In a blaze of publicity, Marvel Comics announced the death of Steve Rogers (aka: Captain America). The parting shot made headlines across the globe, and came at just the right time for the cable news pundits--because you can always stop talking about a dead supermodel's baby daddy just long enough to talk about a dead fictional character.
Yes, I'm being a bit cynical about this. After all, with everything else that's going on in the world--analyzing the political impact of Captain America's "death" seems like a terribly inappropriate thing for a responsible media outlet to do. But then again, who am I to say--considering the last time a Four Color Fury column showed up, Anderson Cooper was still the host of The Mole. But everything changes, I'm told.
And besides, it's not as if Marvel hasn't done this before...
Stan Lee, however, wanted to up the "reality" (and the sales) in the still then-still struggling Marvel Universe. Lee knew how to shake up things just enough to get attention.
Like taking Peter Parker's then-college roommate (who, as it turns out, is the son of Spidey's biggest enemy, the Green Goblin) and giving him serious addictions to cocaine and LSD. And it's the 1973 death of innocent bystander Gwen Stacy at that storyline's culmination that's seen as the turning point, both in terms of Marvel's content and it's use of death as a sales gimmick.
In 1976, Marvel used the trick again to boost the sales of its just-revamped X-Men title. The saga of Jean Grey's apparent death, resurrection, and eventual re-death would play out over the next five years of the book--and catapulted the title to the top of the sales charts.
Marvel played out ripple effects from that X-Menstoryline for many years afterward in order to keep it there-- culminating in 1987's "death" and subsequent resurrection of the entire team.
By the 1990s, the emergence of the direct market of distribution for comics (mainly instigated by Marvel and rival publisher DC) took newsstands and drug stores out of the equation. The audience was growing older and stagnating, leading to publishers employing more and more "events" to keep a shrinking fanbases' attention.
More longtime characters were killed, resurrected, and changed...the only problem was, with the new distribution system, that there was virtually no audience turnover (as there had been previously been), which normally would have allowed for a character to die and pop back up again without drawing any real ire. But now, continuity had become a much bigger issue.
Another issue is the focusing on increasingly grittier subject matter in what has predominantly been a science fiction universe. Mirroring real world states is an interesting theme to explore, and certainly something Marvel prides itself on. However, placing a hyper-real world political state in the same universe that allows for Norman Osborn, Elektra, or Jean Grey to come back from the dead every once in a while holds very little water, or credibility--either to the adult audience craving a bit more "realism," or to what's left of the traditional audience.
Even now, Marvel appears to be selective about which "deaths" stick. Jean Grey was returned to the "dead zone" in 2004, and has yet to be brought back. Another X-Men character, Colossus, sacrificed himself in 2001 to end a long running virus subplot. Joss Whedon resurrected the character in 2004.
So what meaning can be taken from the death of Captain America? Are we just being cynical fanboys who can't stand "our" toys being messed with? Are the inhabitants of Marvel Earth 616 merely experimental lab rats for the political rantings of Scottish writers? Are we just another outlet dancing for the amusement of Marvel's marketing department?
Or are we simply witnessing another illusion of change?
There is, after all, the Ultimate Marvel universe, where many Marvel characters have been re-imagined and streamlined. And while characters do tend to remain deceased in that universe, Jean Grey, Colossus, Norman Osborn, Gwen Stacy, Elektra, and Steve Rogers' Captain America are all very much alive.
The Ultimate universe, in turn, becomes a rather convenient safety net. Even if Steve Rogers is kept dead in the proper MU (which, given history, is extremely doubtful), Marvel can keep cranking out the cartoons and licensing. After all, that Captain America is not dead.
For now, at least.
Timeline of Death- The Marvel Way
(1973) Amazing Spider-Man #121: Gwen Stacy Dies
(1973) Amazing Spider-Man #122: Norman Osborn / Green Goblin dies
(1976) (not yet) Uncanny X-Men #100: Jean Grey Dies
(1976) Uncanny X-Men #101: What appears to be Jean Grey returns as the Phoenix
(1981) Uncanny X-Men #136: Jean Grey (but not really) dies. Again.
(1985) Fantastic Four #286: Jean Grey found in a cocoon at the bottom of the Hudson River, (apparently) not dead. Prompts Cyclops to ditch his current wife and child to get the OG X-Men back together in X-Factor (vol.1) #1.
(1987) Uncanny X-Men #227: Everyone in the book dies....
(1987) Uncanny X-Men #228: ...Everyone Gets Better, goes through the Siege Perilous (?!), and ends up in Australia (which is probably pretty close to death, if you think about it).
(1989) Inferno Crossover: Madelyne Pryor--whom, between "Jean Grey's" then most recent deaths, had married AND had a son with Scott Summers--was revealed to have been a clone of the OG Jean Grey, and then went all batshit Phoenix crazy. To make a further long and confusing story short--Jean stopped that shit cold.
(1991-1992) Infinity Gauntlet/War/Crusade: Both Thanos and Adam Warlock take separate turns destroying the universe--with each dying at least once.
(1993) Fatal Attractions: That time "just for kicks" when Magneto decided to remove the adamantium from Wolverine's bones. Professor X responded by putting Mags into a coma.
(1994-1996) The Clone Saga: That time (not even for kicks) the writers of the Spidey titles tried to covince us that the Peter Parker we'd been watching the whole time wasn't the real Spidey, but a clone. Oh yeah--sometime during this Clone Saga someone also found time to resurrect Norman Osborn.
(1995) Age of Apocalypse: Feeling that the X-Family of titles hadn't completely ripped off Terminator (what with Cable around and all), Legion (who's always filled with the wacky) took it upon himself to travel back in time to kill Magneto in retaliation for, in particular, the events of Fatal Attractions. Of course, as all crazy time travel adventures go, Legion wound up killing his dad (ahem: Prof X) instead. Cue Alternate Timeline where Apocalypse rules the Earth. Good Times...
(1996) Onslaught: Bishop went back and fixed that whole Age of Apocalypse thing-- which, in turn, hit the universal reset button to just after Fatal Attractions. Professor Xavier was still a might bit pissed about his own behavior during that whole thing (PLUS the bit where his son tried to kill him). Yeah, he went batshit. And pretty much everyone gathered in NYC to put him down.
(1996-1997) Heroes Reborn: At the end of Onslaught, Franklin Richards' latent mutant powers kick in with a rather large, but effective display: the kid zaps the Fantastic Four, and most of the Avengers into a pocket universe.
(1997) Operation: Zero Tolerance: Meanwhile, back on 616, everyone blames the mutants for what happened to the FF, the Avengers, New York City, and the impending breakup of Soundgarden. So the Mutant Registration Act attempted to rear its deus ex machina again.
(1997) Heroes Return: It's like 616 suddenly found its car keys! Franklin returned the FF and the Avengers to the real MU, and Reed convinced the government to back off of the Registration Act. But since Soundgarden still broke up, the mutants were still feared and hated by the public at large. And yet, Franklin was never grounded for hijacking his entire extended family to a pocket universe.
(2001) Uncanny X-Men #390: Colossus sacrifices himself in order to produce cure to the Legacy Virus. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered on his sister's grave.
(2004) New X-Men #150: Jean Grey dies. Again.
(2004) Astonishing X-Men #5: Colossus really not dead, just kidnapped by aliens.
(2006-2007) Civil War Crossover: Tony Stark (Iron Man) proposes superhero registration act; many superheroes (lead by Captain America) revolt. Hilarity ensues...
(2007) Captain America #25: Steve Rogers fatally wounded by sniper.