The Adventures of Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty
(1991 - four issues, prestige format, Marvel Comics)
Written by Fabian Nicieza (and Kevin Maguire?). Pencils by Kevin Maguire, with Kevin West, Steve Carr. Inks by Terry Austin, Joe Rubinstein.
The Adventure of Captain America retells the World War II origin of Captain America. Although Cap's origin has been reiterated from time to time, it was never before given almost two hundred pages. As this was just a few years after DC overhauled its entire line, presenting revamped origins (often in mini-series) for many of its characters, this was perhaps Marvel's attempt to offer the same for a character many saw as one of its flagship properties. Not that this is intended as some radical re-interpretation, ala DC's new origins. This is just an embellishment on the existing mythos.
Which is both a strength and a weakness.
It's a strength because it's not trying to turn the franchise on its head, it's just meant to be old fashioned fun -- but it's a weakness because, at close to two hundred pages, it could've maybe used some tweaking. Steve Rogers, the man who will be Captain America, is presented as basically a paragon of homespun virtue right from the get go, with no room for his character to grow or evolve (for instance, maybe he could've started out more shallow or cynical, then find himself growing into the idealist he would later be). While, at the same time, being a young, inexperienced Cap, he's not quite the familiar character who, after all, is best defined as the unflappable veteran of a thousand battles.
Still, simple as it is, it's enjoyable at first, with Fabian Nicieza padding out the origin of frail Steve being recruited to participate in an experiment to develop a super soldier, throwing in extra scenes and characters (though this was before later retcons, such as when Marvel later added the idea that the super soldier serum had first been tried on earlier test subjects). And Kevin Maguire's beautiful, richly textured art adds a lot (as does the multi-tone colour by Paul Mounts). If not a surprising retelling of the origin, at least it serves as a prestigious retelling.
But the question I've pondered with such stories is: isn't this squeaking by on our existing familiarity with, and affection for, the character? If this was about a completely original character, would I be more critical of the lack of story and character development? Nicieza has trouble really doing much with his ideas. Steve isn't the only one recruited for the project, so we are introduced to his fellow recruits, and their different personalities...but they never evolve into something relevant to the greater story. Likewise, there's a mystery of sorts, as we learn the Nazis have a spy within the project. For some reason, mysteries are something that comic book writers do really, really, really badly, as if they've never even read a mystery novel. And the biggest flaw is usually a lack of viable suspects. So when the double agent is revealed, it was basically who you figured it was all along, simply because: who else was it going to be?
Anyway, the series starts out enjoyable, if a bit flimsy, but loses momentum after a while. Nicieza hasn't come up with a complex, epic plot, yet hasn't made it a fast-paced rollercoaster ride either. The dialogue is enjoyable, the art nice, so it's agreeable, but not really extraordinary. He throws in a Nazi goon squad (working for the Red Skull, natch) -- pure grinning, sadistic, Nazi villainy -- without bothering to give them individual personalities. And it eventually climaxes with a gladiatorial showdown with the Red Skull. There's no master plan Cap has to unravel and thwart -- kidnapping and beating him is their master plan!
Nicieza's intent wasn't to do a sophisticated, provocative take on Cap's origin, but a little depth might've been nice. Or some plausibility. I mean, the story has the Nazis wanting to get the super soldier serum...but then the impression is that the Red Skull is Cap's physical match already. As well, Nicieza is so caught up in his patriotic jingoism, that he kind of sidesteps the realities of history: namely, this was before the US was at war -- so why would the Nazis kidnap an agent of a neutral power in order to stage a televised combat with him?
For that matter, in the time frame of this story, it's hard to accept that Cap has become such a potent symbol so quickly that the Nazis would see defeating him as a major propaganda victory.
And artist Maguire has to bow out prematurely, which reveals how much the art was shoring up the plot. Kevin West's style is sufficiently similar to Maguire's that it's not a shocking transition -- you just become aware that the art isn't as good, the faces not as realistic, as artfully modelled. Steve Carr also contributes a few pages -- his style is a little more appealing. But it's still no Maguire.
And the clash between "light weight fun" and "serious drama" jars a bit. A sequence with concentration camp prisoners seems somewhat trivializing of the reality (in a way other super hero/WW II stories haven't necessarily). As well, Cap has always been a potentially problematic character for non-American readers -- some writers succeed in making it about the man, or the universal ideal of a freedom fighter, but others wrap the character too much in parochial U.S. jingoism. And Nicieza leans a bit too much to the latter. When Cap starts spouting platitudes, it smacks a little of knee jerk semantics rather than thoughtful philosophizing. Curiously, re-reading Captain America #109, which also retells his origin, I actually found that long ago Lee-Kirby tale more emotionally dramatic in many ways, seeming more sincere, particularly when they throw in the added quirk that the professor overseeing the project envisions its non-military applications for eliminating disease and infirmity -- making it not just about creating another weapon.
And surely the most "iconic" image of Cap is that 1941 cover of him punching Adolph Hitler -- yet despite having Hitler appear in the story, Nicieza doesn't throw in that scene!
Perhaps the biggest "twist" to this revised origin (I think) is the character of sidekick Bucky, who here is a bit of a wise guy con artist, who at one point offers that he can do the dirty tricks that Cap can't. Which is awkward. What's the point of doing a character who is supposed to represent values of decency and virtue...and then essentially negate that character by saying those values are ineffectual. As well, given that there's a scene where Cap coerces information from a spy -- played humorously -- it's not like Cap is playing by some gentlemen's rules himself! Still, Bucky here is good for a few chuckles, but after two hundred pages, what they've failed to do is really create any sort of real relationship between the two. And by the final volume, Bucky seems to get an awful lot of page time, as if Nicieza and co. were losing interest in their bland title hero!
Ultimately, The Adventures of Captain America starts out an enjoyable, gorgeous-looking, well-intentioned re-telling of Cap's beginning...but begins to suffer from its own light-weightness, flimsy characterization, shallow plotting, and less effective art.