Friday, 28 March 2014

Essential Captain America volume 5

Essential Captain America volume 5 comprises Captain America and the Falcon #187-205 plus Annual #3 and the Marvel Treasury Edition special Captain America's Bicentennial Battles. The early issues see writing by John Warner, Tony Isabella, Frank Robbins, Bill Mantlo and Marv Wolfman, and art by Frank Robbins and Sal Buscema. Then from issue #193 onwards everything, including the annual and special, is written and drawn by Cap's co-creator Jack Kirby in his mid 1970s return to Marvel. Bonus material includes Kirby's original pencils for the covers of issues #197, #198 & #199.

The first six issues show the book in a state of extreme creative mess. Frank Robbins's artwork is poor and at times veers into caricature, whilst the high turnover of writers results in no clear direction. Just to add to the mess the issues are trying to mop up after the ridiculous revelations about the Falcon at the end of the last volume that showed him to have been a gangster transformed by the Red Skull into the ultimate sleeper agent. Following a rather unusual form of shock therapy the result is that he remembers both his gangster and hero days but he feels as though he is two persons in a single body. The exact ramifications of this are not explored as well as they should be, so it's unclear just whether he now has a split personality or else the two personas have somehow merged or if one has triumphed over the other but retained both sets of memories. The result is an awkward and unsatisfactory arrangement that's at risk of falling into a mess with future writers unfamiliar with what's planned or just how Sam has reconciled the two sets of memories. His criminal status is addressed more head on with a trial that gives him a suspended sentence with Nick Fury serving as his parole officer. Given the turnover of writers it's hard to identify just who took the wrong decisions but even the option of dismissing the Red Skull's claims as false is dangled yet rather than take such a natural way out of this mess the series instead decides to go with them. But the result is deeply unsatisfactory and shows the dangers of changing writers too quickly at a critical point for the series.

The foes in these issues aren't too memorable either. There's the Druid, previously seen in the S.H.I.E.L.D. strip in Strange Tales, who has Cap whisked away to an arena for no particular reason but it helps to mark time. Back at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters acting director Jeff Cochren forces Cap to take pat in a weird fight designed to snap the Falcon out of his comatose state; it turns out to be a plot by Nightshade to take control of S.H.I.E.L.D. and conquer the world. Subsequently the Falcon's trial is interrupted by an assassination contract undertaken by old Daredevil foe Stilt-Man. Then in a fill-in issue Dr. Faustus plots to steal millions from New York City; the issue is notable as the first ever appearance of Karla Sofen, the future Moonstone, but here she's little more than a gangster's mole. It is possible that John Warner thought he had been assigned the series for the long run rather than the fill-ins he wound up doing, and Tony Isabella seems to have fallen into the same trap whilst Marv Wolfman's issue has all the signs of a one-off fill-in and there's also artist Frank Robbins contributing to the writing plus Bill Mantlo scripting the last of Isabella's plots, but this really is a classic example of how too many cooks really can spoil the broth.

"King Kirby is BACK -- and greater than ever!" proclaims the cover of issue #193, though the effect is somewhat lost here because both the annual and the Treasury edition are placed before it. This was the start of Kirby's return to Marvel after an absence of about five years. Or perhaps a partial return. Over the next few years Kirby would produce a number of titles including The Eternals, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Machine Man, Devil Dinosaur, Black Panther and this one, but only the last two were pre-existing series (and even then Black Panther was renumbered with "Jungle Action" dropped from the title). And there was very little interaction with either the wider Marvel universe or what had come before. Indeed The Eternals was even intended to be in its own continuity, years before such standalone projects became widespread. As I've noted before, Kirby's Black Panther feels somewhat like a 1970s version of Heroes Reborn, such is the disconnect from what had come before. With Captain America and the Falcon the jump is less jarring but it still feels like a big side step.

Part of this comes from the very limited use of pre-existing supporting characters and villains. Captain America and the Falcon may have worked with S.H.I.E.L.D. a lot, but it was a generic S.H.I.E.L.D. shorn of all its most familiar agents. Sharon is only seen twice in this run of issues, but seems to have been reduced to a generic superhero girlfriend who knows her boyfriend's identity but is tired him always going off on missions. This doesn't feel like the ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who not only knows the score from her own experience but has often been the absent one herself. Other than the two leads, the only pre-existing character to make any significant appearance is the Falcon's girlfriend Leila, and she's a pale shadow of her former self with little of her fire and determination on display. Beyond that Captain America's Bicentennial Battles features brief appearances by Bucky and the Red Skull, plus some historical figures, but that's about it. Was Kirby, whether consciously or unconsciously, trying to cut out as much of the influence of Stan Lee as possible? Or was he just aiming for as much creative control over the series as possible? And using as few characters originated by others as possible was one way of doing this.

One of the most obvious practical consequences is a total failure to sort out the mess with the Falcon's personality and memories. Instead the whole plot point is completely ignored at the precise moment it needed tidying and the character is presented somewhat generically. Now I'd be perfectly happy to get to a situation where the whole mess is never mentioned ever again, but it's not helpful in the long term to be continuously wondering about the character and/or successive writers taking different approaches to how his past is presented. It needs a straightforward resolution that clearly establishes just who the Falcon now is and so he can easily go forward with the whole mess forgotten. Instead it's bypassed, just adding to the sense of reboot. Oddly, given the Heroes Reborn comparisons flying around, the situation feels rather like that of Iron Man who, just before the reboot, was revealed to be a long term sleeper agent of an old foe and whose resultant new status quo and background was never fully addressed before Onslaught and Heroes Reborn, and indeed for some years afterwards a traditional take on the character was presented without covering his two different pasts.

Also noticeable by its absence is any particular sense of political influence on the series. Henry Kissinger pops up at the end of issue #193 (although in accordance with a semi-observed Marvel tradition of not explicitly identifying politicians he's not actually named on panel bar telling the duo they can call him "Henny") to brief the duo but he could be any senior government figure to emphasise the severity of the situation - indeed it's more of a surprise that it's the Secretary of State rather than the President. The 200th anniversary of American independence was marked by both the Treasury Edition Captain America's Bicentennial Battles and the regular series in a storyline conveniently culminating in issue #200, but without wading into contemporary debate about just what the United States stands for or the country's role in the world; questions that were much debated in that post Vietnam era. It seems clear that, unlike Steve Engelhart or some of the series's later writers, Jack Kirby had no particular desire to use Captain America to explore contemporary questions about patriotism and politics, let alone take an actual side in such debates, but rather presented him as a figure who served all of his country, a unifying figure on a par with Uncle Sam. Indeed the final page of the Treasury Special depicts Captain America shaking hands with Uncle Sam in front of a birthday cake.

Captain America's Bicentennial Battles is itself rather inconsequential, but as the equivalent of a graphic novel that's for the best. It introduces the dubiously named "Mister Buda", a sorcerer who has since been renamed "the Contemplator", one of the various Elders of the Universe. Mister Buda sends Cap on a trip throughout American history, including the future, so as to see what America is all about. Cap sees a succession of incidents both at home and abroad, but grasps the fundamental underlying point that all are striving no matter the odds. As he explains to a group of children at the end:
That's America! A place of stubborn confidence -- where both young and old can hope and dream, and wade through disappointment, despair and the crunch of events -- with the chance of making life meaningful!
It may seem twee but then most attempts to sum up a country's civic national identity often wide up producing such general concepts that can frankly be found to work in many other countries (just think of the various attempts to bottle and distil "Britishness" that get tied in knots on this). But it's a good way to take Cap on a tour of American history as part of the general celebrations. At the Treasury Edition size the artwork must really look amazing but even in reduced form it shows Kirby's talent immensely.

Whilst the special is about celebrating what makes America, the regular series shows Cap protecting it. The Madbomb storyline is frankly a few chapters too long and somewhat unfocused. I don't actually find Kirby's dialogue as clunky as many others do, but it often seems more routine than spectacular and can dull the effect of an extended storyline. The tale takes Cap and the Falcon on an extended trip, including a visit to the hidden world of the Elite, a group of aristocrats seeking to overturn the American Revolution and install themselves in power. The climax comes as the Elite's leader, William Taurey, aims to detonate a giant "madbomb" to send the country into chaos, but there's also a personal element that he's smarting over his ancestor's defeat in a duel with an ancestor of Steve Rogers. The ideas are good but the execution isn't the best, making the showdown less amazing than it might otherwise have been.

The other adventures in this volume are also a little underwhelming. The annual is placed as the first Kirby created issue but is a total one-off tale of Cap getting caught up with two groups of aliens as an escaped prisoner is pursued and crashes on Earth; it has the revelation that Cap has backed the wrong side but is a little too black and white for the era rather than a more nuanced presentation that shows both sides with shades of grey. Meanwhile in the last few regular issues the Falcon and Leila get captured and brainwashed by the Night People, the inmates who have taken over an asylum in another dimension. Once back on Earth Cap manages to cure the Falcon through battling a corpse animated by a being from the future, though by the volume's end there's no sign of Leila having been cured.

All in all these adventures feel rather generic and awkward. Apart from the bicentennial celebrations they could frankly feature any superheroes for all the difference it makes. Captain America may have been under the full control of one of his co-creators but the result just doesn't feel as special as it was made out to be. This was one of the first times Marvel trumpeted the presence of an individual creator and so invariably expectations rise in such circumstances. But the result feels as though the baby was thrown out with the bath water, cutting out nearly all the pre-existing elements beyond the title characters, and the result is almost its own universe of rather generic characters and villains. The issues immediately before Kirby's return showed what a mess the title had already descended into so he was actually an improvement and brought stability but the result is less than exciting and not the series at its best.

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