Rapping with the Captain

Captain America: The Captain: written by Mark Gruenwald; illustrated by Tom Morgan, Kieron Dwyer, Al Milgrom and others (1987-88; collected 2011): Stripped of his commission as Captain America by the U.S. government, Steve Rogers strives to find his place in the world while the government trains a new Captain America — the former Super-Patriot — in his place. The real Cap ends up fighting crime as The Captain for a time before various developments and machinations place him and the new Captain America on a collision course.

This large collection (500 pages+) has its ups and downs, though mostly ups. The late Mark Gruenwald was one of three or four Marvel writers of the 1980’s and 1990’s who really seemed to “get” Captain America as both an icon and a sympathetic character (for the record, the other writers would be Roger Stern, Mark Waid, and John Byrne, with a special mention of Frank Miller’s mournful take on Cap in the Daredevil: Born Again arc). The art by Kieron Dwyer and Tom Morgan is straightforward and effective.

As with DC’s Superman, Captain America represents quite a challenge to a comic-book writer. Go too far one way and he’s an insufferable, flag-waving goofball. Go too far the other and he’s simply not recognizable as Captain America (well, except for that iconic uniform). The Captain allowed Gruenwald to address this problem in an unobtrusively meta-fictional way: Steve Rogers isn’t sure what his place is in the world any more, while the new Captain America rapidly becomes a kill-crazy nutjob undone by the stresses of the job. But eventually the narrative shows that the original Captain America still has a place in a world of increasingly violent heroes and villains.

Gruenwald advances his case for a realistically idealistic, principled Captain America in a number of ways: the motley crew of D-List heroes who follow Cap around for much of the book allow for Cap’s influence to be shown rather than told; the new Captain America remains fairly sympathetic even as he goes off the rails; and one group of villains actually calls on Cap for help because he’s the only Marvel hero who might actually come to the rescue of one group of villains being beat on by another.

All in all, solid superhero storytelling with some nice grace notes scattered throughout. The character of ‘D-Man’ — a super-powered former wrestler who fights crime as Demolition Man in what appears to be an oversized Wolverine outfit — is the most interesting supporting character here, partially because in the Marvel Universe a guy who can deadlift 15 tons is considered puny by a lot of villains, partially because he’s an oddity verging on Grant Morrison Doom Patrol territory. Recommended.

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