Warning: This article contains spoilers for the end of Marvel Civil War and issue 25 of Captain America.
Steve Rogers is dead. If you’re not a comic book reader, you probably know him better as Captain America, the World War II super soldier who was frozen and thawed out in the modern world. Recently things have been difficult in the Marvel Universe – the government passed the Superhuman Registration Act, which required all people using their superpowers as vigilantes to register with the authorities, get proper training (which would hopefully help avoid the kinds of massive damage these guys do every issue of their comics) and join a massive national Initiative that would put superheroes in every state of the union, not just New York, where they all live in the world of Marvel.
Cap didn’t like it –giving up essential liberties for security and all that – and he created an underground of heroic resisters. They clashed with the pro-registration forces, and that escalated into a series of battles until Cap finally realized that he was behaving in exactly the kind of reckless manner the authorities wanted to curb. He surrendered, vowing to fight the Registration Act from inside the courts.
Except now he won’t be able to, as in the latest issue of his comic a sniper shot him in the head. Steve Rogers is dead.
Fandom is in an uproar.
There’s two sides to this uproar, each pretty ridiculous. There’s the side that is upset that such a classic, iconic character has been killed. First of all, who knows who Steve Rogers is? The average American knows the costume, but not much else – this isn’t like Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne, where the secret identity is just as important as the heroic one. But on top of that, who believes Steve Rogers is dead forever? It’s comics, and they always come back.
That’s the other ridiculous side to the uproar, people who see this as a cheap gimmick, and who are decrying the inevitable resurrection. These people seem to be blind to the very genre they’re reading, as deaths and returns are pretty much de rigeur for superhero books. Ever since the beginning of superhero comics, there was one thing you could count on: everything would end up back at the status quo in the end.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that these characters aren’t just icons, they’re marketing objects. That new costume on your favorite character probably won’t last long when the parent company has a warehouse full of underwear with the old costume on it that they still have to sell. Far more people recognize Batman than read him, and there are probably many more people willing to pick up Batman-related toys, games and accessories than there are those willing to buy Batman books every month. These people need to be able to recognize the character they’re seeing.
That’s the monetary reason. The creative reason is that simply enough new people get assigned to these comics all the time. Current Captain America writer Ed Brubaker may never bring Steve Rogers back, but the next guy may have a hankering to play with the version of the character who is the old WWII soldier living in the modern world. He’ll come up with a way to bring Rogers back and the powers that be will happily go along with him, because it may help them shift a couple of extra units.
The other complaint that people have is that this is all just to sell comic books. And? Did you think that Marvel and DC were engaged in some sort of charity to help fulfill the fantasies of emotionally stunted manchildren? They’re companies trying to make money in a very, very tough market. They’re getting their asses kicked by the competition in video games, movies, TV… and even manga. If you’re a fan of superhero comics you should be rooting for these guys to pull off a big event that will draw in new readers and increase sales, making the industry healthier. The event shouldn’t be judged on whether or not it was calculated to sell comics, but whether the story is interesting and well-told. And frankly, a look back at the covers of comic books in the 50s, 60s and 70s shows that these sorts of shock tactics to sell comics are not just new, they’re time honored – and they used to be done in a much more extreme way. The main difference here is that rather than a misleading cover, the comic now fulfills the basic promise – Captain America is dead! – over the course of a number of issues.
Recently Marvel editor Tom Brevoort answered some questions about Marvel’s Civil War event, specifically about how long it would take Marvel to ‘reset’ all the changes that happened at the end of the series. Brevoort said that they don’t have any plans to reset anything any time soon, but that he has no illusions that one day the Marvel Universe will look more like it did before Civil War. And he said that it’s a function of serialized comic storytelling – the truth is that if you’re cynical enough to be upset about the eventual return of the status quo, you’ve probably been reading the books for too long. The industry is sick because it has ceded itself to the people who are too old to be reading these comics as religiously as they do, and these overgrown fanboys demand that this form of storytelling conform to their ideas of continuity. DC has been especially awful with this, with their big event Infinite Crisis riffing on convoluted continuity understandable only by the most socially challenged readers. It’s not just that comics are competing with other mediums for the entertainment dollar, it’s that they’re not making themselves accessible to any new people who might want to jump in.
So yeah, Steve Rogers will probably be back. If you’re shocked or offended by this, you’re kind of a chump, or you’ve never read a comic book before. And yeah, Marvel is making a big deal out of a change that will probably eventually be undone. If you’re shocked or offended by this, you have no understanding of basic business and promotion – the first guy to tell Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada that the slogan for this event should be “Captain America is Dead! Until We Decide To Bring Him Back in the Next Big Event!” would be fired.
All that matters is whether the stories that come out of this event are good. If they are, the event is a creative success. If they’re not, the event was not a creative success. It’s as simple as that, and it’s always been as simple as that. That’s the basic covenant between comic creators and readers – ‘Go with us for this ride and it’ll be fun and interesting.’ Why is that so hard for some people to understand?