Comic Picks By The Glick

Captain America by Ed Brubaker vol. 4

August 25, 2013

After nineteen volumes, it’s over at last.

Except for occasional bits of cleverness, Brubaker’s run on “Captain America” has been on a steady downward slide since “No Escape.”  In that volume, Baron Zemo notched a win over on Bucky and the villains in this series have basically been doing that to the heroes ever since.  Sin and Crossbones did it in “The Trial of Captain America,” that head of the prison camp got the info he wanted in “Prisoner of War,” and an entirely new character, Codename Bravo, managed the same in the first volume of the relaunch.  This trend has made the series turn into a depressing slog regardless of the quality of the art and has also made me consider selling off all of the volumes released after “Two Americas” because I can’t see myself going back to re-read these again.

Captain America has always been viewed one of the most “square” of Marvel heroes with his unwavering moral compass and roots in a very black-and-white conflict used to allow for very little moral ambiguity or complexity in his stories.  That’s why when Brubaker started his run all these years ago and put the character on the ropes with the return of Bucky it felt like a breath of fresh air.  Here was a creator who wasn’t afraid to shake things up and take the character in new and unsettling directions.  He even killed the character off in the wake of “Civil War” and regardless of how editorially-driven that action may have been, we got a compelling story out of it and the event served to make Bucky into a worthy successor to the title and a viable character in his own right.

However, the cracks in the writer’s run were even starting to show back then.  The only reason the good guys won at the end of the “Death of Captain America” arc wasn’t because of any ingenuity on their part, but because Dr. Faustus betrayed the Red Skull by undoing the brainwashing he had performed on Sharon Carter.  In fact, it’s really not hard to see why Brubaker would be more drawn to the villains in this series as the man’s best work has always revolved around such morally compromised individuals.  Holden Carver in “Sleeper” is a perfect example of this, as is Zack Overkill in “Incognito.”

“Captain America:  Reborn” was the rare exception in the writer’s run where he had the good guys display some real cleverness in taking out their antagonists, with Cap utilizing his “unstuck in time” situation to good effect.  We also finally got to see the Red Skull definitively taken down for all of the crap that he had been causing since the start of the series.  It really cemented the quality of Brubaker’s run for me.  At the time, anyway.

Now let me say this:  I own more volumes of Brubaker’s “Captain America” than I do of comics featuring the character’s solo exploits combined.  While I enjoyed it a great deal for quite a while, the writer’s refusal to play ball with standard superhero conventions eventually became more wearying than exciting.  Not only is Cap supposed to represent the best parts of American determination, capability, and ingenuity, but as a superhero he’s supposed to find a clever way to outsmart the bad guys at the end that doesn’t just involve punching them in the face.  I’m not sure if we ever got to see that from the character in this run, though Sharon Carter managed to put one over on the Machinesmith in vol. 2 of the renumbered run.  Instead, we were treated to seeing a hero and his comrades constantly lose and constantly remain one step behind the bad guys because apparently that’s what Brubaker wanted to write about.  This kind of approach can be done, yet what we got was the writer disregarding some 50-odd years of superhero convention and not replacing it with anything significantly better.

So the only way this volume could’ve redeemed the latter half of Brubaker’s run was to do just that.  Long story short:  it did not.  I was kicking around the idea of doing this review as a skit involving Marvel Editorial discussing the need to have Cullen Bunn co-write this last arc because Brubaker’s idea of a finish would have Codename Bravo, Hydra and Zemo triumphant over the entire Marvel Universe at the end.  What really put the nail in that idea is that Bunn’s contribution to the story here doesn’t really distinguish itself from what we’ve been getting already in this title.

The volume opens up with some new villains, the Discordians, attacking Times Square while Cap and the Falcon arrive on the scene to take them down.  While the manage to contain the attacks to a certain extent, the villains soon burn themselves out in front of them and rather than being appreciative of the heroes’ efforts, the public is glued to political pundit Reed Braxton’s takedown of Cap being broadcast throughout the nation.  Though Braxton has every right to express his views, we soon find out that the real man died some time ago and that the person ripping Cap to shreds is someone else.  If you thought that this, and the Discordian attack was all part of Hydra, Codename Bravo and Zemo’s plot to destabilize America, then you thought right.  Now it becomes a race against time for our heroes to dismantle this nefarious plot.

At four issues, the overall story is fast-paced and full of action with little space for the narrative to flag or get dull.  The various plot threads from the past three volumes also come together nicely, showing us that there was some long-term planning going on here.  It’s an efficient piece of craftsmanship from Brubaker and Bunn and features some solid art from Scot Eaton.  Yet the climax of the story hinges on Cap showing up at the bad guys’ secret hideout and punching them out.  I don’t know why I was expecting anything more than that, but I guess that’s my problem.  There’s also some talk at the end about a “new world” now that the corruption within the country has been exposed, but that simply comes off as a token effort to try and make the story seem like it had more depth than it did.

Then we get to the final issue which has Cap relieving William Naslund -- the Captain America of the 1950s who Brubaker brought back for his run -- of his duty while re-stating his own commitment to the role of Captain America.  The story’s heart is in the right place, I’ll give it that, yet the character has done this whole “I’m going to carry the burden of being Captain America because I’m the only one who can,” schtick so many times over the years that it’s hard to really be affected by this story.  While it may also be tying up a loose end from the writer’s run, there’s very little here that speaks as a summation of it.  In fact, the story is packed with references to the character’s other adventures that are likely to be lost on the readers who are only familiar with Brubaker’s work.

Here’s my summation of everything:  Brubaker’s “Captain America” was good up through “Two Americas” and then slowly disintegrated as he refused to let the character really triumph over the bad guys.  I’m glad that he’s walking away from Marvel to focus on more creator-owned work.  His new series “Velvet,” an espionage thriller from his “Cap” collaborator Steve Epting, sounds good and it won’t have the expectations of the superhero genre to hold it back.  After all of these mediocre “Captain America” stories I’ve read from him over the past couple years, I’m looking forward to see what that’s like.

Jason Glick

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