Friday, 1 May 2015

Essential Captain America volume 7

Essential Captain America volume 7 is made up of issues #231 to #257. The writing is mainly by first Roger McKenzie and then Roger Stern with plotting or scripting contributions by Jim Shooter, Michael Fleisher, Chris Claremont and John Byrne, and other issues by Peter Gillis, Paul & Alan Kupperberg, Mike W. Barr, Steven Grant and Bill Mantlo. The art sees the end of Sal Buscema's run and the entirety of John Byrne's plus other issues by Fred Kida, Alan Kupperberg, Frank Springer, Don Perlin, Rich Buckler, Carmine Infantino, Jerry Bingham, Gene Colan and Lee Elias. Additionally issue #257 included a couple of filler reprints from Not Brand Echh #11 & #12, both by Marie Severin. Also reprinted are a handful of letterspages on which Roger Stern expounds his approach to the character and series. The labels see a separate post.

This is another volume that shows that when Cap gets a good committed creative team then things can start to gel with firm foundations and a strong string of exciting adventures, but that also when a team leaves suddenly the book quickly sinks back into the quagmire of fill-ins, aimless wandering, excessive flashbacks and sub par adventures. Still the good in this volume strongly outweighs the bad.

The volume starts off with a multi-part storyline in which Cap faces off against the National Force, a bunch of modern day American neo-Nazis who brainwash crowds into support for their racial war. In the process, it is revealed that the National Force's Grand Director is the Captain America of the 1950s under the influence of Doctor Faustus. Over the course of successive issues Cap is forced to face down foes who were once friends and a man with his own face, with little help save for Daredevil. At one point Cap himself is brainwashed and winds up fighting for the National Force with a swastika painted on his shield. It's a chilling image that underlines how easy it is to take patriotism and unity and turn them into divisive weapons of hate. Equally chilling is the way that individual members of the National Force choose to incinerate themselves rather than risk capture.

But as well as the National Force seeking to purge America of "undesirable" elements, the storyline also serves as a grand clearing out of a lot of elements of Captain America's mythology. The very first pages see the Falcon confirm that he is going solo for now. Over the course of these issues Cap also cuts on his formal ties to S.H.I.E.L.D., though he accepts one final mission under a fill-in writer that takes him to the Himalayas where he has to rescue a telepathic girl from the Mind-Master and a whole range of henchmen, some more real than others. As Steve Rogers, Cap briefly revives his role as a police officer only to abandon it, symbolically stripping off his uniform in the commissioner's office and leaving it there as he goes into costumed action. The 1950s Cap is underused in the story, providing little more than a shock cliffhanger and a chance to clear him out as well when he seemingly kills himself by incineration. But even more shocking are the fates of two of Captain America's partners. A flashback in issue #236 reveals how, as a test to demonstrate his brainwashing was totally complete, the 1950s Cap accepted an order to shoot and kill Bucky. He may not have been the original Bucky, but that's due to a latter-day retcon and nonetheless he was the partner of the Captain America of the day. Casually killing him off in a flashback in which he doesn't even get to speak feels like a quick sweeping away of the character as part of a grand clear out of just about all the elements in Cap's life. Then the following issue goes on step further.

Earlier in the story Sharon has succumbed to the brainwashing and become another of the National Force spreading hate and fear on the streets. She is part of a group that gets into a confrontation with Cap but then she disappears and is not clearly seen when the others incinerate themselves to a crisp, leaving her fate uncertain. After the defeat of Faustus and the Force, Cap gives a press conference to explain his actions whilst under the influence of the brainwashing, and is then taken aside and shown news footage of his earlier fight. There he sees Sharon incinerate herself. It's a dark moment, made all the worse for taking place in the back of a news van as Cap plays the tape over and over again, realising there's nothing he can do for her now. Their relationship often came under pressure because their work often kept them apart, yet here they were so close to each other and he didn't even see her fate. It's a time when a major character's death in flashback works well, but coming so soon after the casual disposal of the 1950s Bucky and the dropping of so many other aspects of Cap's life and the result is a full cleaning of the slate over just seven issues.

The slate doesn't remain blank for long though. After some time away off panel, Steve soon finds a new home, a new career and a new supporting cast. Settling in a flat in Brooklyn, he goes into business as a freelance artist, leading to many a good joke about how artists struggle for work and have to deal with all kinds of bizarre clients. His portfolio case makes for a good hiding place for his shield in a change from forever hiding it on his back. Meanwhile Steve's building contains a variety of other tenants, each with their own career and back story making for a good supporting cast. The motherly figure of the building is Anna Kapplebaum, a survivor of the Holocaust who was saved in the camps by Cap's intervention many years ago; although she doesn't make the connection she finds she somehow recognises Steve and takes an instant liking to him. She is forced to relive her memories when the camp doctor, Dr Mendelhaus, resurfaces and is sought both by neo-Nazis based in Latin America and by Nazi hunters. In the resulting confrontation she finds herself facing her former tormentor holding a pistol. Less developed at this stage is Mike Farrell, a fire-fighter. Then there's Josh Cooper, a teacher of children with special needs. And, although she doesn't arrive until the Stern-Byrne run, there's Bernie Rosenthal, a glass blower who was at university with Mike. She almost has "future girlfriend" written on her forehead, taking an instant liking to him but getting frustrated with his frequent disappearances, including when he gets a phone call summoning him to the United Kingdom just when they're on the sofa together. It's a good mix of likeable characters who give Steve a strong life away from the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. as well as offering strong story potential such as when one of the pupils at Joe's school suddenly dies and his father goes a grief-fuelled act of vengeance against members of the education board, the social security officer and his son's teacher, blaming them all for the death.

Roger McKenzie's run fizzles out in a sea of fill-ins with Cap facing a number of forgettable foes such as Bobo and Big Thunder, local mobsters trying to drive a man out of his home when he's the last tenant in a building and then trying to create a reputation by defeating Cap. Or there's the Manipulator, a being with two faces that subjects Cap to hallucinations after being hired by revenge seeking ex-police sergeant Muldoon. Or Adonis, a man whose attempt to replace his body goes disastrously wrong. The fill-ins at the end of the volume aren't much either, with Cap returning to a British castle where he dealt with a rocket during the war and now he has to deal with shrinking rays and the mysterious Druid. Or there's the Master of Matrix Eight, another neo-Nazi group headed by a former assistant of Baron Zemo. More notable is the first encounter between Cap and the Punisher, making for a strong contrast in their crime-fighting methods yet also showing some of the similarities between the two men.

But the big highlight of this volume is the run by Roger Stern and John Byrne. It comprises just nine issues (#247 to #255) and yet it delivers a high octane run that quickly grasps the core concept of Cap and proceeds to put him through a good mix of adventures with grand scale threats and closer, more personal moments. It also manages to deliver two memorable anniversary issues, both for issue #250 and for the character's fortieth anniversary in issue #255. Amongst the highlights is a sorting out of Cap's origin in the very first issue. In the space of just four pages much of the confusion added in the last volume is swept away as a set of artificially implanted memories, with Steve's roots as a New York child of poverty during the Great Depression restored, and to back it up Cap discovers his old army trunk and journal. Later issue #255 contains a retelling of Cap's origin and summation of his career, with much of it even produced directly from the pencils, producing a suitably retro Golden Age feel. Details are sorted out such as the name of the inventor of the Super Soldier Serum or the reasons behind the early changes in the costume and shield. The result is a comprehensive version of the origin that can stand as the definitive without too much querying. (Although it does seem to implicitly delete the adventure in Newfoundland right before Cap went on ice for decades, though that's an addition to the saga that's best forgotten.)

Issue #250 came out in a presidential election year and sees the New Populist Party attempt to draft Cap as their candidate for President after he saves their convention from terrorists. There are some subtle jabs at both the standard procession of serving politicians as candidates, at the usual assumption by third parties that only they can offer anything positive, and also at the desire for a leader that people trust and respect regardless of his experience and positions. It's one of the more gentle parodies of US politics that Marvel have done over the years but it allows Cap to make an assertion of his role in serving the American dream over and above the nation in reality.

The rest of the run puts Cap up against a number of different foes in some unusual combinations such as Machine Smith and Dragon Man plus robotic versions of both Baron Strucker and various Marvel heroes, or Mr Hyde and Batroc who find they have very different approaches to threatening New York City for money. But the highlight comes as Cap visits the UK where the vampire Baron Blood is once more stalking the land and threatening his brother, the original Union Jack. The story serves as a climax for both one of Cap's former fellow Invaders and his arch nemesis but also as a rebirth for a hero's spirit. Overall this is a well drawn and strongly scripted run with both creators firing at all strength and it well deserves its reputation.

This volume somewhat encapsulates the problems that the series has had over the years with the best creative teams rarely lasting long and a sea of weaker runs and fill-in issues leaving things in a mess with underdeveloped elements in the present and awkward additions to the character's past. But it also shows how it is possible to get beyond many of the problems by making a concerted effort to clear up messier points and clarify the past, allowing for the character to be taken back to his basic position as a champion for the American dream. Here we get both good clean-ups and one of the strongest, if shortest lasting, runs yet seen in the series, making for a volume where the good heavily outweighs the bad.

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