BY TAMAR M. BOYADJIAN
To be a hero, one must be alone.
Steve Rogers is alone. Steve Rogers had a friend. Steve Rogers lost that friend. Then he was alone. Subsequently, he became a hero; because he experienced agony. (One must endure suffering to be a hero; since there is no heroism without sorrow.)
Sako hasn’t yet lost a friend. Frankly, he has none. And so, he is not a hero – though he wishes to be! He will be. Therefore, he must find a friend to be deprived of. Death is not a necessity. He could simply betray a friend, to become a hero.1
Christian Batikian’s “Captain America” is a short story – in the style of a bildungsroman -composed in Western Armenian about a young “hero” named Sako who seeks to find adventure, solitude, and acceptance amidst his social and physical surroundings in contemporary Istanbul. Intertwining the world of comic heroes, the mythical, and the power of childhood imagination, the story focuses on the psychological, sexual, and moral growth of Sako, whose life symbolically parallels that of his secret hero, Steve Rogers – better known in the comic world as the alter ego of the superhero Captain America.
At the onset of the story, Sako decides to keep his admiration for Steve Rogers a secret. His classmates, who consider him a loser, favor Batman; in order to befriend them, so must he. His false pretenses enable him to partake in various types of adventurous and mischievous schemes throughout the city of Istanbul with his friends, Alex and Garo, which include throwing bags of water and urine down upon the heads of bystanders from the top floor of an apartment building; daring each other to swim between invented islands in the Bosphorus; camping in the woods; and engaging in sexual curiosities. When Sako tries to remember his life before friends, the story claims, “there was nothing before them. And he was born one day on the shores of the Bosphorus, standing next to Garo and Alex” – a space the text describes Sako will always find “outside of any time.”
In the genre of the “coming of age” story, or the bildungsroman, which also highly influences the construction of mythical heroes and the heroes of the comic book world, Sako’s journey becomes reflective of the immigrant experience in Istanbul; but more importantly his search for heroism, friendship, and life experiences exposes this intricately woven tapestry of the human condition, also exemplified in the hero’s journey in comic book narratives. Custom to the genre of the bildungsroman, where the main protagonist experiences an emotional loss which onsets his journey, “Captain America” begins with our hero already at a loss – devoid of friends and life experiences – so much so, that he must secretly betray himself and his favorite hero with the expectation that this will lead to his making friends. This secrecy even extends to the manner in which Sako reads the stories of his hero: “And there was a boy, who in the evenings under the light of the small lantern, under the covers of his bed, would read his Captain America comic books.”
But Sako’s journey, as it parallels that of his hero Steve Rogers, is one enamored with great difficulty and constant conflict with his surrounding world. In fact, both the narrative and the image of the three main characters, Sako, Alex, and Garo, metaphorically embody the qualities of their favorite superheroes – Captain America, his sidekick Bucky Barnes, and Batman, respectively. As the text describes, “Alex could be Bucky Barnes, although he has some feminine features. Garo is not Captain America. His hero is Batman.”
Garo and Alex’s rejection of Captain America as a hero is also a reflection of their dismissal of Sako – though perhaps one could even read the three characters as embodying different parts of the same self. The story wavers between notions of exclusion and inclusion –the relationship between the three boys metaphorically reflecting Sako’s and Steve Rogers’s lack of acceptance in the world around them. Steve Rogers was born on July 4, 1920 to poor Irish immigrant parents. Living during the Great Depression in America, Rogers is presented as a weak young man also devoid of life and family, having lost his parents at an early age. After Rogers is injected with an experimental enhancing serum to aid the United States government’s efforts in World War II, he becomes the perfect American superhero better known as Captain America. “But this is not an easy matter, when your hero is neither Batman nor Superman (not even Spiderman), rather a muted 1940s forgotten memory,” thinks Sako.
“Steve Rogers is defenseless against the fog!” Sako is vulnerable in the murky city.
And so, Sako must traverse the waters of the Bosphorus, to the realm of the mythical otherworld where subdued desire and adventure can be exposed. The roguish actions in the city contrast with those that happen when Sako and Alex swim across waters and reach unknown islands, one of which they believe is inhabited by small elves. It is the water – a symbolic metaphor for the rite of passage from a world of rejection to acceptance, from deceit to truth, from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the space of repression to the world of desire and sexual play, from Steve Rogers (or perhaps even Batman) to Captain America.
“You should know it already, that Steve Rogers is stronger than Batman. Know that Steve can cross oceans to reach his goal … for you … Steve Rogers is always a winner, and Batman has simply lost,” asserts Sako when the boys are camping in the forest. The notion of these dreams and mythical elements reflect the unsettled and wavering condition of our hero who attempts to find some form of solace in his social and physical environment beyond the waters of Istanbul. In these otherworlds, transgressive relations (including sexual desires) become possible because they are out of the social dimensions of the city. In fact, Batikian’s story contributes to the long trajectory in literary history, particularly that of the early modern period, which connects the city of Istanbul to colonial and maritime culture, and the sea as a space which allows the crossing of sexual, social, and physical boundaries – particularly ethno-cultural exchanges between “east” and “west.”2
But blurred time and space are the fog against which Sako and his hero Captain America are defenseless. At the end of the story, Sako’s honesty reveals him to be a fallen hero. “Do you remember we were arguing with Garo about who is stronger, Batman or Spiderman, and you said Batman; we had just met then, and the truth is I didn’t like you, but Garo insisted you were not a bad guy,” Alex says ambiguously. When Sako ultimately confesses his true hero to be Captain America, the narrative makes a cyclical return to the beginning, to the fear of both Captain America and Sako as being “losers.” For a moment in the narrative it seems Sako is the one who rejects Alex, when he refuses to return back to the island with him.
But the end of the story calls into question the ultimate sacrifice of the hero, exposing
those beautiful moments of the human condition: those confused moments in childhood of friendship and love; the moments when one attempts to comprehend their unknown surroundings, and to adapt and live among those who do not fully understand them.
The chimney is sparkling, and the colorful pages with glaring flames burn one after another.
(at least keep this one, it is the first publication, and you paid a thousand liras for it…)
And the last comic book is thrown into the flame.
‘…also Captain America’s young ally,’ is read on the cover; and enveloped by the flame, everything gets lost in the light.
1. This translation and all those following from the original Armenian to English are my own. The complete English translation and commentary of Batikian’s “Captain America” will appear in the next volume of Absinthe: Journal of World Literature in Translation (ed. Tamar Boyadjian) forthcoming in January 2016. You can find the original Armenian text on ingnagir.org. (http://inknagir.org/?p=5131).
2. In early Ottoman literature and nonfiction accounts, for example, trade routes to Istanbul also included the trading of slaves and the transporting of young boys who would partake in the Sultan’s harem. See also legends such as “Hero and Leander” and the story of Ganymede (among many others) which include lovers swimming between the European and Asian side of the strait to meet one another.
Tamar M. Boyadjian is Assistant Professor of Medieval Literature in the Department of English at Michigan State University. You can reach her or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at firstname.lastname@example.org. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at www.criticsforum.org. To sign up for electronic versions of new articles, go to www.criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.