by The Masked Bookwyrm


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Captain America is published by Marvel Comics

Captain America & The Falcon: Nomad 2007 (SC TPB) 200 pages

coverWritten by Steve Englehart, with John Warner. Pencils by Sal Buscema, Frank Robbins, with Herb Trimpe. Inks by Vinnie Colletta, Frank Giacoia, Mike Esposito, Joe Giella.
Colours: various. Letters: Artie Simek, Tom Orzechowski. Dave Hunt. Editor: Roy Thomas, Len Wein.

Reprinting: Captain America (1st series - Captain American & The Falcon on the covers) #177-186

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

This follows immediately on the heels of the previous collection -- Secret Empire (reviewed below). And though it arises from the events depicted therein, it's enough of a separate arc that you don't have to have read that first book. But the set up is that after the events in Secret Empire (and the real life Watergate scandal), Cap's faith in America's institutions has been shattered and he renounces his Captain America identity.

While his erstwhile partner, The Falcon, continues fighting crime, Cap thinks he's comfortably retired to just being plain Steve Rogers. But the call to adventure is strong, and before too long he adopts the new alter ego of Nomad. Along the way there are various adventures and adversaries, as The Falcon must tackle an obscure X-Men foe, Lucifer, and Cap -- uh, Nomad -- takes on a re-formed Serpent Squad, now led by the ruthless former Madam Hydra, now calling herself Viper (as the Sub-Mariner says in a guest appearance: "Everything changes in this life"). But events force Steve to re-examine why he renounced his Cap identity, and to consider its repercussions (in a recurring sub-plot where various ill-equipped wannabes attempt to become the "new" Captain America), and so he reassumes his signature identity in time to battle his most notorious foe -- the ex-Nazi, the Red Skull!

And if that sounds like a lot, that's not even touching on the various character sub-plots and supporting cast relationships, or the philosophical ponderings and the blistering socio-political allusions.

The problem with a lot of TPBs culled from more recent comics is that they tend to either be a single plot, serialized over a few issues, or a bunch of unconnected adventures. But a collection like this boasts a wonderful complexity and richness. It's a story arc -- detailing Steve's renouncing his super hero life, adopting the new one as Nomad, and then returning to his Cap persona. As some letter writers commented at the time, they expected it to be a simple two or three issue gimmick...instead, it's seven issues before Steve re-dons his red, white and blue and writer Steve Englehart explores Steve's internal conflicts, both his pleasure at being free of the burden of being a "symbol"...and frustration that, without Cap's reputation, authorities treat the unknown Nomad as an amateur interloper (and some clever humour, like Nomad discovering the perils in wearing a cape!) Yet it's an epic comprised of various mini-arcs and adventures, so that it's zigging and zagging and isn't just one simple plot stretched out over multiple chapters.

It's rooted in its time and place...and I mean that in a good way. This was part of Englehart's attempt to deal with the shock to the American nervous system that was Watergate -- and, indeed, the turmoil of the times, from Vietnam to civil unrest. Even the Viper and her Serpent Squad are given a weird spin, as she presents herself as an urban revolutionary...and then you realize this was at a time when bombs were going off on campuses and newspapers were full of reports of quasi-cults and "liberation" groups. Viper also takes on a chilling prescience as her dialogue might also be lifted from the manifesto of a modern terrorist group, with her eager to die in the name of her cause. There are also attempts to deal with burgeoning Black Pride (with mixed results) and even suspiciously dated costume designs, with Nomad sporting a chest-displaying shirt.

Not being American myself, the archly jingoistic nature of (some) Cap stories can strike me as goofy, even uncomfortable. But it's in a saga like this that you begin to appreciate the point of the figure, as not just the character, but Englehart and his readers are themselves grappling with the chasm between the American Dream and American reality. Sure, the harping on the past as being a simpler, nobler time is just simple-minded and naive (the past...with its racial segregation, and Great Depression; heck, watch a movie like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and tell me people back then lived in blissful innocence).

Like with Secret Empire, Englehart is using his four colour heroics to try and tackle some pretty serious and heady themes, and maybe he pulls it off even better here, demonstrating perhaps a growing talent. The dialogue is a little more sure footed, the corny bits less common. The monologues and ruminations oft times genuinely intriguing and provocative. Granted, throughout Englehart's run, he had trouble really conveying a sense of true friendship between Cap and The Falcon, the latter a little too quick to angrily brush Steve off whenever they're going through a rough patch. One can also imagine there might have been a few raised eyebrows and protests with Englehart introducing a criminal background for The Falcon, since the "ex-con black man" seems a bit of an unfortunate cliche!

I had read a few of these issues as a kid, so there was an added resonance in re-reading these scenes, and seeing them -- finally -- in their proper context of the surrounding issues. In fact, one issue opens with Nomad standing before the Lincoln Memorial, and reflecting on a long ago speech Lincoln gave. In a subsequent issue, letter writer Ralph Macchio (who would go on to be a professional comics writer himself) comments how such a scene might be the first exposure a young kid might have to Lincoln and such themes. And he had no idea how right he was, because I'll admit, that scene has stayed with me for all these decades!

The first half of this collection is drawn by Sal Buscema, an artist with a clean, efficient style that tells the story well enough. I can be mixed on Sal in general, but I particularly liked his stuff here -- as I mentioned in my other review, maybe working on Cap inspired him. Then the reins are handed over to Frank Robbins. Robbins was arguably a bit of a polarizing figure in comics back then. A genuine old master (having being a successful comic strip artist decades earlier on Johnny Hazard and others), Robbins' art is a weird affair, with a raw, kinetic style, where bodies are almost literally flung across the pages, sometimes with limbs jutting out at impossible angles. It can be quite crude. Yet it can also be quite powerful and striking, telling the scenes with a dramatic impact, with a few scenes inparticular standing out as just a stunning display of narrative-in-pictures. There's something harsher, darker about Robbins' style that suits the progression of the themes as the issues themselves get grimmer. One can't help but think that with the return of the Red Skull, uttering his vile, racist epithets, or the poignant fate of Roscoe, Sal Buscema's cleaner style would've been less effective...even inappropriate.

And those interested in the evolution of creative types will recognize in the Red Skull issues echoes of Englehart's later semi-famous Joker story, with the Red Skull even adopting a "dust of death" similar to the Joker's "Joker venom". Of course, are we really supposed to believe the American economy can be destabilized simply by killing members of an economic think tank?

Part of the appeal of this collection, as noted, is that it's not just a simple, straightforward plot, but has a lot of threads going on -- moreso even than the previous Secret Empire. But that can be a problem. Even though it does come to a head, with Cap back in costume, the various villains defeated (or escaped to fight another, unspecified, day), with even a few sub-plots achieving some resolution (like a long teased along one involving Peggy Carter), it still ends with some open, dangling elements. It's particularly surprising because this was basically the end of Englehart's run on the series, so I assumed he would be wrapping everything up neatly. As such, the climactic issue...can also seem a bit anti-climactic. It doesn't help the momentum when it is one of those retcons where a chunk of the issue is devoted to re-capping events from long ago (issues collected in Essential Captain America, vol. 2) telling us how what we thought we knew....isn't what we knew.

Admittedly, that's a problem with older comics which, when they were first written, the notion of TPB collections wasn't even an idea in a publisher's mind! So there was not necessarily an expectation that a story need come to a complete closure as the next issue is just 30-days away. (Yeah, that was their excuse back then...what's the excuse for modern writers!?!)

But with that criticism aside (and one I level at many collections), Nomad emerges as a superior arc, mixing action and adventure, with ideological musings and character introspection, with so much going on, you really get your money's worth -- and a potent evocation of a tumultuous era.

Of course, all these issues -- and many more -- are also reprinted in the black & white Essential Captain America, vol. 4, so you have a choice of formats to experience them.

Original cover price: $__ CDN./ $19.95 USA

Captain America & The Falcon: Secret Empire 2007 (SC TPB) 160 pages

coverWritten by Steve Englehart, Mike Friedrich. Pencils by Sal Buscema. Inks by Vinnie Colletta, with Frank McLaughlin.
Black & White. Letters: Artie Simek, Charlotte Jetter. Editor: Roy Thomas.

Reprinting: Captain America (1st series - Captain American & The Falcon on the covers) #169-176 (1974)

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Secret Empire represents what comics used to do, but maybe don't so much these days. A mad, ridiculous mix of high brow and low brow, of goofy exclamations and broad characterization...with genuinely penetrating musings and examinations of society; over-the-top action and robots and hidden lairs...with genuine twists and turns that keep you turning pages to see where it's all headed. I've complained about a lot of modern story arcs -- and their inevitable TPB collections -- that are thin ideas stretched way beyond the number of pages they warrant. Here, the story rockets across the pages like an old movie serial where, if anything, you find yourself thinking they could've stretched it out even more. And though the action-plot is front and centre, there's still time for soap opera-y bits and romantic interludes.

Although some threads of the plot began a few issues earlier, this collection starts at a suitable jumping in point. Captain America is the target of a negative ad campaign sponsored by the Committee to Regain America's Principles. And soon Cap is a fugitive, framed for murder, while another super hero, Moonstone, is being promoted as the new idol of millions. Meanwhile, Cap's partner, The Falcon, feeling like a bit of a fifth wheel since Cap's strength was augmented a few issues before, skedaddles off to Wakanda, the African kingdom of the Black Panther, in order to get some extra abilities that will make him a more equal member of the duo. And after some adventure in Africa, he returns with his wings (yup, the Falcon started out as just an athlete, and didn't gain his flying powers till this story line).

Together, Cap and the Falcon learn the Committee's anti-Cap campaign is connected to an insidious secret society that is plotting to take over America. Teaming up with remnants of the X-Men (the original team) -- the Secret Empire having already kidnapped mutants for a hidden agenda -- Cap and the Falcon seek to infiltrate the evil organization.

Whew! And I didn't detail the jail breaks, double crosses, or fights with Moonstone, etc. Nor the soul searching angst!

On the surface, the saga is like an old movie serial -- it's fast paced, with twists, running about and daring do, and with the requisite underground, well, Empire. The villains even wear hoods, like in any number of old movie serials! There are a lot of continuity threads being woven in. Not only are their references to things from earlier issues, including Peggy Carter, a WW II-era lover of Cap's who, having spent the last few decades with amnesia, still believes Cap loves her...unaware he loves her sister, Sharon. Peggy is referenced in the first issue reprinted here...but doesn't actually appear until toward the end. As well, there are the guest appearances of the X-Men, and allusions to previous, non-Cap comics, like a defunct Beast solo series that Englehart had also written (in the pages of the 1970s Amazing Adventures), and the Secret Empire itself had appeared before. Despite all that, past knowledge isn't really essential to following this story (this is a "new" Secret Empire risen from the ashes of the old, so this doesn't follow directly from its earlier appearances). And it's all painlessly explained as you go.

There are some awkward, or dated bits. The treatment of the Falcon, and the attempt to evoke black "lingo" can seem a bit goofy. The Falcon's insecurity seems a bit like a reaction to fandom (as if maybe letter writers were complaining Falcon was just a poor man's Robin) but which itself seems a bit, um, racist -- even in its attempt to be non-racist by assuring us the Falcon is an equal partner. Did we need Green Arrow to prove he was worthy of being Green Lantern's partner? Or the Black Widow to prove she deserved to share a title with Daredevil? (And, to be fair, Cap himself is constantly dismissing the Falcon's inferiority complex). But credit where it's due: Falcon shared the title, was a more-or-less equal character (getting his own scenes and sub-plots) and was one of the few black heroes so featured in comics at the time!

Even if the writing lacks the subtlety of some modern comics whose dialogue seems lifted from some trendy TV script, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. As mentioned, there's a pulpy, raw vibe at work here that hurtles the story across the pages. And that applies to the characters, too. For all the heavy handed bits, you can't get away from the fact that the characters do emerge as...people. As living, breathing beings, struggling with dilemmas both internal and external. There is an unpretentiousness to the pretentiousness.

Cap's brooding about how the crisis is forcing him to do things counter to his ideals, like break jail, are often affecting.

What really makes the saga sing is the undercurrents of genuine social concerns. The initial emphasis on advertising, with the villains Madison Avenue ad men, reflects real fears at the time. And the fact that modern readers might look back and think there's something quaintly dated about being worked up about the power of the might equally say something chilling about our own era, when we rarely even question the propaganda bombardment we endure every day.

There was also something else going on in the real world at the time, and it's not too long before the word itself is uttered in the comic: "Watergate"! The American people were only just processing a scandal that went to the very top, shaking their faith in everything they believed in. And you realize that Englehart and Friedrich aren't just writing a rip-snortin' serial, or putting their heroes through the emotional wringer, they aren't just warning about the dangers of media manipulation -- in their four colour, "Bam! Biff! Pow!" way, they're trying to deal with the very breakdown in public trust in authority. This leads to a climactic confrontation with "Number One" of the Empire that is, admittedly, a bit surreal, but can be excused because the writers were clearly trying to express their genuine outrage at what was happening. (Actually, given the story was developed over many issues, and Watergate was unfolding in the news in bits and pieces, you wonder how much Englehart planned from the beginning...and how much was it being re-shaped as revelations hit the papers.)

This leads to the story's epilogue where a shattered and disillusioned Captain America ponders whether he can continue to be a symbol of America...when he's no longer sure what that even means. It's a long, seeming jingoistic sequence that might have non-Americans rolling their eyes, as characters proclaim America is the "greatest" country in the world...but Englehart isn't being that simple-minded. And though the Secret Empire plot is fully resolved, the TPB finishes with an open ending that is dealt with in the next TPB (Nomad -- reviewed above).

Sal Buscema draws the saga, who I often had mixed feelings about. A genuine workhorse at Marvel, there was no doubt that he could deliver the goods, presumably on time. But I was never that found of him, seeing in his style a rather cartoonier, less refined version of big brother John. Yet his storytelling, if rarely exceptional, was nonetheless clear, his expressions conveying what needed conveying. (And I should point out that his style evolved, and some of his work by the 1990s showed some particularly nice use of panels and composition). Yet with all that being said...I rather liked his work here. I don't know whether it's simply because, in a story like this, the writing and plotting carries it and all you need from the visuals is to keep pace. Or whether this really is some of his best stuff. Maybe working on the "living legend" inspired him just a little bit more.

There's something overall that may have been inspiring writers and artist alike, a shared outrage that, while never undermining the adventure-fun of the saga, nonetheless may've set a fire under them all. There's a single panel on the second to last page, a close up of Cap's eyes that, I'll admit, thirty-plus years later...sent a chill down my spine with its intensity.

Maybe that's what distinguishes an early saga like this from more recent efforts like, say, Marvel's Civil War. Both would claim to be a reaction to current events, but one seems like the work of genuinely inflamed consciences...while the other seems like the product of an editorial committee, keen on hawking the next cross-over mega event.

Like a few 1970s Marvel epics I've read, I went into this unsure if it would be anything more than an antiquated, childish romp compared to modern, sophisticated comics, with their photoshopped art and colours. But what makes this work is precisely that delirious mix: the pure pulp and corny exclamations nestled side by side with deep ruminations and sober observations. And the fact that it is tackling profound concerns without seeming self-aggrandizingly pretentious.

You can enjoy it for what happens..or for what it's about. But you can enjoy it either way.

Of course, all these issues, and those collected in the follow up TPB, Nomad, are included in the TPB Essential Captain America, vol. 4.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $24.95 USA.

Captain America: Red, White & Blue 2002 (SC & HC TPB) 188 pages

Written and illustrated by various.

Collecting original tales plus reprints from Tales of Suspense #66, Captain America (1969) #111, Marvel Fanfare #11, Captain America (2002) #1

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Aug 2017

Red, White and Blue was released to commemorate Captain America's 70th Anniversary. And while most TPBs/graphic novels tend either to be reprint collections or feature new material, this does both. About half the book features brand new stories, the other half reprints. It's obviously meant to be a grand, respectful celebration of one of Marvel's oldest and (if only because of his name and costume) most iconic heroes.

Unfortunately the result is problematic, at least for me. And some of those problems are fairly central to the idea.

One is Cap himself. Don't get me wrong -- I like Captain America (plenty of other Cap TPB reviews on this site are favourable) but he can easily skew from being a flesh-and-blood character (as some writers present him) to simply a jingoistic paean to "American exceptionalism" (as other writers do him). And a lot of the stories here lean toward the latter version (and I'm Canadian, so American jingoism is of limited interest to me).

As well, the new stories are all short tales -- only a few pages long. This is of course a great way to woo talent that might otherwise be unavailable to work on a full length story. And it encourages quirky and unusual approaches to the character. But I generally find short comic book stories problematic, lacking the space to really tell a proper story, or to develop characters. They tend to get mired in self-conscious pretentiousness as writers and artists seek to tell some profound, thought-provoking little vignette -- that too often will just be a simplistic homily. Or else they're used to just be silly. While some of the vintage reprints selected -- leave you wondering why that story and not something else.

With the new stories, because of their short length, they tend to be either self-consciously pretentious, comedic, or quirky -- few really feeling like just a memorable Captain America story. Or memorable, period. I've read the book twice and still have to struggle to remember some of the tales. And they veer from stories that are sufficiently entrenched in Captain America mythology you'd probably need to already know the history to get much out of it (Mark Waid's tale implying Bucky Barnes' ghost helped sustain Cap's spirit during his years in suspended animation -- a not untouching tale, but I suspect if you didn't know Cap's history it would leave you scratching your head; not to mention I assume this was written before Bucky was revealed not to have died) to a (I guess tongue-in-cheek) tale set in the 1950s that I don't think really gels with any established canon.

While the reprints can seem suspiciously like the Marvel editors were simply using them as ads for other TPBs -- with three of the four ending on some sort of To Be Continued ending which we are helpfully told continues in another collection. They include a 1960s Lee-Kirby tale which, strangely, is mostly about the Red Skull and his origin, even ending with Cap brainwashed by the Skull into becoming a Nazi (an oddly prescient selection given a few years later Marvel would excite a frenzy of controversy with its "Cap-as-Hydra-agent" saga); one of the Jim Steranko tales that, admittedly, was considered ground-breaking at the time for Steranko's use of storyboarding and composition (though given Steranko only did I believe three issues, it's hardly representative of an era); and the first issue of the then-recent revival of Cap by Rieber & Cassaday.

This makes the only truly stand alone reprint a tale from the anthology comic Marvel Fanfare. It's not maybe a "great" story either, but it might qualify as a rarity as it's likely to have fallen in the cracks between other collections. It's written by Roger Stern (who had written for Cap's monthly) from a story credited to Roger McKenzie (ditto) but is drawn by Frank Miller (with inker Joe Rubinstein) which maybe lends it a novelty as it may be one of the few/only Cap solo comics drawn by Miller. Although part of the fun with it, I'll confess, was idly wondering if it might have been a re-purposed Daredevil story. After all, McKenzie had written for Daredevil, and that was Miller's signature character at the time. And the story is an urban noir tale involving Cap running around rooftops. I found myself thinking about how little/much Cap used his shield here and wondering whether panels of him hurling his shield were literally re-drawn panels of Daredevil throwing his billy club. Ok -- maybe not, but once you start thinking about it, it's hard not to see it as a possibility. (At the very least it indicates the two characters can be -- surprisingly -- interchangeable: both having limited "super" powers, a throwing weapon, and easily presented with little use of a supporting cast).

If they were putting together a decades-spanning commemoration, you'd think they could have done a better job showing Cap "through the ages" as it were. I mean the reprints are two 1960s stories, one from the 1980s, and one from 2002. The brand new stories do a bit of touching on different eras, but with mixed effect: a number of WW II-set tales, but most of the other pieces that seem period-specific are comedic (the aforementioned 1950s tale or one imagining Cap's black sometimes partner, The Falcon, in a satire of '70s Blaxploitation films). Admittedly, I've noticed that elsewhere -- decades-spanning collections of comic book characters that deliberately underplay their different historical milieus. From a continuity POV I can understand maybe not wanting to draw attention to the fact that Cap hasn't aged since the Vietnam War. But from a collection POV, wouldn't it be interesting to see how the character and his stories have evolved (and equally, the ways they haven't)?

And since a number of the tales can seem heavily weighted with pretension, as if the creators think they're imparting some profound nuggets, it's worth taking a moment to ponder some things. Obviously, since I'm Canadian, my relation to the jingoistic side of Cap might be different than the average American reader. As I've said before, some writers succeed in making Cap just a good guy hero, others make his championing of universal freedom and democracy -- while others can make him seem a bit too much like a propaganda tool for the USA (just for extra context: I'm reviewing this after the election of Donald Trump!)

The problem with "meaningful" stories in a commercial context is that often the creators are hamstrung because, y'know, the publishers don't want anything too controversial -- so any message has to be innocuous. And that's actually me putting a good spin on it. I mean, it does seem taking both-sides-ism a bit far when one story has Cap leading a raid on what we assume is a right wing paramilitary group -- only to have it turn out its a bunch -- boo! hiss! -- radical lefties who are targeting the Ku Klux Klan and Cap has to save the Klansman! OK, I mean, I get it's maybe meant as an interesting moral dilemma story, about how Cap has to save even people he disagrees with. Although it the ends with Cap being besmirched in the media. So -- to recap -- the bad guys in the story are anti-racists and the liberal media while Cap saves Klansman! In another story racial tensions between Blacks and Whites are smoothed over by everyone just sharing a beer and talking sports (likewise in the reprint from Captain America #1 (2002) -- tackling post-9/11 tensions, a white guy tries to knife an innocent Muslim but it's solved when the Muslim guy befriends that guy who was trying to gut him! While in one of the more explicitly comedic pieces we get a weird comedy bit with junior versions of the Red Skull and Baron Zemo running about and, I dunno, but 70 years after WW II it still feels a bit "too soon."

Funnily enough in the Marvel Fanfare story, about an anti-government group setting fires, I thought -- once again -- the storytellers were ducking the race issue by eliminating any race/far-right philosophy from the group. But then when the villains started complaining about taxes, and being left behind, I found myself thinking about Trump supporters and thought maybe the story was more edgy and insightful than I credited it. Although then it's funny because it ends with Cap chastising the group for, essentially, wanting a hand-out. America offers the promise of a better life -- not a guarantee, Cap lectures them. But, um, wasn't that the very argument of the villains (claiming others were getting hand-outs while they were just honest, hard working Joes)?

My point being that for all the token liberalism, of Cap criticizing racism and preaching tolerance, it's not hard to infer a kind of conservatism lurking beneath the text (anti-racists and the media are dangerous; racism will be solved if non-white people are more forgiving; and too many lazy people want government hand-outs). Obviously, one could object to me making this comic book review political -- except the stories themselves are the ones preaching moral lessons. I'm just responding to them.

Anyway, the long and the short is for me this was a kind of underwhelming collection. The new short pieces are too often slight and pretentious more than profound. But they could still be interesting as off-beat back up tales supporting a collection of great Cap adventures -- but even the normal-length reprints are too often unsatisfying, not the least because they are part of longer stories. If you want a grab bag of Cap-through-the-years, Captain America vs. The Red Skull might be a more effective read. Or around the same time as this TPB, Marvel released Captain America #616 -- an over-sized anthology issue which actually offered better (certainly more mainstream) Cap stories for a fraction of the cost.

Cover price: $__ USA.

Captain America: Theater of War 2010 (SC & HC TPB) 152 pages

coverWritten by Paul Jenkins. Illustrated by various.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: Captain America: Theater of War one-shots "America theBeautiful," "To Soldier On," "Ghosts of My Country," and "Brother in Arms"

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: April 2017

As Captain America is a super hero literally forged in the fires of war (and I guess we're supposed to see the "captain" as an actual rank) Theater of War was a series of double-sized one-shots featuring Captain America in mostly war-time settings. Although all were collected in a volume, initially there was this four issue set featuring just the tales written by Paul Jenkins (working with different artists). The other comics were by other writers.

Now "pretention" is definitely the word of the day for these stories (the non-Jenkins issues were actually a little more plot/adventure oriented). That is to say these aren't gee whiz swashbucklers of Cap battling the Red Skull and other assorted comic book goons. Instead they're sombre conflict dramas that evoke more something Robert Kanigher or Garth Ennis might do. Essentially using the super hero Captain America as simply the sugar coating over "very special" comics tales.

I have some mixed feelings about that. Oh, I'm all for using comic books -- and super heroes -- to tell serious tales and to tackle important issues. But the danger is it can end up seeming a bit like it's trivializing it, juxtaposing a supposedly serious sequence of men on the front line with a spandex wearing hero who can race through enemy fire with nary a scratch. While equally feeling like they're exploiting Cap (and his fans) by putting his name on the cover, when the insides aren't really typical Cap adventures, and where Cap himself often isn't even the front and centre protagonist.

But the other problem is that all too often these sorts of tales can seem to get too high on their own hubris, offering more pretention than true profundity.

So in "America the Beautiful" Cap reflects upon a WW II GI who was a bit of a sad sack loser (barely passing basic training and the like) and his fate on the battlefield. You could easily imagine it as some Sgt. Rock and Easy Co. tale Robert Kanigher might have penned decades ago about a misfit new addition to the company. Except Kanigher would've told it in 12 pages, not 37. Because it's not really that Jenkins builds much upon the premise, in terms of character exploration, or plot twists.

"To Soldier On" is the only tale to focus on a more recent conflict, set during the second Iraq War. Here it's told entirely from the POV of a soldier serving a tour of duty in Iraq who gets grievously injured, the story then shifting to a focus on his rehabilitation and recovery. It's all very serious and well-intentioned -- but again doesn't really dig beneath the basics. It's less a "story" than it is an earnest public service spot.

Jenkins clearly intends this all as a tribute to the men in uniform (even dedicating some issues to real people he knows who one assumes are soldiers). But where's the line between earnest homage -- and simplistic propaganda? Jenkins' depiction of the Iraq War gives no hint of the conflict's moral and legal controversy. Jenkins wants to tell a story focusing on American GIs -- so no other perspective need apply.

Jenkins, himself, I believe is originally from the U.K. (and maybe still lives there, I don't know) which might make the American jingoism seem odd -- but equally, there's the old idea that no one is quite as zealous as the convert (plus British comics themselves I believe are often heavily rooted in a military/military SF mindset). Now it might seem odd to criticize a comic book called Captain America for its jingoism -- but other writers have managed to walk a subtler line of celebrating American virtue without ignoring its vices (though maybe that was decades ago, with the likes of Stan Lee, Steve Englehart, and Jack Kirby).

Warfare and jingoism particularly collide in "Ghosts of My Country" which doesn't even pretend to be a "plot." It's a series of vignettes leaping through American history while the spirit of Captain America looms over the scenes. It starts out with the Declaration of Independence, but mostly stops in on battlefield scenes. It gets more melancholy as it progresses -- which one might see as an argument against my complaint about jingoism. But it's still pretty one-sided (looking in on the War of 1812 while conveniently ignoring the American attempted annexation of the Canadian colonies). Strangely one of the most morally ambiguous scenes is when Jenkins depicts the American Civil War, with Jenkins perhaps seeing it as a tragic case of brother against brother -- but given the whole slavery aspect, you could argue it was actually one of the least morally ambiguous conflicts in American history! (Whatever Confederate apologists might claim).

But as an interesting contrast and compare, consider this story next to Jack Kirby's Captain America Bi-Centennial epic (reviewed on the other page) which also involved brief glimpses of American history -- and despite being written over 40 years ago, I'd argue was more powerful and thought-provoking.

The most conventional tale is arguably, "A Brother in Arm," at least in the sense that Cap is a central character throughout -- although it too can feel like an old Robert Kanigher Sgt. Rock tale expanded from 12 pages to 38. Set during WW II, it has Cap and a unit of soldiers holed up in a deserted, bombed out European town fending off a unit of German soldiers, Cap and his group trying to hold the line. An added complication is that the Americans have a German POW and Cap has to keep a rein on some of his men who don't see why they should be keeping the prisoner alive. It's a story that does play around a bit with ambiguity (some of the Germans are decent -- though most aren't -- and some of the Americans aren't as noble as Cap). But, again just considering its length, it doesn't really develop the plot or the personalities much beyond the minimum. But it's probably the best at blending the idea of a Captain America adventure with a serious front line drama.

Throughout the art is mostly good, generally in a straightforward, realist way. Nor is it that the stories themselves are especially terrible -- you can turn the pages easily enough. But my issue is, as I say, the self-conscious pretention, with comics that sacrifice the simple storytelling of a superhero adventure without really stepping up and delivering a smart, adult drama in its stead.

But maybe that remains a dilemma when reviewing comics, and judging them by who they are aimed at. Although modern comics are certainly written for an older audience than comics of old, they are still maybe assuming a youthful readership. And maybe to younger readers, fed a diet of gee whiz adventures and video games, these stories will have a profound impact. But for someone like me, they can feel like thinly plotted stories with bare bones character development that we are supposed to see as profound.

Cover price: $__ USA.

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