Saturday, March 10, 2007

Captain America, R.I.P? I Don't Think So...

Call me a doubter, but I've seen this before. The most recent issue of Captain America has the beloved character gunned down on the steps of a court-house, seemingly assassinated he's now dead. Forever. Finito. The book is generating a lot of interest, both in the comic book world and also in the mainstream media.

Or is he? It's not like this stunt is anything new is it?

You see back in the day Jim Steranko also 'killed' Captain America. In 1969 Steranko co-wrote and penciled three of the best issues of Captain America that you're likely to see. The second issue of that groundbreaking run, issue #111, saw the character shot as he lept into the ocean, a bullet riddled mask confirmed the horrid truth - he was dead. He'd met his maker. The next issue that followed, #113, Steranko's final, saw Captain America's funeral, attended by the rest of the Avengers. Even the titles of the stories were great - #11 was titled 'Tomorrow You Live Tonight I Die!' and #113 was the great 'The Strange Death Of Captain America'. To my eyes Steranko rarely got better than this (for those wanting to know, #112 was a fill-in issue, a Stan Lee-Jack Kirby origin/overview issue done over a weekend when Steranko supposedly missed his deadline. I've always wondered if Steranko didn't miss that deadline on purpose just to extend the suspense and general agony out for as long as he could. The fill-in by Lee & Kirby was nothing to sneeze at and you'd never have guessed that Kirby did it in about three days. Oh, and for the record, Cap was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby waaay back when in 1941). It was fairly heady stuff for a young man, and alongside the imaginary death of Superman (in Superman #149, Nov, 1961) it had a great impact upon many a reader.

But Captain America wasn't really dead was he?

Of course he wasn't dead. He was very much alive. So was Superman for that matter. At least DC explained that one away as being an imaginary story, thus it never happened, but then to quote someone better than me, aren't all the stories imaginary? So why did Captain America die? To bring his assassins out in the open and to establish a new identity, or, more to the point, to bring his old identity back to the secret status (everyone knew Cap was Steve Rogers). How did he die? He threw a 'rubberized figure' dressed up as himself into a bay, the figure was riddled with gunfire as it fell. Was it an effective story? Yep. Did it confuse me as a child? You better believe it. Still the double page spread of Cap 'returning' in the cemetery and the splash page two pages later was some of the best work Steranko ever did.

(Jean Grey. The first of her many deaths. She must have a revolving door in the afterlife)

Over the years Marvel, and other comic book companies, have killed off many main characters. Phoenix - dead, only to be brought back to life and reborn. In fact I've lost count of how many times Jean Grey has died. Frank Miller killed off his own creation, Elektra, twice only to see Marvel bring her back, healthy as can be. DC killed off Superman in a blaze of publicity and glory a year later. Off the top of my head I can remember seeing Green Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Warlock, Green Lantern, Spider-Man (yep, before he unmasked recently he died - you might have missed it as it didn't generate the headlines required), Hawkeye, Colossus and a host of others. All dead. All 'alive' now and healthy. The only comic book character I can remember that was killed off and has remained dead is Menthor, from Wally Wood's brilliant T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.

(Captain Marvel. Died of cancer but apparently got better)

Even Captain Marvel, killed in the one of the most emotional comic book stories ever written and drawn (in my most humble of opinions) is back alive and wondering how, where and when he kicked off originally. I asked Jim Starlin for his thoughts on Captain America as he was the one who wrote and drew the Death of Captain Marvel (and he also killed off the second Robin, Jason Todd, in an equally as memorable Batman story, 'A Death In The Family'). "I understand the title is continuing on after his "death"," says Jim. "Remember Superman dying some years back? Willing to bet Steve Rogers doesn't get any where near Captain Marvel's twenty some odd years of staying dead." Jim, I'd not take that bet no matter what the stakes were because you're right. I have to chuckle a bit though because, as Jim once told me, when he returned to Marvel in the 1990s the powers that be instantly asked him to bring back Captain Marvel only to be told no. Still with his excellent mini-series Marvel: The End, Starlin managed to kill the entire Marvel Universe. Same with Fred Hembeck. He killed everyone at least once. Eventually they all got better though.

(Daredevil. Bullseye vs Elektra! One Wins. One Dies...well, at least until next time around)

So why should we buy into what Marvel is selling now? Short answer - publicity. In that vein I asked a few people who should, and probably do, know better for their views on this recent turn of events. Not everyone is opposed to this recent turn of events. "Back in Steranko's day, media was not as consumed with and reporting of pop culture," says Al Bigley. "That was silly filler stuff for the last 30 seconds of a news broadcast. Don't know what that means, but there it is.

"As far as how Cap will come back, and how he was "assassinated," just read the comic. Some interesting twists for those of us who've been reading it all along, as opposed to Marvel rushing out a cheapie one-shot (no pun intended) to cash in on the slow news day.

"It really has been a good read for the last 3 years or so, in both art and story.."

Paul Ryan drew Captain America in the pages of The Avengers (and Avengers West Coast) and is currently drawing the adventures of another icon, The Phantom. Says Paul, "I don't read comics much anymore so I can't comment on the specifics of the Captain America issue in question. I'm not getting excited about the so called "Death of Captain America". I've seen this before with Superman. Give it some time. Old Wing Head will be back before you know it. To me this seems like just another publicity stunt to increase sales.

"You say that the Kree Captain Marvel is back? Too bad. The Jim Starlin Graphic Novel, "The Death of Captain Marvel" was very poignant and should not be desecrated. Bucky is back too? Is there no end to the mischief playing out in the House of Idea?"

Oh yes, that brings up a point. Bucky.

Bucky was/is Captain America's World War II side-kick and for a while the most enduring death in the Marvel Universe. Bucky was shown to have died when Cap came back to life, in the pages of The Avengers (issue #4) and after a fashion it was always said that the only person to stay dead would be Bucky.

But the recent Winter Soldier storyline showed us that Bucky wasn't dead. He's alive. So who remains dead in the MU? Only very minor, third string characters.

So who's to say that in a few months time some shadowy figure will surface, lurking in the dark, hunting criminals and fighting evil with a shield who'll be revealed as the good Captain? It might not end up that way but something will happen. Bob McLeod is one of those who has a more cynical point of view. "I really couldn't care much less about this," says Bob, "Kill him, give him a sex change, it's all sales gimmicks at the expense of long time fans. New readers don't know Steve Rogers from Steve Reeves."

(Superman. He didn't die, it was just a dream)

Bob Hall takes a different look at things. "Well I hope they don't kill him off for good -- I can't imagine they will," says Bob. "For one thing, his was one of the three or four best outfits to draw in comics. Also, for some reason he seemed to have a true personality. Even mediocre writers seemed to get him right, I suppose because he stood for an America even those of us who are jaded old cynics have embedded somewhere in our consciousness -- one where "right" may have been a moving target, but our heroes were guys who honestly tried to sort it out rather than depending on money and polls to tell them. We sometimes forget that Cap started out as a "little guy" both in strength and humbleness and the Super Soldier Serum was more a metaphor than a reality. The little guy who was there at Anzio and Omaha Beach or Iwo Jima, through courage, became a Captain America. Over the years, courage was the dominant factor in Cap's Character. Writers intuitively or wisely played down the super soldier aspect and focused instead the courage that every-person could aspire to."

"Killing Cap is like burning the American Flag," says Steven Bove, "I'm shocked by what the children at the major comic companies are allowed to do with these icons. Of course you just can't take it seriously." Those sentiments seem to be reflected by Norm Breyfogle when he says, "Haven't read it, but of course he's not dead for good." Writer Will Murray appears in sync with Norm when he says, "Cap was one of my favorite Marvel characters during the Lee-Kirby era, but honestly I feel nothing to hear that he may be dead. He's not my Captain America. And he's probably not really dead....". Long time Hulk artist and comic book icon Herb Trimpe is another of those who feel Cap's 'death' is anything but permanent when he says, "Nobody dies in comics. Just put on hold for a while. If a death were somehow kept permanent, which seems to happen in real life, it would be stupid. Like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Remember, it's all about marketing which = $$$$$. The bottom line."

(Superman. Wasn't really dead this time either, just sleeping)

Writer Neil Hansen* also waded into the debate on the Grand Comic Book Database mailing list with the following, "Speaking as somebody who had the inside scoop from the Superman death back in 1992 -- I wrote extensively for Comics Values Monthly on this one -- this all is just a way to generate new interest in a character. Outside the comics, I'm sure ol' Cap does very well in the licensing aspects of existence. Keep him out of the public eye for a few months or longer, and then bring him back in another media blitz revival. Cap may not be Steve Rogers in the comics, but Flash isn't Wally West or Barry Allen any more. That also doesn't mean the Ultimate version of Cap is dead though anyone can correct me on this one. You have to take these events with a grain of salt.

"Funny thing about Superman's death is that Duracell Batteries had the character potentially advertising for them. That whole campaign was killed when Supes bought the farm during that media blitz. Captain America is too good a character for commercial gain to let languish. Anyway, enough of my diatribe."

Alan Kupperberg drew a few issues of Captain America back in the late 1970s/early 1980s and drew the character for a rather long run in the classic The Invaders, so he does know what he's talking about here. "Call me a cynic," says Alan, "Captain Cynic if you will.

"We have seen this all before. I attended Captain America's memorial service at the Avengers mansion over thirty five years ago, thanks to the reportage of Jim Steranko.

"I think it's a shame that Marvel had to pull an old chestnut like this to capture all that media attention. And the media didn't even fall for it as hard as they did when they hyped the "death" of Superman. This time, the media stories all contained the "death of Superman caveat." That is, that this is all a sales gimmick.

"I don't object to a sales gimmick. I object to an old gimmick. A stale gimmick. It was an antique when we found out that, 'Bobby's not dead, it was all a dream.' I also don't object to the killing and resurrection of any given character in fiction. Again, it is a tried and true convention of fiction. A cliche. Just don't try and tell me that you are doing anything bold or significant. Not when people only remember the sales figures generated, rather than the dramatic or philosophic or political points of your story. And certainly not when you're going to back out of it at the end and restore the situation to anything resembling the status quo.

"So you've got to admire the folks that successfully hype a cliche. And you've got to ask yourself questions about a media that bites the hook every time.

"But why not try to transcend the cliche? How sweet would the coverage be if a new idea, a novel idea had been offered? I know that new ideas are difficult to come up with. I don't know if I've ever had one. So I believe that I can appreciate how daunting is the task I propose.

"But give it a shot guys, huh?"

(The Final Fate Of The Flash? No, not really)

Jesus Antonio Hernandez Rodriguez also took the time out for a more detailed view on things. Jesus comments, "I love the character and is maybe my second best favorite character ever,my first comic was an Avengers one, Steve Rogers aka Captain America being a comic artist as part of the background, being so ethical, etc he was the perfect character you can relate with.

"If you had asked me this question some years ago, I would have been so upset and even felt mad at the killing of the character. But know I understand with the passing of the years that Joe Quesada is doing his job, to call the attention of the media, in fact putting everything in perspective (I still remember when I heard he was taking a Marvel executive position). He has done what he wanted and I am glad of what he is doing.

"My only tiny concern is ....How many more characters do we have to kill to call the attention of a potential market or to sacrifice the character to make it more easy to digest for the general audience and to make it more friendly going for the movie industry? I mean, we know (comic authors, pencilers, inkers, fans, editors, publishers, etc), we are a really hardcore sector that never changes and as you know we normally pass our love for comics to our beloved ones (sons, nephews, nieces etc). We already know that with this publicity helps the numbers sales but it does not really have significant changes in having more people buying comics or recruiting more people after such plots like Capt being killed.

"I still do not know why the bad misconception (from the regular guy outside the field) that comics is not ART, but to be honest I do not want to convince anyone of something I like to do and I like to read. This is just a MERE matter of sales...and I am happy that Joe is doing it because if he were not then someone else would do it, and I prefer a guy who I know loves comics and is smart to know how to make small changes or big ones...

"I will miss Steve Rogers for sure but I know he is coming back... am I right? "

(Robin. 'Can He Possibly Be Alive?' Well, not right at that moment. Brutally beaten by the Joker, blown up and subsequently buried, he eventually recovered from death. Would that we could all be that lucky)

Well that's a damn good question and one that might already have been answered. Go ahead and read Civil War: The Initiative, also out now. There's a telling exchange in that book that seemingly negates the whole death thing. Is Steve Rogers on a floating island somewhere recovering and hiding from his many foes? Is it that Marvel are leaning towards Frank Castle, The Punisher, taking over the mantle of the good captain (like that hasn't been done before...ummm...US Agent anyone)? Is it yet another ruse or just a writer jumping the gun? I guess we'll find out in good time.** As Pete Townshend once wrote, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss". But for now, on the surface of things, it appears that the mighty dollar is ruling the roost. That's never a good sign.

Oh, and don't read the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man. What happened you ask? Oh, Aunt May got shot and looks like she's going to die, again. At least this time it's not a heart attack...

Oh, and I'm well aware that by writing and publishing this article I'm feeding the Marvel publicity machine. Irony never escapes me.

*Just for the record Neil sent this down when I asked for a short bio as regular readers here might not know him. Gotta love the guy!
"Took art classes with Dick Giordano and Frank McLaughlin the early 1980s in Bridgeport, CT. USA. Editor of Fandom Feature, a magazine originally run by Jim Main. Co-creator and initial editor of Comics Collector back in 1983 with its premiere issue showcasing Superman. Attended writing classes at a DC Comics workshop in the 1980s taught by Paul Levitz in either 1984 or 1985. Former editor of Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents for Deluxe Comics in 1985. Editor of Comics Values Monthly, which ended sometime in 1993 or 1994, to which there was a memorial special which highlighted the death of Superman. Bachelor of arts in illustration/graphic design from Western CT State University in Danbury, CT USA in 1993."

That's some damn fine credentials there!
**After I wrote this Thad Branco sent me the following:
"Marvel could follow up the Death of Captain America with THIS storyline:
4 heroes emerge, WHO is the TRUE Captain America?
Miss America - Sharon Carter dons the garb of Captain America
Kid America - Patriot (from Young Avengers) takes on the mantle of Steve Rogers and his own grandpa.
The Cyborg Captain America - a new Deathlok emerges with the guise of Captain America and...
New America - the Punisher takes over the role of Captain America.
And what the hell, add a fifth ringer...
Captain America - Bucky drops the bullshit as the 'Winter Soldier' and takes over as CAPTAIN AMERICA!
"Does THAT story sound familiar too?"


Jim McClain said...

Superman also died in Justice League of America #145.

Allan said...

While everyone remembers Jim Steranko killing Cap, Mark Gruenwald did the same thing a couple of decades later. Nowhere near as good though!

antonio said...

Daniel thank you!!!
I love the article a lot!!