by court marshaling him and throwing him into prison in 1943 because sometimes life just takes a steaming dump on you and there is nothing you can do about it.
He was later pardoned by President Eisenhower in 1960.
At the end of the series, Steve Rogers managed to find out about the program that created Isaiah and tried to make things better. Unfortunately, the serum had a debilitating effect on Isaiah’s mind and he suffered Alzheimer’s like symptoms until he had the mental capacity of a child.
The last panel of the series is one of the most heartbreaking and sweetest panels I’ve ever seen.
Impact of the comic
Within the Marvel Universe, Isaiah Bradley became a symbol and a living legend within the black community.
Also, he served as a grandfather like figure and inspiration to many of Marvel’s black superheroes. Even Black Panther gives him a massive amount of respect.
While he was immensely popular with other black heroes he remained unknown by many white superheroes
Sadly, even after he did his time and served his country the United States government tried to use him and duplicate the experiment. They wound up creating a clone that was born from a surrogate mother. The child managed to escape and named himself Josiah X.
Isaiah also had a grandson named Elijah Bradly who would go on to become the superhero Patriot.
I’ve talked about race relations in comic books before. When the industry really started taking off it was not kind to men and women of color. While I do think things have gotten better there is still a wide discrepancy between black creators and superheroes and white creators and superheroes in terms of audience and exposure. But, thankfully things are getting even better and I believe only good things are in store for the future.
Truth: Red, White, and Black is one of the most brutal and uncompromising comic books out there and it is well worth your time and money. It takes one of the ugliest events in American history and manages to turn it into something that is not only educational but one of the sweetest and most important comic book stories in the past twenty years.
Thank you for reading this article! Besides weekly blog posts about comic books and superheroes Cambrian Comics also publishes a bi weekly web comic called “The Secret Lives of Villains” and the first volume is up for sale on Amazon here! If you enjoyed this article please feel free to support us by picking up a copy. Thanks again!