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LEISURE & ARTS

Captain America, RIP
As a superhero, he changed along with the country.

BY JONATHAN V. LAST
Tuesday, March 13, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT

Last Wednesday morning, while most people kibitzed about Scooter Libby over their morning coffee, Captain America was murdered on the steps of the federal courthouse in New York. Captain America (real-life identity: Steve Rogers) is survived by his crime-fighting partner, Bucky, and his girlfriend, Sharon Carter, who may have fired the fatal shots while under the control of the evil Dr. Faustus. Such are the perils of romance.

The death of Captain America became, quite improbably, a minor cultural event. According to Joe Quesada, the editor in chief of Marvel Comics, Marvel made the decision to kill Cap 18 months ago, while it was plotting the direction of its seven-issue limited series "Civil War," which details the rift between heroes following a law that required superheroes to register with the government.

Marvel kept the decision to kill Cap secret. The final issue of "Civil War" was released in February, and last week issue 25 of "Captain America" arrived on the doorsteps of the nation's 2,000 comic-book shops.

Owners unpacking the boxes of new inventory were shocked to find Cap lying dead in a hospital on the final page. There was a flurry of chatter on the Internet. Within hours, the wire services picked up the story, and people crowded into neighborhood comic-book shops. By noon, the issue was sold out and fetching hefty sums on eBay.

There is an old joke about death in the comic-book world: No one stays dead except Bucky, Jason Todd and Uncle Ben. Over the years Superman, Phoenix, Green Arrow and a legion of other heroes have perished, only to be resurrected by their publishers in reasonably short order. Even this Bucky Clause of hero death has begun unraveling as both Bucky and Jason Todd (who replaced Dick Grayson as Robin) were recently brought back to life. This was, in fact, the second time Captain America journeyed to the undiscovered country.

Cap was born in March 1941, when a scrawny Steve Rogers tried to enlist in the Army. Rejected because of his feeble physique, Rogers volunteered for a secret government program attempting to create a super soldier through genetic enhancement. Alas, just as all robots eventually rebel and kill their masters, all government attempts at genetic manipulation are doomed to go awry.

The scientist heading the super-soldier program ended up dead, but Steve Rogers became a specimen of physical perfection, with heightened reflexes and enhanced strength. The Army sent him into battle with a red, white and blue shield and the moniker Captain America.

The cover of the first issue of Captain America showed Cap socking Hitler with a right cross nearly a year before America declared war on Germany. A champion of American freedom, Cap's popularity soared during World War II as he battled Nazis and the Japanese with Bucky at his side.

After the war, sales of Captain America dwindled; the title was canceled in 1950. As Bradford Wright details in "Comic Book Nation," Marvel brought Cap back several years later as a Cold Warrior: "Captain America . . . Commie Smasher." This time, he and Bucky fought communist agents "who hid behind the privileges of a free society in order to subvert American institutions." The series sold poorly and was dropped after a few issues.

Captain America changed with the times. He returned in 1964 and found renewed fame, but not as the same rock-jawed, stalwart soldier. In 1969 he was paired with the first African-American superhero, the Falcon. In one small sign of how comics were evolving, the Falcon's alter ego, Sam Wilson, was a Harlem social worker.

As Vietnam raged, Captain America stayed home. In 1971 Marvel's Stan Lee wrote that Cap "simply doesn't lend himself to the John Wayne type character he once was" and that he "could not see any of [Marvel's] characters taking on the role of super-patriotism in the world as it is today." Instead, Cap became a Great Society superhero, battling, as Mr. Wright puts it, "poverty, racism, pollution, and political corruption."

Consider this monologue from a '70s issue in which Cap muses: "I'm like a dinosaur--in the cro-magnon age! An anachronism--who's out-lived his time! This is the day of the anti-hero--the age of the rebel--and the dissenter! It isn't hip--to defend the establishment!--only to tear it down! And, in a world rife with injustice, greed, and endless war--who's to say the rebels are wrong? . . . I've spent a lifetime defending the flag--and the law! Perhaps I should have battled less--and questioned more!"

While he avoided Vietnam, Captain America dove head-on into Watergate. He took up arms against a thinly veiled version of the Nixon White House, which was linked to a McCarthyite conservative political group called the Committee to Regain America's Principles, or "CRAP." But this CREEP knock-off wasn't merely attempting to re-elect the president using dirty tricks. Instead, CRAP was a front for a cabal of actual fascists who were plotting to take over the country. The leader of the conspiracy was, naturally, the president.

After being duped by the president, Cap dropped his hero name and became, briefly, "Nomad, the man without a country."

Given his political progress it is not surprising that by the time "Civil War" began, Cap was quoting Thomas Paine and couching his opposition to the superhero registration act in terms of civil liberties. Marvel now seems poised to use his death as the focus of a large-scale debate on the balancing of freedom and security.

"Captain America" will probably return. Ed Brubaker, the current writer of the series, won't divulge details, but comments in an interview with the Web site Comic Book Resources, "I've got the next two years of Cap plotted, if that says anything." Fans have already concocted several plausible resurrection scenarios.

But before looking toward his next incarnation, it's worth pausing to appreciate that even at this late date, Captain America's death still meant something. Partially, this was due to the simple fact that Marvel was able to keep his murder a surprise--something of a wonder in an age when every other happening comes prehyped and presold. (Mr. Quesada reveals that the editors went to great lengths to keep the secret, engaging in a quiet campaign of disinformation and even going so far as to leak fake covers to throw fans off the scent.)

Ultimately, it is wonder that we need most from comic books. The wonder that a man can fly or that a skinny American kid with a stout heart can pick up a shield and deck the Führer. With his death last week, Captain America gave us that sense of wonder once more.

Mr. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.

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