Sunday, August 18, 2013

History!

Captain America: War and Remembrance: written by Roger Stern and John Byrne; illustrated by John Byrne and Josef Rubinstein (1980; collected 2010): One of the three or four highest of the high points for the patriotic Captain America's comic-book career. Some sort of bizarre (and typical) infighting at Marvel Comics in 1980 truncated Roger Stern and John Byrne's run on Captain America at nine issues, which is a shame, though Stern would move over to a fine run on Spider-man while Byrne would soon be writing and drawing the Fantastic Four.

Standalone high points include a retelling of Cap's origin that attempts to fix some pretty odd continuity problems that had accreted over the years, problems that Stern and Byrne also address in an earlier story in the volume. They send Cap out against familiar villains (Batroc, the French mercenary), villains commonly associated with other super-heroes (the Fantastic Four's Dragon Man and Thor's Mr. Hyde), and Cap villains from long ago (Baron Blood, a World War Two vampire enemy of Cap's from the then-recently cancelled WWII supergroup book The Invaders).

Everything included here is extremely good superhero stuff, but the Baron Blood two-parter is probably the finest thing in the collection. It's also one of the finest pieces of superhero adventure Stern and Byrne ever created together or separately. Josef Rubinstein's heavier inks are perfect here for Byrne's pencils in a way that a more fan-praised Byrne inker such as Terry Austin would not have been, making thing moody and shadowy when needed. Byrne and Rubinstein manage a real sense of menace throughout the two-parter, and the whole thing is satisfyingly dense on the narrative level. I'd imagine a 2013 retelling would run about 12 issues and be about 1/12th as satisfying.

Stern and Byrne work well together -- Stern is a master of keeping readers caught up with events of previous issues without bogging the story down in exposition, and he and Byrne structure some fairly stunning action scenes here, with the best being Cap's last battle with Baron Blood. Highly recommended.


Astro City Volume 4: The Tarnished Angel: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson, Willie Blyberg, and Alex Ross (1997-98): The fourth collection of Busiek and Anderson's great Astro City series focuses on a small-time supervillain dubbed The Steel-Jacketed Man, or Steeljack, as he gets out of prison after 20 years and tries to go straight. In a way, this is an extended homage to the Lee/Ditko Spider-man story "A Guy Named Joe," about a similar small-time hood, though Busiek's character actually craves some form of redemption for the disappointments his criminal life visited upon his now-deceased mother.

While the entire Astro City series is intensely metafictional in its characters, settings, and storylines, Busiek nonetheless frames the metafictional elements within stories of loss, discovery, redemption, and betrayal. It's a sort of metafiction of sentiment rather than commentary (ironic or otherwise) on the history of superhero comic books. Samaritan may be the Astro City analog of Superman, and his first appearance may coincide both in year and in event with John Byrne's Superman reboot at DC in 1986, but he's also his own character through whom Busiek can explore issues of character and motivation in a fantastic context.

Steeljack's story plays out as an homage to hardboiled detective fiction, but with superheroes and supervillains. Someone has been killing minor supervillains, so the residents of Kiefer Square, a slum area populated by supervillains and their families, decide to pay Steeljack to investigate the murders, hoping that his nigh-invulnerable living-steel body may keep him alive long enough to solve the mystery. A plot oriented around the killing of minor villains also riffs on the hero-killer plot of Watchmen.

The story then follows Steeljack, with the sort of copious first-person narration from his viewpoint that will be a familiar device to anyone who's seen a hardboiled detective movie or read a novel. Plagued by doubt and loss, Steeljack makes for a sympathetic protagonist even as he also functions as a fairly potent evaluation of mainstream supervillains. Why don't some of these people go legit and make money from their inventions and powers rather than endlessly robbing banks and getting caught?

Why indeed. They are trapped in a social loop of poverty and crime, as are criminals in the real world, but criminals in the real world aren't invulnerable or possessed of super-technology or super-strength. Some of Steeljack's most poignant moments come in pondering this fantastic problem: why did he allow himself to slip into the life of a sueprvillain? And is there any way out?

Brent Anderson's art is, as always, perfect for the series, fairly naturalistic (especially when compared to a lot of younger artists and artistic approaches at DC and Marvel), rooted in character and telling detail, but also quite dynamic when the story calls for it. Alex Ross's covers are their usual source of painterly goodness. Highly recommended.

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