Showing posts with label Captain America. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Captain America. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Loyal To The Dream

"Have you ever heard anything about God, Topsy?"
The child looked bewildered, but grinned as usual.
"Do you know who made you?"
"Nobody, as I knows on," said the child, with a short laugh. The idea appeared to amuse her considerably; for her eyes twinkled, and she added, "Don't think nobody never made me. I ‘spect I growed"
                      Uncle Tom’s Cabin

There is a very bad issue of Cptain America, probably one with zeros on the end, in which Captain America meets Johnny Appleseed and John Henry and Uncle Sam and says “gee, I guess in a very real sense we’re all American legends”. (He wakes up and discovers it was all a dream...or was it?)

After reading more issues of Captain America than is remotely good for my sanity I have come to the conclusion that Steve Rogers is indeed a folk-hero. No-one created him; but somehow, in 70 years of story telling, he grew.

Spider-Man is also a folk-hero. He's passed through many creative hands and people who've never read a Spider-Man comic know who Spider-Man is. But Spider-Man has, and I think always will have, an ur-text to go back to. One writer may go right back to Steve Ditko for inspiration; another may be looking at last month's episode, which is copies from someone who was copying from someone who was copying Ditko, but however Ultimate or Superior he becomes, Spider-Man is always to some extent an Amazing Spider-Man #1 - #38 tribute band.

Captain America, not so much.

Oh, writers and artists genuflect at the shrine of Simon and Kirby, as well they might. But Simon and Kirby is where we started, not where we ended up. The apple-seed isn't the apple tree. No-one remotely wants this months Captain America to look as if it came from 1942. Those issues are primitive and ground breaking and visceral and ever so slightly racist and probably not canon anymore.

You don't need to go back to Captain America #1 or even Avengers #4 to find out what Captain America is meant to be like. You certainly don't need to read every single issue. That way madness lies. You already know.

One possible definition of "myth" is that it's a story which can be told in a hundred different ways and still be the same story. When Jack Kirby drew that image of the skinny recruit being "inoculated" with the super-soldier serum, he created a genuine myth.  When Stan Lee add the image of the man frozen in a block of ice, slowly melting, he gave that myth a tragic depth. None of the dozens of retelling of it is the real thing. Unless every retelling of it is equally the real thing.

Maybe that's why the Bold New Directions never work. You can’t give Captain America a new girl friend or a new house or a new job any more than you can relocate Father Christmas to the South Pole and decide that he's going to shave off his beard. Oh, you could write a story in which that happened, and it might be a very good story, but 20 years later that story would be forgotten and the myth would have reverted to it's original form. The only way a myth can change is organically, from the inside, so slowly that you didn't notice it happening.

That's also why there is so little distance between movie Captain America and the comic book character. Robert Downey Jnr and Andrew Garfield are playing characters somewhat inspired by Iron Man and Spider-Man. Evans is simply being Steve Rogers. That's all he needs to do. We all know who Captain America is.

And finally; that's why very bad ideas seem to do the character so little damage. Twenty years from now, the weeks when Sam Wilson carried the shield will be a footnote to a footnote in the long, long history of Steve Rogers. Dimension Z will be so much scar-tissue. Captain America is who Captain America is.

You were expecting me to finish by saying something deeply Cambellian, about how the priest embodies the god and the god is literally present every time the priest embodies him; and how Captain America is the story which America tells America about America; or maybe the lens through which America sees America. You are expecting me to say that he's so much a part of the landscape that it takes and Englishman to really see him. You are expecting me to contract American patriotism with English patriotism. (The English don't even have a dream to be loyal to.)

But none of that rings terribly true.

Every frame of the Lone Ranger -- the recent movie version -- creaked with the knowledge that the Lone Ranger is an American Myth (exclamation mark exclamation mark). The Captain America movie hardly seemed to care about that angle. Maybe there's a hint of it in the first Avengers movie, what with Agent Coulson's picture cards. But it avoided the portentous. We didn't feel that Captain America was somehow symbolizing Captain America. We didn't feel that Being Captain America was what the movies were about.

I was left with two overwhelming feeling after coming to the end of my ludicrous Captain America marathon.

One: that Steve Rogers is a person. 

There has been wild talk from quarters about how the huge complexity of the Marvel and DC Universes meaning that they are, or are on the point of, becoming semi-sentient entities. (Philip Sandifier thinks; or finds it interesting to pretend to think; that Doctor Who is a sentient meta-fiction.) That's all a lot of nonsense. But it's true that folk song that's been passed down through many generations of singers takes on a form that any one individual singer finds it very hard to emulate. Improvisational performers sometimes report that personalities can emerge in a group that no one actor could have come up with individually. If one writer writes about a pretend person, and another writer makes a copy and adds a bit and another writer makes a copy and ads a bit; then would it be very surprising if what you ended up with was a character who seemed to exist, not in any one comic book, but somehow out there.

That's the first thing I took away. Steve Rogers isn't a character in a comic, he's a person. And the second thing was this: he's a person I like very much indeed.

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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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Monday, September 07, 2015

The Superheroes are having a rare moment of recreation. Jarvis opens a bottle of wine.

"Who would have thought, seventy years ago" says Superman, "That we'd all be here in Stark Mansion drinking  Ch√Ęteau de Chasselas."

"We were poor in those days" says Captain America. "I grew up in a one room tenement on the Lower East Side at the height of the Great Depression; and every night, my father would come home drunk and beat me."

"Father?" says Spider-Man "You were lucky to have had a father. The only Father I ever knew was my uncle, and he was murdered when I was still a schoolboy."

"Luxury!" exclaims Batman "Both my parents were murdered before my very eyes when I was a small child. I had to bring myself up. With only a stuffy English butler for company. In a cave. Full of bats."  

"Cave!" interjects the 1950s Superman. "You were lucky to have had a cave! My entire planet exploded when I was a toddler, vaporizing my parents, my grand parents, my dog, and everyone else I had ever known or loved!"

"Well, of course, I had it tough" chimes in the 1980s Sperman. "I came from a planet where parental love was prohibited by law. And my whole planet exploded, vaporizing my entire family and everyone else I ever knew, before I was even born." 

"Yes" said Captain America contemplatively. "And try and tell that to superheroes nowadays, they just don't believe you." 

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Captain America 1980 - 2000

Captain America # 250 (Oct 1980)
"Cap For President"

Some people try to persuade Cap to run for President. He decides not to.

Captain America # 275 (Nov 1982)
"Yesterday's Shadows"

Captain America is walking home with his Jewish girl friend and his Jewish landlady when he finds that a nasty symbol has been painted on the door of their synagogue.

It’s…a nazi swastika!” he helpfully explains.

Fairly unusually for a 1980s “issue” story, there is no villain called “Zion Smasher”. The outbreak of antisemitism was not caused by the Hate Monger or a Madbomb, but by some rather pathetic neo-nazis. Cap is, throughout, the voice of reason: Captain Liberal.

"I agree that these neo-nazis are a vile breed —  but if we deny them their rights, where would we draw the line? Who decides which beliefs are acceptable and which aren’t? A free society has to allow all ideasboth noble and ignoble!" 

I despise what you say, but will literally defend to the death your right to say it.Believe it or not, that was how we liberals still thought in the Olden Days.

But in case we thought that "liberal" means "soft on Nazis", Steve Rogers (who is working as a commercial artist) rips up some pages of art when his prospective employer makes a mildly antisemitic remark. He goes on protest against a Nazi rally, but realizes that the counter-demo is counter-productive. (We’re handing these fools free publicity").

The Nazis and Commies of the 40s and 50s were cardboard villains; and in the 60s and 70s this kind of thing would probably have been handled through thinly disguised metaphor, but writer J DeMatties depicts racist rhetoric directly — too directly, perhaps, for what was still supposed to be kid-friendly book.

"Does that mean that the blacks — with their delusions of equality — and the Jews — with their my of the six million holocaust victims — should be allowed to walk beside us on the street? To control what we read in newspapers and see on the television?” 

When someone in the audience starts throwing bottles, Captain America has to jump in and play mediator and devils advocate

"Can’t you see that in stooping to your enemies level, you’re being made over in his image”.

All quite nice and earnest and well-done, I have to say. I like it best when Captain America wins the day by being honest and sensible and good, not by having serum boosted muscles.

But the most notable thing about the issue is episode is the final panel in which something happens which hardly ever happens in a comic books....

Back in issue 237, with Sharon Carter dead once again, Captain America had gone off in another of his bold new directions. He moved into an apartment; got a job as an artist (even drawing Captain America for Marvel Comics at one stage) and acquired a kind of supporting cast.

"I’ve done a lot of thinking these past few days — and I think its time I stopped hiding behind a blue and white mask. And maybe; just maybe; I’ll even settle down one of these days, marry and raise a family.”

Ten issues later, John Byrne gave him a new neighbour, Bernie Rosenthal, who everyone, including Steve, recognize instantly as the New Love Interest. (Just look at the fear in his eyes when he first sees her.)

The romance staggers on for a number of issues, with Bernie intermittently spotting that there is something odd about her new boyfriend — he lets slip that he can remember when movie tickets only cost ten cents —  and Steve suffering from the usual Marvel Comics commitment aversion. 

The neat thing about issue 275 is that Bernie, while listening to Captain America speech-making, realizes that he has the same voice and mannerisms as Steve Rogers. She just spots that they are the same guy, as one presumably would. There is no big unmasking scene: the two characters just catch each others eyes, and she knows that he knows that she knows. After a couple of false starts, Bernie announces that she loves Steve even more now that she knows about his double life.

I never really bought the idea of Captain America living in a bachelor pad in a tenement building. The only secret identity I’ve really believed in is the hopeless U.S Private being yelled at by the Sergeant; although I think the New York cop being yelled at by the police Sergeant should have been given more of a chance to take. The best idea, actually, is the one which pops up during the unfairly reviled Rob Liefield issues, where Steve Rogers is an all-American dad in a suburban house with a nice lawn and a nice fence and a nice wife and two nice kids. If I’m-loyal-to-the-dream lives anywhere, that’s where he should live. But that turns out to be a fake identity created by SHIELD; the wife and kids are robots. And the whole thing is actually a bad dream Franklin Richards is having.

Could we have bought into Steve and Bernie living happily ever after? Perhaps. We've accepted Lois and Clark and Mary-Jane and Peter, after all. In the event, Bernie decides to make the logical career step from glass-blower to criminal lawyer; and the relationship comes to a more or less amicable ending. Cap leaves the apartment and moves back into Avenger Mansion in # 317. We see Bernie a few more times, generally when Cap needs a walk-on lawyer, but it's taken for granted that they have Grown Apart. Although he’s had flats and apartments since, there has never really been another attempt to give Captain America a life.

Captain America #300 (Dec 1984)
"Das Ende"

Almost the last genuinely good instalment of the first "volume" of Captain America. The Red Skull has been reconfigured as a full scale gothic villain, complete with Germanic castle and redefined —  no longer as Hitler’s bellboy, or a Nazi revivalist but a force of nature who fights Captain America because it's his destiny to fight Captain America. 

“The fire of cosmic loathing, of divine madness! You finally see that this is the way it must be, two gods locked in raging battle, for all eternity…” 

“Shut up! We are not two gods! We are just two old men.” 

The Skull's "plot" to bring Captain America down to his own level by making him kill him has been done before. The resolution, where Cap refuses to kill the Skull at the very last moment, but the Skull obligingly dies of a heart attack anyway, has been done seventeen or eighteen times before. But there was a pretentious importance to it, as if something really big had just happened. We see the Skull’s daughter unceremoniously burning his body in the next issue, and the twisted-attractive Nazi aesthetic felt about right.

If only comic books allowed stories like this to stand. If only this could really have been the final final final appearance of the Red Skull. But we are still in the Marvel Universe, where only Bucky dies forever.

Daredevil #233 (Aug 1986)

This comic re-defined Captain America far more than many of the self-proclaimed changes of direction in Cap’s own title did.

Everyone remembers the scene where the officer appeals to Captain America’s loyalty, and Cap replies “I’m loyal to nothing general —  except the Dream.” "Loyal to the dream", which has actually been used as a tag-line once or twice, is actually a summary of the speech from #250 where Cap turned down the chance to be President.

"I have worked all my life for the growth and advancement of the American Dream. I believe that my duty to the Dream would severely limit any abilities I might have to preserve the reality."

But for me, the real defining moment is a descriptive caption (implicitly written by Daily Bugle journalist Ben Ulrich) when the Avengers appear in Daredevil’s down-and-dirty Hells Kitchen environment.

“Out of nowhere they come: a soldier with a voice that could command a god … and does”

(Thor is in the Avengers, geddit?)

From this point on, Captain America started to walk away from being Metaphor Man. The point of Captain America became more and more that he was Captain America (exclamation mark exclamation mark). Where Spider-Man and the Hulk are just folks or at best celebrities, Captain America is a mythical figure who stuns people by the sheer force of his Captain America-hood. (When the Avengers and the Justice League have a war, Captain America and Batman leave the others to get on with and go away and quietly sort things out between themselves.) Everyone else would say that the essence of Captain America resides, not in the shield, not in the super-soldier serum, not in the years of training but in the person of Steve Rogers. Steve, on the other hand, is increasingly convinced that Captain America is merely a symbol that it is his job to embody. 

“I am not Captain America" he would say, many years later "I’m just the guy who wears his costume.”

Captain America # 313 (Jun 1986)
"Mission - Murder Modok"

Captain America comes into some money (40 years of back pay from the US Army!) and decides to set up a phone hotline so Ordinary Americans can call on him when they are in trouble. He is overwhelmed by more cries for help than he can cope with, and finds that his computer is being tapped. It turns out that the culprit is a young man who styles himself “the biggest Captain America fan in New Jersey.” Cap decides to recruit the young scalawag, so he can use his computer expertise to filter the calls and pass the important ones on to him. (A sort of call-back to Rick Jones "brigade" of radio hams in the earlier Avengers, which was itself a call back to Kirby's teen-gang comics like Newsboy Legion.)

This is another valiant attempt to give Captain America something to do which isn’t following up rejected Avengers and Agent of SHIELD story lines. It doesn’t take. But it’s rather lovely to go back to a time when home computer’s were an arcane piece of technology which required explanation. (A MODEM is a device linking computers to the telephone, apparently, and “hackers” are “computer enthusiasts".)

Captain America #314 - #443 (1986-95)

Not more  bloody Serpent Society?

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

Captain America vol 4 #1 - Jun 2002

There was always a danger that the 11th September 2001 attacks on America would send Captain America off into a new cycle of gung-ho patriotism. This directly post-911 issue begins with Cap digging survivors out of Ground Zero with his bare hands and punching Nick Fury when he suggests his powers would be better employed fighting the Taliban directly. He walks home, and sees some white thugs about to stab an American Muslim: in a genuinely arresting image, the knife breaks on his shield. “I understand you want justice. This isn’t justice. We’re better than this.” As would-be attacker and victim shake hands, Steve walks off in full Captain Soliloquy mode.

"We’re going to make it through this. We, the people. United by a power that no enemy of freedom could begin to understand. We the people. We share... We are... The American Dream.” 

Captain America Muslim Smasher remains firmly in a parallel dimension.

Having said that, I have to admit a sneaking liking for the gung-ho Captain America of the Ultimates Universe. 

"Surrender? Surrender??!!

"Do you think this letter on my head stands for FRANCE?"


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Thursday, September 03, 2015

Captain America 1970 - 1979

Captain America #122 - Feb 1970
“The Sting of the Scorpion”

Stan Lee drew the words. Jack Kirby wrote the pictures. But what would Stan Lee have been like with no Jack to bounce ideas off? The question was most famously answered in the first issue of the Silver Surfer, when Lee was teamed up with John Buscema, a fine artist, but no story-teller. The result was that the Surfer spent an entire double-sized issue delivering industrial sized speech bubbles about Man's Inhumanity to Man. It was the summer of love. Silver Surfer #1 shared shelf space with many a copy of Sgt Pepper.

Two years later we see Stan "writing" Captain America alongside legendary horror artist Gene Colan. There is lots of writing: lots and lots of writing; but nothing very much happens. Captain America spends fully half the comic walking the streets, talking to himself.

“I’ve spent a lifetime battling — for liberty, for justice — but is there never to be an end to it?” he asks on page one. It's only five or six years since he was resurrected, so chronologically he's only about 30, but Stan is scripting him as a much older man — as a world-weary veteran in his forties or fifties. [*]

He is still at it on page 2 “There are those who scorn love of flag, love of country, those to whom patriotism is just a square, out-moded word! Those who think of me — as a useless relic — of a meaningless past!" 

And page 4: “I think it was Mathew who said — 'what is a man profited if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?' Where am I to find the soul of — Steve Rogers?”  Most people's internal monologue would have said "didn't Jesus say...?" or "doesn't it say somewhere in the Bible...?" but if Cap wants to refer to specific Gospels I suppose he's allowed to. Perhaps Stan still thinks of him as a nice Jewish boy, relatively unfamiliar with the New Testament. ("For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" Matt 16:26 and  Mark 8:36)

It reaches a cringe-inducing climax on page 5 “So I belong to the establishment! I'm not going to knock it! It was that same establishment that gave them a Martin Luther King  a Tolkien  A Mc Luhan (sic) and a couple of brothers — named Kennedy!” Cap has been doing a lot of reading since coming out of the ice. 

By this point he has gone to bed, which might have been expected to give the reader some respite. But, of course, he carries on talking in his sleep. "Why must the girl I love — risk her life daily — when I long to protect her?" 

It's clear enough what is going on. Stan Lee provides the artist with a vague idea for a comic. "Cap is staying in a hotel, feeling miserable about Sharon. The Scorpion gets out of jail and decides to pick on a civilian...but the civilian he picks on is Steve Rogers!" Jack Kirby would have expanded that into a complex epic, with explosions, Nazi villains, three new cast-members and a flying saucer. (And decided that it wasn't the Scorpion after all, it was the Beetle.)  Lee would have taken Kirby's crowded panels, assumed that must be what he had asked for,  and typed out with witty exposition so the reader could tell what was going on. Gene Colan, who's an illustrator but not a story-teller, takes the plot Lee actually gave him, and does the only thing he can do with it: pad it to 20 pages with big atmospheric panels of Cap walking through moody moonlit streets. Lee has often jokingly said that his comics are the modern equivalents of Shakespeare; and that the things he most loves, apart from comic books, are Broadway musicals. So he fills the big panels in which nothing is happening with what are basically song lyrics. Captain America can't so much as put his pants on without delivering an aria:

No matter how I KNOCK it, 
it's always a KICK 
getting back in costume!
It as though
I'm becoming the REAL me!
As though I'm shrugging off
Some FALSE identity!

Even the villain gets in on the act

I've stayed out of sight for month's since my parole
testing my powers, regaining my strength! 
But now
the time has come for the final test
when I must effortlessly defeat a live victim! 
Then, and only then, will know that the Scorpion is ready to assault mankind once more!
This unsuspecting fool, so blindly approaching me, will serve as a perfect test!

Zemo has died several times since the Avengers, and Cap has transitioned from Bucky-Guilt Guy to Soliloquy Guy.

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

Gene Colan’s art is utterly gorgeous.

[*] If you believe in Marvel Time, then Cap was defrosted in Spring 2005 and this story takes place the follow Autumn. Which is why you shouldn't.

Captain America #128 - Aug 1970
“Mission: Stamp Out Satan’s Angels”

Captain America #139 - June 1971
“The Badge and the Betrayal”

Captain America buys a motor bike, which has absolutely nothing to do with Peter Fonda stealing his name and decides to trek around America for a while. (He has avoided motorbikes since his resurrection because Bucky was killed on one “but I must learn to bury the past, to live for today and tomorrow”.)

Captain America worked fine as an Avengers supporting character. “A stuffy old Golden Age Hero tries to get three teenage ex-villains to behave like a team" is a far more dramatic proposition than “Four mighty heroes grimace at each other." But dump him in his own comic and he still feels like an Avengers supporting character. Send him over to help Nick Fury and SHIELD fight Hydra, and suddenly the Captain America comic looks like the SHIELD comic.

No-one has ever been able to figure out what a Captain America solo gig is meant to be about. Cap doesn’t have a supporting cast. His best mate spends most of his time being dead and his girl friend, Sharon Carter, is pretty much a place-holder Shalla Ball. Good for agonizing about in your sleep, but not much else. 

"Cap hobos around America on a bike, fixin' everyone's troubles" could, in fact, have been quite a decent premise for a comic. But no-one commits to it. He spends more time fighting Hydra agents than he does on the road. A year later, Stan has a different idea.

This time, Cap decides to settle down and get a job as a New York Police Officer. And it seems to me that if we could persuade ourselves that Captain America was a New York Police Officer and had always been a New York Police Officer, that would be a pretty good thing for Captain America to be. It gives him an off-stage life, and it provides an endless sources of crimes to investigate. Sgt. Muldoon (drawn as a cigar-chewing Kirby-alike) is an explicit call-back to the un-named Sarge from Steve’s Army days, the only time he properly had a secret identity. But some sort of narrative gravity drags him back to the SHIELD helicarrier, the Red Skull, agents of Hydra. His police career amounts to a few comedy scenes of Muldoon chewing him out for never showing up to work. 

“Once I decide” screams Cap on the the cover “There can be no turning back”. About 20 issues later, the idea of Captain Policeman is quietly forgotten about.

Captain America and the Falcon # 134 - Feb 1971
"They Call Him….Stone Face "

Captain America never properly acquires roots  or anything to do when he's not been being a superhero, but he does acquire a sort of sidekick.

Yes, we remember him swearing that he'd never take another partner, but he's so over being guilt-man now. Rick Jones even got his turn at being Bucky for four or five issues between #110 and #115.

This was the era of the Defenders who, to start with at least, weren’t a Superhero Team, but just what happened when Doctor Strange and the Hulk an the Sub-Mariner found themselves doing stuff together. No-one ever formally declares Cap and the Falcon to be a double act, but it happens.

Very probably, this is Marvel’s riposte to the socially aware Green Lantern / Green Arrow pairing, but although Sam Wilson is prone to say thing like “It was outtasite working with Cap again...but my jobs in the ghetto, helping my own people” it never becomes quite so self-consciously socially aware. 

Black Panther beat him to the title of first black superhero, but Falcon is almost definitely the first superhero who is an African American. Maybe in retrospect his costume could have been less “ethnic”. And maybe it was a bit obvious for him to be a social worker in Harlem, where the globe trotters come from. He’s down wid the kidz and can out-soliloquize Cap “Where do they go, Cap? What do they do? What chance do they have? Kids who’ve lost faith in the the world around them..and in themselves?”  But he wasn't meant to be Captain America's Partner. He and Cap just became good friends. And so naturally, they worked together, sometimes, on and off. It can feels like two different comics under one cover. The Falcon worries about drugs and gangsters and Cap carries on moonlighting for SHIELD. 

The comics masthead said “Captain America and the Falcon” for seven years; and he remains a major part of Captain America's life afterwards. I doubt that Stan Lee ever said "Wouldn't the best civil rights message we could send out be for Captain America’s best mate to be a black guy?” But it was.

And giving Captain America a confidante went a long way to humanizing Steve Rogers.

Captain America and the Falcon # 155 - Nov 1972
“The Incredible Origin of the Other Captain America”

I expect that some comic book fans assume that the murder of Bucky by Zemo actually happened in a 1940s comic, rather than being a 1960s retcon. Similarly, the 1950s Captain America, introduced in this story, is so much a part of the Legend that it is hard to remind ourselves that the 1954 Captain America was originally just Captain America, fighting Uncle Sam's foes after a short hiatus.

And it is strange to go back and read the comic which introduced the idea that that Captain America was a crazy impostor. It comes across as an intellectual exercise; a weirdly post-modern solution to a continuity problem that no-one apart from Roy Thomas cared about. 

If Captain America was frozen in 1945 then the Captain America of the '50s must have been an impostor. Run with it. 

I only wish it could have been called “The Credible Origin of the Other Captain America.” Seems that what really happened was that in the 1950s, a history teacher became so obsessed with Captain America that he researched his life, discovered a lost tome which revealed the formula for the Super Soldier serum (written down after all), legally changed his name to Steve Rogers and, er, had plastic surgery so he looked just like his hero.

Oh: and he had a rather unprofessional friendship with a student called “Bucky”. Who looked just like Bucky and was equally obsessed with Bucky...

I don't believe it for one minute. 

We get two issues of the 1950s Cap and Bucky running around saying things like “We can take a darkie and a frail!” while the real Cap is on holiday; an issue explaining the ret-con (which goes so far as to cut and paste the actual artwork from Young Men #24) and one very good issue in which our Captain America and the 1950s Captain America have a fight. Seems that the imperfect Super Soldier Serum has gradually driven Fake Cap and Fake Bucky mad, to the extent that they see Commies where there are none. It also makes them use racist epithets in ever sentence, although they stop short of the actual n-word.

Fake Cap honestly believes that Real Cap died in the war and therefore honestly believes that Real Cap is a Fake. He is genuinely shocked when he finds out that the person he's fighting is his big hero — the one he altered his face to look like. ("He knows he know the awful, terrible mistake his has made. He knows he has loathed what he should have loved”). I think this would have worked better if he had been a well-meaning individual who truly hated Communism rather than a raving loony who calls the Falcon a darkie. If Fake Cap is simply mad, then the metaphor which writer Steve Englehart wants to draw out — that 50s Cap is the dark reflection of 40s Cap; that communist paranoia is the flip side of American patriotism — is rather spoiled. 

This is one of a stream of 70s episodes that try to sort out minor continuity glitches. But in retrospect, what it introduced was a new take on what Captain America was about. The continuity thing was pernickety and fannish; but the idea that 1970s idealism and 1950s paranoia could have a stand up fight was hugely appealing. Over the next few years, Cap would be fighting enemies with names like Flag Smasher and Everyman; and would respond to the Marvel Universe’s thinly veiled Watergate analogue by giving up being Captain America for ever [*] and becoming Nomad The Man Without A Country. 

Monologue Man has regenerated into Allegory Man, or at any rate Unsubtle Political Metaphor Man. 

[*] Forever = 4 issues.

Captain America and the Falcon # 163 - July 1973
"Beware of Serpents"

Captain America and Peggy Carter drop in on Dave Cox, a Viet-Nam vet turned C.O. “This is a nice place you’ve got here” says Cap “Thanks. Its my little piece of the world so I keep it as best I can” says Dave. 

This scene sticks in my memory, because there is no sense of the civilians saying “It can’t be…. It is! The great Captain America Exclamation Mark” or on the other hand of saying (as Stan Lee pretended that everyone said all the time) “What are you doing in those silly clothes?” It’s like, in 70s Marvel, a superhero costume was just a uniform. Being a “superhero” was lifestyle choice, like being punk or a member of the Salvation Army. 

Actually, what it feels most like is Sesame Street: a sort of vague analogue to the real world where brightly colored puppets hang out with the inner city kids because, hey, you got a problem with that, man?

Captain America # 200 - July 1976
“Dawns Early Light”

By a nice coincidence Captain America #200 fell in 1976, which was the 200th anniversary of the United States. 

By an even nicer coincidence, Jack Kirby had come back to Marvel with his tale between his legs the previous year, so the special Bicentennial issue was done by Cap’s original creator. 

Kirby still looked a bit like Kirby. There's a cartoony joy to Captain America propelling himself feet-first into a room full of goons that hardly anyone else, then or now, could have carried off. And Kirby drawing Captain America felt like a really, really big deal. (When Steve Ditko did some work for Marvel in the '80s, he specifically asked not to be assigned to either Spider-Man or Doctor Strange.) But where Jack’s self-created titles of this period — Eternals, 2001, Devil Dinosaur — still crackled with continuity wrecking originality, his Captain America offered us evil monarchists in wigs launching “madbombs” to destroy America on independence day. It felt old fashioned. Silly. And Cap felt like a generic superhero in a Captain America suit, not the character who’d grown up over the last 140 issues. 

Black Panther, who had spent the previous several years being all civil rights and comics-aren’t-just-for-kids spent his first Kirby issue looking for a time travelling frog. Some fans never really forgave Jack for that.

What If...? #4 - Aug 1977
"What if the the Invaders had stayed together after War 2?"

What if...?#5 - Oct 1977
"What if Captain America hadn’t vanished after World War 2?"

These comics are a guilty pleasure, but god, I do love this kind of thing. 

What If…? was supposed to be a series of one-shot alternate earth stories; but unlike DC’s Imaginary Tales they were heavily rooted in Actual Continuity. DC could give you “What if Superman were a hamster?” but Marvel was only interested in “What if the Goblin had not killed Gwen?” 

But issue 4 wasn't an alternate earth story line at all: it was Roy Thomas playing around in the Marvel Universe — stitching together Golden Age comics that no-one apart from him remembered into an official Marvel Comics version of World War II. 

Avengers #4 says that Captain America perished before the end of the war, but as a matter of fact the comic stayed in print until 1949? Well, that’s because the President appointed a very minor superhero called Spirit of 76 to fill Captain America’s boots. He died a heroically and a third hero called the Patriot became Cap, bringing the total number of Captains America up to four (including psycho-commie Cap). 

Remember that Torch Kills Hitler thing? That is totally canon. It turns out he was trying to do the Fuhrer a good turn, as you would: offering him the chance of a fair trial in America rather than being killed by the Russians. He is forced to burn him when Hitler tries to pull a switch which would have blown the bunker and the Berlin sky high. 

Note that Hitler still says "afire" rather than "on fire" because that's what he said in the 1954 comics which Roy Thomas is riffing on. This is rather typical of his approach to continuity. Something which has happened in another comic, however obscure and however silly, has to be treated as really having happened in the Marvel Universe. But any writer is free to add more information; to show a wider context; to tell us about things which happened before or afterwards; in order to allow the scene to make sense or harmonize it with other comics. What if...? #4 "saves the appearance" of Young Men #24; but it takes all the fun out of the idea that a flaming android killed Hitler because Hitler was evil and fighting evil was his job. As a retcon, it's right on a level with Greedo shooting first.

The follow up issue, which tells us what might have happened if Steve Rogers and Bucky had survived Zemo’s trap, is a lot of fun too. (Steve would have become head of SHIELD; "Buck" Barnes would have taken over the role of Captain America and Rick Jones would have become Bucky's Bucky. And then Buck would have passed the shield on to Rick. (And yes, "Buck" does wish that Captain America had adopted him so he could be Buck Rogers.)

I suppose, to a great extent, that was the whole fun of What If…? By pretending to tell us alternative histories of the Marvel Universe, it very much established that the Marvel Universe had a history for there to be alternatives to. Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths and the annual continuity reset have become predictable and impenetrable and probably done more to put general readers off superhero comics than anything else. But in '77 it was still just an aging fan boy having fun with the characters he grew up with.

Captain America # 225 - Sep 1978

"War is neither glamorous nor fun. There are no winners, only losers. There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: The American Revolution, World War II and the Star Wars trilogy." - Bart Simpson

On a good day, Steve Gerber could come up with Howard the Duck and the criminally curtailed Omega the Unknown: two of the best series of all time. On a bad day, he offered evil oil billionaires call Franklin Armstrong Schist. (Really and truly.)

And then there’s this kind of thing. 

Steve Rogers had no back story in 1941: he’s just a weakling who gets injected with an experimental formula. By 1978, it’s a plot point that he can’t remember his childhood. So Gerber retcons one for him.

It turns out that Captain America grew up in a little house in Maryland and had a brother we never knew about. His brother is a cool, sporty, baseball playing jock; but Steve prefers pressing wild-flowers and talking to the clouds. He “pursues his artistic impulse, reads voraciously, and spends much of his time alone” and says things like "I’m the scrawny one, the sensitive one, the family let-down and I don’t apologize”. His brother volunteers for the navy (can you guess what's coming?) and Steve goes to college to study fine art ("and cuddle up to his socialist pacifist scum of the earth friends" explains his father.) It appears that the 1930s and the 1970s were exactly the same in all respects.

If this had been Howard the Duck (which is what it reads like) we'd expect Young Steve to become the Beatnik Painster and dedicate his life to humiliating baseball teams everywhere with a giant sketchbook. In fact his brother is killed when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour, and Steve decides that he had better volunteer after all. “I’ve always loathed the idea of war, or violence of any kind…and as much as I despise the whole military mentality, as evil as I find the notion of organized slaughter…dammit there’s no other way…I’m obligated like it or not.”

So. Captain America was a very reluctant solider: the sort of milk-and-water pacifist who says that we are allowed to fight but only if we do it with long faces and pretend we're ashamed of the whole idea. As you can easily tell from the joy with which he and Bucky dispatch Nazis in those early issues. 

Apparently, no-one in the 1970s could imagine that the Universal Soldier could be interested in anything other than putting an end to war. Before you are allowed to fight Hitler you have to say how much you hate fighting. Whatever happened to going with songs to the battle?

I get that some of these second generation Marvel writers had seen friends killed in Vietnam and were reluctant to say that war, any war, even the war against Hitler, was heroic. But surely this is a very inept way of dealing with it?  Either Cap needs a sudden epiphany, like Tony Stark, in which he renounces war once and for all, or (better) he needs to retain his Greatest Generation military mindset and hookup with a hippy side kick (Rick Jones, say) who sees things differently. The notion that Captain America was a 1960s college boy in 1941 is beyond ridiculous. 

Fortunately, this nonsense was ret-ret-conned way a couple of years later. They were false memories that a villain had implanted in his brain because yadda yadda yadda.

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