A Long, Long Ramble

March 7, 2007 at 9:28 pm Leave a comment

For anyone who follows comics, let it be known that there are spoilers herein.

Today, March 7, 2007, Marvel Comics released the latest issue of Captain America. This issue deals with the fallout of the cross-over event “Civil War”, which saw Marvel’s major heroes fighting each other over questions of superhero registration. Captain America’s side lost, and he was put on trial for a number of charges. In this issue, on the steps of the courthouse, Captain America is shot in the head by a sniper, followed by three subsequent shots to the chest from a person in the crowd. Marvel has since confirmed that the shots were fatal, and that Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America, is dead.

Well.

I could go on a long rant right now, explaining exactly why this is stupid and how horrible of an idea it was and all sorts of things. But it wouldn’t be constructive, and if you really wanted you could hear that kind of thing anywhere. No, today I’m going to eulogize Steve Rogers, to explain why he was so significant and exactly what his death means for the industry.


Captain America: 1941-2007

Captain America was “born” in 1941, the brainchild of writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby. Called by some “the quintessential war-propaganda hero”, Captain America was a means of taking Nazi Germany down a peg and assuring millions of children that in the end, the good guys would win.

His origin story is thus; Steve Rogers, a scrawny but intelligent boy refused entrance into the army during WWII on account of his physical condition. Instead, Rogers is drafted into a secret government super-soldier program, where he takes a serum that brings his physical abilities to the peak of human potential. The serum, and all documentation relating to it, is subsequently destroyed by Nazi saboteurs, leaving Steve Rogers to assume the role of America’s only super-soldier as Captain America. Most people remember this era for the time where Captain America punched Hitler in the jaw.

At the end of the war, faced with declining sales, Captain America’s comic was canceled. Had it ended there, he likely would have remained one of hundreds of Golden Age heroes important only for their historical value. But in 1964, in the fourth issue of “The Avengers”, Captain America was brought back into the comic limelight. It was explained to readers that in the process of disabling a spy-plane over the North Atlantic, Captain America was thrown into the sea and frozen. The Avengers found him, thawed him, and he joined the team.

It’s really during this period that Captain America became the character he is today. At his heart, Cap is the embodiment of the American Spirit. He represents the most basic American Ideals, the values of justice, liberty, and equality set down by the founding fathers all those years ago. Captain America is not, as many non-comic readers presume, the puppet of the American government. He IS America, all it’s hopes and dreams and beliefs, everything that makes it great.

Though not American myself, I have a lot of respect for it. It’s creation is incredible; the country never should have worked. Born in a bloody rebellion against the world’s greatest power, it’s basis was formed by dozens of men across the Thirteen Colonies with vastly contrasting values and ideas. The Americans should never have been able to beat the British; the Founding Fathers, working with little precedent, should never have been able to craft a workable constitution. The whole thing should have folded after a year.

And yet here we are.

America’s high promise, it’s greatest value as a country, is that at it’s core it is based on a few key, unshakeable ideals about the worthy of humanity. That all men are created equal, that all are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Basic, almost unachievable ideals, forming the heart of the most long-standing democracy on Earth. Though it was been twisted and perverted a thousand times since, America was a country founded on a Dream, an Ideal both powerful and indestroyable. That Dream is Captain America.

Captain America is a direct representation of the American Myth. A lone hero, but one who is willing to work within the system to help others. Yet if this system becomes exploitive, he’s the first to stand against it. Unwaveringly honest, upright, self-sacrificing and noble, Captain America has all the traits of the great American folk heroes and legends.

There’s always a risk with characters like this, that they’ll come off as too perfect. Cap was kept interesting in part by the circumstances which brought him to the Avengers. In the early days, a lot was made about how he was displaced in time, trying to get used to an America he didn’t know. Equally important was his reaction to the death of Bucky; his old WWII sidekick who was killed in the accident that froze Cap. Lot’s of writers liked to make jokes about just how unwavering he was in his values; in Warren Ellis’ “Nextwave”, it’s explained that he once got into a fight with Captain **** because of the latter’s name (the stars are an expletive). Cap beat him and left a bar of soap in his mouth. It was a cute joke, but these sorts of things weren’t quite as central to his character.

It was once said that the best Captain America stories are the ones where he fights a corrupted version of himself. Representing as he does the most basic of American Ideals, it is only natural that he would come into conflict with those who seek to pervert the idea of America to their own ends.

There’s an old issue of Captain America from the 70’s, where a general tries to sway Cap’s opinion by appealing to his sense of loyalty. In turn, Cap explained to him “I’m only loyal to one thing, General; the Dream”. He was above ideology or partisan politics, he represented something more basic. He was the very personification of the American Dream; everything America wants to be true of itself, the goal to which it aspires even in times of trouble and corruption. Time and time again he was forced to face down a corrupt government, whenever it sought to infringe on the rights of the people. In the end, it was his efforts to prevent injustice that killed him.

Marvel has been directionless for the last few years, moving from big event to big event (Disassembled, House of M, Civil War) trying to reshape their fictional universe, looking for something that works. In the end, they decided that Captain America didn’t have a place in the world anymore. I think that says a lot.

Ed Brubaker, current writer of Captain America, once mused on what he means in American society; “What I found is that all the really hard-core left-wing fans want Cap to be standing out on and giving speeches on the streetcorner against the Bush administration, and all the really right-wing [fans] all want him to be over in the streets of Baghdad, punching out Saddam.” Joe Simon, co-creator of Captain America, simply had this to say about the character’s death: “It’s a hell of a time for him to go. We really need him now.”

In the end, Captain America meant a lot of things to a lot of different people. At his core, he represented an America that didn’t exist, and has never existed; the Ideal of America, rather than it’s execution. He was the basic values upon which the country was founded, unimpeachable and uncorrupting. He was the American Spirit.

He will be missed.

What lies in the future, then? There used to be an old saying in comic book fandom; “Nobody ever stays dead except Uncle Ben and Bucky”. Bucky, Cap’s long-dead sidekick, was revived in the comics just last year. It’s almost certain that Captain America will come back one day.

In the meantime, it seems like Marvel is gearing up to give the title of Captain America to The Punisher; you may recall him as the Vietnam Vet who goes around mercilessly slaughtering anyone he deems a criminal. He’s an interesting character, but to give him the role shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what Captain America means. What does it say about the state of the country if it’s Ideals are represented by a psychopath obsessed with revenge?

That’s all I have to say. A cultural icon, a very symbol of America itself, has been thrown away because of stupid editorial decisions. Tomorrow the sun will rise again, everyone will be a little less indignant, and eventually they’ll stop being so angry about Captain America’s death. Life, after all, goes on. But it will have a little less light in it now, a little less hope. People need heroes to aspire to, to show them the way; they need these grand figures and ideals to provide reassurance that no matter how bad it gets, there’s a better world waiting around the corner if you just strive for it. They provide an example, embody our values, give us inspiration. We look up to them, and hope.

If the American Dream is dead, who will people look to now?

Editor’s Note: Wow, I took this really seriously, didn’t I? Basically, Captain America is a fantastic character; as a bit of a literary geek I love it when characters represent basic ideals, and Captain America was a perfect example of that; after being reintroduced in the 60’s he gradually makes a transition from ‘A Man Out of Time’ to ‘A Man for All Time’, from someone lost in a strange new world to someone who embodies it’s most fundamental and undying dreams.

Since this article was published Marvel has gone ahead and made Bucky (rather than The Punisher, as I predicted) the new Captain America, which though entirely different in tone still seems to be working (mainly because of Brubaker’s writing). Despite my claims of Marvel being ‘directionless’, the large-scale reworkings of the universe they’ve undertaken actually seem to be working now and have established a new, viable status-quo. I’m going to admit I called this one wrong. Even so, it’s rough having Steve Rogers gone.

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