BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was all over the news this week, reported in The New York Times, on CNN, the BBC and right here on NPR. Shot four times in the stomach, chest and shoulder, Steve Rogers lay bleeding on the steps of the Federal Courthouse in New York City. The truth of the incident is not yet known, justice is not yet served and the American way is not yet resolved. Captain America is no more.
The son of Irish immigrants, Rogers was born in 1917 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, drank a super-serum made by the military and prevailed during World War II and beyond as Marvel Comics' super-soldier.
In Volume I, Issue I, Captain America, sentinel of our shores, comes face to face with his first nemesis, Adolf Hitler. In the mid-1940s, Cap would defeat a host of villains in a series of black-and-white movie shorts with titles like Blade of Wrath, Vault of Vengeance and The Purple Death. [CLIP]: [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MAN: The Commissioner's been alibying his failure to turn up anything in these Purple Death murders. MAN: You remember the Commissioner and I have cleaned up crime waves in this town before. MAN: Yes. That mysterious Captain America did most of your work for you. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] [END OF CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sixty-six years, five volumes and nearly 600 comic books later, Captain America lay dead at the hands of a 40-year-old Marvel Comics writer named Ed Brubaker, who titled the shocking storyline The Death of the Dream. ED BRUBAKER: When I first bought Captain America, I was living on the military base in Guantanamo Bay as a little kid. My dad was an officer in the Navy. And so for me, Captain America has always been this part of my life connected to the government and the military. And the reason that I titled it The Death of the Dream is because I wanted to do a story that explored what Captain America meant to America.
And I found that doing the comic with Cap in it, he's such a large figure, and so much of the comic is about him leaping from rooftops and punching out bad guys, that it's hard to actually address what Captain America stands for. And I felt like with the wake that follows his death, you can actually explore what he means to the country by not having him be here. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And his death was the culmination of a civil war in the superhero universe that was being fought over, largely over civil liberties. ED BRUBAKER: Yup. It began with a huge disaster where a bunch of schoolchildren were killed by some super-villains, and the government basically in response to it decided that, you know, the superheroes were part of the problem, too, and that they needed to be regulated.
So the government enacted this thing called the Superhero Registration Act. Anyone who refused to register and give up their secret identity to the government became a criminal, essentially. And Captain America thought it was anti-American and anti-civil rights, and so his response to it was to lead the resistance. And that became a key conflict between him and Iron Man and several other major characters, and it kind of split the Marvel universe up the middle with the heroes against each other. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Now, obviously this isn't the real world, but, you know, we've seen in the past few elections a genuine political schism in America that we've short-handed as the red state/blue state divide. Have you noticed among Captain America fans that some paint him red and others blue?
ED BRUBAKER: Oh, completely. The most interesting and frustrating thing sometimes about working on the character is every hardcore right wing nut wants Cap to be their guy and every liberal wants Cap to be standing on the street crying out against the Bush administration. Whereas Captain America is a guy who grew up during the Depression and idolized the New Deal and FDR, and I always thought would be a New Deal Democrat, but at the same time, he's a guy who spent his entire life, his entire adult life in the military. He wouldn't be a red–stater or a blue-stater. He'd see the shades of gray and purple. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, of course, now you've killed the possibility of consensus with two bullets [BRUBAKER LAUGHS] from a sniper. So where does the series Captain America go from here? They killed Superman off and brought him back. Any chance for a resurrection? ED BRUBAKER: One of the things that I really tried to do really hard in Cap 25 was to make sure that his death was an incredibly realistic death. You know, he gets shot by a sniper, and then, as the crowd surges around him, he gets taken out by some close-range shots straight to the torso.
There's never going to be a comic fan in the world who reads this issue and doesn't think in the back of their mind, he's not really dead. They're going to bring him back someday. And I wanted to try and do as much as I could to just get them thinking, this is a really human death, and, you know, maybe he's not coming back, and I really want to see what happens after this.
We're not going to, you know, see a bunch of people putting on Captain America's costume and becoming, you know, Teen Cap and [BROOKE LAUGHS] and various things like that. I think that we're going to try and go a different route and actually just tell a really intriguing story about what Steve Rogers meant to America and what he meant to the people around him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's Steve Rogers meant to America? If you, Ed, could cast yourself into one of your comic and you were tasked to give his eulogy, what would you say? ED BRUBAKER: Uh – sorry? [LAUGHTER] You know, I always saw Captain America as being much more of a character like Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine, someone who really thought about what America was supposed to be as opposed to what America is. And when I was a little kid, they did a story where Cap basically finds out that the President is a bad guy, and quits, and goes around the country on a motorcycle.
So I always liked that about Captain America, that he was sort of a voice for what was good about the American dream, and, at the same time, he could be a very strong voice of dissent. His super-powers is that he's given a formula that takes the human body to the ultimate perfection of what the human potential would be. That's how he became Captain America. And I thought because he's Captain America and not just Captain U.N. or Captain World, his ideals are what America could be and what America should be as opposed to what America sometimes is. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that's why you killed him. ED BRUBAKER: [LAUGHS] I just killed him to tell a good story. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ed Brubaker is a writer for Marvel Comics. The creator of Captain America, 93-year-old Joe Simon, believes his patriotic super-soldier will someday return from the dead. For now, though, he's in mourning. In fact, he's sitting shiva. JOE SIMON: I am. I'm sitting shiva and trying to keep from crying here. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you come up with the idea for Captain America? JOE SIMON: Well, at that time we were all trying to come up with new characters and new ideas and sell a comic book, because they were really tough times at the end of the Depression. And just looking at the competition there, it occurred to me that the villains, not the heroes, were selling more books, so I went about looking for ideas for new villains.
And we were not at war at the time, but it was obvious what was going to happen over there in Europe. And Hitler was like a funny guy. He was a clown. And so I thought that we would have a live villain instead of a Penguin or Joker. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And having found your villain in Hitler, you had to create a hero to defeat him. JOE SIMON: Exactly. Yes. We had enough of the guys with trick powers of – flew through the air, and, you know, had the spider webs and all that. But to be a real nice American that would walk a lady across the street – that was our goal for Captain America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, in that year when you first wrote Captain America - JOE SIMON: Yeah, 1941. BROOKE GLADSTONE: - did you have him defeat Hitler? JOE SIMON: No, I don't think we ever got that far. Hitler actually wasn't as sinister in our books as he was stupid. So we weren't going to kill him off. He was doing too well for us. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you said earlier that you're trying to keep from crying. JOE SIMON: I don't – I'm getting a lot of hits on the Internet here of people that are veterans and patriots all over the world, and they're actually taking this thing really to heart. Grown men are crying over it. [LAUGHS] They just don't understand, God bless 'em.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Joe, thank you very much. JOE SIMON: Okay, Brooke. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Joe Simon created Captain America in 1941.