There's a proud tradition of military veterans being called into superhero duty in comic books going back to the 1930s, and that tradition is being explored by an Army veteran-turned-comics commentator in the upcoming non-fiction book Super Soldiers.
Comics journalist/writer Jason Inman (formerly of DC All Access) takes a deep dive into superhero service members one-by-one, breaking down their service records, their ideals, and their poignancy to real-life veterans and the larger public. Inman, who served in the Army and was stationed in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, uses his background - and his comics fandom - to get inside the heads of these fictional service member superheroes.
And with Super Soldiers due out June 18 from Mango Publishing, Newsarama spoke with Inman about military men and women who heed the call to be superheroes, and also talk about the depiction of the military in superhero comic books from Captain America to the Punisher, and even some Captain Atom talk.
Newsarama: Jason, before we get into the book, can you tell us about your military service for context?
Jaosn Inman: I joined the Kansas Army National Guard when I was 17 and still in high school. The recruiter's pitch of traveling the world and seeing new sites appealed to the farm boy that I used to be. My unit was activated to the full-time Army as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005. With the 891st Engineer Battalion, I spent approximately 11 months and two weeks inside Iraq. I left the service in 2006, completing my six-year tour.
But I still try to help out my military brothers and sisters when I can with the annual Jawiin Comic Drive for Service Members in association with Operation Gratitude. Over four years, we've sent 120,000 comics to deployed troops and wounded veterans.
Nrama: And I thank you for that.
Super Soldiers is a personal exploration of the crossover between superheroes and the military, from Captain America to Sgt. Rock and the popular usage of the Punisher logo in the military. First off - why do you think superheroes are so popular for the people serving in the military?
Inman: I think service members and superheroes hear the same call. They both yearn for a higher duty to either protect the citizens of the world by suiting up as a vigilante or protecting the world as a soldier, marine, airman, or sailor in the U.S. military. They're both vocations that require a level of commitment that most citizens will never understand. In the military, we covet bonds with the brothers and sisters beside us. This feeling allows the unit to be stronger. I think most service members see that same bond with these larger than life heroes.
Nrama: The Punisher logo has been co-opted by several groups in the military, and used as patches by personnel. Some have applauded it, some have spoken out against it, and the phenomenon was even referenced in a Punisher comic book a few years ago. How do you feel about that anti-hero's logo being used by the military?
Inman: I'm against the use of the Punisher's logo in military units. To worship the Punisher is to worship a man that needs help. Yes, Frank Castle has a code of honor; something most servicemembers can empathize with. However, he's also a man the desperately needs counseling from his traumatic incidents. The Punisher is a man that cannot see the end of his war. No matter how many people, mob bosses, or villains he kills, it will never end, because he sees no way out. Frank Castle treats the homefront as if it's a combat zone. That's one of the worst rules to break as a servicemember. To promote that is to celebrate a marine that has forgotten one of the Marine Corp's core values, honor.
Nrama: Your book spotlights comic book characters who have had military service one-by-one, from Captain America to Beetle Bailey. Do you have one that's most personal to you?
Inman: Weirdly, the character that spoke out the most to me was one I never expected: Captain Atom. In doing more research on this hero, I discovered his time jump from the past to the current day and how the character quickly lost his family. It becomes the original theme of his story, lost time. This absent time is something that I've genuinely felt. I'm confident I'm not the only service member that has felt that way either.
When you deploy to a combat zone, it feels as if your life goes on pause. The world continues without you. I still feel as if the world owes me a year even today. When I came back, I had a difficult transition. All of my friends' lives had changed and moved on, and here I was precisely at the same spot in my life where I was when I left for Iraq. It felt weird to come back to the civilian world. I remember thinking that it was strange to drive to Subway!
Seeing that a superhero like Captain Atom had experienced a similar time disparity, it bonded me to him.
Nrama: I have to say, Captain America seems to be the flagbearer for all patriotic superheroes. From your perspective, how is the character seen by those serving in the Army?
Inman: Until recently, he was a walking talking flag a la Uncle Sam. It only seemed like he had pro-U.S.A. statements to exclaim and was always telling us to buy war bonds.
Thankfully, the Marvel Cinematic Version of the character and recent runs by great writers like Ed Brubaker have allowed us to see the real man behind the super soldier. His current version is a proud human leader. A guy that you would want to have beside you in the foxhole. The modern version of Captain America certainly listens to his partners better than any Captain I've ever served within the Army.
Nrama: Revisiting our earlier question, why do you think servicemen and women are popular to be translated into superheroes and supervillains in American comic books?
Inman: I think by making a superhero or supervillain, a servicemember has become a shorthand in comics. Thanks to the War on Terror and the War in Iraq, we now have more than 7.1 million Americans that are veterans. I think our culture is feeling that shift day-by-day. By dipping a character in the wrappings of the U.S. military, readers have an instant opinion on them, can generally guess their values and will know how they should act based on whether they are a hero or a villain.
It's something that I would like to see more of in comics, especially in terms of female service members. I had a hard time researching and discovering new female veterans. So I'd like to see more of them in comics because the real women are out there. And I'm sure they would love to see representation in that form.
The real issue is for creators to do the research when translating these characters into superheroes or villains. I could fill a whole other book full of incorrect assumptions in comics about the military.
Nrama: The recent DC event series Heroes in Crisis deliberated on PTSD in superhero life - and many can see some comparisons to PTSD for those that serve in the military. What do you think of the treatment of PTSD in this story?
Inman: Heroes in Crisis, whether you liked it or not is a grand representation of PTSD. That's because Tom King is a genius writer. Without spoilers, that fact that individual superheroes and villains were trapped in the trauma. No matter what they try, they cannot move on. That's a powerful notion, and it's the underlying key of PTSD in superhero life and the military.
Many stories will hinge it on flashbacks and dream sequences. But as I have several personal friends with the disorder, that's a piece of Hollywood fiction.
I appreciated the notion of hope at the end of that story and how Tom showed that there was a way to break the cycle of helplessness.
Nrama: How do you think the depiction of the military in superhero comic books (and fiction in general) have changed over the decades?
Inman: It's changed quite dramatically, which is something that I cover in the book a bit. Back in the golden age, the military was depicted as these solid, gung-ho, unbreakable men. Always climbing the next hill, no matter the cost. When the Silver Age hit, and the Vietnam War started to become a more protracted conflict, servicemembers were turned into villains or victims. The Punisher, Nuke, even U.S. Agent are all a product of this time. Society was unsure whether the moral compass of a soldier could be straight and honorable. That's the reason the Punisher is a villain in his debut issue.
More recently, it's flipped back the other way. Service members are back to being heroes. But they're now heroes with flaws. Tragedy can touch them, and they can feel a loss. However, they'll still be the strongest and the best superheroes you've ever seen. It makes one wonder how much longer until the depiction in comics flips back to villainy?
Nrama: Jason, what are your ultimate goals with Super Soldiers?
Inman: To write a good book! No, in all seriousness, my goal was to show that these two worlds are not so different. I've been in both. I've lived in both. The Wednesday warrior who worships Green Lantern is no different than the soldier who worships General Patton. They're both figures looking for that signpost to guide them through life.
Another goal was to demonstrate how the influence of the military has been used in the giant mythology of superheroes. How comic storylines could be viewed by current servicemembers and how writers could peek into the inner soul of some these fantastical characters by viewing them through a military lens.
My last goal was to illuminate the life of a modern military nerd. I put a big chunk of my personal military experiences into these pages. So, it's become a very intimate book that also talks about superheroes. I hope those stories can help expose these superheroes the way I view them.
Nrama: And what would you say to the service people who pick up this book?
Inman: First off, I'm honored by your service and that you've picked up my book. I hope my stories and these mythical tales of god-like heroes prove to you that your struggles and sacrifices don't make you different and alone. They make you similar. Take strength in that.