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Stranger Than Fiction

  Truth: Red, White & Black

 

Robert Morales, Kyle Baker

Marvel, 2004

Rating: 3.7

 

 

Posted: March 28, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

In the early days of America's involvement in World War II, the U.S. government toiled away on a "Super Soldier" formula that would grant its troops amazing physical superiority over its foes. But before the formula could be given to the man chosen to wear the uniform of Captain America -- a living, breathing propaganda tool whose "adventures" were already being published in comic-book form in advance of his flesh-and-blood creation -- it had to be tested. Anything that could theoretically turn an everyday working stiff into a super-strong, super-agile warrior, after all, is likely to involve a costly and possibly fatal trial-and-error stage. So the U.S. government decided to test the formula on one of the country's most expendable resources: black men.

Such is the premise of Truth: Red, White & Black, an intriguing attempt to tie the origins of Captain America in with such atrocities as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which African-American soldiers famously were used as guinea pigs in the cause of medical research. Truth follows a group of black soldiers who are culled from a Mississippi military base and subjected to gruesome experiments. In the present day, it also follows Steve Rogers -- the blond-haired white man who became Captain America -- as he runs down the truth about this shameful chapter in his legacy, and attempts to do right by one of the test subjects.

All of which is well and good: Truth is to be lauded for taking on aspects of WWII so often ignored in adventure fictions about the war, from widespread racism to the horrors of the Holocaust (of which readers are offered a dramatic glimpse). And boy, does it ever. Writer Robert Morales tackles this task like a solemn obligation, showing off the fruits of meticulous research in references to such events as "Red Summer" (in which African-Americans rose up in riot against a rash of outraged lynchings of blacks blamed on one black's acquittal in the rape of a white woman) and "Negro Week" at the 1940 World's Fair in New York. The result is a tale too often wrapped up in its own historical import, at the expense of a satisfying story. The writer's decision to have U.S. troops massacre the population of an entire army base (to cover its tracks after selecting the black soldiers it will use in its experiments) strain suspension of disbelief, no matter its grounding in black urban legend.

But while it's true that Morales pours on the earnestness to the point of distraction, often allowing his stock characters (the grizzled black WWI vet, the son of privilege turned bare-knuckled civil rights crusader) to disguise philosophizing as dialogue, he does manage to invest his characters with a grim humanity. Save, that is, for the white villains, which from American functionaries to Nazi officials are painted in broad, buffoonish strokes.

But the fault for that can't be laid entirely at the writer's feet: Artist Kyle Baker (Plastic Man, Why I Hate Saturn) renders most of the players in this drama, blacks and whites alike, as cartoonish caricatures. His loose, sketchy pencils are all wrong for a project that strives for a sober air of topicality. Baker's muddy artwork is at best distracting (What is that squiggly thing supposed to be on the side of the WWI vet's head?) and at worst fatally undermines Truth's sense of drama, sacrificed for a grotesque focus on expression; characters wear their emotions (and their identities) right on their faces, from oily underlings to righteous firebrands. Only scenes depicting black soldier Isaiah's one-man suicide mission behind enemy lines, including encounters with female concentration camp victims and Adolf Hitler himself, manage to achieve some semblance of narrative tension.

One wonders if the editorial Powers That Be at Marvel Comics hired Baker as a way of pulling its punches, leavening the quote-unquote "controversial" subject matter with artwork that defines the story in crude, sometimes indiscernible murkiness rather than bold and aggressive lines. Whatever the rationale, the decision hobbles Truth, reducing an interesting exercise in broadening the depth of Marvel's backstory to an admirable but not-quite accessible curiosity.

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