Captain America: The Captain is the third review for Collected Editions of what I like to call the “Eighties Marvel Epic” trilogy. The first was my review of Iron Man: Armor Wars, and Collected Comics Library's Chris Marshall reviewed the second, Avengers: Under Siege. What makes them a trilogy is how they interlock. Events from Under Siege are alluded to in The Captain, which it is a direct crossover with Armor Wars, even reprinting an issue from that story.
It’s a bit of an unfair comparison, since Armor Wars is only eight issues long and the actual Under Siege story is only five issues, while The Captain collects eighteen. However, what makes them epic is their scope and creative brilliance. Like the other two trades, The Captain sets up the modern version of its main character in a story done by an excellent and influential creative team. Amazingly, not a single issue could have been removed from The Captain to save room, and in fact, it could have benefited from adding in some of the Avengers tie-ins from that period.
This collection is a big chunk of Mark Gruenwald’s early run on Captain America, which lasted for an astonishing ten years. Gruenwald is also responsible for the creation of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, and The Captain demonstrates his encyclopedic knowledge of his universe. For instance, the strength ratings of characters are frequently mentioned, and an in-depth biography of the main villain at the end shows that character’s various twists and turns. I have to give credit to Marvel’s publishing department for not revealing who the bad guy is at any point on the trade covers. Compare this to Darkseid being on the cover of The Great Darkness Saga, ruining much of the mystery.
Said foe isn’t even brought into the story until the very end, anyway. The main focus of The Captain is the new Captain America. This is arguably the first “Dark Replacement” story. Characters had been replaced before—most notably Jim Rhodes as Iron Man for over a year—but none had changed the character concept like John Walker. He has much more in common with later replacement heroes like the Azrael-Batman, Artemis-Wonder Woman and Danny Ketch-Ghost Rider than Rhodey as Iron Man. Cap is fired from his position for not being beholden to the United States government, and Walker, previously the villain Super-Patriot, is brought in as a more loyal replacement.
Much of the story is devoted to comparing Steve Rogers and John Walker, and while Steve is obviously the better Captain America, Gruenwald does not skimp on the characterization of his replacement. His first mission, to take on the fundamentalist Watchdogs, puts him in a quandary because he feels a kinship with their moral outrage. Of course, they’ve invaded his home town, and when they lynch his black sidekick, any sympathy on his part goes out the window. As the government tightens their hold on Walker, he’s forced to get rid of his scummy manager and two of his other sidekicks. When these three return and expose Walker’s identity, a chain of events leads to Walker going off the deep end.
Meanwhile, Steve Rogers vanishes for a time, leading his three former partners to go looking for him. Gruenwald uses this as an opportunity to make a diversified back-up team for Rogers. The Falcon, the most famous of them all, has flight abilities and clout as a member of the Avengers. Nomad, formerly the Bucky for a 1950s anti-communist replacement Cap, is agile and has a strong rebellious streak. Demolition Man, the newest of the partners, has super-strength and is kind but a little slow. A lot of time is devoted to the rivalry between Nomad and “D-Man,” who dislikes him for slavishly following Rogers’ orders. Nomad’s girlfriend, Vagabond, is along for the ride; she weighs down the team thanks to a lack of powers and is essentially written out of the story near the end.
To go along with Rogers’ partners, Walker has his own sidekick, Battlestar. Initially named “Bucky” and wearing a copy of the 1940s boy sidekick’s uniform, he changes his name after a black Vault Guardsman chides him for taking on a derogatory name. This is actually because fans wrote to Gruenwald, explaining that “buck” was used to refer to slaves, and he agreed that the black Bucky deserved a new name and look. One intriguing cameo in the book comes from Ronald Reagan (who is never named, but it’s clearly meant to be him). Not only is he key to the resolution of the story, but he also turns into a snake-man and fights the Captain in the White House. Yes, you read that correctly.
Both Rogers and Walker fight a variety of villains, but the most prominent are the aforementioned Watchdogs and the Serpent Society, which is a trade union of snake-themed villains. For the X-Men fans, there is a tie-in with the Fall of the Mutants crossover, with the Captain and friends facing off against Famine, one of Apocalypse’s Horsemen. This tie-in links The Captain with yet another classic story, Wolverine: The Gehenna Stone Affair.
The art is split 30/70 between Tom Morgan and Kieron Dwyer, with Bob Layton and Mark D. Bright providing the art for the Iron Man tie-in issue. Morgan’s art is sharper than Dwyer’s, but otherwise the change is not too abrupt. One of Dwyer’s great strengths are his facial expressions, and they are key for the later parts of the story, when Walker starts to go crazy. A trick Gruenwald employs is that, after a lot of thought captions, when Walker loses his mind, the captions go with him. If I have one artistic quibble, it’s that issue 342 looks a little rushed compared to the other issues, but Marvel was far more strict about deadlines in the past, so I can easily accept it. Also, D-Man looks remarkably similar to Wolverine in his tiger stripe outfit, a comparison noted in the story itself. On the other hand, the Captain’s costume, which will later be used by Walker as the U.S. Agent, is a magnificent piece of design work, evoking Captain America while reinforcing the dark time in his life.
The Captain will run you $40, but you’re getting a massive, character-changing story with fantastic artwork. This should be on your shelf next to the other Eighties Marvel Epics.