Sunday, November 21, 2010

Floppies for Trades: Two Americas

Captain America: Two Americas
by Ed Brubaker, Luke Ross, and Butch Guice

So THIS is the storyline that got the Tea Party’s panties in a bunch? Seriously? For a movement that’s all about individual freedoms, they’re certainly some thin-skinned SOBs. But as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself…

When the on-going Captain America series went to four bucks a pop earlier this year, I decided it was time to start reading it in trade paperback collections. I found the “Nomad” back-up strip pretty much unreadable, making its “added value” an actual detriment to my enjoyment of the monthly funnybook reading experience. And, since this isn’t a book that really needs my monthly support to keep going anyway… It seemed like a perfect candidate for trade-waiting. So here we are at the first of those trade collections, Two Americas. And, sure enough, it’s a better deal than the monthly. I got five issues of All-American Action and Political Subtext for 15 bucks. Which still seems a little steep, honestly, but which nonetheless feels like a better use of my funnybook dollar.

The story concerns “Bad Cap,” the poor bastard who became Captain America in the 1950s and was driven insane by the knock-off of the Super Soldier Serum they used on him. This character’s been knocking around for years now. Initially an attempt to explain the insane Commie-bashing Cap stories of the early 1950s (in which Our Hero did some decidedly Un-American things in the name of freedom), he’s since become a great doppelganger villain to toss out periodically, and remind everyone of just what the real Cap stands for. He was brought out of mothballs in Brubaker’s big multi-year Red Skull storyline (which name-checked pretty much every great Captain America story ever), and escaped into the American heartland to be dealt with here.

And Brubaker, of course, makes the most of it. Bad Cap returns to his hometown of Boise, Idaho, sees the unemployment and the erosion of American Values, and decides that he’s got to change things. And, since he’s crazy and super-strong and solves most of his problems by hitting things, he decides to form a super-militia. Or, rather… He becomes the leader of one that’s already in place: the Watchdogs. I‘ve never read a story with these guys in it, but they‘ve been kicking around since the 80s. They’re essentially a bunch of right-wing terrorist militia types with high-tech weapons and body armor, a perfect group to use if you want to discuss the current political climate in the guise of a super hero comic.

And this is where they got in hot water with the Tea Party. Upon arrival in Boise, Cap and the Falcon watch a protest rally made up of working class Americans:

Though this is never identified as a Tea Party rally in the story, it’s obviously supposed to be one. So much so that the letterer took the slogans on the signs from photos of actual Tea Party rallies. Oops. That “Tea Bag the Libs” sign has been changed in the reprint book to “AmeriCAN not AmeriCAN’T.” Which is still a Tea Party slogan, mind you, but at least it doesn’t 100% identify these folks as Tea Partiers.

What’s the problem with saying it’s a Tea Party rally, by the way? Well, I’m not entirely sure. Apparently, some conservative commentators misread the issue pretty badly, and assumed that the story was saying that the Tea Party was a terrorist organization. Which it’s not. The Watchdogs are recruiting in the area, taking advantage of the anti-government anger to swell the ranks. But no direct connection is ever drawn between the protestors and the Watchdogs. The rally just marches past a building Cap and the Falcon are staked out on while looking for signs of Watchdog activity.

The situation’s made worse by the Falcon’s dialogue in that panel. In response to Cap’s plan to infiltrate the Watchdogs, he says “I don’t exactly see a black man from Harlem fitting in with a bunch of angry white folks.” Which implies that the Tea Party is racist, as well as violent. Except… It doesn’t. That’s just the Falcon’s point of view, and I thought it came off as being pretty ignorant, the perspective of a New York liberal who’s just as isolated from rural America as it is from him. And that impression is paid off later in the story, when the Falcon winds up working with a white working-class conservative to foil the Watchdogs’ plans. “I may be mad as hell ‘cause Washington’s forgotten Main Street,” the Tea Partier in question says, “but I ain’t gonna blow up my own country.”

And that is really the point of Two Americas. Cap himself seems neutral on the politics of the situation, as befits the symbol of America. Everybody’s got opinions, after all, and America’s big enough to hold every last one of them. As long as your opinions don’t involve, say, blowing up the Hoover Dam and killing thousands of people. Then, he’s got a problem. But if you just want smaller government, Cap, and this story, are okay with it.

So I have a little trouble seeing why conservatives got upset here. Even going on just part one of the four-part story, before the Falcon realizes he’s wrong about the “angry white folks,” they over-reacted. If I was them, I’d be much more upset about the protest sign from a page earlier, which read “No Govt. In My Medicare!” Because that one’s just plain ignorant.

But back to the story itself. The real Captain America (who we’ll call Bucky from here on out to avoid confusion) has had his own share of mental problems due to (I shit you not) Soviet brainwashing, and sees a lot of himself in Bad Cap. He hopes to be able to help the guy. And Bad Cap holds out hope that, because of their similar pasts, Bucky can be brought around to his way of thinking. (And I should mention, I suppose, that the character’s official name is not “Bad Cap.” That’s just what Bucky calls him.) So again, we’ve got “two Americas” with opposing viewpoints. It’s just that, in this case, one of those opposing viewpoints is crazy as a shithouse rat.

And in spite of that insanity, Brubaker manages to make Bad Cap into a sympathetic character. He’s a good man at his core, a patriot who gave up everything (even his own face and name) to serve his country. It’s not his fault he was driven insane by drugs the government pumped into his brain, nor that he was then cast adrift in an America he doesn’t recognize. He’s going through the same thing both Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes have gone through, but without the mental stability and support system they’ve had to help them deal with it. He’s lonely as much as anything else, and hopes to find a kindred spirit in another man who’s been as badly damaged by his service to America as he has.

That doesn’t work out for him, of course. And that’s where the story’s weak points start to show. Brubaker sets up some compelling drama here, but skimps on the follow-through. Not that I think Bucky should have gone over the terrorist cause, or even been unduly tempted by it. He’s too practical and level-headed a character for that. But I’d have liked to have seen more of his conflict played up in the course of the story. He mentions it at the beginning, and his regret that he couldn’t help the guy plays as an emotional note in the conclusion. But Brubaker never delves into those feelings along the way, and so doesn’t earn his ending. It all feels very perfunctory, very technical. He sets it up as a plot point, and he knocks it down as one, but he doesn’t make the audience feel it.

I didn’t feel much of anything while reading Two Americas, in fact. While I recognize that Bad Cap is a sympathetic character, I didn’t actually feel much sympathy for him while reading. Even the Falcon’s realization that not all crackers are evil is pretty flat. The whole exercise, in spite of the juicy ideas behind it, is kind of dry and bland in the execution. Part of the reason for that is the story’s length. At four chapters, it’s just too plot-driven. The action moves so fast that the characters can’t slow down and demonstrate the depth they need for the emotional and thematic content to work properly. Given another issue or two, all the story’s elements could have been developed better, and played out in a more satisfying manner.

That same lack of depth also hurts the story that leads off this collection: “Who Will Wield the Shield?” This was a one-shot comic that settled the issue of whether or not Steve Rogers would take back the mantle of Captain America after his recent return from the dead. The answer, it seems, is no. Steve had some glimpse of the future while he was in the Red Skull’s psychic time-trap, and now believes that Bucky has to remain in the role of Captain America, or he’ll die a(nother) horrible death. That’s not something Steve could live with, so he turns the role over to his protégé and goes off to take the battle for freedom global as head of the world‘s official peace-keeping force.

Which, hrm… This is as good a time as any to talk about the similarities between the Death of Captain America and the Death of Batman. On a basic plot level, they’re the same story: iconic hero apparently dies, kid sidekick takes on the mantle, hero returns from being lost in time rather than dead like everybody thought, sidekick continues in role while hero goes off to take care of larger concerns elsewhere. We even had a body, an actual desiccated corpse, in both cases! Nobody’s crying rip-off here (well, nobody with any sense, anyway) because both stories were in the planning stages for years before the pay-off. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Ed Brubaker and Grant Morrison to have stolen ideas from each other. The timing’s just wrong. So it’s a case of parallel creation.

Anyway… Reading “Who Will Wield the Shield?” in the wake of the recently-completed “Return of Bruce Wayne” makes the similarities between the stories stand out even more, and unfortunately Brubaker’s Cap story suffers in comparison. Morrison’s story was this grand cosmic mystery of great weight and thematic depth that kept me guessing (and running off at the mouth about it) for months. And while I really enjoy Brubaker’s pulpy noir take on super hero action in Captain America, it just seems a little flat in comparison.

I mean, it’s fine. Brubaker delivers on his usual blend of heroic brooding and funnybook action. Steve gets a great hero moment in the vein of the stuff Millar did with him in Ultimates, the decisions both men make are logical ones, and it all promises to pay forth in further stories I’d like to read. It’s well-done corporate spandex comics. But it also feels a little like funnybook business as usual, one-dimensional pop fiction that I enjoyed, but feel no desire to ever read again.

And that, boys and girls, is Floppies for Trades. It’s the difference between a Grade A comic and a Grade B one. It’s the difference between a comic that I can’t wait to read each month, and one that I’m fine with getting a couple of times a year in book form. Rather than sitting around as clutter in my comics collection, to eventually be weeded out and sold off for pennies on the dollar, Captain America can instead go straight into the donation box at my local library, and I need never think about it again. Huzzah.

Grade: B-

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