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Trouble with Comics, Recappin' America

Recappin’ America

It’s been a busy 70th anniversary for Steve Rogers, the once and future Captain America. Between his titular series, every Avengers book, and the new Fear Itself, there’s not a week that goes by where once doesn’t see the star-jumpsuited soldier judging, counseling or beating someone for the good of Earth or the U S of A.

Captain America: Allies and Enemies

Writers - Rob Williams, Kathryn Immonen, William Harms, Kieron Gillen, Kelly Sue Deconnick

Artists - Rebekah Isaacs, Ramon Perez, Declan Shalvey, Renato Arlem, Greg Tocchini

I’m referring to the hardcover collection coming out May 18th, but these were the five Captain America and… one-shots Marvel published the past couple months. There’s no strong theme uniting them other than whoever is in the title besides Cap is actually the star of the book. This is especially true with Captain America and the Falcon, which wastes several pages on the tail-end of an Avengers/Lethal Legion fight just to get Cap in the book. The rest is Falcon, Sam Wilson, going back to Harlem to try to help one of his old prostitutes from his pimp days get her son out of the gang life and back into a promising college football career. It’s a shame that no one can write a Sam Wilson story that isn’t about his criminal past or his feelings of being overshadowed by Captain America, but this one isn’t too bad. At least it doesn’t have the expected happy ending, though again, it might have been better with more space devoted to Sam’s story rather than the labored Avengers stuff, especially if Williams could have used that time to flesh out the complexity’s of the mother character, who’s concerned but mercenary at the same time. I also liked how the little bit about the redwing falcon’s resilience in NYC mirrored The Falcon’s. 

Captain America and the First Thirteen fleshes out a little of the Cap/Peggy Carter romance during a mission she’s leading for the French Resistance. It’s fast-paced and nicely wistful at the end, but while it features Cap more prominently than the other one-shots, that ends up being a negative. Immonen writes him as a violent, gung-ho horndog unlike most of the takes we’ve seen of the character over the past six decades. It’s a shame, because she can be a witty writer and some of that is present in how the other characters are written here, but it’s almost like she has an axe to grind here. It seems like where others have written of Peggy as Steve Rogers’ first love, for Immonen she’s just this nervy chick he liked to fuck during the War, until he didn’t. It really wasn’t necessary to tear Cap down to make Peggy and her female Resistance friend look better.

Captain America and Crossbones by Harms/Shalvey is the best of the lot, a dark espionage mission for the unrepentant killer Crossbones involving trying to clean up a government virus experiment gone awry on a small Balkan island. Shalvey captures a Crossbones who’s badass but thoroughly human in proportion, Harms making him an almost completely bad egg with just a glimmer of compassion that expresses itself in a darkly comic ending. Add Captain America and Batroc, an amusing and surprisingly effective character piece by Gillen and Arlem on the type a man a villain would have to be to keep going up against Captain America with no hope of success, and you’ve got the only two essential one-shots of the five. 

Captain America and The Secret Avengers is the weakest effort, so it’s too bad it’s the last one. It feels a lot like an old Solo Avengers story of some inventory piece for Marvel Fanfare or Marvel Comics Presents, so it’s kind of funny that the one-shot is padded with an old MCP story starring Black Widow and Silver Sable, with art by a young, not-as-bad Rob Liefeld (others have featured Lee/Kirby Cap stories). Greg Tocchini handles the art, and it’s kind of like the series of interlocking covers he did for all the one-shots in that there are some nice moments between some very awkward poses and ugly faces (the women on the covers look stoned to the gills). Deconnick comes up with a serviceable reason to get Black Widow and Agent 13 together on a mission: to save young Russian agent Tatiana from taking revenge on a corrupt girls finishing school that’s really a front for assassin training for various dictators and warlords, called L.A.S.S.E.S. (don’t ask). It struck me during the leader, Lady Ashley’s (that’s the L and A in the name, since you went ahead and asked), speech to the gathered bad dudes at the fundraiser, that Deconnick is willing at any opportunity to sacrifice logic and plausibility for jokes and would-be bright lines. Lady Ashley praises the throng for being, among other things, “soulless,” but as anyone who watches the news can see, every Mubarak and Ghadafi can rationalize their bloody acts as being for the ultimate good of their people. Perhaps unintentionally, this one-shot bookends the Falcon one and they’re both about trying to help a young person from making a terrible mistake with dire consequences, but here Deconnick does go for the pat ending after a suspense-free climax. The lasting memory of this one is the running joke about Sharon Carter being called Natasha’s mom. If you think about it too much, the real joke is why anyone thinks former Avenger Natasha can still do undercover work.

Secret Avengers #11

Writer - Ed Brubaker. Artist - Will Conrad 

"Absolutely not, Gary!" It’s not enough that Brubaker brought Bucky back from the dead in an arc that made him a brainwashed Russian assassin to the newest Captain America, as well as getting Steve Rogers to hang up the shield and start a team of black ops Avengers, but to finally introduce a character into the Marvel Universe named Gary, never mind one who gets Hank McCoy pissed about something non-mutanty, is really something. Bravo, Bru. In the non-MU, most of us don’t know a lot of John Steeles and Natashas and Hanks (and I’ve had a longstanding rule never to trust anyone named Steve that’s 99% effective). But we all know a Gary, and he’s often a stout, stammering fellow like this one. Whether he’s also a scientist with technology that can show a subject’s memories on a monitor with non-POV camera angles is irrelevant.

As far as the other, Garyless stuff in the issue, it’s the first of a two-parter that will wrap up Brubaker’s uneven run on the series. It’s mainly a WWII flashback story with Cap and Steele against not just Nazis but kinda-sorta zombies and maybe even a Lovecraftian tentacled monster, so there’s that. Conrad’s art is fine but unexceptional, and is in keeping with the general stylistic range of past Cap/SA artists like Deodato, Epting, Perkins et al. 

What’s more interesting about this issue is that it really doesn’t fit the general remit of Secret Avengers, and counting next issue and #6, that’s 25% of the series thus far that’s not really about black ops, Defendery team book adventures. It kind of felt from early on that Brubaker’s heart wasn’t really into the concept of the book, and it didn’t seem like he had any real plans in mind for the team members like Ant-Man, Beast or Valkyrie who aren’t currently being served in their own or others’ books the way Rogers, Black Widow and Agent 13 still pretty much are in Captain America, and I think Moon Knight still has a series, right? I think it’s notable that Nova and Shang-Chi amounted to little more than guest stars, and both were there to serve stories about secret societies, a recurring theme of Brubaker’s. Another recurring theme is reclamation projects and redeeming the damaged or brainwashed (Bucky, Sharon, the ’50s Cap, Zack Overkill from Incognito), with the latest project being John Steele. Brubaker explores these themes well, don’t get me wrong; I just think it’s interesting how a creator’s prime directive will take over despite the purported premise of the book. Which leads me to…

Captain America #616

Writers - Ed Brubaker, Cullen Bunn, Frank Tieri, Howard Chaykin, Mike Benson

Artists - Mike Deodato, Ed McGuinness, Jason Latour, Howard Chaykin, Paul Grist, Travis Charest, Paul Azaceta

It’s the 70th Anniversary issue, clocking in at over 90 pages of comics. Don’t get too excited by seeing Charest’s name there, as he just does a one-page distillation of the basic Cap origin/rebirth for Brubaker, but it looks good. Late greats Jim Aparo and Curt Swan have a couple late career Cap commission pieces in here as well. A big chunk of the book is by Brubaker, though. First is the beginning of “Gulag,” a story taking Bucky to a Russian prison for crimes committed while he was the Winter Soldier and for which he was already tried and convicted in absentia. We’ve already seen Bucky in jail in “The Trial of Captain America,” and prison stories are another recurring motif for Brubaker, but this begins ably enough. Although Steve Rogers’ position in the current administration could ensure better treatment of Bucky by the Russians, that wouldn’t be as dramatic as having him face a former Crimson Dynamo who wants to kill him, or having him battle Ursa Major, possibly to the death, would it? Deodato puts in more effort into rendering an angry bear-man than anyone has a right to expect. 

Brubaker accomplishes a couple things in the next story, first taking us through Steve Rogers’ feelings of frustration at not being able to help Bucky at this time, and also setting up the coming Captain America and Bucky series he’s going to write with Marc Andreyko, as the story is largely a flashback Invaders adventure that gives McGuinness a chance to draw some classic Golden Age characters. Some have said it shows that McGuinness is capable of drawing with less bombast, but to me, a story with the Invaders and the Red Skull could have used more of it. Not bad, though, and it will be interesting to see Brubaker explore moral ambiguity and secret societies during the Greatest Generation/Four Color Comics era. 

The rest of the stories are all about Steve Rogers’ Cap during various times, by various creators, most of whom have little experience with writing or drawing him. The Bunn/Latour “Spin” is an interesting story about a farming town so devastated by the economy that they agree to let AIM set up underground weapons facilities there, while Howard Chaykin uses a fanciful premise of a Norman Rockwell painting of Cap and a young woman as the backdrop for a nice story of romance lost, times passed, and oh yeah, there’s Nazis. 

There’s a goofy WWII Baron Blood/Invaders story where Cap briefly becomes a vampire. It’s funny that Grist does the art, because he already covered so much of this material in his own Jack Staff, which is basically his own Union Jack, who has a nemesis very similar to Baron Blood. It’s nice to see him go right to the source here, but Jack Staff is much better.

I wouldn’t call the Tieri/Azaceta story the worst piece here, as the art is nice, and the Union Jack tale never gets going at all, but it does still leave kind of a bad taste. The idea is that there have been several clones made of Hitler over the years, and almost all have been tracked down and destroyed, but Steve Rogers finds one right in Manhattan, an art gallery curator and artist named Edmund Heidler, who apparently doesn’t know who he really is. Tieri has Sharon Carter, a seasoned spy who has seen many weird things and many good people committing horrible acts (like Winter Soldier), go nuts at this news and want to turn the car around and do some sort of drive-by on Heidler, forcing Steve to practically punch her to get her to cut it out. Tieri’s idea is not a bad one, that Heidler is innocent because he has none of Hitler’s memories and is not himself guilty of any crimes. But the execution stinks, with a risible shock ending where Heidler can’t help this urge to paint the swastika into everything, including a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. He’s also named his cat Eva. Oy vey.

Christopher Allen

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