Retcons, Reboots And Resurrections #29: The Truth Of Marvel’s First Black Captain America
by Scott Redmond
In life, they say only three things are certain: birth, death, and change. Within comic books, the three things that are certain are that there will be retcons, reboots, and resurrections. Retcons are elements retroactively added to a character’s history, reboots can either be revivals of a character/their title or extensive changes to canon, and resurrections are characters clawing their way back from the afterlife.
Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections.
Captain America predates the creation of the Marvel Universe as we know it by twenty years, meaning the character has been pretty ripe for a whole lot of retcons over the eighty years the character has existed. Case in point, his entry into the Marvel Universe in Avengers #4 led to a pretty big eventual retcon because that comic had him lost in 1945 while the actual Captain America comics before Marvel showed him and Bucky still on adventures well after World War II ended.
This led to multiple stories beginning with 1977’s Captain America #215 which introduced the idea that there were others that the U.S. government tasked to fill the role of Captain America and Bucky so that the public didn’t know they had gone missing. Those are not the retcons we’re diving into this time (those will come another day).
Long after those retcons there came another that supposed there was another unknown Captain America from those days long ago, a black man. This is the story of one Isaiah Bradley.
Written in 2003, Truth: Red, White & Black from Robert Morales and Kyle Baker was the story that introduced Marvel readers to Bradley and his very realistically tragic backstory. Born out of an offhand comment from then Marvel Publisher Bill Jemas, then editor Axel Alonso picked up the idea of the “inherent of politics of wrapping a Black man in red, white, and blue” and ran with it. Alonso’s mind went right to the Tuskegee Experiments and once permissions were gained to move forward with the idea he turned to Morales to take ownership and flesh out the idea.
Announced as a six-issue series, it was later extended to seven and told the story of how Bradley had the super-soldier formula forced upon him and became a Captain America while dealing with the continued mistreatment from his country.
The Nitty Gritty:
Reportedly Morales’ original development was as depressing as the story ended up being, but he wanted to go with the idea that Bradley was a genius scientist who experimented upon himself as various other Marvel characters have in the past. This was not to be because Alonso was very set on the idea of tying it to the Tuskegee experiments.
In the first issue, readers are introduced to three black men: Bradley, Maurice Canfield, and Luke Evans. Shown in different time points of 1940-1941, the racism and issues the men are faced with daily are on display. Once the attack on Pearl Harbor happens and the United States officially enters the war all of the men are enlisted. During their training at Camp Cathhart, led by Evans who was already a sergeant, the men are part of a group of 300 that were secreted away to be used as trials for a crude version of the super-soldier serum (as the one that created Steve Rogers was lost when Professor Erskine was murdered). Their commanding officer and everyone else at the base were killed to protect the secret, and the families of all the other men were informed that their loved ones were deceased as well.
Over time the project subjected the men to various doses and versions of the serum which left many disfigured and eventually killed all but a handful of the soldiers, which included the Bradley, Canfield and Evans. The remaining soldiers were loaded onto a boat, one of them dying on the way, and were entered into the war in 1942. Eventually, just the three men are left as the others die, and they are tasked with taking on a dangerous “suicide mission.”
It was a mission that Bradley would end up taking on alone because one of the men in charge Lieutenant Merritt got into it with Evans and Canfield and during the ensuing fight Evans and Canfield were killed while Bradley was injured. Donning a spare Captain America costume with an edged shield, he parachuted into Germany to stop the Nazi Super Soldier Program that was in the works. This mission was a success but Bradley didn’t get away, as he ended up captured by the Nazis.
Hitler himself and Goebbels try to convince Bradley to join them and turn against the United States, but Bradley just states that he can’t because his wife would kill him. Before he can be sent away to his death, the German resistance attacks a convoy and saves Bradley, and hides him for months. Eventually, he was able to get out and report back to command, who subsequently arrested him, court-martialed him, and gave him a life sentence for ‘stealing’ the Captain America uniform.
Bradley spent seventeen years in solitary confinement at Fort Leavenworth before President Dwight D. Eisenhower pardoned him. In that time, he received minimal medical care which allowed the serum to not only sterilize him but also spread the damage to his brain where it began to slowly deteriorate and most of his basic functions.
The present-day portions of this book were focused on Steve Rogers piecing things together and finally learning of the reality of the program and the existence of Bradley. While Steve didn’t know, it’s established that Bradley was a legend in the black community, and over time in other books, it was revealed how many characters knew of him and had some connections to him.
This is a tough one to classify. While the idea of exploring what it means to have a black Captain America is an intriguing concept (which was done again in 2014 with Sam Wilson who will don the suit and shield again later this year), the route this one takes is definitely rough. At the same time, it tackles the very real reality of what this country was doing in some respects, with some fictional elements pasted on top.
Having Steve Rogers face just how broken and racist the country can be is not a new concept, but it’s one that can be effective. Over time the character has very much morphed from the “rah rah America” type to a character that is very aware of the sins and issues of this country and has even stood up against them (quit a few times). Having him piece this together, steal back the tattered old uniform, find Bradley, and apologize for what happened while giving him back the costume is a thing that could be effective for some.
Unfortunately, Isaiah as a character hasn’t been used or explored as much as he should have been after this miniseries brought him to life. A few years later, in 2005 to be exact, the world was introduced to his grandson Elijah Bradly who went on to become the hero Patriot of the Young Avengers team. Eli’s deal turned out to be that he was taking MGH (Mutant Growth Hormones) to gain powers, which eventually threatened his health, but a blood transfusion from Isaiah ended up giving him actual abilities from the effect of the serum.
Eventually, Eli dropped out of being a hero and has only appeared sporadically. Isaiah has appeared even less over the years, their story seemingly having been forgotten for the most part. Outside of comics though that did change in 2021 when Carl Lumbly brought the character of Isaiah to life for the Falcon and the Winter Soldier series for Disney+ where he met Sam Wilson. This version of Bradley wasn’t left in a non-communicative and mentally deteriorated state like the comics, as his background was only loosely based on the Truth storyline.
Next Week: DC Comics hits a milestone with a pretty big recent reboot