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.

No more Essentials... but not here

Just a quick note to comment on the news that after several months of speculation, Marvel has now announced that the Essential line is over, citing a belief that the material should now be in colour. It's a pity but, with the disappearance of new volumes since December, unsurprising.

There are various other ongoing reprint lines, most obiously the Epics, so in the long term we'll see where both collectors and this site go. However for now there are still Essential volumes left to cover and I'll be looking at as many of them as I can first.

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.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Essential Captain America volume 3

In addition to continuing our Captain America month, today sees the return to UK screens of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. So here's a volume with, amongst other things, some appearances of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Essential Captain America volume 3 is made up of issues #127-156, with the book's title becoming Captain America and the Falcon from #134 onwards. Additionally it contains the covers from the all-reprint annuals #1 & #2. The writing covers the end of Stan Lee's run, brief runs by Gary Friedrich and Gerry Conway, and then the start of Steve Englehart's. The art is a mixture of runs by Gene Colan, John Romita and Sal Buscema, with individual issues contributed to by Gray Morrow and Gil Kane.

This volume continues the search for a clear identity and direction for both the character and series, with a mixture of science-fiction spy drama, down to earth tales from the road, gritty urban crime and some bizarre out of this universe moments all presented as a succession of authors grapple with the problem. However, solutions slowly present themselves. The first issue in this volume sees a blow to the status quo as Cap falls out with S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury after they question his loyalty and put him through a fierce test to smoke out a traitor in the ranks. S.H.I.E.L.D. may nowadays be portrayed as a ruthless organisation who will suspect anyone easily, but at the time its portrayal in earlier issues was as a cosier, friendlier organisation. Such an abrupt shift in presentation is jarring, even though it serves a purpose in cutting down on Cap's ties to allow him to go on the open road. The next few issues see Cap climb on the bandwagon of going out on the road to find one's self, taking off on a motorbike into the country at large. Although it doesn't last long, it does allow the opportunity to take him away from the various trappings around him and drill down into the character as he sees the country at large and faces up to the fact that not everything is black and white. At one stage he tries to ditch his costumed identity but he soon finds himself drawn back to it. "Looks like I can no more shed my shield-slinging other self than Nixon can shed ol' Spiro!" declares Cap in issue #129. (Clearly he didn't foresee events of the next few years when Spiro Agnew would prove rather easier to lose than the average Vice President.)

"Here's where I oughta step in and make like a swingin' hero! But how do I know whose side to take?" thinks Cap as he watches a student riot in issue #130. The famous Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 was only five months old at this stage, and indeed may not have been the first to highlight this point, but the idea was clearly taking root that heroes can't always simply swoop into a tense situation and put things to right by vanquishing one side. Later in the same issue Cap goes on television to talk about law and order, but instead he steers a middle line against both violence and aloof establishments that drive people to desperate measures. Here we see the first clear repositioning of Cap as loyal to the concepts underlying his country rather than to the authorities of the day. It may at this stage seem to be a subtle splitting of the hair but it helps to move the character away from an authoritarian, establishment line that would likely have doomed him to cancellation as the 1970s wore on.

And then we get multiple attempts to provide Cap with a partner. A two-part story during this road stage sees the seeming return of Bucky, but it feels badly disjointed. The first part sees Baron Strucker searching the gyms of San Francisco for suitable bait to trap Cap and coming across an amnesiac young man who looks exactly like Bucky. Strucker is soon defeated and Cap is left apparently reunited with his partner. However the next issue reveals that this is in fact a robot duplicate made by Doctor Doom as part of a challenge set by Modok and A.I.M., with Strucker having been manipulated by Modok. Unfortunately Doom has made the robot too well so that it perfectly duplicates Bucky's outlook and thus it cannot bring itself to kill Cap. Although the elements of the plots are actually quite good when considered on their own, give or take Doctor Doom so easily performing a task for others just because his skill has been deliberately questioned, the way Strucker is suddenly revealed to have been unknowingly guided by thoughts implanted by Modok feels like a fast U-turn. The fact that it comes so close to Cap acquiring a regular partner - notably an equal rather than a mere sidekick - suggests that originally the intention was to bring back the real (and original) Bucky before someone decided that this wouldn't be such a great move and so retconned him out this way, then went down the Falcon route.

The Falcon had already been introduced in the previous volume but he returns in #133 where he and Cap realise they have a lot in common, both being lone heroes but they soon come to work together. The pairing may seem surprising, with Cap traditionally focused on national or global threats and the Falcon operating against urban crime in Harlem, but there's a strong bond between the two that sees each drawn into the other's world, helped somewhat by Cap also gaining a day time job in his alter ego of Steve Rogers. Initially asked to go under cover as a police officer to investigate disappearances in Harlem, Steve opts to maintain the role, finding a purpose for himself away from the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. However there are signs that he can't maintain the job forever, often having to call in sick or go away because of his work as Cap, ad by the end of the volume his sergeant and patrol car partner are secretly investigating him. Still it allows Steve a chance to evolve away from the mask.

Meanwhile the Falcon finds himself caught between multiple roles. As Sam Wilson, his day job is a social worker in Harlem but he finds himself often denigrated for working with whites and being "an Uncle Tom". Even a woman he is attracted to attacks him for this. At the same time his relationship with Cap has its ups and downs and the two briefly split but soon find they need each other the more. The Falcon is loyal and dependable but absolutely not a subordinate sidekick, and the two make for a good odd couple many years before the teaming of Power Man and Iron Fist.

Although Cap initially breaks with S.H.I.E.L.D., the organisation doesn't disappear and he soon finds himself working with them again and again, though Nick Fury is angry about Cap's refusal to become a full time S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and at one stage issues an order revoking Cap's S.H.I.E.L.D. clearance and banning any agent from having contact with him. Fortunately for Sharon Carter this doesn't last and she and Steve soon resume and develop their relationship. Meanwhile S.H.I.E.L.D. demonstrates what passes for its equal opportunities policy when it presents "Femme Force One", with Sharon yelling "Right on, sisters!" and "If this doesn't make you believe in the women's lib movement... I don't know what will!" Cap quietly just says he believes in Femme Force "and let it slide at that!" It's not the most liberated presentation of women and the unit is not helped by a rather catty relationship between Sharon and her deputy, Val de Fontaine, due to the latter's flirting with Cap, apparently in reaction to Nick Fury's relations with another woman. The whole mess climaxes when Fury turns up at Steve's apartment to have it out with him, until Val shows up to explain her actions. The whole storyline feels awkward, forcing several people to act out of character to make it work, and it's unsurprising that it's swept aside so easily in the first issue by a new writer.

There's an attempt to develop a supporting cast away from S.H.I.E.L.D. with a couple of significant characters introduced, each a part of the down to earth urban environment both heroes are now based in. Leila is a strong minded woman from Harlem who looks down on Sam for supposedly selling out, but he is nevertheless strongly attracted to her. Sergeant Muldoon is Steve's immediate superior as a police officer. A hardliner who reminds Steve of his wartime superior Sergeant Duffy, Muldoon is subsequently suspended for bribery and corruption but then embarks upon a private investigation of Steve's affairs.

As on a number of titles, Stan Lee departs on a cliffhanger, here midway through a saga involving the Grey Gargoyle and S.H.I.E.L.D. Lee's final page shows the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier destroyed and the Gargoyle about to seize the most dangerous substance on Earth. A replacement helicarrier is soon deployed and the Gargoyle defeated, but it's a telling sign of how series were often written on the hoof as though it were a game of Consequences.

If there's one area where the series continues to be particularly deficient, it's in the villains. Only two new foes of any substance are introduced in these pages. One is Stone-Face, a Harlem crimelord, and the other is the Monster Ape, a scientist who becomes a giant primate. There are a few imports from other series in the form of encounters with first the Mole Man and later the Grey Gargoyle and the Kingpin, then the Scorpion and Mr Hyde in tandem. Meanwhile of Captain America's more established foes, the Red Skull shows up here on no less than three separate occasions whilst Batroc appears twice, the first time with "Batroc's Brigade" made up of Whirlwind and the Porcupine, the second time with a Brigade made up of ordinary thugs. Baron von Strucker, Modok and AIM also all appear again, albeit in just one storyline. And then there's Hydra, with the Supreme Hydra on this occasion revealed to be the son of the Kingpin, actually serving as a subordinate to reclusive Las Vegas millionaire "Harold Howard" who is in fact the Kingpin himself, who in turn doesn't realise it's his son under the mask, but both are in fact being manipulated by the real mastermind, the Red Skull, who unleashes yet another sleeper robot to attack the US. Isn't this all a wee bit excessive? Or there's the case of Batroc's second appearance in this volume when he's again accompanied by his Brigade, who are kidnapping on behalf of an unseen contractor who seemingly turns out to be the Stranger but is in fact the being Jakar, the sole survivor from another universe, impersonating the Stranger. I suspect the original plan was to use the actual Stranger until there was an editorial intervention, and the result is the rapid creation of a lookalike character to cover the usage.

Whatever the intention, the Jakar story sees the series at a low, entering a science fiction world in which the villain is trying to repopulate his world and has hired Batroc to kidnap people for it. The two just jar heavily, even more if Jakar was actually meant to be the Stranger, and the whole thing feels like a storyline more at home in the Fantastic Four or Thor. The earlier storyline with Hydra, the Kingpin and the Red Skull also feels out of place, with the setting of Las Vegas and a villain having kidnapped a Howard Hughes type reclusive millionaire and using his business empire for criminal schemes showing the influence of the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever a little too much.

The last four issues see the arrival of Steve Englehart as writer and almost immediately the series makes a bold step forward, starting to explore more deeply the role of Captain America amidst competing visions of patriotism. Englehart's first storyline explains the Captain America stories published in the 1950s, revealing that the Captain America and Bucky (and, in passing, also the Red Skull) seen in them were all replacements. With Roy Thomas as the editor, it's easy to see where the idea came from. But instead of a straightforward exercise in retroactive continuity, we get something that works on a whole different level as we get a solid contrast between differing visions of patriotism and the eras the Captain Americas are drawn from. For the 1950s Captain America embodies fanatical super-patriotism that denounces disagreement as Communism and treachery, and dismisses blacks and others as not being "pure-blooded Americans". Together with an equally fanatical and vicious Bucky by his side, the result is a strong clash of ideologies between the original Captain America, with his Roosevelt-Kennedy liberal patriotism, and the 1950s Captain America, awash with McCarthyism. When originally published in the early 1970s the President of the United States was Richard Nixon, who had built his national reputation as an anti-Communist two decades earlier. Was this story also an early subtle jab at Nixon? The 1950s Cap and Bucky have been brought out of suspended animation by men upset by Nixon's to China (now there's a challenge and a half for those who try to update the Marvel timeline!) but for many these actions did not negate his earlier role. At a more personal level the original Captain America is left shaken by the possibility that he too could have easily gone down the route of "super-patriotism, madness, and mayhem" but for having received the vita-ray treatment which his successor did not get. Equally chilling is the fact that his 1950s counterpart was a fan and historian who took his worship of his subject all the way to having plastic and vocal cord surgery to completely resemble the original. The very term "fan" is short for "fanatic" and often fanatics can do the most terrible things in the name of their idols, with the idols having no say in the matter.

It's fitting that it's an issue (#155) from this final story which provides the cover, as it's here that the series gives every indication of stepping up a pace. Most of the earlier adventures are so so with some dips as the series takes an awkward turn or two, but the Falcon has proved a successful new element who has shaken up the series for the better. Things are encouraging for the next volume.

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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