This week Marvel released a trade paperback called Captain America: Death of the Red Skull, which collects the stories from my final year writing the Cap series: an ongoing saga (illustrated by the excellent British artist Paul Neary) that chronicled Steve Rogers’s final battle with his longtime foe, Johann Schmidt. Along with yours truly, you’ll also find several other familiar writers in the collection—there’s a Bill Mantlo fill-in issue, a Mike Carlin follow-up—and one name that has been baffling people for years: Michael Ellis, who shared writing credit with me in my final issue, Captain America #300. Ellis’s name had never appeared in a Marvel Comic before then and he vanished immediately thereafter, leaving a star-spangled mystery in his wake. With the release of the Cap tpb, I think it’s time to reveal the shocking truth about Michael to the world. (Okay, it’s not really shocking, but I’ve got to get you to the next paragraph, don’t I?)
I had, as mentioned, been nursing my story along for many months and the plan was for the Cap-Skull epic to reach its climax in a double-sized Cap #300 that would see the Red Skull die (a death that was—in my mind, at least—for real. Well, as real as a comic book death can be.) Steve Rogers, after (at the time) forty-plus years of solving problems with his fists, would then begin to wonder if there was another way to live his ideals and create positive change in the world. In the proposal I presented to my editor— the late, great Mark Gruenwald—Cap was, ultimately, going to disavow violence as a tool for change and start working for world peace. (Keep in mind that this was at the height of the Reagan “evil empire”/cold war period, so it was a fairly radical idea for its day.) The world would then turn against Cap, his own country rejecting him as un-American, other world leaders shunning him, the super-hero community aghast at his position: the only allies Rogers was going to to find in his quest for global transformation would be the Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom.
This was the period when the Bucky of the 1950′s, Jack Monroe—aka Nomad—was Cap’s partner and Jack was going to be manipulated by Cap’s enemies, turning Nomad’s hero worship to hate. In the climax, we’d find Cap speaking to his few remaining supporters at a New York rally. Nomad, perched on a roof across the way, would fire three bullets into Steve Rogers, assassinating him. Only then, with Cap dead, would the world realize what they had. In tribute to this great hero, all nations of the world would lay down their weapons for one hour and, for sixty short minutes, the world would know peace.
Of course I didn’t expect Captain America to stay dead—he was one of Marvel’s first, and greatest, heroes after all—but I was hoping the death would stick for a while, at least. I even selected his replacement. At first I toyed with the idea of Sam Wilson, the Falcon, becoming the new Cap, but, as I recall—and, let’s face it, it’s been a while—I finally settled on Black Crow, a Native American character I’d created for the book. Who better to represent America, I reasoned, than one of the first Americans?
Gruenwald approved all this, I wrote the double-sized Cap #300, went ahead and plotted the next two or three stories in the arc; but editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, hearing what we were planning, shot the idea down. Jim said, essentially, that my idea violated Cap’s character, that Steve Rogers would never act in such a way. Shooter then cut the story in half and rewrote some of my dialogue (or perhaps it was Gruenwald under Jim’s direction). I left my name on the plot, but told Mark I wouldn’t, couldn't, take credit for the altered script. Gruenwald suggested I use a pseudonym and came up with the name Michael Ellis, which is from a classic Monty Python sketch: he's a man who's often mentioned but never actually appears.
I was angry at the time, so angry I quit the book, but, looking back, I see that Jim—a superb editor who really helped me along when I was starting out in the business—was just doing his job as custodian of the Marvel Universe, supervising a stable of idiosyncratic writers and artists and protecting Marvel's characters as he understood them. The truth is, if you have one of your major icons questioning violent confrontation as a viable solution—and deciding it’s a fruitless pursuit—you're questioning the essence of not just the entire Marvel line, but the entire superhero genre. Which, of course, was my intention.
In the end, though, I'm happy the story was bounced, because, eventually (and a very long eventually it was, too: it took twenty five years), I turned the whole thing into The Life and Times of Savior 28, a piece of work I consider one of the high-points of my career.
As for the mysterious Michael Ellis, he made one more appearance on the four color stage. A few years after the Cap debacle, Andy Helfer (one of the best editors who ever sat behind a DC desk) asked me to dialogue Justice League of America #255 over a Gerry Conway plot. Having just finished Moonshadow and Blood: a tale—two deeply personal and creatively life-changing projects—I wasn't sure if I wanted to keep writing superhero comics and so I was reluctant to use my own name. (Sounds astonishingly stupid in retrospect, doesn’t it?) Paul Levitz, who was running the DC ship in those days, heard about this and decreed, in no uncertain terms, "No pseudonyms!"—and, with the next JLA issue (Andy convinced me to stick around), I was back to being me. So the second coming of Michael Ellis wasn't the same as Cap #300, where I took my name off because my story had been turned inside out (and sideways) by The Powers That Be. Conway's plot was excellent and my dialogue was exactly as I wrote it. I was just going through an odd creative crisis that, happily, passed. In fact, a few months after writing the finale for Conway's JL Detroit era, I found myself working on a revived, revamped Justice League with mad genius (and all-around swell guy) Keith Giffen and embarking on one of the most wonderful gigs of my career.
Michael Ellis hasn’t been seen since—but he’s always waiting in the wings. Just in case.
©copyright 2012 J.M. DeMatteis