There's a fascinating contradiction embodied by Captain America: the blue-eyed, blond-haired uber-Aryan who nonetheless fights for the best of American values – against racism, prejudice, injustice, and even, from time to time, the failures of his own government. (One 1970s storyline had him discovering that a figure implied to be President Nixon lay at the top of a government conspiracy). One such representative case is that of Arnie Roth, now a mostly forgotten character, but one whose story embodies comic-book idealism at its best spirit, however imperfectly executed it may be.
In 1982, the AIDS crisis was in its full throes, while President Reagan was still years away from even mentioning it in a speech. At Marvel Comics, the Comics Code and the company's then-editor, Jim Shooter (the author of a certain odiously homphobic Hulk story), hugely limited writers' ability to introduce gay characters and themes.
It was in this context that Captain America writer J.M. DeMatteis introduced Arnie Roth, a fellow World War II veteran and childhood friend of Steve Rogers.
In childhood, it is Roth who is stronger, more confident, and “a teenage Romeo,” in contrast to the shyer, more effeminate (!) Steve, who does not “share his passions”. Upon reuniting during the war (after Steve has become Captain America), Roth is intrigued by Rogers' confidence and “incredible physique,” but Rogers refuses to discuss the nature of his transformation.
It's an unusual role reversal; here, the imagery and language of the closet and of coming out is repurposed towards a superhero's own “closeted” identity. Invoking that similarity between the superhero experience and that of gay men in America serves to enrich the bond between Arnie and Steve.
After the two reunite, Arnie comes out to Steve, at least as much as 1982 mainstream comics would allow. Arnie is, as they say, a confirmed bachelor, and his hesitant emphasis on the word “roommate” is enough to imply that he and Michael are more than friends.
Cap defeats the henchmen who have kidnapped Michael, and fights a purple monster for good measure, but it's too late: Arnie finds Michael dead.
Sadly, as is all too common for gay couples in comics, Arnie and Michael's happy ending wouldn't last. In a subsequent storyline, the two are captured by villain Baron Zemo:
Cap defeats the mutated creatures – into which Arnie and Michael's minds have been transferred – but only at the cost of Michael's life.
At Michael's grave, Rogers attempts to reassure Arnie, in spite of the latter's own apparent self-loathing.
It's a touching ending, though one wishes it didn't rely on the fridging of a rare gay character.
In a later storyline, Arnie is tormented by visions of Michael (now referred to more explicitly as his “beloved”):
Roth is soon kidnapped by the villainous ex-Nazi Red Skull; mind-controlled, Arnie is forced to participate in a performance in which he derides his identity as a gay man.
Echoing his own introductory story, Arnie taunts Captain America, pondering if he is gay as well:
But Cap ultimately saves the day, delivering a stirring tirade against homophobia:
Arnie's story arc is not without its flaws. He and Michael are mostly passive victims, who need a straight male hero to save them. Nonetheless, the story arc allows DeMatteis – through one of Marvel's foremost heroes – to deliver as blatant a critique of homophobia and AIDS hysteria as mainstream comics could allow.
After the events of this storyline, Arnie relocates to Florida. Years later, he reappears, looking much different (he had lost fifty pounds in Florida, he explains). He and Cap bond over the fact that both are dying – at the time, Cap's Super-Soldier formula was wearing off, which threatened to prove fatal.
Arnie dies just after Cap leaves his side, and Cap soon dies as well. Comics being comics, Steve was soon resurrected, whereas Arnie, to my knowledge, has been barely (if at all) mentioned since his death. Nonetheless, there's a wonderful symbolism in the fact that the two live and die together: the gay Jew and the straight near-Aryan, both written as queer in their own ways, united by friendship. That's superhero values at their best.