Saturday, September 27, 2008

Comic Book of the Week: Captain America #42

This issue of Captain America is, just like the previous 41 issues, a well-written, well-drawn, expertly crafted superhero comic, and it seamlessly ties up all the plot threads from the past three-and-a-half years.

So why am I dropping the book?

Blame Civil War and the subsequent death of the original Captain America, Steve Rogers.

Civil War, of course, turned the Marvel Universe into a fascist state and committed character assassinations on Tony Stark and Reed Richards. But the damage to Captain America, the character and the book, was more insidious. Civil War ended with the poorly motivated surrender-to-the-authorities of the anti-fascism Captain America. Immediately afterward, in Captain America #25, Captain America was publicly gunned down; the shooter was eventually revealed to be one of his closest allies (in more ways than one), Sharon Carter, who was being mind-controlled by a cabal of villains headed by Captain America's arch-nemesis, the Red Skull. Over the next year-and-a-half, James Barnes a.k.a. Cap's WWII sidekick, Bucky, and latterly the vicious Winter Soldier, became the new Captain America, complete with a gun! A harsher Cap for harsher times, we were told by Marvel's spin-doctors. I don't buy it -- I think Cap should be a shining symbol of the less-harsh options, ESPECIALLY in harsher times. Meanwhile, Sharon Carter was revealed to be pregnant with Steve Rogers' child, leading to further victimization by the villains and a miscarriage. Ugly stuff, no matter how well-crafted.

Now, understand, I had no problem with the basic concept of Steve Rogers being replaced. Back in the mid-90s, the late writer Mark Gruenwald wrapped up his long run on Captain America with an interminable story about Cap slowly dying. At the time, I was hoping that Cap might be replaced by Rachel Leighton, a.k.a. Diamondback, a reformed costumed villainess who, in an eerie parallel with Sharon Carter's future fate, became Cap's lover and was victimized by the forces of evil. I knew it was a long shot because the majority of the audience for superheroes is male; even today, with more fangirls and female creators than ever before, the audience is still mostly male. So, in the end, Cap survived, Mark Waid took over the writing and wrote out all of Gruenwald's supporting cast, and brought Sharon Carter back from the dead (she had first appeared in the 60s, before being killed off in the 70s.) Fast forward to 2004 and, after many, many, many false starts, Cap's book was relaunched with Ed Brubaker writing and the great Steve Epting (Avengers, Aquaman, Crux, El Cazador) drawing. I came in with issue #18 and caught up with the previous ones thorough trades. It was great stuff: Brubaker was doing Cap stories that were up there with those of Roger Stern, Steve Englehart, and his personal favorite, Jim Steranko. And Epting was Epting, one of the modern masters of sequential art. Little did I know that Civil War and its repercussions were just around the corner. While I don't consider myself a fan of Sharon Carter, I actually held out hope for a few issues that she, and not James Barnes, would become the next Captain America. But it wasn't to be. In one of the most anti-climactic passing-of-the-torches, Barnes inherited the Cap identity, and Carter was reduced to vengeful victim, with the implication that the "vengeful" part made it okay -- and it doesn't.

I kept buying the book mostly for Epting. But the recent announcement that, after #42, Epting would begin alternating story arcs with Luke Ross, provided me with a welcome excuse to drop the book.

Let's face it: in pop culture, sometimes good craftsmanship just isn't enough.

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