Wednesday, 26 May 2010

On "Captain America: Reborn!" by Ed Brubaker & Bryan Hitch - Part 3 of 3!

1. "It Is Great Cleverness To Know When To Conceal One's Cleverness."

I like clever, I really do, but the type of clever in comic books I tend to notice on first reading is the sort of clever which shouts about itself alot. It may take me a while, but I'll probably get that that masked crusader story-line is referencing Shakespeare, or that there's a touch of Wagner in that sword'n'sorcery barbarian-fest. And that'll be because there's a real big sort-of-cleverness-here flag flying in full view over those stories, helping me out, helping me spot where "x" marks the cleverness.

But then there's really clever, clever that hides its' own cleverness in plain sight, clever that doesn't even care if sombody never notices how really clever it is, and I think that Ed Brubaker and Bryan Hitch's "Captain America: Reborn" is very possibly that sort of clever.

2. "We Think We're In The Present, But We Aren't. The Present That We Know Is Only A Movie Of The Past."

I. My first response to "Captain America: Reborn" was, as I've already touched upon, lukewarm. It seemed a perfectly competent run of issues, though nothing particularly special. In an ideal world, this would mark the plimsoll line of superhero comic books: nothing below this standard would ever be permitted, and everyone setting sail in a book like this in future could feel secure that the journey would be safe and worthwhile. But it did seem, all the same, to be terribly familiar. Indeed, the plot was so well-worn, the characters so predictable, the action so by-the-numbers, that I almost feared to look too hard at the pages in case I could see through the more threadbare elements on the panels before me.

I had, of course, so missed the point.

And I continued to miss the point as I started to note the homages to previous Captain America artists that Bryan Hitch had so fondly peppered throughout the story. For example, isn't that a perfect evocation of a Simon/Kirby Cap at 2:2:1/2:3:1, that hunched, compact figure with the stretched running legs, one thrown far back behind the body and one hauled up before it, just as in the very first Captain America story from 1941? And that has to be a tip of the hat to a great solid Dan Jurgens' Cap at 6:17, surely? Oh, look, Neal Adams-ness in the Kree/Skrull War scenes (3:20:3), Steranko-isms in the Rick Jones and Hydra brawl (4:5:1), and - be still my 12 year-old heart - that must to be a strangely elongated, appropriately and oddly foreshortened Frank Robbins riff in the Masterman punchup. (1:6:1.) The sheer love for Captain America borne by Mr Hitch must be exceptional. (*1)

But exceptional reverence for a comic book character doesn't necessarily produce work which will in itself inspire reverence. All this re-heating of previous achievements just seemed to me to be more evidence that this was warmed-over greatest hits, stitched together into a mundane and functional plot which efficiently took Captain America from (a) assassinated hero at the beginning to (b) prospective modern super-spy at the end. It was, I couldn't stop myself believing, the sort of story which is so often advertised as a celebration and so often revealed as an effective cut'n'paste job.

We're walking over the same hallowed ground time and time again, I thought, and it's not even as if we've reached an audacious post-modern synthesis of the material a-la-Morrison just to make things a little bit more different. No. This is just the same super-heroes hitting the same super-villains in exactly the same places in precisely the same ways as so many times before, even down to Captain America throwing off the Red Skull's mental control simply because he's Captain America and he can think in a more patriotically focused sense than anybody else.

Oh, look, there's an Avengers's Quinjet crashing yet again with all the inevitability of a SHIELD helicarrier plunging to the ground, though Quinjet's strangely often seem to leave more damage behind them. And there's the Avengers themselves, and a showdown before the Lincoln Memorial, and a visit to a what-if-the-Nazis-conquered-America-world, and, taken in sum total, it seemed like the laziest, if albeit fond, collection of Captain America cliches that could be imagined.

And just as Mr Hitch was riffing off the styles of previous artists on the strip, so Mr Brubaker seemed to be doing so similarly as a writer, even down to the classic Marvel dialogue given to second-level characters in the story. Consider, for example, how utterly un-Brubaker-like the following speech bubble is in its' traditional-evil-super-villain tone from Arnin Zola;

"Once I crack the Vision's security codes, the secrets of the Avengers will be mine."

II. But it was at that exact point that the proverbial penny dropped, and even I realised that for a supposedly lazy grab-bag of Captain America's most popular and commonly-recycled story-elements, this was a remarkably careful and well-researched one. It simply couldn't have been that Mr Brubaker's mind was so full of Cap's history that he decided without a great deal of preparation and care to represent so much of Captain America's past with that much precision and purpose. For that presumes that Mr Brubaker was behaving out of character as a writer, throwing off a piece of work which stands apart and distinct from his usual careful plotting and delieberate scripting. No, that much care and rigor in discussing Captain America's past could never have been generated by chance or even by a sloppy intention to take the easy route to a commercial success.

Indeed, could it really be chance that Mr Brubaker just happened to touch base with, for example, every situation which we've been discussing here that possesses a considerable disadvantage for how Captain America is used and read as a superhero in the modern MU?

BoldAnd that realisation left only one conclusion possible about the nature of "Captain America:Reborn", and that is that this really is Captain America REBORN, that this is more than the return of Steve Rogers to the modern-day MU again. This is more than the temporary transference of the concentric circles of the shield to one Bucky Barnes for awhile. This is, at least for a good period of time, and for longer no doubt if Marvel decides to run with it, a complete reboot of the franchise on a fundamental level. "Reborn", it seems to me, is a deliberate sealing off of the flaws in plot and theme which have trapped Cap as both a middle-ranking public sort-of-success as a superhero, and as a dubious political icon in much of the material he's appeared in, while also opening up new and more productive avenues for the development of the franchise.

Or, to put it another way: what if this wasn't yet another nostalgic tour of the familiar, but a fond and long lasting and quite deliberate goodbye to it? What if Captain America wasn't lost in time in the narrative simply as a plot-point, but rather to ironically show how Mr Brubaker knows that Cap has been forever looking backwards into his own past, re-experiencing the same themes with the same villains, forever saving the world now simply by the virtue of the fact that he saved the world back then from the forces of fascism?

(*1) Somebody who knows their stuff must have listed these homages somewhere. Can anybody point out such a splendid reference? Or have I imagined homage where no such homage exists?

3. "For Everything You Have Missed, You Have Gained Something Else .. "

What if the point of "Reborn" was, therefore, in addition to creating a popular series and a suitable celebration of Cap's past, to change his life completely, to revisit certain familiar scenes and themes for one final time before leaving them utterly, if not permanently, behind. Because, rather like a sports' fan who knows the result of a game that's been taped for them and therefore watches it with a somewhat distracted involvement and a smaller degree of interest in finding out how the final whistle is reached, so too the readers of "Reborn" knew the ending of the tale before the tale delivered it. Scheduling snafus and commercial logic had combined to leave the reader knowing that Steve Rogers would survive, meaning that "Reborn" seemed to often be engaged with by readers as an old piece of necessary business. And too, there was a fair degree of certainty that "Reborn" would conclude without Steve Rogers resuming the post of Captain America, so again, there didn't seem to be anything too fundamental and radical going on as the series progressed. There was, indeed, a widely-reported and respectful sense of anti-climax at "Reborn", as if somehow Cap might have, for example, found himself convinced of the merits of Nazism through his flashbacks and become Captain NaziMan instead, if only Marvel Comics had kept their nerve and done something radical.

But they did do something radical, and they did it right before our eyes. It's just that some of us - and that "some of us" includes me as a brightly-decked out standard-bearer of missing-the-pointness- couldn't see what was going because it was hidden in plain sight. It was the kind of cleverness that knows it's so clever that being seen to be clever wouldn't be clever at all.

And if you'd like some evidence for what might be seen as a theory that's reading too much into a perfectly competent comic book, why not start with the very first few pages, and the narration from Sharon Carter that intones over deliberately bog-standard, if impressive, shots of Cap leading the American assault into Normandy on D-Day;

"The story of Captain America is filled as much with myths and lies as it with truth, but that, after all, is how you build a legend. You leave out the ugly bits, the death and hardship, and you focus on the parts everyone can digest easily. The natural born hero, the super-soldier built in a U.S. laboratory, the finest of his generation, always the first into battle .. always leading the way, always the victor ... That is the story everyone knows about the life of Captain America."

And that narration surely has to be serving a double-purpose. Yes, it's perfect to bring new readers up to speed, but it isn't actually something that Sharon would say to Henry Pym in these circumstances in that way. These are words, I suspect, that are also designed to tell the audience that the writer of this book knows all about the moral and story-telling pitfalls that have developed over the years since 1964, "the myths and lies", and that he intends to do something about it too. (He'd hardly bring up how the legend of Captain America is "filled with myths and lies" if he wasn't even in part going to reference them, which is at the very least the first step towards engaging with the problems those "myths and lies" might create.)

So, is it possible? Did "Captain America: Reborn" signal up something of a fundamental deconstruction of Captain America on its' very first pages , and yet do so without very many folks even noticing it, having hid this particular purloined letter in plain, four-coloured, Summer-popcorn-widescreen movie splendour from the first?

And perhaps Mr Hitch was so keen to do his excellent work here, in spite of what was reported as being a very tight deadline, because he knew it would be the last time for a good while that these familiar themes, characters and events were to be placed centre-stage in Cap's books. It may be that this was more than Mr Hitch's celebration of a character so obvious dear to him. It might have been his chance to be there when that whole traditional approach and deep history was to be, at least for awhile, consigned respectfully to the "been-there, done-that, must-move-on" file.

4. "An Expert Is A Person Who Has Made All The Mistakes That Can Be Made In A Very Narrow Field."

Or perhaps, yes, I've been thinking too much about it. This is absolutely likely. Perhaps, then, you'd be best to read this as an example of how the hubris of the bottom-of-the-food-chain comic-book blogger can generate a beguiling and invalid artefact from the misapplication of inappropriate methodology, or, namely, I thunk too much and I thunk too poorly and I thunk wrong too.

But I do think that "Reborn" is far more clever and significant than just a mini-series which saw Steve Rogers return to the present-day MU while Bucky Barnes became Captain America. And that's not simply because of what's been achieved by "Reborn" within the pages produced Mr Brubaker and Mr Hitch; it's also because of the depth of understanding of the franchise, if I may use that ugly word, that informed the radical changes I'll be engaging with. And, like most clever solutions to complex problems, the answers on show in "Reborn" are elegantly straight-forward. So elegant, in fact, that they might be mistaken for principles which had existed all along.

5. "History Is A Nightmare From Which I Am Trying To Escape."

If Captain America had previously become so indistinguishable from the moral centre of the Marvel Universe, and if that leaves his every action equivalent to the highest ethical standards, with all the problems that that brings, then "Reborn" cuts that particular Gordian Knot. Because, as we discussed, although the Captain America costume is a holy relic, it's Steve Rogers who is the sacred object. It's Rogers who fought for decency even before being blessed with Dr Erskine's formulae (*2), Rogers who won the Second World for us, Rogers who was broken and denied entry into the holy land of the post-war peace, and Rogers who has set the ultimate moral example to a greater and greater extent in the MU ever since. Take Rogers out of the costume and that wretched business of the last golden warrior, from the last American generation to deservedly win a Just War, disappears. (*3) And with Rogers elsewhere, the costume can return to being what it was originally meant to be; a uniform for a lone man fighting for the survival of America's civil society, rather than a signifier of America itself.

Of course, replacing Steve Rogers with Bucky Barnes is a stroke of comic-book plotting genius, and only a fool would think that the replacement by Bucky of Steve Rogers was so obvious that it was inevitable. I think alot of folks in some strange fashion forget that Bucky Barnes was as dead and buried as it is possible for a comic book character to be when Mr Brubaker took over "Captain America". It was actually inconceivable that "Bucky"could be returned to the MU in a way that was involving to the reader while not undermining the poignancy of the character's death in World War II. In fact, it was as unbelievable then as the idea of President Obama parachuting Donald Rumsfeld into the White House now as Secretary Of State for Whatever-The-Hell-He-Wants-To-Do. It simply wasn't something that anybody with an ounce of common sense would consider, unless in truth they had an excess of common sense ounces hidden away where the rest of us put our prejudices. Yet Bucky Barnes we now have, the "Winter Soldier", fully integrated over many years into the MU, a character unblemished in the eyes of the audience by his unlikely and unlooked for return, and perfect as a choice to adopt the role of the new Captain America. If this isn't a sign of the kind of intelligent design that doesn't have us reaching for Richard Dawkin's latest learned tome with steaming ears, then I'll eat my hat. And it is, so I won't. Because Mr Brubaker took such time and care to place Bucky Barnes where he did, the cleverness and radicalism of the whole affair is masked by familiarity. It feels inevitable because Mr Brubaker made it feel that way.

And Bucky Barnes is an appropriate bearer of the Captain America costume because his character and experience is a mass of contradictions which both express and undermine the very qualities which made Steve Rogers such a problematical figure. Barnes too is a survivor of World War II, but he's in truth a far more disturbing and actually representative figure than Rogers, for Barnes was the teenager turned into the killer, the orphan taken into the Army and in return turned into propaganda mascot, assassin and man-of-war. His run at fame was not the simple straight forward sprint towards glory that was Steve Rogers', and Bucky, as with all the other fighting men and women of the US forces, was no superhuman. Barnes was and is a creature of both light and shadow, and the shadow was truer to his experience, but he was no insult to the "ordinary Joe", in that he was as ordinary as they were. And considering how "ordinary" and terrible his experiences in the War were, God only knows how he would've acclimatised to returning to the USA after the fighting ended. I doubt that it would have been easy. He certainly wouldn't have returned to American shores as anything other than a brave and yet compromised human being, which is, in so many ways, something quite different from how Steve Rogers might have experienced his homecoming.

And yet of course, Bucky Barnes didn't get to return to America at War's end. But unlike Steve Rogers, frozen in ice like Christ behind the rock and Arthur in his tomb, waiting to save us because they are better than us - which is what that metaphor says, of course - Bucky was perverted by the Cold War, taken by the Soviets, rebuilt by their industrial technology - unlike Steve who was rebuilt by America's chemical technology - and sent out to kill in the name of Communism. It's hard to believe, even as it's hard to admit that such a thought is anything other than stupid, that Steve Rogers would have allowed himself to have been similarly taken, although Bucky had no choice, or that Captain America would've permitted himself to stay a killer for the "Reds" when his force of American will would surely have broken him free, although Bucky could not help himself. But Bucky? No matter how brave and true, Bucky was already the compromised boy-killer by the time the Soviets reached him. There was that shadow in his soul, that darkness that the child with a gun and a good excuse is held to carry. And so Bucky is both American patriot and American vulnerability, American strength and weakness, superhero and susceptible everyman. As a soldier for America, he's one of us, compromised and well-meaning, and we can in a way support him even more than Steve Rogers. But we can't ever mistake his CAPTAIN America for Captain AMERICA. Though he is in many ways more American than Steve Rogers, because America is the sum of fallible as well as impressive humans too, he can't ever be mistaken for any abstract mindwiping symbol of the Home Of The Brave. Bucky was brave too, but he didn't get to come home. Not for far too many decades. And when he did come home, it wasn't as Arthur, or Steve Rogers, but as something far more profane, and yet laudable and human too.

So, perhaps Mr Brukaer has removed "Captain America" from the problematical and ethically compromising role as the moral centre of the MU, and in the place of Steve Rogers given us back our super-soldier, or at least, America's. And in doing so, another of the problems we discussed gets resolved too, because if Captain America is no longer the best of us all, but rather our representative and servant, then Cap isn't going to be able to close every conflict. Things are going to be more interesting from now on, because the Captain America who used to both graciously take and yet in effect give orders is no more. And now we have a Captain America who exists to be a soldier, and another "Cap", of sorts, far higher up the chain of command, a member of the brass, a man of political as well as physical power.

And who's to say that the two of them, best of friends and oldest of colleagues, are even going to be able to agree on the mission anymore, let alone the best way to undertake it? Not one America, but, at the very least, two.

* 2 - Credit to Harvey Jerkwater to pointing out how my own mind was contradicting itself over this point in the last blog. But it wasn't my fault! It was that pesky mind of mine!
* 3 - Let us thank the spirits who try to watch over the superhero world that the new Captain America wasn't a poor soldier who'd survived the recent wars of liberation and stabilisation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Boy, but that would have thrown up enough moral confusion and story flak to wipe out a generation of comic book readers.

6. "So We Beat On, Boats Against The Current, Borne Back Ceaselessly Into The Past"

I. Something very strange happens to Steve Rogers in "Reborn" even before he hangs up his wingnuts and shield. He stops in part being the character who settles every debate and closes every conflict. Now, I know that it's an exaggeration straying into the territory of an outright lie to suggest that that's how adventures with Cap have always worked, but I think, as I've argued, that there's enough evidence to suggest that over time that was becoming more and more so. But in "Reborn", it's Cap who needs saving time and time again. It's as if Mr Brubaker was gently lowering him from his pedestal and placing him back into the ranks of the super-heroes and the super-heroic, in preparation for a more prosaic and functional future. Consider how, for example, it's Sharon Carter who "takes out" the Red Skull at the battle's end, not either of the Captain Americas. And if Steve Rogers is still strong enough by himself to expel the Red Skull from his mind, just because he's Captain America and no Nazi can defeat him in his soul, then it's undoubtedly a massive team-effort which results, often by mishap and mischance, in bringing Cap back to the present day at a time and place where he might be freed from Fascist control.

And what of those Fascist relics from a war won and lost 65 years ago? No matter how dangerous today's fascists are, they aren't quite the same beasts as those who swept across Europe and were in the end swept right back again. (*4) Today's Fascists are political beasts to a man and woman, of course, but they're different to their ancestors in Rome and Berlin. Constantly having Captain America cycling back to fight once more against the Red Skull, and another Zemo, a Zola (*5) and so on, has locked the character, just as his WW II experiences and his holy aura have, into endless repetitions of fights which have become less relevant to the world that we know as time passes. And in that light, surely "Reborn" is also more than a grand tour of Steve Rogers' previous adventures. It's a closing of the door on them. It's the outcome of some hard thinking, I believe, which has seen that Cap's association with the War has brought not only a depth of informing experience to the character, but also a limited and ever-more irrelevant set of conflicts to play out. I don't think that the following discussion between The Falcon and Captain America is merely panel-filling on this point;

FALCON: "Is that it? Is the Skull really dead this time?"
STEVE R: "There's nowhere else for him to go, Sam ... Not anymore."

So perhaps "Reborn" was in some sense a Gottersammerung for the old Nazis of Captain America's past, and those endless loops of the Just War and its' sacred triumphs and travails, as well as a necessary updating and repositioning of Cap? It's interesting to note how it's the Skull who collapses in flames at the end, in a typically Wagnerian fashion, after all, and how his daughter ends up so terribly burned that she can return as a Red Skull of a similar but more contemporary fascism, one of terror and opportunism. This is a reboot on a more complete level than just costumes, I think. For again, what we have here isn't one more jog round the grand tour, but the last fond look before locking the door on the past.

And if that's so, then here has been created a remarkable opportunity to completely recast the myths of Captain America. Bucky as Cap, for example, means that the halo effect of the Second World War is dimmed into something more real and less pernicious. The War itself can finally be ended, with the old Nazis dead, and the old reinforcement of Captain America's virtue by constant comparison with exhausted historical stereotypes gone. And in the place of that old metaphysical dogma comes something new, because now Steve Rogers himself is free to travel to somewhere he hasn't been able to travel before; his own future. And therefore it can't, just can't, be coincidence that Mr Brubaker and Mr Hitch show us, in the last scene of "Reborn", that Steve Rogers is haunted by visions of a future alien invasion of America which only he has the foreknowledge of. Ah, the land of the free still needs saving, but not entirely from the Government, or even from those bloody-handed Nazi relics. There's something worse out there, and something perhaps less ideologically fixed and more morally informing. (*6) It's a remarkable change of direction for Steve Roger's mind, because ever since 1964, his thoughts have been those of the past, of his lost mother, and his lost partner, and America's implicit and explicit loss of unity and purpose. He's been the neurotic, traumatised war veteran, the old man in a young man's body, the survivor who can't rest in or belong to the society that he's been beached upon.

No wonder it's been hard for a mass audience to attach itself to Captain America in a way that would allow his solo book to feel as significant, and to sell as many copies, as his appearances elsewhere in the MU might lead us to believe would be the norm. Captain America has perhaps not spoken to a present-day audience because he's so often not been living in the present-day. And beyond all the political implications of that, which we've discussed, lie fundamental problems of what he is to his audience. After all, it isn't hard to be bored and disinterested by the very things that we regard as sacred, and all that being dragged backwards in time by psychology and history can't be said upon reflection to always make for the most obviously dynamic of characters, though I have always retained my fondness for "Captain America".

II. It wasn't my intention to touch upon events since "Reborn" here, but there one or two developments in Mr Brubakers' "masterplan" that are impossible to ignore, and several which are essential to pay attention to in order to appropriately close off the above discussion. Firstly, as we all know by now, Steve Rogers has been made head of America's "security system" by the MU's President Obama, a service to the State which the ex-Captain America undertook upon condition that he could he could do things " his way". And secondly, we're told that Rogers will be, in addition to his bureaucratic duties working within the State, in order to protect the State, leading a team of "Secret Avengers", though their exact reason for existing hasn't yet, to my knowledge, been announced.

Though I worry greatly about the idea of President Obama allowing anyone to run the U.S.A.'s "security system" - whatever that constitutes - their way, for I dearly hope that way is a Constitutional one, the fact is that Steve Rogers is now working within the American State, and for it. And while I have no doubt that he'll find endless corrupt politicians, twisted spooks and parking-privilege-abuser secretaries, this does provide a historic opportunity for Marvel to stop the State being represented as being little except incompetent or evil. I hope against hope that we're not going to see the return to the type of tale told by Mr Brubaker in "Captain America" # 8, where Cap and Nick Fury invade, in complete contradiction of international law, a foreign state on the Mongolian border only to be ordered back by the corrupt Chief of Staff To The Vice-President of the U.S.A. Oh, those corrupt politicians, stopping superheroes invading other countries while they themselves pile into the Middle East and even yet-more distant lands without a binding UN Resolution to cloak their own political modesty with. And if only the State would just let superheroes do what they want, well, would 9/11 have happened? Invade more countries was the message there, and, on the whole, I'm against that, given that, as Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us all over again, surgical or more brutal strikes upon the leaders of rogue states don't solve the problems at hand at all. The messy business of lasting engagement is the only solution, and I hope Steve Rogers represents such real-world knowledge in his new role.

But placing Steve Rogers within the State is a tremendously positive move. Played out in a way which would combat those tendencies to denigrate the state we've been discussing for a while here, it could be a cracking idea. The contradictions between individual morality, political exigencies, the Constitution and international law, and the pleasant absurdities of the superhero comic book, would surely generate enough conflict to power an endless string of stories. And of course it separates Steve Rogers further away from any abstract notion of America and grounds him in politics, that grubby matter of compromise; it strips the sacred away a touch and shows the profane beneath, which is exactly the opposite process that's been underway since 1964. When he comes to his fellow superheroes in his government guise from now on, Steve Rogers won't be the saintly Captain America anymore, and he won't even be Steve Rogers: ordinary man of the people with some very big muscles. Instead, he'll be a representative of a political system, part of the debate, on the side of some policies and against others. He won't be able to speak for everyone anymore, because nobody rightly embedded in the State can, even as it's their duty to try to do so. And so, through him, unless we're going to swamped with even more of the might-as-well-be-Ayn-Rand anti-democratic rubbish that we've been talking about, we might get the idea that Americans can value being citizens of the Constitution as much as they might want the kudos of being the holder of an Avengers privilege card. ("Privilege" meaning, of course, that you can HIT people, and be admired for it!)

We might even see Steve Rogers taking orders as well as giving them. Assuming that Mr Roger's "way" is the American way of, er, following American law, might we not see him being contradicted, being rightly as well as wrongly admonished, and from more than just a cuddly Liberal version of President Obama. Might we hope for some oversight of his activities, for example, and not just a pen-pusher moaning about budgets? May we even see that Steve Rogers doesn't actually know anything about running this American security system, that he needs the help and advice of those already in place, as much as he needs to start cleaning out the filth from the many stables of King America.

And perhaps we might see a superhero or two breaking the law in the name of Justice and actually being punished for it, no? Similarly, perhaps we might see Steve Rogers sullied not by some ugly adolescent sense of emasculation because politicians won't let him beat up who he wants, but rather because of the noble compromise of real life. For he'll be living in something which could be just an story-beat closer to the real one of ours than before, where nothing is easy and no one action entirely morally secure, so that Steve Roger's lost halo becomes so coated with fluff and dust, as all ours are, that he won't be able to pick it up and go straight back to solving every moral problem with a swish of a shield anymore. Because certainly Bucky Barnes can't play the "perfect American" card either. They're both grounded in something more mucky, and far more interesting, than the martyrs' garments and the saviour's glow. And neither can act alone anymore, saving the world by themselves, or rather, not in such a way that their actions, regardless of what they actually do, can be read as being as beyond question and perfectly good.

Which is a good thing, no? A really good thing.

*4 - Readers might care to check out "Well, Is Judge Dredd A Fascist" in the May archive of my other blog for some more on this question of the definition of fascism where comic books are concerned. And if you do go there, that means that I don't have to cover the material here, as it seems I haven't.
* 5 - Er, isn't "Zola" a name more commonly associated with the fine and brave French author who fought against anti-Semitism? Why did Mr Kirby choose that name?
*6 - Readers who are curious about what this future threat might be are advised to head to "It Came From Darkmoor", the blog by Mark Roberts, where his May 25th entry "A Theory About Captain Britain And The Avengers" is a fascinating look at what Steve Roger's vision might involve. To get there, head for the Comic Book Blog Of Honour box UK box to your right.

7. "What A Splendid Summer Morning And It Seemed As If Nothing Could Go Wrong."

I realise that the above on the future of these characters is 100% conjecture, and that Steve Rogers' future role both within the state and possibly against it is something which will play out in the MU over the months to come. But the truth is that Mr Brubaker's "Captain America: Reborn" has created the possibility for such future developments. "Reborn" simply wasn't a look backwards over Cap's career, and in the story-paths it's closed off and the ones it's opened up, it has created the template for the most radical, successful and appropriate re-setting of a super-hero franchise since Frank Miller shook "Daredevil" up with his fusion of crime noir, Will Eisner and Ninjas. That template set down by Mr Miller for "Daredevil" has largely held ever since, and if it's been drifting more and more away from "morally compromised" to "morally disgusting", it's still an example of that rarest of all tricks; seamlessly picking up the threads of a less-successful-than-it-should-be franchise and making it sturdy and self-consistent enough to flourish. For where many fans of Spider-Man, for example, will say that they've enjoyed the stories since the deal-with-the-devil, they'll still see "One More Day" as a discontinuity, as something broken and unresolved in the character's history. But the current status quo of Steve Rogers, Super-Soldier, and Bucky Barnes, Captain America, has been arrived at so relatively quietly and carefully, and yet to such radical effect, that beyond what is often assumed to be a temporary leave-of-absence by Rogers from his old role, nobody is too much on their feet applauding.

But everything has changed, and even if the intention I've thought I've seen here was absent, the changes to "Captain America" have effectively shown how this comic book and this character could be rescued from problems which have afflicted it in the past. And that's an incredibly useful thing. Because when we consider how hard it's been to find a new and workable status quo particularly for characters of World War II vintage, we have to conclude that it's a nearly-impossible job to get right. Consider how Superman and Wonder Woman, and Namor and Captain Marvel, have all suffered multiple and radical surgeries to bring them into the modern day marketplace without losing their charm or core values, and how those many interventions have often fared so poorly, despite the highest level of craft and the greatest measure of good intentions. And I think, despite whatever may have happened since "Reborn", or whatever may happen from now, there is in this mini-series the keys to this particular kingdom.

The old Nazis are gone, and so is the halo effect of WWII. And there's a strong possibility that Steve Rogers is going to be more an active component of the America State rather than America's Olympian conscience, and the old narrative cycles which Cap has been thrown through endlessly have, since "Reborn", been taken off the table. This is, as I said at the beginning, really clever. It was hidden in plain sight, it was placed in a mini-series which has often been assumed to be backward looking and conservative, and yet at the end, look, all is pleasingly not-shiny and new.

So I admire "Reborn", partially for what it has achieved as an enjoyable widescreen comic book "event", and partly for the oppurtunity for lasting and positive change to the Captain America franchise that it's created. It's clever. It's helped to clear the board even of Steve Roger's obsession with the past. And I'm sure that it's got a tribute to Frank Robbins in it too! What more do you want?

It may be that I admire "Reborn" more for how it reworks Cap's franchice, its' informed functionality, than I do repect it as a superhero story, but it is indeed the plimsoll line of modern comic books and anybody who knows how important the principle of the plimsoll line was will know I'm not being insulting there at all. I say "Try It Out"!

And anyone who recalls me promising to discuss "Reborn" as a fairy-tale, that idea threatened to take over this piece and it's now been hived off into a piece on Golden Age superhero origins and the structure of fairy-tales. I hope you'll join me for that at some undetermined time in the future. And that you'll join me in a few days for more "shot-me-down-I'm-a-fool" musings on comic books and stuff. I wish you, whoever you may be, kind reader, a splendid day!



  1. I think one of your main themes is "Realism & superheroes don't mix, nor should they." Trying to apply real-world standards to super-hero universes has never worked for me. Between the physics ("... mass from an extra dimensional source") to the laws (how many crooks dropped off at police hq with a note from you friendly neighborhood Spider-Man ever get convicted?) to the politics, which you covered nicely, it just doesn't add up. One has to assume the Marvel & DC universes operate on physical laws far different from ours, and that the pressence of superhumans has warped society to the point where vigilatism is seen as a positive thing.

    I say just roll with it. Enjoy the stories for what they are, pure fantasy. One can write anything they want to with these characters (which has been unfortunate for those of us who've struggled through bad comics). Trying to put realism into these stories is awkward at best (see: relevant comics) and terrible at worst (see: relevant comics not drawn by Neal Adams).

    I've been enjoying the Captain America series, and I look forward to reading the eventual fairy tale post.

    -Mike Loughlin

  2. Hi Mike - I'm really glad you enjoyed the Cap pieces. I had fully intended just writing the one piece and it quite got away from me; I published every piece with something close to shame, actually. It felt like a huge indulgence, to post that much, but by the same token, I did believe in what I wrote. Strange, this pressure to be brief in the modern world. Thank you very much for taking a look at what I wrote and commenting too.

    Your point about a theme really did make me think. In fact, I did what I rarely do when I receive a comment, which is to go off for a good while, down to the gym, and think about it. (I like to reply quickly normally just because folks have been kind enough to leave some words.) And, on reflection, I think I'd agree almost entirely with you on superheroes and realism, so boo! to "relevancy". But I think the problem is on a deeper level, in that all stories have politics encoded into them, whether such was intended or not. And comics carry much if not most of their meaning in the sub-text. So superheroes do talk about the real-world, but on symbolic, metaphorical level. And that's where the "realism" needs to be approached more deliberately. I do believe that Cap stories have over the years put forward some elements of an extreme right wing message, as I've argued, even as lots of stories by very humane writers have fought consciously or not against that proces. So, I guess that "relevancy" in stories since GL/GA is a problem for me, but accidental moral disengagement is a worse one. I've no argument, with say, a Steve Ditko "Mr A", which is explicit, where the sub-text and text match. I do have a problem with comics about psychopaths who serve as wish-fulfilment for alienated adolescents, or, more perniciously, comics about guardians of law of order who neither obey the law nor preserve order without that contradiction being directly and deliberately attended to.

    I am largely convinced by your argument that the superhero universe as fundamentally different places and must be seen as a different place. And yet strangely enough the same political issues - if not the same priniciples or conclusions - that we laugh and shiver at in Euripdes and Aristophanes operate in Metropolis too. And that's where I'd love to see more attention paid to what's going on; on the metaphorical, political level. (And I'm sure there are cool "relevant" stories too. I can think of some Peter Gillis ones that Harvey J here and British writer Al Ewings evoked on a podcast elsewhere recently, for example. But few people can pull off that relevancy trick without preaching or seeming dull, so, yes, on the whole I'd agree on avoiding what too often becomes a straight lecture book.)

    Thank you for again helping me to put more clearly into words what I'm stuggling to. I hope you're having a fine day.

  3. I'm all for super-hero comics engaging in the real world on a metaphoric level. Before I'd read the b&w New Gods reprints, I read the Jones/ Jacobs book [which you mentioned in a previous post but the name of which escapes me (The Great Comic Book Heroes?)], that posited that Kirby's 4th World comics had way more going on than the average reader may have suspected. Mr. Miracle represented the artist, breaking free of an oppressive society again and again. With that interpretation in mind, the books resonated with me quite strongly.

    I was trying to get at that in my last post- a good writer can use super-hero tropes to generate a variety of stories. Astro City 1/2, Fantastic Four 51, Ditko's work, Ostrander's Spectre, Gerber's entire output... you don't even have to go to Moore & Morrison to see people stretching the boundaries of the genre or using it to tell stories that go deeper than Captain X vs. Dr. Y in a knockdown dragout fight to the finish because YOU demanded it!!!

    As you point out, politics is a big part of it, whether the sophomoric reductionism of Civil War or Black Panther having to negotiate with Dr. Doom, Magneto, & Namor to prevent a war with Lemuria. Yes, the politics of the Punisher blowing away drug dealers is wonky, but I almost find Batman being an unauthorized secret policeman who can take evidence from a crime scene more problematic. The Punisher (pre-Ennis) is a right-wing revenge fantasy, one I've never cared for, but it's aimed toward the same audience that goes to action movies: adolescent boys. The Punisher is an outlaw who has no connection to any government agency. Batman is a private citizen who the police department farms their tough cases out to, thus admitting that they can't do their job!

    But I like Batman comics, because the Batman universe *has* to have him be better than the police, able to operate outside the laws and avoid due process, Miranda Rights, etc. so that he can stop the Joker from poisoning the reservoir. Who wants to read about the snarl of red tape his existence would create? One or two stories every few years dealing with the problems Batman creates is fine, but I want my heroes to succeed, not be hampered by rules.

    Captain America has to be better than me. He carries the weight of expectation on his back along with his shield. If someone's going to wrap himself in the flag, I'm going to question his motives and deeds at all times... unless he fights the unquestionably good fight, always wins, is always right, and reinforces everything I believe is great or could be great about my country. As a kid, that's all fine, I didn't think about the why of super-heroes (beyond "... because a radioactive spider bit him"). As an adolescent, I could revel in the violence and one-liner, and follow the soap operatics. As an adult, I wonder why I read this stuff, and have to come up with an answer because I still read it. I mean, he's dressed in the freakin' flag and throws a shield at a Nazi with a red skull face! That's so stupid! So why do I buy his adventures every few months?

    Part of it is Brubaker's text, and part of it is the subtext. Bucky Cap works better, and you nailed why. He doesn't have the weight of expectations. He can screw up! Steve Rogers can't screw up, or we lose faith in the American dream! Bucky can still be a hero, though, and still show me that a guy in tights can try his damnedest to make the world better, to stop the forces of evil from subverting democracy. It's corny, but Bru & Co. sell it.

    You know, I could keep going on and on. I'll stop for now, but I must6 say I'm continually impressed by how you see this stuff, and where you go with it. Enjoy your day (or is it night?), and thank you for letting me ramble.

    - Mike Loughlin

  4. Good morning, Mike - What a thought-provoking comment! Having given the matter some thought, it srikes me how much we agree upon many of the most important and effective "texts" in superhero history. (The Astro City about a man who has lost his wife in a continuity rewrite, for example; to generate a moving story from THAT was remarkable. Alan Brennert also touched upon the issue of what happens to people, and their souls, caught up in reality changes with his tale of "Kara" meeting Deadman after the Crisis & in his Black Canary origin too.)Which, though to say so could be a massive assumption, may point to the fact that the same mechanisms are influencing us in a similar way, and that what we're doing here is controlling more of the confounding variables in our research! (Said, of course, with a big fat tongue in m'cheek.)

    I'm with you on much that say about Batman and the Punisher. I think that Ennis used the Punisher cleverly, if not entirely without problems - well, there's not a story in history that has NO problems, because they're stories, of course! But he wrote from an awareness of the flaws in the character and the moral pitfalls. He had CONTROL over what he was doing, some ironic distance from the material as well as intense involvement in it. And in such a way, of course, his books became more of a debate about the idea of the killer vigilante rather than a pure glorification of it. And it's that thought and control which is the key. Ostrander's Spectre is, yes, another fine control. That's what it takes. I still recall a throwaway line of Gerber's in the "Defenders", which I can't for the life of me find, where one of his costumed characters in a single comment speculates on why there are more superheroes in capitalist USA than Communist USSR. The speculation: information & technology is more available in MU USA, so more science-mutations etc occur. And in that one spark of cleverness came, even for a teenage boy, the snare to get me thinking about political systems and their virtues. Not through a lecture, or through a morality play as such. But through control and cleverness, even within Mr Gerber's then most free-wheeling approach to plot and so on.

    end of part 1 - 2 to follow!

  5. And so if Batman is going to be dropping into crime scenes, the matter just needs to be thought about, as you indeed imply, and which of course it has at many key moments. The Gotham Central stories were excellent in widening the meaning of the Batman Universe, for example. Here were good and bad cops, competent and corrupt ones. The state was not incompetent/evil, but an active and organic player with strengths and (massive)weaknesses. Yes, Bruce W must in some ways be more able than the cops, but if they're all daft & evil then he becomes a right wing fantasy. If they're not, if Gotham has good men & women & institutions capable of efficient achievement, then the book becomes about pluralism, involvement. I do believe that Western society is profoundly unfair and often undemocratic in practise: I'm not for a rosy picture of things. But I am for a measured engagement, a recognition of the possibility of change & the value of involvement. I say this only because I may have given the wrong impression. I don't want a silly picture of a benign state, or pages of Bat-procedurals! But, as you say, Bucky-Cap fighting to save the world from the forces of evil subverting democracy is COOL if the text and sub-text are aligned & it's about how precious democracy is rather than how wonderful a bloke in a patriotic flag is & why don't we have him in charge rather than corrupt politicians?

    I'm very pleased that you find some small value in these pieces. It really helps me to read comments such as those from your good self, because I have yet to read such a comment and not thought "Oh! Yes!" and "I missed that!" and "I didn't come close to covering that!". Please do feel free to say "But!" and "What?" These are good words, I think. Like, "scientific method" and "democractic pluralism" and "spider-sense" and "Justice League". All grand words, I think.