Welcome to the third installment of my new, almost-monthly feature: BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS, where I take a close look at the issue of a comic book series that was released immediately before a now-famous run.
In episode one, I tackled the Marty Pasko, pre-Alan Moore opus, "The Saga of the Swamp Thing" #19.
In episode two, I took a gander at Roy Thomas's last stand with Marvel's favorite mutants in "X-Men" #66.
But those comics are from the olden days, when paper was newsprint, comics were still sold on corner store spinner racks and no one was able to complain online about how doomed the industry was.
This time, I'm going to dig into something more recent, from the mid-Quesada era of Marvel, with the issue that preceded Ed Brubaker's highly-regarded seven-and-a-half-years-and-counting run on "Captain America." This week, we're looking at "Captain America" #32, written by Robert Kirkman and drawn by Scot Eaton. The final issue of "Captain America: Disassembled." The issue that closed out a problematic 32-issue series before relaunching, a month later, with gaudy Frank D'Armata and an espionage-heavy tone from Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting.
A disclaimer, of sorts: Brubaker's "Captain America" run, for a time, was considered one of the premier serialized comics on the stands. It was certainly a more unified whole, in its first year, than the previous series had ever been. And as it led up to Captain America's "death" in April 2007's "Captain America" #25, the series continued to improve before, shockingly, becoming even better when Steve Rogers was gone and Bucky Barnes stepped, uncertainly, into the role as the shield-sporting sentinel of liberty. Though Brubaker's run has seem distinctly less-inspired in the years since Steve Rogers's return, the whole of Brubaker's Cap (and now his "Winter Soldier" work) has been of a relatively high quality. It's been sustained, and consistent, for so long that it will surely be regarded as the defining run on the character since Jack Kirby's classic Silver Age contributions.
So let's look at what immediately preceded Brubaker's first issue -- and what went wrong enough to lead to disassembling and a full relaunch for Marvel's super soldier.
Clearly, Robert Kirkman isn't to blame for the failure that was "Captain America" volume 4. Launched out of the trauma of the still-smoldering wreckage of the great tragedy of September 11th the year before, 2002's relaunch of "Captain America" was, as you maybe don't remember, a Marvel Knights comic, which means that it was supposed to be grittier, more realistic. With Jon Ney Reiber scripting and John Cassaday drawing, it was a Tea Party campaign video in comic book form, ponderous yet incensed, with a clear agenda: Captain America was NOT going to let terrorists attack his homeland. He was going to hunt them down and punch them up.
Because it was a Reiber/Cassady joint instead of a Frank Miller diatribe, it was presented in faux-poetic fashion, but the sentiment was not dissimilar from what would later become "Holy Terror." It was just a much, much, much tamer version, and reading the Marvel Knights "Captain America" at the time of release -- and I can't have been alone in thinking this -- I couldn't help but realize that, ouch, it was an almost complete misfire.
A creative team with a strong track record, and a character who couldn't help but be involved in symbolic revenge against the terrorist threat, but it just didn't work. The opening arc took a grueling, laboriously-paced, hyper-decompressed six issues to get to the point where Captain America punched the head terrorist and then crawled out of the Trade Center wreckage while "serious" and "important" and "too trite for 'Reader's Digest'"-clipped slogans filled the caption boxes: "They'll always be with us." "The Ghengis Khans. The Caligulas. The Hitlers." "The Monsters." "With their blood hunger and their murderous toys…" "And their lies." "But we can stem the tide of blood. Defy the shadow." "Defend the dream." "We the people--" "We all have the freedom and the power to fight--" "For peace."
It's like listening to Mark Wahlberg deliver a monologue written by Charlton Heston while doing an impression of Marlon Brando.
Launching a "Captain America" series like that -- painfully -- didn't bode well for its success. And then things got worse. More interesting, sure, but less coherent.
John Ney Reiber stuck around for a few issues, and told another story about different terrorists. But before finishing his second arc, Chuck Austen took over and finished up that story only to lead into another where we learn that Captain America was intentionally frozen in a block of ice back in WWII because he would have tried to stop the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But then that turned out to be a lie. Or was it?
But before any lingering questions could be addressed, here's a new, alternate-reality nazi-fighting story from Dave Gibbons and Lee Weeks, and then Robert Morales and Chris Bachalo bring in some political satire and maybe set up Captain America to run for office, but Marvel puts the kibosh on that so there's this time-travel story about preventing the World Trade Center attacks and then…the World Trade Center is saved? Or maybe that's an alternate reality? Artist Eddie Campbell explained how all that came to be on his blog a few years back, but it still doesn't make sense out of the story as published.
That's the stage that was set by the time Robert Kirkman came onto "Captain America" with issue #29, dated September 2004, complete with a shift from Marvel Knights over to Marvel proper and the "Disassembled" tag on the cover to tie into whatever Brian Michael Bendis was in the process of blowing up over in the "Avengers."
As a reader of "Captain America" at the time -- and yes, I stuck with it all the way through terrible arc after terrible arc (always with the eternal glimmer of hope and delusional rationalizations that go with being a superhero comic book addict) -- I was glad to see Kirkman join the series. It promised some kind of retro-crazy action. It promised…something.
But he was always just a fill-in writer, biding time for four issues before Brubaker could come in with a comprehensive relaunch.
Kirkman's story is basically: Captain America vs. the Red Skull, with some twists and turns along the way. He was channeling Gruenwald-era "Captain America" comics, complete with Diamondback as an untrustworthy sidekick/love interest.
Brubaker's relaunch would channel more of a Steve Englehart vibe, filtered through his own crime-and-espionage sensibilities. But for Kirkman, it was wall-to-wall Gruenwaldisms. The Red Skull even wore bulky battle armor.
We're supposed to talk about "Captain America" #32, but all of this other stuff is the context for that one issue, and, frankly, the context is more interesting than the issue itself. Scot Eaton, inked by Drew Geraci, draws bulky figures smashing through walls and into each other. Kirkman brings a late-1980s/early-1990s sensibility to the script, and that's echoed in the art. After issues of Cassaday and Jae Lee and Chris Bachalo and Eddie Campbell, Eaton's version of the Marvel house style is weirdly comforting but also disappointing. Perhaps the goodwill engendered by the bold Dave Johnson covers carry into the interior pages a bit. Maybe that's what happens when you read it issue by issue.
The plot of "Captain America" #32 is structured as one extended fight scene, with Cap vs. the Red Skull, while the dead Diamondback (murdered by the Red Skull because Captain America was in love with her) lays on the floor. That's the first 18 pages of the issue: the punching and smashing and the walls crumbing down. Somewhere near the end of the fight, Diamondback wakes up and starts strangling the Red Skull, only she's all metallic-looking and deranged.
Then, the issue stops. The lights come up, and instead of Robert Kirkman and Scot Eaton (or Joe Quesada) appearing on page to say, "Thanks for sticking with us as we clearly didn't know what to do with this series, see you next month when Ed Brubaker comes in to actually make this series worth buying once again," we get Nick Fury and company laying down the truth.
It turns out that this whole story arc has been a set-up, and the mission Captain America thought he was on was actually the ruse of a guy named Mark Nolan (now in shackles, all of a sudden), who used holographics and S.H.I.E.LD. tech to plot the demise of that very organization. Red Skull's super-armor was stolen S.H.I.E.LD. tech too. And Nolan's big plan was something to do with using Captain America to do something or other and blah blah blah. It doesn't matter. Even Nick Fury obviously gets sick of bothering to explain it all. The story's done. The series has come to an end.
And Diamondback, the one Captain America was romancing in the story arc? The one he thought dead, before she came back to life somehow? A Life Model Decoy.
Nick Fury points out that the real Diamondback has been hanging out with his S.H.I.E.L.D. folks, recovering during the entire adventure. Cap's love interest was a robot version.
So how does this series end? What are Captain America's final words, to put an exclamation point on Robert Kirkman's brief story arc after years of failed attempts to make Captain America relevant in the post-9/11 world?
The real Diamondback says, to Cap, "We've got a lot of catching up to do, and my place is shot. How does your place sound?"
"Heh," says Captain America, "My place is missing a wall or two at the moment." Pause for new panel. "Maybe we should just get a room."
"My, my, Captain. How forward of you."
Sexual innuendo with a former supervillain who Captain America thought he was in love with, but it turned out to just be her robot duplicate and now he has a chance to hook up with the real lady?
Any doubts about why Brubaker's relaunch is considered a high-water mark for the "Captain America" franchise should now be put to rest, by comparison.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.