If you grew up reading comic books, you probably know a few things about Captain Americathings that didn’t get mentioned much in March, when an op-ed uproar ensued after Captain America was “killed,” in the pages of issue No. 25, by an assassin’s bullet. You know, for instance, that Captain America started out in 1941 as Steve Rogers, a scrawny poetry-club cream puff who was deemed unfit for military service. You also know that late in 1974, Cap blew the lid off a Watergate-style scandal that led all the way to the White House. In fact, so disgusted was Rogers by his government’s seedy shenanigans that he dumped the patriotic leotard and turned into an existentially tortured character called Nomad.
Nomad. How perfect is that? Right around the time that Gen X guys were meeting Captain America for the first time, the superhero had a whole separate identity as a muttering, disillusioned antihero. You can’t help wondering whether an entire generation’s complicated feelings about heroism are reflected in that shift from avenging activism to drifting alienation. Because when you think about Generation X and heroismwell, you don’t, really. And that’s the point. As Joshua Ferris puts it in Then We Came to the End, his perceptive new novel about office life during the dot-com boom, “We had the great good fortune and shortcomings of character that marked every generation that had never seen war.” Xers grew up in a pop culture steeped in heroic, ass-whupping imageryHan Solo, Superman, Wonder Woman, Indiana Jones, Dirty Harry, Rocky, Rambo. But even with the country now facing the most cataclysmic challenges since the Vietnam War, few people would accuse Xers of racing to the rescue.
Whereas Steve Rogers quickly shook off his Nomad funk and went back to breaking jaws for the American way, Gen X has been caught in its own Nomadic mope for a few decades now. The military draft policy of the sixties and seventies forced the previous generation to make a stark decision: Will I go to Vietnam and fight, or will I refuse in active protest? An Xer, whether he’s for the war in Iraq or vehemently against it, doesn’t have to take action either way. He can float around for as long as he wants in a lukewarm bath of anxiety, escapism, and prudent financial planning. Risking your life to save the world is cool and all, just as long as someone else is doing it. “Someone would have to push me to a pretty far limit before I would actually do anything heroic,” says Ed Brubaker, 40, the Seattle-based writer who’s behind Captain America’s demise. “If someone threatened my wife or something like that, then they would be letting a monster out of the box, but I don’t know if that would be heroism as much as fear.”
Of course, there are those among us who put their asses on the line. One is Nathaniel Fick, the author of One Bullet Away a vivid account of his military tours of duty. Fick, 29, is a Dartmouth graduate who served as an infantry officer and a marine in Afghanistan and Iraq. He returned to find his countrymen disengaged from the war effort and wrapped up instead in Us Weekly–style showbiz trivia. “There was a marine pilot from Massachusetts who was killed a couple of weeks ago, in the same week that the Anna Nicole Smith story broke,” Fick says. “Even in the local media, it was all about how did Anna Nicole die and who was going to get custody of her body, and not at all about this local kid whose helicopter was shot down. At a very visceral level, it angers me.”