Thursday, June 10, 2010

Comics That Changed Me: Captain America #445-446

In my last installment I talked about my early days as a "Marvel Zombie" and how Mark Gruenwald's run on Captain America made me a dedicated fan. Today, I'm here to talk about how I shrugged my shoulders and left comics behind. It has a bit to do with Gruenwald.

Although in the early 90s I bought comics at an alarming rate - not only grabbing about two dozen Marvel titles per month, but easily matching or exceeding that in back issue purchases - by the mid-90s I wasn't feeling as strongly connected to the hobby as I once was. It's not as though some other hobby had come along to distract me, nor did I feel that I had "outgrown" comics (though I often feared that I should have been outgrowing them yet wasn't). Perhaps it was simply the state of Marvel Comics itself. Because I was devoted solely to Marvel's line of titles, I had blinded myself to what options might have existed in other publishers' stock.

For all the flak I've seen the X-Men receive as a supposedly new reader-unfriendly title, the X-Men titles circa 1995 were actually some of the friendliest titles on the stands; they had a generally high standard of art, they used familiar characters, nearly every place that carried comics had copies on sale and even if you didn't read the titles for a few months (and I often wouldn't), you could get caught up quickly. Even by 1994, I was down to following just two comic books on a monthly basis: John Francis Moore's X-Men 2099 and Mark Gruenwald's Captain America.

I had wavered on Gruenwald's Cap a few times, but always came back to the series because I was invested in the continued development of the characters. No matter how I felt about the story or art, I still cared enough about Diamondback and I still wanted another great Crossbones story. But 1995 was Gruenwald's last year on the title, bringing it all to an end with #443.

I knew that the end was nigh thanks to the Captain America Collector's Preview special, which helpfully interviewed the imminent new writer Mark Waid. As I said above, I was blind to what was going on at other publishers and this was Waid's big break at Marvel. The Preview made mention of him being a renowned Flash author, but that gave me no idea of whether he would impress me or not. I was disappointed that Gruenwald was leaving, but he gave Waid his blessing in the Preview, which was actually a better endorsement than "this guy writes Flash" in my book.

I bought Waid's first issue, #444, but it wasn't especially helpful at convincing me that Waid was the scribe I hoped he would be. #444 barely features Cap, instead focusing on the Avengers defusing a terrorist attack and talking about how great Cap is. It demonstrated that Waid had some respect for Captain America, but not whether he could write said character.

So, this finally leads me to the issues at hand: Captain America#445-446.

Writer: Mark Waid. Art: Ron Garney, Scott Koblish, Danis Rodier.

I bought these issues simultaneously from a department store (K Mart?). This is where Waid's run on Captain America began in earnest, reintroducing Cap's former-dead former-love interest Sharon Carter, and teaming Cap with the Red Skull to face the greater threat of a Cosmic Cube imbued with the mind of Adolf Hitler.

It sucked.

That was my reaction then, and it's still hard to divorce myself from my initial emotions. Waid and Garney's Captain America run is looked on favorably by fandom - it's often ranked higher than Gruenwald, in spite (or because?) of Waid writing little more than 30 issues versus Gruenwald's 130+.

Although Waid did resolve Cap's recurring health problems from Gruenwald's run (which had consumed the series for the past twenty issues) and picked up the Red Skull from where Gruenwald had left him, he jettisoned all of Cap's supporting cast, bringing in just Sharon Carter to replace them.

I think everything I disliked about these two comics - and what kept me disassociated from Cap for the rest of Waid's run - was his use of Sharon Carter. I wasn't reading Cap back when she was alive, seeing that she died when I was one year old. Having been nurtured for years by Gruenwald's stories and essays, I firmly agreed with his statement "Every character's rebirth diminishes the Marvel Universe by robbing the concept of death of its dramatic impact" (see it here). I knew of Sharon because Gruenwald's own Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe introduced her to me as "the dead girlfriend."

Waid's means of restoring Sharon to life were as plausible as the average resurrection, but while the person appearing in Cap#445-446 may have called herself Sharon Carter...she certainly didn't act like her. Throughout the story Sharon to put ice-cold bitch? She never drops her guard around Cap and let her emotions show, instead seemingly resenting him for believing she was dead. Well, fair enough, but this was not the way to warm me up to this character. I was already apprehensive of the very notion of resurrecting Sharon; making her an acid-tongued harpy who renders dismissive, disparaging remarks to Cap (my hero! the star of the book!) angered me. Cap's relationship with the Red Skull was actually warmer and more human than his relationship with Sharon. You know where you sit with Johann Shmidt*. I felt that Waid had unnecessarily resurrected an old forgotten character and transplanted an entirely new personality into her, to the extent that he was using her just for the name value, because he could take advantage of Cap's pre-existing emotional connection to Sharon, rather than inventing a new sardonic, bilious shrew that Cap would have to learn to like. So this Waid was the great wunderkind of DC Comics? Fah!** This was surely an example of why I had given up on DC six years earlier (I convinced myself I had actually disliked DC; the "Marvel Zombie" days were very emotional).

As Gruenwald observed, just as every issue can be someone's first, each issue can also be their last. This was where I called it quits***, not only on Captain America but on X-Men 2099 as well, since there seemed to be little point in scouting comic shops to find just one title. Consequently, I had given up on comics. In short order, I began cutting immense swaths of titles from my collection, only retaining series I didn't want to break up and issues that held an emotional connection with me. Cap#445-446 stayed in, but only because they were part of my Captain America collection. I was resigned to my course: I was finally done with comics.

In my next installment: the heartbreak of coming back to comics. * Under his heel. ** I did eventually warm up to Waid on Fantastic Four and succeeding titles like Empire, Potter's Field and the Unknown. I still don't like re-reading his Cap, yet found myself writing a piece for one of the collections anyway. *** Not to return as a monthly customer until Brubaker's 2004 relaunch. Sharon Carter was still around, but had long since repented her Joan Collins-esque ways.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I actually really liked Waid and Garney on Cap and the Sentinel of Liberty series was great as well. However, aside from a few moments, the series only really found its place again when Brubaker arrived.

And I agree that the 1990's was a dead period for comics in general. aside from Astro City, there wasn't much going on.