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Captain America

Through a vacuum of actual news to report, and shrewd marketing on the part of Marvel comics, Captain America hit the headlines a couple of months ago when his high profile assassination provided a bitter coda to the 'Civil War' comics mega event. The hype and hyperbole around the significance and monetary value of the issue in question vastly overshadowed whether the story was actually any good, which is a shame. He's a character that I've sporadically looked in on over the last 12 years, and I decided now would be a good time to review the various Captain America runs in my collection.

Cap, aka Steve Rogers, stands apart from the other Marvel heroes for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is that he is intrinsically a bit ridiculous. One of the few Marvel properties not originally created by Stan Lee, Rogers lacks the core of humanistic realism Lee pioneered in the '60s. Relative to his stablemates like Peter Parker and Matt Murdock, he spends very little time out of his costume, he doesn't have any supporting cast members who are not themselves superheroes or secret agents, and his outfit makes him look like a fluorescent Lucha Libre on steroids. Crucially, Steve Rogers has not underwent any significant development since his re-emergence in the 60's; he is still pretty much the same character as when he was fished out the Arctic waters by the fledgling Avengers over forty years ago. I've found these comics to be a real guilty pleasure though; I'm not American, but I find the patriotism he exudes to be bizarrely infectious, the action quotient is higher than your average super-hero comic, and the threats are almost always on a global scale.

Longterm super-hero comics tend to go through specific cycles; resonances unique to the characters in question. Familiar ground is often revisited, repackaged or reinterpreted for the next generation of comics fans. And so it is that every 10 or so years Spider-man saves someone from falling off the Brooklyn bridge, Nick Fury fakes his own death, Daredevil falls in love with a dangerous schitzophrenic, The Fantastic Four split up, and Captain America gets himself killed. In fact, the earliest Captain America comic I bought was issue 444 (volume 1) from October 1995, the issue after Steve Rogers had died from a degenerative desease which had been destroying his cells throughout the previous year. He was dead for all of 21 pages, and when he came back the next issue, it heralded a resurgence in popularity against which he has been measured ever since.

Actually, the above statement is a bit of a lie, I did subsequently seek out an earlier comic, the 1991 retelling of Captain America's origin; a 4 issue prestige format miniseries called 'The Adventures of Captain America, Sentinel of Liberty'. To tell the truth, it's a bit of a miss-step. The idea of re-interpretting Steve Rogers' 1940 development from noodle armed weakling into US armed forces icon in the style of an old RKO adventure serial is great in theory, but the plotting here was too dragged out and slow to get moving. Kevin Maguire, one of my favourite super-hero artists was a bit miscast, as he played up the comedy of the character at the expense of the drama. In the end, it looked like even the editors lost interest, and the final chapter saw two completely unknown and decidedly ropey pencillers brought in to replace Maguire. At the end of the day, it's not really a story that needs to be retold, and I'd recommend much more highly the retelling of his second genesis in 'Earth's Mightiest Heroes'. This 8 issue miniseries from 2004 covers the events following the Avengers' discovery of the frozen Steve Rogers after 4 decades of hybernation, his subsequent defrosting and his struggles to adapt to the challenges of the present day. It's actually covering ground already told by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the first 17 issues of the original Avengers series from 1963 onwards, but it updates the retro sequences beautifully, and firmly establishes the Captain's position at the heart of the Marvel super-hero fraternity.

Anyway, the comics which first peaked my interest in Captain America were the ones following his aforementioned resurrection in 1995. The new creative team of writer Mark Waid and Artist Ron Garney effectively had a clean slate from which to begin, and they got off to a running start. The two story arcs which dominated their short tenure were Operation Rebirth (#445 - #448) and it's follow up Man Without a Country (#450 - #453). In these stories, writer Waid took the Captain well out of his comfort zone by separating him from his fellow Avengers, and forcing him to side with some of his deadliest enemies. Rogers was breathlessly propelled through spectacular globe-spanning adventures, which paired wild sci-fi concepts with the espionage and intrigue of the best James Bond movies. To compensate for the character's lack of exotic super-powers, Waid delighted in providing Cap with a series of increasingly impossible challenges to overcome, and showcasing Cap's trademark resolution and ingenuity to save the day. It's worth noting that the US President of the time, Bill Clinton, makes an extended cameo in 'Man Without a Country'. This doesn't really date the story so much as set it in the context of a time when the US Government and it's policies were not muddied by quite so much controversy as in recent years. Regardless, the main strength of the plots in these issues is their completeness and closure; it's unusual in super-hero comics, but both these adventures are relatively self contained tales which demand no prior knowledge, and which leave no loose ends unaddressed. In artist Ron Garney's own words, the stories "have a beginning, middle and ending". Perhaps because of this high accessibility, these issues were widely praised by comics fans of the time, and although they're currently out of print, it's well worth keeping an eye out for the collected volumes which Marvel will inevitably reissue at some point.

By 1997, Marvel were in a state of crisis, the bottom had fallen out the comic market and the company was at risk of becoming bankrupt. With this in mind, the entire central line of titles were relaunched from scratch, with some of the industry's hottest creators being tempted back to Marvel for their marquee value. For volume 2 of Captain America the baby was thrown out with the bathwater, as Waid and Garney, the title's most popular creators in years, were given the boot. The relaunch lasted around 12 months, at which point Waid and Garney made a triumphant comeback for volume 3.

Ron Garney is without a doubt my favourite Captain America artist; he eschewed realism to create dynamic and animated imagery, and his stylised designs maximise the potent iconography of the character. His year away from the Captain only seemed to focus his craft, and by the start of volume 3 Garney's storytelling was slicker and his linework crisper than ever. Mark Waid also wanted to make this second run distinct from the first, and the plot structure was certainly more ambitious than before. The story-arcs for the two years of comics which followed were less self contained, encorporating such 'American' themes as cult of celebrity, globalisation, war on terror (uncannily pre 9/11) and the role of the 'american dream', all whilst sub-plots foreshadowed the eventual return of the Red Skull. The sci-fi and fantasy concepts were even more outlandish, and Waid dug up some of the more obscure villains from Cap's past, adding colour to the plots, but also making the comic a little less accessible to newcomers in the process. Garney sadly left the series at issue 5, to be replaced by Andy Kubert, who struggled slightly with the more character based scenes, but who's action set-pieces literally exploded out of the page. Overall, these issues are a great fun read, particularly for those that can stomach the more off-the-wall elements of american super-heroics. I'd recommend hunting down the back-issues #1 - #22 (vol 3), which cover a period where Rogers, in a neat storytelling twist, loses his trademark shield at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Since the exploits of Captain America have always encorporated, albeit sometimes superficially, themes from US culture, it was inevitable that the events and fallout from the 9/11 attacks would influence the title's direction. In fact, it prompted an entire relaunch for the book, which restarted with #1 of volume 4 in June 2002, as part of the 'Marvel Knights' imprint. Here Cap joined a roster of grim and gritty anti-heroes like The Punisher and Daredevil. The haunting opening sequences of the first issue, inwhich Steve Rogers desperately tried to aid the recovery effort at the fallen Twin Towers set a tone of despair and hopelesness which pervaded the entire initial arc. Written by John Ney Reiber, and with art from John Cassaday, this story was a huge departure from the previous adventures. It captured the state of shock and mourning of the nation, even 7 months after the tragedy, as Captain America found himself struggling with his own feelings of anger and guilt, and as the mainland US became once again the target of a bloodthirsty terrorist assault. It's unrelenting stuff, and almost comes across as a screaming cathartic release on the part of the creators. To be completely honest, the plotting of the first issue in particular is so saturated with tragic lyricism that the developments of the storyline become a bit muddled. John Cassaday's art is breathtaking here though, his storytelling ranging from subtle to astonishing; this ultra-detailed line work is probably the best that Captain America is ever going to look. The arc was subsequently collected into a trade paperback under the title 'The New Deal'.

The two arcs which followed this attempted to continue the gritty tone, although they struggled to maintain a cohesive theme once the 9/11 storyline had run it's course. The new writer, Chuck Austin, ambitiously dovetailed into Reiber's work some subplots involving decades old conspiracies; a shocking revelation about the near-fatal encounter which took Roger's out of WWII and put him on ice for half a century. It was a pretty half-baked conceit, although given time to develop it could've led to some very interesting developments for the character. The editors may have gotten cold feet about the retrospective revisions to Cap's history though, and the storyline was abandoned abruptly. The title struggled to find a coherent direction for the next 2 years, going through 4 sets of writers and artists and switching tone wildly from escapist adventure to political realism, never with any particular success.

Cap's most recent reboot occured a little over 2 years ago, in November 2004, to coincide with the new status-quo following from Brian Bendis' Avengers Disassembled company-wide event. Here, writer Ed Brubaker with artists Steve Epting and Michael Lark took the character back to his globe-spanning, espionage inspired adventures. Several of the other better elements from Mark Waid's run were dusted off here, including the Red Skull, the Cosmic Cube, secret agent love interest Sharon Carter and the strong supporting role of S.H.E.I.L.D. Developments are kept to a moderately realistic level, and the result is an incredibly satisfying read, which has been deservedly compared to the unrelenting, nail biting adventures of Jack Bauer from tv show '24'. In case you didn't know already, the intitial arc, 'The Winter Soldier', revolved around the notion that Cap's WWII sidekick Bucky, long thought dead, had in fact been operating as a brain-washed half-bionic assassin for the Russkies throughout the entire Cold War (exactly the sort of retcon revision which was shyed away from only a couple of years earlier). Captain America doesn't actually face off against the Winter Soldier until #12, a whole year into the story. This sort of deliberate plotting bears all the hallmarks of decompression, but Brubaker textures the storyline with so much history that the pace seems entirely apt. This current creative team are still firing on all cylinders, and Steve Roger's recent assassination occurred not as a stunt or a gimic, but as an organic extension of the epic storyline which the creators are spinning.

I'm not actually following the storyline issue by issue right now, although I feel really sorry for any regular fans of the series who may have lost out due to the whirlwind of opportunity buyers that snapped up copies of #25 (the assassination issue). I'm not even going to get started on my rant at the muppets who went on to hawk their copies on ebay for 10 times cover price. If this retrospective review makes anything clear, it is that Steve Rogers will make a triumphant comeback at some point, and in the meantime, the current creators are producing work which is amongst the title's best. I'd really love to look back on this point in time as the next watermark in Cap's history; like the debut of Claremont on X-Men, or Miller on Daredevil, where it seems impossible to imagine the character before the contributions of these creators. It's certainly about time the Captain was given another good run for his money.

The Comic Relief Comic

Or to give it's extended title, 'The Totally Stonking, Surprisingly Educational and Utterly Mindboggling Comic Relief Comic', was published by Fleetway in March 1991 to coincide with that year's Comic Relief charity appeal. The price was a measly £1.50 and all profits went to the charity.

Running 56 pages, and with contributions from literally dozens of creators, this one-off special had ambitions far beyond the temporary syphoning of comic-book revenue into charitable organisations. Under the plotting and editorial stewardship of Richard Curtis, Peter Hogan, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, the comic served as a celebration of the most successful British and American comic books from the previous 30 years. Being part of the Comic Relief brand, it also payed tribute to the stars of british comedy from the '60s to the '80s, all the whilst delivering stark sermons on the necessity of the charitable causes it supported around the globe.

And so the result was a sort of mish-mash anthology book which: throws together real-life protagonists like Lenny Henry, Jonathan Ross and Gryff Rhys Jones with fictional ones like Edmund Blackadder and Dr Who; which explores themes like homelessness, third world famine, alcoholism, care for the aged and disabled rights; but which also features cameo appearances from Desperate Dan, Roger Mellie, Dan Dare (from 2 separate eras!), Judge Dredd, Robocop, The Sleaze Brothers, Superman and the Cookie Monster.

At the time I first read this, it was probably quite a bit more adult that anything else I was reading. In fact, the dream-like subplot which involved otherwordly 'House-Heads' attempting a covert invasion of the human race was lost on me completely. Trust Gaiman and Morrison to come up with such an off-beat metaphor for the self-centred and insular mindset which many charities come up against as they attempt to raise awareness of their causes. I also would not have realised that this would be my first exposure to many of the creators who would become my favourites in the comic world: Mark Millar, Peter Milligan, David Hine, Melinda Gebbie, Garth Ennis, Dave Gibbons, Mark Buckingham, David Lloyd, D'Isreali, Jamie Hewlett, Steve Dillon, Simon Bisley and Bryan Talbot amongst others.

The one thing that did strike me at the time though, was the self-awareness running through the book. Each of the characters seems to know that they are existing within a comic book. This is an absolute necessity, in order to include all these disparate characters within a single storytelling universe, but it does lead to some ingenius storytelling opportunities. In one memorable scene Lenny Henry distorts the shape of the panels on the page, hanging off the borders, stretching and compacting the panels until he eventually falls through the bottom of one, into the row below. In doing so he accidentally 'breaks' the reading flow of the page and forces the narritive to read right-to-left. Jonathon Ross then restrains Henry by clubbing him on the head with his own speech bubble.

Even now, it's hard to believe that all these ideas were crammed into just one comic; I suppose the extended title really does say it all.




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