Mar 27, 2014

What's Wrong With Steve Rogers?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is out next month, so for the entirety of March, all of my articles will be about the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan! Today, we talk about...

What's Wrong With Steve Rogers?
by Duy

Steve Rogers has been cool from the very start. I mean, the guy easily has the coolest cover of the Golden Age.

This cover made a dean at my college give me a job for the summer.
It was awesome.

He punches out Hitler! But all the same, creators don't seem to last long on him, do they? If we look at what seems to me to be the most acclaimed runs on the character, we have the following list.

  • Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (1940s): 10 issues 
  • Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (1960s in Tales of Suspense as a co-feature): 41 issues
  • Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (1960s): 11 issues
  • Stan Lee and Jim Steranko (1960s): 3 issues
  • Stan Lee and Gene Colan (1960s): 21 issues
  • Jack Kirby (1970s): 21 issues
  • Roger Stern and John Byrne (1980s): 10 issues
  • JM DeMatteis with various artists (1980s): 33 issues
  • Mark Waid and Ron Garney (1990s): 10 issues, then 6 issues
  • Ed Brubaker with various artists (2000s): 25 issues, then a handful of specials and miniseries, and then 19 issues

Now things like 41 issues by Lee and Kirby might sound like a lot, but it's really not when compared to the fact that they worked on over a hundred issues each of Thor and Fantastic Four, and that Tales of Suspense only featured Cap for half the magazine. Actually, even if you look at just Stan, he wrote only 86 Captain America issues straight, which is, really, a low number for Stan.

Ed Brubaker wrote Steve Rogers for 25 issues and replaced him with Bucky, then brought him back later on but kept Bucky in the spotlight. By the time Brubaker put Steve back in the suit, he wrote him for 19 more.

There are, of course, extenuating circumstances. Simon and Kirby only did 10 issues of Captain America for Timely, because that's just the way the business worked back then, with people shuttling back and forth between publishers. According to Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Steranko was fired from it for being late. Stern to the best of my knowledge has never come clean with why his and Byrne's run was so short-lived. Waid and Garney gained momentum as their run went on, but Marvel had to give the character to Rob Liefeld for the moneymaking Heroes Reborn event. When they returned on the character, Marvel replaced him with the more commercial but not-as-good Andy Kubert. JM DeMatteis was let go after his 33rd issue due to editorial differences with Jim Shooter. (His story would have involved Steve dying and getting replaced, so his run on Steve would have been capped at 33 regardless.)

Mark Gruenwald wrote Captain America for 10 years, but while some of his stuff was very well-received, a lot of it was also panned. His "The Captain" storyline is one of the highlights of the characters 73-year existence (and it involves him getting replaced!), while "Capwolf" remains one of the lowest points.

So there's got to be something to all this, since Steve Rogers apparently has a curse that either gets creators to go away or have them make him go away. But what is it? It's kind of unfair to the Greatest Nonpowered Superhero Ever.

So what's wrong with Steve Rogers? I've thought about it long and hard, and I've really just come up with a couple of things.

First of all, he's a Golden Age character. While he's far from being the archetypal Golden Age character (rich playboy who put on a mask to fight crime because he's bored), he's still a Golden Age character not named The Spirit, meaning he's generally flawless. That's a big part of his makeup. That means his motivation is pure (he does the right thing because it's the right thing to do) and any self-doubt is nonexistent. He's as confident as they come, he knows what to do during a fight, and you'd follow him to the depths of Hell if he said he could get you out alive. That's Steve Rogers. If he didn't do that, if he didn't have that confidence, he wouldn't be Captain America.

On the other hand, though, that kind of approach works if you're doing stand-alone stories where the adventure is the point. However, since Marvel got big in the 60s, the format of the continuous narrative has gotten increasingly more traction to the point that it is the norm to stretch out any sort of character arc or development for several years. When a character (or a universe) hits a point that may be deemed stagnant, things are shaken up

Steve Rogers has nowhere to go and no room to grow. As the pinnacle of human perfection, he's already the end product. He's a lot like Thor in that sense, except Thor has the eternal familial conflicts with his father and his brother that will never end and is automatically more open and ripe for future stories. There's already conflict built into Thor's life, while the conflict with Steve is external, and maybe that gets old. Really, how much can one pull off the "man out of time" bit? Before too long, Steve should know how to use an iPad, because he's still in his 20s psychologically and should be able to catch up with technology. How often can Captain America go up against the government or a government agency or SHIELD (as he seems to be close to doing in the upcoming movie) before that gets old for a particular reader? It's the kind of thing you can retread over the course of several years, but it's probably gotten harder to do the more comics have acquired long-term fans and perhaps impossible in today's trade paperback, long-term market.

Our culture now rewards long-term storylines and emotional developments and perhaps Steve Rogers just isn't the guy for that. You can kill off Sharon Carter — as they recently did — but you know she's the love of Steve's life and she'll be back the first time someone's got a good story for her. You can have Steve doubt himself, for the bajillionth time, but he'll snap out of it, always and always.

As a result, going away has kind of become Steve's "thing." Maybe he needs to go away for us to appreciate him, to remember how cool and awesome it is to have such an aspirational character. It's Awesomeness by Omission, as I wrote about last week, the idea that we see what's good about something when it's gone. Steve Rogers is always getting replaced as Captain America — by John Walker, who was too extreme and later became the USAgent; by the Cap of the 50s, who went insane; by Jeff Mace, the Patriot, who tried his best but just wasn't Cap; by Bucky, the Winter Soldier, who just didn't want anyone else to have the shield. These characters are compelling in their own right, and perhaps they're more suited to carrying out a prolonged narrative. (On that note, go read Karl Kesel and Mitch and Bettie Brettweiser's Patriot mini.) But one thing they all have in common is they're not Steve, nor can they be as good as him regardless of how hard they try.

So that's it. That's all I've come up with. I've bounced it around in my head for a while and the best thing I can think of is that Steve Rogers just isn't the kind of guy who's suited to a very long run sustained by one creative team. Maybe the novelty wears off. Maybe it gets too preachy after a while. Maybe people jump off before they get on their soapboxes, which might just mean Cap making speeches about the meaning of America.

There's nothing wrong with that. Sometimes things are better in shorter doses. EC Comics, Whose Line Is It Anyway, a random Peanuts stretch, The Twilight Zone — these are all things that would get old fast if you marathoned them. Perhaps it would serve Steve Rogers if he's more in the background and supporting characters could grow on his watch. Maybe for all that Gruenwald's run is not as loved or acclaimed as the shorter ones I've listed, he had to do a lot of stuff outside of Cap's comfort zone like Superia's Island of Women, Capwolf, and Flag-Smasher (a sound but undeveloped concept) because once he was done with his whole "Steve Rogers gets replaced" storyline, that was it for the "core" Captain America story he could do, and he still ended his run by putting a twist on that concept and removing Cap's powers, putting him in armor and surrounding him with sidekicks that tried living up to his example.

So what's wrong with Steve Rogers? Maybe the problem is there's nothing wrong with Steve Rogers. We, the audience, want something wrong with our protagonists, especially if we're reading them for the long haul, through multiple paperbacks, each and every month. But I still don't want Steve to change. If anything, I'd love to see someone get on him and write him for a long time and reach the same heights of acclaim that runs like Stern and Byrne's, Stan and Steranko's, and Brubaker's have, without replacing Steve Rogers as Captain America, either by being stripped of the identity or by "dying." I'm sure there's a run for that at some point, by someone.

Maybe that someone... could be... you! Or the dude next to you. Or behind you. I'm not picky.


Anonymous said...

great article Duy. Just a question I have is what's your opinion of the current Remender run of Cap? -Dan Alicata

Duy Tano said...

Haven't read it!

El Lass said...

Cap is a DC character in the Marvel Universe. That is his Golden Age heritage. The angsty MU has never been a good fit. The fish out of water perspective maintained him through the 60s -70s. But as real time went on he suffered from the same problems of the JSA from DC. He was pinned to an era in the past that was losing relevance to younger readers. And that angle got stale too. I think using real time as a descriptor is complicated when writing characters.
How old is Charlie Brown and the gang? Dates are always omitted for good reasons.
Thanks for the well thought out essay. I will have to check out the Mark Gruenwald stretch.

Fred W. Hill said...

Based on what I've read, Kirby & Simon were actually fired by Martin Goodman because they did some work for another company and had tried to get Goodman to live up to a "handshake deal" that there rates for working on Captain America would be based on a percentage of the sales -- and for a time Captain America was one of the bestselling comics in the United States.

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