Monday, April 13, 2015

Enter--The Captain!

Count me among those who weren't really on board with Steve Rogers as "the Captain," the identity he adopted when a Presidential commission forced him out of his role as Captain America. The Captain was with us for about 1½ years in the Captain America book, leading up to the title's 350th issue--but during this time, the Captain also turned up in other titles where Captain America would have made an appearance.

Such "guest" appearances always came across as a little awkward, like a square peg being inserted into a round hole--readers were never quite sure what direction they were being nudged in regarding his status. Were we to believe that Steve Rogers was now permanently in action as the Captain? Or was this a situation he was trying to work out while he dropped in to lend a hand in other crises? Steve himself was no help to us in deciding one way or the other, for reasons which we'll learn of shortly. But in the final story of the arc, perhaps the Captain takes the pulse of his own readership and sums it up best, as he's making a daring rescue on a crowded street: "This has been my uniform for several months now, yet I still strike confusion into the hearts of my public everywhere I go." You said a mouthful, Cap--er, Captain.

The Captain's obvious need for a press agent notwithstanding, the story set in motion by writer Mark Gruenwald is actually a fairly compelling one. With Steve stepping out of the role, several other stories come into play as a result--enough, fortunately, to fill the next eighteen issues. For example, what will Steve do with his life? Will he again need to be coaxed into adopting a new heroic identity? Will the Commission set the wheels in motion to select a new Captain America--and who will be the final candidate? Exactly why is the Commission doing this? How will Steve segue from an identity as the symbol of the nation and the embodiment of its ideals, to one where he operates only on his principles and must depend on his actions alone to inspire others? Steve is well aware that "Captain America" is far more than a costume and a shield to those he interacts with--now he must learn to be a hero in a much different way.

Most interesting of all is the fact that this story of Steve giving up his identity as Cap will be, in contrast to others, one where Steve doesn't want to relinquish that identity but finds that he must; otherwise, he will have to fall in line with the Commission's directives and become the kind of Captain America that he knows he has grown beyond. Either way, the cover of the issue that announces the beginning of this story will be right on the mark:

After the long career Steve has had as Captain America, to see him fall victim to and brought down by the bureaucracy of his own government seems outrageous. But when he's called before the Commission on Superhuman Activities at the Pentagon, he faces an ultimatum like no other: to be put on the Government's leash and have his missions assigned for him, or be relieved of his role as the Government's symbol. And you'd better believe the Government has done its homework to drive home the point that Cap was and still is their operative:

Obviously, Gruenwald has skimmed over a few key points of the Government's assertions. For instance, the fact that Project: Rebirth was financed by the Government is irrelevant to Steve's service as Cap, given that he was a volunteer for the procedure. And we'll have to take Commissioner Rockwell's word that Steve signed some sort of contract that specified his role and obligations as Captain America, one which presumably bound him to service beyond the terms of his enlistment as a soldier in the Army; we know only of the verbal agreement Rockwell spoke of. Also, saying that the name "Captain America" originated from "some long-forgotten person on the federal payroll" doesn't cut it in an official proceeding that seeks to back up its case with facts and the law--you either have documentation or witnesses to substantiate that claim, or you cannot go on the record with the statement as fact.

It's not clear at all why the Feds would suddenly be unhappy with the way Cap has conducted his affairs, as he himself points out. We know that Henry Gyrich once tried to leash the Avengers in much the same way; we also learn that the N.S.C. has refused to reinstate the Avengers' security clearance. In Cap's case, perhaps the Government feels it has more of a leg to stand on, and doesn't need to bother with dangling Avengers Priority privileges over him in order to regain the direct services of such a valuable operative. And apparently it's not satisfied with his occasional service to SHIELD.

Finally, the Commission bottom-lines its position in this matter:

For his part, Steve considers a number of factors, first and foremost being his perspective of who his government wants to bring back into the fold vs. who Captain America has evolved into beyond a wartime motivational symbol:

And then the back-and-forth thoughts, including his options as well as speculation on how he would adapt to his new role:

And there are of course the ties he's established independently which would need to be severed, ties that have brought him closer to the very people he wishes to fight for:

Ultimately--as it must be--it is "Captain America" which makes Steve's choice for him. The Captain America who champions a country rather than its come-and-go political parties--the symbol of its people and ideals rather than its government. For Steve, the two are at times on opposite sides of the same coin--a not necessarily disparaging opinion, but a distinction the Commission clearly doesn't share. And given that he indeed has a choice in this matter, Cap makes the only one he can in good conscience.

The Commission, as you might expect, is incredulous:

But the commissioners soon turn to the business at hand: finding a replacement to fill the role of Captain America. The list of potential candidates is not a long one, considering the shoes that need to be filled; but one man has been making the news recently, someone whose name and activities warrant further investigation. And so John Walker, a/k/a the Super-Patriot, takes a meeting with Valerie Cooper:

Walker's background checks out, and the new Captain America is born. Yet while in action, Walker demonstrates a zeal and level of patriotism that calls into question his judgment in the field, and there are incidences where he crosses the line and deals with his foes far more harshly and recklessly than his predecessor would have (a state of mind made worse by the murder of his parents).

And speaking of the original Cap, Steve's friends finally catch up with him after he's spent a good deal of time under the radar, and find he's finally ready to get back into harness in some capacity. Fortunately, Demolition Man can provide him with a costume that will allow him to retain the display of his patriotism, even though he's no longer allowed to don his former colors:

And when the Serpent Society decides to take hostages at a Las Vegas casino, "the Captain" is ready to make his first appearance.

With Cap now operating as a carbon copy of his former self, he's effectively in limbo as far as the reader is concerned. He remains opposed to fighting the Commission in court to regain his status as Captain America, while at the same time choosing no distinguishing name to make a new start for himself in this new role. To the reader, he gives the impression of someone simply wanting to remain active while hoping the situation will work itself out--while his friends, along for the ride, are waiting for him to take a stand against the Commission. As a result, Captain America--both the title and the character--is in a holding pattern, with a generous amount of focus being given to Walker in the role while dealing in the Captain from the sidelines.

It's also interesting to note that the first time (that I'm aware of) where the name "The Captain" is given official status as the name this character will use for himself is on the cover of another book:

The rift between Cap and Iron Man occurs during the "Armor Wars," where Tony Stark is stepping outside the law to nullify any of his armor technology in use by other individuals. When Cap comes to Stark for a shield to replace the one he no longer has, Stark is happy to help his friend, but also sees it as a way to put Steve in his debt so that he won't take action if he should learn of Stark's activities.

But an incident involving Cap, Iron Man, and the Guardsmen at a government facility forces Iron Man to reject Cap's directive to cease and desist, and incapacitate his friend. And later, at Stark's office, Cap makes his intentions toward Stark clear:

He's serious, alright. But when Stark manages to suit up as Iron Man, the resulting battle has the odds against Cap, and Iron Man escapes.

That leaves Cap without a shield--but Stark isn't the only friend Cap has with engineering resources.

Meanwhile, the situation with Walker has become untenable--and a recent incident with Flag-Smasher has put him in the hospital. Worse in the Commission's eyes is the fact that the Captain has succeeded in the case where Walker failed--though in a later meeting between Rockwell and his fellow commissioners, it's clear that Rogers' actions cut no ice with Rockwell:

It's now clear to the other commissioners (and to us) that whatever feelings Rockwell has against Rogers are rooted in something other than the duties of his office. And when the Captain pays Rockwell a discrete visit, the pieces begin to fall into place, though even Cap is shocked by the calling card of a villain he felt certain was dead:

Heh--"calling" card, get it? (Sorry, a little joke at Rockwell's expense.)

Further adding to the mystery is that the Red Skull is now similar in appearance to Rogers himself. And in a taunting call, he explains his machinations:

With the arrival of a near-maniacal Walker, who has seen the evidence of Rogers' plans (or rather, the Skull in his guise as Rogers) and mistaken the real Rogers for the culprit, Walker engages the Captain in a brutal battle, where Cap prevails. Yet when the Skull arrives to gloat, Walker sees the deception and helps to save Cap from a dose of the dust of death.

With the Skull driven off, soon enough the two are standing before the remaining commissioners, who, with the absence of Rockwell and with information of his complicity, move to return things to status quo. Assuming the man they've wronged wants his old job back, that is:

It's interesting to see Cap come to the conclusions he does, given how up to this point he's operated as the Captain with purpose but without conviction. It's one thing to realize you can still have effectiveness as a crime fighter while employing the same standards of judgment you did as a symbol of liberty--but it's unlikely that the Captain will be nearly the inspiration to others he once was as Captain America. Fortunately, and appropriately, Walker's last act as Captain America is one of conscience:

And so Steve Rogers reclaims his identity as Captain America, and Walker eventually goes on to suit up in the Captain's uniform as USAgent by authority of the Commission. I don't believe Gruenwald ever followed through with the Skull's threat to tarnish the image of Captain America by making Walker's violent incidences public knowledge; perhaps it would have been moot, given that Rogers was now back in the uniform and only the Administration would have answered for it. At any rate, a press conference later held by Cooper made it clear to the public that Walker was Cap's replacement and that Cap had reassumed the role--which must have been a confusing announcement to hear for most, but may have served to head off any action the Skull might have taken on the subject. As for "the Captain," well, neither Cooper nor Cap felt obliged to mention him at the press conference, which is as good a way as any to consign the character to the dustbin of comics.

This post covers events from Captain America #s 332-350.
(Special thanks to artist Bart Sears for the awesome graphic of USAgent/the Captain!)


Anonymous said...

I can't see what those wings on Cap's temples are for - but Steve Rogers likes them as The Captain wears them too. "Dedicated To Joe Simon & Jack Kirby - Creators Of America's Greatest Super-Hero"...hmmm, I think there's some competition for that post such as Superman, Batman, Spiderman. I was listening to an arts review show on BBC radio in 2006 and one of the topics that week was the killing of Cap at the end of 'Civil War' - one of the guests said she'd never heard of Captain America which made me gasp with astonishment but surely she would have heard of Superman, Batman and Spiderman (but then again maybe not - there's an infamous case of a British High Court judge in the '60s who'd never heard of the Beatles).

Comicsfan said...

Colin, since Captain America is spoken of mostly in comics circles and seldom in other media venues, it's probably not all that surprising to run across someone who hasn't heard of someone like Cap or, say, the Wasp, the Sub-Mariner, et al. In the case of that judge, it just goes to show that some of those guys spend too much time on the bench and not enough time sampling great music. :)

Karen said...

Great post. This was an interesting period in Cap's history. I liked that Gruenwald continued Englehart's development of Steve Rogers from the Secret Empire years, when he defined himself as representing American ideals but no single ideology or political party. He's evolved beyond the idea of following orders to deciding for himself what's right and wrong. I was glad to see the last Cap film also incorporated some of this attitude in it.

Comicsfan said...

Karen, that's a good point about the films, even starting as early as The Avengers which quickly transitions Cap from his wartime role to serving his country in the 21st century. It took a conversation between Banner, Stark, and Cap to pierce his firm belief in just following orders and move him to investigate Fury's actions; while the second Cap film seems to open his eyes that the government has grown beyond the ideals of the America he fought for.

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