Truth: Red, White And Black – An Allegorical Retcon

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Welcome back, True Believers! You’ve followed me The Timely Comics Watchamacallit on my merry chase of several Golden Age retcons! We’ve covered Roy Thomas & Frank Robbins‘s run on Invaders, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby‘s run on Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting‘s well-researched The Marvels Project, and Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale‘s touching mini-series Captain America: White.

Truth: Red, White And Black
I’ll stop you right there. No, it’s not that kind of movie.

Among these nods to the original Timely Comics source material, though, is a starkly different retcon. Robert Morales and Kyle Baker‘s Truth: Red, White And Black is different because barely any time is spent glorifying the past. All the other retcons I’ve covered, even The Marvels Project with its gritty real-world style, take some time for nostalgia. Toro calls The Human Torch “Pappy” in Invaders. Cap and Bucky go to see Abbott & Costello’s Buck Privates at the cinema in Captain America: White. These retcons show the USA of the ’40s as a country making its first steps toward becoming a global super-power.

Truth: Red, White And Black, on the other hand, presents the US military as a grisly conveyor belt. In this telling, the US government treats its soldiers as little more than statistics on a balance sheet.

Truth: Red, White And Black – Comparable Series

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It’s tough to come up with a mini-series that compares with Truth: Red, White And Black. None of the others I’ve read come close in terms of this one’s depressing story and no-holds-barred analysis of the US government of the ’40s. As I brought up in my review of the first Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos story-line, Truth: Red, White And Black uses the Tuskegee syphilis experiment as its historical real-world touchstone.

Truth: Red, White And Black – Some Depressing Historical Context*

The benignly named Tuskegee syphilis experiment saw the US government withholding syphilis treatment from a group of 399 African-American sharecroppers. The forty-year study involved clinicians not administering penicillin to the syphilitic men. It’s important to note that penicillin was identified as an effective treatment for syphilis fifteen years into the forty-year study.

In a repulsive display of disregard for human life, none of the nearly 400 syphilis-infected sharecroppers were notified of their infections. This caused the infected men to pass their infections on to their wives, children, and possibly others. Upon the study’s termination in 1972, only 74 of the nearly 400 syphilitic men were still alive.

In Truth: Red, White And Black, Morales & Baker, rather than writing a story-line about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, show Isaiah Bradley and other African-American soldiers unwittingly volunteer as test subjects for a relaunch of the Super-Solider serum that created Captain America. Unfortunately for Bradley and his fellow test subjects, the side-effects of taking the serum can include physical deformation, mental illness, and death.

Truth: Red, White And Black – Cameos

As with my review of Captain America: White, I’m reticent about revealing this mini-series’ plot or cameos. Originally published about fifteen years ago as a seven-part mini-series, it’s now available in trade paperback format. I will say, though, that a few of the Golden Age usual suspects show up in this mini-series.

My favourite nod to the Timely Comics source material is the inclusion of Dr. Reinstein’s name. Reinstein, as anyone who’s read my article on Cap and Bucky’s Golden Age origins knows, was the Golden Age name of the scientist who invented Cap’s Super-Soldier serum, his name was later retconned to Erskine.

Truth: Red, White And Black – The Plot

This mini-series recounts Isaiah Bradley’s journey from being a loving husband to being a statistic. He and his company of fellow test subjects go to Europe on ethically ambiguous suicide missions that Captain America wouldn’t agree to undertake. Truth: Red, White And Black also deals with the aftermath of the relaunched Super-Soldier program.

I found the ending touching. But, I’ll leave it to you to determine whether this mini-series’ touching ending was a happy one.

Truth: Red, White And Black – The Art

I wasn’t crazy about the art. Stylized to the point of being cartoonish, the art doesn’t suit this emotionally overwrought story. And, as is often the case with highly stylized comicbook art, there were a few panels in which I couldn’t figure out what was happening. This mini-series’ almost Robert Crumb style art served it in a couple of places, but it equally hindered it. I would’ve preferred artwork similar to Epting’s treatment in The Marvels Project, i.e. crisp lines, dark colours, and realistic shading.

*Although I’ve been familiar with the Tuskegee syphilis experiment for a few years now, the statistics I reference here are all taken from wikipedia.

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