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Virtue Made Visible: The 70 Year Quest to Define Captain America

Charlie Moss
"Here I am, an old man in a dry month; being read to by a boy waiting for the rain..." --TS Eliot, Gerontian

With issue 616, Marvel editors and creators not only celebrate Captain America's 70th anniversary, but set themselves the generational task of defining the emotional core of the character. Have they finally succeeded at what so few have been able to do?

Captain America #616 (70th Anniversary Edition)

Publisher: Marvel
Length: 104 pages
Writer: Ed Brubaker, Howard Chaykin, Mike Benson
Price: $4.99
Publication Date: 2011-03

The difficulty with Captain America is that the character is ultimately easy to understand. A patriot who makes his patriotism visible, a soldier who serves his country as an icon. In at least one sense, Captain America is more important now than he has ever been. In that it is only now, long after his "resurrection", that he has come to to be emblematic of the simultaneous idealism and apprehension of the generation prior to the Boomers.

While Batman and Superman (contemporary icons from Cap's original wartime publication era) have continually been gentrified for current generations, other contemporaneous characters like the Human Torch or the Sub-Mariner, have been wholly reimagined. Cap however, after spending untold decades frozen in ice, has awakened to the new century with his wartime outlook intact.

There was always a certain certainty to socking out Hitler on the cover of your own magazine. But what role does the icon play now? Under what terms can a modern audience read Captain America in a way that is both meaningful and engaging. Under what terms, in other words, does Cap escape the dread sinkhole of memorabilia? Escape becoming superhero flotsam on the bookshelf saved for bygone times.

Already, in the current series, writer Ed Brubaker has done exceedingly well in redefining the character for the 21st century. In his skilled rendering, both bearers of the title (Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes) have proven themselves the kind of men equal to the challenge of being the visible symbol of national pride. But Brubaker has also demonstrated how the threats faced by Cap in this brave new world often come at the hands of monsters exploiting weaknesses in civil and social infrastructure.

It is testament to his extreme skill, that Brubaker has convincingly made the argument for some years now that it is only now, long after WW2, that Cap has fully come into his role as the Sentinel of Liberty. It is only now, that a growing freedom has been achieved that it needs to be secured against those who would exploit this burgeoning liberty to usher in new tyrannies. To Brubaker the equation is simple, having Cap around is ensuring that postwar era of freedom for all doesn't end in a Reign of Terror as the French Revolution did.

Balancing on a tightrope between current story-arc progression and comic book nostalgia, Captain America 616 is a celebration of everyone’s favorite star-spangled superhero. Featured in this special 70th anniversary issue are eight, count ‘em, eight different stories of Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes and other Marvel creations that have shared the spotlight with Cap over the past 70 years.

Marvel’s approach to include, not only regular Captain America scribe Ed Brubaker, but other various artists and writers who have never had the chance to take part in creating a Captain America comic, gives the reader several different perspectives of what Steve Rogers and the Captain America mantle means to each of them.

With work by Ed McGuiness, Mike Deodato, Howard Chaykin, Alec Siegel, and many others, not only does each story differ in tone, depth and plot, but the art is just as varied. From Rain Beredo’s dark and moody colors and Deodato’s incredibly detailed hatch work in the issue’s second story, “Gulag” to the more brightly-colored and possibly Robert Crumb-inspired illustrations by Paul Grist and Lee Loughridge in “Operation tooth Fairy”, the stories provide a large dose of nostalgia – which is completely expected from an anniversary edition comic – but don’t reek in it, as all of them are newly published.

A few carry on the plot from the current arc last seen in Captain America 615.1, which keeps satisfied those fans who wish not to linger on the past but to just get on with it. And then there are those, who, like me, enjoy the more reminiscent pieces about Steve Rogers in World War II, fighting alongside the Invaders, pondering what it means to be Captain America, longing for the old days yet acknowledging the need for such a hero now. Rogers is an old man trapped in a young man’s body. But that’s what I love about him. He has both the wisdom of life lived and lessons learned as well as the innocence and introspection of a young man with his whole life in front of him that adds a depth to his character rarely seen in comics.

If there is an overall theme in this book that weaves successfully through each section, it’s this: What Captain America represents may have changed over the years to better fit American society at certain times in history, but his values – providing hope for those who have lost it, setting an example of goodness, honesty, and fairness when nobody else will, and standing up for what he believes – have not. And that’s why he’s lasted for so long. Happy 70th Birthday, Cap.


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