Waiting for the Trade – Captain America

Waiting for the Trade

 by Bill Miller

 

Captain America:
Fighting Chance vol. 1 Denial

by Mark Gruenwald and
Dave Hoover

collects Captain America
425-430.

Why I Bought This: I
enjoyed most of Mark Gruenwald’s 10-year Cap run, but I can admit he probably
overstayed his welcome by about 2-3 years. Gruenwald himself seemed to realize
the dip in quality, and thus crafted this story as his last hurrah on the
title. I remember thinking at the time it was a big improvement over the prior
two years, although not up to level of his best stuff.  When this was released in trade to coincide
with the Cap movie, I figured I’d pick it up sooner or later just to see how it
reads in a vacuum, especially because on paper the concept is good.

The Plot: Cap
learns the super soldier serum is breaking down and will eventually render him
infirm and then kill him. As he deals with his illness he also encounters a
series of new patriotic-themed characters.

 Chapter 1 – The
Tinkerer (old dude who sells weapons to super-villains) provides the new Super
Patriot (not John Walker/US Agent but he is wearing a variation of Walker’s original
costume.) with a replica of Cap’s shield. The Patriot says he has a grudge
against Cap. Cap is fighting three generic robots and experiences muscle cramps.
He goes to a doctor and learns the super soldier serum is failing as Steve has overtaxed
the serum’s limit by “doing a month’s worth of physical activity in a single
day, every day for several years.” Steve is told if he continues to be Cap he
will be paralyzed within a year, but if he gives up super heroics immediately
he could probably live out a normal life. The doctor encourages a second
opinion, ideally from a super-scientist like Reed or Pym, but Cap is suddenly
concerned that he was a guinea pig once and never will be again; plus he
doesn’t want his superhero friends to pity him. We see Cap in costume go to a
dive bar to drink, and when some parolees don’t want him around he buys drinks
for everyone. Cut to Steve, who meets with Rachel (Diamondback in her civilian
identity, by now his love interest and reformed from the Serpent Society) and
tells her what the doctor said. Back at the bar we see the other Cap ends up
starting a bar fight. Later faux-Cap attends a partisan political fundraiser
with some bimbo. While there he is attacked by Porcupine and in the course of
the battle the politician and several other guests take some spike-quills as
collateral damage. The next morning Steve is at a newsstand and catches a kid
stealing comic books. The owner refuses to press charges saying he hopes the
Punisher gets the kid instead, which makes Cap moody. Cap then hears about
faux-Cap’s actions so he decides to call a press conference to clear things up.
During the press conference he sees the original Masters of Evil attack. He
jumps into the crowd and ends up decking several reporters as the other
Avengers look on and realize there is some sort of illusion/mind control going
on. Before the Avengers can react further, Super Patriot appears with the unconscious
body of Mirage, who he claims was responsible for what Cap saw. Cap accuses
Super Patriot of being in cahoots with Mirage, but it doesn’t go well for him
at the press conference. Black Widow leads Mirage away into custody but once
they round a corner, he turns into Purple Man and makes him release her. The Avengers Mansion cameras catch the transformation
on video, and the heroes conclude they are facing someone who can mimic
dead-super villains (as Porcupine, Mirage and Purple Man are all dead at this
time). Later we see Super Patriot and the mimic (who doesn’t have a name beside
Dex, so let’s go with Dead Dude) are indeed in cahoots. Cap ends the issue
talking with Rachel about how he was played at the press conference and
wondering if despite the physical cost he can let someone destroy his
reputation, especially if he is going to have to give up being Cap soon.

Chapter 2 – We see Super Patriot and Dead Dude digging up a
grave, when Dead Dude touches the body he transforms into Death Adder (formerly
of the Serpent Society). We learn Dead Dude has to touch a body to gain its
abilities and he can only hold the dead guy’s form for so long before the
charge wears out, although he can resume his own form and hold that specific
body’s charge within him indefinitely until he needs it. (Of course this raises
the question of why his power works on villains like Porcupine and Mirage whose
powers are costumed-based and not actually super powers). Meanwhile Cap is
doing stretching exercises while Rachel discusses her ongoing subplot with
Snapdragon (an evil female martial artist who nearly killed her during Gru’s
run, and when Rachel recovered she tracked Snapdragon down and killed her in
revenge even though she was supposed to be reformed by this point. She eventually
confessed to Cap, but because there was no body to be found he advised her to
confirm Snapdragon’s death before turning herself into the police.) Anyway
there is still no sign of Snapdragon dead or alive, making Rachel want to go
back to AIM Island where they last fought, but Cap
knows that’s a really bad idea since AIM won’t tell her anything and will just
try to kill her. Back to Super Patriot, now dressed as faux-Cap, and Dead Dude
in the form of Night Flyer (an evil hang glider). Steve goes to see Falcon in
his civilian identity to fill him on his illness. Faux-Cap robs an armored car
but as he and Night Flyer try to leave with the loot they are attacked by the
Resistants, who thinks Patriot is the real Cap. The Resistants set Night Flyers
hang glider on fire and the faux-heroes crash to the ground. Meanwhile Cap’s
former fiancé Bernie Rosenthal arrives at Rachel’s civilian workplace (a
costume shop) looking for Steve. Bernie is a lawyer so Rachel asks her for
legal advice on the Snapdragon subplot. Back at the battle Faux-Cap uses his
shield to take down a Resistant but it doesn’t ricochet back to him since he’s
not Cap. This leaves him and Night Flyer open to an anti-gravity ray attack, as
the faux heroes start taking some lumps. Before Steve can tell Falcon about his
health problem they learn about the truck robbery. The Resistants think they’ve
won until Dead Dude transforms into Death Adder at which point he just tears
through them with his claws and tail spikes. The police arrive so Faux-Cap goes
with, ‘the Resistants had a hostage and forced him to rob the armored truck and
he played along until he could beat the villains and look here’s the money back
and a stack of unconscious villains.’ Dead Dude even ducks out and resumes
human form to prove there was a hostage. The police buy it. Afterwards Super
Patriot is annoyed that he actually end up making Cap look good by accident,
while Cap and Falcon are equally baffled by what Super Patriot’s end game is
when they learn the faux-Cop arrested some mutant terrorists.

Chapter 3 – We see Faux-Cap and Dead Dude stage a couple
more reckless fights: first against Solarr and then against Cheetah. During the
latter fight at a burger joint a civilian intercedes and pours hot grease on
Dead Dude, burning him badly so he and faux-Cap beat a hasty retreat. Meanwhile
Bernie advises Rachel to plead temporary insanity if Snapdragon turns up dead
as she’d endured a month of torture and was injected with a Super Soldier Serum
variant prior to the incident. During their consultation, Bernie’s heretofore
unrevealed ex-husband shows up and acts abusive before Bernie threatens to call
security. Cap meanwhile calls in Quicksilver and asks him to use his speed to
intercept Faux-Cap the next time he appears so Steve can finally confront him.
Bernie and Rachel are walking home at night when Blackout imprisons them in a
darkforce cube. He takes them to the obligatory abandoned warehouse, where
Rachel plays the helpless civilian until he she gets a chance to switch into
her Diamondback costume. Super Patriot actually calls Cap on the phone to tell
him he has Bernie hostage, and Quicksilver arrives immediately, and takes out
Blackout/Dead Dude with ease. Dead Dude transforms into Blue Streak (evil
roller skater) as somehow he thinks that is going to help him outrace
Quicksilver. Super Patriot, in his own costume but carrying his fake Cap
shield, tries to tell the ladies he just happened upon the scene after hearing
their screams but Rachel rightly calls him on the Cap shield in his hand. Super
Patriot KO’s DBack and threatens Bernie when Cap arrives. Super Patriot pulls a
gun and briefly has Cap on the defensive as the warehouse bursts into flames
for some reason. Bernie pulls DBack out of the warehouse. A support beam falls
on Patriot. Cap tries to lift it off and his strength gives out. Quicksilver
rescues Cap as the building explodes. Dead Dude goes to jail, while Bernie
suspects Super Patriot is her ex-husband.

Chapter 4 –  We meet
Americop as he takes on two carjackers. They shoot him in the head but he pops
up and kills them with the tagline “You have the right to remain silent. . . Forever!”
Meanwhile the Cap, Diamondback and the police interrogate Dead Dude, who
explains he’s a mutant. He gives a demonstration of how his powers work, taking
on the form of Snapdragon thus freaking DBack out. Dead Dude tells Rachel he
found Snapdragon’s body in New Orleans.
Cut back to Americop, who is looking for missing children. He stumbles upon a
diner robbery and again lethally guns down the crooks. Back with Cap where the
warehouse fire last issue has been quelled but with no sign of Super Patriot’s
body. Cap’s hotline gives him a report of Americop’s activities, which he
thinks may be a lead on Super Patriot. Rachel and Moonhunter (Cap’s pilot, no
powers, although in his first appearance he beat both Cap and Wolverine in a
fight before regressing into a civilian) arrive in New Orleans and begin questioning shady bars.
Cap encounters Americop in Virginia
taking on some arms dealers. When Americop attempts to kill his prisoners, Cap
engages him in battle. Back in Louisiana,
Rachel and Moonhunter find a blonde chick, who claims to have info for them.
They follow her into a limo and get gassed. Cap is stalemated with Americop
until he gets another muscle cramp at which point Americop nightsticks him in
the head. He’s about to shoot Cap when the police arrive, and Americop isn’t
willing to fight real cops. Cap stays behind to talk with the arriving police.

Chapter 5 – The local hick sheriff tries to arrest Steve,
not believing he’s the real Cap until Steve uses his one phone call to get the
President on the line. Meanwhile Americop shoots a trio of teen bullies in the
kneecaps. Rachel and Moonhunter wake up handcuffed in a cage, where a fat dude in
a suit questions them about their connection to Snapdragon. Americop uses his
super hummer to oil slick (ala Atari Spy
Hunter)
some state trooper cars that try to pull him over. Cap is on his
sky cycle and notices his condition is worsening as he now he has arthritis in
his joints just from driving. Rachel picks some locks so she and Moonhunter can
escape, and is able to call Cap for assistance. DBack encounters rich old dude
Damon Dran and learns fat dude is Snapdragon’s brother. Cap arrives and finds
blonde chick in the cage as DBack locked her in it when she escaped. Cap frees
her not knowing she is a villain and gets knee’d in the balls and then
full-nelsoned by a burly bodyguard. Fat dude tries to drown Rachel in a
fountain in revenge for his sister’s drowning but Moonhunter KO’s him with a
candlestick. Cap wins his fight only for Americop’s hummer to crash through a
wall. They face off just as Dran comes to downstairs with his thugs holding
DBack and Moonhunter hostage.

Chapter 6 – Americop has no regard for the hostages (“I
don’t make deals, I enforce the laws”) so he and Cap fight again. Diamondback
uses the distraction to make her move. Dran has minions deploy gas. Americop
charges Dran guns a-blazing, only to learn Dran is the super villain known as
the Indestructible Man (and thus bulletproof) before he passes out. Cap also
succumbs to the gas when he tries to rescue Moonhunter, but DBack manages to
escape in the confusion. She then finds Cap’s sky cycle and radio’s the
Avengers. Cap and Americop wake up in chains, and Americop gives his origin: he
was a good cop for many years until he got tired of watching criminals he
arrested walk and/or cut deals for reduced sentences during trial. Now as a
vigilante whenever he takes out drug dealers he uses half their money to
rebuild his arsenal and donates the other half to charity. In the course of
this Dran admits to being behind the child smuggling ring Americop has been
tracking. Dran has his men work the heroes over, while announcing plans to sell
them to highest bidder on the black market. Once the thugs are done, they leave
and Americop busts his chains. He refuses to free Cap, then goes off and
recovers his arsenal (including a bazooka) and starts killing generic thugs.
Black Widow arrives (she left the other Avengers behind since with Cap captured
Stealth was needed). Americop makes his way to Dran and shoots him in the head,
then when he falls down empties a clip into his chest. Dran however was playing
possum and pops up to grab Americop in a one handed chokehold. Widow frees Cap.
They see Dran and blonde chick escaping in helicopter. Americop goes to blow it
out of the sky, Cap throws his shield to stop him but it doesn’t reach, and
Americop succeeds. Dran falls to the ground unharmed and Widow arrests him,
while Americop tells Cap that when it comes to fighting crime “Get serious or
get out;” leaving Cap to ponder how ineffective he was on this mission.

 
Critical Thoughts:
The first thing that jumps out here is how densely plotted comics were back then
compared to today. This thing is just filled with subplots and cross-cutting
action so that my plot recap takes twice as much space as it does on a modern
book.

The story itself however is very flawed. I’ll begin with
Steve refusing medical treatment makes no sense, and the justification of he ‘was
a guinea pig once, never again’ seems really out of left field. When before or
since has Cap ever reflected negatively on the process that gave him his
powers? Indeed one of the things I like best about Cap is that he chose to be a
hero. He was not bitten by a radioactive spider or accidentally caught in a
gamma bomb or born with mutant powers; he chose to risk his life to get
experimental super-powers so he could be a hero, which I think cuts to the
heart of why in-universe he’s Marvel’s greatest hero. And it is an unnecessary
plot point since Marvel’s super scientists have never been good a curing
disease to begin with: hence Thing is still stuck in rock form, Mar-vell dies
of cancer, etc. So just have Cap go to Pym for a page and then move on with
your story.

The first chapter comic book theft scene is trying way too
hard to get Meta comments into the book and
does not work on any level. Cap asks the teen how he can steal books that promote
heroism and he’s like ‘I don’t read them I just stick them in bags and sell
them,’ and then shop owner is like ‘I only read about Wolverine and Punisher.’
Back-up. Punisher has a comic book within the Marvel Universe? That seems
really odd considering he’s a convicted felon who has murdered scores of people
(albeit criminals). Marvel always said that public heroes like the Avengers and
FF sign licensing agreements within their universe to have comics published
about them, but it’s really hard to imagine Wolverine agreeing to that let
alone a psycho gun-toting vigilante wanted by the law. Could you imagine in the
real world an ongoing comic book published about a machine gun wielding lunatic
who was real person still at large?

I think the Dead Dude super-villain is a really cool idea.
If you wanted death in comics to mean something and not be a revolving door and
yet still be able to revisit the dead characters from time to time he has the
perfect powers to do it. If Gru had bothered to give him a costume and name
maybe he would of stuck around for more than this arc. (Although probably not
since death is just a six month vacation now-a-days.) However the explanation
for how his powers work seems flawed: he touches a corpse and duplicates it
abilities but most of the heroes he ends up duplicating don’t have powers; they
have gadgets (like hang gliders, roller skates, illusion discs, etc) that have
no biological connection to the corpse itself.

I really like the chapter where Super Patriot and Dead
Dude’s plan to impersonate Cap backfires and they end up solving a crime.
That’s just a funny ironic touch that you never see in these kinds of plots
(say when the Chameleon or Mystique are at large impersonating Spider-man and
the X-men) so kudos to Gru for finding a new take on that trope.

On the flipside the Super Patriot story ends too soon and
ultimately makes no sense. Bernie just happened to marry a guy who hates Cap?
That’s an awful big coincidence. Unless she is blabbing Cap’s secret to anyone
she dates but that doesn’t feel in character for her; and even if she did tell
this guy, she married and divorced him off-camera long after her relationship
to Cap ended so that still does not give him a reason to hate Cap. Also why is
he replicating the Super Patriot name and costume in his vendetta? Basically
the character does not have a clearly defined motivation and instead Gru just
gave his some arbitrary associations to other characters in Cap’s past that do
nothing to explain his motives.

The book also features a really heavy Avengers influence,
which is something I have dual opinions on. In-universe continuity wise it
absolutely makes sense for Cap to pick up his card and call on specific
Avengers with specific skills as needed. Narratively it is less than satisfying
to see a protagonist rely on other heroes so much; however I will give it a
pass since part of the story is Cap coming terms with limited physical
abilities.

I actually liked the Americop chapters, which surprising in
that don’t like the Punisher and those types of hardcore killer vigilante
characters usually. Yes, the character is at his core a cross between Robocop
and the Punisher, but his costume is visually interesting and Gru writes him
above the stereotype—for example having him give half of the funds he confiscates
on drug busts to charity or in the way he deals with civilians in the diner
robbery. Don’t get me wrong I wouldn’t want to see him in an ongoing title, but
as a counterpoint to Cap he works just fine in this story. Of course Americop
also seems to not recognize Cap at all when they meet, which is odd considering
A) how famous Cap is in-universe, and B) Americop used to be a police officer.
On the flipside, the scene with Cap calling the President when dealing with the
hick sheriff is a comedic moment that really works. I should also add the
covers reprinted between chapters by Dave Hoover are gorgeous to look at, and
that becomes really apparent in the Americop chapters.

Ultimately where this book is lacking the most is the two
themes are not as unified as they should be. Cap’s body is failing and that’s a
new and interesting challenge for the character as far as it goes. He’s also
meeting new patriotic characters during this physical crisis, which if done
right could see Cap challenged mentally on what he stands for or who is going
to carry on his legacy afterwards. But instead these two stories just sort of
run parallel. The new patriotic characters are not directly challenging Cap’s
existence or his motivations on any substantial level and that feels like a
missed opportunity.

 

Grade C. This has
its good moments but it also has its share of bad ones. Really if you want to
grab a trade of Gru-Cap that covers similar ground much better then try Streets
of Poison or Cap No More instead.