Like Jesus, But With Fisticuffs
Aside from being a man of notoriously high morality and a propensity for preaching, Cap shares a key trait with Christ: death and resurrection, fraught with meaning. Though, in true comic form, Cap’s done it more than once.
Below is a chronological list of Cap’s deaths, both the physical and symbolic types, and their intended significance.
First death and resurrection (D&R): Cap and his sidekick Bucky are blown up when trying to stop the Nazi super-criminal Baron Zemo from stealing a drone plane. Bucky actually does die.* Cap goes into the icy north Atlantic, turns into a dude-sicle, and is thawed out by the Avengers.
When: Avengers #4 (1964)
Significance: Explains how Captain America could appear in the mid-sixties without being a middle-aged man. His least symbolic resurrection.
Second D&R: Cap grows tired of the constant danger and wants a normal life. He fakes his death at the hands of the secret society HYDRA. But dammit, duty calls, and he “returns from the dead” to administer kidney punches to evil.
When: Captain America #111-114 (1969)
Significance: The first time the Marvel Universe got a chance to mourn for Cap’s passing. Hardly the last.
“Giving up the gig to have a normal life” was a common Marvel plot device in the sixties. Probably every hero did it at least once before 1970. However, I think Cap was the only one to fake his own death to do so. Also, one whole issue during his “death” focused on Cap’s history, giving a little weight to the event.
Third D&R: After thwarting the Secret Empire’s attempt to take over America and discovering that its head was the President of the United States, Cap is disillusioned with his country and ditches the job. Other men try to fill the gig and meet with violent ends. Cap resumes the mask and shield to stomp the Red Skull.
When: Captain America #176-183 (1974-1975)
Significance: Probably the only D&R in Cap’s history to have a lasting effect. When Cap resumed his identity as Captain America, he redefined his purpose. Rather than be a soldier, he dedicated himself to the ideals of America instead. After the Secret Empire, Cap’s loyalties shifted from the army and the President to his conception of what America should be.
I think this was when his speechifying tendencies began to emerge. Also, this was the first of his “symbolic” deaths.
Fourth D&R: Bureaucrats in Washington realize that Cap is technically an employee of the U.S. government and try to bring him to heel. After some thought, Cap rejects their offer and gives up the identity.
A bullet-headed yahoo is put in the costume instead. Said bullet-head proves not up to the task and has a breakdown, leading to his murdering many people. The original cap returns, beats the crap out of his “successor,” and extricates the Captain America identity from the government.
When: Captain America #332-350 (1987-1989)
Significance: Yet another symbolic death and resurrection. The bullet-head becomes a minor jingoistic hero, US Agent, not long after this story. Fittingly, the yahoo gets “killed” in public to be secretly remade as the Agent. Man, even second-string Caps get D&Rs…
Fifth D&R: Loony-toon vigilante Frank Castle, known as the Punisher, is fooled into thinking Cap is part of a major eeevil conspiracy. Frank snipes him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Cap’s armored shirt saves him, but the Feds pretend he’s dead to fool the Punisher.
When: Punisher and Captain America: Blood and Glory #1-2 (1992)
Significance: This faked death, complete with state funeral, is the first of many in the next ten years. Outside of the Blood and Glory three-issue miniseries, this faked death is never referenced.
Sixth D&R: The super-soldier serum that gave Cap his powers back in 1940 breaks down. He withers away over the course of a year’s worth of issues, then dies. The Red Skull swipes his body and restores him, since he needs Cap’s aid.
When: Captain America #430-445 (1996)
Significance: Cap’s third state funeral, by my count. (His WW2 death was hushed up, otherwise it’d be his fourth.) Again, one whole issue was filled with characters discussing Cap’s history and legacy.
Seventh D&R: Captain America, along with the rest of the Avengers, “dies” in battle with the plot device (oh, excuse me, “super-villain”) Onslaught. They disappear into a pocket dimension for twelve issues, then re-emerge into the Marvel Universe proper.
When: Onslaught: Marvel (1996), Captain America, vol. 2 #1-12 (1996-1997), Captain America, vol. 3 #1 (1997)
Significance: Cap’s death was one of many. The Onslaught deaths were meant to evoke the fear of a World Without Heroes, not just a World Without Cap.
The Onslaught D&R does have one redeeming feature: it was Cap’s second death in calendar year 1996. That has to be some kind of record.
Eighth D&R: In his most embarrassing death, Cap is killed by a group of very old Nazi farts in a subdivision in New Jersey who had built some missile-thingy. The story was supposed to be laden with symbolism and weight, but it felt as silly as this recap.
When: Captain America, vol. 3 #50 (2002)
Significance: Not much. There was a bit of “oh, no, the Symbol of America and all that is Good and Peachy is dead!” wailing, as per usual. Captain America vol. 3 was cancelled with #50 and rebooted as Captain America, vol. 4 a few months later, his “death” in New Jersey ignored.
Ninth D&R: The man cannot stop dying. Cap’s best friend and former partner, the Falcon, had unraveled and started pushing people around. One of the men the Falcon slapped around came back with a gun and shot at him. In a fluke, the bullet hit and killed Cap instead. He gets better.
When: Captain America and the Falcon #13-14 (2005)
Significance: I haven’t read CA&F #14 yet, so I don’t know for certain. Almost certainly it will affect the relationship between the two men. Twenty bucks says that the Falcon will get his head together, but he’ll also dissolve the partnership. (The series is cancelled with #14, I think.)
I’ve probably missed one or two D&Rs. But I think these make my point.
Captain America is laden with much more symbolic weight than any superhero, and so killing him is thought to be a bold statement.** Or at least a cheap drama engine. Kacking Spider-Man lacks the oomph of putting America’s Biggest Boyscout and the Living Flag down for a dirtnap.
As a reader and a fan of the character, I gotta say, the man’s been “killed” five times since 1992, with at least three big state funerals. Enough, already.
Lately, Cap has added a wrinkle to his D&R style.
In the story “Ice,” which ran in Captain America vol. 4 #12-16 (2003), it was suggested that Cap’s memories of WW2 had been altered by the US Army.***
The current story running through Captain America also shows Cap having flashbacks of a history that doesn’t mesh with the old-school version of his past.
Either “Ice” didn’t resolve the matter (I didn’t finish the story, due to it being so awful it insulted the memory of the trees that died to print it), or the current writer is rehashing the plot device. Regardless, oy.
Apparently, memory alteration is the new death.
*Or not. I haven’t read the latest issue of Cap, but it looks like ol’ Buck has returned to the land of the living, forty-one years after being declared dead. Ye gods.
**Damn that name and flaggy costume. If he were “Captain Radial Tires With Whitewalls,” writers wouldn’t find killing him so attractive an option.
***You gotta love this attempt to make Cap more grim-n-gritty by stripping away his candy floss, brightly-colored WW2 backstory and adding an X-Files-style conspiracy to his past!
…no, wait…you don’t have to love it.
What a horrible idea: the “Wolverineing” of Cap. Dark past? Check. Uncertain memories? Check. Paranoia? Check. Increased violence in the comics? Check.
Loss of charm as a character? Check.