Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Soldier Who Doesn't Believe in Killing (Mark Waid Year 2, Captain America Vol 3, #16)

The evil Red Skull has the all-powerful cosmic cube... again. In fact, this time he's internalized the power of the cube, so Cap can't do the "knock it out of the Skull's hand" thing. This calls for extreme measures! But of course, Cap won't try to kill the Skull. Why, heavens to Betsy, that would be murder!

You know, I'm a much bigger pacifist than Cap. I don't spend my time beating people up, and I'm against the death penalty and war and all that. But... um... if a genocidal Nazi who's pretty much pure evil attains the power of a God and vows to crush the very concept of liberty, I think he pretty much needs to be taken down by any means possible. At the first opportunity.

This kind of thing really turns me off. I'm all for him wearing the flag, but being holier than the entire frackin' country even at the risk of the freakin' planet (or galaxy)... that's just lame. A lot of people complain that Batman never kills the Joker (who then always escapes custody and kills more people) but I believe that Batman may be genuinely frightened of where crossing that line would take him. Cap is a much more rational guy though, who has always worked hand in glove with agencies and authorities who are prepared to take lives in the defense of the country, within the law. In our country we view taking another's life as moral and legal if it's in defense of the lives of others. Waid seems to be of the school that Cap's schtick is that he can never lose a fight, and knows it. Even Gruenwald didn't go that far. Some would argue that Cap is such a damn good strategist that even with no powers against the most Godlike of villains he never has to kill, but for him to put his entire nation at risk out of the conviction he can outwit everyone ever born under virtually all circumstances smacks of unbelievable arrogance.

And what's this nonsense at the end of the issue 19 where he "hopes" for the Skull's sake that he managed to save himself. That's just... diseased.

(The story also features the character of Korvac, who died tragically wanting to make the world better in a memorable Avengers story, and who has now been turned back into a third rate cyber villain.)

Fortunately Ed Brubaker retconned all this nonsense away in Volume 5. Brubaker says Cap killed Nazis, and Brubaker is still writing Cap, so what he says goes. And Cap is still a decent guy, and a moral guy, but I like to think the current version wouldn't think twice before acing the Red Skull if he got his hands on the damn cosmic cube.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Captain America Volume 2 (1996). Heroes Regurgitated

In the mid-1990s, comic book sales were declining drastically in the wake of the collapse of the comics speculator bubble. Belatedly people realized that comics were not an "investment", and the first issues the comics companies were printing millions of copies of weren't, in the end, going to be worth much more than cover price (if even that). By some accounts two thirds of comic book stores closed during this period, and in 1997 Marvel comics declared bankruptcy, though they continued to publish comics. (They eventually exited bankruptcy and after a few hit superhero movies were later bought by Disney)

In 1996 Marvel decided to outsource the production of some of their comics to some of the hottest artists in comics, who had gone on to set up their own studios. Certain characters were removed from the shared Marvel universe in favor of the "Heroes Reborn" universe, and the artists and writers were given carte blanche to do whatever they wanted with the characters. Marvel soon pulled the plug on the experiment, and after 13 issues the characters were returned to the Marvel universe.

This was not a good year for Captain America. The prior year Mark Waid and Ron Garney had been revitalizing the book, doing excellent work. The "Reborn" issues varied from awful (under writer-artist Rob Liefeld) to mediocre (under writer James Robinson). How bad were they?

In this version of Cap's history, Cap was taken out of commission by his own government, because he opposed the bombing of Japan with nuclear weapons. Chuck Austen tried to introduce this same idea into the proper history of the Marvel universe a few years later. It was ignored. It was a bad idea. (And the art stunk too.)

But as I said, after 13 issues Marvel pulled the plug on it, gave us Captain America Volume 3, put Waid and Garney back on the book, and they pretty much picked up where they left off. The whole thing is pretty much forgotten, except that Cap's alternate-Earth sidekick Rikki Barnes is still running around for some reason.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Rebirth (Gruenwald Year 10, Waid Year 1)

Finally staggered to the end of writer Mark Gruenwald's ten year run on Captain America! By the end of it Cap was on his last legs too. Dying due to the breakdown of the super soldier formula, Cap spent his last day on Earth checking in on the soon to be disgarded Gruenwald era cast, then went upstairs to bed to get some rest. When the Avengers went to check on him, he had vanished.

And that's when the Mark Waid era starts! Cap is saved by his old enemy the Red Skull (using a cure the Skull had stolen from Suprema a few issues earlier) so that Cap can fulfill the mission he was born for- killing Adolf Hitler! It seems that the Skull trapped Hitler (who had been appearing in Marvel Comics for years under the name Hate-Monger) in an all-powerful cosmic cube. Unfortunately, Hitler has begun to take control of the cube, and he's pretty pissed at the Skull. The Skull decides to take no chances and ally himelf with Cap in a quest that he hopes will ultimately result in the Skull regaining control of the cube. Also allied with the Skull- Cap's dead girlfriend Sharon Carter- former agent of SHIELD!

It turns out rather than dying, Sharon had actually been cut loose by the government behind enemy lines for some reason. After a couple of years working as a mercenary (and believing herself to have been abandoned by Cap) she's returned with a very bad attitude. She's still basically a good guy (allied with the Skull merely to prevent Hitler from turning the world into a Nazi wonderland) but now she plays much rougher, and is a lot angrier.

This is also pretty entertaining stuff. With Waid writing (fairly early in his comics career) the book jumps ahead stylistically thirty ears... or more. The book goes from being a 1970s DC comic to a 21st century Marvel book. Thought balloons and narration boxes largely disappear. Cap gets a harder edge, and stories move briskly like a good action movie. Cap is still Cap, but it's a lot easier to believe that he spent a couple of years at the front in World War II.

Sadly, Waid's first run on the book was cut short when Marvel had the opportunity to hand the book to some big names in the industry. Perhaps that explains the general weakness of Waid's second arc. Cap was accused of leaking government secrets (perhaps unwillingly), and since President Clinton didn't have the heart to put him on trial, he was sent into exile instead... where he could more easily leak more government secrets. (Huh.)

In any event, Waid was pushed aside after only a year, in favor of a new vision of the book so crappy I'm not sure I can bring myself to write about it-- the "Heroes Reborn" era.

(Below: Mark Waid introduces himself in the Cap letterspage)


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Fighting Chance (Gruenwald Year 9, Captain America 425-431)

Well, Mark Gruenwald fatigue is definitely setting in, as I plow through year nine of his stint writing Captain America. Generally I found his comics quite readable, even if I disagreed with Cap being written as such a stiff. (You can be patriotic without being a total square.) I'm not too crazy about what I've read so far in this "Fighting Chance" storyline though. Cap's strength and endurance is giving out on him at the worst times. His doc runs tests and tells him that due to a degradation of the super soldier serum in Cap's veins "if you keep up your current level of high adrenaline activity, you will experience total muscle paralysis in about a year." If he leads a normal life he'll be fine though. Of course, Cap could get medical help from all his super-genius friends, but won't do it because he doesn't want to become "an object of pity" (naturally). And even though Cap has the Avengers at his beck and call, he just can't restrain himself from hands on crimefighting, because "when I see an injustice... I just can't stand idly by."

A lot of Mark Gruenwald stories sound stupid, but he somehow pulls them off. Well, I'm seven parts into this storyline, and it's not working for me.

Oh well, just one more year of Gruenwald to go, and then Mark Waid takes over writing.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The battling Bantam! (Captain America Annual 12)

All of Captain America Annual 12 in 1993 was dedicated to the debut of this exciting new hero:

I don't think this character was ever seen again until he was killed off a few years ago during the Marvel Civil War. Go figure.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Diamondback's Bad Year (Mark Gruenwald Year Seven and Eight)

In Captain America 405 a parent wrote to complain about the Diamondback backup story in issue 399 (from which the above scene was taken). She cancelled the subscription to Captain America that she'd bought for her eight year old, because she thought this story was inappropriately violent and graphic (and perhaps even titillating). Credit the parent, for screening the material before giving it to her kid to read.

I'm surprisingly sympathetic. Sure, I wouldn't want all Marvel comics to be limited to what's appropriate for eight year olds. On the other hand, these days there's a lot of stories in comics with sadistic "Natural Born Killer" types brutally abusing good people with glee. It's not why I got into comics, to be honest. I don't like reading it. And I definitely don't like reading it as often as it shows up in comics nowadays.

So far, 1992 has been a very bad year for Diamondback. After being drowned by an old enemy, she lost her nerve and has opted out of the adventurer's lifestyle, choosing to become Captain America's secretary instead. But the Red Skull's old operative Crossbones has kidnapped her, and she's spent over a month trapped in a hole, while Crossbones works on brainwashing her to use as a potential tool against Cap. Now, Mark Gruenwald created Diamondback, and he's free to do with her what he pleases. I know that eventually she'll triumph and be the stronger for it (and Marvel even promised as much in their letter's page). But I can't say it's my idea of fun reading.

Cap Wolf (Captain America 405-407)

Okay, so Mark Gruenwald has turned Cap into a teenager, a druggie and a werewolf. But I still think he missed a great opportunity in issue 391 when he nearly turned Cap into a woman.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Mark Gruenwald Year Six (Captain America 372-386)

Wait, Bernie's graduated from law school already? Geez, I guess comic book time goes much faster when you're no longer in the comic. Lucky for her the Captain America/Diamondback relationship has been progressing very, very slowly.

Cap on Drugs (Captain America 372-378)

Mark Gruenwald took a unique approach to his anti-drug storyline "Streets of Poison". After Cap is exposed to major amounts of "ice" during a drug bust, it bonds to the super soldier serum in his blood, leaving him permanently high, and increasingly paranoid and sleep deprived!

Anti-drug comic book stories are pretty much always corny and cringeworthy. In real life the very real dangers and down sides to drug use often aren't immediately apparent to users, but comics and TV shows generally have to compress the storyline so that drugs are always doing real destruction immediately, and in doing so the stories damage the credibility of their message. This story isn't much better, but at least it takes a fresh approach. And it's always worth remembering that the folks who manufacture and import these drugs aren't doing it out of a benevolent desire to spread good feelings throughout the world. (A friend of mind in college had his head chopped off by a couple of young marijuana dealers.)

Interestingly, in the end Cap's problem is solved with a complete blood transfusion. Even without the super soldier serum inside him, Cap finally manages to defeat the Red Skull's loyal henchman Crossbones. I don't know if this story was ever undone. Writers in the 70s and 80s were generally pretty clear that Cap didn't have any superpowers anyway, and that the serum had merely pumped him up to the height of human perfection, with Cap taking it from there. On the other hand, these days Brubaker seems to suggest that Cap is at least somewhat super strong. It doesn't matter much, but I wonder if some story I haven't read yet explains the apparent contradiction.

[Postscript, okay the super solider serum regenerated itself inside Cap by issue 384.]

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Diamondback in Love (Mark Gruenwald Year Five, Cap 355-371)

Seeing as Mark Gruenwald felt that Captain America didn't need a civilian life (he promptly ended Cap's relationship with Bernie Rosenthal), it seemed the only real romantic prospects left for Cap during this era were in the adventurer community. Hence Cap's improbable relationship with Diamondback, one of the villainous Serpent Squad.

Mark Gruenwald had an obvious interest in workplace dynamics, and one of the first things he did was introduce a new Serpent Squad, featuring villains who were just out to make a buck and get health insurance, via gigs for hire. It didn't really catch fire, but Gruenwald followed up on it by showing more of the logistics behind Cap's leadership of the Avengers, and the Red Skull's ongoing relationships with his newly enlarged group of cronies. Only the Red Skull's crew reached the level of passably interesting so far.

Ignoring the fact that simply being a member of the Serpent Society arguably makes Diamondback an accessory to murder, Gruenwald seemed to have positioned Diamondback as a possibly love interest from the start, introducing her as a relatively benign mercenary who began crushing on Cap almost from the start. It's a little hard to buy that a goody-goody like Gruenwald's Cap would ever show much interest in such a character, but readers were, I think, willing to suspend disbelief so that we could see Cap doing something in his off-hours besides attended meetings with architects regarding the new Avengers headquarters.

The big problem is that Diamondback is a pretty one-dimensional character, even by Gruenwald standards. (Character creation definitely wasn't Gruenwald's forté.) I really don't have a thing to say about her.

For all that, I'm generally enjoying reading Gruenwald's run at this point. He didn't push the medium forward any, but Gruenwald's lack of pretensions and love of classic superhero serial storytelling make his run a pretty easy read.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Covers: Teen Cap (Captain America 355)

The cover of Captain America 355:

The DC comics influence is pretty clear. As silly as it is, it makes you curious about the contents of the book, doesn't it? I actually kind of dug the way Gruenwald tried to hook people with the covers of his books. (Yeah, he didn't draw them, but I think he dictated the contents.) On the cover of issue 344, Cap is fighting President Reagan, who's been transformed (by the evil Viper) into a half-lizard man!

Sadly, these days comics covers are generally serious looking portraits or action shots:

The New Cap (Mark Gruenwald Years Three and Four, Captain America 332-354)

In his third year on the book, Mark Gruenwald gave us a new Captain America. A Commission of Presidentially-appointed big shots (including the heads of the CIA and FBI) claimed government ownership of the Captain America name, costume and shield. They demanded that Steve Rogers once again work directly for the government, as he agreed to do when he was chosen to receive the super-soldier formula in World War II. However, Rogers no longer felt that Captain America should be a government propaganda figure, and resigned as Captain America. He was uncomfortable with taking his case to the people or fighting the government in court, and opted instead to assume a new, slightly different identity- the Captain:

Meanwhile, the government enlisted John Walker--the Super-Patriot-- to be the new Captain America (and his drinking buddy Lemar to be the new Bucky, later Battlestar). Walker took the job seriously, doing his best to live up to a legend he once mocked, and fought guys like the Watchdogs:

Unknown to almost everyone though, there were mysterious forces working to undermine Walker, and push him over the edge.

The nice thing about this storyline was that it meant Steve Rogers was absent from the book entirely at times, which was good because Gruenwald's depiction of Steve Rogers tended to be "dishwater dull" (in the words of one letter writer). The flawed (and sometimes brutal) John Walker was much more compelling. Of course, inevitably Steve Rogers reclaimed the Captain America identity (and not by brawling with Walker over the name, mercifully). And Walker is still floating around the Marvel universe in a modified version of Rogers' black outfit, under the name USAgent. He's had a couple of mini-series, and has been a member of the Avengers, Force Works, the Invaders, and Omega Flight. He's the Marvel universe's super-powered government hardass.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mark Gruenwald Year Two (Captain America 319-331)

Having dropped Steve Rogers and his supporting cast from the book, writer Mark Gruenwald used his second year writing the comic to depict Cap crossing America in a custom van, determined to be a hero for all of America, not just the New York City area. The writing gradually improved on the book, and by the end of the second year I no longer had to force myself to read it, even if I wasn't thrilled with the choice of direction.

Cap got a huge check from the government as back pay for the decades he spent in suspended animation after World War II. He used the money to set up a nationwide hotline so that people would be able to get in touch with him, and allied with a bunch of teen computer geeks who help filter his calls and help him get information he needs. He defeated the Scourge, who was killing minor Marvel villains (or did he?) and took on some uninteresting villains like Flag-Smasher and Super-Patriot. Unable to defeat the latter (a gloryhog jerk who tried to discredit Cap by sending folks with Cap's mask on to rough up foreigners), Cap went in search of how Super-Patriot got his powers, and ended up taking on a guy called the Power Broker (cute). The Power Broker is a nasty businessman who's been empowering everyone from heroes like Ms. Marvel to "Unlimited Class" pro-wrestlers like Demolition Man. Cap teams with Demolition Man to take down the Power Broker, but it seems the Power Broker may have been in bed with the US military via something called Project Augment. An army Lieutenant named Lynch sent an enhanced soldier called G.I.Max after Cap, but then accidentally shot Max (smooth). Meanwhile, an IRS auditor questioned that big fat check Steven Rogers reported on his taxes, and discovered Rogers was Captain America. When he reported it to his superiors they began to have second thoughts about giving Cap all that money...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Captain America 321-322 (Cap's Delicate Sensibilities and Code Against Killing)

Captain America is a soldier, not Dudley Do-Right. It's kind of annoying reading him wringing his hands over having to use deception and violence to rescue some hostages. No wonder comics readers of the era found Wolverine a breath of fresh air.

Gruenwald handled this better in later issues, but issue 322 introduces this:

What? Cap spent all his time on the front lines in World War II knocking people out and tying them up? I guess that makes him way more moral than those regular soldiers, who actually killed the enemy to win the war.

In fairness, this craziness may have originated with Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, who had a strict "heroes don't kill" code. And Gruenwald actually does get away with letting Cap kill somebody in issue 321, when Cap has no choice but to shoot a terrorist who has opened fire on a crowd of defenseless hostages.

Still, a super-soldier who fought on the frontlines against the Nazis but never killed is a pretty weird notion. Brubaker mercifully wrote this out of continuity when he took over the book several years ago.

[Postscript] Here's Marvel's explanation of Cap's WWII career, from the letter's page of Captain America 327:

Neither Cap nor the Invaders ever carried guns behind enemy lines during the War. They were never actively engaged in combat with the Axis militia, but concentrated their efforts against Nazi super-agents and their leaders. All this is to say that Captain America never sought to kill anyone on the battlefield. It probably happened that soldiers who shot at Cap were hit by their own ricocheting bullets, but that's not the same as Cap shooting someone. We can't deny that Cap was at the center of a lot of bloodshed during the Big One, but he himself never shed another man's blood. The Ultimatum incident in CAP #321 was the first time Cap intentionally took someone's life.

[Postscript 2] In the letter's page of Captain America 328, Marvel backs down very slightly, by offering a vaguer response:

...we do not deny that enemy soldiers died because of Cap's actions. Still, Cap never regularly carried a gun, not was his mission to kill as many of the enemy as he could. His mission was to "destroy the enemies of liberty," which are the concepts of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism, not the individuals who espouse them. True, you cannot attack abstractions-- you can only attack the individuals who act in accordance with them. But its an important distinction. Further to the point, soldiers at war play by different rules than civilians at peace and Cap has had years to make peace with himself about his wartime actions. We're not saying that Cap is or ever was a pacifist, but he does have a profound respect for human life. It is a respect that has grown as he has matured, and includes respect for the lives of his individual enemies. Killing an enemy is always Cap's last resort, and every death he's ever been responsible for has taken its toll on his inner peace.

[Postscript 3]  A more detailed critique of the way Marvel handled the storyline where Cap killed a terrorist, and the events that followed, from the letter's page of Captain America #329:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Mark Gruenwald Year One (Captain America 307-318)

I've just finished the first year of Mark Gruenwald's ten year run as Captain America writer, and I'm remembering why I stopped reading the book at this point. It's not bad. But the writing and art are both kind of flat.

Mark doesn't seem too interested in the Steve Roger's side of Cap's life, and over the course of the first year he dismantles all of it. His fiancée Bernie leaves the state to go to law school. He moves out of his apartment, and sets up shop at Avengers mansion again. Gruenwald is strictly interested in superheroics here, and he tries to keep things light. Unfortunately, he writes Cap like one of those lantern-jawed two-dimensional heroes in a 1950s DC comic. He thoughts tend to be along the line of  "Wonder what possesses a guy like Blue Streak to squander his great athletic ability on crime? Such a waste of potential." Patriotic shouldn't be a synonym for dumb or naive.

The recurring villains in the first year are a new incarnation of the Serpent Squad. They're bad guys for hire with snake motif costumes and powers. They're run something like a business, with no agenda besides making a buck. And... um... they're not that interesting.

Also, there's an ongoing mystery about somebody killing third-rate villains.

I kind of find myself wanting to skip ahead to the Mark Waid era. A lot of people speak fondly of the Gruenwald era though, so maybe it improves. I know in year three there's a story about Steve Rogers being "fired" and replaced as Captain America. That doesn't really sound that interesting (I never really bought that anybody had the authority to do that) but who knows?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Old friends (Dave Cox and Peggy Carter)

I'm almost two years behind the rest of the world on Captain America, because I buy them on my iPad, but Marvel just released a new batch, so I got to read issue #49 from 2009. Yay, pacifist veteran Dave Cox is back. It's nice having a writer who knows and appreciates Cap's history. Pre-Brubaker we had a couple of years of writers who seemed pretty unfamiliar with the character.

And we got to see Peggy Carter too! Of course her history here is completely different than the history given for her in the 1970s, but since her first meeting with Cap now happened over 50 years ago, changes were required. She's now Sharon's Aunt, not her sister, and she's in a nursing home. Brubaker ditched the part about Peggy being in the crazy house until she met up with Cap again. Soon she'll become Sharon's great aunt, I imagine (or they'll kill her off and stop referring to her at all).

Friday, February 11, 2011

The J.M. DeMatteis Era (1981-1984)

Got a little distracted for a while, but I finished the J.M. DeMatteis issues. I'd actually read them all when they came out but I'd forgotten much of it.

The DeMatteis era doesn't always get a lot of recognition. It was interrupted a lot by other writers. It started off with a bang with art by Mike Zeck, but ended with weaker art by a Paul Neary. DeMatteis revived the character of Jack Monroe (the fifties Bucky) and made him Cap's partner as Nomad, which was kind of interesting. Mostly though he doubled down on the course set by earlier writers like Roger Stern and focused on giving Cap a real life, with a home and a job and friends. He made the supporting cast more than window dressing. We got to see his ex-partner Sam Wilson (the Falcon) a lot, which was nice. And he introduced the character of Arnie Roth in issue 270, a childhood friend of Steve Rogers (and probably the first recurring gay character in Marvel comics... though his partner Michael had to be referred to as a "roommate").

DeMatteis understood Cap and his history quite well. He understood that a guy wearing a flag suit is making a pretty strong statement, and it was going to result in pretty strong responses. My favorite issue was # 267, Cap vs. a poser called Every-Man.:

(What this loser doesn't know is that this is actually the third time this issue Cap's been spit on. Cap is just bored with it.)

At the end of the run, the Red Skull was killed off for what was intended to be the final time, and Cap was aged a few decades. I swear I remember reading DeMatteis say in an interview somewhere that if he'd have stayed on as writer he'd have kept Cap old and that it would have been "a very different book," but I can't find anything about this on the internet. It would definitely have been different.