Your Hawaiian vacation of pop culture
Copyright 2014-2016 by Dr. Mike Rickard
So you're minding your own business, reading the latest issue of your favorite superhero comic and you're told the guy who's been fighting evil since 1940 has been a double agent for the bad guys since day one. If you're asking yourself whether the writers are hitting the crack pipe, you're not alone. If you're a regular reader of Marvel or DC Comics, you're probably thinking, "Well, there they go again." Comic books have got to the point where writers feel they need an outrageous plot twist to keep people reading their books. The question becomes, is this lazy storytelling, or a necessity with comics' dwindling marketplace?
The buzz in comic books is about the revelation that Captain America has been working for the evil organization HYDRA all along. Fans are losing their minds online and at their local comic shops, launching tirades on how wrong this is while others are trying to figure out what happened. The problem with this revelation is that Captain America has been fighting Nazis (and off-shoots such as HYDRA) since his origin. So why has he been working as a double agent? While this radical change has upset some fans, it hasn't stopped them from gobbling up the comic. The last time I checked, the book went for its third printing. The recent revelation is a reflection of the current state of mainstream superhero comics, the idea that publicity stunts are a good way to boost sales. The question longtime fans are asking is whether this is a publicity stunt will translate into a good story or another example of convoluted twists leading to convoluted story-telling.
Casual fans or people more familiar with Captain America from his films may be wondering what's going on. First, it's important to clarify that we're talking about the Steve Rogers version of Cap, not to be confused with his post-World War Two predecessors William Naslund and Jeffrey Mace; his 1950's replacement William Burnside who was cryogenically frozen after going insane; Roscoe Simons who became Captain America when Steve Rogers gave up the role and became the hero without a nation, Nomad; John Walker, who took the Captain America identity after Steve Rogers refused to work for the U.S. government; Bucky Barnes who took over after Steve Rogers died; or Sam Wilson who took the mantle after Steve Rogers (now back from the dead) was aged by heretofore unknown villain Iron Nail. One might think that comic book continuity is labyrinthian and they would be right. At least now, you'll know what fanboys are talking about when they discuss the "Steve Rogers incarnation" of Cap.
Of course I'm using this example to show you what it's like to be a long-time reader of Marvel. If you've read Marvel for any amount of time, you know that there's an illusion of change but no real change (This applies even more for DC Comics but I'll save them for another article). Characters may die but they inevitably come back. Characters may lose superpowers but they come back. Characters have their secret identity revealed but sooner or later, it becomes a secret again. There are more than enough types and examples to fill a book. Rather than do that, I recommend you check out the site TV Tropes Comics.
Marvel finds itself in an odd situation. Their films have been huge successes but comic book sales continue to dwindle (Check out this site Comic Sales for a detailed analysis). Comic book sales have been in decline for a while. For a good look at why, check out. Ideally, Marvel would like to bring back fans who stopped reading along with filmgoers who are curious about the source material. Apparently, the powers that be feel publicity stunts are a good way to do so.
With Captain America: Steve Rogers, Marvel Comics seems to be hoping that enough people will hear of it and think 1) They're going to be rich buying issue 1 and/or 2) "things will never be the same" after this big twist. I can assure you that there's a small chance of making money off of the comic and there's no way this big revelation is going to become the status quo.
Making money from comic books is like any investment. You have to know your market, its history, and the short-term and long-term options. When it comes to making money off a book, you're on shaky ground. While it is possible to make some short-term money from buying the book, you have to either buy a variant cover (promotional books issued to comic shops who order a certain amount of books) and hope it keeps its price (which is possible) or buy a "regular" issue and sell it to some sucker who's looking to cash in.
Back when DC Comics killed off Superman the first time (in-continuity, as opposed to an "Imaginary Tale"), Superman #75 was a hot book. DC had been promoting that Supes would die in that issue. They released a black bagged issue (which meant that you had to rip the bag open to read it) which immediately jumped to $25. I remember non-fans losing their minds trying to get their hands on the book. Comic book shops were swamped and everyone had to have it. Even the owner of the pizzeria I worked for at the time wanted one. I took my issue and sold it to someone for $25, making a cool $20 profit. The book lists around $25 now which shows you how "hot" books don't always go up in price.
Anyone who's read comic books for more than ten years (and I've been reading them since the 1970's) knows that Steve Rogers is not going to remain a HYDRA agent, any more than he stayed dead or stayed old. Oh, I need to clarify. I'm talking about his most recent death (Captain America #25) and most recent aging. In those respective issues, Cap was shot and believed dead (but actually sent into an endless loop reliving his life) and later aged to his actual physical age (the 90-year-old Cap was aged but eventually restored due to a Cosmic Cube). Due to time and page constraints, check out his page on Wikipedia rather than send me into insanity trying to explain it all.
One of the things that made Marvel Comics special in the 1960's and the 1970's was that anything could happen. A prime example is the wedding of Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards) and the Invisible Girl (Susan Storm). The two got engaged over the course of the Fantastic Four comic, eventually marrying in an annual. Another is the evolution of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Parker graduated from high school in 33 issues, then began attending college. Last time I checked, Archie Andrews is still attending Riverdale High. The stories showed Parker's personal transformation from a social outcast to more of an awkward, but accepted figure around his fellow students. The comic's bully Flash Thompson evolved over time, serving in Vietnam and coming back as a more mature character.
Marvel even went with comic book deaths. Keeping up with the underlying theme of tragedy, people that Peter Parker cared about tended to die. First, it was his Uncle Ben whose death transformed Peter from Spider-Man, celebrity to Spider-Man, crime fighter. Second, was the death of Captain Stacy followed by Peter's lover Gwen Stacy (Which makes it clear why the members of the Stacy family stayed in London). Chris Claremont and John Byrne's "Dark Phoenix Saga" in The Uncanny X-Men was magnificent storytelling with long-lasting ramifications. The fall of the beloved character Jean Grey shook the X-Men book for years. Like most Marvel deaths at that time, she seemed gone forever.
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THE BOY WHO CRIED WOLF AND HAIL HYDRA: CAN A PUBLICITY STUNT AND GOOD STORYTELLING GO HAND IN HAND? PART ONE OF TWO
CAPTAIN AMERICA: STEVE ROGERS #1-THE COMIC BOOK PEOPLE ARE LOSING THEIR MINDS OVER
CAP'S REVELATION MAKES ABOUT AS MUCH SENSE AS A SOUP SANDWICH OR THIS...
NOT SURE WHO CREATED THIS HILARIOUS MEME BUT IF YOU DO, LET ME KNOW SO I CAN CREDIT THEM.
Not the first time that Captain America "died."
Not the first time Captain America got old either.
DC Comics promoted "The Death of Superman" and people bought lots of copies, hoping to cash in. This was the first time Superman died in mainstream continuity but not the last.
"The Night Gwen Stacy Died." One of the few comic book deaths to last.
WARNING: THIS SITE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING, ESPECIALLY THE SUBJECT OF PARTICULAR ARTICLES.
CAPTAIN AMERICA BATTLED NAZIS FROM DAY ONE. NOW, HE'S REVEALED AS A DOUBLE AGENT FOR TERRORIST ORGANIZATION HYDRA.