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Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity,
Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics

Jason Dittmer

Department of Geology and Geography, Georgia Southern University

This article introduces comic books as a medium through which national identity and geopolitical scripts are
narrated. This extension of the popular geopolitics literature uses the example of post-11 September 2001 (‘‘9/11’’)
Captain America comic books to integrate various strands of theory from political geography and the study of
nationalism to break new ground in the study of popular culture, identity, and geopolitics. The article begins with
an introduction to the character of Captain America and a discussion of the role he plays in the rescaling of
American identity and the institutionalization of the nation’s symbolic space. The article continues by showing
how visual representations of American landscapes in Captain America were critical to constructing geopolitical
‘‘realities.’’ A reading of post-9/11 issues of the Captain America comic book reveals a nuanced and ultimately
ambiguous geopolitical script that interrogates America’s post-9/11 territorialization. Key Words: popular culture,
American identity, nationalism, post-9/11 politics, Captain America.

Scale, Hegemony, and the Culture Wars

P
opular geopolitics, or the construction of scripts
that mold common perceptions of political events
(Ó Tuathail 1992; Dalby 1993; Sharp 1993), is

key to a full understanding of both national identities
and global orders. One of the fundamental assumptions
of the primary global ‘‘geo-graph’’ (Ó Tuathail 1996), or
inscription of the earth’s surface, is the division of the
world into discrete states, each one ostensibly inde-
pendent, sovereign, equal, and occupied by a discrete
culture or nation. Other scholars have questioned the
ontological primacy of such states and nations (Ander-
son 1991; Agnew 1994) and have concentrated on how
bounded territories and identities are constructed and
policed (Paasi 1991, 1996).

The division of the international political system into
sovereign states remains a largely unchallenged premise
of popular discourse. Indeed, challenges to the assump-
tions of the international system are seen as challenges
to a moral geography of extreme importance: ‘‘Bush [in a
victory speech after the first Gulf War] did not justify
why the notion of nationhood was so important, nor why
its protection demanded the ultimate of sacrifices. He
assumed that his audience would realize that a war,
waged by nations against the nation, which had sought
to abolish a nation, was necessary to affirm the sacred
principle of nationhood’’ (Billig 1995, 2). As institu-
tionalized regions, states are best understood as an on-
going process of creating and maintaining territorial
practices and ideologies. Paasi describes the region-for-
mation process in four parts, the second part of which is

the attachment of symbolic meanings to territory, or the
creation of symbolic shape (Paasi 1991; quotation is from
2003, 113):

Boundaries penetrate the society in numerous practices and
discourses through which the territory exists and achieves
institutionalized meanings. Hence, it is political, economic,
cultural, governmental and other practices, and the asso-
ciated meanings, that make a territory and concomitantly
territorialize everyday life. These elements become part of
daily life through spatial socialization, the process by which
people are socialized as members of territorial groups.

One way in which the symbolic meaning associated
with these boundaries materializes is through the pro-
duction and consumption of popular culture, which
leads to the internalization of the mythic and symbolic
aspects of national identities (Edwardson 2003). Popular
culture, in other words, is one of the ways in which
people come to understand their position both within a
larger collective identity and within an even broader
geopolitical narrative, or script. Marston and Smith
(2001) have made the point that collective identity
formation involves the negotiation of many different
scales, including the full continuum from the individual/
body to the global/universal. Thus, the horizontal iden-
tity issues that revolve around the Self/Other nexus and
other boundary-formation processes (as explained later)
are inextricably linked through geopolitical narratives to
vertical issues of scale. This is a critical link that enables
hundreds of millions of individuals freely to assume a
common identity.

Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95(3), 2005, pp. 626–643 r 2005 by Association of American Geographers
Initial submission, June 2004; revised submission, October 2004; final acceptance, December 2004

Published by Blackwell Publishing, 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, U.K.

Captain America is an example of popular culture’s
role in this process. Significant to this role is Captain
America’s ability to connect the political projects of
American nationalism, internal order, and foreign policy
(all formulated at the national or global scale) with the
scale of the individual, or the body. The character of
Captain America connects these scales by literally em-
bodying American identity, presenting for readers a hero
both of, and for, the nation. Younger readers may even
fantasize about being Captain America, connecting
themselves to the nation in their imaginations. His
characterization as an explicitly American superhero
establishes him as both a representative of the idealized
American nation and as a defender of the American
status quo. This image coincides with the definition of a
territorial symbol, that is, ‘‘abstract expressions of group
solidarity embodying the actions of political, economic,
and cultural institutions in the continual reproduction
and legitimation of the system of practices that charac-
terize the territorial unit concerned’’ (Paasi 1991, 245).

Captain America and other territorial symbols from
popular culture contribute to structures of expectations
(Tannen 1979), which can be understood as a summa-
tion of the social effects of regional institutionalization.
These structures are distinct from structures of feeling
(R. Williams 1977), which focus on practical, lived
consciousness. Rather, structures of expectations influ-
ence how people from a region interpret new information
or situations. Thus, geopolitical events are interpreted
through the lens of structures of expectations, and
so, common structures promote common geopolitical
scripts. These scripts are attempts to create order out of
the complexity of global events by constructing narra-
tives through which the region’s place in the world is
understandable and legitimate. While scripts are derived
from many sources, one source with significant input is
certainly popular culture.

The role of popular culture in constructing geopolit-
ical identities and scripts has increasingly become the
subject of critical inquiry (Sharp 1993, 1998; Dodds
2003). At the heart of popular culture’s importance to
the construction of national and global geopolitical
scripts is Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. He-
gemony, the basis of strong national government, is
predicated on consensus, as contrasted with coercion,
which Gramsci perceives as the last resort of weak gov-
ernments (Adamson 1980). While Gramsci was writing
in the context of a Marxist revolution, his ideas resonate
strongly with capitalist formulations of nationhood as
well. Sharp (2000, 31) however, uses Gramsci’s idea of
hegemony to insert a space for popular culture in the
literature of nationalism and identity:

[H]egemony is constructed not only through political
ideologies but also, more immediately, through detailed
scripting of some of the most ordinary and mundane aspects
of everyday life. Gramsci’s concept of hegemony posits a
significant place for popular culture in any attempt to un-
derstand the workings of society because of the very eve-
rydayness and apparently nonconflictual nature of such
productions. Any political analysis of the operation of
dominance must take full account of the role of institutions
of popular culture in the complex milieu that ensures the
reproduction of cultural (and thus political) norms.

Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is not static, but instead,
‘‘a process of continual creation that, given its massive
scale, is bound to be uneven in the degree of legitimacy it
commands and to leave some room for antagonistic
cultural expressions to develop’’ (Adamson 1980, 174).
Thus, hegemonic constructions and their antagonists are
in need of continual buttressing by active agents, in this
case, the producers of popular culture.

Comic books are often equated with children’s en-
tertainment, and, historically, they have been associated
with negative influences such as juvenile delinquency,
perhaps most famously in Wertham’s Seduction of the
Innocent (1954). Nevertheless, the producers of comic
books (and Captain America, specifically) view their
products as more than just lowbrow entertainment; they
view their works as opportunities to educate and so-
cialize. In an interview on National Public Radio’s All
Things Considered (2002), Captain America editor, Axel
Alonso, touched on this view among the production
staff: ‘‘[W]hat I’d say is our responsibility as writers,
artists, editors and creators is to create narratives that
have a point, that entertain and seek to do something
more, perhaps educate on some level.’’ In this sense, the
production staff of Captain America fit Gramsci’s defi-
nition of organic intellectuals: not distinguished as in-
tellectuals by their profession, these men (traditionally,
the industry has been dominated by males) nevertheless
‘‘work consciously for their own social class, convinced
that it has a historical ‘right’ at a given moment’’
(Lawner 1973, 44). While Gramsci was clearly interested
in economic classes, here social class can also refer to
nationality, as both are categories of belonging that re-
quire active construction and support. Thus, through
the medium of their comic book, these men help create
structures of expectations that consequently influence
the way readers view the world and locate their own
place as Americans within it. While they are more em-
powered than ordinary citizens because of their closeness
to the publishing media, they are still constrained by
market principles, their parent company’s editorial de-
cisions, and other limiting factors. Still, the role of these

Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics 627

men in shaping public attitudes has become the subject
of scrutiny.

Captain America and the Culture Wars

If comic books such as Captain America seem too fa-
cetious and fantastic to be educational, that is under-
standable. Many factors lead to the social denigration of
the comic book medium, including low production val-
ues (comic books are still printed on pulp paper) and
unrealistic storylines (culminating in battles between
two superpowered beings who have full conversations
while in melee). Still, for the purpose of this article, the
divide between low, middle, and highbrow culture is
artificial; all three have political content and therefore
are relevant to those who are seeking to sculpt American
identity. Indeed, the seemingly innocent nature of
the comic book medium contributes to its significance in
the battle over American identity because it usually
operates beneath the gaze of most cultural critics. This
battle over the meaning of America has been termed the
‘‘Culture Wars’’ (originally by conservative commentator
and occasional presidential candidate, Pat Buchanan),
with partisans on both sides scanning popular culture for
subversive messages (intentional or otherwise) that un-
dermine or challenge their favored geopolitical script or
American identity. John Ney Reiber, the author of the
Captain America comics analyzed later in this article, had
this to say about the ambiguous, yet adamant, reaction
to his post-11 September 2001 (hereinafter ‘‘9/11’’)
storyline (Newsarama 2002): ‘‘[T]he . . . Captain Amer-
ica story arc . . . has been called right-wing, left-wing,
jingoist, communist, anti-American and flag-waving.’’ To
further illustrate the political importance of the symbol of
Captain America, consider the title of an article (available
online) in The National Review by radio show host and
film critic Michael Medved (2003): ‘‘Captain America,
Traitor? The comic-book hero goes anti-American.’’
Medved concludes the article by writing,

We might expect such blame-America logic from Holly-
wood activists, academic apologists, or the angry protesters
who regularly fill the streets of European capitals (and many
major American cities). When such sentiments turn up,
however, hidden within star-spangled, nostalgic packaging
of comic books aimed at kids, we need to confront the deep
cultural malaise afflicting the nation on the eve of war.

Clearly, the ‘‘culture warriors’’ that have dominated
American politics since the early 1990s are paying at-
tention to Captain America; they have attached political
significance to its content, in part because Captain
America is a character that is familiar to several gener-

ations of Americans. Furthermore, this political signifi-
cance is magnified by the importance of comic books in
American youth culture. According to the Simmons
Market Research Bureau’s Study of Kids and Teens
(2002), the net youth audience (ages six to seventeen)
of the two largest comic book publishers (Marvel and
DC) is almost fourteen million. While it is impossible to
measure the impact of comic books and similar media on
the political attitudes of children and youths, they
nonetheless do participate in a recursive relationship
between elites advocating particular geopolitical narra-
tives and the popular geo-graphs distributed by media to
be consumed by the public. The impact of comic books
on (geo)political attitudes is heightened because they
reach their young audience at the developmental mo-
ment when sociospatial frameworks are being formulated
(Dijkink 1996).

Science fiction, the genre in which superhero comic
books such as Captain America can most broadly be lo-
cated, has been the object of recent analysis by geogra-
phers. Science fiction tales have interested geographers
because of their usefulness in ‘‘exploring alternative
geographies of power and social relations’’ (Morehouse
2002, 84; see also Kitchin and Kneale 2001 and Warf
2002). Furthermore, geography has lately edged ever
closer to the subject of comic books, even to the point of
studying political cartoons. Klaus Dodds (1998), for ex-
ample, has engaged in a critical analysis of political
cartoonist Steve Bell’s work by looking closely at the
spatiality and iconography of the images Bell created in
his critique of the mid-1990s Bosnian War. In doing so,
he has situated his work within the larger body of liter-
ature in critical geopolitics. As Dodds (1998, 171) says,
‘‘[I]n contrast to the existing literature on iconography
within cultural geography, critical geopolitics has not
engaged in close and detailed readings of visual material.
Images have either been employed to illustrate a general
analysis or used occasionally to illuminate specific issues
such as media war reporting.’’ This is in contrast to other
disciplines, since there have recently been many aca-
demic studies of comic books in the fields of sociology,
history, and literature (e.g., Reynolds 1992; Nyberg
1998; Brooker 2001; Klock 2002). Historian Ryan Ed-
wardson (2003) has even written about ‘‘Captain Can-
uck’’ and his role in Canadian nationalism. This work
should be seen, in part, as an extension of these scholars’
very fine work.

This article is divided into three parts, each united
with the others through their use of Captain America
texts and images to provide insight into the construction
of American identity. The article begins with an intro-
duction to the character of Captain America and a

Dittmer628

discussion of the role he plays in the rescaling of
American identity and the institutionalization of the
nation’s symbolic space and continues by engaging with
theories of landscape, iconography, and nationalism be-
fore showing their connection to Captain America comic
books. In the final section, a reading of post-9/11 issues
of the Captain America comic book will reveal a nuanced
and ultimately ambiguous geopolitical script that inter-
rogates America’s post-9/11 territorialization.

Deconstructing the Captain

It may seem obvious that Captain America is a symbol
for America, yet it is this obviousness that makes him so
useful for study:

The double neglect of banal nationalism involves aca-
demics forgetting what is routinely forgotten. People in
established nations overlook the routine flagging of na-
tionhood. The flags melt into the background, as ‘‘our’’
particular world is experienced as the world. The routine
absent-mindedness, involved in not noticing unwaved flags
or other symbols of nationhood, has its reflection in aca-
demic theory.

—(Billig 1995, 49–50)

Since Captain America is so clearly a symbol of
America, he provides an opportunity to analyze the
changing meaning and symbolic shape of America as
the region is continually (re)constructed. If identity is
a performance, then American identity has been per-
formed monthly since 1964 in Captain America comic
books. Captain America was created in 1940, prior to
the entry of the United States into World War II, but
after the war had been ongoing in Europe and East Asia
for some time. Timely Comics (later Marvel Comics)
created the character in an attempt to tap into the pa-
triotic consciousness that was awakening in America
(stealing the concept and plagiarizing parts of the uni-
form from a rival company’s character named ‘‘The
Shield’’; see Ro 2004). From its beginning, Captain
America helped construct an identity for America and a
geopolitical script:

It is the spring of 1941. ‘‘The ruthless war-mongers of Eu-
rope’’ have cast their sights on ‘‘a peace-loving America,’’
and ‘‘the youth of our country’’ heed ‘‘the call to arm for
defense.’’ As foreign agents carry out ‘‘a wave of sabotage
and treason’’ against the United States, the president au-
thorizes a top-secret plan. A patriotic young American
named Steve Rogers, too sickly and weak to qualify for
standard enlistment, volunteers for a dangerous scientific
experiment conducted by the nation’s top scientist, Pro-

fessor Reinstein. Injected with a strange, seething liquid,
Rogers undergoes a startling transformation. Growing in
height and mass, Rogers’s muscles expand and tighten to
the peak of human perfection. No longer a frail patriot,
he now has a massive physique, a proud new name, and a
bold mission. The nation’s newest ‘‘super-soldier,’’ Captain
America, is born.
—(Wright 2001, 30, who, in turn, quotes Simon and Kirby

1941, 1–2)

Thus, even in its first issue, Captain America is partici-
pating in the construction of geopolitical ‘‘reality’’
through its description of the U.S. role in the world. The
insider/outsider dialectic outlines a global order with a
‘‘war-mongering’’ Europe and a ‘‘peace-loving’’ America.

Clearly identified as a territorial symbol of America by
his red, white, and blue star-spangled uniform, Captain
America is part of what Renan (1990, 17) has called the
‘‘cult of the flag.’’ Villains often mock Captain America
for his uniform, which is in fact a vaguely ridiculous
display of stars and stripes completed by a pirate’s gloves
and boots and, inexplicably, small wings on his head that
resemble those on the ankles of the Roman god Mercury.
Nevertheless, Captain America’s friends never mock his
outfit or think it odd because to them it is in the back-
ground—what Billig (1995, 40) would call an ‘‘unwaved
flag.’’ Only villains would dare to question his fashion
sense. That Captain America is intended to represent
the American ideal cannot be seen as simply recognition
of ontological fact, but is instead a truth claim about
American-ness. Stan Lee, comic book icon and former
writer for Captain America, argues that Captain America
represents the best aspects of America: courage and
honesty (personal correspondence with author 2004). A
product of his times, however, Captain America’s image
and origin mirror the American identity/dream of 1941.
Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Steve Rogers (with his almost
obsessively Anglo-American name) overcomes his own
physical weakness to become a proud soldier for his
country.

Although the ‘‘super-soldier serum’’ is responsible for
his physique, the success of Captain America in crime
fighting is clearly attributed in the stories to his hard
work, an extension of the Horatio Alger story into
the world of superheroes, where flying and smashing
tanks come easily to dozens of costumed vigilantes
(Macdonald and Macdonald 1976). Captain America’s
uniqueness comes from the fact that he has fewer super
powers than almost any other costumed hero; his real
skills lie in his athleticism and his leadership skills (Lee,
personal communication with author, 5 February 2004).
Indeed, Captain America comics are laced with images of

Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics 629

the Captain practicing his acrobatic maneuvers or lifting
weights. While the drugs given to him by the U.S.
government may have advantaged his start, his contin-
ued success is scripted as attributable to his continued
hard work. In fact, a 1990s storyline had Captain
America lose the super-soldier serum, ostensibly because
it was overloading his body; in reality, it was explained in
the editor’s column that the creative team made the
decision because of the unseemly image of the American
ideal being hooked on a performance-enhancing drug.

Furthermore, Captain America contributes to the
American geopolitical narrative by being ultimately de-
fensive in nature. Indeed, a conceit of the American
geopolitical narrative is that America only acts in the
name of security, not empire. True to this form, young
Steve Rogers in 1940 is a reluctant warrior, but not a
reluctant patriot (Kirby 1969, 9): ‘‘I hate war–and
senseless bloodshed–but I can’t stay behind–while others
do the fighting! There must be something I can do–some
place for me!’’ After this plea gains him access to the
‘‘super-soldier serum’’ that gives him his strength and
quickness, Captain America is provided with a weapon
unique among comic book heroes: a shield. This event is
indicative of his association with the American geopo-
litical script. Most superheroes who use props carry
glamorous offensive weapons; Captain America has a
rather unglamorous (yet patriotically colored) shield.
While Captain America has become quite good at
throwing his shield as an offensive weapon (and always
managing to have it bounce right back to him), it is
important for the narrative of America that he embodies
defense rather than offense.

While the definition of one particular American
identity and geopolitical narrative is an impossible task
due to the crosscutting currents of political thought
and human experience that influence opinion, there are
definite themes running through the discourse. Beasley
(2001) alludes to liberty, equality, and self-government
as the tenets of American exceptionalism. These quali-
ties take meaning only when contrasted against other
nations (Poole 1999), and so the American symbolic
shape requires a dominant geopolitical script to define
the American sense of place and purpose in a complex
world. American exceptionalism thus also becomes the
theme of the dominant geopolitical script, with Jewett
and Lawrence (2003, 34–35) providing an excellent
explanation of this linkage between superheroes, geo-
politics, and American exceptionalism:

[T]he elaborate effort at restraint in the use of force—
suppressing his own aggressive instinct—places Captain
America in the heroic tradition of the American cowboy

killer, the man of purely innocent intention who draws
second in the gun battle but shoots more quickly and ac-
curately than the dastardly foe . . . In these and countless
other examples, superheroes and -heroines exercise the
powers otherwise reserved only for God in dealing with evil.
They are the individuated embodiments of a civil religion
that seeks to redeem the world for democracy, but by means
that transcend democratic limits on the exercise of power.

Indeed, the sense of being part of something extraordi-
nary, the American nation, is inherent to the storylines
of Captain America. The Captain’s willingness to die for
his country (witnessed in virtually every issue) reinforces
the centrality of the nation in the readership of the
comic book. As Anderson (1991, 144) says, ‘‘Dying for
one’s country, which usually one does not choose, as-
sumes a moral grandeur which dying for the Labour
Party, the American Medical Association, or perhaps
even Amnesty International can not rival, for these are
all bodies one can join or leave at easy will.’’ Captain
America’s willingness to die for his country illustrates the
essential centrality of the nation to him and, by ex-
tension, to every American reading the comic book.
Support for the geopolitical objectives of American ex-
ceptionalism becomes an understood, tacit extension of
citizenship.

As just illustrated, the impact of Captain America on
readers is different than other symbols of America, such
as the bald eagle or the flag, because of his ability both to
embody and to narrate America in ways that the bald
eagle, flag, and other symbols cannot. Such static, non-
human symbols represent and construct the nation but
do not allow for a personal connection to it in the same
way that Captain America does. Paasi (2004, 542) has
written about this interconnection between place/
boundaries and scale: ‘‘Scales are not fixed, separate
levels of the social world but, like regions/places, are
structured and institutionalized in complex ways in de/
reterritorializing practices and discourses that may be
partly concrete, powerful and bounded, but also partly
unbounded, vague or invisible.’’

Captain America serves as a cultural product that
vaguely and invisibly connects the reader (usually young
and male, aspiring to heroism), through the body of the
hero, to the scale of the nation. This bridging of scale,
from the individual body to the body politic, is necessary
for the construction of a territorially bounded state oc-
cupied by a cohesive nation. Paasi (2004, 542) reiterates
this point: ‘‘The institutionalization/deinstitutionaliza-
tion of region, place and scale are in fact inseparable
elements in the perpetual process of regional transfor-
mation.’’ Thus, it is not enough to foster territoriality

Dittmer630

and national identity; individuals, despite the abstract
origins of collective identity and territory as a political
project, must internalize the scale of the nation. We now
turn to the construction of that identity and territory.

Captain America and the Other

Captain America serves as a territorial symbol that
participates in the construction of difference between
one region (the United States) and other regions (the
rest of the world). Derek Gregory (2004, 17) illustrates
the role of fiction in shaping this Foucaldian order im-
posed on our worldviews through his discussion of
imaginative geographies (a term originally coined by
Edward Said):

‘‘Their’’ space is often seen as the inverse of ‘‘our’’ space: a
sort of negative, in the photographic sense that ‘‘they’’
might ‘‘develop’’ into something like ‘‘us,’’ but also the site
of an absence, because ‘‘they’’ are seen somehow to lack the
positive tonalities that supposedly distinguish ‘‘us.’’ We
might think of imaginative geographies as fabrications, a
word that usefully combines ‘‘something fictionalized’’ And
‘‘something made real,’’ because they are imaginations
given substance.

The effects of imaginative geographies are not insignifi-
cant, in part because they are performative; they outline
a frame through which the world can be viewed, which
then enables the reader (or viewer or …

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Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity,
Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics

Jason Dittmer

Department of Geology and Geography, Georgia Southern University

This article introduces comic books as a medium through which national identity and geopolitical scripts are
narrated. This extension of the popular geopolitics literature uses the example of post-11 September 2001 (‘‘9/11’’)
Captain America comic books to integrate various strands of theory from political geography and the study of
nationalism to break new ground in the study of popular culture, identity, and geopolitics. The article begins with
an introduction to the character of Captain America and a discussion of the role he plays in the rescaling of
American identity and the institutionalization of the nation’s symbolic space. The article continues by showing
how visual representations of American landscapes in Captain America were critical to constructing geopolitical
‘‘realities.’’ A reading of post-9/11 issues of the Captain America comic book reveals a nuanced and ultimately
ambiguous geopolitical script that interrogates America’s post-9/11 territorialization. Key Words: popular culture,
American identity, nationalism, post-9/11 politics, Captain America.

Scale, Hegemony, and the Culture Wars

P
opular geopolitics, or the construction of scripts
that mold common perceptions of political events
(Ó Tuathail 1992; Dalby 1993; Sharp 1993), is

key to a full understanding of both national identities
and global orders. One of the fundamental assumptions
of the primary global ‘‘geo-graph’’ (Ó Tuathail 1996), or
inscription of the earth’s surface, is the division of the
world into discrete states, each one ostensibly inde-
pendent, sovereign, equal, and occupied by a discrete
culture or nation. Other scholars have questioned the
ontological primacy of such states and nations (Ander-
son 1991; Agnew 1994) and have concentrated on how
bounded territories and identities are constructed and
policed (Paasi 1991, 1996).

The division of the international political system into
sovereign states remains a largely unchallenged premise
of popular discourse. Indeed, challenges to the assump-
tions of the international system are seen as challenges
to a moral geography of extreme importance: ‘‘Bush [in a
victory speech after the first Gulf War] did not justify
why the notion of nationhood was so important, nor why
its protection demanded the ultimate of sacrifices. He
assumed that his audience would realize that a war,
waged by nations against the nation, which had sought
to abolish a nation, was necessary to affirm the sacred
principle of nationhood’’ (Billig 1995, 2). As institu-
tionalized regions, states are best understood as an on-
going process of creating and maintaining territorial
practices and ideologies. Paasi describes the region-for-
mation process in four parts, the second part of which is

the attachment of symbolic meanings to territory, or the
creation of symbolic shape (Paasi 1991; quotation is from
2003, 113):

Boundaries penetrate the society in numerous practices and
discourses through which the territory exists and achieves
institutionalized meanings. Hence, it is political, economic,
cultural, governmental and other practices, and the asso-
ciated meanings, that make a territory and concomitantly
territorialize everyday life. These elements become part of
daily life through spatial socialization, the process by which
people are socialized as members of territorial groups.

One way in which the symbolic meaning associated
with these boundaries materializes is through the pro-
duction and consumption of popular culture, which
leads to the internalization of the mythic and symbolic
aspects of national identities (Edwardson 2003). Popular
culture, in other words, is one of the ways in which
people come to understand their position both within a
larger collective identity and within an even broader
geopolitical narrative, or script. Marston and Smith
(2001) have made the point that collective identity
formation involves the negotiation of many different
scales, including the full continuum from the individual/
body to the global/universal. Thus, the horizontal iden-
tity issues that revolve around the Self/Other nexus and
other boundary-formation processes (as explained later)
are inextricably linked through geopolitical narratives to
vertical issues of scale. This is a critical link that enables
hundreds of millions of individuals freely to assume a
common identity.

Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95(3), 2005, pp. 626–643 r 2005 by Association of American Geographers
Initial submission, June 2004; revised submission, October 2004; final acceptance, December 2004

Published by Blackwell Publishing, 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, U.K.

Captain America is an example of popular culture’s
role in this process. Significant to this role is Captain
America’s ability to connect the political projects of
American nationalism, internal order, and foreign policy
(all formulated at the national or global scale) with the
scale of the individual, or the body. The character of
Captain America connects these scales by literally em-
bodying American identity, presenting for readers a hero
both of, and for, the nation. Younger readers may even
fantasize about being Captain America, connecting
themselves to the nation in their imaginations. His
characterization as an explicitly American superhero
establishes him as both a representative of the idealized
American nation and as a defender of the American
status quo. This image coincides with the definition of a
territorial symbol, that is, ‘‘abstract expressions of group
solidarity embodying the actions of political, economic,
and cultural institutions in the continual reproduction
and legitimation of the system of practices that charac-
terize the territorial unit concerned’’ (Paasi 1991, 245).

Captain America and other territorial symbols from
popular culture contribute to structures of expectations
(Tannen 1979), which can be understood as a summa-
tion of the social effects of regional institutionalization.
These structures are distinct from structures of feeling
(R. Williams 1977), which focus on practical, lived
consciousness. Rather, structures of expectations influ-
ence how people from a region interpret new information
or situations. Thus, geopolitical events are interpreted
through the lens of structures of expectations, and
so, common structures promote common geopolitical
scripts. These scripts are attempts to create order out of
the complexity of global events by constructing narra-
tives through which the region’s place in the world is
understandable and legitimate. While scripts are derived
from many sources, one source with significant input is
certainly popular culture.

The role of popular culture in constructing geopolit-
ical identities and scripts has increasingly become the
subject of critical inquiry (Sharp 1993, 1998; Dodds
2003). At the heart of popular culture’s importance to
the construction of national and global geopolitical
scripts is Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. He-
gemony, the basis of strong national government, is
predicated on consensus, as contrasted with coercion,
which Gramsci perceives as the last resort of weak gov-
ernments (Adamson 1980). While Gramsci was writing
in the context of a Marxist revolution, his ideas resonate
strongly with capitalist formulations of nationhood as
well. Sharp (2000, 31) however, uses Gramsci’s idea of
hegemony to insert a space for popular culture in the
literature of nationalism and identity:

[H]egemony is constructed not only through political
ideologies but also, more immediately, through detailed
scripting of some of the most ordinary and mundane aspects
of everyday life. Gramsci’s concept of hegemony posits a
significant place for popular culture in any attempt to un-
derstand the workings of society because of the very eve-
rydayness and apparently nonconflictual nature of such
productions. Any political analysis of the operation of
dominance must take full account of the role of institutions
of popular culture in the complex milieu that ensures the
reproduction of cultural (and thus political) norms.

Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is not static, but instead,
‘‘a process of continual creation that, given its massive
scale, is bound to be uneven in the degree of legitimacy it
commands and to leave some room for antagonistic
cultural expressions to develop’’ (Adamson 1980, 174).
Thus, hegemonic constructions and their antagonists are
in need of continual buttressing by active agents, in this
case, the producers of popular culture.

Comic books are often equated with children’s en-
tertainment, and, historically, they have been associated
with negative influences such as juvenile delinquency,
perhaps most famously in Wertham’s Seduction of the
Innocent (1954). Nevertheless, the producers of comic
books (and Captain America, specifically) view their
products as more than just lowbrow entertainment; they
view their works as opportunities to educate and so-
cialize. In an interview on National Public Radio’s All
Things Considered (2002), Captain America editor, Axel
Alonso, touched on this view among the production
staff: ‘‘[W]hat I’d say is our responsibility as writers,
artists, editors and creators is to create narratives that
have a point, that entertain and seek to do something
more, perhaps educate on some level.’’ In this sense, the
production staff of Captain America fit Gramsci’s defi-
nition of organic intellectuals: not distinguished as in-
tellectuals by their profession, these men (traditionally,
the industry has been dominated by males) nevertheless
‘‘work consciously for their own social class, convinced
that it has a historical ‘right’ at a given moment’’
(Lawner 1973, 44). While Gramsci was clearly interested
in economic classes, here social class can also refer to
nationality, as both are categories of belonging that re-
quire active construction and support. Thus, through
the medium of their comic book, these men help create
structures of expectations that consequently influence
the way readers view the world and locate their own
place as Americans within it. While they are more em-
powered than ordinary citizens because of their closeness
to the publishing media, they are still constrained by
market principles, their parent company’s editorial de-
cisions, and other limiting factors. Still, the role of these

Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics 627

men in shaping public attitudes has become the subject
of scrutiny.

Captain America and the Culture Wars

If comic books such as Captain America seem too fa-
cetious and fantastic to be educational, that is under-
standable. Many factors lead to the social denigration of
the comic book medium, including low production val-
ues (comic books are still printed on pulp paper) and
unrealistic storylines (culminating in battles between
two superpowered beings who have full conversations
while in melee). Still, for the purpose of this article, the
divide between low, middle, and highbrow culture is
artificial; all three have political content and therefore
are relevant to those who are seeking to sculpt American
identity. Indeed, the seemingly innocent nature of
the comic book medium contributes to its significance in
the battle over American identity because it usually
operates beneath the gaze of most cultural critics. This
battle over the meaning of America has been termed the
‘‘Culture Wars’’ (originally by conservative commentator
and occasional presidential candidate, Pat Buchanan),
with partisans on both sides scanning popular culture for
subversive messages (intentional or otherwise) that un-
dermine or challenge their favored geopolitical script or
American identity. John Ney Reiber, the author of the
Captain America comics analyzed later in this article, had
this to say about the ambiguous, yet adamant, reaction
to his post-11 September 2001 (hereinafter ‘‘9/11’’)
storyline (Newsarama 2002): ‘‘[T]he . . . Captain Amer-
ica story arc . . . has been called right-wing, left-wing,
jingoist, communist, anti-American and flag-waving.’’ To
further illustrate the political importance of the symbol of
Captain America, consider the title of an article (available
online) in The National Review by radio show host and
film critic Michael Medved (2003): ‘‘Captain America,
Traitor? The comic-book hero goes anti-American.’’
Medved concludes the article by writing,

We might expect such blame-America logic from Holly-
wood activists, academic apologists, or the angry protesters
who regularly fill the streets of European capitals (and many
major American cities). When such sentiments turn up,
however, hidden within star-spangled, nostalgic packaging
of comic books aimed at kids, we need to confront the deep
cultural malaise afflicting the nation on the eve of war.

Clearly, the ‘‘culture warriors’’ that have dominated
American politics since the early 1990s are paying at-
tention to Captain America; they have attached political
significance to its content, in part because Captain
America is a character that is familiar to several gener-

ations of Americans. Furthermore, this political signifi-
cance is magnified by the importance of comic books in
American youth culture. According to the Simmons
Market Research Bureau’s Study of Kids and Teens
(2002), the net youth audience (ages six to seventeen)
of the two largest comic book publishers (Marvel and
DC) is almost fourteen million. While it is impossible to
measure the impact of comic books and similar media on
the political attitudes of children and youths, they
nonetheless do participate in a recursive relationship
between elites advocating particular geopolitical narra-
tives and the popular geo-graphs distributed by media to
be consumed by the public. The impact of comic books
on (geo)political attitudes is heightened because they
reach their young audience at the developmental mo-
ment when sociospatial frameworks are being formulated
(Dijkink 1996).

Science fiction, the genre in which superhero comic
books such as Captain America can most broadly be lo-
cated, has been the object of recent analysis by geogra-
phers. Science fiction tales have interested geographers
because of their usefulness in ‘‘exploring alternative
geographies of power and social relations’’ (Morehouse
2002, 84; see also Kitchin and Kneale 2001 and Warf
2002). Furthermore, geography has lately edged ever
closer to the subject of comic books, even to the point of
studying political cartoons. Klaus Dodds (1998), for ex-
ample, has engaged in a critical analysis of political
cartoonist Steve Bell’s work by looking closely at the
spatiality and iconography of the images Bell created in
his critique of the mid-1990s Bosnian War. In doing so,
he has situated his work within the larger body of liter-
ature in critical geopolitics. As Dodds (1998, 171) says,
‘‘[I]n contrast to the existing literature on iconography
within cultural geography, critical geopolitics has not
engaged in close and detailed readings of visual material.
Images have either been employed to illustrate a general
analysis or used occasionally to illuminate specific issues
such as media war reporting.’’ This is in contrast to other
disciplines, since there have recently been many aca-
demic studies of comic books in the fields of sociology,
history, and literature (e.g., Reynolds 1992; Nyberg
1998; Brooker 2001; Klock 2002). Historian Ryan Ed-
wardson (2003) has even written about ‘‘Captain Can-
uck’’ and his role in Canadian nationalism. This work
should be seen, in part, as an extension of these scholars’
very fine work.

This article is divided into three parts, each united
with the others through their use of Captain America
texts and images to provide insight into the construction
of American identity. The article begins with an intro-
duction to the character of Captain America and a

Dittmer628

discussion of the role he plays in the rescaling of
American identity and the institutionalization of the
nation’s symbolic space and continues by engaging with
theories of landscape, iconography, and nationalism be-
fore showing their connection to Captain America comic
books. In the final section, a reading of post-9/11 issues
of the Captain America comic book will reveal a nuanced
and ultimately ambiguous geopolitical script that inter-
rogates America’s post-9/11 territorialization.

Deconstructing the Captain

It may seem obvious that Captain America is a symbol
for America, yet it is this obviousness that makes him so
useful for study:

The double neglect of banal nationalism involves aca-
demics forgetting what is routinely forgotten. People in
established nations overlook the routine flagging of na-
tionhood. The flags melt into the background, as ‘‘our’’
particular world is experienced as the world. The routine
absent-mindedness, involved in not noticing unwaved flags
or other symbols of nationhood, has its reflection in aca-
demic theory.

—(Billig 1995, 49–50)

Since Captain America is so clearly a symbol of
America, he provides an opportunity to analyze the
changing meaning and symbolic shape of America as
the region is continually (re)constructed. If identity is
a performance, then American identity has been per-
formed monthly since 1964 in Captain America comic
books. Captain America was created in 1940, prior to
the entry of the United States into World War II, but
after the war had been ongoing in Europe and East Asia
for some time. Timely Comics (later Marvel Comics)
created the character in an attempt to tap into the pa-
triotic consciousness that was awakening in America
(stealing the concept and plagiarizing parts of the uni-
form from a rival company’s character named ‘‘The
Shield’’; see Ro 2004). From its beginning, Captain
America helped construct an identity for America and a
geopolitical script:

It is the spring of 1941. ‘‘The ruthless war-mongers of Eu-
rope’’ have cast their sights on ‘‘a peace-loving America,’’
and ‘‘the youth of our country’’ heed ‘‘the call to arm for
defense.’’ As foreign agents carry out ‘‘a wave of sabotage
and treason’’ against the United States, the president au-
thorizes a top-secret plan. A patriotic young American
named Steve Rogers, too sickly and weak to qualify for
standard enlistment, volunteers for a dangerous scientific
experiment conducted by the nation’s top scientist, Pro-

fessor Reinstein. Injected with a strange, seething liquid,
Rogers undergoes a startling transformation. Growing in
height and mass, Rogers’s muscles expand and tighten to
the peak of human perfection. No longer a frail patriot,
he now has a massive physique, a proud new name, and a
bold mission. The nation’s newest ‘‘super-soldier,’’ Captain
America, is born.
—(Wright 2001, 30, who, in turn, quotes Simon and Kirby

1941, 1–2)

Thus, even in its first issue, Captain America is partici-
pating in the construction of geopolitical ‘‘reality’’
through its description of the U.S. role in the world. The
insider/outsider dialectic outlines a global order with a
‘‘war-mongering’’ Europe and a ‘‘peace-loving’’ America.

Clearly identified as a territorial symbol of America by
his red, white, and blue star-spangled uniform, Captain
America is part of what Renan (1990, 17) has called the
‘‘cult of the flag.’’ Villains often mock Captain America
for his uniform, which is in fact a vaguely ridiculous
display of stars and stripes completed by a pirate’s gloves
and boots and, inexplicably, small wings on his head that
resemble those on the ankles of the Roman god Mercury.
Nevertheless, Captain America’s friends never mock his
outfit or think it odd because to them it is in the back-
ground—what Billig (1995, 40) would call an ‘‘unwaved
flag.’’ Only villains would dare to question his fashion
sense. That Captain America is intended to represent
the American ideal cannot be seen as simply recognition
of ontological fact, but is instead a truth claim about
American-ness. Stan Lee, comic book icon and former
writer for Captain America, argues that Captain America
represents the best aspects of America: courage and
honesty (personal correspondence with author 2004). A
product of his times, however, Captain America’s image
and origin mirror the American identity/dream of 1941.
Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Steve Rogers (with his almost
obsessively Anglo-American name) overcomes his own
physical weakness to become a proud soldier for his
country.

Although the ‘‘super-soldier serum’’ is responsible for
his physique, the success of Captain America in crime
fighting is clearly attributed in the stories to his hard
work, an extension of the Horatio Alger story into
the world of superheroes, where flying and smashing
tanks come easily to dozens of costumed vigilantes
(Macdonald and Macdonald 1976). Captain America’s
uniqueness comes from the fact that he has fewer super
powers than almost any other costumed hero; his real
skills lie in his athleticism and his leadership skills (Lee,
personal communication with author, 5 February 2004).
Indeed, Captain America comics are laced with images of

Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics 629

the Captain practicing his acrobatic maneuvers or lifting
weights. While the drugs given to him by the U.S.
government may have advantaged his start, his contin-
ued success is scripted as attributable to his continued
hard work. In fact, a 1990s storyline had Captain
America lose the super-soldier serum, ostensibly because
it was overloading his body; in reality, it was explained in
the editor’s column that the creative team made the
decision because of the unseemly image of the American
ideal being hooked on a performance-enhancing drug.

Furthermore, Captain America contributes to the
American geopolitical narrative by being ultimately de-
fensive in nature. Indeed, a conceit of the American
geopolitical narrative is that America only acts in the
name of security, not empire. True to this form, young
Steve Rogers in 1940 is a reluctant warrior, but not a
reluctant patriot (Kirby 1969, 9): ‘‘I hate war–and
senseless bloodshed–but I can’t stay behind–while others
do the fighting! There must be something I can do–some
place for me!’’ After this plea gains him access to the
‘‘super-soldier serum’’ that gives him his strength and
quickness, Captain America is provided with a weapon
unique among comic book heroes: a shield. This event is
indicative of his association with the American geopo-
litical script. Most superheroes who use props carry
glamorous offensive weapons; Captain America has a
rather unglamorous (yet patriotically colored) shield.
While Captain America has become quite good at
throwing his shield as an offensive weapon (and always
managing to have it bounce right back to him), it is
important for the narrative of America that he embodies
defense rather than offense.

While the definition of one particular American
identity and geopolitical narrative is an impossible task
due to the crosscutting currents of political thought
and human experience that influence opinion, there are
definite themes running through the discourse. Beasley
(2001) alludes to liberty, equality, and self-government
as the tenets of American exceptionalism. These quali-
ties take meaning only when contrasted against other
nations (Poole 1999), and so the American symbolic
shape requires a dominant geopolitical script to define
the American sense of place and purpose in a complex
world. American exceptionalism thus also becomes the
theme of the dominant geopolitical script, with Jewett
and Lawrence (2003, 34–35) providing an excellent
explanation of this linkage between superheroes, geo-
politics, and American exceptionalism:

[T]he elaborate effort at restraint in the use of force—
suppressing his own aggressive instinct—places Captain
America in the heroic tradition of the American cowboy

killer, the man of purely innocent intention who draws
second in the gun battle but shoots more quickly and ac-
curately than the dastardly foe . . . In these and countless
other examples, superheroes and -heroines exercise the
powers otherwise reserved only for God in dealing with evil.
They are the individuated embodiments of a civil religion
that seeks to redeem the world for democracy, but by means
that transcend democratic limits on the exercise of power.

Indeed, the sense of being part of something extraordi-
nary, the American nation, is inherent to the storylines
of Captain America. The Captain’s willingness to die for
his country (witnessed in virtually every issue) reinforces
the centrality of the nation in the readership of the
comic book. As Anderson (1991, 144) says, ‘‘Dying for
one’s country, which usually one does not choose, as-
sumes a moral grandeur which dying for the Labour
Party, the American Medical Association, or perhaps
even Amnesty International can not rival, for these are
all bodies one can join or leave at easy will.’’ Captain
America’s willingness to die for his country illustrates the
essential centrality of the nation to him and, by ex-
tension, to every American reading the comic book.
Support for the geopolitical objectives of American ex-
ceptionalism becomes an understood, tacit extension of
citizenship.

As just illustrated, the impact of Captain America on
readers is different than other symbols of America, such
as the bald eagle or the flag, because of his ability both to
embody and to narrate America in ways that the bald
eagle, flag, and other symbols cannot. Such static, non-
human symbols represent and construct the nation but
do not allow for a personal connection to it in the same
way that Captain America does. Paasi (2004, 542) has
written about this interconnection between place/
boundaries and scale: ‘‘Scales are not fixed, separate
levels of the social world but, like regions/places, are
structured and institutionalized in complex ways in de/
reterritorializing practices and discourses that may be
partly concrete, powerful and bounded, but also partly
unbounded, vague or invisible.’’

Captain America serves as a cultural product that
vaguely and invisibly connects the reader (usually young
and male, aspiring to heroism), through the body of the
hero, to the scale of the nation. This bridging of scale,
from the individual body to the body politic, is necessary
for the construction of a territorially bounded state oc-
cupied by a cohesive nation. Paasi (2004, 542) reiterates
this point: ‘‘The institutionalization/deinstitutionaliza-
tion of region, place and scale are in fact inseparable
elements in the perpetual process of regional transfor-
mation.’’ Thus, it is not enough to foster territoriality

Dittmer630

and national identity; individuals, despite the abstract
origins of collective identity and territory as a political
project, must internalize the scale of the nation. We now
turn to the construction of that identity and territory.

Captain America and the Other

Captain America serves as a territorial symbol that
participates in the construction of difference between
one region (the United States) and other regions (the
rest of the world). Derek Gregory (2004, 17) illustrates
the role of fiction in shaping this Foucaldian order im-
posed on our worldviews through his discussion of
imaginative geographies (a term originally coined by
Edward Said):

‘‘Their’’ space is often seen as the inverse of ‘‘our’’ space: a
sort of negative, in the photographic sense that ‘‘they’’
might ‘‘develop’’ into something like ‘‘us,’’ but also the site
of an absence, because ‘‘they’’ are seen somehow to lack the
positive tonalities that supposedly distinguish ‘‘us.’’ We
might think of imaginative geographies as fabrications, a
word that usefully combines ‘‘something fictionalized’’ And
‘‘something made real,’’ because they are imaginations
given substance.

The effects of imaginative geographies are not insignifi-
cant, in part because they are performative; they outline
a frame through which the world can be viewed, which
then enables the reader (or viewer or …

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