Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Match Made In Fiction

While there's little argument that Marvel knew what it had in Captain America, there was a point when it didn't quite realize what it had in Steve Rogers, Cap's civilian identity. To explore the meaning of that, we need to return to late 1985, where Steve is pleasantly reminded of an arrangement that Marvel has with various heroes to document their adventures in comics form.

Interesting that Marvel would pass up an opportunity to include Amazing Spider-Man in these "free plug" scenes; in addition, you'd think that Spider-Man, who is always scrambling for cash, would jump at the chance at such an arrangement and have regular checks coming in. Presumably, the Avengers, the FF, et al. either waive any payments or have them forwarded to charitable organizations. There's also the problem of putting a title on the racks that features a character who's wanted by the police; and of course the book would have to leave out any scenes of Peter Parker. (By the way, it looks like our excited young collector began his Captain America run with the Roger Stern/John Byrne team's first issue. Good instincts, pal!)

But for artist Steve Rogers, who's looking for work, the inspiration hits that he might be able to have his cake and eat it, too.

Five comics for $3.25. Today, Steve would have to set up an installment plan for that many comics in a batch. (Which a sidewalk vendor probably wouldn't be receptive to.)

The more Steve mulls over the idea, the better a fit it seems to him. Fortunately, this is all occurring to him in the mid-'80s; with comics' pivot toward more graphic violence in the '90s and away from the "good wholesome entertainment" that he's seeing in his sample copies, the shift in emphasis would likely be a deal-breaker for him.

Steve has some polishing to do on his technique in order to break into the new medium, but he's eager to apply himself. And who better to interpret the fighting style of Captain America?

Steve has obviously made his decision and rolled up his sleeves. The next step is to pitch his work with Marvel. At this point in time, Jim Shooter was Editor-in-Chief of Marvel, while Mike Carlin was the editor on Captain America and Fantastic Four. Would Steve have what it takes to join the ranks of the Marvel Bullpen?

(Make sure you secure all rights to your artwork, guy!)

It turns out that Steve's appointment would be pushed back a week--but he does drop off his portfolio, and by the time he meets with Carlin his work has been evaluated and made quite an impression on the editor. But the icing on the cake is when Steve snags his dream assignment.

(Not even one raised eyebrow from either Carlin or his staff at their applicant's name being "Steve Rogers"?)

It's still a mystery as to how the man who leads a life as Captain America can succeed in a job with a tight deadline; on the other hand, Cap is a "can do" kind of guy who specializes in finding a way to meet the challenge, and this type of work allows him flexibility in terms of variable hours while also not mandating that he clock in at the office. And as far as Marvel is concerned, he's just the man to help inject new life into the Captain America title--though of course, they have no idea just how ideal he is for the job.

As we check in on Steve later, it seems that things are going just fine for him at his new job. But during the time he's worked on Captain America, it's not surprising to see that he's got a few ideas for how the character is portrayed--all tactfully suggested, of course.

(Carlin's opinionated co-worker is Asst. Editor Michael Higgins, though we should keep in mind that it's writer Mark Gruenwald who's responsible for ruffling Mr. Higgins' feathers, apparently noting Higgins' own tendency to critique.)

With Cap hitting the road in a custom van in order to respond to calls for help from his new computer "hotline," his stories become more involved with conflict, with less opportunities to touch base in New York; consequently, any scenes that allow us to check in with his job situation are liable to be few and far between, understandably taking a low priority in comparison to the life the title character leads. It takes about five months (our time) for an issue to bring us up to speed on Steve and his work--with a scene taking just long enough to give us an idea how he's able to balance his work responsibilities with his status as a costumed hero.

However, three issues later would see the departure of Carlin from both Captain America and Marvel, reportedly fired due to Shooter's friction with Byrne for the latter's agreeing to work as the new writer/artist on Superman. With Carlin's exit, Steve Rogers' position at his Marvel job effectively evaporated from the pages of Captain America, even though Gruenwald would continue on the title until the mid-1990s; and when Steve later feels compelled to relinquish his identity as Captain America, his computer hotline becomes collateral damage. We're left to assume that Steve no longer felt comfortable rendering the adventures of Cap for Marvel; after all, his decision regarding Captain America wouldn't negate his need for a steady income, and there would have been no other reason for giving his notice. But more to the point, it's also possible that it was Gruenwald who no longer felt comfortable in continuing to portray Marvel Comics as the kind of environment where anyone would want to be on the team.


-3- said...

Oh, how nice! I was thinking about trying to collect the various stories that linked the premise of Marvel licensing their titles from 'real' heroes like this, and hadn't remembered Captain America's interactions. I remembered him doing time as an artist, but totally forgot them getting meta fun like this.

I believe the problem for Spider-Man was cashing the checks. No problem for the very public Fantastic Four, and the Avengers have everything handled by "Tony Stark's people", but Peter hasn't got the necessary middleman.

Before your comment on nobody batting an eye at Steve Rogers' name, i was wondering if "Steve Rogers" was just the fictional cover name given to Cap in the comics, and his 'real' name was being replaced in what we read?

I remember back when Cap got that van. It kept making me think of Reb Brown's Captain America and his motorcycle-launching battle van from several years prior.

Comicsfan said...

Very good point about Spider-Man's check cashing problem, -3-, I had forgotten about that early scene! (Maybe he could have insisted on a cashier's check or money order?)

Warren JB said...

There's a more recent story (Recent! The way comics and pop culture seem to zip by these days, it could be over a decade old) where Peter Parker and Steve Rogers end up bonding over comic artistry in the Avengers tower. I have to say that with all the depictions of Steve Rogers as super soldier, symbol of America, head of SHIELD etc. etc., it feels relatable to imagine 'Steve Rogers: starving artist', especially as that's where my own personal interests lie. (Well, not so much in the 'starving' part)
I don't know exactly why it seems to have more impact than 'Peter Parker: photojournalist' or 'Matt Murdoch: lawyer'. Maybe because it's swept under the carpet so much, only touched on occassionally. And of course, it's almost more relatable by default, to most comics readers.

And on Steve Rogers as Cap artist: yeah! With the last name 'Beattie', I get quite a few double-takes myself. And I ain't even nothin' to do with Hollywood playboys...

Comicsfan said...

Well, Warren, they could be wondering if you might be John Beatty, another Cap artist. Hmmmm... "Warren JB"... curiouser and curiouser....