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.