Thursday, March 08, 2007

R.I.P. Captain America

The Star-Spangled Avenger in better days.
News Item (AP): Captain America has undertaken his last mission--at least for now.

The venerable superhero is killed in the issue of his namesake comic that hit stands Wednesday, the New York Daily News reported. On the new edition's pages, a sniper shoots down the shield-wielding hero as he leaves a courthouse.

It ends a long run for the stars-and-stripes-wearing character, created in 1941. Over the years, some 210 million copies of Captain America comic books, published by New York-based Marvel Entertainment Inc., have been sold in 75 countries....

This is news? Doesn't anyone remember when DC killed Superman a few years ago? Or Robin? They got better; so will Captain America.

This non-event nevertheless coalesces some thoughts about comic books, which I read and collected quite passionately between the ages of about 5 and 25, but turned away from in the late 1980s and haven't bought since. The obvious conclusion is that I outgrew them, but I never thought that was the case. Rather, I always felt like comic books turned away from me. They stopped being about the adventures of characters I loved. Their creators showed no appreciation for my loyalty or my business, so they lost me. When I realized I was only buying comics to keep my collection current and throwing them on a pile unread, I walked away with no regret.

What happened to comic books? They became grim and gritty, cynical and nihlistic. Trying to be more "mature," "adult,"and "realistic," their creators loaded them with depressing sex and violence--seldom handled in a way that a mature adult would recognize as realistic--while at the same time cutting our heroes from their moral underpinnings. Good guys became killers, then murderers, then mass murderers. Hopelessly square characters like Superman and, yes, Captain America were derided as old-fashioned Boy Scouts (take a moment to reflect on the perspective of comic book creators who use "Boy Scout" as an insult).

What they lost was the fundamental understanding that superheroes are adolescent wish fulfillment characters who are by definition better than us. They do things people in real life wouldn't or couldn't do--that's the "hero" part of superhero--and provide examples that in some small way we might emulate. When I was a child, they taught me concepts of courage, justice, resourcefulness, determination, and selflessness that were integrated into the foundation of my personality. I'm not attempting to be funny or disrespectful when I say that the Lone Ranger, Batman and Captain America were as important as my family in making the younger me want to become a good person who tries to do the right thing.

From the 1940s through the '70s, comics creators were professionals producing the best juvenile literature they could. The best of them, such as Julius Schwartz, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby, added layers of meaning that more sophisticated adult readers also appreciated, but they knew who their audience was. Since then, I think a few unfortunate things happened. Kids who grew up on those comics wanted their favorite characters to grow up with them--to get older, have sex, battle existential depression, and shove samurai swords through each other's guts. Unfortunately, many of those fans became pros in a position to do something about it. Naturally bored with the heroes and adventures that had so successfully entertained them when they were young, they made stories to entertain their older, too-cool-for-school, cynical selves. "Hero? There's no such thing. Everybody's screwed up and looking out for Number One." They couldn't imagine anyone living to a more heroic standard than they did.

The old guard was proud to produce good juvenile fiction; too many of the new guys were embarrassed by it. At the same time, the comic book business shrank dramatically, so that today's creators are working for a smaller and smaller group of increasingly older fans who value the same things they do. One sad consequence is that there are very few comics produced in the last 20 years I'd be comfortable handing to an 8 year old (please don't send me a list; I realize there are exceptions and I don't currently know any 8 year olds). Another sad consequence is that a kid coming out of a recent movie featuring Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, or The Fantastic Four--generally depicted in their "classic" incarnations defined at the height of their popularity decades ago--would find nothing on the comics rack resembling those film heroes. What a lost opportunity!

(I feel duty-bound to say I'm not objecting to comics for adults. I wrote one. Comics are a medium that I truly believe can handle any mature themes and characters their creators can conceive, including sex and violence. If I have any complaint, it's that too few "adult" comics aspire to actual maturity. What I'm bemoaning is the misguided drive to shove that content into the pages of Superman. To shift genres, I wouldn't be happy to see the Hardy Boys fishing bloated corpses out of the river and getting into gun battles with drug-running rapists, either.)

See, the thing about Captain America is that he really has no superpowers. He was a scrawny kid during World War II who volunteered for an experiment designed to produce an American super-soldier. The treatment (think super-steroids) gave young Steve Rogers a perfect physique and the acrobatic skills of an Olympic gymnast. With such relatively meager abilities, Captain America went on to lead the Greatest Generation in The Last Good War. When Marvel Comics revived him in the 1960s, he became something more: the embodiment of the American ideal. Liberty, opportunity, the triumph of the ordinary man, all the good stuff about us that we hardly ever live up to but hope we can. At the same time, Captain America became the one man you'd follow into a fight because you knew he'd never give up and always find a way to win. Over the years, with hardly any superhuman abilities at all, Captain America grew into the respected moral center of the Marvel Universe. You could never go wrong asking, "What would Captain America do?"

Captain America won't stay dead. But, y'know, he might be better off if he did.


Anonymous said...

You took everything I felt about Cap's death in particular and modern comics in general and said it much more eloquently than I could have.

Comics turned away from me too.

L said...

Ya, it's sad what kind of comics they're making now. I think that's why people of R's and my generation and younger are turning more to anime and manga than American comics...American comic books just aren't made for the younger crowd anymore. At least in manga, kids are able to find that sort of hero-worship again (plus each book's a lot longer too :D).

It'd be really cool if they brought back the old comic writing though. I'd definately buy an old-style Batman and Robin comic! At least they did have the Justice League show for a while, that was really good!

Otis Frampton said...

You took the words right out of my mouth.

But I will add this . . .

I think he should stay dead until they find a writer willing to write Captain America and not Captain One World. Based on the recent "Civil War" storyline, it's clear that Marvel has lost sight of what the character stands for and how he should be depicted.

Like you said, the old school creators served their country and knew about sacrifice. Something tells me there aren't many people at Marvel who have any frame of reference for that kind of character and most likely view those in the military as foolish at best and idiots at worst.

A Captain America written the way he should be written would most likely not fit with Marvel's editorial directives.

Just my 2 cents. I could be wrong.


Mike Lynch said...

Does this mean Bucky becomes Captain America now?

Mike said...

The whole comics-as-collectibles thing came along after my time. My little brother held on to a lot of Marvel comics, but because he wanted to read them again. They weren't in plastic and they were well-loved -- in other words, "ruined" in the eyes of the cognoscenti. My exposure to comics was at summer camp -- eight weeks without TV each summer, when our parents would send up comic books. We'd read them and trade them back and forth between cabins when we were through, just as sailors on the old sailing ships would swap books while the captains were exchanging mail and reports for the ships owners. That was how I read the first Spiderman, first Thor, first Hulk and as I seem to recall, the first reborn (thawed out?) Captain America.

The notion that they were valuable and should be collected was a step in, as you say, making them something for Big Kids instead of Little Kids.

Or, to put it another way, ruining the whole thing.

I would think it would be more flattering to see how many grubby little hands had pawed through your comic book than to see how many obsessive near-adults had categorized it into their filing system, but maybe I'm the wrong kind of writer.

Brian Fies said...

I much appreciate the comments. Philip, thanks. L, I think you put your finger on something that troubles the American comic book industry very much: "why aren't more kids buying our books?" They should ask you.

Otis, I think you wrote a couple of important things there. I'm always struck by the idea that creators in the old days--not just in comics but writing, film, television, art--often has a wealth of worldly experience under their belts, including military service. Jack Kirby didn't just draw Nazis, he actually fought them! I haven't paid enough attention over the years to discuss how Captain America has been handled lately, but I'd sure like to see him in the hands of someone who really believed in the ideals he stands for rather than sneering at them.

Mike Lynch, until very recently I would've been able to answer, "Sorry bud, Bucky's dead." I understand that's no longer the case. So maybe you're right. I look forward to seeing Spider-Man's Uncle Ben rising from the grave any day now.

Mike P., I enjoyed your evocative memories, and your last paragraph expresses all kinds of truth. However, if you still had that issue in which Captain America was thawed from the ice, it'd be worth a pretty penny. (I actually do have it...stored away in a plastic bag. Sigh. Maybe I'm the wrong kind of writer, too.)

Kid Sis said...

Amen. I stopped reading last year when Bendis killed the Avengers. 200 steps away from the best comic book store, and I haven't been inside it since I don't know when.

Otis Frampton said...

"Jack Kirby didn't just draw Nazis, he actually fought them!"

Stan Lee enlisted in the army and served State-side during the war, Ditko built models to aid in German aircraft spotting and served in post-War Germany during reconstruction, Will Eisner served three years as a Warrant Officer at the Pentagon during the war, Harvey Kurtzmen served, John Romita Sr served, Mike Ploog served, Bernard Krigstein served . . . I'm sure there are more.

My generation gets Micah Wright.

Oh well.

If Marvel is reading, feel free to let ME take a stab at writing Cap. My record is REAL.