The Death of Captain America

"The Iconographies" is a series of weekly features focusing on iconic moments, creators, characters or publications in the ongoing 'biography' of graphic literature. This edition looks at the 2007 death of Marvel superhero, Captain America.

"He came to us wearing the flag", Mark Millar observes of Steve Rogers' Captain America in Ultimates: Grand Theft America. Pithy but also cutting, this observation allows Millar to subtly suggest that perhaps the most visible part of Captain America, his patriotism, fails to fully exhaust the range of the character's iconography. Beyond the hyperrealist machismo of "Ultimate Cap", beyond the character's ultra-conservative political leanings, Millar paints a Captain America in the throes of an impalpable despair. Cut off not only from loved ones, but also from his entire life and culture, Rogers shoulders the burden of being a national icon without complaint.

What Millar exposes is not so much a Captain America as father figure to the national psyche (this seems to be the most reductive and most common portrayal of the Captain America character), but Captain America as the nation's granddad. Blue-collar tough, retired, honest and kind, but also cantankerous, harsh and shrewd. Millar's Ultimate Captain America comes to epitomize the retiree; isolated from his peers, but also alienated from the everyday tasks that once gave his life meaning.

The 1960's decision of then Marvel Editor-In-Chief Stan Lee, to return Captain America to the company's active publication schedule (after the character being "retired" at the end of World War II) would mark the character as one of the most engaging and richly-textured creations in popular fiction. First published by Timely (later to become Marvel) in the 1941, wartime Captain America was a character study in patriotism. Along with his fellow Invaders, Captain America infiltrated Nazi-occupied Europe and completed counter-insurgency missions. But by the end of the War, Captain America's publication was discontinued. It was Stan Lee who then resurrected the character for the 1960's in Avengers issue #4. To provide logical continuity, Steve Rogers was discovered to have been frozen in ice at the end of the War, only to be brought back to life two decades hence.

Lee's decision would also mark a radical shift in the character's iconography. No longer simply the story of a spirited American overcoming great personal odds and confronting global tyranny, Captain America in the 1960's equally became the story of the alienation (both from community and the meaning given by a working life) experienced during retirement. Little more than a teenager himself, Stan Lee would give a voice to fears of the Baby-Boom generation. Fears that would only be confronted decades hence as Baby-Boomers themselves began to prepare for retirement. It was Lee's vision that would prove indispensable to Millar's richly-textured portrait of Ultimate Captain America. Millar's vision of Captain America in Marvel's Ultimate publication brand, would also emphasize the futuristic nature of the character.

Millar would show how Captain America was not a meditation on anachronistic lives. Whether an image of the retiree who finds themselves awash in a world without personal meaning, or a proponent of dated political values, Millar would convince readers that Captain America does not yearn towards the past. The rustic caricature of Washington Irving's Rip van Winkle drinking with ghosts and falling asleep in the Catskills only to rise a generation later is not the proper fit for Captain America. Instead Captain America, particularly Millar's Captain, is better articulated by a pulp character like Buck Rogers. As an astronaut, Buck Rogers represents the pinnacle of technological sophistication, only to find himself catapulted forward in time to an era of scientific wonder even he can barely comprehend. In the 1940's Captain America proves to be a technological miracle. Like Buck Rogers, it is the human condition he encounters in the future that proves science-fictional, rather than he himself being anachronistic. It is this subtle inversion, that it is our own world that is garish and out-of-time, that better writers have frequently developed as part of their vision of Captain America.

Even with the science-fictional elements in place, Lee's resurrection of Captain America in the 1960's proves something of a double-edged sword. Lee's infusion of the man-out-of-time theme into the broader Captain America iconography, opens the character to a discourse of corporate values and opens the debate on the postwar corporatization of American society. Captain America as retiree, retirement as divorce from the responsibilities and duties that gave a life meaning, and the invariable collapse back into working life.

Millar again would touch on this theme of corporatization by presenting our own world as a gaudy media-circus. In it superheroes are paraded as A-list celebrities while serving the collusion of interests of national security (embodied in Nick Fury), corporate ideals (Iron Man), military deployment (Captain America) and radical environmentalism (Thor). But Millar's articulation of the themes of corporatization in Captain America represents only one possible engagement. Time and again, Captain America would be dubious of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel's fictional intelligence-gathering and security outfit. Although cooperating in S.H.I.E.L.D. missions, Rogers would not fall into blindly following orders. In his relationship with S.H.I.E.L.D., and in the wake of the Watergate affair, Captain America would become the dissenting voice of national ideals in the face of encroaching government or corporate interests. Yet, after 40 years of publication, the portrayal of Captain America living out a grandfatherly retirement from corporate life in a garish, science-fictional world loses its cultural impact as the generational perspective of the Baby-Boomers grow more distant.

With the "Death of Captain America" event in 2007 two writers offer radical innovation on the Captain America mythography while revitalizing the themes of corporatization, retirement and the extension of familial roles into the public sphere.

In Fallen Son Jeph Loeb eulogizes the assassinated Captain in a five-part story where each chapter deals one of the five stages of grief. Recounting Denial, Anger, Bargaining Depression and ultimately Acceptance through the eyes of other superheroes who lived through and were deeply affected by Steve Rogers' death, Jeph Loeb mourns the loss of his own son Sam Loeb, lost to cancer in 2005. Just as he lost his own son, Loeb wanted to painted a portrait of Captain America as everyone's son, he tells NPR's Talk of the Nation. Painting Captain America as a child of national interest evokes a compassionate responsibility to nurture Captain America seldom seen in the character's depiction.

Ed Brubaker, who wrote the fateful issue #25 wherein Captain America was fired on by a sniper, comments on the constraints of Captain America's patriotism dominating his public perception. In a New York Daily News interview he suggests, "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 street corner against the George W. Bush administration, and all the really right-wing fans all want him to be over in the streets of Baghdad, punching out Saddam Hussein".

With the assassination and subsequent death of Captain America, Brubaker passes the mantle on to James Buchanan Barnes, Rogers' wartime kid sidekick, "Bucky". Captured by postwar by Soviet military intelligence, Barnes was brainwashed into becoming their deniable assassin, the Winter Soldier. In the 18 issues that follow on from Steve Rogers' assassination, Barnes as the new Captain America must confront the corporatization of American life for himself. The Red Skull, Rogers' chief adversary and the man ultimately responsible for Rogers' death, has infiltrated the US economy and has caused a collapse of the housing market, in turn causing an economy-wide downturn. While confronting his own dubious corporatization as hired killer (an occupation his brainwashing prevented him from resisting), the new Captain must also confront evolved villains who have weaponized the free-market system itself. Just as with the original, Brubaker constructs a Captain America that must confront corporatization just as he must his own alienation.

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