He’s as Amer-iconic as Uncle Sam and the Lincoln Memorial. He’s bigger than life while still as down-home as hot dogs, apple pie, and baseball.
And for the past two years, he’s been dead.
As everyone knows, though, in the superhero world nobody stays dead forever. This month, Marvel Comics is bringing back the red-white-and-blue Avenger in a storyline called “Captain America Reborn.”
But that’s perhaps the best part about Captain America: He’s been reborn and reborn again, as the times dictate, ever since his creation back in 1941.
“The appeal of the character is that he stands for something. He stands for something bigger and greater,” says Marvel senior editor Tom Brevoort, who, among other titles, oversees Captain America. “He represents American values rather than the particular dogma of the day.
“Most people in the abstract agree with what he represents even if, in their own lives, they have shades of gray. Cap is black and white. He’s red, white, and blue.”
But, Brevoort says, Cap has also been a reflection of the times. “He can have meanings layered on to him as far as what he represents and what he can be made to represent,” Brevoort says. “Different people at different times do different things. Creators have wanted and needed to express different things over the years. Much of that was dealt with overtly.”
Take a look, for example, at the circumstances surrounding Cap’s birth. The world was ravaged by war. Writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby cooked up a hero who personified America in the fight against Fascism: Government scientists injected a scrawny, stereotypical weakling, Steve Rogers, with their top-secret Super Soldier serum, miraculously transforming him into the perfect human fighting machine.
The character quickly became Timely Comics’ most popular because readers could live vicariously through his exploits. After all, while Ordinary Joe might not be able to do much about the Nazis, Captain America could punch Hitler right in the friggin’ chopper. “It was less about his individual struggle than what was going on on the world stage, Brevoort says.
Cap vanished from the scene during the 1950s, but as Timely evolved into Marvel, and the so-called “Silver Age” of comics began, Cap made a comeback, resurrected from suspended animation by a group of heroes known as the Avengers. Cap joined the group and remained one of the company’s most stalwart characters right through the seventies.
As the eighties wore on, though, Cap’s fortunes dipped a bit and sales began to flag. “Cap has not been as center-stage or as well-known during the last twenty years,” Brevoort says. “In many respects, that’s no different from the rise and fall of other Marvel mainstays. There will always be a flavor of the day.”
But, says Brevoort, “Cap has had long-term staying power.”
“Cap is wrapped in the flag,” Brevoort says. “His name is Captain America. He’s not Captain Freedom or Captain Liberty or anything like that. That makes him iconic.”
That status as an icon makes Captain America dramatically different than other Marvel characters, too. “Most characters are about who is in the suit, the person, not the costume or the powers,” Brevoort explains. “That was the great innovation of Marvel—it was about the characters. Cap is the one who kind of defies that. He’s more Cap than Steve Rogers. He gets his symbolic power from the suit.”
That symbolic power made Captain America wildly popular following the events of 9/11. “There was an immediate longing for Captain America in the world,” Brevoort says. “People were hungry for patriotic symbols. They wanted to be reassured that American could still kick ass.”
Since then, Cap’s presence has loomed large in the Marvel Universe. “The things Cap symbolizes are more in the forefront of the psychology of the world,” Brevoort says. It helps, too, that comics today are better written, more immediate, more worthwhile, than they used to be back when they were merely “funny books.”
“They have a relevance to the lives of our readership,” Brevoort says.
That was demonstrated perhaps most effectively in Marvel’s 2006-2007 crossover event, Civil War, which explored very real questions about personal liberty versus communal security.
In a move that shocked many fans, Captain America, the ever-faithful soldier, went rogue by disobeying government orders that required all superhumans to register their secret identities or face criminal prosecution. The leader of the pro-registration side of the argument was Cap’s close friend and colleague, Iron Man.
But perhaps that’s not so surprising to long-term fans, who can look back to the post-Watergate era and see a Captain America who gave up his identity to become “The Nomad” because he was disillusioned by the government—or, similarly, in the post-Iran-Contra era, when a disillusioned Cap gave up his identity to become “The Captain.” In both instances, he resumed his role as Captain America because, in the end, he realized that he represented the American Dream, not the American government.
In the Civil War, Cap eventually surrendered in an attempt to mitigate collateral damage. Before his subsequent trial began, he was assassinated on the steps of the courthouse. The issue, Captain America #25, was the best-selling comic of the month, and the event was reported widely in mainstream media.
“That stirred up such a visceral reaction,” Brevoort says. “Reaction was so strong nobody anticipated it. We had no idea it was going to be as big as it turned out to be. It was terrifying, confounding, exciting.”
Brevoort says the editorial team had considered many different ways to end the Civil War storyline—“Have Cap get on his motorcycle and ride off to ‘rediscover America,’” for instance—but the assassination provided the freshest ideas and boldest possibilities for good stories.
And that, says Brevoort, is the key: “When you think about things in different ways, the boundaries are limitless. Anything can happen.”
The challenge then became, “How do we run a Captain America book with no Captain America?”
In the most recent storyline, Cap’s former junior partner, Bucky Barnes, now adult, has assumed his mentor’s mantle. “Bucky is classic Marvel-style. He has a more Marvel-centric flavor, is more grounded in the Marvel tradition,” Brevoort says. “His story over the past two years has been more about the person in the suit than the suit itself. His struggle is that he’s striving to live up to the ideal. He has to put aside all this horrible stuff from his past and keep the legacy alive. He’s just gone about that in a different way. It has added a lot of dimension and character to the icon.”
In August of 2009, Marvel launched a storyline to bring Captain America back from the dead. Turns out, Cap wasn’t just shot on the courthouse steps—he was somehow forced to become “unstuck in time” by his arch-nemesis, the former Nazi villain the Red Skull. Originally slated to last five issues, “Captain America Reborn” extended to a sixth issue so that creators could “tell the story to its fullest.”
Was Cap’s resurrection ever in doubt? Most experienced comic fans would undoubtedly say “No.” After all, when D.C. killed off Superman in 1992, they only kept him dead for less than a year. At Marvel, comic book deaths and resurrections had become so cliché that the company had even instituted a rule during the last ten years that basically said, “No deaths unless they actually mean something.”
Brevoort is convinced, however, that Cap’s death was appropriately poignant and that his rebirth does mean something. And he believes there are many more Captain America stories worth telling.
“People can take him unto themselves,” Brevoort says. “They can say, ‘Cap is one of ours.’”
After all, he’s been “one of ours” for seventy years now.
Here’s to seventy more: Long live Cap!