Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Captain America 2004-2015

Captain America vol 5 #1 (Nov 2004) 
"Out of Time"

In this new First Issue,  Captain America goes after some terrorists, who’ve loaded chemical weapons onto a train and are promising to crash it into Coney Island. 

Cap leaps from a bridge onto the moving train and runs along the carriages. While doing a back-flip he takes out a helicopter (which is shooting at him) with his shield; he punches out two of the terrorists; and intimidates a third into defusing the bomb.

This sequence could have happened in literally any episode of Captain America from 1942 onward. Okay, the terrorists might have had sillier costumers and spikken mit de zillier accent, but it’s still pure Kirby action.

Except it isn’t drawn in the Kirby style: there are no shields bursting out of the frame, no motion lines or sound effects and the backgrounds are as clear and distinct as the heroic figures in the foreground. It’s only one step away from photo realism: a sequence of moments in time frozen on the page. 

This isn’t exactly new. Alex Ross has been plowing the photo-realistic furrow for two decades. But no one has ever really worked out what Alex Ross is for, except really beautiful covers. But something very new is being done to Captain America.

The terrorist plot isn’t where the story starts or ends. It starts with a former soviet general meeting up with the Red Skull to sell him weapons. (The gun which sends people to the Negative Zone turns out to be important later on.) They talk for six pages. Then we flash forward to the present. The Red Skull is in New York, gloating over the Cosmic Cube (which is now “one of the cubes”). This is not a “re-imagining” of the Skull. It’s clearly the same Skull who died in issue #300 (”that’s our destiny after all: the two of us locked in eternal conflict down through the years”). But it's like all the previous artists showed us a a cartoon approximation of the Skull and Steve Epting is finally letting us see the real thing.

We also have Sharon Carter counselling Cap, who has gone all soliloquy because his buddy Hawkeye from the Avengers is currently dead. So in one issue, that’s the Skull, the Cube, Carter, SHIELD, the Avengers, and, in a flashback, Bucky. Oh, and a minor supervillain called the Red Guardian who expires on the first page. Over the next few issues we'll also get Union Jack, Hydra, AIM and the Invaders. We'll get Cap visiting the graves of Spirit of '76 and the Patriot. All done in the same slow-paced, photo-realistic, present-tense style. Every single line of every single incredibly silly episode of Captain America -- everything in the Marvel Universe, if it comes to it -- is taken seriously. As if it really happened. In real life. 

In Stan Lee's day, being a superhero was like a series of sporting fixtures; specifically, like a series of wrestling matches. THIS WEEK see Captain America vs the Red Skull (to the death! the battle of the century!) NEXT WEEK, when the we've put the Red Skull back in his box, see Captain America vs The Winter Soldier (the battle of the century! to the death!) This isn't like that. This is a world where the Red Skull and Doctor Faustus and SHIELD are permanent, fixed power blocks, doing stuff whether Captain America is there or not; where Cap's old supporting cast like Bernie Rosenthal and the Falcon keep on keeping on even when they've been written out of the comic book.

Which is, of course, what it must always have been like. This is not so much a deconstruction of the Marvel Universe as a reconstruction. 

I first read these comics because the press was making a big deal out of the Death of Captain America. I thought I'd better take a look and find out what was going on. I was not expecting to like it: I hadn't liked any mainstream Marvel comic for years. "Quite interesting in places" I was expecting to say "but no substitute for the real thing." Instead, it felt like coming home. 

The episode ends with a mysterious assassin killing the Red Skull to death. A few issues later, the same assassin takes out 1950s psycho Bucky (reformed) as well. This was a very strong hint as to what was coming next.

Captain America 5 #12 (Nov 2005)
"The Winter Soldier"

In the end the identity of the Winter Soldier wasn't that big a shock. The damage had been done in issue #5. 

Bucky. It seems he was never just Captain America’s little friend. We can still believe in Super Soldiers and Mental Organisms Designed Only For Killing and Nazi sleeper robots, but we can't believe in eight year old kid sidekicks any more. Bucky was really a symbol intended to counter the rise of Hitler Youth. And he was also a highly trained assassin. While Captain America concentrated on being red white and blue and inspiring the troops, Bucky snuck off behind enemy lines and garroted Nazi snipers.

Brubaker pulls it off. This Bucky is not the Bucky of folk memory and he's certainly not the Bucky of the 1940s comic books, but we totally accept that he's Bucky. (By now, some readers probably believe that this is how Bucky always was, in the same way the probably believe that Zemo was a golden age character.) 

And then in issue #12, quite casually, as if he wasn’t wiping out 60 years worth of continuity, he tells us Bucky's origin. No, obviously, he didn’t sneak into Steve’s tent and blackmail the Sentinel of Liberty into making him his kid sidekick. And he wasn’t a little boy. He was 16. Steve Rogers was only 20. The top brass spotted what a brilliant fighter he was, sent him off to train with the SAS and then introduced him to Rogers. The whole “you’ve got to let me share your little mission” thing was only ever a cover story.

Comic book continuity is a strange thing. Kirby showed Steve Rogers being injected with the super soldier serum; Lee showed him drinking from a test tube; so John Byrne showed him being injected and then drinking it. Everything is literally true; all contradictions can be harmonized. There is only one creation story in the book of Genesis. But the more desperately you try to make Captain America real the more inexorably he becomes a comic book character. Steve Engelhart physically pasted pages from Captain America Commie Smasher into Captain America #155 to show that he wasn’t changing anything: just providing a wider context in which both stories make sense. Hell, he even had Captain America wandering around Europe for months after the death of Bucky because Stan Lee had said he was frozen near Newfoundland. Brubaker makes sure that the seminal 1942 - 1945 Captain America stories are real and part of the continuity: by ensuring that they are not real and not part of the continuity.

He's slipped a camera behind Jack Kirby's artwork. The classic comics are shadows; these new episodes are the Platonic forms.  

It turns out that the assassin who killed the Red Skull and Jack Munroe is William Buchanan Barnes, known to his friends as Bucky, the one character who can never come back from the dead. He also survived the plane crash, but was brainwashed and trained as a cold war assassin named The Winter Soldier.

And Sharon Carter kills Captain America. (He gets better.) 

Captain America vol 6 #19 - (Oct 2012)
"A Goodbye to Cap"

Brubaker’s final episode has Steve Rogers visiting William Burnside (50s psycho-Cap) in hospital. Turns out his most recent death was only faked. There’s been a funeral and everything; but the government is going to provide him with a new identity and try to give him his life back. 

It’s a nice story; a story which stands on it’s own feet; a story which allows Brubaker to take a gentle stroll through Captain America history and revisit some of the themes he's developed over an eight year run.

But it also illustrates what a gordian knot Captain America has become.

Burnside became Captain America because he was Captain America’s biggest fan. But we now know that what he was a fan of was the comic book Captain America, the one where Cap punches Hitler in the face: which we now know never happened. (In this issue, we actually see the real 1940s Cap and Bucky reading the comic. "Oh c’mon, they made me some stupid kid sidekick” says the stupid kid sidekick.) Psycho-50s Cap, created in order to make the 1950s comics part of "continuity" has completely over written anything that actually appeared in those obscure issues of Young Men. The whole reason for Steve Rogers getting frozen in ice was to allow Stan Lee to pretend the the Captain America of the 1940s was the same person as the Captain America of the 1960s. But the Captain America of the 1940s never happened. In the 60s and 70s and 80s, Captain America frequently remembers how Bucky blundered into his tent in the autumn of 41. Is he remembering comic books that never happened? Or is the Captain America of the 60s and 70s and 80s "only a comic book character" as well? Will some future episode reveal that he never did wander the streets soliloquizing about being part of the establishment? Will, indeed, we one day see a flashback revealing what "really happened" during his big allegorical fight with 1950s Cap and relegate Englehart's issues to being "only comic books"?

We're looking at a copy of a copy of a copy and there's no original.

And yet when Captain America, our Captain America, the real Captain America says goodbye to Burnside and motorcycles off  (past a bar selling "American spirit"), it really doesn't seem to matter.

"Tomorrow you'll go to another hospital, for more healing...And they're going to do their best to restore you mind. To give you a new life to go with your new name. Because you don't have to be Captain America anymore, William. You have my eternal gratitude. But someone else will carry that burden from now on. For as long as I can."

Captain America vol 7 #1 (Nov 2012)
“Castaway in Dimension Z”

Rick Remender decides the best way of following up the superlative Brubaker era is to give up on Captain America altogether and start up a new comic about a guy in a Captain America suit who gets dumped on Apokalips (or somewhere of that sort) and has to inspire the natives to take a stand against Darkseid (or someone of that sort.)

He says he wanted to pay tribute to the 1976 Kirby issues; and in so far as he uses Cap as a generic superhero and throws miscellaneous weirdness at him, he somewhat succeeds. 

All this, and unresolved Daddy issues too. It turns out that Captain America has spent his whole life running away from his father's shadow. And now he adopts a little boy in the alien dimension and has to learn how to be a father himself. Please, please, make it go away.

Captain America is now explicitly Irish. (All the other superheroes are more or less explicitly Jewish.) He grew up in one of the New York immigrant quarters, like his creator. Indeed the flashback sequences draw heavily on Kirby's autobiographical Street Code. All superheroes have to have miserable childhoods, so I suppose that Captain America might just as well have had a miserable Irish childhood; and even a miserable Irish Catholic childhood. But couldn’t we maybe just once, just once, have a character who was hit by his perfectly sober father? Or by his drunken mother? Or by a wicked uncle or something? Or perhaps we could lose the violence and Larkin him up in some other way? Maybe his parents were home schoolers, or Jehovah's Witnesses, or naturists, or something?

Captain America spends ten years in the the Alien Dimension; but when he comes back through the wardrobe, it turns out that only a few minutes have passed on earth. But those ten years were real to him, so he feels that Dimension Z is more his home than 21st century earth. [*] Now, more than ever, he is a man out of time.

Oh, is there never to be an end of it?

[*] If you believe in Marvel Time, then it is always a bit less than 10 years since Captain America was defrosted. Which is why you really, really shouldn't.

Captain America vol 7 #25 (Oct 2014)
"Who Is The New Captain America?"

Captain America has had the Super Soldier Serum sucked out of him and has aged into a very sprightly 90 year old. 

He announces that he is handing the shield over to his old friend Sam Wilson. The Falcon. 

Since there have been at least four Captains America apart from Steve Rogers [*] since 1942 the cries of “it’s political correctness gone mad” are more than usually stupid. Indeed, the really surprising thing is that the Falcon has never had a shot at being Captain America before. 

The obviousness of the development is lamp shaded in the comic itself. 

"You guys all knew, didn’t you" says Sam "There’s literally no drama in this reveal.”

The Avengers are trying very hard to be the movie Avengers, to the extent that Nick Fury has turned into a black guy while I wasn’t looking. Writer Remender tries to give them Joss Whedon dialogue; demonstrating that the only person who can write Joss Whedon dialogue is Joss Whedon. 

There was a great deal of fuss in the secular press when Captain America “died” in 2007. He remained dead for an unusually long 3 years. (Superman had barely managed three months.) Does anyone think Sam will manage as much as 12 months as shield-bearer?

The new costume looks exceptionally stupid.

[*] Steve Rogers; William Naslund (Spirit of ‘76); Jeffery Mace (The Patriot); William Burnside (1950s Captain America); John Walker (Super Patriot / U.S Agent); Sam Wilson (The Falcon)

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