25 September 2007

Re-Cap, Part 1: Captain America on DVD-ROM

Welcome to the start of the series that I have retroactively (as of May 2010) titled: “Re-Cap: A Look Back At Captain America.” Please note that the DVD-ROM I have of these issues is no longer manufactured.

Marvel Comics has started to release back issues of its most famous titles in DVD-ROM format. Yes, on one disc you can get 500 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man for $39.99. (And you would imagine you would have to shell out forty bucks at least, right?) The comics come in PDF format, easily readable by any Mac or PC, and include all the ad pages, letter columns, etc. Heck, you can even see the slightly rusty staples on the oldest issues. For someone who loves comic book history but doesn’t want to “collect” them, this is manna from the Great Pencil & Inkers in the Sky. Forty bucks buys years of comic-book goodness, provided you don’t mind using your laptop or desktop to do your reading. (I’ve found reading the PDFs easier and more enjoyable than I thought.) And you get to read the bizarre rants of Stan “The Man” Lee in his editorial columns and some weird—and occasionally prescient—comments from readers in the letter columns

I just received my first of these DVD-ROMs in the mail, the complete Captain America. The original Captain America, Steve Rogers, appears to have died in April 2007. I say “appears” because in comics death has a tendency to mean “hiatus.” Everyone assumed that Jason Todd and Bucky Barnes were dead, and oops! they both came back to life in 2005. If those two can come back to life, then anybody can. (Which, now that I think of it would work well as an inspirational speech theme.) Then there was that famous “Death of Superman” story of the 1990s. He sure didn’t stay in the afterlife for long.

Honestly, only Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben seems immune to resurrection. If anyone at Marvel is reading this, please don’t hatch up a way to bring him back, as it would completely ruin Spider-Man’s essential motivation.

The upshot of all this is that I haven’t lost any sleep over Captain America's death. Nor should you. Losing sleep over the “death” of a fictional character is silly anyway. (Update: As of 2009, Captain America is coming back. Marvel managed to keep him dead for almost two years; impressive.)

But I’m getting off track here . . . I was talking about the Captain America DVD-ROM set.

The single disk contains every issue of the eponymous Captain America comic books series through its different volumes and numbering restarts, as well as all the hero’s appearances in Tales of Suspense, which he shared with Iron Man until the magazine officially changed to Captain America with issue #100 and Iron Man shuffled off into his own title. The DVD-ROM doesn’t have any of Cap’s Golden Age issues from the 1940s, when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created the character. I would have loved to see those oldies, but Marvel apparently wanted only “current continuity” Cap in this collection.

Captain America wasn’t the first patriotic-themed superhero in the comics—another star-spangled longjohn-wearing fellow named The Shield beat him by a few months, in Pep Comics—but he was the most popular in the Golden Age. His first appearance predated American entry into World War II, but Cap was already busy busting Nazi saboteurs’ heads before Pearl Habor. He even got to slug Hitler on the cover of his first appearance. He and his teen sidekick—a requirement for heroes of the time—“Bucky” tangled with the Nazis throughout the war years, in particular a recurring adversary known as the Red Skull. But eventually the world’s greatest fighting machine was defeated by the end of the war, when patriotic heroes no longer had the same appeal. Superheroes in general lost popularity in the 1950s, and Cap vanished after a brief revival as “Captain America: Commie Smasher!” (Which would lead to a very fascinating story in the 1970s, however.)

Cut to the Silver Age; or, as editor and chief writer Stan Lee like to modestly term it, “The Marvel Age of Comics!” With the huge success of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Thor, Stan Lee decided to pull Captain America from the company’s retired file and put him back into active service. One problem: how to cover the twenty-year gap between World War II and 1964, while keeping the character the same spry age?

Solution: Retroactive Continuity. A.k.a. Retcon. The time-honored comic tradition of re-writing a character's back history. Memorize the term; you're going to hear it a lot in the next few paragraphs. In The Avengers #4, Captain America is discovered in suspended animation, frozen in ice after he fell from an exploding rocket in an escapade in the closing days of the War. His partner Bucky died in the explosion (or so we thought until Ed Brubaker re-retconned Bucky back into existence in 2005), but Cap waited, unaging, in an ice block until the Avengers located him. Cap joined their ranks, and in a few months he had his own feature in Tales of Suspense . . . with original co-creator Jack Kirby once again providing the art.

And here’s where my DVD-ROM adventures and “Re-Cap” start, with Tales of Suspense #59. Cap had made a guest appearance in the previous issue’s Iron Man story (Marvel just loved a Hero vs. Hero cover to snare readers), but with #59 he edged out the back page feature “Tales of the Watcher” and took up permanent residence. A few readers complained about losing the Watcher feature in the letters page, but according to Stan’s ripostes, nobody seemed to care about the feature until it ended. No one could argue with the great sales of Avengers #4, so the Watcher was out and Cap was in . . . permanently. Eventually Tales of Suspense would change its name to Captain America.

That first story in Tales of Suspense #59 isn’t anything to wave the flag over. Avengers #4 was Captain America’s true re-introduction to the comics world, and this issue feels as if artist Jack Kirby was stretching his muscles and getting a feel for drawing solo adventures of the hero again. These half-magazine features never provide much opportunity to develop complex plots: the story would usually start with the action already underway, and after some set-up and puns and hyperbole from Stan Lee’s pen, Kirby would send Cap into a few pages of furious fighting. It’s clear that Kirby loved drawing Captain America in action, and the dated and creaky writing and characterization can’t dim how much energy bursts off these pages—or PDF screens. Kirby’s distinctive style has timelessness that few artists can beat. He was called “The King” for a reason.

The story in Tales of Suspense #59 finds Cap sitting in Avengers Mansion on solo guard-duty one evening, still the lonesome hero only recently dragged into the modern era. A pack of dumb thugs, one of whom has mysteriously gotten hold of a metal suit of armor to defend him from Cap’s shield, decide to raid the mansion and plunder its “secrets.” Apparently no one has thought of a security system for the mansion, since the thugs break right in. But Cap cleans them right up.

This simple pattern of Cap tackling a crowd of nobodies stays in place for a few issues. Tales of Suspense #60 has the Star-Spangled Avenger battling assassins hired by his Nazi foe Baron Zemo, who had recently emerged in the pages of The Avengers as the leader the Masters of Evil. The assassins jump ol’ Winghead at a physical fitness demonstration, and Cap lays them all out. He also demonstrates the magnetic gizmos that Iron Man set into his shield, which won’t last much longer in Cap’s arsenal. In issue #61, Cap appears suddenly in war-wracked Vietnam to rescue a POW, but first he must take on a Vietcong general who happens to be a humongous sumo wrestler. This is the sort of story that hasn’t aged well, with its “Yellow Peril” stereotypes and one-dimensional look at a complex conflict.

Cap returns stateside for issue #62 in time to get jumped at another physical fitness demonstration, this time at a prison. The prisoners want to seize Captain America’s shield so they can use the magnetic gizmos in it to escape. I don’t get it either, and since Cap removed the electronic devices because they made the shield improperly balanced, it’s a moot point. Cap cleans house again. I suspect that either Lee or Kirby decided that high-tech gadgets in the shield didn’t feel right, and moved too far away from the martial arts nature of the character. Let Iron Man have the gizmos; Captain America has his prowess and never-say-die spirit.

It’s in Tales of Suspense #63 that Lee and Kirby really found their feet and pulled a change-up in style. The issue re-creates Captain America’s origin through “Project: Rebirth” in the early 1940s, and details how Bucky became Cap’s partner. Both events would get retconned so many times that Rashomon has a more singular point-of-view, but this issue remains the template for all the rectons to follow. The flashback story also signals the start of a series of Golden Age-set adventures for Cap in the magazine, which must have been a real treat for Jack Kirby to draw, reliving his early days of comic book fame. While Iron Man battled modern-day communists, Captain America could beat up on Nazis. In fact, despite his patriotic dross, Cap was far less a commie-smasher than Iron Man. To some extent this difference in the two character’s “patriotism” continues to this day.

In issue #64, Cap and Bucky take on Nazi saboteurs who have idiotically chosen to telegraph their activities through a bogus psychic act—Omar and Sando—that our heroes see through immediately. This story also features the female Agent 13, who will go on to have an interesting history complete with plenty of retcons; just wait until we reach issue #75. Issue #65 brings back on stage Captain America’s most famed nemesis, the Red Skull—but this appearance is designed to establish a new version of the character through—you guessed it—a retcon. The Red Skull who appeared in the Golden Age of comics was an American industrialist named George Maxon who worked undercover as a spy for the Nazis. This new story seems to have Maxon again beneath the mask, but the Skull claims at the conclusion that he has murdered the real George Maxon who had taken up his identity. So who is the real Red Skull? We don’t find out until next issue, when Jack and Stan unveil the “Johann Schmidt” version of the Red Skull, who has bedeviled Cap ever since.

However, this is as far as I’ve gotten in the DVD-ROM. Only some four hundred and ninety issues yet to go! I doubt I’ll regale you with reviews of every issue, however. I may get close, however.

Next episode: Captain America DVD-ROM Fights On!