by The Masked Bookwyrm
"1941! The world at war! And in a secret laboratory, frail Steve Rogers became the American super-soldier! -- until a freak stroke of fate threw him into suspended animation! Since that fateful day...he has sought his destiny in this brave new world!"
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For other Captain America appearances, see
The Avengers, The Invaders Classics, Daredevil: Born Again
Captain America is published by Marvel Comics
Captain America: Bicentennial Battles 2005 (SC TPB) 176 pages
and drawn by Jack Kirby. Inks by Frank Giacoia, John Romita, others.
Reprinting: Marvel Treasury Special featuring Captain America's Bicentennial Battles, Captain America #201-205 (1976-1977) - with covers.
Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
Jack Kirby had a looong history with Captain America. He co-created the character in the 1940s with Joe Simon. Then he revived him in the 1960s with Stan Lee. Then Kirby returned to the character in the 1970s, this time as the triple-threat writer-artist-editor.
Marvel has begun collecting the whole of Kirby's 1970s run on Captain America in a series of sequential TPBs, of which this is the second volume. In addition to five issues of the Captain America monthly, this reprints the initially treasury-sized special, Captain America's Bicentennial Battles, which I'm guessing is hard to find and has probably appreciated a fair amount over the years.
Kirby's solo work evokes mixed feelings, even from Kirby fans. As an artist, his raw, craggy, style is dynamic, and his approach to action and histrionics is seen as having had an influence on the entire medium -- hence why his right to the nickname "King" Kirby hasn't been challenged in all these decades. At the same time...it is raw and unpolished, lacking the realism, the beauty other artists brought to their work. And it could be argued his visual peak was the late-1960s/early 1970s and by this point his art was becoming less refined.
And as a writer: he seemed all over the map. At times he writes with a juvenile style of corny exclamations and cartoony characterizations...at other times, it seems meant to be sophisticated and adult, using "big" words and tackling deeper themes. Heck in one issue he might have Cap exclaim "My God!" (a kind of adult exclamation) and then later shout "Jumping Fireballs!"
There's a madness to Kirby's writing -- anything goes -- resulting in hit and miss of intriguingg nuance and painful clunkiness. He borrows the old Marvel-style hyperbole, with captions claiming something may be "the strangest story ever told!!!", but forgets that when Stan Lee got away with it there was a certain tongue-in-cheek.
I've long had mixed reaction to Kirby's work. But as an adult, particularly after reading his New Gods material, I became more appreciative of its strengths, even enjoying the childishness more as an adult than I did as a child.
Anyway, the Bicentennial treasury story -- written during America's bicentennial -- is a strange beast. At a whopping 80 pages, it has Cap encountering an enigmatic mystic, Mr. Buda, who sends Cap on an episodic journey through American history. Kirby was also working on a comic book adaptation of the enigmatic film, "2001: A Space Odyssey", at the time, and clearly channels that spirit into this saga. And in a weird way, it works -- it's an atmospheric, occasionally eerie, sometimes profound odyssey. Sombre and introspective...but also quirky and, occasionally, satirical. And it defies obvious expectations. Some scenes involve historical figures...but a lot involve "anonymous" people in historically "insignificant" moments, the scenes taking on an added power precisely because we (and Cap) are only allowed glimpses.
As modern comics have become hopelessly mired in incestuous self-reflection, I can't help thinking if some modern writer were to tell this story, it would simply be an excuse to have the hero encounter characters from the company's fictional history (look, it's the Rawhide Kid! look, it's Dominic Fortune!) Kirby astutely avoids that, other than a sequence involving Cap's (then)-long dead sidekick, Bucky -- which has emotional resonance for Cap (and a scene involving a Depression-era paperboy might be intended to be Kirby himself). And the story avoids the blind jingoism of other bicentennial-themed comics (there were a lot in 1976), as Cap's travels involve the dark as well as the light. Even calling it "Bicentennial Battles" is misleading: there is action, but despite Kirby's traditional penchant for big battle scenes, this is a talkier, more introspective story. In fact, some of the more exciting "action" scenes are atypical...like Cap being caught with miners in a cave in. Perhaps the flip side to Kirby's kind of blunt, clunky writing style is that it keeps the story pounding along, so that even as I say it's "talky"...it clips along quite well.
Many writers tended to approach Cap more as an iconic paragon of American confidence and manifest destiny, than as a guy in a union suit. However in the Stan Lee-scripted stories reprinted in Essential Captain America, vol. 2 (some done in collaboration with Kirby) Cap came across as a human being, with warts and all. And Kirby's solo-scripted stories contain some of that, too. This is a human Cap, one capable of being a bit snarky, or of panicking. It's hard to picture a later writer, in a scene where Cap's vehicle goes out of control, having the unflappable Cap exclaim a surprised: "Yaaaa!" Indeed, it's Cap's reactions to his situation in the Bicentennial epic, as much as the situations themselves, that make it compelling.
The five issues of the regular monthly comic comprise two story arcs, and here there's some good ideas, marred by poor execution, and some decent execution, marred by silly ideas. The monthly comic co-starred the Falcon and Kirby approaches the material as if it's more than just Cap...and sidekick (at one point a character recognizes the Falcon...yet then doesn't know who Captain America is!) At times, Cap seems like a prominent character...but not necessarily the "star" as Kirby will use others to help tell the tales, sometimes to mixed effect. The lasso wielding "Texas" Jack Muldoon is a particularly outrageous character. (But may reflect Kirby's attempt to develop a theme; the climax of that story arc is called "The Alamo II"...and the real life battle of the Alamo involved three historical figures, and so Kirby may've felt that, to create a resonance, he needed a third player in addition to Cap and the Falcon).
Kirby plays up romantic troubles Cap's having with girlfriend Sharon Carter, though it's a characterization curiously at odds with Essential Captain America 2. In those stories, Sharon was a SHIELD secret agent, and Cap was uncomfortable with her career. Yet here, Sharon is the traditional girlfriend, complaining about Cap's super hero life. But I realize that (arguably sexist) change in the relationship dynamics had occurred long before Kirby's assuming the writing chores on the comic, and he can't be faulted for it.
The stories here are more fantasy and sci-fi oriented than a lot of Cap stories...yet also benefit from an originality, as no familiar or recurring foes appear. The three parter from #201-203 is an interesting story involving mysterious street people who steal by night and vanish, eventually involving another dimension and battles with monsters. It's got a lot of wild ideas, and quirky execution, but maybe suffers from its length, padded out with some repetition. The final two-parter actually boasts some genuine, building creepiness, involving a possessed corpse...though it climaxes in just a standard big fight scene.
Ultimately, I continue to have a love/hate relationship with Kirby's work. Sometimes the mix of childishness and sophistication, big fights and philosophical ruminations, wrapped around outrageous, anything-goes plotting, works...and sometimes it doesn't. Ultimately, despite being 176 pages, this comprises only three stories -- a kind of modest number. But I'm kind of mixed as to how I should rate this. Enjoyment-wise, the Bicentennial Battles epic almost justifies the book on its own and might warrant **** stars (and the original has probably appreciated enough that even if you found it, it might not be any cheaper than this TPB), and the rest of the material, though uneven, is not without its entertainment. In a Kirby sort of way.
Cover price: $__ CDN./19.99 USA.
Captain America: The Bloodstone Hunt 1993 (SC TPB) 128 pgs.
by Mark Gruenwald. Pencils by Kieron Dwyer. Inks by Danny Bulandi.
Colour: Bob Sharen, Greg Wright, Marc Siry. Letters: Jack Morelli. Editor: Ralph Macchio.
Reprints: Captain America #357-364 (1989) -- with some editing.
Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
One of the strongest memories I have of Captain America is an angst-riddled run by Steve Englehart in the mid-'70s (when I was just a wee lad) set against the turmoil of the times of political corruption, inner city riots, and the Vietnam War.
The Bloodstone Hunt isn't like that.
However it also avoids the jingoistic smugness that sometimes weighs the character down.
Cap's still blandly unflappable, never really seeming to lose his cool or even to sweat. But this isn't a character study, or an examination of social crises, nor is it an ad for America the Beautiful. Instead it's just meant to be...fun. The Bloodstone Hunt is nothing less than a light-hearted old movie serial with plenty of running about, daring do, trap doors, man-eating sharks and aerial dogfights, set amid lost cities, Egyptian pyramids, and other exotic locales.
It's strung together by Captain America and Diamondback (Cap goes through more sidekicks than Batman does Robins), a reformed villainess with a crush on him, in a race against villains Baron Zemo (Jr.) and his hired mercenaries Batroc, Machete and Zaran, aided by a psychic little person, Mr. Micawber, to find the bloodstones of Ulysses Bloodstone, another Marvel Comics hero. At this point in Marvel history, Ulysses Bloodstone had long since been killed off, and Zemo wants to track down the scattered fragments of Bloodstone's magical gem for reasons he keeps to himself.
If you shut off your brain and kick off your slippers, this has a lot of charm. It may seem odd to differentiate between this and any other super hero saga -- after all, super hero comics are generally action/adventure. But there's an "anything goes" flamboyance here that isn't always there in other comics where "action" is just restaging the same fight with the same villain in the same city for however many issues it takes before the story resolves. I mean, when was the last time a comic casually threw in a lost Inca village? Well, actually, the only other time that comes to mind was another flag-themed hero, the Canadian comicbook Captain Canuck (and you haven't lived until you've seen George Freeman draw a lost South American city).
There's character stuff in The Bloodstone Hunt -- Diamondback's desire to prove herself to Cap, or even Batroc's swashbuckling admiration for him. But by and large, that's subordinate to keeping everything racing along.
Beyond Mark Gruenwald's bouncy script, there's the pleasing art by Kieron Dwyer (inked by Danny Bulandi). In order to keep up the tempo, you need an artist who can draw action cleanly and clearly, and knows how to pace out a scene -- Dwyer's restrained art hits the spot. No cartoony exaggerations, just nicely drawn faces and figures, telling the story as it needs to be told. Dwyer has even gone on record as saying this story line was one of his career favourites.
The Bloodstone Hunt is undeniably fun...but mayhap a little too light. Like the movie serials to which I compared it, this is enjoyable nonsense, but it lacks substance. Worse, the story is everything, and ultimately Gruenwald fumbles things a bit.
To keep our interest beyond the moment-by-moment adventure, Gruenwald throws in questions, like how did the gems become scattered in such bizarre, out of the way locations? But he never answers those questions! In one scene Cap stumbles upon the remnants of an underground temple but, likewise, we are never told who built it or why. And the revelation of the identity of a mysterious third party searching for the stones is a let down.
The hunt for the bloodstones reaches a kind of half-hearted climax early, then the rest of the story is devoted to Cap trying to rescue Diamondback from another competitor in the search for the stones.
The story loses some charm toward the end as the all-in-fun rough housing gives way to people being killed, and Diamondback seems to be subjected to an undue number of knifings and pummellings overall (not to mention losing pieces of her clothing). The rather shabby treatment afforded Ulysses Bloodstone's corpse is also a sticking point. One wonders how Captain America fans would feel if Cap was killed off, then his skeleton subsequently treated this way in another character's comic?
The Bloodstone Hunt has been edited slightly for this collection, dropping title pages, etc. This makes it read more like a seamless epic rather than a serialized story. Although I generally feel a collection should collect the unadulterated originals, and I wonder if that might explain some of the abruptness in spots, I'll admit there is fun in reading it as an unbroken stream of daring do.
Cover price: $19.95 CDN./$15.95 US.
Captain America: Deathlok Lives 1993 (SC TPB) 64 pages
by J.M. DeMatteis. Pencils by Mike Zeck. Inks by John Beatty.
Colours: Bob Sharen. Letters: Diana Albers. Editor: Mark Gruenwald.
Reprinting: Captain America (1st series) #286-288 (1983) - with cover gallery
Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
A time traveller from the post-Apocalyptic 1990s (bear in mind this story was first published in the 1980s) arrives back in 1983 New York, searching for the man he was cloned from...another time-lost figure, the cyborg super-soldier, the original Deathlok. Captain America gets drawn into the hunt, eventually taking him into the (then) future 1990s and joining a band of freedom fighters against an evil, robotic despot.
Deathlok Lives is, I'm guessing, one of those quintessentially comicbooky things -- the "tying-up-loose-ends-from-another-comic" sort of story. Deathlok starred in his own post-apocalyptic adventures in the 1970s in the pages of Astonishing Tales...but that comic was cancelled, and Deathlok was kept in the public eye through some time travelling and occasional guest appearances in assorted Marvel titles. Actually, by the time of this TPB's release (in 1993) Marvel was publishing a regular Deathlok comic...featuring a completely different character! (But that's neither here nor there). But that begged the question for his fans: what happened about the post-Apocalyptic plot threads? Because this ties into an earlier series, there's some re-capping of things that have gone before.
As such, for fans of Deathlok, this story (presumably) was a nice return, wrapping up some dangling threads.
For non-fans, a story like this can be problematic. Handled poorly, it could seem too much like you've arrived in the middle of a story, and the reader can get bored, even annoyed. Fortunately, this is handled pretty well. I wasn't familiar with Deathlok (save an appearance in The Thing: The Project Pegasus Saga, in which Deathlok seemingly gets killed, in a story that takes place before this one) and knew nothing about his 1990s future. But I found myself reasonably caught up in the adventure.
A great deal of that has to be credited to DeMatteis' heavily character-driven story. There's plenty of action and fighting, but what anchors it all is the introspection, as the scenes are filtered through the minds of Cap, Luther Manning (the clone), and Deathlok himself. DeMatteis draws interesting character parallels between them, men who hide behind their missions, or the big ideas and symbols of their action personas, because none of them are quite sure who they really are as men. DeMatteis does a nice job of maintaining the blandly unflappable Captain America persona...while humanizing his Steve Rogers alter ego with heartfelt vulnerability and insecurity. DeMatteis is one of those writers who has tried to elevate super hero adventures with things like thematic threads and deeper character introspection. Heck, it isn't often when, as in one scene, a standard villain's death-trap is considered as a metaphor for the human experience!
DeMatteis makes us care about his heroes (particularly Cap and the clone). But the story is also effective as a moody action thriller, from the assault on a forlorn and seeming abandoned factory in the dark of night, to Cap and Deathlok arriving in the bombed out future. Modern heroes in devastated futures can often be eerily effective (such as X-Men: Days of Future Past, or one or two Superman comics that come to mind). Put the right hero in such a story, and it can make for a nice change-of-pace adventure; eerie, melancholic, and exciting all at once.
Of course, this is only a three issue story, so it doesn't quite become the grandiose epic the early part seems to promise. But it's an entertaining adventure.
Mike Zeck is an artist who's had, it seems to me, different styles over the years. Here his work is effective enough, telling the tale with vigour and clarity, even as the face and figure work may be more O.K. rather than superb. But it serves the story well, not allowing the scenes and the characters to become lost in the artist's indulgences.
The original issues seem to have been edited occasionally. There are no explicit breaks between chapters (a similar editorial decision was employed in Captain America: The Bloodstone Hunt), but judging by where the original issues presumably began and ended, the page counts run from 22 pages (right for the time period) to 18 pages! Perhaps unrelated sub-plots were edited out. As well, some of the basic ideas in the story are left undealt with. Cap learns that the devastated future comes about because all super heroes were destroyed in 1983 -- the year in which he lives! And though, knowing that, and who is responsible, Cap (and his fellow heroes) can effectively defend themselves...it's not actually shown, or even commented on. As well, if he does change his future/Deathlok's past...wouldn't that wipe out Deathlok's future? Obviously not -- I mean, even in this story references are made to the notion of alternate realities/timelines. But it still leaves a certain ambiguity to what will come next (even though, as this paragraph demonstrates, one can easily extrapolate how things would work out). But whether such things were left for the fans to fill in, or whether later Captain America comics dealt with it, I don't know.
Still, despite those qualms, Deathlok Lives emerges as a fast-paced, at times unusual adventure, elevated a notch or two by DeMatteis' attention to the humanity of his characters, giving this saga a heart and brain, not just a fist. A nice read.
Cover price: $6.25 CDN./$4.95 USA.
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