Friday, 21 March 2014

Essential Captain America volume 4

Essential Captain America volume 4 consists of Captain America and the Falcon #157-186. The writing covers most of Steve Englehart's run and just touches on the start of John Warner's brief one with scattered contributions by Steve Gerber, Roy Thomas, Tony Isabella and Mike Friedrich. The art covers the bulk of Sal Buscema's run, the start of Frank Robbins's and individual issues by Alan Weiss and Herb Trimpe.

This volume sees the series go on an uptick, having finally found a strong writer for the long run who directly tackles a number of problems and criticisms related to the character. A common jibe is that Captain America is physically not the most powerful of heroes; an early issue here sees him gain super strength when the Super Soldier Serum in his blood reacts with the venom of the original Viper. The result is an incredibly powerful Cap, though as time passes the strength is shown and referenced less and less. His gaining enhanced strength puts another strain on his partnership with the Falcon, who feels an inferior costumed athlete as a result. This leads to some soul searching, during which he finally gets together with Leila albeit in his costumed identity (though he seems to have revealed his identity to her, albeit it's not explicitly clear that she knows until much later), and a search for enhanced abilities that leads him to Wakanda where the Black Panther gives him his wings. Meanwhile Cap goes through some major soul searching in this volume as he faces a series of events that force him to reconsider some of his world views. Early on comes the revelation that a police officer is crooked, a sign of how corruption can be found even in places not traditionally expected, but worse is to come.

The highlight of the volume comes in the middle section with the Secret Empire storyline. In this Cap faces challenges on many fronts, starting when he's depicted as a dangerous vigilante by a hostile advertising campaign run by the Viper and Quentin Hardeman of the Committee to Regain America's Principles. Next he's framed for the murder of the Tumbler and faces being replaced by new hero Moonstone (later Nefarius), actually an agent of the Committee. Cap is arrested and seems all alone, with the Falcon away in Africa getting his wings and taking on the mobster Stoneface. However help comes in the form of "America's Sanitation Unit" of high tech vigilantes who break into his cell. This forces Cap to decide whether to break the law or turn down the only chance to clear his name, though the decision gets made or him when he's overwhelmed by the Unit's gas and taken away. Discovering that they too are agents of the conspiracy against him. With the Falcon now returned to the States and branded an accomplice, he and Cap are forced to go on the run in search of the clues to clear their names, and get attacked by the Banshee, still a foe rather than an ally of the X-Men. This brings another reversal of fortunes as they wind up allying with the handful of the X-Men who haven't been captured by the conspiracy. (This appearance came a year before the X-Men's relaunch and seems to have been designed to wrap up loose plot threads from the Beast's solo series in Amazing Adventures.) The group clashes with S.H.I.E.L.D., before learning the true foe is the shadowy organisation called the Secret Empire. Once more Steve and Sam are forced to take action they wouldn't normally do by stealing a device in order to gain the confidence of the Secret Empire in their civilian guises. This brings them to the heat of the operation where the organisation is planning to conquer America, using the ever growing popularity of Moonstone as a way to convince the people to surrender when the Secret Empire's flying saucer, powered by the brainwaves of captured mutants(!) , lands in Washington. However in the climax Cap and the others manage to escape execution thanks to the inside help of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Gabriel Jones and Peggy Carter, and they destroy the equipment then take down Moonstone who confesses to the whole conspiracy. All the living members of the conspiracy are soon arrested, though Number One flees and commits suicide.

At a distance of some decades it's not always easy to spot the targets of some of the more overt political satire. To some the Committee to Regain America's Principles is merely a shock that Marvel would print such a name or a source of hilarity for the acronym "CRAP". But the name was clearly based on the Committee to RE-Elect the President; similarly Quentin Hardeman's name is evocative of Nixon's first Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman. This tale of a secret conspiracy to take over the country by destroying confidence in existing institutions and systems and replacing them with the creations of political propaganda was reflective of the turbulent times the story was written in, but it also makes Cap face a changing world.

More so than any previous storyline, the Secret Empire tale forces Captain America to face up to the conflict between his ideals and loyalties. As he finds his reputation damaged and his actions bringing conflict with the police, he's left with little choice but to go beyond the law, even if this vindicates the attack campaign that portrays him as a vigilante. Up until now, Captain America has always been a hero of the establishment, acting for authority that was assumed inherently benign and having no doubt about what "serving my country" means. But now he finds himself in a much greyer world, where established symbols, positions and systems can't always be trusted, where venerated figures can turn out to be crooks, where public opinion can quickly turn against a dedicated symbol and where sometimes the only way to achieve results is to go outside the law. 1974 was the year in which both the Punisher and Wolverine debuted and, whilst neither may have been intended to go on to become major stars at the time, they both symbolised the way in which the presentation of morality in superhero comics was changing away from the simplicity of the Golden and Silver Ages. It was inevitable that Captain America would have to face the blast of change. And it comes in one of the most dramatic, and potentially libellous, ways imaginable. On the final page of issue #175 Captain America pursues Number One into the White House and unmasks him in the Oval Office, recognising the face beneath. We're not shown the face but dialogue states he holds "high political office" but "my power was still too constrained by legalities!" Could there be any doubt who it was meant to be? Perhaps this famous South Park dialogue could have been applied:
I knew it was you all along, Richard Nixon!
So Marvel in the summer of 1974 all but named the President of the United States as a crook. Who would have thought that Richard Nixon could be anything but squeaky-clean? I'm amazed that something so daringly libellous could have been put out and got away with. Today there would no doubt have been an outrage.

However, this may not have always been the plan. In the preceding issue Number One mentions "the fortuitous Watergate scandal! Ah, if only we'd known that was coming! How much simpler it has made our work." True it could be a red herring but it also might indicate how last minute the revelation was decided upon. It's not the only revelation that doesn't quite fit with what's come before, with Sergeant Muldoon turning out to be the Cowled Commander, trying to whip up public opinion to reform the police force on tougher lines. This sits uneasily with his actions after suspension in which he investigated Steve and seemed to believe the rookie cop was the Commander. It's not the only sudden revelation that comes out of nowhere in this volume.

But regardless of how far in advance the shock ending was planned, it leads to a dramatic follow-up as for a whole issue Cap fights no foes but reflects upon how he came to be, how the world has changed since the Second World War and how he can no longer serve an America that is much changed and where the government has been shown to be self-serving. His friends and allies try to dissuade him, but he decides to abandon the costume. And he doesn't quickly resume it.

For the next seven issues we have a world in which Steve Rogers is no longer Captain America. At first this pushes the Falcon into centre stage, but it becomes increasingly clear that Steve can't stay out of the action, much to both the Falcon and Sharon's annoyance, and Hawkeye forces the point by posing as the Golden Archer and attacking him, so Steve eventually adopts a new costumed identity as Nomad - the Man without a Country. Meanwhile a succession of other men decide they have what it takes to be the next Captain America, but each soon learns they don't. Eventually one is killed by the Red Skull and this brings a catharsis as Steve realises the things he fights for are not out of date. He fights not for a government but for the "American Dream" and against all threats to it, whether from without or within. As a result he resumes the costume. It's amazing that he was kept out of it for so long but by the end it's become clear - Captain America is not just a costume that anyone can put on; he is far, far more. He is not an agent of the US government but a servant of the whole country, dedicated to a set of ideals. It's a powerful storyline and statement that gets to the heart of the character and defines him for the long run.

Elsewhere this run finally resolves the loose ends relating to Cap's wartime sweetheart whose name he hasn't even known until now. Having lived in shock for three decades, Peggy Carter is a more personal reminder of how much the world has grown and changed since the Second World War, being now a middle aged woman who has suffered amnesia and been kept in isolation until the intervention of Dr Faustus causes her to relive events and come to her senses. I wonder just how much research into psychiatric issues was actually undertaken for this storyline. The reunion is touching, but Steve and Sharon deliberately try to avoid telling Peggy that the man she has waited so long for is now with her sister, resulting in some awkward dancing round the point. Although it's not addressed directly here, this does raise a question about Sharon's ethics and conduct in keeping Peggy and Cap in the dark about each other whilst taking up with the latter. Over time Peggy comes to realise what she and Cap had is long gone and instead she and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Gabriel Jones are drawn to each other. One irritation I find with Peggy's return is the inability to decide if her hair is light or dark, with it changing across issues.

Outside of the Secret Empire and Nomad sagas, the villains in the volume are somewhat limited, with the original Viper fairly prominent in the early run, at first working for the Cowled Commander both solo and in combination with other foes as the group "Crime Wave" which also contains the Porcupine, the Eel, the Scarecrow and Plantman. The Viper and the Eel then form the Serpent Squad with the Cobra; later on they are joined by both Princess Python and Madame Hydra, with the latter killing the Viper and taking his name before putting the group into an alliance with the Atlantean warlord Krang. Elsewhere there are return appearances by Dr Faustus and the Harlem crimelord Morgan and from the X-Men comes Lucifer. The Yellow Claw also clashes with Cap and the Falcon for the first time, allied with new foe, the female scientist Nightshade. Unfortunately her impact is somewhat diminished when her serum temporarily turns the Falcon into a were-wolf. Equally weak is Solarr, who has the power to absorb and discharge solar energy. Another new foe who initially seems to be a mere one-off is the Phoenix, the vengeance seeking son of Baron Zemo. Coming in an outlandish costume and falling into a vat of corrosive chemicals, not to mention being in a fill-in issue with a different writing team, it's surprising that anyone would or could bring him back, but he's gone on to do many things as Baron Zemo II.

The very end of the volume sees the quality take a sudden nosedive thanks to three separate developments. Frank Robbins takes over on the art but his style feels completely wrong for the series and just looks awful. The Red Skull returns but there is a shift in his aims away from seeking to conquer the world and more towards spreading fear and destruction. Unfortunately this turns him into a Joker clone and at times he's practically chewing the scenery. And there's a very awkward retcon about the Falcon, changing his past completely to make him a crook and pimp who had crashed on the island where Cap first met him. The Red Skull had used the Cosmic Cube to completely change his personality, memories and the world around him in order to provide the perfect partner for Cap, then eventually use the Falcon as a sleeper agent in reserve in case other plans failed. For this he has enhanced Sam with mental powers to communicate with the falcon Redwing (resulting in the brief assumption that the Falcon is a mutant, a point that would curiously dog the character for many years to come) and also made him completely responsive to the Skull's orders, no matter how humiliating the command. The whole thing appears to be motivated by a desire to paper over the previous backstory of ex-Axis agents hiding on a seemingly deserted island advertising for a falconer who arrived by regular freighter, but rather than just shrugging off a bit of Silver Age silliness the Falcon is instead twisted into becoming a cliché, as though no black in America can be allowed to be free of crime. It's also absurd long-term planning by the Skull - and at this point in 1975 the series was still setting events in real time so Cap had been revived in 1964 and known the Falcon for six years - and a very bizarre use for the Cosmic Cube. All in all this feels like a 1970s version of the Avengers saga "The Crossing".

It's unfortunate that the volume should end on such a mess when so much of it has been so bold and memorable. By taking on the main problems both the series and the main character have had, not to mention the changing attitudes to "America" and patriotism, the result is a bold uptick that makes this a strong and decisive volume. There are some odd moments but overall a lot of development has been done. Although the Falcon has taken steps both forwards and back, Captain America is much the stronger character as a result.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tim, I just came across your blog and wanted to say how impressed I am by the archive of reviews you've built up here. I'm only sorry I didn't find my way here earlier! I hope you won't mind if I chime in on some of your older posts as I make my way through some of your posts in my free time over the next few days.

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