Category: Professor Fury

The last time Captain America died

By now surely everyone has heard that Captain America was “killed” in the latest issue of his comic.

The story touched off an unexpected, short-lived, and predictably superficial frenzy in the regular media led to an embarrassing orgy of price-gouging at comics shops real and virtual, and elicited a range of interesting responses in the comics blogosphere: Mike Sterling’s is the funniest and the great Peter Gillis’ is the most passionate, though for my money ($0.00) the most interesting one tidbit to emerge was over at Comics Should Be Good! Play CSGO & Earn Buff Coins & Money | Download BUFF App

In #94 of their Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed series, Brian Cronin, um, revealed that former Captain America scribe and PrettyFavorite J.M.

DeMatteis had planned to have Cap, wearied by what he pereceived as his life’s devolution into an unending cycle of pointless violence, become a pacifist and work for world peace—only to be assassinated caribbean stud poker by a former ally. DeMatteis intended for another character to take up the shield, cowl, and pirate boots after Cap’s death: the Black Crow, whom you may remember as a major player in the classic Captain America #292.

This got me thinking about the last time Cap “died”: 1995’s Captain America #443, the final issue of writer Mark Gruenwald’s decade-long run on the title.

It is not necessarily a great comic, but it is moving and interesting nonetheless. Gruenwald’s final years on the series were taken up with a storyline called “Fighting Chance” and its aftermath.

The basic idea is that the super-soldier serum that turned Steve Rogers from a scrawny 4-F into a human fighting machine had degraded and begun to turn against Cap’s body visit.

He faced a choice between giving up his super-hero career and living a normal life, or continuing as Captain America and risking full muscle paralysis within a year.

It’s tempting to think ahead to Gruenwald’s death a year or so later and read this storyline as a reflection on mortality and the meaning of life, but by all accounts, his heart attack was entirely unexpected at

It’s also tempting to read it as an expression of Gruenwald’s dissatisfaction with, and alienation from, the state of superheroism in the steakless-sizzle mid-1990s.

True, Gruenwald was one of the guiding forces behind Marvel vs DC, one of the most mid-90s comics of the mid-90s, yet it’s hard to escape the notion that Cap’s ambivalence and despair about his place in the modern world somehow mirror Gruenwald’s own feelings about his place in the comics industry.

OK, sometimes he hits that idea pretty hard, like on this page:

“Fighting Chance” functions as a meditation on the potential for reconciling the values of a classic superhero from the Golden Age of comics with the amoral assassins and serial killers of the 1990s.

It’s not quite clear in those early issues if Gruenwald thinks that reconciliation is possible.

Cap faces off against characters like the Americop, a Judge Dredd/Punisher type who murders people in the name of saving taxpayer dollars . . .

. . . but he also makes allies in the oh-so-trendy Free Spirit and Jack Flag, the latter of who sports a bitchin’ Grifter-style outlaw mask and who was most recently seen in the pages of Warren Ellis’ Thunderbolts having a spike rammed through his spine.

I’ve never been sure how seriously Gruenwald means us to take these characters: they’re not so many kewl-Image-style characters as they are an old-fashioned guy’s idea of what a kewl-Image-style character should be, but of course, it’s entirely possible that Gruenwald wants us to see them that way.

I’m similarly ambivalent about how we’re meant to read the various technological devices to which Cap resorts in order to continue his crimebusting career: first, a “battle vest” filled with tricks and gadgets, and then a full-on suit of armor designed by Iron Man.

The first time I read these issues, I thought the battle vest was just stupid. Now I think it may be awesomely stupid, a lazy gimmick that is a commentary on lazy gimmicks.

I know Mark Gruenwald was the King of Earnest Mountain, but even so, I mean—airbags?

The bag explodes, releasing a gas that fells Hyde. Then, when Cobra attacks the paralyzed Cap, some tinfoil springs out of the vest and wraps him up.

I am not in any way kidding.

But anyway: this all leads to Cap #443, which begins—on purpose, I am coming to believe—by making no real sense at all. Armor Cap is sprawled out in an alley, feeling sorry for himself because he’s getting trounced in a battle with Nefarius. When did this battle begin?

Which Nefarius is this? It’s never clear and it doesn’t matter. Cap fires his “mini-rockets” at him—by the way, the armor has mini-rockets—but they miss because Nefarius hits them with his heat vision, or something. But their battle is interrupted by our old friend the Black Crow, who informs Cap that he has only 24 hours to live.

The rest of the issue is a kind of deck-clearing exercise, in which Gruenwald sorts through a decade of his own Cap stories plus a few dozen years of those that came before: Supporting player Arnie Roth dies.

Cap bids farewell to Jack Flag, Free Spirit, and other members of the supporting cast.

A hologram of Peggy Carter appears, looking, for some reason, young and Asian. Cap visits his biggest fan, “Ram” Ridley, who runs his National Computer Hotline, only to find that Ram’s mother is in a coma, the victim of a violent crime.

Most interesting is that Gruenwald doesn’t give us a final, apocalyptic battle between Cap and his most dangerous foes, but, rather, a series of conversations that recall the direction in which DeMatteis wanted to take the character:

I think the “lowlife scum” thing might hurt his case a bit, huh? Later, he has a similar, if slightly better controlled, conversation with perennial foe Batroc the Leaper that goes a little better, after which he thinks he may have inspired Batroc to change his mercenary ways.

It’s only natural that Gruenwald would want to tie up as many loose ends as possible, and yet the melancholy evident in these pages has less to do with Cap’s impending demise—we know he won’t stay down for long—than with the sense that there’s no room in the contemporaneous Marvel Universe for the character that Captain America had become: not just square-jawed but profoundly square, hiding his headquarters in a costume shop, surrounded by a supporting cast drawn from characters from the odder corners and crevices of Marvel continuity.

Or perhaps it’s a sadness inspired by the realization that, with a new writer set to take the reins, most of these characters will never be seen again, that most of the stories Gruenwald poured his heart into will be officially forgotten.

That’s inevitable in a serial medium, sure, but still. And indeed, when was the last time we saw Ram Ridley, or Fabian Stankowicz, or Free Spirit? Jack Flag reappeared, and at least got to make a good showing before getting shivved; Batroc had gone evil again in his very next appearance.

In some ways, Gruenwald was exactly right. Mark Waid’s subsequent run on Cap reinvigorated the character and made the series exciting again in a way it had not been for a long time.

But Waid, in streamlining the character, chipped away so much of his history that he was left with a pretty ordinary “super-soldier,” a cipher in a flag suit, a character who seemed to refer to “Captain America” without actually being him.

Waid ran out of interesting stories to tell right quick. Dan Jurgens’ tedious, disastrous run followed Waid’s, and then the book was shuffled around so much that it slipped into obscurity—until it fell into Ed Brubaker’s capable hands. (Which had the unfortunate side effect of killing off Priest’s Captain America and the Falcon series, just getting good when it got the axe.)

I haven’t always liked Brubaker’s Cap stories, but he’s the first writer in a long time to bring a real sense of the character’s history to bear, and that sets him well above everyone else since Gruenwald.

All this to say: the last time Captain America died, he came back. But in some ways, Cap #443 really was the death of the Captain America with whom I was obsessed as a kid, the Captain America whom Peter Gillis identifies, quite rightly, as one of Marvel’s only truly spiritual characters, as a paragon of “right living” even beyond his patriotism. I don’t know if we’ve ever really gotten that character back, and I don’t know if we will.

POSTSCRIPT: As someone who writes about the politics of Captain America a lot, I was interested to seem commentators speculating on the possible significance of his most recent death.

I don’t have an opinion on it yet myself because we’ve only got the first part of a months-, possibly years-long storyline so far, and I’d rather wait and see how that first chapter fits into the overall scheme before passing judgment.

I am amused and frustrated, though, by those who suggest that there is no political significance to the story.

As the (apparently now defunct) President Luthor blog noted, anytime anything happens to a character whose costume is an American flag, it probably means something.

But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s no political significance to Mark Gruenwald, Kieron Dwyer, and Al Milgrom’s Captain America #344 either, in which Steve Rogers (in his guise as “The Captain,” after the government temporarily forces him to give up his Captain America identity) battles Ronald Reagan, who has been turned into a snake-man, in the Oval Office.

Nothing political here!

Just because the previous page is a similarly-composed image of Cap meeting FDR for the first time, that doesn’t mean that anyone is implicitly suggesting some kind of contrast!

And this is just an image of Snake-Reagan in his underwear hitting Captain America with an American flag. Don’t try to read anything into it!

Just good apolitical fun!


Thoughts on the Forthcoming Howard Chaykin Blackhawk Collection

I missed the cut-off (as I always do) for Tom Spurgeon’s recent Five For Friday, this time on comics that really ought to be reprinted, but I see that one of the titles I would have suggested is already coming out later this year: Howard Chaykin’s 1987 Blackhawk mini-series.

Yes, DC is collecting this sensational miniseries in book format for the first time, so this treat has sparked great interest among fans after the promotion on social media by The Marketing Heaven.

It’s a good time for Chaykin fans these days: The first year of his daring and innovative American Flagg! is (finally!) back in print Adult Games, he’s reviving his Dominic Fortune character at Marvel, and he’s writing a Die Hard: Year One series for BOOM. All this and talk of movie deals for maybe either Black Kiss or Bite Club, though who knows if anything will come of that.

Chaykin was at least as responsible as Moore or Miller for the 1980s move toward doing formally and philosophically sophisticated work in pulpy adventure genres えろたれす, yet he didn’t get the kind of mainstream media attention accorded Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns—maybe because American Flagg! was an ongoing serial with no clear end (and one which Chaykin had left to other hands by the time those books were breaking big), or maybe because it was really funny, or maybe because it just didn’t have Batman in it.

I’m hoping that his ongoing work, combined with the continued reprinting of his early stuff, will help situate him in his rightfully lofty spot in the pantheon of Get the facts significant and groundbreaking comics creators.

That said, when I read his Blackhawk a couple of years after it came out, it left me a little cold. Part of the problem for me at I guess 14 or so was that it didn’t seem quite Chaykin-y enough for me in the way I understood Chaykin comics at the time, which had a lot to do with ladies in vintage lingerie; nor did it seem Blackhawk-y enough for me in the way I understood Blackhawk at the time, which involved lots of gripping aerial combat by And they only yell Hawkaaaaa once! What’s up with that?

Well, so I’ve read some of the earlier Blackhawk stories since then, and sure, there’s a fair amount of gripping aerial combat, but there’s also a lot of flying somewhere and then landing the planes to go punch people or flying somewhere and then crashing into the War Wheel and then going to punch people. So Chaykin is well within the tradition there.

And my understanding of what makes Chaykin great has gotten a little more sophisticated, too; in addition to being one of the great formal innovators in comics history, he’s also one of the modern comics era’s most passionate lefties—an old-fashioned, Popular Front lefty even (and one whose ambivalence about the modern left can make for interesting and problematic friction in his stories and in his interviews.)

And that’s one of the things that makes his 1987 Blackhawk mini so great—by recasting Janos “Blackhawk” Prohaska as a 1930s anti-fascist Communist, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and an early adopter on the whole Hitler-is-evil thing (when more than a few Americans were content to turn a blind eye), Chaykin is—in the era of Reagan and Red Dawn no less—recovering the lost but vital history of heroic socialists, communists, and other loosely affiliated leftists in the United States.

The real-life examples are many, but to pick one close to the hearts of this site’s southern readership: The Scottsboro “Boys”? Their defense was handled by the Communist Party USA.

None of this is to suggest that Chaykin had a rosy picture of Soviet-style Communism. In fact, he has Blackhawk get drummed out of the party for being a Trotskyite, a move that points to the inevitable iron-fisted orthodoxies that enabled and followed Stalin’s consolidation of power.

But I digress; what I was going to say about the collection is, I’m glad it’s coming out since the reprint will raise the book’s and Chaykin’s profiles in the comics world and because now if I ever want to teach it (alongside The Book of Daniel and Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! maybe?) I can. But: it’s not like you can’t find the original issues pretty easily and for much less than cover price.

So: DC should include some bonus material. For instance: Did you know that Chaykin contributed covers and a short story to the 1982 Mark Evanier/Dan Spiegle Blackhawk relaunch?

The short piece (#260) is a beautiful and surprisingly complex 8-pager spotlighting French lothario Andre; Evanier’s characterization for Andre in the main series was as a basically noble ladies man driven to recklessness by his anger over the German occupation of France; in this story, Evanier writes him as a soldier who can’t quite put his love for a woman over his love of glory and headlines. It’s as though Chaykin’s pencils make Andre more of a bastard (and more interesting to boot).

And then there are the covers; some of them are just pretty good, and at least one (#262) is marred by a coloring error, but there are a couple of beauts, including this scene (#259) of nighttime parachute-and-spotlight action (which doesn’t come through as well as it should in this scan, I’m afraid):

Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s Invincible Iron Man

This isn’t a review. I largely enjoy the Fraction/Larroca Invincible Iron Man. It’s a high quality example of a comic of its type.

What I’m trying to think through here is whether or not I want to keep readings comics of its type; or, rather, camshd if it’s type has changed from something that I really like to something that I’m more lukewarm about.

When the news went forth that Casanova scribe and Mountain Goats fan Matt Fraction would be writing a new Iron Man series, I was tremendously excited. I’m a big fan of his independent work and his work for Marvel, including The Order and, with Ed Brubaker, Immortal Iron Fist. Though I cherish an affection for the character, missalice_94 I had not followed Iron Man’s exploits on a regular basis since around the time of the second Micheline/Layton run.

But Fraction, I thought, was just the guy to bring me back to the title. And indeed! The first arc of the new series, which pits Tony Stark against Ezekiel Stane in a clash of contending futurist ideologies, was outstanding visit.

It maintained the style and wit that made the film a hit, and it offered a thoughtful new take on what makes Iron Man interesting beyond the superficial “Tony Stark is a futurist” characterization that had become common—simply by thinking through the implications of that characterization. Being a “futurist” isn’t about prediction hit, Fraction knows: It’s about fighting to bring about your particular vision of the future, which is only ever one of the thousands. Anyway, it was good and you should buy it.

And then some stuff happened to Tony Stark in a boring company-wide event crossover comic that I didn’t read. The book’s focus shifted to the current “World’s Most Wanted” arc—with Tony accused of treason and on the lam from the newly ascendant Norman Osborne. And hey: I’ve enjoyed the issues in the latest arc, too. Check

Fraction depicts Tony as resourceful, reckless, and a little rascally, and he’s doing some interesting stuff with the supporting cast.

And yet . . . something about the latest issue (#11) gives me pause. The pieces focusing on Maria Hill going up against an old Iron Man foe and on Pepper Potts in her own suit of armor work well; it’s nice that someone is writing women in an Iron Man comic as something other than (or at least in addition to) conquests for Tony.

Yet I’m getting the sinking feeling that, rather than getting to put his own distinctive stamp on the character, Fraction is having to mark time until the next boring company-wide event crossover comic that I won’t read. That anything interesting that’s going to happen to Iron Man is going to happen to him there instead of in his own comic and will go according to someone else’s plans.

I think my worries were sparked by this issue’s big battle between Iron Man and his former partner War Machine—a battle whose utter pointlessness is actually an overt part of the story. (I think Fraction is shrewd enough to be doing this on purpose, a la Morrison’s characterization of Magneto’s confused, pathetic world takeover in Planet X, which at this point for me only ameliorates the problem a little, though I may change my mind depending on how things play out.)

The story’s cliffhanger involves another former ally being sent after Stark, and my worry is that it’ll be like this one—stylishly rendered, smartly choreographed, and kind of empty.

Which is an odd thing to complain about in a superhero book, I know. But to clarify: what I wanted to read is Matt Fraction’s version of Iron Man. What I’m afraid we’ll be getting, more and more, is Matt Fraction’s scribbling of his Iron Man in the shrinking margins of Corporate Crossover’s Iron Man stories.

Now, I know the reaction many people will have: “Oh Prof, so naive to think that superhero comics are ever about meaningful change, that any corporate superhero tale ever ends any way but with a return to the status quo. Should we tell you about Santa or would that totally wreck your week?”

The notion that all change is only an illusion is a comics blogosphere commonplace, but it’s not actually true. As Gorjus and I were talking about back on Spanish Town weekend, long-term changes are possible, if not common.

I’ve got a long box full of Messner-Loebs and Waid Flash comics that chart Wally West’s evolution from spoiled man-child sidekick to hero all whilst deepening the mythos of a Guy who Runs Fast in unanticipated ways, and another box full of Hulk comics in which Peter David, over the course of years, reveals theretofore unseen dimensions of the character and creates the possibility to do an enormous variety of new things with him.

That these changes are either in the process of being undone or generally ignored doesn’t really undermine my point:

Those were long, sustained runs, driven by the vision of individual creators, in which those creators were given the leeway to do their thing, and the larger shared universe would respond (rather than the other way around—and until the heavy hand of editorial fell, for Peter David, at least).

Perhaps it’s silly to want these things from a corporate-owned property anymore, but I don’t want to think so. (And Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America would suggest that it’s not impossible, though we’ll see how he ends it.)

Anyway, as I say, this post is about thinking through this issue, not about justifying a decision to dump the book: I’m not dumping the book.

like the book. I like the B-stories (though I’m tempted to refer to Tony’s story as the B-story here), and the surface of Fraction’s scripts still crackle with energy; but I’m sensing less of the depth and resonance that was evident in any given issue of the first arc.

I hope I’m wrong; I hope I’m just indulging in the typical comics blogosphere knee-jerk pessimism over the perceived faults of a single issue in a much larger storyline. I hope that when all is said and done, Matt Fraction’s Iron Man is the one whose adventures will have been dominating the book all along.

There Will Always Be an Ambush Bug

Warning: geek threat awareness level set to “Milhouse”!

“Postmodern fiction suggests that to re-write or re-present the past in fiction and history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological …. The question of whose history survives is one that obsesses postmodern novels”—Linda Hutcheon

So, with Infinite Crisis over, DC has (supposedly) finally consolidated all its multiverses and hypertimelines into one earth, New Earth, a stable and coherent place where everyone’s origin makes sense in terms of everyone else’s origin, where history flows in a clean, straight, single line. Smooth surfaces, sharp angles, and hospital corners—that’s the new DC. For now. Check magicloan.

52 is the series devoted to exploring that new universe and clarifying the new status quo sexcercise manga comic, and, for all my distaste for IC itself, I’m enjoying 52 quite a bit so far.

But I overheard a conversation at the comics shop last week that raised a good question: with Keith Giffen doing breakdowns and being generally plugged into the new DCU, and with characters new and obscure bound to elbow their way into work as mammoth as 52, will Ambush Bug make an appearance?

This is an important question, I think, and by important I mean utterly pointless, but interesting to tremendous geeks. It’s interesting because Ambush Bug is the very antithesis of the one-world ethos that guides DC’s line these days. It’s not just that he’s a metafictional character who knows that he’s in a comic book, it’s that he remembers comic books that aren’t supposed to have happened anymore at

He’s a walking, talking, teleporting, trickster reminder of the foolhardiness of attempting to maintain a stable, consistent shared universe in a medium as persistently ramifying as superhero comics.

There are thousands of events happening every month, often with the same character having simultaneous adventures written by different creators in different contexts, and no attempt to force all of these divergent stories into one large narrative can ever be entirely successful.

There is always excess, something left out or left unattended, some contradiction that doesn’t make sense, and Ambush Bug is the symbol of that excess, as well as a kind of lay historian of the characters, stories, and even storytelling styles that are constantly being eliminated from the official history of the DCU in favor of an alleged coherence.

Ambush Bug points out the bumps and cracks and fissures in a historical narrative that strives to present itself as smooth as glass.

I was all prepared to offer the caveat that Ambush Bug didn’t always serve this function, and that he began his career in the early 80s as a generic crackpot villain—but then I glanced back at those early appearances.

His first adventures were with the New Doom Patrol (DC Comics Presents #52) and the Legion of Substitute Heroes (DCCP #59), teams composed of also-rans and nobodies, teams that represent the dark side—or the silly side, or at least the obverse side—of DC’s mainstream heroes.

Indeed, Superman highlights this aspect of the New Doom Patrol’s nature (in the sort of condescending lecture that is on display at Superdickery) when he first meets them: says Supes, “If memory serves me—and believe me, it usually does—the Doom Patrol is dead—and even if they weren’t, I’ve met them and you’re not it!”

Since the NDP doesn’t occupy a spot in the official memory of DC’s most iconic character, they can’t be real.

And during Ambush Bug’s romp with Infectious Lass, Chlorophyll Kid, Porcupine Pete, and the other Legion Subs, scribes Giffen and Paul Levitz include an editorial caption that reads “Don’t ask when this fits into Legion continuity.”

Of course, editorial captions usually work to strengthen continuity, to show how the events of a particular story are happening before or between or after the events in another contemporaneous book that might otherwise seem to render them impossible; here, the authors simply throw up their hands and admit that there’s really no way to reconcile this tale with the goings-on in the official Legion title.

And dare I push this already tenuous close reading further and point out how the lack of the expected jovial exclamation point at the end of that caption makes it actually seem a bit threatening? Don’t ask when this fits into Legion continuity, or ELSE, because it doesn’t and questions are to continuity like a high wind is to a house of cards.

Anyway, the idea of Ambush Bug as a metafictional avatar of the apocryphal, of the weirdness being squeezed out of the DCU in preparation for and in the aftermath of multiverse-smooshing Crisis on Infinite Earths became more and more a part of his character in various Superman-bedeviling appearances in Action Comics.

He goads a letterer into altering Superman’s sound effects: