Monday, July 05, 2004

The Free Comic Book Day Massacre

So, uh, Free Comic Book Day was Saturday, or something. I don’t really know since I’ve never been to one of these things. See, I don’t really think its appropriate for a fellow like me to get excited about an industry outreach program like this because, you know, I already spend lots of money on comic books. Why go down to the store and take a pile of freebie reprints of bad Marvel books that I didn’t buy in the first place, if they could possibly be placed into the welcoming and appreciative hands of Little Jimmy Hunkle, 12 Year Old Cancer Patient? (There’s another problem: young cancer patients are not exactly a growth demographic.)

But seriously folks, I just don’t like leaving the house.

That’s Entertainment, which is where I do most of my shopping (in conjunction with the occasional trip to Newbury Comics), was having a grand old celebration, with Kurt Busiek and Paul Ryan signing comics and clowns and games and real live pony rides (I think I might be making the clowns and games part up, but I’ll never really know.) I thought about going, but really, I’ve met Kurt Busiek before. I’ve even had a few discussions with him online. Other than going to badger him about eventually doing that book on the Australian Gold Rush that he mutters about now and again, what was I gonna do? "Hey, remember me? I was the guy at Wonder Con a few years back who tried to tell you how good the Howard The Duck movie was . . . "

I do slightly regret missing Paul Ryan, because I’ve always liked his work and thought that he was one of the unsung heroes of Marvel, with great runs on some of my favorite books, like DP7, Quasar, and of course, the ever-underrated DeFalco/Ryan run on Fantastic Four. But as I have said before, most of my comics are 3,000 miles away, including my issue of FF #375 signed by Tom DeFalco and Danny Bulandi, but not Paul Ryan. So, that is just one of those things that I will have to deal with as I cry myself to sleep one more time.

You know, re-reading the above passage, I realize it looks like I said that Ryan and Busiek would be signing clowns in addition to comic books. That would have been worth seeing. I wonder where they would have signed.

Captain America #27-28

Robert Morales ends his abbreviated run on Captain America with these two issues, and I have the unenviable task of informing you that they were by far the best issues of his run to date. As I feared, Morales really grew into the book during the course of his eight-issue run – to the point where I feel that his departure represents a serious loss for Marvel.

OK, his first story, the Cuba thing with Chris Bachalo, was a bit slow to start. I’ll give you that. Seeing Cap sit around and talk is hardly a substitute for slam-bang action in the Mighty Marvel Manner. But the second half of that story was a lot better than the first half. There’s something of a visible learning curve whenever a new writer appropriates a series, and for a writer like Morales the learning curve was especially tangible. I’ve discussed it before, but it’s worth mentioning again: how do you make a character like Cap, who thrives in all-ages action-adventure stories, reflect the complications and ambiguities represented by the post 9-11 world? You can substitute Vietnam, Watergate, the Energy Crisis, Iran Contra, or La Affaire Lewinsky when talking about the challenges faced by the creative teams of different eras. It’s not a new question.

I thought the Marvel Knights Cap series started strong, with a few really memorable issues by John Ney Reiber and John Cassady. For whatever reason, however, they just couldn’t capitalize on this momentum, and the series soon devolved into a rather shockingly bad mope-fest. You know you’re in bad shape when Chuck Austen represents a marked improvement over the preceding issues. The series lost its legs very early on, and aside from a rather bald-faced stab at fanboy-pleasing retro-adventure by Dave Gibbons and Lee Weeks, it had failed completely to live up to the promise of its high-profile relaunch and reformatted mission-statement.

In any event, even if it took him a few issues, Morales was shaping up to be the best Cap writer in ages. The thing he seems to have figured out in these past few issues is that Cap should never be standing still. He’s like a doctor or a fireman: he’s always got a beeper and at any moment there are ten places he needs to be. So, in a similar fashion to Spider-Man, he feels a little uncomfortable and a little guilty whenever he’s not in uniform fighting evil or saving lives. But unlike Spider-Man, he doesn’t really have a personal live to give him problems either. He’s Captain America 24-7, and he’s just fine with that. It’s not like Batman, where Bruce Wayne has this whole schizo thing going on where he’s really uncomfortable being anything other than a sexually repressed S&M freak who beats up circus clowns for his jollies. Being Captain America is Steve Rogers’ job, it’s what he does and who he is, and he’s OK with that. There’s no defining trauma, no overwhelming guilt, just the satisfaction of having a job to do and being able to do it well.

If anything, I think liberating Cap from his secret identity has given writers like Morales unlimited potential to actually deal with what makes Cap tick in more naturalistic manner. When he’s sitting there having a cup of coffee, he’s doesn’t have to pretend to be anything other than what he is. In any given situation, Cap is the most comfortable person in the room. He always knows what’s going on. Even in social situations where he has been shown to be something of a klutz, he is still has his bearings 100%. Cap has his share of angst, but he never questions his personal poise or his ability to do his job. That’s the Cap we’re presented with here.

Morales’ last two issues offer up something of a coda to his run on the series, including the Truth limited series. There’s some time travelling and a bit of hijinks at the San Diego Con of the future, including a pod full of tiny and insanely cute super-deformed super-villains. More importantly, these issues allow the readers a look at what Isaiah Bradley – the first Captain America – could have been like if events in Truth hadn’t unfolded as tragically as they did. Undoubtedly there’s a bit of paternal affection here, as Morales says goodbye to his characters and his particular contributions to the mythos. I’d be surprised if anyone – save possibly Christopher Priest – ever mentioned the events in Truth again.

There are some great moments between Cap and Iron Man, perfectly fitting with the characters’ longstanding friendship (and occasional differences). If I were a kid and this were my first Captain America comic book, I’d love it: it’s got action, a little bit of humor, and a reallt cool Iron Man guest appearance. It’s also got a little bit of some political stuff that would maybe go over my head, but the story also has enough bounce that it doesn’t linger over anything for too long. That’s what was missing from the title before Morales took over. The key ingredient to any Captain America story is motion. He doesn’t brood, he doesn’t sit around a lot. He thinks on his feet. He speaks succinctly. He’s a deep thinker when he has the luxury of time but he doesn’t let it get in the way of doing what needs to be done. That’s the Cap Morales presents here and that’s the Cap we know and live, that’s the Cap I’d want to read about if I were ten years old again – finally, after all these years.

Next issue he’s back to fighting Hydra and Co. I wouldn’t perhaps regret the change so much, considering how aimless the MK Cap has been, if it didn’t mean losing such a great writer as Morales. It’s especially ironic considering the fact that he seems to have finally mastered some of the particularly challenging aspects of Cap’s character.

I should also point out that these two issues feature art by Eddie Campbell. Now, I love Eddie Campbell’s work almost to distraction. I think he’s one of maybe the three or four best English-language cartoonists working today. But it is nothing short of surreal to see him working on Captain freakin’ America. He’s got the chops, that’s for certain, even if most readers might balk at his stiff figure work and slightly goofy faces. Those with long memories might be able to realize that what he’s actually doing here is paying tribute to the late, great Don Heck. Although these issues represent an obvious stylistic departure, it’s somewhat interesting to see the connections between someone as distinctive as Campbell and someone as familiar as Heck. Campbell is nothing if not a consummate historian of the form, and everything he does opens up a window onto the history and evolution of the craft of comics. Seeing him ape the super-hero style for this two-issue romp is a particular treat.

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