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We still need you, Captain America

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Not a day goes by that we don’t

Captain America #255, Marvel Comics

A decade ago, when I lived in California, I wrote the editorials for my father's tri-weekly newspaper back home in North Carolina. In March 2007, Marvel Comics wrapped up the Civil War storyline — adapted for a movie under the same subtitle this spring — with the death of Captain America, an event that made mainstream news. One weekend, Dad and I were brainstorming ideas for the edit page and all of mine sounded obnoxious and eggheaded. Dad brought up Cap, remembering how my brother had painted a trashcan lid and saved me from the wolfman on a Halloween long before. So I wrote this.

Captain America, 1941-2007

If you have not followed comic books in a while, sit down. We have some bad news. Steve Rogers – Captain America – is dead. The Living Legend, the Sentinel of Liberty, was gunned down on the steps of a federal courthouse this past week, concluding a storyline nakedly allegorical to events of the current day.

For 70 years, the writers at Marvel Comics always took great care, no matter the times, to portray Captain America as apolitically as possible, knowing how many admired him and how many walks of life and world views he represented. But present times could not be ignored, not for the useful lesson they offer to a generation of young readers.

The last chapter of Captain America’s service found notable super heroes on both sides of a crisis: that costumed vigilantes must submit to registration laws passed for the common security, or stand up for the principles and liberties such laws necessarily violate. The story showed girls and boys how even in the primary-color world of villains with names like Doctor Doom or the Red Skull, the most profound conflicts of life will be played out in shades of gray, against former friends, pitting not good versus evil but right versus righteousness, both sides convinced the other is the lesser.

Captain America #326, Marvel Comics

Captain America, to the last, fought for freedom, so his choice was clear. He went underground with renegade heroes against the authoritarian government whose symbols he wore. When the conflict proved too harmful to innocents, he surrendered to arrest, to end the fight in a court of law where our founding ideals are supposed to prevail. There Captain America was assassinated.

This is not the first time Marvel has used Captain America to teach lessons about personal integrity and the scarcity — and raw power — of true idealism, the singular trait that distinguished a hero who was a perfect physical specimen but, deliberately, never superhuman. In late 1974, following Watergate, and in 1987, making a clear rebuke of the violent, Rambo-style jingoism pervading popular entertainment, Steve Rogers walked away from the mask, disillusioned with corrupt leadership in the first case, and unwilling to participate in illegal military actions in the second. He chose to operate as a freelance in a nondescript costume rather than carry that indestructible red, white and blue shield for any reason other than those that forged it: liberty and justice for all. And in the end he won out, to return to the uniform, and restore the truth of its existence.

This time, however, Marvel seems inclined to make it stick. The company’s top editor hinted at how difficult it was to make Captain America — borne of World War II propaganda, after all — relevant to the current world. And it is undoubtedly a difficult assignment, to be given a character with no powers, only a piece of equipment —defensive by its nature — and nothing to distinguish him or justify his existence other than things that must seem so anachronistic: the love of one’s country, and the ideals upon which it was built.

But to permanently retire the shield, the winged cowl, the very image of Captain America, tumbling out of the panel in a streak of blue, bearing on the spectacular rescue, is to truly succumb to dark times — and never has our nation lived in days more evil than these.

Someone must return to duty. Some might find it overly sentimental to mourn a death in fiction. We mourn Captain America because we have yet to know him alive in reality. "It’s a hell of a time for him to go,” said his original artist, Joe Simon, now 93 and anguished by the news of Captain America’s death. “We really need him now.”

We always will.

The Tribune, Elkin, N.C., edition of March 14, 2007.