Friday, 3 April 2015

Essential Captain America volume 6

Essential Captain America volume 6 consists of Captain America and the Falcon #206 to #230 ("and the Falcon" is dropped from #223 onwards) plus Annual #4 and the crossover issue Incredible Hulk #232. The early part of the volume, including the annual, is written and drawn by Jack Kirby. The rest of the run sees a lot of creators including writers Roy Thomas, Don Glut, Steve Gerber, David Anthony Kraft, Peter Gillis, Roger McKenzie and Roger Stern plus a couple of back-ups by Scott Edelman. The most persistent artist after Kirby is Sal Buscema; others include George Tuska, Dave Cockrum, John Buscema and Mike Zeck plus Bob Budiansky and Steve Leialoha on the back-ups. One issue also contains a framed reprint of a Human Torch story from Strange Tales #113 drawn by Jack Kirby and scripted by Stan Lee. The Incredible Hulk issue is plotted by Roger Stern, scripted by David Michelinie and drawn by Sal Buscema. And with so many creators, invariably there's a separate labels post.

The early part of this volume contains the tail end of Jack Kirby's 1970s return to the title. And whilst the art remains as powerful as ever, the writing still doesn't feel terribly spectacular with the only long term addition of note being the geneticist Arnim Zola. Truly an artist's creation he has replaced his original body with a new one that has the brain in the more protected chest, with a camera in place of a head and a video screen to display a face on his chest. Zola has created all manner of creatures that he deploys, of which the most notable is Doughboy, an organism that can adjust its entire body to form itself into the equipment Zola needs to hand. Zola is certainly a bold creation but some of his impact is limited by the revelation that he's working for the Red Skull and undertaking a project to give Hitler's brain a new body. Hitler surviving by some strange scientific means was a common trope in 1960s and 1970s science fiction but today it feels cliched. It's also a sign of Kirby's habit of ignoring Marvel continuity where it suited him and it would eventually fall to the final issues of Super-Villain Team-Up to tidy the various Marvel accounts of the last days of Hitler.

Issue #207 contains a scene that has caused quite some debate, especially due to the panel on the right. As Steve changes costume in the Latin America jungle, he thinks about his experiences and the sadistic prison commandant:
Whoever runs that banana jail seems to get his kicks out of kicking the inmates! This man they call "The Swine" must be typical of the kind of bully that flourishes in these two-bit dictatorships. But this is not my country and not my place to fight for causes I know nothing about. My immediate problem is to beat this jungle -- find my way to a fair-sized town and... home!
This triggered off some debate in the blogosphere a few years ago - see Scott Edelman: Shame on you, Captain America!, Kirby Dynamics: "Shame on you, Captain America?" Part 1 and Kirby Dynamics: "Shame on You Captain America" Part 2 for the main posts on this (although be warned they drift into the different matter of 1970s Marvel staffers' attitudes about and actions to Kirby). On its own though this feels like a very clumsy attempt both to move beyond the simplistic morality of Golden Age and early Silver Age comics and also to reflect the changed outlook on US foreign policy in the post-Vietnam era. The idea that every situation has clear-cut goodies and baddies and that heroes should jump aboard every rebellion going was now being challenged, not just in the comics themselves but also in the wider world as once heroes of liberation and independence had become authoritarian dictators. The problem is the dialogue isn't terribly nuanced and the situation up to now hasn't really been presented as such. Instead the Swine has been portrayed as a latter day Nazi, right down to the uniform (but not insignia) and even drawn to resemble Himmler whilst dealing out sadistic torture. Nor is Captain America acknowledging the complexities of the situation. Instead he's just turning his back on the matter and looking to flee the land. This is not a man weighing up the difficulties of what is worse out of the current situation or the potential chaos that can be unleashed by simply overthrowing a regime without a clear successor infrastructure. Nor is he declining to back an ambiguous group of unknown rebels because they may contain even worse elements. Rather this comes across as a "None of my business" dismissal even if such cack-handedness was never the intention. And indeed the story doesn't see Cap take on the dictator but instead the Swine is killed by one of Zola's creatures, with Zola himself taking Cap back to a castle in Switzerland for the rest of the story.

There's some improvement on Kirby's earlier issues in regards the treatment of women with both Leila (who has had a massive quick recovery from her brainwashing at the end of the previous volume) and Sharon showing greater boldness and intelligence. In particular Sharon holds her own with the Red Skull. However it's also clear that Kirby had little time for the Falcon, keeping him largely out of the picture during most issues. The final two see a temporarily blinded Cap in hospital where the shady Corporation sends the Night Flyer to assassinate a patient known as "the Defector". The Falcon has a run-in with the Night Flyer but it's Cap who ultimately triumphs despite his temporary blindness. The final piece of 1970s Kirby work in the volume is the annual which sees Cap battling Magneto for the fate of a strange mutant with two separate bodies. It feels rather run of the mill with Magneto a rather generic cackling villain who wants the smaller body to investigate a tiny spaceship. All in all the Kirby run on the title has been so-so and not the return to the greatest ever days of Cap that it was hyped as.

Kirby's departure leaves a hole in the series and its not really filled for the remaining sixteen issues in this volume. Instead we get all the hallmarks of a series in creative chaos as no less than seven writers (not including the reprint or the Incredible Hulk issue) struggle with key storylines without really knowing where they're going or how long they'll last for. (The art is, however, more stable from issue #218 onwards with Sal Buscema providing at least breakdowns on all but one issue.) There are fill-ins, although efforts are made to actually include them in the ongoing narrative, and two other staples of a series in a rush - a retelling of the origin and a reprint.

These both come at the start of a run in which Captain America is slowly exploring his past to find out just who he is and who Steve Rogers is, The reasons behind this level of introspection are never made totally clear; nor is it explained just why Cap appears to have amnesia about his life before he received the Super Soldier Serum. But the result is an exploration that doubles as an exercise in retroactive continuity as new elements are added and some of what we were told before is shown to be questionable at least. The origin retelling in issue #215 runs through all the basics but for the first time in the series the two replacement Captain Americas of the late 1940s are included, following a What If? story that reinstated to continuity the Cap stories published in 1945 to 1950 as well as the All-Star Squadron. Also recapped is the previously seen Captain America of the 1950s. Following this we get a single new page as the real Cap sets out to discover about the one other Captain America, but we never learn if he does and instead enjoy a reprint of the Strange Tales story where the Human Torch battled a fake Captain America who was actually the Acrobat in disguise, complete with a floating helicopter platform including a rocket ship & launcher plus an asbestos lined lorry. It's reprinted as in the original with no attempt to explain away some of the early Silver Age silliness or just how Cap could maintain a secret identity when it was published in comics the Torch read as a child.

Back in the present, Cap's quest for his past brings up the notion that his childhood in New York was an invention and he was actually from a small town in Maryland. Through returning memories and a chat with a local he learns how Steve Rogers was a weak younger brother, more interested in art than in following in his elder brother's footsteps as first a sports star and then a soldier, much to his father's disapproval. However news reports from Europe and his brother's death at Pearl Harbour led him to attempt to enlist but he was rejected on medical grounds until a government agent identified him as suitable for a project. Although Steve's weak physique had long been an established part of the character, his family background feels like an attempt to increase his identifiability with the presumed readership of this era. It also feels like an attempt to root him in a stereotypical small town America rather than the exceptional urban New York, though with his family all dead it seems hard to build much on this at this stage and it's not followed up on in this volume.

More bizarre is another adventure told in flashback as the series sets out to explain how, in looking back at the end of the Second World War, Cap could recall falling off a missile launched from the coast of the English Channel and land in waters off Newfoundland. This could have been explained away as a confusion caused by a disoriented man just revived from suspended animation or a case of poor geographic knowledge, or just become a lettering error to be corrected in reprints. But instead we learn how Cap was picked up by a submarine commanded by renegade Nazi scientist Lyle Dekker, then taken to a base on Newfoundland before escaping in a plane carrying nerve gas , only to be shot down with the gas interacting with the Super Soldier Serum to put Cap in suspended animation with amnesia of his last battle.

There was simply no need to complicate the wonderful resurrection story by adding on this interim adventure. Nor is Dekker a particularly memorable foe even after he transfers his consciousness into the oversized artificial body dubbed the Ameridroid, who soon realises he has sacrificed his humanity for no great gain. This is retroactive continuity for the sheer heck of it and adds no more than another flashback tale in which Cap plays himself in a wartime movie serial of his life. Ultimately the search for Cap and Steve Rogers's past just rings hollow and seems to make no significant addition to the character or the series at all.

Making an addition of a rather different nature is the Corporation storyline. Picking up a thread from the last of Kirby's issues the battle with this sinister organisation runs through the second half of the volume, and also in the contemporary issues of the Incredible Hulk, before climaxing in the crossover at the end. There are a number of long-term changes in the series in the interim, including the ending of the team-up between Cap and the Falcon. Sam has been largely relegated to a bit part in many adventures here before he accepts the role of leading the Super-Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a short-lived team of new and obscure super powered beings including Marvel Man (later Quasar), the Texas Twister, the Vamp and Blue Streak. The team doesn't last long with the last two members revealed as agents of the Corporation whilst the Texas Twister leaves in disgust at the Vamp's brutal killing of Blue Streak (in fact to silence her fellow agent). Another Corporation agent is Veda, supposedly the daughter of a wartime agent present when Cap first received the Super Soldier Serum. She briefly becomes Cap's new romantic interest, with Sharon running away in pain, only to be killed off in internal power struggles within the Corporation without Cap even realising it. Other Corporation agents include the Hulk's past foes the Constrictor and Moonstone, plus the alien Animus who turns out to be the real form of the Vamp. There's also a separate attack on Cap and S.H.I.E.L.D. by the Red Skull. Tensions between Cap and Nick Fury are increasing ever more, with the former sick of being used by the agency so often.

The crossover at the end is a rare one that builds on events in both series, bringing a climax to the separate struggles with the Corporation as well as establishing the Falcon as the uncle of the Hulk's sidekick Jim Wilson. All the plot threads are tidied up which is no small achievement given the high turnover of writers. However some of the characters and events from the Incredible Hulk are not really introduced for readers of Captain America only. Consequently the whole thing can be a little confusing when read on its own.

Overall this is frankly a dull pedestrian volume. Neither Kirby nor those who followed him have been able to lift the series to new heights and instead we've had a mix of rather slow and dull adventures plus some needless retcons that try to fix things that frankly weren't broke in the first place. Captain America is a difficult series to do well and needs good long-term writers to have a real impact. This volume fails to find them.

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