Keep your eye on the body
I got a note from a long time comic book reader on Wednesday. He was incensed that Marvel disgraced themselves by killing Captain America. Worse, they did it sneakily, without telling the retailers this was the issue so it sold out to the fan boys before the general public could see the bloody body for themselves.
Marvel certainly got a nice boost from the coast-to-coast coverage Captain America’s death received.
But, is Captain America – Steve Rogers – really dead?
It used to be that a death to a major character was a major event. Writers would find themselves running out of interesting stories to tell with a character and decided to shake up the title character’s life by killing off a familiar face. Spider-Man writer Gerry Conway has always said that’s why Gwen Stacy had to go.
That happened time and again, at both DC and Marvel and it made the fans uneasy, since you never knew what would happen next. That certainly helped sell comics for a while. Then, killing the title character seemed the next logical step. Jim Shooter and Jim Starlin helped pioneer that with the Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel and then there was the phone in stunt that saw Jason Todd, the second Robin bite the big one.
And in 1992, DC killed Superman. Now, under previous editorial regimes, Superman had died with regularity. Heck, one of Jerry Siegel’s finest stories was “The Death of Superman” so even his co-creator had a crack at it. An employee at a now defunct distributor got the solicitation materials from DC, noted the death was coming and mentioned it to a local paper, figuring it would generate some interest. Well, it was a slow news day that September and before you knew it, the latest death of the Man of Steel became a Big Deal.
Kudos to DC for turning on a dime and maximizing the event, rewriting the rules of comic book marketing at the same time. That quickie collection of stories also was the tipping point that made the collected editions business what it is today.
Since then, characters have quit and/or died to replaced by others in the uniform with greater and greater regularity. Again, DC maximized it by being the continuity that recognized legacy and the lineage of those proud enough to wear the outfit.
Here’s the dirty secret: many of the great deaths get undone not because writers planned it all along but because corporate masters insisted. With movies and television series counting on public awareness of the characters, Superman is always going to be Clark Kent, “mild mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper.” We learned that lesson when Julie Schwartz tried to update him from newsprint to on camera but every media incarnation that followed, starting with Superman – the Movie, has kept him at the Daily Planet not WGBS. Similarly, despite his being married over 15 years, every mass media version has Superman single except for one season of Lois and Clark, but by then, no one was paying attention.
Much was made over DC’s plans to kill Nightwing. Forget it. The public at large accepts Dick Grayson as Robin and expects it – look at Batman Forever and the great animated series. DC needs to keep Dick Grayson in print and now that he’s been Nightwing for over 20 years, there’s a generation that has come to accept him in his adult identity. But he needs to be there.
Both companies have a tier of characters who will never, ever change. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, Spider-Man, Hulk, the Fantastic Four.
The question is now: does Captain America need to be Steve Rogers? Is he a part of that tier? With a Captain America movie in the offing – number three in Marvel’s 10-picture deal at Paramount – we have a public trained to expect Cap to be Rogers since he’s been consistently in that uniform since 1941. All the other temporary guys in the suit never caught on, never gained traction with the fans or creators. The Cap in the various animated series since the 1960s and through the two Ultimate Avengers direct-to-DVDs has been Steve Rogers.
Yeah, they have an out with a Steve Rogers as Captain America in the Ultimates but is that good enough? I am ready to gamble the answer is no. Maybe the Super Solider formula will be the key to his revival or something supernatural or a deus ex machina already planned. But Steve Rogers, the every man who became the Living Symbol of our nation, will once again be the Star-Spangled Avenger.
Over the past couple decades, Robert Greenberger has held numberous editorial and administrative positions at Marvel and DC Comics and has contributed to a great many other publications – including Starlog and America’s most honest news source, the Weekly World News.