Comics: Captain America, 1941-2007

CAPTAIN AMERICA IS DEAD. It's a powerful headline, even for those who have never picked up a Marvel comic book and don't know "The Sentinel of Liberty" from "The Scarlet Swashbuckler." Fans and novices alike have been struck by the poignancy of the image on the pages of the comic book, released Wednesday: a patriotic do-gooder with a bullet piercing his burly, red-white-and-blue torso.

Sure, he's just a made-up character. But it's hard to avoid reading today's reality into the death of someone whose surname is "America" and who walks around in a spandex flag. From the first issue in 1941, in which the title character battles Adolf Hitler, "Captain America" has put a fantastical sheen on the nation's very real troubles. And in Marvel's recent "Civil War" mini-series, Captain America plays a starring role in a storyline that raised timely questions about individual rights versus national security. In the seven-book series that wrapped up last month, the Cap leads an underground resistance against the Superhuman Registration Act, a law that is widely regarded as an allegory for the Patriot Act, which required all superheroes to register their true identity with the federal government. In the end, struck by the damage that his movement was doing to American civilians, he surrenders. The series's plotline carries over into the 25th issue of the Captain America comic: the icon is gunned down while on his way to the courtroom to face charges for his role in the civil war.

So what are we to make of it all? What does the murder of a flag-clad superhero say about patriotism? Joe Quesada, editor in chief of Marvel Comics, and Stan Lee, a long-time "Captain America" writer and all-around comic guru, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Samantha Henig about the hopeful beginning and recent end of our country's eponymous superhero. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The "Civil War" comic mini-series that wrapped up last month touches on some pretty hot political issues. Were you at all nervous about delving into that?
The Marvel universe is always at its best when we are reflecting the world around ourselves. "Captain America" was created right around the time of World War II, he fought Adolph Hitler, he sold war bonds; then in the '60s when you look at the cold war and the fear that we had of the atom but also the promise of the atom, and you get characters like the Hulk, who comes out of a gamma-bomb explosion, and Spider-Man, who is bitten by an irradiated spider. Then there's Vietnam, and Tony Stark is a guy who's building weapons for the war in Asia and happens to get crippled there and become Iron Man--all these things really stem from comics being a product of their time. So when we were thinking of the story of "Civil War," there was absolutely no resistance on our part to do it because we just knew it was one of those great ideas that we had to go forward with.

And the byproduct of that mini-series: Captain America's death. Where was his famous shield when he needed it?
Well, at that point he was being taken to the court for arraignment.

So he doesn't get a shield?
Right, you might as well give him a gun.

Marvel's editorial department decided on Captain America's death a year and a half ago. Is it hard to make timely political statements with that much lead time?
If "Civil War" had hit six months earlier or six months later, it might not have hit with the same impact that it did when it finally did ship. When we planned the death of Captain America, we didn't know the war would still be going on a year and half later, yet here we are. We've been very fortunate in the sense that it all seems very, very current.

Is it at all constricting to have Captain America be so overtly symbolic? Everything that he does is going to come out looking like some statement about the country.
I'll be honest with you, Captain America is one of the toughest, toughest characters for any writer to write here at Marvel Comics. We struggled with the character for many years, because you don't want to come out and be explicitly political with the character because this is a guy who wears the American flag. For each American, when we look at the flag, we all have varying feelings about America and the flag. Now you take that flag and you smack it on a character who stands for freedom, justice, the American way--all of that--and I think people will read whatever they want to read into it. That does sort of constrict how we write the character.

How has Captain America's popularity changed over time?
I think the popularity of the character has increased during points in America where there has been a large political or social rift within the country. Cap had an interesting resurgence in the late '60s and '70s during the civil-rights movement. I always find that the character is the most interesting when you put him in those sorts of situations, no matter how hard they are to write.

How have the enemies he's fought changed over the years? Are terrorists the Nazis of today? Or is it more complicated than that?
He has fought more contemporary characters and some characters that do resonate with the fears we have in the modern world. And that is when Captain America is at his best. Any time you see a lull in Captain America sales historically is when the character spends the bulk of his time fighting costume villains that have nothing to do with his character, and that's usually during times when the country is politically and civically stable.

What's your reaction to the death of Captain America? Did you see this coming?
STAN LEE: I was a little bit shocked when I heard about it, as I think everybody else was. It's really a shame. He was a great guy and certainly America could use a man like that right now.

Why now? Why Captain America, do you think?
Well, here we are at war, and Captain America was one of the greatest soldiers--he was fictitious of course, but still one of our greatest soldiers. He was the ultimate patriot, and I imagine we could use all the patriots we can get today.

Do you think Americans relate to Captain America now in the same way they did at his conception?
Possibly not, because in the days when he was most popular we were fighting the Nazis, and just about everybody felt that that was a necessary war. Unfortunately today, there are people who we're not sure we should be fighting in Iraq, so a patriotic character like Cap may not be as much in demand as he would have been then.

How did writing Captain America compare to writing other comic heroes?
Captain America was a little bit more difficult because, well, he was almost a little bit like Superman, he was just totally good. It was kind of difficult to put him in dramatic situations where if he had any faults or foibles they would resonate with the situation. In fact, when I reintroduced Captain America in the '60s--I believe he had been buried in a glacier or something and we brought him back to life--I tried to write him as though he felt he was something of an anachronism. He felt he was a character from the '30s and '40s and suddenly he's in the '60s and it's a time when there are hippies and there are protest meetings against the government and against the war, and he wasn't used to that sort of thing. He felt that he didn't belong. I tried to play up that angle in his stories in order to make him a more interesting character, rather than just a good guy who's fighting the bad guys.

If being too good was his weakness as a character, what were his strengths?
He was courageous and brave and, not really having any superpower, he was easy for the readers to identify with. He was just a good fighter, but he couldn't fly and he wasn't bulletproof and so forth. And his name. He had a great name: "Captain America." It's a great name.

How was the Captain America of 2007 different than the one that you worked on in the early years?
Lately we've had stories--I've had nothing to do with them, I think they're brilliant though--in the series called "Civil War." This is one of the few times when you might say he really was involved in a political situation where he had to decide which side he was on, and both sides consisted of good guys. And that to me reminds me of politics in America because I consider the Democrats and the Republicans good guys; they just seem to see things differently.

In the early comics, the supervillains were the Nazis. Do you think Al Qaeda and terrorists make equally good villains?
Oh, I think the terrorists make great villains!

Did you have a favorite villain to write?
For Captain America, one of my favorite villains was someone called the Red Skull. I've had many favorite villains: Doctor Doom, the Green Goblin, it goes on and on.

Are you surprised that commercially Captain America hasn't taken off the way Spider-Man has?
No, not really. I think Spider-Man had more going for him, mainly because of the fact that he is a flawed character. He was less than perfect, and I think that the readers can identify with him more easily.

When you're involved at the beginning of a comic, do you ever think about how it might end, how the superhero might die?
To tell you the truth, I never did. I used to feel that if I were lucky enough to create a character that would be popular, I wasn't about to kill him because I'd be killing my bread and butter.