Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mark Gruenwald Year Two (Captain America 319-331)

Having dropped Steve Rogers and his supporting cast from the book, writer Mark Gruenwald used his second year writing the comic to depict Cap crossing America in a custom van, determined to be a hero for all of America, not just the New York City area. The writing gradually improved on the book, and by the end of the second year I no longer had to force myself to read it, even if I wasn't thrilled with the choice of direction.

Cap got a huge check from the government as back pay for the decades he spent in suspended animation after World War II. He used the money to set up a nationwide hotline so that people would be able to get in touch with him, and allied with a bunch of teen computer geeks who help filter his calls and help him get information he needs. He defeated the Scourge, who was killing minor Marvel villains (or did he?) and took on some uninteresting villains like Flag-Smasher and Super-Patriot. Unable to defeat the latter (a gloryhog jerk who tried to discredit Cap by sending folks with Cap's mask on to rough up foreigners), Cap went in search of how Super-Patriot got his powers, and ended up taking on a guy called the Power Broker (cute). The Power Broker is a nasty businessman who's been empowering everyone from heroes like Ms. Marvel to "Unlimited Class" pro-wrestlers like Demolition Man. Cap teams with Demolition Man to take down the Power Broker, but it seems the Power Broker may have been in bed with the US military via something called Project Augment. An army Lieutenant named Lynch sent an enhanced soldier called G.I.Max after Cap, but then accidentally shot Max (smooth). Meanwhile, an IRS auditor questioned that big fat check Steven Rogers reported on his taxes, and discovered Rogers was Captain America. When he reported it to his superiors they began to have second thoughts about giving Cap all that money...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Captain America 321-322 (Cap's Delicate Sensibilities and Code Against Killing)

Captain America is a soldier, not Dudley Do-Right. It's kind of annoying reading him wringing his hands over having to use deception and violence to rescue some hostages. No wonder comics readers of the era found Wolverine a breath of fresh air.

Gruenwald handled this better in later issues, but issue 322 introduces this:

What? Cap spent all his time on the front lines in World War II knocking people out and tying them up? I guess that makes him way more moral than those regular soldiers, who actually killed the enemy to win the war.

In fairness, this craziness may have originated with Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, who had a strict "heroes don't kill" code. And Gruenwald actually does get away with letting Cap kill somebody in issue 321, when Cap has no choice but to shoot a terrorist who has opened fire on a crowd of defenseless hostages.

Still, a super-soldier who fought on the frontlines against the Nazis but never killed is a pretty weird notion. Brubaker mercifully wrote this out of continuity when he took over the book several years ago.

[Postscript] Here's Marvel's explanation of Cap's WWII career, from the letter's page of Captain America 327:

Neither Cap nor the Invaders ever carried guns behind enemy lines during the War. They were never actively engaged in combat with the Axis militia, but concentrated their efforts against Nazi super-agents and their leaders. All this is to say that Captain America never sought to kill anyone on the battlefield. It probably happened that soldiers who shot at Cap were hit by their own ricocheting bullets, but that's not the same as Cap shooting someone. We can't deny that Cap was at the center of a lot of bloodshed during the Big One, but he himself never shed another man's blood. The Ultimatum incident in CAP #321 was the first time Cap intentionally took someone's life.

[Postscript 2] In the letter's page of Captain America 328, Marvel backs down very slightly, by offering a vaguer response:

...we do not deny that enemy soldiers died because of Cap's actions. Still, Cap never regularly carried a gun, not was his mission to kill as many of the enemy as he could. His mission was to "destroy the enemies of liberty," which are the concepts of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism, not the individuals who espouse them. True, you cannot attack abstractions-- you can only attack the individuals who act in accordance with them. But its an important distinction. Further to the point, soldiers at war play by different rules than civilians at peace and Cap has had years to make peace with himself about his wartime actions. We're not saying that Cap is or ever was a pacifist, but he does have a profound respect for human life. It is a respect that has grown as he has matured, and includes respect for the lives of his individual enemies. Killing an enemy is always Cap's last resort, and every death he's ever been responsible for has taken its toll on his inner peace.

[Postscript 3]  A more detailed critique of the way Marvel handled the storyline where Cap killed a terrorist, and the events that followed, from the letter's page of Captain America #329:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Mark Gruenwald Year One (Captain America 307-318)

I've just finished the first year of Mark Gruenwald's ten year run as Captain America writer, and I'm remembering why I stopped reading the book at this point. It's not bad. But the writing and art are both kind of flat.

Mark doesn't seem too interested in the Steve Roger's side of Cap's life, and over the course of the first year he dismantles all of it. His fiancée Bernie leaves the state to go to law school. He moves out of his apartment, and sets up shop at Avengers mansion again. Gruenwald is strictly interested in superheroics here, and he tries to keep things light. Unfortunately, he writes Cap like one of those lantern-jawed two-dimensional heroes in a 1950s DC comic. He thoughts tend to be along the line of  "Wonder what possesses a guy like Blue Streak to squander his great athletic ability on crime? Such a waste of potential." Patriotic shouldn't be a synonym for dumb or naive.

The recurring villains in the first year are a new incarnation of the Serpent Squad. They're bad guys for hire with snake motif costumes and powers. They're run something like a business, with no agenda besides making a buck. And... um... they're not that interesting.

Also, there's an ongoing mystery about somebody killing third-rate villains.

I kind of find myself wanting to skip ahead to the Mark Waid era. A lot of people speak fondly of the Gruenwald era though, so maybe it improves. I know in year three there's a story about Steve Rogers being "fired" and replaced as Captain America. That doesn't really sound that interesting (I never really bought that anybody had the authority to do that) but who knows?