Bait Taken: Captain America: Steve Rogers #1

There are many building blocks of the internet, but the cornerstones are think pieces, offhand lists, and other hollow provocations meant to stir arguments and, therefore, briefly redirect web traffic. Engaging such material is utterly pointless. Then again, it’s not like I have anything better to do.

Rogers.jpg

I’m under the impression that the mess in which we find ourselves mired in currently began with Captain America. More specifically, it started nearly ten years ago, when Marvel Comics released Captain America #25. Sales of comic books were in a steady and dire decline, and the Marvel Entertainment Group was still a year away from the cinematic launch of Iron Man, leading to a wildly lucrative new revenue stream. But this particular issue of the star-spangled Avenger’s title jolted the moribund market to life, startling comic book retailers who’d grown immune to the various publishers’ breathless promises of staggering storytelling developments sure to send the printed adventures flying off the shelves. In this issue, Captain America was killed. Or at least he seemingly drew his last breath, felled by an assassin’s bullet. (When a friend of mine learned from him local comic shop proprietor that this was the fairly simple way Cap met his maker, this friend wryly said, “I bet the Nazis wish they’d thought of trying to shoot him.”) The fake-out death of a major character had been part of the comic creator playbook for ages, but this time was different. This time, legitimate news outlets jumped all over the story, leading speculators to surge into stores. An industry that could barely move their product now couldn’t keep at least one notable issue in stock. A terrible lesson was learned.

Ludicrously overblown hype was practically twined into the DNA of Marvel Comics, thanks to the everlasting influence of former writer, editor, and publisher Stan Lee, who combined a huckster’s cunning with an irresistible boyish exuberance in selling his wares. Even so, Lee’s brand of promotion was predicated on a genial camaraderie, a prevailing sense that everyone was on the same roller coaster together, aware that all the scary twists and turns were ultimately going to wind up with the car rattling to a safe stop at a spot that looked awfully familiar. Lee was a shameless showman, but he was also a born storyteller, and he operated with a clear respect for the integrity of the characters he moved around the board. One of Marvel’s great innovations under his formational leadership was that every story mattered. While some individual tales did still fade into insignificance, the implicit promise of a Marvel book, as opposed to those published by the distinguished competition, was that its parade of panels contributed to a larger whole, a superhero saga for the ages. Lee and his collaborators crafted stories that they could sell with gimmicky hooks. The avenue didn’t run the other way.

And so we come to the comic book that flooded aghast commentary and withering defenses into the comic book focused sections of the internet, like the elevator doors of the Overlook Hotel cracking open to disgorge a tidal wave of blood into the lobby. For reasons far too tiresome to go into here, a new Captain America series debuted yesterday, returning Steve Rogers to the role and placing his name right there in the logo. It also included a development, delivered in a shocker of a final panel, that is seen by some as a complete betrayal and by others as another yawn-inducing twist bound to be erased. Others with long memories and crack research skills point out that the specific story detail that has raised such ire is hardly unprecedented. As usual with such flashpoint reactions, the animosity is out of proportion to the infraction. At the same time, I believe that who scowl at the offending kernel of the story as presented aren’t entirely wrong in their wounded petulance.

Nick Spencer, the writer of the issue in question and launcher of the larger storyline, has been behind some dandy comics, including a regularly rebooting Ant-Man title that is smart and funny in equal measure. He clearly has an underlying message meant to comment on the most disheartening news of the day, with a consideration of all the ways the vulnerable can fall under sway of opportunistic hate-mongers. The comic book includes a scene in which longtime Captain America adversary the Red Skull — a vicious Nazi, mind you —  speaks to a rally of frothing followers with a script that could be recited tomorrow by Donald Trump without stirring the slightest bit of discomfiting surprise. And yet the political point is obscured by the eager cynicism of the story’s defining narrative skullduggery, the hook upon which the initially pitch of it surely hinged. It plays out like a transparent attempt to “break the internet,” an extension of the misbegotten philosophy I associate with Joe Quesada’s tenure as Marvel’s editor-in-chief which holds that any attention is worthwhile. And, as any child with a gift for brattiness knows, negative attention is a lot easier to get than the more positive and productive equivalent.

Of course, Marvel has gotten exactly what they wanted: endless chatter. In particular, they get to claim a major victory in their ongoing cold war against DC, as they decisively wrenched the spotlight away from their rival’s own continuity-rattling comic book, released the very same day. I wonder, though, if it is beginning to reach a point where the antagonist trolling of their own readership is becoming needlessly counter-productive. Why offer such a hideous reversal, even if only as a fleeting taunt, of Captain America’s very foundation when the character’s blockbuster movie is still raking in money by the shieldful at the box office?(The prideful insistence by the publishing personnel that they don’t allow the films to influence editorial decisions strikes me as one of the dumbest stances taken within an industry that has no shortage of dumb stances.) It’s undoubtedly true that this shocking development in the past would have come and gone without much apparent complaint in the days before the whirling eddy of very public commentary various internet platforms provide. But the sword that swings against Marvel is the one they themselves forged. They cultivate the precise mindful loyalty and close readings of their wares that they are all too ready to disparage when it all turns against them.

While this haystack of verbal complaint suggests otherwise, I myself feel only the faintest of emotional pangs over all this nonsense. I long ago grew jaded beyond repair about the overall current state of affairs with the comic book company I once clung to like a life preserver. I’m even a touch pleased that the panel triggering all the hand-wringing has rapidly become a malleable platform for the comedic depiction of indefensibly deplorable convictions. It’s also important to note that every last worrisome suspicion about how the story fundamentally changes the character could be upended by the next issue, an escape route that doesn’t exactly excuse the most carelessly taunting aspects of the manipulative fiction thus far. Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 hardly the most grievous transgression the former House of Ideas could make, but I do believe all involved can do better than this.

Now, to paraphrase a certain fella, I’ve said enough.

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