Friday, February 15, 2008

Steve Rogers 1917-2007... I don't think so.

*BTW-If you happen to be one of those writers or artists think that there’s no “real” writing in comic books, (mainstream or otherwise) stop reading this post now. I argued with you pretentious assholes in the classrooms, on the schoolyards, in college and I’ll fuck you up now. You smug pricks who think comics are low-brow or unsophisticated are the problem. Too many of you who can’t write well enough to get your prose published are slumming in the currently fashionable/profitable “graphic novel” ghetto. Well, fuck you. Stop saturating the bookshelves with your mediocrity.

Have you heard Ed Burns is doing a graphic novel? Are you inspired by this news? “Oh! oh thank you Ed Burns, the world needs another shitty comic book, please save us!” Well fuck you too, Ed Burns. Go back to making bad movies and leave the comic books alone, but before you do, sit down and read anything by Will Eisner, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis Alan Moore or Brian Azzarello so you’ll know exactly how much of a dick you are for even attempting a comic book. Dick.

But I’ve digressed before I hardly began...

Seth Tobocman, is one of the most talented and perceptive comic book writer/artists I have ever known. A mentor to just about anybody who works with him; Seth once told me, “(in comic books) bad writing doesn’t show up as readily as bad drawing, it’s the reason so many comics just suck.” Any of Seth’s stories make the best documentaries on PBS look like glossed-over shit. Pick up one of his books if you ever want to wake up from this fucking nightmare we’re calling early 21st Century America.

I am forced to wonder, why is it that every few years or so, some unimaginative hack either pitches the death of an iconic superhero, -or- is ordered to kill that hero off in some scandalous manner (scandalous to dedicated comics readers’ sensibilities) by some stupid editor in chief.
To me the calculated clichéd shocker death (or that decline of a titular character’s success with the public which generally precedes said death) means only one thing:

bad writing.

Writers who kill off characters (with the noted exceptions of Chris Claremont’s killing of Phoenix in 1982 -AND- Marv Wolfman’s killing of Barry Allen in 1985, which frankly was made all the more poignant lo these years by its apparent permanence) are simply out of ideas. A character doesn’t have to die to move a title in a new direction. Here’s a counter example: Jim Shooter, the oft maligned EIC at Marvel for much of the 80s oversaw the move of Walt Simonson to “The Mighty Thor” as writer and artist. At the time, the comic book was dying at the newsstand (this was before the supremacy of Diamond distributors, back when comics had a more scattered sales channel). There had been rumors of cancellation or a reduction in frequency. Marvel’s Thor, a nearly omnipotent being, was a challenge for writers for many of the same reasons his counterparts at DC were (Superman, Captain Marvel). After all how do you orchestrate peril and conflict for someone who is so ridiculously powerful?

It was no secret that Walt Simonson loved the character and it showed, as Simonson took this franchise character, no less than a branded god on Earth, and took him through one of the most harried, exciting and apocalyptic trajectories ever in mainstream super hero comics. He did it with edge-of-your-seat plots, disastrous turns of fortune and serious character development. I remember and am still influenced by Simonson’s draftsmanship and artistic skill (He was the first to put his own distinct spin on Asgard’s architecture, design and aesthetics since the great Jack Kirby left the title years earlier, no small feat) on that first issue. But thinking back, it was that first story, where Thor is laid low, has lost everything including the love and respect of his father, his power, his very self all within the span of 28 pages or less that left me slackjawed. I really thought there was nothing left to do with that character and I was wrong. Today, they’d just kill Thor off and then resurrect him, driving up single copy sales with the god of thunder’s impending return from the grave. Walt Simonson’s run on Thor is a case study of how you handle an exhausted franchise: You hire the right person for the job.

Which brings me to the tragic case of Steve Rogers.His story, as told by legendary creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby stands as one of the great enduring American myths. It is the only myth about biochemistry/biotechnology from America that I know of (Frankenstein being its European predecessor). I don’t use the term myth in its modern connotation; I refer to myth from the original Greek “Mythos”; a story or legendary narrative, usually of gods and heroes, or a theme that expresses the ideology of a culture. The story of Steve Rogers, too weak and infirm to defend his nation and its ideals against the advancing fascist forces across the Atlantic, volunteering his life, allowing his government to experiment on him, in order to transform him in to the ultimate soldier and defender of the United States, -is a myth (The discussion of where this intersects with propaganda is for another post). This character, who battled the Nazis, who dodged machine gunfire that rained down upon him, and liberated death camps recently died from a sniper’s bullet. It was a silly end that heralded an undignified but all too familiar continuing trajectory in comics. Iconic super hero characters in print for more than thirty years are increasingly being scuttled down this path: the “temporary death”, constructed to be sensational, making readers of all ages flock to titles they had previously ignored.

The funny thing is, all of these titles’ lead characters had something in common prior to their abrupt deaths: an apparent lack of possibilities and exhausted potential... at least as far as the writers and the audience was concerned. Steve Rogers, has had a particularly tough go of it in the last 25 years. He’s had the Captain America uniform and shield taken over at least ten times by other characters by my count, maybe more, I’ll have to ask industry expert, Jeff Rice. Steve Rogers is Captain America. The passing around of his uniform, shield and name shouldn’t be allowed. It turns the idea of him into a “brand” or uniform that anyone can wear and demotes Steve Rogers from a legend, into a footnote in a soap opera. John Byrne’s run on the comic in the 1980’s was a classy rework of the character that gave him a tremendous and unique profile opposite other heroes. He turned Captain America from old and worn to “classic”.

It’s time for someone with the same degree of skill and focus to write this character just as he is meant to be, no brainwashing schemes, no impersonations, no clones, no memory implants, no alternate realities, just…Steve Rogers, born on the 4rth of July, 1917, on New York’s Lower East side, a sickly young man who was transformed into the perfect human weapon to fight the Axis powers. You want to read a good Captain America comic? You want to see how it’s done? Read Millar and Hitch’s “the Ultimates”. The rest of you hacks are hereby ordered to stay at least 50 feet away from Captain America at all times.

That means you too, Kevin Smith.


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