Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Back Issues: Captain America!

On the eve of Marvel Comics finally resurrecting Captain America (who they killed off at the climax of their hugely disappointing "Civil War" event), it's natural to look at the character's storied past. Remembering the times when the character has been written and drawn really well comes as a comfort, especially since we don't yet know how Marvel will screw up the character's return. We know they will screw it up - this is Marvel we're talking about, after all - but we don't yet know how. Will the returned Cap be a Wolverine-style sourpussed killer? Will he have superpowers? Will he be radically altered, philosophically?

We'll know shortly, and in the meantime, I've been enjoying some back issues. Not as many as you'd think - this character virtually invites dumb handling, and most writers haven't resisted the temptation to make him a simpleton.

For two issues during the short run of the Cap spin-off title Sentinel of Liberty, Mark Waid amply resisted that temptation in a nifty little tale I love to re-read. The fact that it's drawn by Ron Garney, one of the best draftsmen working in comics today, just makes it all that much sweeter.

The story begins right after Captain America has been rescued by the Avengers from ice-bound suspended animation. Iron Man has taken him to Brooklyn in a well-intentioned attempt to make him feel a little less displaced - but their first stop is the spot where Ebbets Field used to be, so Cap - a diehard Dodgers fan in his youth back in the 1940s - isn't exactly filled with reassurances. And the crowd of spectators don't help - Cap is chewed out by one old guy who tells him he ought to be ashamed of himself for pretending to be Captain America.

The two issues are narrated by Iron Man, and Waid captures his wry conceitedness perfectly as he himself wonders if Cap can ever really belong in the present day:

I'm sure Cap was capable in his day .. but we asked him to resume his costumed-acrobat act as if nothing has changed in his absence! Poor guy must feel like a caveman! America's become a lot more complicated - and dangerous - since he left. How can anyone expect him to be on his toes in a world so far advanced from the one he calls home?

These worries are immediately tested - giant robots with mind-dominating eye-beams show up and start enslaving passersby. Cap and Iron Man spring into action, with Iron Man offering maddeningly condescending advice that's meant to be helpful: "Cap! Stay back and protect the civilians! Let me handle these bruisers!"

And he does just that - until one of them crushes one of his jet-boots and hurls him straight at an oncoming bus crowded with people.

Iron Man can't recover his balance in time to avoid totalling the bus, and here Garney's genius is on full display: we see Iron Man flying toward the bus, we see the panicked passengers and driver - and then flashing across the page we see Captain America's shield, thrown with perfect timing to be between Iron Man and the front of the bus at the moment of impact (Capt's shield is composed of a unique alloy of adamantium and vibranium - so it's not only indestructible, it absorbs and repulses impacts).

It's a thrilling little sequence, as Iron Man bounces off the shield and lands in a heap. "Cap?" he asks, and Cap says, "the civilians are okay" - zing! Iron Man asks "Was that sarcasm?" and then rips into one of the robots.

And promptly gets mind-controlled! And the robots' first command: destroy Captain America! That's how the first chapter ends.

The second chapter continues Iron Man's narration with the great line "Looking back, it's a miracle he didn't mop the city with me." This can't help but put a smile on the face of comics geeks, because it reaffirms the special status Captain America has in the Marvel Universe, a status exactly paralleled by Batman in the DC Universe: he's a first-rank heavyweight despite having no superpowers. It's a tricky role, and lots of writers fail to convey it. But Waid gets it perfect in this little story, set up by Iron Man's bemused recollection of how badly he underestimated his adversary:

I remember thinking, even in my haze, that Cap didn't stand a chance against me. The Brooklyn battlefield he remembered was decades gone. He'd been in our time less than forty-eight hours - not nearly long enough to acclimate to his new world. In desperation, he bounded towards the vacant lots he remembered from his youth - only to find himself instead in the middle of a superhighway! Even with one bootjet crippled by the robots, I figured I was more than a match for a disoriented acrobat wrapped in a flag. Despite my muddled mind, I almost felt sorry for him.

And then the punchline: "What a waste of perfectly good brain cells."

Cap proceeds to use wits, agility, and some handy construction equipment to cut Iron Man down to size, and when the giant robots try to hypnotize Cap himself, their efforts fail - his willpower apparently being significantly stronger than that of skirt-chasing, martini-swilling Iron Man. The robots are defeated in short order, and Iron Man discovers a new respect for the man he considered a relic from the past. It's a neat little story, nothing epic, perfectly capturing one moment in these characters' relationship with each other.

I wanted lots and lots of such moments in "Civil War" and didn't get them (well, didn't get many of them - there were a couple), and gawd only knows what moments - perfect or very, very much otherwise - will crop up in "Captain America - Reborn." Still, because the potential is there, I'll be sure to investigate.


Kevin said...

When Captain America throws his mighty shield, all those who oppose his mighty shield must yield...

I'm a Dematteis/Zeck man myself (tho you really have to love Gruenwald's run). Looks like Waid has Cap down as well - which is hardly surprising (crappy legion work notwithstanding).

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