Heroes Reborn Pt 5: Captain America
by Travis Hedge Coke
Rob Liefeld’s Captain America relaunch for Heroes Reborn was socially and politically relevant to American issues in way a Cap’s title had not been for years. I greatly enjoy the final years of Mark Gruenwald on Captain America, the year of Mark Waid and Ron Garney, but they were either character pieces or tackling issues external to the United States (foreign slavery, foreign terrorism) or straw men takes like the AmeriCop or the feminist supremacy movement warping bright, young college students – a thing that just does not exist. Liefeld, not a fan of this series of HR articles, probably not a fan of my column, reminded me that his Captain America sold considerably more, from the first issue forward, than the Waid/Garney run that preceded him. “We moved the needle.” Liefeld was also released from his HR contract, in part, because he did not make the sales he was contracted to, an astronomic number that was over twice was the book was selling pre-Liefeld.
I am not a great Cap fan. I have an unreasonable respect for the idea of Steve Rogers. My favorite movie with Captain America in it is the 1990 Albert Pyun film. There are a handful of comics runs with him that I love. A few more I like. We are going to see, in the middle of this volume, the HR Captain America, a few issues written by James Robinson that rub me wrong in all directions. Same run, the opening arc, written by Rob Liefeld and Jeph Loeb, excites the hell out of me.
Echoing the later patriotic/nationalist positioning of Captain America as savior of the world in all the Heroes Reborn comics, the first page of his solo title is some glorious mad Nazi-killing fascist business. Captain America stands atop a hill, bathed in golden light, back to us, behind him grayscale soldiers lighting up grayscale Nazis with their firearms, tanks rolling, and a text box instructing us: “Pledge allegiance to the flag.”
This scene, which rolls for three pages, is a nightmare our hero, an amnesiac Steve Rogers is having from bed at home with his wife, Peggy. They have a large house in Philadelphia with two big trees in the front and maybe a grain silo in the back. A kid, named, Rick. The couple have been married seven years, she reminds Steve as their child bounces off to school with his Badrock lunchbox.
Captain America, believing Cap only a dream, seems to be living the classic white American dream life, a sitcom household with less children, but worries about neo-Nazi movements in Pennsylvania.
Played across from him, is Rikki Barnes, the Bucky of this world but not yet. She is also the Carrie Keene Kelley of Heroes Reborn, the young girl Robin of Dark Knight Returns and its sequels, over at DC Comics. A smart, athletic, politically on the ball young woman in the big messed up city, who can help shake the tall muscle mass hero out of his restrictions. Her brother and his friends have signed up as Nazis, or as they call themselves, the World Party. Her brother tries to convince her that she was turned down by the Julliard School for being white.
It was refreshing to see Rikki be aware straight out the gate, compared to learn the hard way companions like Diamondback and Free Spirit (both of whom were big inspiration figures to me, during publication, but along with the revived Sharon Carter, there was a pattern and this Bucky bucks it). That the villains were unabashed Nazis and unquestionably wrong was an important message in 1996, as it is now. This stuff has not gone away and it is not different this time.
Rikki does not suffer as much from the hypersexualization tics that riddle Peggy or Sharon Carter. While Dum-Dum Dugan is recreated as a masculine fantasy muscle man, Sharon is suffering every high-wire-bra slipped disc swayback issue you imagine in your head right now.
Artistically, Rob Liefeld has never cared about perspective or anatomical strictness. Heavily hatched or not, Rob Liefeld draws cartoons. What he is representing, foremost, are ideas and energies. Captain America can be swole beyond belief and taller than the trees but svelte a page after, because there is no real Captain America body, no real physical Captain America. Cap is ideas, Cap is sensibilities, and Liefeld successfully captures those energies.
Under Rob Liefeld, Captain America not only has blood with special chemicals in it, but radioactive green blood. Which he can give in transfusion by slicing open his palm with the edge of his shield and pouring directly into the mouth of an ailing man.
Liefeld tries his hand at Jack Kirby style orchestrated fights, thinking his way through the fights or acrobatics, panel to panel. We may still never know where people stand for lack of perspective, but we can believe the fights. We can trace the path to Cap’s physical victories.
On the cover of issue #2, which occasionally gets mocked online, there is a disembodied woman’s face, and it is a weird inclusion is an unusual cover. It is a Jack Kirby cover, though, not drawn by Kirby or designed by, but his sensibilities. The disembodied face prepares us, in ways, for Captain America’s realization that his wife and son are not people, but robots with human faces. The vacuous disembodied face is the vacuous disembodied face of fraudulence.
The white American dream Cap lives is fraudulent. The Nazis talking to kids down the block, that is too real. The government gives Captain America a kid robot to take care of, a robot to cook breakfast and share his bed, jobs as, “a soldier, a school teacher, a policeman, a steelworker… even a commercial artist for a while.”
“Was it that you never knew,” Nick Fury asks Cap, “Or, was it that you never wanted to know?”
In issue #3, in flashback, Captain America tells the American President, not only, “I respectfully decline,” but, “If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” The HR Captain America’s Red Skull is pure Nazi vile in ways he would not be allowed to be just prior and immediately after this run.
It is unfortunate that, while Heroes Reborn does its best to treat a diverse range of people respectfully, and to honor the stories that had come before, there is a distracting, and detracting hypersexualization of women that shows up in almost all the books, coupled with the lack of direct roles for women in many of the stories. Captain America probably stands out more, due to the dramatic dichotomy between Rikki and other women. (At least, until late in the run, when Rikki also develops a swayback concern and gets pushed out of stories.)
The comic is not unaware of its male focus, including capping an issue with Rikki saying, “While you guys are male bonding… will somebody real take this launch code thingy?!” as she continues to hold the launch remote for nuclear missiles as men stand around armed, talking tough. In the first of the three major crossovers between all the HR titles, the first part, written by Cap’s Liefeld/Loeb team, gives men the primary active roles with women standing by looking scary or in swimsuits. When orders are given, it is men to women.
Rikki Barnes will be the one character to leap from HR to the main Marvel Universe, showing most recently in Future Foundation as the veteran of a thousand wars and love interest for Julie Powers. If you want to point to a successful carry-over from Heroes Reborn, Rikki is it. So, of course…
Replacement writer, James Robinson, takes Captain America across the United States, from New York to Texas, Arizona, California, without Rikki Barnes, just a lone man on a bike. Using the Sons of the Serpent as a bunch fo pure American domestic terrorists is a good move, in line with the book as it played out under Liefeld. But, while he spends issue #9 in California, the sentiments placed into Captain America’s narration is biased, bigoted, and a bizarre fit for the sentinel of liberty. Hollywood, he says, is “dirty.” He tells the reader, “Hollywood is just run down,” that is has no “heart,” because it is a “sprawl of communities.” “If Hollywood is the heart of Southern California, then it needs a bypass.”
So, we’ve cut women out completely now, and will have no women really involved except to stand by for several issues, and Captain born in New York City America is super into how clean and good the people of small town Texas are but god and damn that stupid sprawl of communities that is “brown” and “gray” called Hollywood.
Robinson treats President Bill Clinton as admiring and admirable, in contrast to the life-ending disagreement Captain America recalls having with President Harry S Truman. Clinton is something of a smiling fanboy, rattling off conspiracy theories re Cap’s decades-long disappearance.
These issues have Cap revived and put into action as “John Battle” in the Korean War, then, “Captain John Strike” as leader of a black ops team during the Vietnam War. And, each time it failed. “There was always something that would drive him over the edge,” Nick Fury tells President Clinton, “That was our problem.”
The elderly black man who died helping Captain America remember who he was, one of only about three characters of color in this entire run, his descendent, the Falcon being one of the only others, was apparently only a plant by the government, a soldier sent in his dotage to die so they could have their blond white soldier go punch the Red Skull again.
This is a hideous, but never uncalled for cynicism for a Captain America comic. It’s only real weirdness is that after it is all laid out clear, Captain America salutes the president and strides on out to continue serving. Straight out into his road trip of hating on more than half of America while fighting the same homegrown white supremacist capitalism-driven terrorists each stop of the way.
Something also falls apart between script, art, and color. The small town Texas sheriff is drawn and colored as a big-boned Texas good old boy, but his surname is Wang and he may be textually coded otherwise. In another issue, Detective O’Brian, drawn and colored as a white man, says Cap should be able to “guess from my skin,” how he feels about white supremacist domestic terrorism.
Cap tries to put him in his place, saying, “Color shouldn’t be an issue.”
So, is O’Brian not white? Or, is he white and in favor of these terrorists and all Captain America can do is shake his hand and go, “all lives matter”?
Robinson, bringing Rikki back in the fold, goes full bore lazy sexist cliches, now suggesting she was “recruited” to being a superhero, not that she just made a costume and went charging after Nazis with nukes and her idiot brother, feet and fists flying. He creates a distinction of pre- and post-Cap life for her, with the pre-Cap life being, not political awareness and Julliard applications, but, “The mall, cheerleader tryouts, Tom Cruise, and Stone Temple Pilots.” Post-Cap is, “War and peace, right and wrong, and the gray-laden cloud that hovers forever between the two.” Rikki, who as introduced, had no gray between the black and white of white supremacist terrorists and not being that or letting it go on.
Robinson invents a high school friend for her, just to dismiss her. “Mandy was pregnant. The boy involved, a quarterback on the school team, had offered to marry her.” Offered. What a magnanimous boy. Mandy, the high school pregnancy we can cry a little bit over but glad we are not her.
At the time of publication, I read all of these and Robinson’s issues put a sick taste in my mouth. I would not read another Captain America comic so grossly conservative and degrading towards women until R.A. Jones and Tom Derenick’s Wolverine/Captain America nearly ten years later.
Captain America and the Heroes Reborn imprint end in 1997 with two successive crossover events, taking up the twelfth (Galactus) and the thirteenth (a WildStorm/Marvel mashup) issues of each of the four titles. While the original Galactus story ran three issues of Fantastic Four in the mid-1960s, this retelling runs four issues, across four titles, involving now time travel and a small battalion of world-rending heralds for the superheroes to fight. It climaxes not with the wit and pluck of the Fantastic Four, who ultimately die in three of the four possible timelines, but with Rikki Barnes making a suicide play, only saved last minute by Captain America, their combined selflessness inspiring one of the heralds of Galactus to oppose him, rescuing the Earth.
Heroes Reborn Pt 5: Captain America
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