Friday, 7 March 2014

Essential Captain America volume 2

This month sees the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and so all this month I'll be looking at more of Cap's adventures...

Essential Captain America volume 2 consists of Captain America #103-126. The art sees the end of Jack Kirby's run and the start of Gene Colan's, with the period in the middle drawn by Jim Steranko, John Romita and John Buscema. Everything is written by Stan Lee.

The stories in this volume were originally published between 1968 and 1970, during some of the most turbulent years in modern US history. Abroad the country was embroiled in the Vietnam War, a conflict against a small country that proved much harder to win militarily than many expected, damaging self-confidence. At home that conflict, the methods involved and the actions of soldiers on the ground were growing ever more controversial, and many were resisting conscription whilst there was other deep social unrest. Racial tensions continued. Many a university campus erupted into riots and chaos. Automatic respect for authority that believed it was inherently right simply by virtue of being authority was evaporating. Assassinations took the lives of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.
"[1968] was a year in which everyone was protesting, it seemed: the South against blacks, the blacks against whites, the young against the war, the Northern working class against the young, and the 70 per cent of Democrats who remained faithful to their party against Richard Nixon."
Brogan, Hugh The Penguin History of the United States of America (London; Penguin, 1990) p.682
It was a country uneasy with itself and with its traditions. And it was a country where it was no longer possible to simply point to the flag and use patriotism to garner instant support. It was a very different world from the one in which Captain America had been created.
"Throughout the world, the image of Captain America has become a symbol -- a living embodiment of all that democracy stands for! But now -- there are those who scorn love of flag -- love of country! Those to whom patriotism is just a square, out-moded word! Those who think of me -- as a useless relic -- of a meaningless past! I'm like a dinosaur -- in the Cro-Magnon age! An anachronism -- who's out-lived his time! This is the day of the anti-hero -- the age of the rebel and the dissenter! It isn't hip -- to defend the Establishment! -- only to tear it down! And, in a world rife with injustice, greed, and endless war -- who's to say the rebels are wrong? But, I’ve never learned to play by today's new rules! I've spent a lifetime defending the flag -- and the law! Perhaps -- I should have battled less - and questioned more! Yet evil comes in many forms -- and it isn't only the young -- and the rebellious -- who dare fight it! Somewhere -- somewhere -- there must be a place for me -- a use for me -- a life for me!"
Captain America, issue #122
Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and others had done many amazing things in creating the Marvel universe and a whole new style of comics. However they weren't always so good at adapting to prevailing social forces outside the comics market. And there was an age factor. Everything in this run is written and, with the exception of Jim Steranko on three issues, drawn by men born before Franklin D. Roosevelt became President of the United States, and who had all worked on comics since at least the 1940s. Of course it's not impossible for longstanding industry veterans to adapt to a changing environment - in the wider field it's a prerequisite for survival - but it can make it difficult to adapt to circumstances that now make a particular individual character problematic. Captain America is a man out of his time in more ways than one, and it's unsurprising to see that this is reflected ever more in the series as he searches for a purpose and Marvel searches for a way to keep selling the tales of a man literally wrapped in the flag in such an environment. Whilst the long term answer has not yet been found in this volume, the questions are raised here and a number of individual issues do show signs of the trends in wider society, even if the fictional versions put a superhero spin on cause and effect.

One of the most obvious signs of reflecting events in the real world comes in issue #120 as Nick Fury tricks Cap into going undercover on a university campus where the students are protesting violently. However it's mostly down to the interference of AIM as they try to kidnap an expert on atomic equations under cover of riots they've stirred up and once Cap has defeated them things calm down with the student leaders and university administrators more prepared to sit down and negotiate rationally. But before then some of the students' demands seem bizarre, particularly the one that a student committee be put in charge to decide what is taught and to whom - although such nonsensical demands really were made in real life. And not all students followed them - we see counter protests by those who feel their reasonable demands have been met and complaining about the disruption to their education. The whole thing feels stilted, as though written with no greater research than news reports and almost mocking the student protesters but then tying to pull away from alienating a potential key section of the readership. As far as I know Stan Lee's politics are moderate US liberal (too liberal for Steve Ditko but too conservative for Kirby) but whilst he may have had sympathies with the student radicals, the tone of the story feels far more pro administration, showing it as trying to work reasonably and only disrupted by outside influences.

The other big sign of the changing times comes in issue #125 sees the strip make only its second visit to Vietnam. And it's a very interesting take on the war. Coming at the start of 1970, when in the real world the US embarked on a policy of "Vietnamization" to transfer the burden of active ground conflict to South Vietnam, there is no overt sign (at least in black and white) of any military involvement by the US or other foreign countries and instead the war as shown is being entirely fought between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. US involvement is largely shown as humanitarian, with a high profile neutral doctor going missing and each side blames the other, using his disappearance the intensity of the conflict, so Cap goes on a rescue mission to find the doctor and reduce tensions, helping peace talks along. This is a very different take on the US's overseas military activities from past tales, particularly the gung ho crusading of the Second World War where there was a clear enemy to be fought and victory to be won, or the anti-Communism of many 1960s Marvel stories. Instead, here we have the living symbol of the United States of America on a mercy mission, trying to do his bit to bring about a negotiated peace. The two sides of the conflict are shown as so similar that it's not even clear which is which, with generic terms such as "the enemy" used for the opposing forces and Cap's costume does not yield any mention of whether the US has backed or fought the troops who fire on him. The story does have "goodies" and "baddies" in the form of Cap and the Mandarin (the doctor's actual kidnapper) respectively, but the conflict itself is not reduced to such a level. With only nineteen pages - a victim of Marvel's brief policy of restricting all stories to a single issue - there's not enough space to go into a nuanced consideration of just what the US's role in the world should be, though such a debate was raging at the time. But it's an interesting step away from Cap's origins as a flag waving crusader and implicitly reflects the question raised by Cap himself in his earlier soliloquy as to just what his role is in a changed world.

What of the overall direction of the series? We get yet more conflicts with the Red Skull and Cap working for S.H.I.E.L.D. plus tensions between him and Sharon over the latter's work (though oddly these aren't explicitly presented as a clash of generational views on the role of women), but a few small attempts to develop a distinctive niche. At one point Cap fakes the discovery of a mask that makes the world assume that "Steven Rogers" was just a disguise adopted by him, allowing him to regain his secret identity, and he moves out of Avengers Mansion, though because of his lack of background or identification the only place he can find to live is a bedsit. Still it allows him to start to find his own place in the world. Although a number of his adventures still arise out of his S.H.I.E.L.D. or Avengers connections, Cap is also starting to assemble some of his own connections. But first there are his existing relations.

The volume kicks off with the revelation that Agent 13's real name is Sharon Carter. Why it's taken so long for Steve to discover this is a mystery, as are the circumstances in which he learnt it. Still it gives her a stronger identity of her own, but her role in these adventures is a mixture of being absent of S.H.I.E.L.D. missions and disagreeing with Cap about whether she should step back from the danger, to the point they split. Also fading out for now is Rick Jones who is dismissed by what he thinks is Cap (actually the Red Skull in disguise) and concludes he will never be a true successor to Bucky so he tears up his mask and leaves Avengers Mansion and the series, departing for new ventures in Captain Marvel.

But the big introduction is the Falcon. Another character whose real name isn't initially given (though that's rectified in his second appearance), he is first encountered on the Exiles' island where he's been tying to help the native population fight back against the intruders; he is a bird handler with his own falcon, Redwing. Lacking success until now, he accepts the suggestion of a stranger - Cap in the form of the Red Skull - that he adopt a symbolic identity to inspire them and so he becomes the Falcon. Working together with Cap to defeat the Red Skull, he shows himself to be a good viable character and one who works well with Cap. Although he opts to settle and stay in Harlem, there is a clear level of respect between the two suggesting that they can work together as equals against the various threats Cap faces.

Introduced in the last issues of the first volume but not really used until now are the Exiles, a group of would-be conquerors from various powers who've been in hiding since the end of the Second World War. Made up of characters with names such as Baldini, Gruning, Cadavus, Iron-Hand Hauptmann, Krushki, General Ching and Gottfried, between them they represent most of the US's main enemies of the preceding thirty years. Baldini even looks a bit like Mussolini and Gruning like Göring, and the group as a whole reminds me of the assembly of various anti-American leaders in the opening scene of the film The Naked Gun, but getting there a couple of decades earlier. The group initially work with the Red Skull but later fall out when he refuses to share the power of the recovered cosmic cube. However he is brought down by the intervention of Modok and AIM. Meanwhile Batroc returns, this time working with the Swordsman and the Living Laser, both from the pages of the Avengers, or the Trapster from Strange Tales and the Fantastic Four, or the Scorpion from the Amazing Spider-Man, plus the aforementioned Mandarin from Iron Man. We also get some more traditional propagandising when the Chinese, under the orders of Mao Zedong (though he's not actually named on panel; which seems to have been standard practice for depicting real world leaders of hostile states), created a replica of Cap intending it to kill and replace him then destroy his reputation. New foes include Doctor Faustus, a criminal psychiatrist and illusionist, Madame Hydra, now better known as the Viper, the ruthless female commander of the organisation, the Man-Brute, the result of an attempt to recreate the super soldier serum, Suprema and Scarbo, siblings who performed a hypnotism act but have now turned to trying to become crimelords, and Diamond Head, the leader of a black supremacist group.

Issue #109 carries yet another retelling of Cap's origin (in issue #121 a character actually thinks to himself "the origin of Captain America has been told and retold endlessly" before leading into a brief two-page further retelling), with the main addition being the use of "Vita-Rays" to accelerate and stabilise the effects of the serum, and move away from the implication that Cap is using a performance enhancing drug. Was it a coincidence that this issue would have been written around the time of the Olympics? However the story retains the awkward origin of Bucky - he discovers Steve Rogers wearing the Captain America costume and immediately deduces that this weakling soldier is the real Cap, who in turn decides he is unable to explain the situation away and instead accepts a minor's demands to become his sidekick in highly dangerous situations. Whilst this dubious scenario dates back to the original telling in 1941, both comics and their audience had grown more sophisticated in the intervening years and it strains credulity that Steve made no attempt to cover up his situation or dissuade Bucky from joining him. He is shown to feel guilt about Bucky's death (which is ruthlessly exploited by Doctor Faustus), but usually it's a mix of survivors' guilt and a focus upon his failure to save Bucky on that critical day, rather than guilt over ever taking on a sidekick in the first place. More on Cap's past comes in issue #112, which has the hallmarks of an emergency fill-in issue as Jack Kirby briefly returns. With Cap presumed dead, Iron Man reviews his Avengers file and the reader is treated to a summary of Cap's career, including name-checking many of his Golden Age foes. By this time in 1969, Marvel had now reprinted a number of his Golden Age adventures in Fantasy Masterpieces and so came the time to acknowledge them as part of the current continuity. However once again the post-1945 adventures weren't addressed, even though the debut of the All-Winners Squad from 1946 had been reprinted there.

Overall this volume works as a fast paced speed through Captain America's continuing adventures but raises more questions than it answers about the lead character's role and purpose in a very changed world. It was bold to actually bring up the problem within the strip itself, but often Cap spends a lot of his time brooding on his problem rather than seeking a solution. There's also a continued overuse of the Red Skull in two more multi-part adventures, whilst most of the new foes don't feel like they'll last too long. But the introduction of the Falcon offers a sign for the future and the dips into real world problems such as chaotic university campuses and Vietnam at least show a willingness to adapt with the times even if the initial attempts aren't the greatest. This is a volume of a series in a degree of transition.

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