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.