Sunday, August 29, 2010

Pinko Captain America (Captain America 225)

Writers generally had little to say about the life of Steve Rogers before he became Captain America. In the late seventies the writers of the book decided that perhaps there was so little reference to Steve's past because even he didn't know what it was. They sent him on a quest to discover his missing history. Eventually writer Steve Gerber uncovered Steve's pinko roots:

None of this jives with the history of Steve Rogers found on Wikipedia or in other stories I've read, so I'm guessing this all got wiped out at some later point in time.

Postscript: It sure didn't take Marvel long to disavow this origin. They published a letter is issue 233 raising several questions about these flashbacks, such as why was Steve Rogers depicted as not joining the army until after Pearl Harbor, contrary to earlier tellings. In response, Marvel wrote:

Yours is just one of many letters expressing concern and confusion over CAP'S retold origin that appeared in issue #225.

But probably nobody is more confused than [current writer Roger McKenzie]. Because it will be up to him, sooner or later, to explain the events that took place in CAP #225 to the satisfaction of Marveldom Assembled.

And he will too. Somehow. Some way. Because one thing's for sure. Whoever that was in CAP #225, it wasn't CAPTAIN AMERICA...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The First Issue of Captain America I Ever Bought (Captain America 179)

This is the very first issue of Captain America I ever bought, in the fall of 1974. And Cap's not even in it. Not the real Cap. Steve Rogers gave up being Captain America a few issues earlier, after watching Richard Nixon blow his brains out.

Cap eventually resumed his superhero career, with a new costume and a new name- Nomad! I loved this storyline. Two things in particular were burned into my brain.

First, there was the scene where Cap walks into a shoe store in Virginia, and buys the yellow boots for his new superhero costume. I thought it was really cool that some shoe stores apparently sold superhero boots. Sadly, in the 35 years since I read that comic, I have yet to find an actual shoe store that sells superhero boots. Which is a shame, because I've got a great pair of tights just waiting for the day I make it to the San Diego Comic-Con.

Second, there's the scene where Steve discovers why Captain America wasn't given a cape:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Digital Comics

I love digital comics. I have an iPad, and to a comics reader it's the most amazing toy on earth. I have 500 issues of Captain America on it, and hundreds of other comics. Besides the fact that it's a handheld comic book collection, it's also a handheld comic book store. If I want to read a new comic, I pick it up, open a comics app and browse the selection:

I push the "Buy Now" button, wait a minute, and then start reading:


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Captain America Volume 4

A few years back, Marvel decided that by renumbering a book they were trying to revamp, they could draw in a lot of new readers who reflexively buy the first issues of "important" comics, while making a symbolic break from weaker stories of the past.

Captain America did this more often than any other ongoing Marvel series, I think. A dramatically revamped volume 2 was launched in 1996, and when it didn't take hold with buyers the previous status quo was restored with a new volume 3 in 1997. When new editor Joe Quesada tried to make Captain America more modern and relevant, the series was relaunched in 2002 with volume 4. That didn't work out so well, so in 2004 Volume 5 was launched with writer Ed Brubaker offering an extremely successful combination of classic characters and modern storytelling.

Relaunching the series with volume 5 garnered a certain amount of online derision when it was announced, and I was certainly one of the folks who wondered if Marvel's renumbering had gotten a bit out of hand. Now that I'm actually reading volume 4, I better understand why Marvel wanted to put volume 4 behind it.

Volume 4 started out fairly promising. ... a good script by John Ney Rieber grounded in the real world, and strong art by John Cassaday. It would have made a great graphic novel.

But Rieber's "all symbolism, all of the time" approach to Captain America likely wouldn't have worked for long. The comic tends to work best when it remembers that there's an actual human being under that mask, with very human concerns. Sure, Rieber's Cap was out of costume a lot, but he was still "Captain America" full time. Instead of working as an artist, Steve Rogers now worked at a New York dock, likely for no reason other than it sounded more "American". Editor Joe Quesada began asking Rieber for more and more rewrites, and eventually it became clear that Reiber wasn't delivering what Marvel wanted, and he left the book. Chuck Austen was given the unenviable task of finishing two Reiber stories that were already partly written and illustrated.

It's not fair to judge Austen's work entirely on the basis of stories that he didn't start. Reading them for the first time though, it felt to me like Austen was focused more on introducing plot twists than he was on delivering a strong story. Austen also introduced the dreadful idea that Cap was put into suspended animation by his own government, because they feared he would oppose dropping the bomb on Japan (an idea that I believe has since been rightly ignored).

After Austen left, Dave Gibbons wrote what is essentially a four part imaginary story (issues 17-20), in which Cap is unfrozen in 1964, the Nazis rule the world, and Cap must team up with a resistance populated with non-powered versions of Marvel's most popular heroes.

Robert Morales tried to salvage the series, restoring the classic action scenes and Cap's social life, while having him interact with real world elements like Guantanamo Bay. I thought he did a decent job, though he was undermined by Chris Bachalo's art, which gave cap a pointy nose like Batman. Morale's run only ran eight issues though, and by the end he clearly knew the writing was on the wall. The series then concluded with an enjoyable 4 part story by Robert Kirkman that was good clean superheroes vs. supervillains fun.

In general, Captain America volume 4 can be ignored, or regarded as a series of alternate universe stories. Little of it is canon. By the end of Morales' run, Cap has restored the twin towers! Austen's suggestion that the government froze Captain America is unlikely to be referenced again, in part because it hinges on Cap's refusal to kill during WWII, a notion that's since been disavowed. (It also seems to contradict Captain America 220. And... oh yeah... it's also really really stupid.) Only the first story by Rieber and the final story by Kirkman are unlikely to be completely disregarded.

Why did I learn from reading Captain America volume 4? That keeping Captain America fresh and relevant in the 21st century is hard. He is, under any circumstances, a difficult character to make work. The character does work best though when the symbolism isn't front and center. Captain America the Super Solider is an exciting character. Captain America the Human Flag doesn't work so well.

Captain America: The Serial (Captain America 219)

As a kid, I watched the 1944 serial Captain America and wondered why so much about the character was changed. In Captain America 219, writer Don Glut explains it all. And we even learn that Cap played himself much of the time, when the original actor was marked for death by the Red Skull!

The truth is that the script for the serial had originally been written for another character (Wikipedia suggests it may have been Fawcett's Mr. Scarlet). Let's hope that the upcoming Chris Evans Captain America film finally gets things right.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Boys in Costumes (Captain America vol. 4, issue 17)

The Red Skull goes there:
I guess you can't blame the Skull. After all, he's on a parallel world where the nazis won the war and Cap never hooked up with Sharon Carter.

And he's hardly the first to question the teen sidekick. "I always felt if I were a superhero, there's no way in the world that I'd go around with some teenager," Stan Lee once said. "At the very least, people would talk."

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Cap vs the Undead (Captain America 205)

Man, bystanders in the Marvel universe are weird.

Captain America vs. Nixon (Captain America, Vol 1, 175-176)

So I had asked myself "Who is Captain America?", and had found an answer for the man. Thing was, America was moving from the overarching Vietnam War toward the specific crimes of Watergate.
I was writing a man who believed in America's highest ideals at a time when America's President was a crook. I could not ignore that. And so, in the Marvel Universe, which so closely resembled our own, Cap followed a criminal conspiracy into the White House and saw the President commit suicide.
                   -Captain America writer Steve Englehart

Cap didn't tell anybody, even the Falcon, what happened in the White House, and "the authorities put a lid on it, too." Does that mean Nick Fury had a Life Model Decoy running the country (at least until they could engineer Nixon's resignation)? And yes, that was intended to be Nixon, though we never saw his face. Steve Englehart, the writer of the book, explained:
People often ask if Marvel hassled me for the political vibe in this series and others, and the honest answer is that they almost never did. It was a wonderful place to be creative. Here, I intended to say the President was Nixon, but wasn't sure if Marvel would allow it and so censored myself - probably unnecessarily.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

New Powers (Captain America and the Falcon Vol. 1, #170)

Given that the Falcon's main power is flying (besides communicating with his pet falcon Redwing), it's strange to remember that he didn't actually get his signature power until more than four years after the character was introduced.

As a kid, I knew that the Falcon's wings had been built by the Black Panther, and wondered why Cap wasn't given a similar set of wings, to maintain power parity. The answer is that a fluke interaction between Cap's super soldier serum and a poison antidote gave Cap super-strength in issue 158, leaving the Falcon feeling like the weaker half of the team. He got the wings to make himself equal to Cap once again.

Writer Steve Englehart explained on his blog:

Much like the idea of turning the Beast's fur darker, Marvel decided Cap should become stronger. I did it but stopped talking about it after a while, and the whole concept simply faded away over time.