Thursday, January 10, 2008

Out of Time: Part 4 (Marvel)
Captain America #4 When: April 2005
Why: Ed Brubaker How: Steve Epting

The story so far...
He was the legendary super soldier of the Second World War, and after being frozen in a block of ice, Captain America was thawed out by the Avengers to have a second chance to change the world as a beacon of all the American dream hoped to be.

Of the past, all the man behind the mask has is memories, but when Steve Rogers begins having flashbacks, things no longer seem the way they once did. As the flashbacks increase, so too do the deviations in what Captain America recalls as fact, including fateful events like the scene that saw the death of his partner, Bucky Barnes.

The subversive attack continues as the unmarked graves of two wartime mystery men; Spirit of '76 and Patriot; are desecrated, sending a direct message to the man whose mantle both men would at one time occupy.
Having investigated the graves Cap spins into yet another flashback, before finding himself under fire on the freeway from an old foe -- Crossbones!

Tale of the Tape...
ARTWORK: Steve EptingARTWORK: UnknownStrength: Crossbones 4 (Steroids)
Intelligence: Draw 4 (Tactician)
Speed: Captain America 4 (Olympian)
Stamina: Captain America 5 (Marathon Man)
Agility: Captain America 4 (Gymnast)
Fighting Ability: Captain America 6 (Warrior)
Energy Powers: Crossbones 2 (Projectile Weapons)

- With a death on his hands, the juvenile Brock Rumlow would flee New York City and seek refuge with one of the Taskmaster's infamous schools for criminals and mercenaries. There he would excel in the fighting techniques Taskmaster taught, which would allow him to graduate into a prominent mercenary in his own right.
His career would bring him to the attentions of the Red Skull, with whom he would pledge permanent employment and allegiance, and gain his codename.

Crossbones is a highly skilled hand-to-hand fighter trained extensively in various martial arts styles, military combat techniques, and street fighting.
He is also extremely proficient with a wide variety of weaponry including a catalogue of guns, knives, and other projectile weapons.

- A scrawny and frail individual, despite his best efforts, Steve Rogers was unable to enlist to serve his country on the cusp of the Second World War.
Given his gusto, Rogers was invited to partake in the top secret Operation: Rebirth, which intended to chemically alter a man's biology to grant him fantastic speed, strength, and endurance, making him a super-soldier! The serum proved successful in turning the diminutive Rogers into a battle ready super-soldier, but the serum's creator, Dr. Abraham Erskine, lived only long enough to see the fruits of his labours, before being assassinated.

Thus, Rogers lives on to honor Dr. Erskine as America's only super-soldier, and sentinel of liberty: Captain America!

The serum grants Captain America peak human physical conditioning, a sharp mind, and an altered physiology that drastically slows his aging. These physical and mental attributes are complimented by extensive training in hand-to-hand combat, (including the use of a vibranium-steel alloy shield), and briefing in tactical maneuvers, urban military combat, and survival tactics.

The Captain has amassed decades of experience in the heat of combat, and carries with him a confidence that reflects this, and exudes the authority that he has established throughout the superhero community as leader of the Avengers.

The Math: Captain America Ranking: Captain America (#5)

What Went Down...
Distracted by flashback, the motorcycle mounted Captain America is snapped back to reality by gunshots that puncture his front tyre. He is able to gracefully tumble from the jacknifing bike, and takes immediate shelter behind his shield, as the mercenary Crossbones walks across the road firing.

As Cap ponders the likelihood of Crossbones' involvement in the destruction of his allies' graves, he finds himself yanked into a flashback of his partner being tortured right before his eyes by the first Baron Zemo.

Crossbones mercileslly beats the Captain, ignorant of his struggles between distorted images of the past, and the present. Reliving the moment, Captain lets out an uncharacteristic howling objection.

Fighting to stay in the present and to protect himself; Captain America throws himself into a charging maneuver that puts his shield between he and his burly assailant. Crossbones relishes the opposition, but puts on a show of his strength, punching the shield before yanking it aside with the barrel of his gun.

Cap continues to struggle with his uncontrollable memories, recognising the threat they pose to his survival, let alone victory. He is barely able to jump aside as Crossbones threatens with a clubbing blow that leaves a dent in a car trunk.

Evasive maneuvers prove futile as Crossbone's fists catch up with the Captain, dropping him with one fell blow. Crossbones puts the boot in, mocking his arch-nemesis, only to find unexpected retorts calling him a coward.

Down, but not out, Cap suffers another boot to the gut, before getting a total denial from the masked mercenary. Seeking vengeance for the murder of Red Skull, Crossbones reveals that he was told of the Captain's whereabouts by an anonymous Russian tip.

With the truth verbalized, Crossbones throws another boot to the already floored Cap, before declaring disinterest in facing him in his weakened and distracted state. Showing a rare taste for ceremony, Crossbones disappears into the surrounding wilderness, leaving the beaten Captain to the scattered traffic on the highway, and the plaguing flashes of memories that did not occur.

ARTWORK: Steve EptingThe Hammer...
Despite being the bigger man, (for walking away), we've got no choice but to declare this a victory for Crossbones and an awful start to the year for Captain America, who is already the most defeated character on the books!

If you're just joining us, it might be nice to know that we're beginning he year by serving up first dibs to the top ten characters of 2007, which saw the good Captain come in at number three. Really not too shabby for a dead guy who got beat up more than anyone remembers!

So, speaking of being beaten up, we've got another one of those 'benefit of hindsight' scenarios which raises a great frustration found in a good many superhero stories: the villain and a sense of ceremony.

It's worth acknowledging that the presence of the Red Skull makes for two very different contextual settings, but never the less, the problem I find here is that Crossbones leaves Captain America, not content with beating him in a situation that has him anywhere but his best. A contorted warrior's logic, but something not too difficult to give to a comic book villain.

Unless, of course, a couple of years later they're at the centre of story built on shooting a shackled Captain America from a sniper's post miles away.

Again, I acknowledge there are a lot of variables involved. In the latter example, Crossbones is acting with instruction from the Red Skull. Likewise, there's a larger plot surrounding mind games with Sharon Carter and a whole lot of convoluted mess that really only raises different script issues, but at the heart of it, the scenes depicted here really feel awkward.

I suppose part of that is due to the nature of Crossbones as a villain.
I think these street level mercenaries more than others ask for an honesty in their depiction, which isn't easy to carry in the serialized medium. The balancing act of serving a story, maintaining a character's competence, and allowing your hero to escape, are not necessarily easily managed -- particularly when your villain is supposedly a highly skilled, amoral mercenary who hates the hero.

When you look at the motivations of the character and the stark scope of the reality, it becomes a very difficult pill to swallow. Here it might even require a greater suspension of disbelief than Batman's constant decisions to allow the Joker to live. It's the difference between a costumed vigilante and a multi-coloured murderer who kills with fish -- and a soldier versus a man with a gun.

We've been critical of Brubaker's work a lot, and I have to say at the very least, these early issues really helped summon an atmosphere that I don't ever recall being around Captain America. Though he's operated independently and on an urban scale, the art direction, and motley colours of Frank D'Armata really help sell the more urban movements of Captain America in a pseudo-real world.

That said, the visual direction comes with criticism. Though it seems to have been very well received, I personally find the inks and droning colours on Epting's pencils to be a little more than unattractive. Though the general concept is definitely complimentary to the tone of the fiction, in it's isolation it clashes with some of the comic book conventions, and it proves stoicly unexpressive, much like a lot of the writing.

The dark colour palette, at it's worst, feels more like a broad allusion to something, in essence similar to Brubaker's insinuations of a story more involving than it is. On the flipside, the Brubaker/Lark combination is much more palatable, even if it features Lark's trademark unfinished lines.

We've talked a lot about the myth of 'Lazy Brubaker Syndrome', and though the story gradually built to it's first milestone - the return of Bucky - I found myself becoming distracted and disinterested by around issue five. Which, at the time, was of great frustration because otherwise it was a very positive push forward for the character, I feel.

You might measure the story's penchant for rewriting history against the recent One More Day debacle, but I think you'll find far purer motivations here, even if it isn't particularly well represented by the transition of canon.

Contrary to more widespread opinion, I find Bucky's 'resurrection' almost as silly as the Prime-Punch return of Jason Todd. While Winter Soldier presents a more grounded explanation, the relation it holds with decades of stories doesn't gel particularly well. Even so, Winter Soldier has proved a welcome addition to the Captain America family, and will officially don the Cap costume in 2008.

Overall, I think it's the broad conceptual strokes that leave Brubaker deserving of praise. Even if execution has been frustratingly lacking, the map of ideas has been there enough to bring me back to Cap for the odd taste. I just wish it was the kind of must-read book it clearly wants to be.

The Fight: 4.5 The Issue: 4.5

Agree or disagree with our opinions? Under the on-going team of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting; Captain America has been one of the most popular titles published by Marvel, revered by many. If you're looking for an easy way to scoop yourself an acid test, why not head to Amazon where the first trade serves up the first storyarc in a convenient little package! Mmm, kick-backs!


Krod said...

These were the first Captain America comics I read, and I too became disinterested and then quit reading around this time. I don't think it was written for new readers, despite the numbering.

There were constant melodramatic flashbacks that didn't drive the story, characters I didn't know but was clearly supposed to, and a lot of effort telling me how big and important and shocking it was, but not showing me or making me feel it. It was empty. I remember reading on and on how YES this is the REAL Red Skull, no seriously, and YES he really is DEAD! No, really!! And I was just ready for them to stop proving it to me and move on with the story.

Maybe it would have mattered to me if I had been a long-time Captain America reader.

And this fight in particular... it's been a while---but wasn't this just out of the blue and unexplained? Just---BAM!---sudden pointless fight on the highway with a villain I don't know?

David said...

A fantastic post.

Mike Haseloff said...

Krod: Yo! Crazy as it may seem, I think if the execution were a little better, it would've made a great entry point.

I think Brubaker's meandering execution maybe insinuates something more than a new reader is comfortable with, but really, I think most of what you need to know is there, albeit in fairly shallow form.

The flashbacks, for example, pepper little bits of story resonance for the larger plot, but there's a good handful that really just give weight to the history of Cap's life. Which is something I like, and if you're ready to give over to it, can be a reasonable introduction to characters like the Invaders, or the Red Skull.

As a book for a new Cap reader, the entire series has really brought into focus a lot of the characters most important, so in that respect it's also not a bad starting point.

If you know some of the history and who these people are upfront, you're definitely going to recognise more of the weight involved.

Crossbones showing up out of the blue here, while a little jarring, is totally acceptable for the character who is a more-hands on arch-nemesis than his master, Red Skull.
(Although, the sudden attack is explained to be part of the larger plot being cast.)

I kinda like the spontanuity of it, but at the same time, the harsh psuedo-reality of this surprise road attack also makes it harder to swallow Crossbones walking away from it.

100% with you on the Red Skull thing, too. I think the cosmic cube was an unwelcome addition to a story destined to become a little more convoluted than it should've been. Phony deaths, body sharing, resurrections, and mass retcons (Winter Soldier) seem oft overlooked, but not what I call the hallmarks of a great run.

David: Cheers! Hopefully there'll be plenty more in '08!