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O Captain! Our Captain! Hero's Day Is Done
Killing Off a Patriotic Icon, Marvel Comics Turns the Page On a Fading American Era

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2007

Somebody shot Captain America! On the courthouse steps! He's dead! Cap'n 'Murica is dead!

The last time this happened -- yes, Captain America has bitten the dust before -- it was the Nazis and it was World War II, and he got blown up by a bomb-laden plane. The comic started in 1941, and five years later he fell to earth. He stayed dead, trapped in the North Atlantic ice, for 20 years.

Yesterday, the revived Marvel Comics superhero took one to the shoulder from a sniper named Crossbones and -- get this! -- three to the chest from a FORMER GIRLFRIEND!

Well. There you have it, America, just how far this country has fallen.

He died wearing really tight pants and a grimace. Blond, 6-foot-4, 240 pounds. Looked good in a uniform. You can imagine the headline in Tehran: "Great Satan Shot by Western Sexpot."

When Captain America throws his mighty shield,

All those who chose to oppose his shield must yield.

Does anybody remember this, the Captain America cartoon theme song? Back in the mid-1960s, when a buck was still silver, your parents left the front door open and all the fast girls wore anklets?

If he's led to a fight and a duel is due,

Then the red and white and the blue'll come through

When Captain America throws his mighty shield.

His real name, which he had fought a mighty battle to keep secret, was Steve Rogers. He grew up in New York, in the world of Marvel, too puny to fight in World War II. Then a crazy scientist injected him with "Super Soldier Serum" (Barry Bonds called it "the clear") and boy, did he beef up! He could bench 800 pounds! Run 60 miles an hour! Punch out Nazis faster than Joe Louis!

Recalls a character in Captain America #25, yesterday's landmark edition: "Even though he was a soldier, you could almost feel the kindness behind those eyes hardened by war. He'd fought through the worst days of the 20th century, and he was still the most decent man you could ever meet."

Ah, yes, dreamy-eyed dames liked their Real Men like that back in the day, and it was, of course, a metaphor for America's romantic view of itself: tough but fair, honest and undeniably studly.

Comics are essentially fables and myths, and the best ones are simple stories that explain something complicated about ourselves. Marvel and DC Comics had too many heroes and too many superpowers, but there was something comforting in that. You could pick and choose, and if one reality didn't suit you, there was another on the rack.

Captain America was thawed out of the ice in the early 1960s, as one of the Avengers. Superman famously died about a decade ago, before coming back a year later. A character named Phoenix (Get it? Phoenix?), one of the X-Men, has died about 15 times.

"It's known as the 'Marvel death,' " says Matthew Klokel, owner of Fantom Comics in Northwest Washington. "Somebody who dies, but doesn't really."

"Captain America? He hasn't died in 50 years!" giggled Tom Spurgeon, editor of www.comicsreporter.com. "It's an odd way to tell a story, but it's not peculiar in comics."

And yet, the death of the only comic-book superhero who still wore the Stars and Stripes seems to be worthy of pause in the blur of pop culture.

In 1969, Peter Fonda hopped on board a chopper in "Easy Rider," dubbed himself "Captain America," in that hey-man-everything's-groovy '60s kind of hash-addled vibe, and it said something about the careening way the nation was wobbling forward.

In comics, things got edgier, meaner, grimmer. Violence became more realistic, with more consequences. Superman died, Batman broke his back, Spider-Man took off his mask. The good guys were flawed.

And so was Captain America, much like his country. He started out a true-blue patriotic icon, but in recent years grew more complex. He had gone from always fighting for the government to sometimes fighting against it. The battle for American ideals had changed, and so, we learned yesterday, had the means of menace and treachery.

Dear Steve Rogers and the mythical mid-century America -- its front porches, decency and good manners -- are dead.

"Steve Rogers is gone, but it's likely Captain America will come back, but who he is, what he represents, and how he reflects American society, that's uncertain," said Dan Buckley, president and publisher of Marvel Entertainment.

There's a five-edition series coming up, with superheroes dealing with the stages of grief. It'll be a while before any new Captain America makes an appearance.

Who he will be by then, and who we will be, is an open question. We change in these little ways, in our myths and fables, and bit by bit we wake up to see a different nation, and different heroes, looking back out of the mirror.

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