DENNIS O’NEIL: Death Dedux
It’s getting so a man can hardly turn on his television set without seeing someone he knows. A couple of weeks back, there was my old boss, Stan Lee, playing a jovial bus driver on NBC’s Heroes. And a few days ago I was surfing through the news channels when I saw a familiar face belonging to Joe Quesada, once my co-creator on a comic book called Azrael and now Marvel’s editorial honcho. I caught the very end of Joe’s appearance and so didn’t hear what he was talking about. But the next day’s New York Times told me: Captain America is dead! Then, that evening, Comedy Central’s Colbert Report devoted a whole segment to Cap’s passing.
Well, okay, but before you transfer all your issues of Captain America to black mylar bags, remember that, in comics, death is not necessarily permanent. I myself presided over the termination of Jason Todd, aka Robin the Second, and these days he’s again on the scene, quite chipper. This is not even the first time Cap has returned from that Great American Legion Hall In The Sky. Some time in the 60s, Stan featured, in one of his superhero titles, a guy impersonating World War Two’s greatest hero – yes, Captain America – and, as I understand it, when the reader response was positive, did a story in which our flag-bedraped hero was found to be, not dead, as people had assumed, but frozen in an ice berg. Thawed, he was good as new.
The post-WWII Cap presented creators with problems because he was, unavoidably, an anachronism, a fact that later writers incorporated into plotlines. He was created at the outbreak of the war by two very young and patriotic men and wore his allegiance on his back, literally, in a restitching of Old Glory. There was a lot of implied chauvinism in his early adventures, and I mean that as no criticism. In those days, the nation faced a real and present enemy and everyone was ultra-patriotic except for a few fringe folk who were widely considered loony, or worse. Cap was one of a long line of protagonists for whom conventional virtue was the only virtue.
In the years before the war, some pop cultcha good guys showed signs of rebelling against conservative notions of right and wrong. The first World War, the one that was supposed to end all wars (and all may now laugh bitterly), had served up a massive helping of disillusionment which was reflected in the private eyes and rogue adventurers who populated the pulp magazines, and radio, and even movies – swashbucklers and truth seekers who knew authorities were not to be trusted. (Later, they were admired by the French existentialists as men who, living in an essentially meaningless universe, created and lived by their own morality.) They were maybe truer to reality than their predecessors, these lonely rebels in business suits; after Viet Nam and the Nixon administration; only the innocent and naive could believe that persons of authority were incorruptible.
But in 1941, that attitude had not percolated down to comics yet, and even if it had, the hostilities would have probably dampened it. Cap was, certainly, the most iconic of the superdoing patriots, but he was not alone. Then he war ended and Cap continued on for a while as a crime fighter. He left the scene, returned briefly in the Fifties, went away and remained in Limbo until Stan found him in that iceberg. He still stood for America, but his interpreters shaded that to mean that he stood for what was best in America, not necessarily everything.
And now, he has gone back to Limbo. I like to think that he’s moved into Jason Todd’s old place and that his neighbors are The Star Spangled Kid and Stripesy and that maybe, just maybe, he’s searching for another chunk of ice.
RECOMMENDED READING: Letters to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris.
Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of comic books like Batman, The Question, Iron Man and Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, all kinds of novels (such as his most recent, Helltown