Mark Gruenwald, Kieron Dwyer & Tom Morgan
Captain America: The Captain (1988)
Having watched A Brony Tale, the documentary examining the phenomenon of Bronies - adult and generally male devotees of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic - I availed myself of my nearest internet to opine that the notion of adult males dedicated to a cartoon show very specifically aimed at little girls struck me as lamentable. Naturally my observation was called into question by those who had somehow misread my comment as a call for something to be done about this situation, perhaps a rounding up of those accused so that they might be forced into camps and trained to take culture seriously because I was one of those snobbish cultural Nazis pompously declaring Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen superior to The Care Bears Movie when actually it wasn't because it's all about how you feel and stuff. I found this aggravating because it entirely missed my point, my point being that while I'm all for folks taking their pleasure where they find it, it's nevertheless depressing to see what I would respectfully identify as either more vital, sophisticated, or at least less corporate expressions of culture relegated to a dusty old trunk in a disused museum merely because it's too hard to think about stuff that isn't like totally awesome and like no-one cares about that boring old shit. It's elitist of me, I realise, but I'm running out of decent conversation, and I don't wish to find myself on my deathbed surrounded by shit-brained Pokémon champions quoting lines from the fucking Big Bang Theory because expecting anyone to grow up or even attempt to better themselves in any sense has somehow come to constitute a human rights violation.
Part of the reason I feel this way is, as I approach my fiftieth year, I sometimes wish someone had taken me aside back in 1987 just as I was about to blow another fifty quid on X-Men comics and pointed me in the direction of some of that which I am only now beginning to appreciate. Actually, someone probably did just that, but without the levels of righteousness necessary to get their point across; although I suppose we each of us have to get to wherever we are going in our own way, and at least I got there in the end, more or less.
So here's me, a full grown man reading Captain America rather than giving Crime and Punishment another go like the square-headed uptight opera loving culture Nazi I apparently am. The thing is here - I would hope - that I try to vary my input, keeping it broad up to a point, in contrast to an exclusive diet of inconsequential logo driven crap; and so I am able to appreciate this collection as something suggested for ages of nine and up, but hopefully not all the way up, without the same figure necessarily referring to my emotional and intellectual development; and so to business...
I'm not exactly sure what it was about Mark Gruenwald's Captain America that appealed to me given its being very much a traditional superhero title, and arguably at the other end of the spectrum from all the X-Men stuff upon which I was blowing my dole money. Possibly it is the very simplicity of the character and the idea, just some bloke dressed like a flag - it would be pop art were it a little more self-aware, which thankfully it wasn't. There's something honest about Captain America as an idea, an optimistic quality perhaps sprung from the how far our reality falls short of such ideals as are sketched here in three basic colours. In the wake of Watchmen, as comic book writers were busily infecting their characters with AIDS or having them arrested for shoplifting in pursuit of that grown-up dollar, Captain America was going up against the Serpent Society - a band of crooks in snake costumes; 'You look hungry,' his partner Nomad quips to Famine the mutant supervillain as they fight, 'have a knuckle sandwich!' and on every other page we find plot and motivation tirelessly reiterated and reinforced as thought bubbles.
'It's not my fault I've had rotten breaks all my life,' Diamondback silently reflects as Captain America races off in pursuit of the Viper. 'All it would take is the love of a good honest man like you and I could be a good person! A hero even! How can I make you see that?'
So you get the picture - this was closer to Roy Lichtenstein source material than Grant Morrison having post-ironic chuckles with pointedly hokey characters; and yet Gruenwald managed to turn the whole thing upside down and inside out without so much as a sly wink to camera, having the American government fire Captain America in order to replace him with someone more likely to toe the line, and less likely to ask awkward questions when assigned to protect America's corporate interests. It could have gone horribly wrong, or at least horribly condescending, but Gruenwald never lost sight of his audience or what they expected for their seventy-five cents. The run of comics collected here follows our hero as he's replaced by a well-intentioned bigot, in the process smuggling all sorts of uncomfortable questions under the radar - free speech, the constitution, abuse of the constitution, government corruption, and even a sneaky poke at US involvement in Nicaragua; and it does all of this without turning into Brought To Light, or doing anything too likely to alienate even budding Republicans, let alone third graders. Of course, one might argue that it cops out in the end with the source of corruption revealed as Red Skull's efforts to subvert a presumably otherwise honorable American government from within, and whilst this is no more implausible than anything else in this sort of spandex narrative, it comes late in the day and the point has already been made. We've already seen the light glinting from President Reagan's curiously serpentine fangs as he stands to address the nation, assuring us that both he and Nancy are fully recovered from having been turned into hybrid reptile creatures by the Viper a few pages before.
I was drawn to this collection by pure nostalgia, almost certain that it would have dated terribly on the grounds of my having been somewhat less literate when first I read it; and happily I am mistaken, not because this run of Captain America was Noam Chomsky in a star-spangled leotard, but because Gruenwald was a great comic book writer who exactly understood his very young audience and was able to communicate some pretty important ideas without talking down to anyone or skimping on the generic superhero thrills and spills. It's a shame that the kind of spirit in which this was produced seems less evident in the brand driven kid's entertainment of today.