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Super realism

Comic book heroes aren't as invincible as they once were

CAPTAIN AMERICA His death this week has spurred talk that comic book superheroes are growing more vulnerable in an era marked by war and terrorism. CAPTAIN AMERICA His death this week has spurred talk that comic book superheroes are growing more vulnerable in an era marked by war and terrorism.

When Superman died in 1993, it was at the hands of a massive, spiky supervillain named Doomsday, and only after a cataclysmic battle that demolished whole sections of Metropolis.

When Captain America met his apparent end this week, it was at the hands of a sniper who left the venerable superhero ingloriously sprawled on the steps of a courthouse.

Quite a difference -- and one that illustrates a downsizing of the idea of the superhero and a broader change in the world of comic books. While there are still plenty of apocalyptic showdowns between superheroes and superbaddies, there are also more realistic depictions of violence grounded in the fears (or expectations) of readers perhaps accustomed to "CSI"-style gore.

Comic books have always been adept at keeping their finger on the public pulse. The message that superheroes -- and superpowers? -- are not invincible could find a receptive audience in an era framed by 9/11 and the Iraq war. "The world has changed," said Marvel Comics editor in chief Joe Quesada . "There's a new Congress in. The war is still on. As a character, he embodies the American ideal and not always the American way."

In death, though, Captain America shrank to life-size. The hit-and-run way he died is especially worth noting, because the portentously named character has often served as a kind of Rorschach test of the national psyche, from World War II through the Cold War to the "War on Terror."

"He's not being killed in some masterful death trap being set up by Dr. Doom and the Red Skull," pointed out Bradford Wright, author of "Comic Book Nation," a cultural history of comic books. "It makes the violence seem a lot scarier." After all, he added, "superheroes get shot at all the time. They just fly around them, or they stop them with their shields. Why was he not able to stop them? It makes a superhero seem much more vulnerable. It speaks to our own heightened sense of insecurity these days. To have the most symbolic of American superheroes killed with such a routine weapon makes a point. It's not a fantasy kind of death. It's the kind of death that could happen to anybody." (To be sure, "death" in the world of comic books is a relative term. Superman was eventually revived, and suspicion remains that Captain America will likewise re-emerge.)

The trend toward verisimilitude in comic books likewise seems hard to kill. It may be driven in part by the industry's desire to match the intensity of contemporary video games and horror movies, as well as graphic novels and TV shows such as the popular NBC drama "Heroes" in which the battles between people with superpowers often result in gory violence.

The impact can be jolting. The March issue of Batman shows a flashback of a young brother and sister being menaced by their father, who was about to be arrested. "Can't protect you anymore, boy!" the father says, pointing a gun at his son and preparing to shoot. "Only way I can save you is this! You and your sister!" Shouting "No!", the boy lunges at his father and pushes his hand away. The gun goes off, shooting the father in the head. As he lies in a pool of blood, the boy says to his sister: "Listen up, Amina! We gotta say daddy killed himself, okay? I could go to jail otherwise."

In a 2006 issue of The Incredible Hulk, a tipsy woman emerges from a bar and is soon the victim of an attempted rape , before being saved by the Hulk.

The January issue of Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man depicts a trio of masked, gun-wielding bad guys preparing to storm a school. The new issue of Night-wing shows a woman on an autopsy table, her stomach cut open, and on the next page, the aftermath of a massacre, with victims in body bags and walls caked with blood.

Not everyone is enamored of such gritty scenes in what are, after all, comic books. "Parents have to be very careful today when their child picks up a Batman or a Superman or a Wonder Woman," said Fred Grandinetti, a comic-book historian who lives in Watertown. "It's not pow!-zip!-zam! anymore, and if there is a pow!-zip!-zam!, there's usually a stream of blood that follows."

However, in the view of American University communication professor Leonard Steinhorn: "Kids today see more, hear more, know more, so why shouldn't comics reflect that?"

A certain level of violence, of course, has always been central to the allure of comic books. The Senate convened hearings in the 1950s to address fears comic books were having a corrosive effect on the nation's youth, efforts that seem amusing in retrospect, considering how tame they appear today. But through the 1980s and 1990s, mainstream comics with traditional superheroes began striving for greater visceral impact, a trend that has continued in the new century. "They've been a few steps behind the trend toward more violence in other media," Wright says. "When you compare it to movies like 'Saw' and 'Hostel' that are basically just torture sessions, what comic books do is pretty tame. But they do feel some pressure to keep up with that."

What is the impact of this neo-realism on young readers? According to Dina Borzekowski of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the attitudes and behavior of children 8 to 12 are more affected by "media they perceive to be realistic" than by "media they see as fantastical." However, Wright says that nowadays the average comic-book reader is more likely to be 18 or 19. That might encourage comic book creators to use more violence.

As for Quesada, the Marvel Comics editor says he expects flak for the death of Captain America. What he clings to, he says, is this belief: "At the end of the day, my job is to tell entertaining stories."

Don Aucoin can be reached at