Why I’m reading Captain America

Captain America has been appearing in my Into the Longbox reviews for a while, and usually with a vague note of approval that isn’t very convincing. Let’s see if I can change that.

First of all, I’m not a Captain America scholar. I know Arnim Zola from Baron Zemo, but basically Cap and I haven’t traveled much in the same circles. Still, Captain America is an iconic hero in the Marvel Universe, and it’s tough to be a comics fan and completely ignorant of him.

For those of you who aren’t mainstream comics readers (is anyone reading this who isn’t?), Captain America is Steve Rogers, who as a young man was injected with the only sample of the Super-Soldier Serum moments before its creator, Prof. Erksine was killed by Nazi saboteurs and his lab and notes destroyed. The serum was a whopping success and Steve became a champion of justice. More than that, with WWII in full swing at the time, Steve was christened Captain America given a teen sidekick (required in the 1940’s), Bucky, and went into the European theater. I just live for origin stories like that.

Cap and Bucky had many inspiring adventures in WWII, but in the closing days were captured by Baron Zemo. On escaping, Bucky was killed and Cap fell into the frigid waters of the North Sea, apparently killed.

Cap’s death was somewhat exaggerated; he turned up alive but in suspended animation in (originally) the mid-60s. His wake-up has been moving around a bit. He retains his powers and continues to fight against a variety of facists, though usually more James Bond villain than world leaders, though.

It’s a powerful character description: he’s the embodiment of the American values of the 1940’s thrown forward in time into the 21st century, a patriot who has spent his life in 2 eras trying to show his people and the world the best of America in an imperfect world. Despite his great victories, he wasn’t able to save the life of the young man who was like a son to him.

Great stuff. Other creators have done great work with these oversize themes. The ideals he represents and the man who represents them have been the subject of many stories, including an unfortunate 1970’s series where he went off to find himself. There were some interesting post-9/11 stories that originally drew me to the character. His relation with the military and espionage forces has been played with. Even the fact that he’s basically the product of a performance-enhancing drug has been picked at.

There are a few things that set the current run – the Brubaker/Epting run – apart from the other series I’m reading and the other Cap series I’m aware of. The current team is doing two important things: they’re making the thoughts and emotions of the characters the focus of the story and they’re not playing by the conventions of the Marvel Universe. These are operatic characters, but the focus is on the human side.

Epting’s art is a huge asset here. He keeps enough grit and dirt in the art to show that these Gods walk the Earth. More importantly, he focuses on the characters themselves even in the thick of an action-movie/superhero punch-up. Flip through an issue and it’s the faces of the players that you remember, not the shootouts. With art this expressive and clear Brubaker can rely on the visuals to tell his story, especially the stories inside their heads.

Colorists are under-appreciated, and Frank D’Armata deserves significant credit. The palette of this book is much darker than your usual four-color superhero comic, but he keeps the characters lit while maintaining the grim mood. This same art and story would be much less effective without this illumination.

Brubaker’s writing is focused on the psychology but has a contemporary action-adventure feel. From the very beginnings of his run, he was making two things clear. First, this was going to be a very psychological book. Early in the run both Cap and his adversaries hallucinate and have reasons to distrust their memories, and maybe their identities. Several of the characters heads are houses of mirrors; the Red Skull is either vying with Alex Lukin for control of his mind, or Lukin’s cracking up. The Red Skull’s daughter is either a sociopath created by the Skull or a 15-year-old girl tortured into believing that she is a sociopath. Sharon Carter is Cap’s lover or murderer or both. Even when no one’s getting shot at, the tension crackles off the pages.

And then there’s Bucky. There are two characters that a Marvel reader could count on to stay dead in a universe where the pearly gates are revolving doors: Ben Parker and Bucky Barnes. Bucky has turned up alive; this is no less a shock than if M turned out to be a double agent or if D’artagnan were a spy in the service of the English crown.

As important as the fact that Bucky’s revival was handled believably and dramatically – and it has, I’ve been touched more than once by Bucky’s story – is that it happened at all. It’s a very clear signal that the usual constraints on a Marvel story do not apply to this book.

This focus on the people who make up the world combined with the demonstrated possibility that anything could happen keeps me reading.

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