Sunday, August 17, 2014

Hero, Reborn

I stopped reading Captain America with issue #418 in late 1993--a story which featured Cap in a minor sub-plot tending to Diamondback, while the bulk of the issue focused on Dennis Dunphy, otherwise known as D-Man.

A Captain America issue, starring D-Man. Need I say more.

I had stuck with the book for as long as possible, giving it as much of a chance to turn around as I could, before finally realizing it was no great loss to stop collecting this title, and how silly it was to throw good money after bad. Coincidentally, in that very issue, the following letter was printed in the letters page from another reader who seemed to be of like mind regarding the downturn of the book:

And penned by a member of the military, at that. But I couldn't afford to give much weight to the response: "We think you're going to be happy with developments brewing in these pages real soon...!" Well what else could they say? "It may take awhile for story quality to become better, and we're not quite sure what to do at this point--but we'll get there!"

The title ended its run nearly three years later--and judging by the last few issues, the stories did actually rise to the occasion and allowed the good Captain to end on a reasonably high note. But then the "Onslaught" event occurred, effectively putting an end to a number of flagship titles and placing their characters in alternate tales for roughly the next year. It was almost as if we were getting a trial run of the Ultimates format, where the characters were given histories that deviated significantly from the ones we were familiar with. "Heroes Reborn," the banner under which these stories were grouped, acted as a reset button for Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America, The Avengers, and Thor, titles which had all reached unmanageably high issue numbers and were arguably, for want of a better phrase, burned out.

In the case of Captain America, his "rebirth" in an alternate reality would be handled by artist/writer Rob Liefeld, who had already worked with Marvel on the closing issues of New Mutants (which spun off into the new series X-Force, also handled by Liefeld) and Cable, and whose studio would be contracted to handle the new stories of both Captain America and The Avengers. It was during this time that I decided to give Captain America another try--and while "Heroes Reborn" as a whole didn't exactly set the world on fire for me, I was surprised by how much I liked the new direction for and handling of Cap. Liefeld and scripter Jeph Loeb (yes, that Jeph Loeb, scripter of the "red Hulk" issues that threw in practically every guest star combination you could think of, with Hulks falling out of the woodwork) brought a lot of patriotic flair back to Cap, while giving this "new" character some interesting history and compelling sub-plots.

But more than that, the issue as a whole is put together with great care. Liefeld, who is credited with not only pencils but also the story and editing, has obviously given considerable thought to its presentation, and certainly demonstrates a feel for the character both in and out of costume. "Heroes Reborn" no doubt stunned many readers who weren't quite sure what was going on with Marvel. The company seemed in disarray, having lost its sense of direction with its own characters and seemed to be starting over and reinventing them on a clean slate. This issue of Captain America, at least, felt like a port in a storm. Cap, unlike the other characters caught up in the new line of books, needed no makeover in either appearance or concept. His familiar costume and shield comes across on the printed page as boldly as ever; and the principles and standards by which he's guided simply needed dusting off and a jolt of reaffirmation.

And so, rather than begin with any elements of the story, Liefeld opens the issue by presenting its best selling device front and center, with all due fanfare:

We can see right away that Liefeld has made one obvious alteration in Cap's costume, with the letter "A" on his mask replaced with an icon of the American eagle--a clever way to pique our interest and give us a sense of originality with this new book, while still retaining the well-known look of one of Marvel's most stand-out characters. You'll also notice how "face front" Liefeld presents Cap in these pages. Liefeld tends to pencil in an impressionist style, depending on his characters' posture and stance to convey their intent and attitude at least as much as (if not more than) than the accompanying captions or dialog--and perhaps Captain America is the one character with whom he can indulge this style to any degree without depending on it to carry the issue.

Another nice touch in this story are the captions in key scenes featuring Cap that contain quotes clearly steeped in patriotism, though there's a danger of overuse with that sort of device. The pledge of allegiance here; Steve Rogers, later, falling asleep to the strains of "God Bless America" as the television station he's watching signs off (though wasn't it usually "The Star Spangled Banner"?); and a moment of resolve where Oliver Wendell Holmes recites the nature of war. I wouldn't want to see this book reek of such force-fed patriotism; but perhaps, in this introductory issue where Steve Rogers remembers who and what he is, it was important to underscore the kind of man who's re-entering the world.

And speaking of Rogers, these images of Cap at first have a disturbing and unsettling effect on him:

For this Steve Rogers is an ordinary family man, with no costumed identity, who resides in a suburb in Philadelphia.

We're seeing a number of clues sprinkled about here that refer to things that strike a familiar chord. Thanks to his wife, we know that Steve is somewhat patriotic (blending of course with the patriotic overtones of the city in which he lives)--and the names of "Peggy" and "Rick" can't help but remind us of Peggy Carter and Rick Jones. Otherwise, you wouldn't think anything is amiss here. Steve seems very much at ease with his family, and they with him. But there are still those disturbing dreams--and when Steve mentions them to his co-workers (in a job which, thankfully, has nothing to do with art--that would be stacking the deck a bit too much), we get our first tip-off that there are other forces in play:

And the dreams continue, which gives Liefeld another opportunity to bring Captain America to life in oversized panels--as well as, in this case, two full pages:

The story then introduces a dangling plot involving a new character--a young girl named Rikki Barnes (whom, thanks to the name, we can almost picture in a Bucky uniform, even at this early stage), a young dancer in Philadelphia who was rejected for admittance at Julliard but whose rebellious brother serves to move us in the direction of the story's antagonist.

The "World Party," a savvy media front for a racist organization touring from city to city, whose camera-ready spokesperson, Alexander "The Great," is known behind the scenes by another name we're familiar with:

Despite the swastika insignia, I don't know if Liefeld absent-mindedly drew this man to resemble Cable (whom he would introduce in this new series at a later point). It might have helped to make Master Man's outfit more distinctive.

Aside from the World Party's obvious agenda, Master Man and his aide are also on the hunt for an individual who apparently has made off with something of particular value to them:

Yes, "Hauptman," another coincidental reference that rings familiar. Hauptman, by the way, makes mention of a man whom Steve has also spotted in the area, someone he feels he knows but can't place.

With Alexander's appearance at the World Party rally, though, we finally learn from whom Master Man is receiving his marching orders, as well as the origin of the Party's racist leanings:

So far the story has done well at leading us in a sensible progression of events and introduction of characters, easing us into this new concept for Cap. (Recall the launch of the 1991 X-Men title, where characters and shifts in direction were instead flying like shrapnel.) Only two things are really left to accomplish at this point, which will amount to one and the same: bringing Cap into play, and tipping the World Party's hand. Thanks to Special Agent Hunt of SHIELD, who takes advantage of the rally to investigate Alexander's organization further, we'll see that SHIELD's fears were justified:

It's a slight trip-up in the story, since it's unlikely that a group that's touring from city to city is going to be bringing its nuclear missiles along at every stop. We'll have to assume that Philadelphia is its final stop and where the organization is based. Though the game is up for Hunt, in any case.

The time is now ripe to return to Steve; more to the point, the time is now ripe for Cap. Steve finally meets the mysterious man he's encountered--Abe Wilson (yes, "Wilson"), an old war vet whom Loeb handles wonderfully in taking Steve not only back to his past but into his future.

It's a curious choice by Liefeld to depict Abe's eyes as he has--little more than sockets, with no pupils or retinas. Perhaps to indicate Cap's long-dead past in human form; or perhaps to heighten the awareness of the dramatic revelations this man harbors; or maybe it's simply Liefeld's preferred way of indicating old age.

Abe leads Steve to a hidden box he's been travelling with around the world in his attempts to locate the younger man--and the object it contains will prove to be a momentous exchange for both of these men, though unfortunately a tragic one.

Master Man's hirelings have struck fatally, knowing the shield would survive whatever explosives they would use to make the hit. It provides the perfect opportunity for Liefeld to have this book's hero rise defiantly from the rubble:

Thanks to Liefeld's tendency to redefine traditional panel bordering and page limitations, the fight that follows is spectacular, with Loeb providing Cap--now obviously in full possession of his faculties--with dialog and captions that appropriately portray him as no-nonsense, authoritative, and battle-hardened.

And just as appropriately, Cap returns immediately to the wounded once the battle's done. But even though Abe doesn't survive, his touching farewell serves to pave the way for Captain America's return--for Steve Rogers, yes, but just as importantly for the reader:

And so the book is launched, and we have several things to keep us interested enough to keep going with future issues. There's Cap himself, naturally; it's been three months since his last solo issue, and this new story provides him with a revitalized and recharged look and feel that gives every impression of bringing him back in all his (you'll excuse the word) glory. But there's also this new existence which is intriguing. How will Steve's rediscovery of himself as "Captain America" impact on himself and his family--and in what other ways will we see his new life differ from or parallel the one we know of? What part will Rikki Barnes play, if any other than what seems to be the obvious? How will the World Party (and Master Man) continue to be played, now that Johann Schmidt's involvement has been revealed? Steve has been made aware with Abe's dying words that the World Party knows of his family--will this be another tragic Punisher scenario?

That's enough on this new book's plate to get it started, but Loeb and Liefeld give us a little something more:

It all makes for quite an impressive start, though it's unfortunate to know in hindsight that Liefeld would depart the book after six issues, taking the wind out of the sails for both this title and The Avengers and making "Heroes Reborn" something of a flailing concept without his input. I haven't always been on board with Liefeld's interpretation of Marvel characters, particularly the militant X-Force and its tunnel vision for its young members under Cable's by-the-numbers stewardship. By contrast, his handling of Captain America seemed a tailored fit for the character, with the promise of a good run to come.

Though something tells me we should be thankful he wasn't consulted on the film:

Heroes Reborn: Captain America #1

Script: Jeph Loeb
Pencils: Rob Liefeld
Inks: Jon Sibal
Letterers: Richard Starkings and Dave Lamphear

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