Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Heroes and anti-heroes 

Jonathan Last writes about the death of Captain America as a hero of comic book readers. When I was a kid, my Uncle Licky (short for licorice, his childhood addiction) worked as a manager at the Dover (NH) News, which distributed newspapers, magazines, books and comics to drug stores, grocers, and other shops around southeastern New Hampshire. I looked forward to visiting my grandmother, with whom he lived, because that meant a new supply of comics and (especially) Mad magazines. Captain America was one of my favorites, though I preferred both Spiderman and IronMan (I loved the Tales of Suspense series, though my parents thought it was too dark -- compared to what kids read now, it was awfully tame.)

Last details the period of my childhood (the latter 1960s) and the themes of the comic:
He returned in 1964 and found renewed fame, but not as the same rock-jawed, stalwart soldier. In 1969 he was paired with the first African-American superhero, the Falcon. In one small sign of how comics were evolving, the Falcon's alter ego, Sam Wilson, was a Harlem social worker.

As Vietnam raged, Captain America stayed home. In 1971 Marvel's Stan Lee wrote that Cap "simply doesn't lend himself to the John Wayne type character he once was" and that he "could not see any of [Marvel's] characters taking on the role of super-patriotism in the world as it is today." Instead, Cap became a Great Society superhero, battling, as Mr. Wright puts it, "poverty, racism, pollution, and political corruption."

Consider this monologue from a '70s issue in which Cap muses: "I'm like a dinosaur--in the cro-magnon age! An anachronism--who's out-lived his time! This is the day of the anti-hero--the age of the rebel--and the dissenter! It isn't hip--to defend the establishment!--only to tear it down! And, in a world rife with injustice, greed, and endless war--who's to say the rebels are wrong? . . . I've spent a lifetime defending the flag--and the law! Perhaps I should have battled less--and questioned more!"
To the precocious sixth- or seventh-grader who watched Cronkite and Severeid night after night with Mom, while Dad went to bed to get ready for the overnight shift, that was heady stuff. By the time the comic turned to fighting against political corruption as exemplified by Nixon and Watergate I was a high schooler and moved on to science fiction, but Cap the dissenter was a model for many of us at the time. And it was not lost on us that Steve Rogers, unlike Pete Parker or Tony Stark, was no mutant; what had changed him was no more fabulous than Barry Bonds' change in physique. That a bullet felled him strikes me as sad but not surprising. Cap was never long for this world.

The lack of heroes was driven home to me last night watching '24', when the last words are of an EMT in an ambulance says "We're losing him!!" and I said aloud "...and not a moment too soon." We have plenty of characters to dislike but few Captain Americas. And that goes to you too, Jack Bauer.