It’s been a while since I have seen something stir up the ire of comic book readers the way Marvel’s recent treatment of Captain America has done. Some readers (though none that I know personally…) may be enjoying the current storyline, but I have encountered so many more that absolutely hate it, to the point of dropping Cap from their reading list altogether. But now that Captain America is in Hydra, I think we need to consider the role that readers have played in this coming to pass.
Changing Views, Changing Tastes
When I was a kid, it was pretty straightforward: you rooted for the good guys, and booed the bad guys. The whole purpose of the villains was to give the hero a chance to shine as they fought for everything good. Some of the best villains had some redeeming qualities , of course. Magneto was a very sympathetic character, having survived the Holocaust. Dr Doom was always trying to rescue the soul of his mother. Even the Green Goblin seemed (on occasion) to legitimately love his son Harry. Other villains didn’t really have any sort of good side and were simply despicable beings in need of a pummeling. Red Skull comes to mind.
Somewhere along the way, we started to see more violent heroes appearing. The Punisher is probably the first one that I was aware of, though I later discovered Wolverine (thanks to Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends on Saturday morning) and loved him. I was probably in my early teens at the time, maybe 14, and he appealed to my frustrated teenage self. At the time, the idea of a character who would just cut loose and “do what needs to be done” was really appealing, even though it went against the usual idea of a superhero.
It was also in this period that Watchmen was released,with it’s own very different take on costumed superheroes. A darker, grittier story, Watchmen famously deconstructed the superhero genre and changed some reader’s minds about what a superhero comic could be or should be.
The Superhero as One of Us
Marvel had appealed to many readers over the years for having relatable characters with the same problems as the average person on the street, as opposed to DC, which often had more powerful, seemingly more capable heroes. Despite their problems, however, Marvel characters still generally embodied the heroic ideal, though the darker, more violent characters were rapidly gaining in popularity. It wasn’t long before Wolverine surpassed Spider-Man as Marvel’s most popular character. The mutant berserker was suddenly in every other Marvel title, propping up sales wherever he appeared.
Since that time, heroes have become more extreme. Where Wolverine and the Punisher killed when and where it was deemed appropriate, other heroes came along who were quicker to kill their enemies, sometimes in a rather violent manner. Heroes slowly grew darker and more menacing, their sense of right and wrong often being questioned. Where superheroes had once been characters portraying the highest of ideals, calling upon us to emulate them and join them in the light, we now had vigilantes who lived in the darkness with us.
During these years, Batman and his enemies grew more violent. Spider-Man’s vaunted optimism and light-hearted nature began to fade. The X-Men, with their characters hated by humanity at large, had become Marvel’s biggest stars.
The Villain as Hero
Worst of all, villains started to become more popular than the heroes they fought. Venom was a fearsome, murderous foe that threatened Spider-Man in a way that few other villains before him had done. He was violent, a killer. And fans loved him. So much so, that Marvel ultimately gave him his own title, where he made the change from outright villain to anti-hero after he and Spider-Man came to an agreement that they would not interfere in each other’s lives. This despite the fact that Venom was a killer and super-powered criminal. It was rather nonsensical that someone with Spider-Man’s moral code would simply let Venom go his merry way, but Marvel probably didn’t feel comfortable at the time devoting a series to a villain.
Aside from Venom, there have been a number of other characters that, upon becoming popular, made the switch from villain to “hero”. Various X-Men foes like Sabretooth and Juggernaut joined that group, while more recently DC’s Harley Quinn has made her way over to the light side, again simply because she is a popular character. It seems that no matter how heinous a character’s past actions, once they become popular all is forgiven, or more correctly, forgotten.
The absolute worst, however, is the way fans have embraced the character of Carnage. A serial killer bonded to the offspring of Venom’s symbiote, Carnage murders people so casually and easily that it hardly has any impact any more. It is almost too abstract a thought to fully understand. And he’s wildly popular.
This all brings us to the modern day, with Captain America in Hydra, committing horrible acts that infuriate the character’s long-time readers. I have to say, though, that this is our own fault. We supported the vigilantes more than the heroes. We called those characters with strong morals boring and corny. We celebrated the villains.
I don’t find it too hard to believe that Marvel never considered that fans would react negatively to Cap’s villainous turn. After all, if murderous villains can be embraced by the fans, why not a fallen hero?
Perhaps readers are finally at the point where they want something a bit more optimistic. After decades of progressively darker stories and heroes that barely deserve the name, maybe it’s time to see some hope and positivity return to comics. DC’s Rebirth seems to suggest that this is possible.
Some would say that comics are merely reflecting the state of the world today, but I think that they need to offer us something more positive, now more than ever, perhaps. We are bombarded by negative messages in the news and in our lives every day. Maybe it’s time to start the long walk back to the light. Maybe turning Captain America evil was the final straw that made people wake up and see that while there may be a place for the dark and gritty heroes, there is a much greater need for the positive role-models.
I certainly hope so.
How do you feel about what’s been done to Captain America? Are you tired of dark and gritty comics, or do you still prefer them over more traditional superhero fare? Should comics about superheroes reflect our world today, or offer us hope for a brighter tomorrow? I’d love to hear from you, either through email, or in the comments below.
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