Books I Read: Captain America by @MarkWaid

A nice consequence of the Captain America movie book push is that the bulk of the Mark Waid and Ron Garney (later Andy Kubert) run on the character is now collected. (There's one more volume coming in October, featuring Waid's intended version of Cap #14 for the first time.) Waid's is some of my favorite work on the character but I haven't read most of it since it was first released, so I was excited to experience it again.

Captain America: Operation Rebirth: It's hard to articulate now how much of a departure these issues were from what had gone before. I'll get to the Mark Gruenwald years, which were wonderful in their own way, in another post, but suffice it to say that Cap had spent the last year in increasingly bulky suits of armor trying to stave off his own death from super soldier serum poisoning. The book was a complete blank slate, with the main character presumed dead and his supporting cast (mostly Avengers and employees) gone. Waid, as far as I know, didn't know his time on the book would be limited because of "Heroes Reborn" but he sure wrote like he thought he was on borrowed time. He did his Red Skull story first instead of building up to it, having Cap resurrected by his greatest enemy and confronted by Sharon Carter, the love he thought was dead. (That doesn't seem like a big deal now, but at the time she had been gone for decades.) There's even a Bucky flashback! Ron Garney's art brought a new dynamism to the book, as seen in the double-page spread above. Not to mention "Man Without a Country", one of the greatest explorations of Steve Rogers' character culminating in no less than the saving of a President. The concluding story of Sharon Carter's return to Vietnam -- is it Vietnam? hmm it doesn't seem to say in the story so let's just call it southeast Asia -- is also very good. Every Cap fan should own this volume.

Captain America: To Serve & Protect: Having heaped all that praise on the previous volume, I have to say that as a complete package I actually like the story in this one a little better. It spans the whole book (reprinting Cap #1-7), and it's a perfect little exploration of Cap's iconic status. Waid drops Cap in Japan after "Heroes Reborn", where he finds that his year missing presumed dead has made him a worldwide phenomenon. His handling of a terrorist plot in Japan, against Garney's great backdrops of the country and of Cap's history on film, sets off global Cap-mania, which he deals with for the rest of the book. Then, Waid starts #2 with one of the coolest shield tricks ever, and promptly drops the shield in the ocean in a great wordless four-page sequence by Garney. As if dealing with global fame and the loss of his (figurative) right arm wasn't enough, a Skrull impostor puts Cap's meaning to the world to the test long before Skrull impostors were fashionable. (Normally, I wouldn't give this away since it's meant to be a surprise in the story, but Skrull Cap is right there on the back cover.) However, some of the art in this book is a little shakier than the ones on either side of it. The transition from Garney to Kubert happens here, and even though the issues in-between are done by Dale Eaglesham and Scott Kolins their work here shows little of the genius they would later demonstrate.

Captain America: American Nightmare: This volume's more disjointed than the others. The "American Nightmare" story is complete in issues #9-12, but #8 is part 2 of the "Live Free or Die" crossover with Avengers, the 1998 Cap/Iron Man and Cap/Citizen V annuals are included (both written or co-written by Kurt Busiek), and #13 is a standalone story. "American Nightmare" is the logical next step in Waid's exploration of what Cap means to the world, as villain Nightmare uses people's emotions about Cap (the "American Dream") to gain a foothold in the waking world. (Again, this should be a surprise reveal but Marvel's book dept. put Nightmare on the back cover so I feel comfortable discussing it.) Andy Kubert's art captures the creepiness of the nightmare realm and the possessed in the waking world perfectly. Kubert's work is dynamic in a different way than Garney's was, and I love his facial expressions (see the faces of Sharon and the trapped construction worker above, for example.) I haven't really mentioned the Cap/Sharon relationship: their banter throughout all these books is terrific, and I like the little milestone Sharon reaches at the end of the Nightmare story. (Though of course she won't admit it.) The Cap/Iron Man annual is good, with a level of tension between Steve & Tony that we rarely see again until "Civil War". I'm sure I've read this annual reprinted recently, maybe in the Iron Man/Captain America trade from a few weeks ago? I love Busiek & Mark Bagley's "Thunderbolts" work, so the Cap/Citizen V annual was fun for me, but is really more essential to the "Thunderbolts" saga than Cap's (though there are some nice WWII flashbacks with Bucky and the original Citizen V.) The political story in #13 by Waid and guest artist Doug Braithwaite is quite good, so don't miss it tucked all the way in the back behind the annuals.

Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty: This secondary title ran for a while to give Waid and (sometimes) Garney a chance to explore some of Cap's rich history. The Sharon Carter story in #1 (also included in a "rough cut" version with just Garney's pencils) is probably the best, but I also really enjoyed Waid's takes on the Invaders and on the early Iron Man/Cap relationship. Also, the retelling by the Human Torch of the story from his 60's solo series where he met a fake Cap is a hoot. ("Meanwhile, in the arctic" is perhaps the funniest line ever in a Captain America story.) A few of the issues are by other writers: I liked the Roger Stern and Brian K. Vaughn stories, but I thought James Felder's was an incomprehensible mess. This is an oversized volume, which would have been nice for all these reprints, but I'll take a better look at Garney's art anywhere I can get it.

Captain America: Man Out of Time: I was against this idea when I first heard of it: a "modernized" retelling of Steve Rogers' first days out of the ice. Partially because Joe Casey somewhat went over that territory in "Earth's Mightiest Heroes", and partially because dating Steve's return makes whole sequences of Cap history that touch on real world history (Nixon, Watergate, etc.) problematic. But then Mark Waid was announced as writer and, as established above, he "gets" Cap like nobody else. So I was stuck, because Waid has earned a lot of trust, especially on this character. And wouldn't you know he delivered the best thing he's written for Marvel in years. (Keeping in mind that I haven't seen Dardevil #1 at the time of this writing.) Steve's disorientation in the 21st century is both understandable and heartbreaking, and Waid has a spin that makes Cap literally a "man out of time" in that "Why didn't I think of that?" way that his best writing has. Jorge Molina's art delivers every emotional moment that Waid's script requires. My only quibble is that Marvel always likes to (obliquely) depict the current president, but clearly Obama can't have been in office when Cap was thawed because that would mean all of Avengers history took place in the last three years. So ignore that, but otherwise this book is a must buy.

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