There’s an odd irony to the 2003 mini-series “Truth: Red, White, and Black” by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker. It tells the lost history of African-American soldier Isaiah Bradley, the original Captain America, created in Tuskegee-like Super Soldier experiments before the kinks were worked out for Steve Rogers, who was also in the dark in regards to this story. It reveals a tale of a less progressive or enlightened time in America, where certain citizens struggled to even be seen as human, let alone as heroes. And as important as that history is in Marvel continuity, Isaiah’s name is never even uttered by its star players once, nor by Marvel’s most active fanbase. In fact, the book itself is as difficult to find as any mention of Isaiah in the Marvel lore.
I was introduced to “Truth” through a friend. After stumbling across the surprisingly bold series in a library, he went on a quest lasting over a year to secure a copy of his own. Now out of print, the books typically sell for upwards of $120. Perhaps it’s the less traditional art, or the less than positive history and themes that run counter to Marvel’s current stranglehold on entertainment as a force of fun and good. Either way, not since Magneto: Testament – a miniseries about the young master of magnet(ism) and his experiences in the Holocaust – have I been floored with the bravery of Marvel to cut the bravado and just “be real”.
It’s made extremely clear that Isaiah and company were never meant to be regarded as heroes, by either their world, or our own. They were experiments, kept out of the limelight, regarded as monstrous tools of destruction more than as men. The book even goes to great lengths to explain why you will never see Isaiah in the the next big superhero crossover. I wonder if, when Dr. Doom rewrote reality, he saw this as a blight on their history that should be erased, or one that must be preserved to learn from it. And yet, I had never heard of Isaiah before, nor do I think I’ve heard anyone mention him since. I was never given a chance to worship him as the hero he was. And while I believe that’s the point, not shying away from an ugly truth and exposing it for what it is, it fills me with regret. A man chewed up and spit out by history that didn’t get his heroic moment. He lead a life, a good one, some may argue. But this is a tale of tragedy, even when Steve Rogers finally gets involved to make things right again.
I’m being very light on plot details, mostly because I would encourage you to look into this book yourself. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a good one. An “honest” one, which I appreciate. It doesn’t justify tragedy behind heroics, or follow any traditional narrative arc. Instead, it uses the superhero genre to uniquely tell a story of how we treated black people in the military during World War 2. And that’s something special. There’s this one quote that stuck with me. Someone trying to justify the awful treatment of these men to their superiors and the politics surrounding it. He says “Politics doesn’t often make for good science… or at least the most sensible application of science. Politics is about keeping your boss happy.” It’s sad how true that was both then and now…
I would highly recommend “Truth: Red, White, and Black”. It’s bold, truthful, and different – less about heroics or people doing what’s right, and more focused on explaining why right wasn’t done. It’s a history we should all be familiar with, so we can strive towards a better one in our future.