Sunday, October 10, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Captain America (vol. 3)

In the mid-90s, Mark Waid and Ron Garney did something like ten issues of Cap before handing the book over to Rob Liefeld and Jeph Loeb for “Heroes Reborn.” According to Waid, the deal was in place before Waid and Garney came on, only nobody told them. Marvel was then left with some egg on its face, because the Waid/Garney “fill-in” combo turned out to be a critical sensation that got the book more attention than it had in years, only to be cleared away for the critical failure that followed. And so when the “Heroes Reborn” storyline/experiment ended, the choice for the “new” creative team was obvious. Waid and Garney are back, and it’ll be like they never left!

But it couldn’t be just like that, and there’s two reasons why. The first is the more obvious – because the original run had the mystique of being a good run cut down before its time, Waid and Garney would not only be in competition with themselves, but with that hype. But just as importantly, I’d argue, the climate in the comics world had changed. Waid/Garney v.1 wasn’t a success because it was a brightly colored retro superhero book at the tail end of the dark ages. No, the book itself and its milieu were just as dark as anything on the shelves at the time, very much not what’s come to be known (sometimes dimissively but often reductively) as “fun” comics; it was Captain America himself who was brightly colored and retro in the middle of some dark comics, and that was the magic formula – once a man out of time, Captain America was now a man out of zeitgeist. By the time Waid and Garney were back, however, Marvel was in full retro mode, and so that approach wouldn’t mean the same things anymore.

I can’t speak to whether it was intentional or not (and I don’t really care; authorial intention be damned, discovering and developing your own meanings and interpretations is one of the great pleasures of the arts, and don’t let anybody take it away from you), but the storyline in the first seven issues of the relaunched Captain America (Garney left after #5 to do an ill-fated Hulk relaunch with John Byrne) seems to converse with these problems.

Presumed dead at the end of the “Onslaught” crossover, Captain America’s return becomes something very much like the Second Coming in the eyes of the American people, and Cap’s off-put by his new status as icon. Of course, “hero is uncomfortable with being the subject of hero worship” isn’t anything new in superhero comics (it’s a story told so often with Superman these days – Waid’s favorite superhero, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence – that you can be forgiven a groan when you see it polished off again), and hasn’t Cap been declared dead and returned so many times you’d think the public would be used to it by now? But I can’t help reading Cap’s hesitation as Waid’s, blown up to appropriately superheroic proportions (again, even if the thought never crossed Waid’s mind). “I’m not a messiah, I’m just a soldier/comic book writer!”

But see, it’s more complex than you might think, because Cap’s humility is not self-delusional. He knows he’s not really “just another guy”; he knows he’s exceptional, and he does want Captain America to mean something. And Waid, I’m sure, wouldn’t have taken that initial Captain America gig if he’d known it was just to fill a publication gap until someone else could take the job away; he knows he wrote a good Captain America, and he wanted to write the best damn Captain America comic he possibly could. Cap and Waid both believe in themselves, both strive for excellence; the concern is that everybody else’s perceptions and expectations might be inflated.

So what makes this aspect of the storyline so compelling is that it isn’t a matter of “all hero worship is inherently bad,” because Cap wants to be a good example for His Fellow Americans, and Waid wants you to think he wrote some good comics. My favorite issue of this run is #4, where Captain America and Hawkeye go out on the town and hash it out. Hawkeye isn’t troubled at all by “Capmania,” and really he’s not the sort of guy who’d shy away from attention, but it’s his contention that Cap really does deserve it. And that in itself is touching – the guy with the arrows who was always after Cap’s job as leader in those early Avengers issues has matured and thinks better of ol’ “Methuselah”. He still serves to antagonize Cap (it's a hoot for him rubbing the crappy merchandizing in Cap's face, he buys an oversized Captain America helmet, and tells a news crew about a bunch of absurd Chuck Norris-like reasons why Cap is so great, including that he gave Galactus a wedgie and used to tour with Fleetwood Mac). But that antagonism is constructive rather than destructive – Hawkeye makes jokes to get his friend to lighten up. And Cap really does need a friend like Hawkeye. At the height of his brooding, Cap laments that because of his newfound superstardom, he can’t even leave Avengers which point the more grounded Hawkeye comes up with the solution Cap is too inward-focused to have thought of: he tells Steve to take off the costume and just walk around like a dude.

It becomes a little unsatisfactory toward the end – Captain America claims that even he was “seduced” by Capmania, and yet the only moment where I can see him doing anything but chafing at the attention is a tiny smile that escapes his lips when a crowd is chanting his name. I understand that it makes for a more satisfying character arc to give into the hype and then see the error of your ways, but frankly if that is the only thing he did, I am going to say you should not have to beat yourself up over this, Steve! If I had a giant statue of me in Japan and action figures and a movie and people screaming my name, I might smirk just a little bit too!

So. Then we get to the second problem facing Waid and Garney at the dawn of their second run, the problem of how to be relevant in the face of changing times. And, obligingly for my pseudo-thesis, Waid makes it explicit in an interior monologue in #4:

“Now more than ever, people are looking to me for answers I’m not sure I have. I talk a lot about the American dream, the American way…but talking’s easy. In fact, after the Onslaught fight, I was gone for a while…and my absence didn’t exactly cripple the nation. […] If Captain America’s going to matter in the new millennium, he’s going to have to start being proactive…not reactive. But what do I do to make a difference in this complicated world nowadays?”
I am tempted again to read a little Cap-as-Waid here. Indeed Waid was gone from the title awhile after the Onslaught fight! That’s taking it a bit too far, I’m sure, but Waid does seem to be grappling with the question of relevance, the same as Cap. At first thought, however, you might not understand why. After all, Waid’s won, hasn’t he? One of comicdom’s greatest modern Silver Age boosters writing Captain America again in the middle of a full-on retro craze. Mission accomplished, eh?

But despite the fact that Mark Waid can name every single member ever to serve in the Legion of Super-Heroes or that he purportedly memorized Clark Kent’s Social Security number, he is a disciplined writer, and like a discplined writer, he is quite never satisfied in what he’s done. Much like what I’ve said about Kurt Busiek, he’s not out simply to scratch a nostalgia itch (even though he could've gotten away with it). At this late-90s Marvel, where everything old is new again, you could simply do a modern take on a Captain America vs. Batroc the Leaper battle and call it a day.

And in that much-loved issue #4, Cap does fight Batroc. But, and here’s the thing, he does it grudgingly. This Captain America searching for relevance doesn’t really want to get sucked into “Cap vs. Batroc, Round 27.” He’s forced to, because this is superhero comics, after all, but after he’s done, he describes the fight (and, quite cheekily of Mr. Waid, the entire superhero thrust of the issue) as “a completely pointless way to spend and afternoon.”

“I wasn’t defending my country. I waasn’t fighting to protect the innocent. I was brawling because some idiot came gunning for me. What a pathetic waste of time. […] I fought a battle I’ve fought a dozen times before…and it did nothing to make the world a better place. This wasn’t a heroic act. It was a wrestling match…with just as little at stake.”
He walks a fine line, very nearly criticizing the reader who bought this issue because, hey, Batroc! But personally I think Waid pulls it off - do a straight-up supercharacters fight, and then deflate it with commentary. Yep, that's the ol' Marvel style, all right.

Ooh, running long. I really really liked the first storyline in this series, you guys. I’d like to say a bit about the conclusion to that arc, because I think it’s one of the best uses of an established Marvel Universe concept we’ve seen in the modern era. But I also don’t wish to spoil a genuine surprise on the off chance I could convince any of you to go track down these issues. Perhaps we might take it to the comments, but perhaps not.

So I’ll close by talking about Ron Garney, because this series is a true collaboration between writer and artist (Waid once remarked, too humbly, I’m sure, that it was Garney who made the first run a success, and that he was merely along for the ride). Garney’s art on the first run made a splash, and yeah, it was nice, and Captain America himself hadn’t looked so good in years. But by the time "Heroes Return" rolled around, Garney made the leap from really quite good to phenomenal.

Man, his storytelling chops on these issues. His layout and compositions are breathtaking. Issue #4 begins with one of the best splash panels I have ever seen. Oh, look, I can actually show you this one, thanks to Waid himself posting it: Credit must go to Waid for figuring out how to pack a whole lotta information into one single image like that, but it wouldn’t work without Garney’s sheer talent behind it. This page doesn’t read as anything like a single frame of a movie (what a waste that would be of a great concept). No, there’s time in this panel, there’s movement. I don’t feel like I’m looking at this panel, I am watching it.

Garney does it even better in the intro sequence to issue #2 and man oh man do I wish I had a scanner (again) to show you this. Track it down, you won’t be sorry, but there’s a shot of a Hydra agent kicking down the door, and I would swear to you that the image is moving on the page. Garney really is a master of timing and pacing, which we don’t see enough of in modern comics art. He can slow time down with some long shots and small panels, and then instantly crank up the speed with a big action-packed panel. So often we see splash pages in the middle of the story that don’t really add anything (this isn’t a knock on current artists; this has always been the case); it comes off like the artist got bored and wanted to draw a flashy pin-up for his portfolio. Not so with Garney. He uses half- and full-page splashes fairly liberally, actually, but they always hit at exactly the right moments. You will forgive the expression, but…these are money shots.

It’s sad to see Garney go in this series. Doug Braithwaite pencils #6 and the first half of #7, and he does a fine job. After that, Andy Kubert takes over the art chores, and things certainly get more stylish; I shan’t say a word against him. Their first real storyline together gets Cap out of his comfort zone and dealing with Doctor Strange’s enemy Nightmare, and it’s pretty good. After #13 (a really nice single issue, it must be said) my interest in the series declines a little bit. There’s a Red-Skull-gets-the-Cosmic-Cube-again storyline that segues into a return-of-Korvac time-travel story, and then back to the Red Skull storyline. The Korvac storyline is good in places (he keeps rebooting time every time Captain America forms a resistance to his rule in the future, but no matter what he tries, Captain America is always there, in spirit if not always in flesh), but the Red Skull storyline never really hooked me. Then there’s some tying up of loose ends involving Cap’s missing shield that are okay superhero comics as well.

I do wonder what they would have been like with Garney still on board, though.


plok said...

I think I missed all of these -- I should look 'em up! -- but on Waid, I've thought for a long time he wasn't really the "retro guy" at all, but the guy who read Watchmen and thought "I could do some shit with superhero comics, you know"...sort of like how Grant Morrison reads all whacked-out, but underneath tells extremely traditional stories. Waid's justly famous for being Mr. Silver Age, but I think he likes an edgier sort of tension than, say, Busiek...he wants to push envelopes a little, scuff things up, serve the reader up some anxiety along with the comfort food. Oddly, I would say that puts him in a class with Byrne. And, I think it's one of the things that makes his writing so effective when he's hitting on all cylinders: things are never quite "safe" for the reader.

Sounds like Classic-Cap-In-Darkened-World would've been something he could really sink his teeth into!

Justin said...

Yeah, Busiek and Waid ARE actually quite different in their approaches. Busiek is extremely faithful to the LETTER of the source material; it's his OWN approach to it that he applies the discipline to. "Stan and Jack NEVER had a bad idea, so I've just got to find out how to make this stuff work." Waid, however, is faithful to the SPIRIT of the source material; he'll chuck out something if he thinks it doesn't work anymore. "This is lame, isn't it? Yeah, it's maybe a little TOO goofy. I'll just cut that."

Like, Waid is totally into the idea of the old red kryptonite; it comes up in his JLA, in his Brave and the Bold. But he doesn't just have Superman turn into a fish or grow an invulnerable beard or whatever, he looks at those old stories and thinks, "Man, red kryptonite...that's MESSED UP, if you think about it! You could do body horror with Superman!" and runs with it.

But that can also be Waid's weakness sometimes, I think. He can be a little TOO suspicious of all that stuff he used to like and get self-conscious. You can see it in his Flash, the way he rarely used the Rogues, and when he did he made sure you knew these guys were REALLY SERIOUS, I'M TELLING YOU. Waid I'm not sure would have dared to bring back the Shaggy Man the way Morrison did. "No way I'm touching that!"

Waid, from what I've read of interviews, comes off as kind of a cynical dude, but one who would LIKE to believe in someone like Superman or Captain America. Which is why I think he writes a good Lois Lane, because she's coming from the exact same place, right?

Justin said...

Come to that, Waid uses Sharon Carter (revealed to have been alive all this time behind enemy lines) in a similar fashion. Carter is Waid's cynicism and Cap is Waid's idealism, and this arrangment allows him to pit the two against each other and see who wins arguments.