Diversity in long-standing superhero comics is hard work. Most of the classic superheroes were white men because they were largely created by white men. There were a handful of white women in the mix, but minority representation among superheroes has often been rough if not outright painful in the way some creators set about creating a hero of color.
Sometimes the answer is to create a new version of the hero in question, a legacy character, that can be of another race and hope it goes over well. That can lead to successful characters, like Green Lantern John Stewart, or less successful ones, like the Marvel hero Battlestar, a black man set as a partner to U.S.Agent, himself a onetime Captain America. Battlestar initially went by the codename “Bucky” until someone realized that was actually a rather racist name and changed it to Battlestar.
But then there’s the curious case of Isaiah Bradley.
On paper, it makes a certain amount of sense what Marvel was trying to do. In light of more modern ideas on race, and remembering horrible, real life incidents like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which black men were injected with syphilis without their knowledge and then not treated for the disease to see what would happen, the story would explore what would happen if the U.S. government, attempting to come up with another Captain America, would attempt to recreate the super-soldier serum on a group of black G.I.s in a series of horrifying experiments that would end up killing most of them. The lone survivor, Isaiah Bradley, would become a black version of Captain America.
The mini-series depicting this story, Truth: Red, White & Black, got off to a rough start before it even appeared on store shelves. Images of a black man in a Captain America uniform, alongside rumors suggesting he was Cap before Steve Rogers, inflamed a lot of anger on the Internet, which as anyone knows is the sort of thing that happens on a daily basis among people who take what happens to fictional characters more personally than is probably healthy for anyone. The thought also was that this would somehow taint the character of Steve Rogers, making him culpable in horrifying medical experiments, and from then steeling the glory of the man who should have been Captain America.
As it turns out, those rumors were unfounded. The story depicted Steve, when he did finally appear in the narrative, as a man who was completely ignorant that Isaiah even existed, and he was outright furious when he found out what had happened to Isaiah and the other soldiers that had been experimented on. In fact, Steve was still the original Cap in the story. The experiments came as a result of the government trying to recreate the serum lost after Rogers became the first and only man to receive the perfected form of the wonder drug that could turn a 98-pound weakling into the embodiment of physical perfection. Steve Rogers was still a truly good man who believed in fairness to all and the other things America is supposed to stand for.
But what about Isaiah? The story depicted him as one of many, with the spotlight going to a select handful. Most were killed in the experiments themselves, a few others in the aftermath of said experiments, until only Isaiah is left.
Isaiah would go on only one mission during the second World War. Stealing a costume and a shield intended for Steve Rogers, he manages to sneak into a Nazi concentration camp and kill the head scientist before being captured and even brought before Hitler. He’s rescued by insurgents before he can be dissected, but for his actions he is court-martialed, sent to Leavenworth, and eventually pardoned by President Eisenhower. After that, he becomes an underground leader in the black community. When he is finally visited by Steve Rogers, one wall in his house is covered in photos of Isaiah meeting various prominent leaders and figures like Malcolm X, Colin Powell, Alex Haley, and for some reason Bono. He also has photos of Stan Lee there and the two collaborators for the mini-series.
Isaiah himself, by then, has been reduced to a childlike mental state due to long term effects of the drugs he was given, but to further hammer home how nothing that happened to him was the fault of Steve Rogers, Isaiah’s own wife points out Steve was unavailable during the worst moments in Isaiah’s life due to being frozen in ice.
If I had to find a fault with the mini-series, it is a significant one: artist Kyle Baker. Baker is a great artist, but his style works best with cartoonish comedy. Steve Rogers looks rather impressive when he finally appears, but much of the rest of the book looks like a comedy series, when the topic is deadly serious. It tends to undermine the story by having fairly well-depicted characters, like Steve and Isaiah, standing alongside something that might not have looked out of place in a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.
Isaiah didn’t exactly disappear after that. He got cameos in places, revealing he had a son who had inherited his superpowers, and then later a grandson who claimed he did. To hammer home how important he was to some heroes, Isaiah attended the wedding of Black Panther and Storm, only to have all the black superheroes present, most notably Luke Cage, look upon him in awe, while Wolverine had no idea who he was. I’d say that was being not particularly subtle about white cluelessness on black culture, but Wolverine’s one of the X-Men, and subtly on racism has never been a trait of the X-books and their characters.