Saturday, August 15, 2009
Comics! Captain America Reborn!
In Marvel Comics, the resurrection of Captain America proceeds apace. The second Ed Brubaker/Bryan Hitch issue of the mini-series that will bring back the Star-Spangled Avenger is out, and it's got enough thought-provoking oddities to warrant a quick second comics-entry so soon after our last one. Because, as you all know, I thought the death of Captain America was a stupid plot-afterthought to the overall poorly-conceived 'Civil War' storyline, I'm naturally interested in seeing it fixed. Cap is Marvel's third-oldest continuing character (70 years still seems impossible to believe), and he's also their third most-recognizable character (after Spider-Man and Wolverine) - his absence from the Marvel Universe is the black hole at the center of so many of the problems confronting Marvel's continuity right now, that a well-done resurrection tale could undo a lot of bad karma.
And I do so love a well-done resurrection tale! Comic books are rife with them, of course, and some are done much better than others. The dumbest, sloppiest, most protracted and lackluster of such resurrections was sure Marvel's revival of Captain America's WWII sidekick Bucky (who was good and properly dead for so long that the fact had become axiomatic in the comics world - "nobody dies, but Bucky"), who's returned as some sort of half-cyborg cold warrior named, appropriately enough, Winter Soldier. After the death of Captain America, Winter Soldier donned his uniform and his famous shield - to give solace to a grieving country, and all that. Naturally, he features prominently in the story Brubaker and company have to tell here.
That story is almost as old as the character of Cap itself. A key thing to remember about the Marvel Universe is that everybody in it has already had to deal with the death of Captain America once before: at the end of WWII, Cap and Bucky were lost and presumed killed in an explosion - the world didn't know that the super-soldier serum flowing through Cap's body preserved his life and put him in suspended animation, from which the Sub-Mariner and the Avengers accidentally revived him decades after the world thought him lost. So a second return from the dead isn't really pushing things for the character, provided it's handled well (note to the Marvel bullpen: kindly don't kill this character off again).
This particular resurrection story is, so far, being handled well. Brubaker is capable of some taut plotting, and he's settled on a classic mechanism of rebirth for his character: that old standby, the time-travel story. The two issues of "Captain America Reborn" that have appeared so far (the first one with a nifty cover, the second with a crap-assy cover)(which makes the third anybody's guess) have two parallel plots: the efforts of the new Bucky/Captain America and his allies to infiltrate the lair of the government bad guys they suspect had a hand in killing the 'real' Cap, and the 'real' Cap narrating long vignettes from his life - which he's mysteriously re-living from beyond the grave. In this issue, he wonders what's going on - he's inside his own memories, unable to alter them but not simply re-experiencing them; he's thinking for himself, about himself, as the reels of his life unspool.
But is it his life? This second issue opens with a scene from 1944, where Cap and a bunch of grunts are storming a fortress somewhere in Europe. The grunts are under heavy fire, and Cap is there to save the day - and also to fight the Nazi super-villain Master Man, which he does in one beautifully drawn and choreographed fight-sequence of some six or seven panels. If some of you are thinking that's a bit quick, you're not alone - I thought the same thing. Master Man, after all, is an invulnerable super-villain strong enough to take on the whole of Captain America's WWII super-team the Invaders, including the Human Torch and the aforementioned Sub-Mariner. In the current Marvel continuity, Captain America could no more take on Master Man alone - and beat him - than he could beat the Hulk without help. So let's go to the tape, shall we?
Cap launches himself up at the descending Master Man, slams him against the fortress wall, plants his boots against his enemy, spring-boards backwards, and lets the two of them plummet to the ground, with Master Man absorbing the impact and Cap pile-driving down right on top of him, leaving Master Man unconscious. Boom. Fight over. But in current Marvel continuity, Cap couldn't make such a catapulting leap, and Master Man could easily shrug off such an impact. So what's going on?
The narrative shifts to Bucky/Captain America getting his ass kicked by the bad guys, and when it shifts back to the 'real' Cap, we're seeing a scene very familiar to comics fans: skinny little Steve Rogers volunteering to be experimented upon by kindly, brilliant Professor Erskine, in an attempt to create the world's greatest super-soldier. Steve drinks the super-soldier serum, undergoes the radiation-bath, and quintuples in body-mass, suddenly bristling with muscles. And as all fans know, that's when tragedy strikes: a Nazi saboteur lurking in the watching crowd shoots and kills Erskine, thereby insuring that Steve Rogers will be the only person to receive that precise super-soldier treatment. And in the instant of Erskine's death, an enraged Steve Rogers smashes through the plate glass and hurls the Nazi to his death against the energy-combines in Erskine's lab.
Except in this version, this 'memory' our narrating Cap is re-living, he doesn't just kill the Nazi saboteur - he leaps up forty feet to do it. Even spurred by grief and rage, the Captain America of the current Marvel continuity could no more do that than he could flap his wings and fly to the moon.
But there is a Captain America who can do these kinds of things. He's the Captain America from the 'Ultimate' universe Marvel created some years ago in order to tell more updated, bad-ass versions of the origins of some of their oldest characters. As I've mentioned here before, the Captain America who debuted in Ultimates was in many ways a preferable version of the character: more of a soldier, and much, much more than a superb athlete dressed in a flag - that Cap was a genuine super-being, indefinably tougher, stronger, and faster than even a perfectly-conditioned normal man. The Ultimates Captain America very probably could defeat Master Man in six panels (if memory serves, he defeated the Hulk in about the same amount of space, albeit temporarily), and he could certainly clear forty feet in a rage-fueled leap.
So I'm starting to wonder.
I'm starting to wonder if Marvel hasn't given Brubaker and company permission to tweak their Star-Spangled property just a bit. I'm wondering if one of the most successful and well-conceived creations of the 'Ultimates' universe is simply being moved over to normal Marvel continuity.
In short, I think the Cap I've been reading for lo, these many decades really is dead and gone. So ... long live Captain America?