The Pantheon of Super Heroes, part one (Hiatus)

19 Nov

I’ve actually been stewing on this article for a good part of a month now, and I felt it made a good launching point for Boom Boom, a column that’s going to come at you every Monday, for no apparent reason other than to help you speed up your countdown to the next episode of [insert favorite geeky show here.]

I don’t think it’s any huge spoiler if I say, at this point, that Captain America is dead. You have to be nearly living under a rock at this point to have missed out on that fact. Much like the death of Superman in the nineties (you remember the nineties, kids? Eddie Vedder? We wore plaid? Thought boy bands were the way to go) if you have missed out on the fact that Captain America is dead, then you probably didn’t know who he was anyway, or are reading this blog.

I have been happily reading comics for most of my life now. Since I was a wee tot, whom nobody called wee tot, I’ve been reading all sorts of comics. I can still remember all sorts of storylines very vividly, because when you’re young they have an effect on you, and it’s an emotional one. You’re not yet at that age where you’re thinking Ah, smart publicity move on the part of DC to kill Superman, but of course we know he won’t stay dead, I hope they don’t screw up the return too badly. When you’re young and you’ve got wide eyes and a big imagination, comic books fill you up. I still remember that Superman died, and I was a heartbroken young man, and then shortly thereafter Bane broke Batman’s back (in the classic Knightfall series). I was one seriously messed up kid. These were my idols they were screwing with.

Batman recovered. Superman came back to life. It didn’t lessen the emotional impact, and it didn’t change how I had been made to feel. I’ve carried that with me a lot of years. Even now, I have the Death and Return of Superman in dusty, battered volumes on my shelves, and I can read them and still feel the emotions. They may just be old echoes, but I remember them.

It was just as big a deal when Hal Jordan stopped being the Green Lantern, when Wally West and Barry Allen (the Flashes) squared off.

Big deals, when you’re young.

So, fast forward a bunch of years. I drifted away from comics during parts of the nineties. Recently, I came into a hundred and fifty comics from someone’s collection, most of them comics from that weird period in the nineties when the Hulk was calm and cool and wore shirts (?), when someone thought X-Men: 2099 was a good idea (??) and when Superman had a mullet (!?). I re-read a lot of them and I remembered most of the stories, because while I’d been reading them, I hadn’t been paying close attention. There was nothing to pay close attention to. The stories were outlandish and absolutely off the wall. Which I do fully expect from Super-Heroes (like Superman and Doomsday squaring off wasn’t outlandish). I adore it, when done well. During the nineties, it was like the decline of hair metal. When something inflates too big, it either deflates slowly, or it pops. Either way, it goes down. Comics, and hair metal, popped.

Through all of this, I’ve read Captain America. Even when he really stunk (and sometimes, he really…really did). I liked Captain America. I thought he was the strongest (willed) character in the Marvel Universe. Comparable to Batman in the DC universe. In many ways, the antitheses of Batman. I followed him through his phases as U.S. Agent, and just Steve Rogers, and The Captain, all of it. I adored him. Throughout everything else that I faded reading, or stopped reading, the comics I always stuck with were simple: 1) Captain America 2) Iron Man 3) Green Lantern.

I cannot imagine what the younger me would have felt, when reaching the end of the issue of Captain America where he’s lying on the steps, bloody and listless. Steve Rogers, dead. I know what the older me felt, and there was definite emotion. I joked that it bothered me, and then gradually came to realize that actually, it really did bother me. After he died, I bought Marvel: Ultimate Alliance for the PS2, and have mostly just played as Captain America in all his various costumes. It made me sad. It really did. You can make fun of me for that if you want, but you’re reading the blog on a sci-fi magazine web-site, and I bet you cried during the Ewok song in Return of the Jedi, so let’s just respect our geekdoms, ‘kay?

(An aside: I’m now finding it impossible to read things like The Initiative comics, where we follow Iron Man’s new teams, and Iron Man himself. It’s like reading how the Nazis won, and then we have to root for them. Iron Man is in danger, and I realize that I absolutely don’t care. I really feel like the bad guys won.)

How it affected you, I will make no effort to guess. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe it did. I can only talk about how it affected me. More importantly, why.

It’s not that the writing was always great on Captain America (or on any comic; it’s never consistently great). Sometimes, it was downright awful. The unique thing about ongoing series like Captain America, or any comic character, is that good or bad, you follow them from issue to issue, from month to month, from year to year, onward and onward. They never grow old, they die and are reborn, they fight, they are beaten, they get back up and fight again, and through it all, you read.

The ultimate power of comics is not always in powerful writing, although powerful writing understands this connection and magnifies it to great effect. The ultimate power of comics is that even if it’s a bad storyline, you read and you care, because if you’ve been following the character for a year, six years, twenty years, you’re as invested in him as you are in your family pet, or your favorite comic strip in the newspaper.

Every few years, they try to reboot comics, because they are ever aware of the oppressive history that bears down on them. They are afraid that new readers will not come into a storyline which has forty years of history behind it, and in many ways, they’re right.

But in doing so, they fail to realize that their success still depends on appealing to the readers who have followed them for so long. Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men both worked (at first, never mind now) because we looked at a young and learning Peter Parker and we were, in many ways, nostalgic. Likewise, the X-Men. Eventually, the storylines gather their own weight and mostly we drift back to just reading what we read before. Whatever Spider-Man you happen to like.

History is the second most important component to a super-hero comic book. They (the creators) worry about the oppressive weight of a comic bearing down on the reader, without always realizing that it’s history which garners the appeal. Some readers, myself included, like coming into something that has 5oo back issues. For one thing, it means if I am really stunned with what Joe Straczynski is doing on Spider-Man, I can go back and read my way through piles of back comics in between new issues. I can get lost in a world of Spider-Man. Sometimes silly, sometimes horrible, always Spider-Man, always the same world I willingly chose to immerse myself in.

It’s the writer’s biggest tool, and as I said, the second most important component in hero comic books.

For the first, I’ll tell you about it next Monday.

(This post originally appeared as a column on BBT Magazine’s web-site, and is being shamelessly used to give you something to read while Pete is elsewhere. Please enjoy!)


Posted by on November 19, 2007 in Boom Boom, Hiatus


5 responses to “The Pantheon of Super Heroes, part one (Hiatus)

  1. Shadow_Ferret

    November 19, 2007 at 10:43 am

    I tried to get the issue where Captain America died, but it was near impossible. It was long sold out by the time the news media got ahold of the story. Now however, I’m thinking it might have been a good thing for my psyche not to read the issue where my lifelong hero died. Somethings are better left unknown, unseen, and unread. I grew up a child of the 60s during the Silver Age when Captain America was discovered floating in a block of ice by the Avengers. I read all the great Kirby comics, then Sterenko, and on and on with each new sidekick, Rick, The Falcon, and so on. As you said, Pete, he was the one constant in the universe, always moral, always pure.

    And they killed him off, killed Steve Rogers, so they could revamp him, make him harsher, more Dark Knightish, and plan on giving him a gun. Is the new Captain America going to operate outside the law? Like The Punisher? Maybe I’ll pick up an issue or two to see what direction he’s moving in, but more than likely I’ll be scouring ebay for the old issues of a once proud superhero that the child in me grew up to admire.

  2. Pete Tzinski

    November 19, 2007 at 11:02 am

    (I’m not here, it’s just too much to resist talking comics with someone)

    The thing about the death of Captain America was, the event which led up to it — Civil War — was utterly flawed and did irrevocable changes to the Marvel Universe. I cannot look at Tony Stark (Iron Man) now without seeing a bad guy. The whole Initiative Project feels like it’s sold out all the super-heroes. The writing in Civil War was a disaster, almost worse than the House of M stuff.

    But the Captain America comic book line, which is thirty-two issues into its current run, has been written by Ed Brubaker who is doing the best job Captain America’s ever seen. Honestly, it’s brilliant. It was terrific before Civil War, during, and even after. Even with Captain America dead, Ed’s been writing some of the best comics Marvel has. He gave the comic a fascinating film noir sort of feel, but he never goes overboard. Steve Rogers and the cast of characters in the comic have been drawn perfectly. Steve Rogers died in issue 25, we’re up to issue 32 now (without the title character) and the story is perfect.

    So I don’t know. I don’t think the Captain America relaunch will necessarily stick. I’ll be interested to see who winds up being the next Captain American (will it be Bucky? That would be fascinating to read). More than that, I’ll be interested in seeing what Ed Brubaker does with the character. He never goes for the cheap shot, he’s a really terrific and stand-up writer.

    It’s worth remembering that before Ed Brubaker took over the Captain America title, Captain America had fallen into the same caricature of uselessness as Wolverine had. It takes a good writer to write both characters (Ed for Captain America, Joss Whedon for Wolverine).

    After all, “The Death and Return of Superman” was, if you look at it, a gimmick event and a chance to relaunch the old character. The outlandish changes didn’t stick (blue energy superman? Give me a break), but it brought some interesting characters into the world who have justified themselves (such as Cyborg Superman, who is being put to stunning use in the Green Lantern Sinistero Corps war). And years and years later, I don’t remember Death of Superman as a gimmick, I remember it as a really intense story which came at me when I was exactly the right age to get hit with a superhero event.

  3. Shadow_Ferret

    November 19, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    Recently, meaning the last 10 years or so, my comic book reading has been sporatic at best. To be honest, I missed that whole Civil War thing and wasn’t aware Tony Stark was bad guy, although he’s always sort of been his own man, even as a member of the Avengers. I had a feeling that, despite his being a superhero, he was often a millionaire industrial capitalist first.

    Say, when did Nick Fury become a black man?

    And I wasn’t aware that Joss Whedon was writing comics. I really need to get back into that if authors of that caliber are writing. I can’t ever remember real writers doing comics and I always thought that Roy Thomas was the closest thing to a real writer we had back in the day.

  4. Pete Tzinski

    November 19, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    You definitely have to get back into comics, but carefully. Some are the best super-hero comics that have been done in decades. Others are absolute garbage.

    Joss Whedon is doing the Astonishing X-Men comic, the best writer of the X-men in a very long time. He takes Wolverine, who comes out a cliched Clint Eastwood speaking character and makes him an interesting and funny character. You can pick up the first three volumes of Astonishing X-Men in graphic novel form, and I recommend highly that you do.

    In terms of individual issues, read the Captain America issues. They’re not collected, which is a shame, because Ed Brubaker’s doing a stunning job. Also, if you can find it in graphic novel form, read the recent Daredevil run, when Daredevil went to prison. It was brilliant.

    Also, on the DC front, you should read Green Lantern. Oh man, should you read Green Lantern. Geoff Johns (who previously had my scorn for the disaster that was the Infinite Crisis stuff) is fighting a galactic war between the Green Lantern Corps and the Sinistero Corps, and it’s incredible, giddy stuff. Reading it makes me feel like I’m eight years old again, back when Star Wars was breathtaking and not just a punchline.

    That said, there’s a lot of really…bad…comics. Civil War is worth reading, mostly for what it does to your brain and how it makes you think. The writing is spotty, at best. Joe Straczynski (Babylon 5) has been doing Spider-Man for quite awhile now (he just finished) and he wrote the best Spider-Man in ages. He wrote a Spider-Man issue in response to September 11th, obviously several years ago, and it was a picture-perfect comic. And it was painful to read, especially if you’re a Captain America fan. He appeared in two panels, Captain America, and he broke my heart. It made it harder, when he died. You can probably find that issue easy enough, and you need to.

    Let’s see. Jeph Loeb (who does the TV show Heroes) is writing various DC series. He is crap. Seriously crap. Brad Meltzer (who writes John Grisham style novels) recently finished writing Justice League, and did a lousy job. Jodi Picoult just finished on Wonder Woman where she did a really….really…..REALLY bad job.

    THat’s all I can think of right now. If you lived near me, Ed, then we’d go hit Granite City Comics in downtown St. Cloud, and I’d load you up on issues and graphic novels, and we would manage to spend too much money… 🙂

  5. Pete Tzinski

    November 19, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    Two things I forgot to mention:

    1) Nick Fury is only black in the Ultimate line of comics. they made an Ultimate version of the Marvel Universe, so that they could make them all teenagers again without big back stories. That was years ago, the line mostly doesn’t work anymore. Nick Fury’s black and is, frankly, Samuel L. Jackson. The best thing about the Ultimate Line is Ultimate Spider-Man. You can buy several storylines collected into one big book, at Barnes & Noble, being written by Brian Michael Bendis. They’re the best Spider-Man stories you could be reading right now. Pure fun.

    2) Joe Straczynski is writing Thor, who has just returned, and is doing a good job. A very good job. He got rid of the hackneyed Shakespearean accent (why the hell would a Norse god talk like that? Joe knows better). ALSO, JMS just wrote “Silver Surfer: Requiem,” and it was beautifully written. Worth checking out.

    3) In the above picture of Captain America, lying dead on the steps, the man in the jacket and hat who is holding Steve Rogers’ head…is Stan Lee. I don’t know if I mentioned that. But I like it.


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