If you grew up reading comic books, you probably know a few things about Captain America—things 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 heroism—well, 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 imagery—Han 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.“
Sacrifice? Whatever. If American leaders had a chance to demand a sense of civic duty from us after the 9/11 attacks, they punted. At this point, only a fraction of the American citizenry has anything to do with a conflict that’s coming to define the world we live in. “There’s a wide gulf right now between the military and everybody else,“ Fick says. He likes to use a quotation that’s usually attributed to Thucydides: “The nation that draws too great a distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.“
Catching a red-eye to the Green Zone is not, of course, the only way to serve your country. But even for those who are against the war in Iraq, or who feel helpless in the face of news about something like global climate change, the righteous actions of a comic-book conqueror like Captain America only call attention to our own inertia on the home front. Ed Brubaker remembers picking up his first Captain America comic book around 1972. “I liked that he wasn’t just some government stooge. I saw him as being the ultimate example of what Americans should be,“ he says. “That made Captain America one of the coolest characters, the fact that he would stand up to his president and go, You know what? That’s it. I quit.’“
In fact, if we want to stretch the metaphor a bit, we could draw a comparison between Captain America and Pat Tillman, the NFL star who enlisted right after 9/11 and was killed by friendly fire while serving in Afghanistan—and who, it was later reported, had doubts about the effectiveness of the U.S. mission. “When you talk about Pat Tillman reading Noam Chomsky while he’s hunting down al-Qaeda, it’s like, Jesus Christ, that’s a hero, somebody who is actually investigating the world while still trying to make it a better place,“ Brubaker says. “People on the right always want Captain America to be doing whatever President Bush says—going over to the Middle East and just being a right-wing yes-man. And people on the left always want me to have Captain America standing on a soapbox preaching against the Bush administration. As his writer, I have to imagine him as a real person, and he wouldn’t be any of those things. Steve Rogers is not an idiot. He’s going to be an individual, and that, to me, is what being a hero is.“
If Gen Xers are attracted to heroes at all, they’re heroes of that very stripe—lone-wolf individualists (whether we’re talking about Pat Tillman or Kurt Cobain or Matt Damon in the Bourne franchise) who are driven by passion and skepticism in equal measure. Since the topic is comics, consider David Rees. Now 34, Rees found himself feeling so frustrated after 9/11 that he began to crank out “Get Your War On,“ a bitterly hilarious comic strip in which office drones engage in sarcastic-absurdist chitchat. (Sample line: “Oh my God, this War on Terrorism is gonna rule! I can’t wait until the war is over and there’s no more terrorism!“) Rees says that writing the strips has been “cathartic,“ and they’ve attracted a devoted following, but that doesn’t mean he sees anything heroic about them. “I try to tell myself, Well, Dave, you’re doing your part, you’re making this comic, you’re speaking truth to power,’ but really, that’s a bunch of bullshit,“ he says. “It’s not like wearing 50 pounds of body armor in 120-degree heat.“
Maybe the great Gen X test of courage passed us by when the firefighters raced up the stairways of the World Trade Center, or maybe the real test is right around the corner. Either way, the danger is that our long-held generational default position—ironic detachment—has locked us in a sort of limbo, and that we’ll wind up known for doing nothing at all. Which is why, when the “Get Your War On“ outbursts were collected in a couple of books, Rees decided to contribute all of the profits to a charity that clears land mines in Afghanistan. “That was a way for me to compensate for the helplessness I felt,“ he says. “I felt like, The comic isn’t enough. It’s just me kind of ranting.“ And as Nomad would be the first to tell you, ranting only gets you so far.