A Sock In The Jaw

There's a lot to love about this new Captain America #1, but there's an ambivalence here, too. The two issues, however, are entirely unrelated; as an individual comic book, it's brilliant. As an idea, it sort of sucks, but I'll get there in a second. First:

Captain America #1 is why people read comic books or, anyway, why people should. Ed Brubaker, one of the best writers in the business on his worse days, slips into writing this Captain America like Steve Rogers slips back into the flag, with the ease of someone who's worn this suit before, and who missed it just enough. He does here what he does best, reinventing Captain America (for what's really the third time since he took over the character in 2005) by taking Steve Rogers' past and using it to turn the character into something both new and familiar, something both recognizable and, perhaps, radically different.

Starting with a brief summary of who Cap was in WWII, and then two panels of who is he is now, Brubaker begins his story with an ending, with the death of Peggy Carter. Carter was a member of the French resistance, Steve's girlfriend back in the day, and the aunt of Sharon Carter, who is Steve's girlfriend these days (it seems perfectly normal in terms of the the whole "man out of time" conceit of the comics but, man, typing that last sentence out just now, the whole thing just strikes me as really bizarre). Cap, Carter, Nick Fury and Dum Dum Dugan gather for the funeral, and their reunion sets off a string of events that were really put in motion during the twilight hours of the war in Europe. Brubaker tells both that story and this one, letting each inform the other, and this style of storytelling gets at precisely the reason why I think Brubaker does Cap so well: he gets that part of the reason Steve Rogers is a compelling character is because there's a contrast between the Captain America #1 of 1940 and the Captain America #1 of two weeks ago, and part of that contrast has to do with ambiguity of purpose. In that first world there were good guys and there were bad guys; in this brave new world, I suspect the lines between them are a little less clear.

Or maybe not. The blast from the past Bravo may very well be a clear cut villain, himself a man out of time, egged on by a decades old jealousy. There are more questions than answers here, and this suggests that Brubaker has become a master of the serial story. Captain America #1 is a whole whole with a beginning and a middle and an end, a discrete and satisfying unit of entertainment in and of itself but one that will be extended and better understood next month, when a hopefully equally as satisfying issue comes out. This is comics at its best.

Of course, it helps that Steve McNiven is drawing the thing. Brubaker is a fantastic writer, but part of what makes him so great is that he always seems to be matched with artists who have their own share of talent and, aside from Sean Phillips, McNiven may very well be the best of them. His panel design is dynamic and he doesn't get stuck in the six by two grid; the panels move with the characters, they're explosive and, although they often reflect the kinetic confusion of a street fight, they read easy, there's never any question about which panels goes after which other panel. It's quite a feat, and it follows a similar mode of operation to the one that Mike Deodato was using with Brubaker on Secret Avengers. The difference here is that McNiven's art is much less stiff and woody than Deodato's: while the latter's panel design saved him from being guilty of the muscled stillness that dooms comics art by making it too heavy, the former's at its best has a levity to it, one that suggests a sort of trial and error process in the talking heads scenes but is consistently killer when there's even a little bit of movement. Although there are a few close ups that qualify as nearly perfect, McNiven is best when he's working at a little bit of a distance, when he loses some of the detail for a more cartoony look. Certainly some of the credit for this goes to inker Mark Morales and colorist Justin Posnor, just as they get some of the blame for putting the lines in the faces of Dum Dum, Fury and Cap, which occasionally gives the book an almost photorealistic look at odds with what I imagine is the art team's tendency towards a traditional, albeit updated, comics aesthetic. This Sharon Carter should be the model; there are a few panels which are right out of an old romance comic which, in a sort of oblique way, is what this comic is.


I am ambivalent about the idea in Captain America #1. I hate it because Marvel thinks it needs to renumber books every seventy-five issue or so to stay relevant, I hate it because there are someways in which it represents a retread, a place we've already been, I hate it because I disagree with Tom Brevoort when he says that, y'know, maybe, with a movie on the way, it's not the worst thing in the world that Steve Rogers is back as Captain America.

Actually, I don't really disagree with him; it's not the worst thing in the world.

Clearly, I haven't stopped reading Captain America because Bucky isn't wearing the flag anymore. I'm pissed that he's dead, of course, but with a book called Captain America and Bucky coming out and a pretty serious continuity problem between the mainline Cap book and Fear Itself*, I have a hard time believing he's going to stay dead, although I'm relatively confident he won't be Captain America anymore. That's really a different issue, though, as it takes place about as far away from this Captain America #1 as possible, presumably because Marvel didn't want the book the kids who saw the movie pick up at their LCS or in the drug store caught up in some crazy continuity bullshit. In terms of a giant corporation trying to make money off their comics, this makes complete sense; in terms of long-form, continuity based storytelling, it sort of sucks.

Except that I think that there are times when long-form storytelling needs to take a back seat to mythology, to legend, to archetype and, while I personally don't think this is one of those moments, because I think there were many, many more good Bucky-as-Captain-America stories to be had and because I liked the idea of Steve Rogers super spy, I sympathize with the impulse and if I trust this sort of thing to anyone I trust it to Ed Brubaker. The true genius of it, of course, is Grant Morrison, but Brubaker is almost as close, and much more consistently great.

If I trust anyone, I trust Ed Brubaker. Captain America, after being a good book but not a consistently awesome one in the time since the mess that was Reborn, is back and, as pissed as I am that the storyline that I loved as much as I love anything in pop culture was stopped well short of its logical conclusion, he's got me. Here's to #2.

*Not that I really care that it doesn't make sense, shared universe superhero comics often don't, but I wonder if it's a clue that things aren't quite as they seem at the moment.

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