Thursday, April 3, 2014

The State of Captain America comics

As I eagerly await viewing the Captain America Winter Soldier movie today (in America), I have been pondering that state of Captain America in the comics now. Cap's star in the comics has definitely risen over the years. In the Bronze Age, he was at best a B-list hero with some occasional moments of greatness (the Englehart and Byrne eras were particularly good)

but during the 80's and 90's the character sort of languished.

But now, Cap is definitely a A-lister. In part due to the fantastic run Ed Brubaker had on the series but mostly because of his prominence in the movies. So, how are Captain America comics now? To answer that question, I thought would sample some of the current stories to see.

First up Captain America 16 (the main title) vol 7 by Rick Remender and Pascal Alixe

It might seem a bit unfair to use the 16th issue of Remender's run for this sampling, but as it was marked as a #1 in the Marvel Now banner, I figured it would make for a good example, because the purpose of such issues is to give new readers a place to jump on, right?

Well, the first thing you'll notice about this book is Captain America is pretty much absent from the entire issue. Instead, Remender focuses on a character of his own creation, Jet Black, the daughter of Arnim Zola, who is a remnant of the Dimension Z storyline that many readers found off putting. And I must admit, while I was a fan of the Dimension Z storyline, I will agree it seemed to run a bit long. When it finally ended, I dropped the series. So, seeing that the issue was basically a Jet Black solo story really put me off. One, because this felt like a wasted opportunity to get the people who were unhappy with the Dimension Z storyline back on board (and the sale figures make it look like that's a good 20K of people) and two, because Jet Black runs around in one of those costumes that seems like it was created during the worst of the 90's comics era when super heroines were all running around in thongs.

There is even a point when one of the characters in the story calls her out on her costume which I guess is Remender's attempt to pacify criticism, but all it really does is make it more awkward. Outside of that, the art isn't so bad. While Alixe doesn't always make the best composition choices for his panels (like the 3rd water tower panel above) his illustrative skills are quite good.

The story itself is a setup for another multi-issue storyline which introduces an agent of a cabal called the Iron Nail called Tsar Sultan (which I think is a lazy name...) In an attempt to get Black to join the Iron Nail, Sultan causes Jett Black to confront visions of her father and the Red Skull who question her new found allegiance to Captain America.

Overall, this is a pretty disappointing introductory issue, so I give it one star.

Next Up, All New Invaders 1 by James Robinson and Steve Pugh

 My love of the Invaders is well documented on this blog, and over the recent years, I've watched Marvel revisit the title, usually with dismaying results.

But as he's proven in the past, James Robinson has a great knack for breathing new life into Golden Age characters. I see a lot of fans say it's because he respects the source material (which I'm sure is true) but mostly I think Robinson prefers to write stories where characters grapple with remorse, regret and familial obligation and those are themes easily applied to Golden Age characters. Also since such stories carry more gravitas than your average "Can we trust Magneto!" comic, when does Robinson engage in fan service, it feels more substantive and noteworthy.

After a two page prologue with Kree fighting an Imperial Guardsman in the desert, Robinson reintroduces readers to Jim Hammond, The Original Human Torch, who is now working as an auto mechanic in a small town in Illinois. This gives us a vista that is  physically removed from the normal New York Marvel universe and echoes the folksy tone of the book.

Of course, it's not long before the Kree we saw in the prologue show up looking for an artifact that was used by the Nazis in World War II. In explaining what they are looking for, the Kree give us a nice flashback with the Invaders and a few surprise guests:

At the cost of revealing his true identity and alienating his friends in the town, the Torch fights back against the Kree. Outnumbered and overpowered, the Kree seem unstoppable until the end when  Captain America and Bucky show up to join the fight.

It's a pretty standard beginning to a superhero story but where it shines is in the dialogue. Unlike many other Marvel writers who are write dialogue that makes their heroes sound like Starbucks baristas, Robinson's characters have a voice that sounds fitting.  The art for this series is from British illustrator Steve Pugh, whose has been around since 1990 is probably best known for his work on Hellblazer and Animal Man. He doesn't have a lot of experience drawing your standard superhero fight comic which makes for some weird choices during the battle scenes:

On the flip-side his faces are more expressive than you typically see in Marvel comics today which compliments Robinson's dialogue skills.

 I was pretty satisfied with this comic and will continue buying the rest of the (mini?) series. I give it 4 stars.

The last entry in this post is the most disappointing.

Avengers Endless War OGN by Warren Ellis and Mike McKone

Warren Ellis is one of those writers who can sometimes turn in great work with some very creative ideas. I've been a fan of work at times (Doom 2099, The Authority, Planetary, Transmetropolitan, Hellblazer, Thunderbolts) as well as a detractor (Ultimate FF, Iron Man, Secret Avengers) His work is a real mixed bag of good and bad (imo) with the bulk of his good stuff being his personal projects or superhero work from early in his career. He's made statements that suggest he doesn't have the same level of personal appreciation for superhero comics that someone like Grant Morrison has. And I suspect his apathy to the genre has only gotten worse over time. As a result, some of his worst work for the big two has a phoned in feel to it. Still, knowing all that, I sort of expected this maiden launch of Marvel's OGN line to be one of those places where Ellis might shine again.

Instead, this ended up being 120 pages of what felt like a movie tie-in. With a price tag of $20 (for the digital version) that works out to be cheaper (per page) than most current Marvel comics, but a LOT of this book feels like padding. For one thing, there are 35 pages of scenes where the Avengers are just standing around and talking, like this:

And quite a number of panels everywhere where nothing is weird mini-pinups

I almost get the feeling that this was supposed to be a Annual or Giant-size comic (60 pages?) and at the last minute the project was increased to become this longer OGN.

Looking at those pages above, you may notice, as other fans have, that there is a certain stiffness to the illustrations. While I didn't find it as off putting as a lot of other people, it is a little curious. I don't think I remember Mike McKone drawing like that in the past. I think it's a result of extra pages being rushed out. Compare the face of this girl in the first scene of the comic:

With this scene with Steve Rogers

I'm also a bit confused by who was the target audience for this comic. On first glance I figured it was the fans of the Avengers movie since the costumes and lineup (the Hulk is included here) seem to fall in line with the movie. But they do weird things like color Hawkeye's hair blonde and give Iron Man gold and grey (?) armor and add Ms. Marvel to the mix that, again, makes me think somewhere, this was originally going to be set in the regular Marvel universe.

Whatever the audience, this book will probably not entertain them. And it seems the ratings on Amazon back this up. I've seen quite a number of people refer to this as Endless Snoretime and I think that's about right. I give it 1 star.

I'm going to wrap it up here. To those of you going to the movie this weekend, let me know what you think of it!

- Jim


Unknown said...

For me the biggest problem with Captain America in the comics today is the redesigned movie styled costume. It's ugly on the screen and uglier in the comics. Like Batman, making the character heavily padded and armored in the comics defeats the purpose.

I think 80s/90s gave us some good Cap stories. Short run with Mike Zeck on art, Gruenwald's lengthy run giving us new characters and revisiting old. Mark Waid's short aborted first run.

For the most part, I liked the first issue of The Invaders even with me not liking Superpro Cap and Cyber-Bucky. However, I felt issues 2 & 3 lived down to much of my expectations with quite a few stupid writing/art bits (such as Cap telling Cable-Bucky and the Human Torch to completely cut loose and then stands in front of them fighting the villain hand-2-hand, and the two follow orders, blasting away with Superpro in between them and their target)

Jim Shelley said...

@Edward Love - I've long made my peace with the variance between comic costumes and movie costumes. For one thing, I think the intrinsic differences between the mediums makes it impossible to use the brightly colored costumes on a big screen unless (and I've mentioned this before in a Wonder Woman post) you go the completely CGI route like The Incredibles or Frozen where you can control every aspect of the lighting and form.
Nor is that the hill I want to die on. It's more important to me that the characterization of the comic book character is adhered to (else why bother at all?) In the latest Captain America movie, I think they've done a good job with this (in some ways better than the comics have over the years.) Chris Evan's Cap rings true as the character in my ears.
I tend to agree with you on Gruenwald’s run for the most part. There was some fun stuff in that run. I know it gets a lot of flack for introducing concepts like Cap-Wolf, but the Bloodstone Hunt was a fun arc.
As to the Invaders, I’m still enjoying it (especially with the nice twist in issue 3.)
Aside: Your Superpro reference made me laugh. Nice one!

Trey said...

The DeMatteis/Zeck run was great.

Lob. Johnson said...

I agree with your post on these books. Brubaker's run was a real high point in the Captain America run. I've dropped it early in the "Z" stuff.
The Invaders is far, for me,... pretty average. I'm still buying it ...but I'm not very happy with it. I don't get the vibe of The Human Torch as an android and they make The Vision too "Spectre" like. Simon and Kirby had him "mixing it up" with the evil villains and this vision only stands back and acts like an advisor.
But I've complained about things like this for so long and they don't listen so if it doesn't get better I'll probably drop it sometime soon. I don't care for Jim's costume either. Glad to hear Toro's coming back... and I hope THE DESTROYER (the Keen Marlow Destroyer) comes back...but I doubt it. Basically, I'm looking to drop a book I had high hopes for and we all know how disappointing that can be.

Jim Shelley said...

@Lob Johnson - yeah, now that I'm more into the run on Invaders, I'm inclined to agree with you. It commits the sin that a lot of books that trade on nostalgia do - it uses the toys of the bronze age to tell what is essentially a modern superhero comic. It's a bit like writing a Doc Savage story where he uses a cell phone (which writers have recently done.) It misses the point of what people are looking for in a such a story.

The best post-bronze Invaders story I've read in many years was one written by Roy Thomas about 10 years ago in some annual (forget which one) which actually read like a real Bronze Age comic.

In the music industry, the idea that you can create an album that sounds exactly like a retro 60's or 70's songs is commonly accepted. In fact such music has a good fan following. So why don't we see that sort of product differentiation in comics?

Usually when someone does create a homage to the 70's, it's done with a sort of wink, wink, nudge, nudge effort.

Lob. Johnson said...

Yes, I agree with you 100%, Jim. You're right about the whole business.
I also agree with you about the ability of Roy Thomas to "get it right" when very few others can.
I've asked Archie (Red Circle, MLJ, Archie Adventure Series) to hire Roy to write some Golden Age MLJ to kind of set the foundation of their line.
I don't think they listened. I've tried to "talk" to them since the '60's and they don't hear me at all.
Roy's All Star Squadron was good stuff....and Jerry Ordway could be hired to draw some Golden Age stories written by Roy .... but everything seems to fall on deaf ears.
They have hired an editor and hopefully he'll tie the heroes 1940's (Legacy stuff) to the returning heroes. I wish both Dynamite (PSP) AND Dark Circle the very best in grounding these Golden Age heroes in the '40's and bringing them into the Present. (Which seems to be the only time period fans of today seem interested.)
But your suggestion of a Darwyn Cooke JSA set in the 1940's is a wonderful idea that I, too, have made and it fell like a wet sack of cement. Too bad to have such a wonderful talent like Cooke and a wonderful group of heroes like the JSA and not bring them together. Instead we get a lot of crap that hits the racks.

Jim Shelley said...

Lob, reading over your other comments, I'm picking up an artist vibe from you. Do you have any samples online?

I had to google Dark Circle after your mention of it here in the post above. I have a lot of thoughts about that which will be the focus of my post tomorrow.

Like you, I've always been a huge fan of the All Star Squadron. It was right in so many ways.


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