Friday, June 4, 2010

Comics That Changed Me: Captain America #355

I've already referred to how peer pressure from my cousins led me to conclude that Marvel Comics were the best comic book publisher. If I had to pinpoint the precise comic book that made me a Marvel fan - a "Marvel Zombie," as was the self-disparaging nickname used at the time - it would have to be Captain America#355.

Writer: Mark Gruenwald Artist: Al Milgrom

Well, where to begin?

As described in the 1st installment, I was primarily a DC fan as a child. I've heard it said that Gruenwald was himself more of a DC fan than a Marvel fan and the concept behind this particular story of his - Captain America becomes a teenager - sounds like something from DC's Silver Age. But that wasn't why I bought it.

I attempted to avoid the X-Men because they were the most popular characters(according to my cousins). Instead, I sought out Captain America because I knew he was on the verge of becoming the next most popular super hero. Oh, I may have been eleven, but I knew Captain America's big theatrical debut was in the works*! And that cover...whatever you may think, it really stood out on the spinner rack of the Alpine Drug Store.

This was the start of a three-part story which fandom ultimately dubbed "Teen Cap." Some call it a (or the) low point of Gruenwald's lengthy Captain America run, but it's not quite what you'd expect. Ron Frenz's pseudo-Kirby cover promises some Silver Age-like escapades, but in the actual story Cap has himself transformed into a teenager so that he can go undercover and find out what's been happening to teenage runaways. He winds up at the "Camp of Hate," an indoctrination site where teenagers are being wired into killers and he's without all the advantages of his shield and strength. It's actually a pretty good dilemma (when you're eleven) in that you fear for Cap's life.

This was not the first Marvel comic book I purchased, but it was where the trend began. I came back the next month for #356. Then next month for #357. Pretty soon, I was buying as many Marvel comics as my meager resources would allocate; I invested so much into Marvel's fictional universe that I couldn't be bothered to focus on DC's; gradually I stopped buying DC (even from the old Swap Shop's 25 cent bin) until within a few years I actually held DC in contempt, as was the fashion of the time (and still is). By 1991, I was buying dozens of new comic books every month. Captain America #355 set me on the path to becoming an ├╝ber fan!

More than that, this was where Captain America became my new favorite hero. He had the morality and courage of Superman, but I quickly began to appreciate that without superhuman powers, his achievements were actually more impressive. Truth be told, I developed some disdain for Superman as a result. Cap was a natural leader who would never give up in a fight, tried his best against impossible odds and genuinely cared about both innocents and criminals.

This was also where I became a fan of Mark Gruenwald's work. He wrote Captain America for most of the next 100 issues and I never enjoyed Cap so much as I did under his pen. From the never-ending Red Skull plots to the Diamondback storyarcs, this was the first time a series grabbed me, made me care about the characters instead of simply the resolution to fights. Coupled with this were Gruenwald's editorials in Marvel Age magazine, which exposed the writing/production side of comic books in a frank, open manner that quickly educated me on the process and realities of storytelling and shared universes. Finally, Gruenwald had already developed the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe by the time I became a Marvel Zombie. From 1989 onwards, I thought I would be a comic book fan for life.

So I thought.

Join me next installment for the story of how I gave up on comic books.

*Twenty-one years later, it still is.

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