Captain America is dead.
The star-spangled avenger's life was cut short by a sniper's bullet in the latest issue of his Marvel comic book. But the real triggerman may have been the Bush administration.
The popularity of the patriotically themed superhero has always been inextricably linked to our nation's sense of unity and pride.
The character debuted in March of 1941, less than a year before the United States would find itself embroiled in the second War to End All Wars. Readers met the Captain's alter ego, Steve Rodgers, as the typical 97-pound weakling who was transformed into a human fighting machine after being treated with Dr. Reinstein's super soldier serum. (The fact that Rodgers was depicted as a blond, blue-eyed man seems a little creepy in retrospect. The fictional Reinstein's work echoes the real-life eugenics work going on in Germany at the time.) It's no small irony that the blond-haired, blue-eyed Rodgers would have been considered a perfect specimen of the Arian master race. Captain America's adventures led him to combat fascist and totalitarian governments both in the US and abroad. Some of the depictions of the villains (particularly the Japanese) would induce cringes in today's more enlightened readers. Still, there is no denying that he was a timely symbol of America's unity and purpose in fighting the axis powers.
Marvel's history of Captain America says that he disappeared late in the war when he and his sidekick, Bucky Barns, were lost trying to stop a German rocket launch. In Marvel's continuity, subsequent appearances of Captain America which occurred through the mid-1950s were attributed to a series of patriotically themed mystery men who donned Cap's distinctive costume. Marvel writers explained that the US government wanted to keep Cap alive as a propaganda tool.
But in real life Captain America's popularity waned as the nation entered the Red Scare of the 1950's. In a nation deeply divided over the nature of freedom there seemed to be no place for a superhero who offered only one vision of what US democracy really means. The Kefauver Commission's investigation into comic books and Fredrick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent merely helped hasten the crime fighter's demise.
But a great hero like Captain America couldn't stay gone forever. With the nation unified and reinvigorated by John F. Kennedy's New Frontier, Captain America rose again. Readers learned that Captain America hadn't died stopping that German rocket after all. Instead, he dropped into the sea and became encased in a chunk of ice. His body was discovered by members of the Marvel superhero team The Avengers. Ironically Cap's survival came in a comic book dated November of 1963 – the same month that JFK would be killed in Dallas.
But many of JFK's policies were continued under President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Cap was reinvented as a super heroic cold warrior.
By this time, of course, Cap and Steve Rodgers were both something of an anachronism. Much had changed in American society in the two decades since Captain America had disappeared. Yet Steve Rodgers stubbornly held on to the populist and progressive democratic ideals he'd always stood for.
As a youngster, I appreciated those ideals. Let other kids wear a red towel around their neck and pretend to be Superman. I preferred the Captain's method of felling bad guys by throwing his indestructible shield like an oversized Frisbee. The lids on my parent's garbage cans never fit quite the same.
Even as Steve Rodgers was making a new life for himself, he found himself once again a patriot in the middle of a country divided. The unpopular war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal combined to make Rodgers briefly give up the red, white and blue costume. Only as President Gerald Ford began the process of national healing would Rodgers don the familiar costume – thankfully, in time for the nation's bicentennial.
And so Captain America had soldiered on these many years as a vital hero in a country that knew relative peace and prosperity.
And then came the 2000 election.
Despite the current President's claims of being "a uniter and not a divider," the Bush administration has embarked on a systematic campaign to erode liberties that Steve Rodgers would have taken for granted. Rodgers would have viewed with dismay America's lowered standing on the world stage.
And so the Bush administration helped create a climate were Captain America couldn't exist. There is a possibility that Captain America may return someday. Captain America fans have noted the existence of what seems to be a clone of Steve Rodgers.
But odds are that clone (or whatever it is) won't see the light of day until late January of 2009.