Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The demise(s) of Captain America

I was thinking of commenting on the reported death of Captain America, an event surely to capture the imagination of a generation of American Studies Ph.D. dissertation writers, but was having trouble finding a legal history tie-in. Then Volokh Conspiracy, of all places, beat me to it, linking to today's Wall Street Journal piece on the superhero.

In Marvel's telling of the story, "Cap's" life has an arch, from its anti-Nazi origins in the 1940s, to his murder on the steps of Foley Square in the midst of a civil war battle stemming from controversy over a government registration scheme with Patriot Act resonances. (Captain America opposed registration.)

But this is not the only contemporary story of the demise of this symbol of America. Another was displayed in the Whitney Museum in fall 2003: The American Effect, a rendering of global perspectives on the United States. The exhibit included "Nursing Home," by French artist Gilles Barbier, with life-sized sculptures of aged superheroes, including Captain America. Cap is the superhero in most dire circumstances, lying on a stretcher attached to an IV, an aging Wonder Woman standing watch beside him. "These comic heroes were once, like the United States, indestructible," the Daily Princetonian noted in its review. "Is America past its prime as well?"

These images stand in contrast to each other. A robust hero shot down while fighting for his conception of American principles. A forgotten icon facing his final days on life support. In the comic book version, all expect some sort of resurrection. Perhaps the most important question is whether the vision of America from the outside in, the global image represented in The American Effect, can experience a parallel rebirth.

Update: While there is no credible evidence that it has played a role in Marvel's version of Cap's demise, it appears that Captain America has some real life enemies. The National Review Online today links to a paper "The Betrayal of Captain America," written by Michael Medved and Michael Lackner for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The paper claims that Captain America comics are "packaged in deceptively patriotic covers," but " They express anti-war sentiments, condemn America as a racist state, liken the actions of our Armed Forces to the murderous crimes of Islamic terrorists, portray terrorists as advocates for sympathetic causes, show others to be victims of U.S. aggression, and reveal our Government officials to be scheming, evil villains." The paper is here.

Another update, thanks to a tip from Deceth in the comments. The politics get even more interesting, as Steven Colbert links Captain America and the Attorney General Gonzales controversy. Colbert's take-away lesson: "Fighting to protect civil liberties like free speech and privacy isn’t just quaint. It’s dangerous. That’s what killed Captain America. He had to be written out."

Yet another update: What killed Captain America? He was all too human, concludes Austin Grossman in the March 17 New York Times.