When Words Collide

Mon, June 15th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: June 15th, 2009 at 2:39pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS

What Mysteries Does This Issue Hold?

By the time you read this, you'll know what the big deal is. It's still Sunday as I write this week's column, and it seems like anything could happen in the Captain America universe on Monday. Something big enough to change the shipping schedule of "Captain America" #600, anyway. The theories run from the unlikely (the re-introduction of the black Captain America to tie in with the announcement that Will Smith will portray the character in an upcoming movie) to the logical (Steve Rogers returns, or was never all that dead to begin with). It could be something in between, or a combination of everything. It could be nothing. Maybe the moved-up shipping date is the story, and it's nothing more than a tribute issue to the fallen hero on the anniversary of his fictional death.

I'll find out the same time everyone else does, and, to be honest, I don't really care. It's not something I'm going to lose sleep over. It's not even a comic book I'll rush to the shop to pick up, even though I've been completely enjoying Ed Brubaker's run on "Captain America" since the beginning. I'm curious to see how things will turn out, and I'm always looking forward to the next Brubaker issue, but, for me, this isn't a final-issue-of-"Batman R.I.P." level of curiosity. This isn't even a "Heroes Reborn" level of curiosity. (And you'll note that in both those cases the curiosity of comic book fandom was in direct proportion to its disappointment.) This is just another Brubaker "Captain America" issue -- with a bunch of special guest creators brought into the party -- and whatever enormously huge media attention it gets (or fails to get) is ancillary to the comic itself. It's just going to be another chapter in Ed Brubaker's "Captain America" saga, another tiny installment of Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes epic that's been going on since 1941. Or since Stan Lee brought him back in "Avengers" #4, at least.

That's what I'm here to explore. That's what I'm here to celebrate -- the diverse range of Captain America stories that have appeared over the years, the good and the bad. And to do that, I'm not going to give you some kind of "Best of" list or anything like that. No, what I'm doing this week is an experiment in selective history. I'm going to look at five decades worth of "Captain America" issues, but not by giving an overview of each era. Instead, I'll examine every "Captain America" comic cover-dated July XXX9 since the birth of the Marvel Age. I'll count backwards, starting with July 2009's "Captain America" #50 from last month (the cover dates are a few months ahead of the actual release dates, as we all know), then dipping back into 1999 for a look at Mark Waid and Andy Kubert's "Captain America" #19 before hopping back into the Gruenwald run with "Captain America" #355" from 1989. July 1979 gave us a Roger McKenzie-scripted tale in "Captain America" #235 and July 1969 gave us Stan Lee and John Buscema doing a Red Skull story in "Captain America" #115. That's where our little experiment ends, in the waning days of the Silver Age, back when Captain America was just entering his second year as star of a solo comic from Marvel.

So what's the point of this retrospective? It's certainly not nostalgia, because I'd never read most of these Captain America stories before this weekend. I'd only read the Silver Age Cap issues from the Lee/Kirby and Steranko runs. I'd read plenty of Bronze Age Cap, but completely avoided the Roger McKenzie run. I'd devoured Captain America stories during the first several years of the Gruenwald era, but I lost interest as the art became progressively worse and the Serpent Society became the subject of every story. And though I loved the Waid/Garney run on "Captain America," I abandoned Waid's return after the debacle with the Red Skull rewrites. So other than the recent Brubaker issue and Cap's Golden Age debut, these were all new stories to me.

The point is this -- I'm looking at these six stories as snapshots of comic book history. What do they tell us about this character of Captain America? What do they tell us about the genre of superhero comics? What do they tell us about the medium? And what do they tell us -- since they focus on this most symbolic of heroes -- what do they tell us about America?

COUNTING BACKWARDS: FROM TODAY TO YESTERDAY

Cap Pistol-Whips A Patriot

July 2009: "Captain America" #50 (Ed Brubaker/Luke Ross)

Though this story focuses on the birthday of Bucky Barnes, this issue is visually dark from start to finish. Colorist Frank D'Armata gives the issue a cinematic sheen, all earth tones, yellow highlights, and red/orange explosions. Even Captain America's costume is less blue than a murky blue/gray, giving a seriousness of purpose to a character who is flipping through the air fighting guys who look like Decepticons.

This issue also gives us flashbacks to earlier stages in Bucky's life, and the portrayal of the young Private Barnes shows a hardscrabble teenager spending time in the brig for fighting with some soldiers. The violence in this issue -- in both the flashbacks and the present day sequences -- is cartoonish but with a sense of suffering. Master Man -- Nazi supervillain -- doesn't shrug off a shield to the face. He cowers with a bloody nose, screaming in pain. Though Bucky is all smiles and cheerfulness, saying "What a pal" as he guns down the off-panel Nazi evildoers.

Thematically, this issue explores the concept of responsibility and family, with both of those themes interweaving in the final pages as the Avengers through Bucky a birthday party and his narration emphasizes how much he owes to Steve Rogers. Stylistically, this is a darkly cinematic issue with plenty of three-to-five-panel pages, and the flashbacks more conservatively laid out than the present day sequences.

Key scene or bit of dialogue: When the Watchdog soldier says, "you ain't…the real Captain America," Bucky Barnes as Cap replies, "Believe me, I know that better than anyone..but I'm tryin'." Then he pistol whip the Watchdog soldier into unconsciousness.

The issue shows us a Captain America willing to do whatever it takes to live up to his responsibilities; it shows that superhero comics are violent and serious, but with an exaggerated view of both; it shows that comics are about using action to reveal character; and it shows that America must fear threats from within. That's the snapshot of 2009.

The Waid and Kubert Kosmic

July 1999: "Captain America" #19 (Mark Waid/Andy Kubert)

Andy Kubert's work looks pretty good in this issue, which features an outer space adventure involving Korvac, the Red Skull, Sharon Carter, Captain America, and that all-powerful magical widget: the Cosmic Cube. This isn't one of those "Nineties Comics" with the guys wearing suits of armor (kind of like Stephen Sommers's upcoming "G.I. Joe" flick) or Captain America with a crazy-complicated blaster rifle mounted to his shoulder. But he does have the electro-shield in this issue and he uses a laser sword, so what it loses in '90s Liefeldianism, it gains in space opera fun.

This isn't really even recognizable as a "Captain America" comic, other than the use of the Red Skull as the villain. Cap has never seemed particularly suited for cosmic adventures -- he's like Batman in that regard -- but whenever the Red Skull appears, it seems that the Cosmic Cube is never far behind, and then we get into all kinds of sci-fi alternate futures and reality manipulation and so on. It's a far cry from Brubaker's more "realistic" approach -- even though Brubaker used the Cosmic Cube as the centerpiece of his first (long) arc on the story. Still, nothing as "Star-Warsy" as this Waid/Kubert issue.

Key scene or bit of dialogue: Cap shouts, "Even Skull can't survive an anti-matter bath!" So true.

The issue shows us a Captain America willing to fight to maintain the status quo of reality; it shows that superhero comics are outrageous, over-the-top space adventures; it shows that comics are about insane sci-fi ideas; and it shows nothing about America, other than we have to be careful of how things turn out in a future molded by crazy supervillains. That's the snapshot of 1999.

Gruenwald Does Plenty of Exposition

July 1989: "Captain America" #355 (Mark Gruenwald/Rich Buckler/Al Milgrom)

Milgrom provides the finishes on Buckler's layouts for this issue, so that's why I've included him in the credits, but this is one ugly-looking comic. As much as I'm not a fan of Frank D'Armata's overbearing coloring, at least the current issues of "Captain America" look like something that someone might want to possibly read even if they've not been born and raised on Marvel continuity. "Captain America" #355, though, is a visual mess, and the blame shouldn't fall completely on the artists. Gruenwald packs a million -- literally, one million -- thought bubbles and captions and word balloons on nearly every page. There's no breathing room here, and as much as I might complain about decompression and pacing, I'd much rather have what we're used to now than this overly dense, hideously-composed style of comic book story.

Ah, yes, the story: Captain America is the new leader of the Avengers, and he whines about all the paperwork, then he takes care of some mundane business (like a plan to give his black costume to John Walker, crazed former Cap and new appointee to the West Coast Avengers), then he -- get this -- goes to Sersei the Eternal so she can transform him into a fifteen-year-old boy which will allow him to go undercover and find out what's happening to all the missing kids in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, Battlestar, former sidekick of the insane John Walker Cap, tries to hook up with another black superhero -- The Falcon -- and gets caught up in a Serpent Society battle.

Whew.

That's a lot of stuff for one issue. When Steve Rogers transforms into a teenager and gets abducted by a bunch of weird hippies, it's like that "Fall Guy" episode that you probably never saw. And, man, did Gruenwald love his Serpent Society or what? I dare you to paste all your Gruenwald "Captain America" issues to a wall and throw a dart without hitting an issue featuring a bunch of snake-related villains. It's impossible, I say!

Key scene or bit of dialogue: Young Cap ponders silently, "why are they kidnapping this busload of teens?" Unsurprisingly, he senses the Red Skull's involvement.

The issue shows us a Captain America willing to have a sexy goddess transform him into a teenager just so he can find out about some hippy commune cult thing; it shows that superhero comics are stupid, just stupid, and pretty ugly, and involve a lot of villains who name themselves after snakes, even goofy ones like "Puff Adder"; it shows that comics are about heroes who like to punch stuff or take unnecessary risks just to get information. Also, did I mention their inherent stupidity? That's the snapshot of 1989.

Faustus the Fascist

July 1979: "Captain America" #235 (Roger McKenzie/Sal Buscema)

This issue looks a whole lot better than the 1989 issue, even if it is that relatively bland Marvel house style of the Bronze Age with Sal Buscema on pencils. Buscema knows how to tell a dynamic story, though, even if he was overshadowed by his older brother John and the greatness of Jack Kirby. There's not much to this issue, with Daredevil and Captain America running around trying to stop Dr. Faustus and his fascist regime. The whole issue is basically one extended action sequence, with character shouting or running in nearly every panel.

There's a lot of fire and water here -- stuff explodes, then the fire gets put out with the help of a water tower or the ocean. It's all jump, boom, splash, run, jump, boom, splash until the final pages when Captain America jumps out of a plane piloted by the blind Daredevil and tries to leap onto an evil blimp. It's still better than the issue from 1989.

Key scene or bit of dialogue: Daredevil shouts, "Oh, my god! He's going to miss the dirigible!" I guarantee Daredevil has never uttered those words before or since.

The issue shows us a Captain America willing run, jump, and dodge explosions to stop fascism from infecting America; it shows that superhero comics are more dramatic than any soap opera episode ever, and more action-packed than a Michael Bay movie; it shows that comics are about repetition and movement and more repetition (and more movement). And dirigibles frighten Americans! That's the snapshot of 1979.

Lee and Buscema get Trippy

July 1969: "Captain America" #115 (Stan Lee/John Buscema)

Now this is how to do a Cosmic Cube story! I don't know if any pages of this comic make any sense, with a brown-haired Steve Rogers getting turned into Captain America and then the Red Skull acting like a five-year-old who just got his hands on the magic Monkey Paw and giant trippy amphibians attacking Captain America on what looks like the surface of John Carter's Mars. And a whole bunch of other images that make about as much sense -- and feel even weirder -- than Ivan Brandon's "Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape" series.

Big John Buscema makes the whole issue a visual treat of intense Silver Age madness even if the story is basically a Red-Skull-gone-amuk-with-reality-twisting-powers kind of thing. Rick Jones is in the Bucky costume -- which was the continuity of the time, and Sharon Carter plays a key role, but the issue ends with a classic cliffhanger: the Red Skull has swapped bodies with Steve Rogers! Duh duh duhhhhh!!!

Key scene or bit of dialogue: Red Skull shouts, "I alone am Captain America!" before pausing to comment, "…just as she will believe…as she now wakens." Uh, oh, Sharon Carter, hope you realize that this leering, crazy-eyed Cap isn't the real deal or you might end up shooting him in the face, multiple times. Oh, wait.

The issue shows us a Captain America written and drawn by people who wanted to appeal to the LSD-infected youth of the late 1960s, or maybe it just shows that the Red Skull likes his new Cosmic toy a whole lot; it shows that superhero comics are literally insane, and lots of fun, and don't have to make sense at all; it shows that comics are about nonsensical panel-to-panel continuity, but each image can be a wondrous thing; it shows that America had better be careful, because if you mess with reality, then you might end up in the body of your most hated Nazi enemy. That's the snapshot of 1969.

Each comic book clearly reflected the era in which it was written -- no surprise there -- but I was astonished to see how little this soldier hero actually fought everyday menaces. From Cosmic Cubes to anti-matter rays to goddesses who can change the age of a man, "Captain America" has been a series (or a series of series) about a character caught up in major sci-fi events. If these (basically randomly selected) issues are any indication of his past, Captain America -- Steve Rogers -- hasn't been a guy who fights on behalf of the little man. He's not the noble, working-class hero who defends the American way. He's a superhuman who protects the universe from reality-shifting evils. He's a Marvel Superman, punching Mxyzptlk every time he makes America a little but worse.

So maybe I don't know a thing about "Captain America" #600 or why you might read about it in the newspaper today. But I do know this: whatever the revelation, it will fit into Captain America's anything-goes universe. Because there's plenty of crazy stuff in these comics, and if you've read any of these issues, nothing should surprise you.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, captain america, ed brubaker, mark waid, stan lee

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