It seems there's a new third rail in American politics -- don't mess with the Tea Partiers -- and Marvel Comics has inadvertently grabbed it with both hands. And even though members of the Tea Party movement have extracted a half-hearted apology and a promised retraction from Marvel, their anger has barely abated.

In a recent issue of Captain America, the long-time superhero and his African-American partner The Falcon travel to Idaho to investigate a white supremacist militia group, the Watchdogs, who are long-time villains in the Marvel Universe. On the way, they pass an anti-tax rally where the protesters are holding up signs bearing familiar Tea Party slogans, such as "Stop the Socialists!" and "Tea Bag the Libs Before They Tea Bag You."

This implied mockery of the Tea Partiers quickly aroused a firestorm of indignation on conservative blogs and message boards, made even worse by the implied association between the protesters and the local racist militia.

One particularly angry blogger, Warner Todd Huston, wrote, "So, there you have it, America. Tea Party protesters just 'hate the government,' they are racists, they are all white folks, they are angry, and they associate with secretive white supremacist groups that want to over throw the U.S. government."

Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada has reacted with an apology of sorts, telling an interviewer, "I can absolutely see how some people are upset about this," but also insisting that in the story as originally written "there was no connection to the Tea Party movement, that's a screw up that happened after the fact and exactly what some people are getting upset about."

According to Quesada, what was originally intended as "a generic protest group" only acquired its Tea Party identification when a letterer added the slogans at the last minute to protest signs that the artist had left blank. The slogans will reportedly be removed in future printings of the issue.

"However, where I do take exception with Mr. Houston’s article," Quesada continued, "is when he states that we are calling the Tea Party racist...wait I’m sorry, that we’re saying that every white person is a racist along with several other horrible and inflammatory accusations. Nothing can be further from the truth."

Quesada's protestations, however, may strike some as less than convincing. Even liberal blogger and comics fan Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent writes at Firedoglake, "Will you forgive me for being dubious? I haven’t read the issue, but I’ve read Ed Brubaker’s run as Captain America writer and this strikes me as entirely commensurate with the stories Brubaker tells portraying Cap as a redeeming figure for an increasingly hysterical country. ... Marvel is a huge corporate entity, so I get that it can’t be so overtly political, but c’mon — one of the villains of Siege’s accompanying Embedded book is based on Glenn Beck."

As described by IGN, "If you've ever wondered what Glen Beck would look like through the prism of the Marvel Universe, Siege: Embedded has you covered. Its main antagonist, Todd Keller, is a manipulative, vitriol-spewing, war-mongering jerk who hates his kowtowing president and loves the sound of his own voice. In other words, he's a lot like Beck save for the fact that he seems more evil than buffoonish."

The real bone of contention in this controversy, however, may be not whether Marvel consciously intended to link the Tea Parties to extreme right-wing radicals but whether such an association has any validity. In the current issue of Newsweek, for example, conservative Jonathan Kay describes his attendance at the recent Tea Party Convention and concludes that "the tea-party movement is dominated by conspiracist kooks."

"Within a few hours in Nashville," Kay writes, "I could tell that what I was hearing wasn't just random rhetorical mortar fire being launched at Obama and his political allies: the salvos followed the established script of New World Order conspiracy theories, which have suffused the dubious right-wing fringes of American politics since the days of the John Birch Society."

According to Fox News, however, "The change may come too late to placate a chorus of critics who noticed the apparent jab at the Tea Party movement and who accused Marvel of making supervillains out of patriotic Americans."

Michael Johns, a board member of the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, told Fox that "the 'juvenile' dig will ultimately do more damage to Marvel's brand than to the Tea Party movement. He also disputed the insinuation that the growing movement lacks diversity."

In contrast to Johns' assertions, however, a recent Washington Post poll "offers a portrait of tea party supporters as overwhelmingly white, mostly conservative and generally disapproving of Obama." In addition, according to the Post, "nearly two-thirds of those polled say they know just some, very little or nothing about what the tea party movement stands for," even though "about 45 percent of all Americans say they agree at least somewhat with tea partiers on issues."

If the real issue is a tug of war over how the Tea Parties are to be portrayed in the public media, controversies like this one over Captain America can only grow more frequent and more intense.