Waiting for the Trade’s best of cosmic Marvel

Waiting for the Trade’s Cosmic Countdown

 So today Guardians of
the Galaxy
hits theaters and I cannot wait to see it. I have been giddy for
this movie since it was announced two years ago. I love cosmic marvel in
general and I greatly enjoyed DnA’s run on the Guardians a couple years ago. So in honor of the film I present a
countdown of Marvel’s best cosmic trade paperbacks and because the Guardians
are such an unusual team I am doing a top 15 rather than a top 10. Furthermore in
honor of the obscurity of the Guardians since many of the stories in the
countdown are super famous already I will recommend a second story in the same
vein of each primary pick throughout the countdown. So without further ado
click below.

 

 

 15 – Star-Lord: Annihilation
Conquest
– While the entire Annihilation
Conquest
event was collected in a pair of trades years ago the story as a
whole is good not great. With the Guardians
of the Galaxy
movie this smaller trade was released a few months ago
collecting the four best issues of that event. This is genesis of the Guardians
team as the Kree recruit Star-Lord to go on a no technology suicide mission
against the Phalanx and assign several prisoners from a Kree prison to assist
him—all of whom were marginal cosmic characters who had not appeared in years:
Captain Universe, Death Cry, Groot, Mantis and—best of all—Rocket Raccoon. The
book has a total Dirty Dozen feel to it, and given the minor nature of these
characters no one is safe (though based on the Guardians movie line-up you can probably guess which ones
survived). This is the beginning of Rocket Raccoon’s ascent to awesome-ville.

            If you like
this story also check out: Thanos
Redemption.
While reading the second Annihilation
Conquest
trade will give you the ending of the story; and any of the DnA Guardians trades carry the Rocket &
Groot banner nicely Thanos Redemption
is a bit of lost classic by the same author as the Star-Lord trade above and is
the story that brought Star Lord back to the mainstream Marvel Universe. It too
has also only recently been collected in trade thanks to the movie as Thanos Redemption collects a short-lived
12 issue ongoing Thanos series from about 10 years back. The first six issues
are by Starlin and see Thanos and Warlock attempting to help the Rigellians
evacuate their planet when Galactus arrives. It’s a perfectly good Starlin
Thanos story although it doesn’t tread much new ground. The next 6 issues are
by Keith Geffen, and while the change in tone is on first read jarring I
actually like it better than the Starlin issues. Geffen shows us the Crunch,
the sight of the birth of the Universe where cosmic energies are used to bind
rogue cosmic entities. Furthermore the Shi’ar and Xandarians have built a
prison planet there for hardcore threats they have no intention of ever
paroling. However because of what the Crunch represents it is considered a holy
site by many alien races and thus the prison has to deal with a constant flow
of pilgrims. Thanos decides to become one of these pilgrims. He soon finds
Death waiting for him and for the first time in decades she deigns to speak to
him directly. He also discovers heroes Gladiator and Star Lord are in the
prison (among many villains). Best of all Thanos encounters the Beyonder in
this prison and we get a fairly epic Thanos vs. the Beyonder confrontation. The
aftermath of their fight sees the prison damaged and a few galaxy class
villains escape including a previously unknown first herald of Galactus. This
just piles on the fantastic and needs to be read (and in some ways it is a shame
the series got cancelled because they were building to Gladiator and Star Lord
forming a task force to take down Thanos once and for all).

 14 Hulk: Heart of the
Atom –
Famed Science Fiction writer Harlan Ellison penned this story of
Hulk being shrunk into a subatomic world where he finds a John Carter-esque
world of monsters and alien barbarians who happen to have green skin and thus
accept Hulk as a savior. Hulk meets their Queen Jarella and begins a
surprisingly tender and bittersweet love affair with her that ultimately ends
in tragedy.

            If you like
this story also check out: I’m sure Planet
Hulk
is the obvious successor to this one but I’ve never read it so I can’t
recommend it. I will say the recent Captain
America: Castaway in Dimension Z
is really good story of Cap trapped in
another dimension with subjugated alien races fighting a cruel tyrant giving it
some similarities to the Hulk story above. But if you want another Hulk story
then let’s go with Hulk: Pardoned which
while mostly earthbound reprints a chapter of Hulk on Rocket Raccoon’s home
world and a few other alien threats from Bill Mantlo’s nearly forgotten yet
really strong run on the title.

 (13½) Silver Surfer
the Herald Ordeal
(issues 70-75 of his second solo title) is not in trade. If
it was it would rank here as the art is superb, Morg is an excellent villain
and it has the spectacle of every former herald of Galactus teaming up.

13 – Avengers the
Contest –
I’ve reviewed this book before but to recap the Grandmaster makes
a bet with Death and pulls all the heroes of Earth into a contest on their
behalf. Then when Grandmaster loses he pulls both Avengers team into Death’s
realm giving us a pair of excellent fights as first the East and West Coast
Avenger teams square off and then when Grandmaster wins and takes over Death’s
realm he forces the Avengers to fight the Legion of the Unliving for the fate
of the universe in perhaps the greatest fight scene Tom Defalco ever wrote. The
story ends with my all time favorite Hawkeye moment.

            If you like
this story also check out: Avengers vs. the
Legion of the Unliving
is an excellent anthology collecting all of their
battles against various groups of characters who were dead at the time. You get
two Immortus stories in here, a really creepy Grim Reaper story as he becomes
an Avatar for Death (the Avatar concept played a key role in other cosmic
titles like Quasar and Thanos Imperative), the last chapter of
the story above, and a really good Busiek and Perez story. Speaking of which if
you like the Grandmaster he plays a key role in the very strong Busiek-Perez JLA/Avengers intercompany trade as well.

 

12 – Essential Marvel
Two In One volume 3 –
By far the most obscure choice on my list this series
primarily serves as a prelude to Mark Gruenwald’s superb work on Quasar in the 90s (most of which is not
in trade). This book collects 26 comics (three of which are double sized) and
surprisingly the vast majority qualify as cosmic stories. For those unfamiliar Marvel Two In One is a Thing team up
series from the late 70s/early 80s. Gru kicks us off with Quasar’s first
appearance under that name (the character had appeared a few times before as a
SHIELD agent in Captain America) and
makes Quasar head of security for Project Pegasus. The six part story that
follows (also collected in the full color trade Thing: Project Pegasus Saga)
see Thing, Quasar and Bill Foster (Giant Man v2.0/Black Goliath) deal with a
series of sabotage attempts by Roxxon Oil that ends up pulling in the time
traveling Deathlok, the extra-dimensional Thundra, the alien Wundar and
ultimately leads to the birth of Nth Man—a cosmic class villain that would
trouble Excalibur 10 years later. The other major reason to buy this trade (and
why I recommend it over the color version) is the double sized Thing & the
Avengers in the Negative Zone story by Tom Defalco that sees Annihilus,
Blaastar and Super Adaptoid all team up. I often say Defalco is the best
choreographer of fight scenes in comic history and this is a prime example of
his excellence in that regard. Other cosmic tales include: a three parter with
Thing, Her, Moondragon (both of whom Gru would use again as love interests for
Quasar) and Starhawk (revealed in the 90s to be the son of Quasar and Her)
trying to resurrect Adam Warlock and in the process running afoul of the High
Evolutionary and the Beyonder; A two part tale that sees Thing, Mr. Fantastic,
Sting Ray and the Inhumans taking on Maelstrom (who Gru would later elevate
into an enemy of all life in the universe in Quasar), a three part story
featuring Thing, Sting Ray, Triton and Scarlet Witch preventing the Serpent
Squad using the Serpent Crown to take over the world (this is the first
appearance of Sidewinder and a few others that would go on to become the
Serpent Society in Gru’s Captain America
run, while the Set’s Serpent Crown would be one of the major threats Quasar
dealt with when he became protector of the universe). Other one off stories in
here with cosmic characters are: Thing & Black Bolt vs. Graviton, Thing
& the Impossible Man, Thing vs. Hyperion, Thing & the 30th
century Guardians of the Galaxy, Thing & Quasar in the Savage Land, and
Thing & Hulk vs. The Stranger.

            If you like
this story also check out: Quasar
Classic volume 1
. Quasar was for my money Marvel’s best ongoing series of
the early 90s—a time when they published 60 to 80 books a month. While the
book’s best issues are in the second year and not collected in trade, this
volume will give you Quasar’s origin, his appointment as Protector of the
Universe, the set up of his supporting cast status quo, and some fun fights
with Terminus, Absorbing Man and Living Laser as part of the “Acts of Vengeance”
crossover.

        

11 Infinity War – This
is one of my favorite crossovers but unfortunately it does not have a good
trade paperback. The existing trade collects only the parts written by Jim Starlin:
The six issue main series, a few tie-in issues of Warlock and the Infinity Watch and a four part Thanos back up story
from Marvel Comics Presents. Worse it
doesn’t even intercut those stories in order. It just reprints each of the three
series it collects one after the other even though the Warlock issues
specifically say what issues of the main series they occur after. While like
any crossover some of the tie-in issues are extraneous I feel not including the
issues of Quasar, Dr. Strange and Silver Surfer do the story a real
disservice—these are all cosmic level heroes whose tie-in issues were key to
the main event. The Spider-man and Guardians of the Galaxy issues are also a
lot of fun and it is a shame not to have them even if they don’t add much to
the narrative. Besides a story called “Infinity War” should be big and
sprawling. The full story would likely make #5 on this list. Still even in
diminished form this is a trade worth picking up. The Magus has one of the best
plans of any villain ever in this story—from preemptively attempting to destroy
all of Earth’s heroes in one blow by taking out just five key heroes, to hiding
his fortress in another reality several dimensions removed so that even cosmic
level powers cannot get to him without great difficulty to the big plot twist
in issue five on his end goal. This is a rare smart villain executing a well
thought out plan so it is worth reading for the core six issues alone. Also the
story is crazy fun on a cosmic fanboy level because you get to see all the big
cosmic weapons pitted against each other: the Cosmic Cube, the Infinity Gauntlet,
the Quantum Bands and the Ultimate Nullifier are all utilized in one key
chapter of this story. Also it does collect Infinity
Watch #8,
which is a really strong comic featuring an extended flashback of
how Thanos raised Gamora as his foster daughter.

            If you like
this story also check out: Thanos
Imperative.
While Infinity Crusade
is the sequel to Infinity War it is a
badly told bloated story. And while the Magus’s first appearance may be a more
obvious choice to recommend here, Thanos
Imperative
has more in common with Infinity
War
structurally. Both stories see Thanos forced to act alongside a group
of heroes to defend the universe from a threat worse than him. Both see him
working alongside Gamora, Drax and Moondragon while Quasar, Silver Surfer and
Galactus have a separate side mission in the crisis. In both the threat is an
alternate evil version of a great cosmic hero. Thanos Imperative also brings DnA’s four year run as the architects
of cosmic marvel to an end and has the added bonus scene of Rocket Raccoon
standing down Thanos. It’s not the A+ homerun I wanted from DnA but it is a
solid B that holds up on multiple readings.
10-Avengers: The Kree
Skrull War
– While this story is less cosmic than you’d expect—only one chapter
takes place in space;–it does maintain a tense build and for its time period
stories of this scope were very rare. The cliff notes synopsis: first the
Avengers have to deal with the Kree who want to detonate a bomb that will
devolve all of humanity back to Neanderthals. Then as the follow up on the Kree
threat, the Skrulls make their move by taking the place of politicians and
members of the media to turn the public against the Avengers and later imitate
the big three (none of whom were on the active roster at the time) in order to
disband the team. The Avengers also have to battle both races major champions: Ronan
the Accuser and the Super Skrull. The story also pulls in the Inhumans, Captain
Mar-vell and (briefly) Annihilus until the Avengers fly into space to bring the
war to an end. It also contains a famous Fantastic
Voyage
inspired story of Ant Man traveling inside the Vision’s android body
to repair him. Unfortunately by today’s standards the ending with Rick Jones
comes out of nowhere and is far too part. Still that does not negate all the
good that came before.

            If you like
this story also check out: Avengers:
Operation Galactic Storm
a 19-part epic (collected in two trades) wherein
the Avengers get pulled into a Kree-Shi’ar war that manages to remain
remarkably coherent given the number of titles involved and in which the bulk
of the action is in deep space. Also Avengers
Forever
which is more time travel than cosmic but follows up on the Rick
Jones Supreme Intelligence finale of Kree Skrull War in a far more satisfying
way and also gave new relevance to the third Captain Marvel (the original’s son
Legacy).

9-Guardians of the
Galaxy volume 3: War of Kings –
Really the entire DnA run of Guardians is
worth reading as I would consider it the best ongoing series of the past 10
years. But if I had to pick just one trade to highlight this is the best one as
it features the culmination of two different year long subplots: the rupturing
of reality that Warlock and Star-Lord warned all the major alien races about
and no one believed and Warlock being reborn into the Magus in absolute shocker
of a scene that shows just how deadly that character can be. To stop the Magus
the story spins off into a full on time travel epic involving the 30th
century Guardians, Kang the Conqueror and the Cosmic Cube. This is as good as
it gets. (Also paid off in this trade is the “I am Groot” joke in one of the
funniest pages of any story on this list).

            If you like
this story also check out: Guardians of
the Galaxy volume 2
is the next best DnA Guardians trade as it has Quasar and Maelstrom in it, although
volume 4 has Thanos and volume 1 is pretty damn good  too. Also Nova: Knowhere by DnA has the first appearance of Cosmo the
telepathic Russian dog and the Guardians headquarters which is crazy fun. So in
honor of the movie go buy them all, you won’t regret it.
 


8 – Secret Wars – There
are times I consider Secret Wars my favorite crossover ever but I was not sure
whether to even count it as a cosmic story. On the cosmic front it takes place
on alien world, Galactus is in it and it is the first appearance of the
Beyonder but at its core this is a story about Dr. Doom, Magneto and the
earth’s greatest heroes engaging in big old fight scenes more than it is about
a cosmic threat. Still there is no more fun comic story ever published than
this one; it is the ideal primer to bring kids into the Marvel Universe. It is
also deserves historical credit for being first event crossovers– plus it gave
us Spider-man’s black costume which makes it a watershed moment for Marvel’s
flagship character. I would also argue Shooter’s subtle yet distinct characterizations
throughout the entire cast is often overlooked because the story has so much
spectacle in it.

            If you like
this story check out: Never read Secret
War II
as its awfulness is inversely proportional to the original’s
awesomeness. Beyond and Spider-man and the Secret Wars are both
okay looks back at the original concept, but for an actual good story that
picks up where this one leaves off go with Spider-man:
Birth of Venom
. Not really cosmic
other than the alien costume but damn it is both excellent and awesome.
 

 7-Essential Silver
Surfer volume 1 –
In interviews Stan Lee often cites this book as his
favorite thing he ever wrote. When you read it you will understand why. It
collects the entire Silver Age Silver Surfer series as Surfer endures his exile
on Earth. Stan Lee uses the Surfer’s outsider status to make poignant comments
on human nature that remain just as relevant today as when he wrote them 50
years ago.

            If you like
this story also check out: Essential
Silver Surfer volume 2
– Written two decades later by the vastly
under-rated Steve Englehart the Surfer’s second series sees him escape from
exile and make peace with Galactus. The treasure to be found in this volume is
a lost Infinity Gem story arc as the Elders of the Universe gather the gems in
an attempt to assassinate Galactus and remake the universe.
 6-Avengers: Legacy of
Thanos
– Another recent trade we can thank the Guardians movie for as Marvel finally collects the first appearance
of my favorite villain Nebula in trade. Written by the incomparable Roger
Stern, Nebula proves herself every bit the tactician her grandfather is as she
claims his Death Star like space ship Sanctuary II and uses it to position
herself into a Skrull Civil War with a plan that would make her their empress.
She ironically runs into Captain Marvel v2.0 as the first Earth hero she meets
but soon her plot drags in the rest of the Avengers including Thanos’s brother
Star Fox. Aside from the Skrull Civil War the trade also features cosmic
threats Terminus, the Beyonder and Firelord.

            If you like
this story also check out: Spider-man:
Am I an Avenger?
which has an even better Nebula story. The only reason I
am not ranking this trade on the countdown is it is an anthology with plenty of
non-cosmic stories such as Spidey’s first meeting of the Avengers vs. the Hulk
(by Stan Lee), Spidey and the Avengers dealing with a Moonstone led prison
break at Project Pegasus (by Stern), and a few forgettable stories with
Sandman, Rage and the New Avengers. But the five part Nebula story collected
here is fantastic with her both destroying and conquering the universe at
different parts of it and taking on a host of the most powerful Avengers and
the Stranger. It is in fact my single favorite Avengers story of all time and
this trade would by very high on my desert island list.

 
5-The Life and Death
of Captain Mar-vell.
Speaking of first appearances, this would be the first
appearance of Thanos and his first big epic plot with the Cosmic Cube. Also
starring the Avengers, Thing, Rick Jones, Super Skrull, Controller, the first
appearance of Drax and Mar-vell’s appointment as Protector of the Universe this
story is everything it has ever been billed as. In addition it also collects
Mar-vell’s battle with Nitro and his subsequent death by cancer on Titan.

            If you like
this story also check out: Marvel
Masterworks Warlock volume 2
which is Starlin’s second big Thanos story and
also the first appearances of Gamora and the Magus—who is so damn evil Thanos
is forced to recruit heroes to oppose the Magus’s plans because even Thanos
isn’t willing to face him one on one!

 

4-Essential Fantastic
Four volume 3 –
This is here primarily because it collects “The Coming of
Galactus” in which we meet Galactus and the Silver Surfer for the first time and
it is as tremendously excellent as history says it is. Also included is perhaps
the greatest single issue Stan Lee story of all time “This Man, This Monster”
featuring the Thing in the Negative Zone. If for some reason you need more
reasons to buy this it also collects the wedding of Reed and Sue, the first
appearance of the Inhumans, the first appearance of the Black Panther, the
first appearance of Blaastar, a multi-part Frightful Four story and the classic
story wherein Doom steals the Surfer’s powers and conquers the world. Nuff
said.

            If you like
this story also check out: Fantastic
Four Trial of Galactus
which features Galactus coming to feed on Earth and
being confronted by the FF, Avengers and Dr. Strange in a heck of a fight, a
follow-up plot involving Doom teaming with ex-Herald Terrax and ultimately the
Shi’ar putting Reed on trial for crimes against the universe.

 (3½)  Quasar: Cosmos in Collision (issues 19-25
of his solo title) is not in trade. If it was it would be ranked in this spot as it
features Quasar taking on the end of the universe level threat that defined his
title with a little help from Moon Dragon, Ghost Rider and the Eternals and is
second only to “Cap No More” among great stories written by Mark Grunewald.
 

3-Annhilation – By
far the best crossover of the modern era it rightfully sparked a renaissance of
Marvel’s cosmic line. It is the story of what happens when Annihilus finally breaks
into the positive matter universe—something that had been foreshadowed since
the Silver Age. (“The Kree Skrull War” opens with Annihilus trying to break
through and the Avengers and Captain Marvel are immediately like this will be
the end of the world if we don’t stop this now. Ditto the earliest issues of Marvel Team-Up have Spidey and the Torch
battling the Frightful Four in the Baxter
Building and in the
battle the Negative Zone portal opens and the Wizard immediately recognizes how
awful Annihilus is and tells his teammates to just stop fighting and help the
heroes close the portal). Indeed I would argue this story opens with the best
prologue ever: the opening page has Death meeting Thanos at the Crunch and she
tells him “something wonderful” is about to happen—when Death says something
wonderful is going to happen you know sh*t is about to get real; and the
exchange ends with her telling Thanos that this one is someone he could learn
from. What happens next delivers on every bit of that 40 years of foreshadowing
(warning spoilers ahead) as Annihilus
punches through the Crunch freeing the rogue cosmic entities and killing the
Beyonder. Next he hits the Xandarian home world and wipes out the entire Nova
Corps in minutes with only Earth’s Nova Richard Rider surviving. Nova meets up
with (Thanos foe) Drax the Destroyer and (Protector of the Universe) Quasar to
take the fight to Annihilus: that ends with Annihilus killing Quasar (arguably
the most powerful hero in the Marvel Universe) and donning the Quantum Bands
making Annihilus exponentially more powerful. Next Annihilus decides he wants
the Power Cosmic and he begins capturing, killing and dissecting former Heralds
of Galactus until things get so bad Silver Surfer reenters Galactus’s service
and that still doesn’t make a difference as Galactus is defeated and strapped
to a star cruiser so his hunger can be used as a planet destroying Death Star
like weapon! And that is just the half way point of the story! If you have not
done so do yourself a favor and read this thing as it is indeed “something
wonderful.”

            If you like
this story also check out: While Annihilation
Conquest
is the supposed sequel, it is really a sequel in name only with
just Nova, Star-Lord and the Kree being the only common characters in the two
stories and it doesn’t have nearly the punch of the original. The best
follow-up story to the plot threads here is Fantastic
Four: The New Fantastic Four
in which the FF learn Surfer has rejoined
Galactus, Galactus is mighty unhappy with how Annihilus treated him and wants
to replenish his power by eating the cosmic entity Epoch—who is in charge of appointing
Protectors of the Universe and with Quasar dead doesn’t have a protector. If
you want another Annihilus story the next best one is in the MTIO trade I
recommended earlier but you could pick up The
Greatest Villains of the Fantastic Four
a 1995 anthology trade collecting
stories on the FF’s top five villains. The Annihilus story therein is a
two-part 80s tale drawn by John Byrne so he’s never looked better and it is yet
another example of the stop Annihilus getting into our universe no matter what
decades long build-up as Reed sacrifices his life to stop him. For something
similar and more recent you could go with Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four volume 4 trade in which
Torch sacrifices himself to stop Annihilus and you see more of the fallout of Torch’s
death than in the Reed trade.



2-X-men Dark Phoenix Saga – If you
are reading this column you probably don’t need me to tell you about Dark Phoenix
Saga—a story of unparalleled scope and emotion. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a
list of the best comics of all time in which this story was not in the top five,
and it would go in my top five ever too. If you haven’t read it do so. If you
don’t care for the X-men it doesn’t matter this is as good as comics get.

            If you like
this story also check out: X-men Rise
and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire
is a year long trek of six X-men in space by
famed Captain America scribe Ed Brubaker
as the X-men try to prevent long lost Summers’ brother Vulcan from destroying
the Shi’ar Empire and in the process learn a little bit more about the Phoenix
Force.
1-Infinity Gauntlet
– For my money this is the greatest story Marvel has ever published. Jim Starlin’s
writing make the stakes never feel higher than in any other crossover. The art
by George Perez and Ron Lim is superb. The fight scene in issue 4 may be the
greatest of all time, although damn if issue 5 doesn’t give it a run for its
money. Thanos, Nebula and Captain America all get great moments to
shine. This story is perfection.

             If you like this story also check out: Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos shows
how Thanos gets the Infinity Gauntlet and features writing and art of equal
standard to the main story. Marvel also recently published Infinity Gauntlet Aftermath which shows what happens to the
Infinity Gauntlet after this story and it is pretty good too.

 

So that’s all folks. Questions? Comments? Death threats?
Leave them below.

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.

 

Waiting for the Trade – Captain America

Waiting for the Trade
Captain America: The
Captain

by Mark Grunewald,
Kieron Dwyer and Tom Morgan

collects Captain America
332 – 350 and Iron Man 228.
Why I Bought This: For
my money this is the single greatest Captain America story ever told. When the Cap
movie came out Marvel finally put this in trade, I waited a year for the price
to come down on Amazon and here we are.

The Plot: The
government forces Steve Rogers to give back the Captain America identity and
appoints John Walker as his replacement. We then get a good slow build
alternating between Rogers operating as a
vigilante and Walker’s
first missions as Cap before the two have the big throw down.
 

 Chapter 1 – Cap (Steve Rogers) goes to Washington DC to
confront the government about two different recent attempts to recreate the
super soldier program that led to psychotic out of control soldiers (one in the
prior issue of his own book and the other in the Daredevil classic Born Again).
He is referred to the Commission on Super Human Activities (which includes
prominent Marvel government supporting characters Val Cooper and Henry Gyrich
along with some new non-characters). The Commission lays out a case for how the
government gave Rogers his powers when he enlisted, designed his costume and
created his shield and then orders him to come back to work in a military agent
capacity. Rogers
says he needs 24 hours to think it over. Meanwhile a terrorist places a nuke on
the Washington Monument and makes demands before being thwarted by Super
Patriot (John Walker, has Spider-man level super strength) on national TV.
Steve talks the situation over with some of his former partners, Avengers and
civilian supporting cast before deciding to resign his commission as Captain America rather
than work directly for the government.

Chapter 2 – The Commission reacts to Rogers decision and after ruling out some of
his ex-partners and Nick Fury, they decide to interview Super Patriot for the
job based on his actions last issue. And we learn a little of Walker’s background including he is former
military (albeit in peace time). He is ultimately offered the job but he has to
forsake his business manager and two of three men that had been serving as his
BUCkies (which stood for Bold Urban Commandoes) and he accepts those terms.

Chapter 3 – Cap and the new Bucky (Lemar Hoskins,
African-American with same super strength as Walker now costumed as Cap’s WWII partner)
receive extensive combat training particularly in the use of Cap’s iconic
shield. We see them in sparing sessions against the Guardsman (low-level Iron
Man suit types) and the hiring of Taskmaster to teach Walker all of Steve’s shield tricks. Walker’s
former associates attempt to extort money from the government by exposing that
there is new Cap so Walker and Lemar don Guardsman outfits (to hide their
identities), take out the other two BUCkies in combat and then threaten the
manager with treason if he reveals the secret.

 Chapter 4 – Walker and Lemar are sent on their first
mission, which is back in Walker’s hometown in Georgia. They
are to infiltrate a right-wing domestic terrorist group known as the Watchdogs
that like to burn books and kill porn shop owners. Walker notes politically he agrees with much
of what they stand for and wonders if the Commission is testing him on purpose
with this assignment. Things go south in the mission and Walker has to allow
Lemar to by hung to complete the mission, which Lemar survives thanks to his
augmented neck muscles. After the villains are arrested Walker wonders if Lemar’s near death
experience was also orchestrated by the Commission to test how far he would go
to complete an assignment.

Chapter 5 – Steve is out in the Pacific
Northwest when he sees the new Cap on TV for the first time. We
also see tensions brewing between loggers and environmentalists, while Steve
flashes back to legal advice given to him by ex-girlfriend Bernie Rosenthal on
how he could reclaim the Cap identity in the courts. Meanwhile D-Man (aka
Demolition Man, a former pro wrestler with the same super strength as Walker
that served as Cap’s partner for four issues prior to this story) has called in
Cap’s other former partners Falcon and Nomad to look for Steve. Nomad is
accompanied by Vagabond, an untrained female who wants to be a superhero that
he is dating. In the woods Steve encounters a spot earthquake that derails his
van and he leaps out of the ravine to meet Brother Nature, who seems to have
complete control of nature and is using his powers to thwart the loggers. Steve
tries to talk to him but Nature insists on a fight attacking Steve with deer, a
bear, lightening and more earthquakes to no avail. In the process Brother
Nature breaks his own leg and destroys the forest he wanted to preserve. Steve
sees this as a cautionary tale for himself that if he were to sue the
government he could destroy his country/legacy as Cap.

 

Chapter 6 – Cap’s former partners find his van and we learn
that D-Man has a heart problem. Meanwhile in Las Vegas a new version of the Serpent Squad
robs a casino. Their members include Fer De Lance (costume-based Wolverine
wrist blades), Black Racer (super speed), Puff Adder (super strength and acid
breath) and their leader Copperhead (armored costume with lasers in the
fingers). Steve meets up with his partners and decides he’s ready to resume his
crime fighting career; although he will not fight the government for the Cap
identity. D-Man presents him with a black costume and Steve takes the name “The
Captain.” Back in Vegas the police arrive and the Squad takes hostages. Steve
hears about the situation and thinking it may be the Serpent Society (who had
become his top foes in the past three years under Gruenwald) heads off to Vegas
with his partners. Cap and company win the day in a well-choreographed fight
scene; however Cap had to disobey a police order to intervene and he wonders
how far he is willing to break the law now that he is a vigilante.

Chapter 7 – Walker and Lemar are sent to face their first
super villain in Professor Power (seems to be a C-level Dr. Doom type whose powers are in
his costume).  Their first obstacle on
the mission are Mandroids (another Iron Man type suit). Meanwhile in Vegas the
Squad is in one cell while Cap and his partners are in another. Falcon tries to
see if he can use his Reserve Avengers status to get them released. While he’s
gone Sidewinder (teleporting leader of the Serpent Society arrives) and offers
to free the Squad. Meanwhile Walker
is now facing a giant. Back in Vegas, Steve has D-Man break the cell bars to
try and prevent the prison escape and then locks Sidewinder in a full nelson.
Back to Walker who is now facing generic thugs dressed like Roman centurions.
Sidewinder threatens to kill Fer De Lance if Steve doesn’t release him. He does
and Sidewinder reveals he was bluffing before teleporting away with the rest of
the Squad. Falcon returns with the heroes’ release but the broken cell bars put
a kibosh on that. Back to Walker,
who is finally battling Power. Walker
takes a laser blast to the face and loses his temper and beats Power to death.
Lemar tries to tell him it’s understandable but Walker knows he hasn’t lived up the legacy of
Cap with his actions.

Chapter 8 – As part of the Fall of the Mutants crossover
Famine is destroying crop lands in the Midwest.
Steve’s team hears about it and intercepts her. She’s on a flying robot horse
so Falcon takes first shot at her only to fall victim to her starvation lasers.
On the ground D-Man takes on her robot steed, while Steve tends to Falcon and
Nomad tries to take her on. Nomad gets a few shots in but Famine starve-blasts
him too. Steve uses a tractor door as a make-shift shield and incapacitates her
but Apocalypse teleports her away. In the epilogue Steve goes to Tony Stark and
asks him to make him a new shield.

Chapter 9 – Steve is testing his new adamantium shield and
thanks Tony. After Steve leaves Tony is planning to attack the Vault super
villain prison as part of the Armor Wars storyline as he wants deactivate all
of the government’s Guardsman armors. Steve figures out what he’s up to and tries
to talk Tony out of it. Tony pretends to agree but later has Jim Rhodes
impersonate Electro so as to get captured and sabotage the Vault from the
inside. They sleep gas most of the prison personnel and Iron Man takes down the
few remaining Guardsman. He was one last armor to deactivate when Steve
arrives. Steve prepares to fight but when the Guardsman’s internal oxygen
supply runs out he turns his back on Tony to save the man’s life. Tony
electrocutes Steve from behind and destroys the last armor. In the cliffhanger
we learn the fight disabled power to one of the cellblocks.

Chapter 10 – Steve meets up with the rest of his team
outside the prison and he plans to track Tony back to LA. In the prison Mr.
Hyde, Titania, Armadillo, Griffin
and Vibro escape. Falcon sees Vibro and Griffin
from the sky and we get an aerial fight between Falcon and Griffin. Steve’s team realizes there is a
prison break and tries to head back to help on motorcycle when Mr. Hyde drives
a truck at them running Nomad off the road and hitting Steve’s cycle head on.
Steve comes through the windshield at Hyde. Meanwhile D-Man encounters Titania
and he offers her a chance to surrender noting he can lift 15 tons. She’s
unimpressed as she can lift 85 tons and throws him off the mountain. On the
side of the mountain Nomad encounters Vibro and he has no problem using his
stun discs to dislodge Vibro from the mountain and letting him fall to an
unknown fate; Nomad also muses in a thought balloon how he doesn’t agree with
Cap’s no killing policy since becoming his own hero. D-Man feels he’s going to
die as he continues to fall when Falcon saves him and together they take out Griffin. Meanwhile
Armadillo comes across Vagabond, who is alone in Cap’s van. We cut to a two
page very well choreographed battle between Steve and Hyde with Steve noting
this is the first time he’s had a chance to confront Hyde since he tortured
Jarvis in the Avengers Under Seige storyline. Steve wins and has a chance to
kill Hyde by dropping him off the mountain but in the end he chooses not to.
D-Man encounters Titania again and decides to just let her go because he knows
he can’t stop her. Vagabond drives up with Armadillo, who she was able to talk
into surrendering.  

Chapter 11 – Steve is waiting for Tony at his house. He
returns the shield to him and then tries to arrest him but Tony armors up. They
have a brief fight but without a shield there isn’t much Steve can do against
Iron Man and Tony flies off after trying to explain himself. Steve decides its
better to give Tony the benefit of the doubt than to commit the resources
necessary to track him down and take him in. Meanwhile Lemar has adopted a new
costumed identity as Battlestar, in attempt to be his own hero and a better
role model for African-Americans. The government then holds a press conference
announcing there is a new Cap as the original “retired” but the press
conference is crashed by former BUCkies Jerome and Hector now known as
Left-Winger and Right-Winger. They reveal Walker’s
secret identity on national television before Cap and Battlestar defeat them.
Finally we cut to the Serpent Society where we learn the new Serpent Squad are
agents of Viper. They give her coordinates of the Society headquarters and she
teleports in, poisons Sidewinder and has her men orchestrate a coup. Desperate
for help Diamondback calls Captain America’s hotline (still owned by
Steve) for assistance.

Chapter 12 – D-Man is teaching Vagabond some wrestling holds
so she can be a better crime fighter, which makes Nomad jealous and he starts a
brief fight until a hovercraft interrupts them. The hovercraft is from Wakanda
where Black Panther has made Steve a new vibranium shield. Back at SS HQ where
Diamondback defeats Fer De Lance only to be attacked by Coachwhip (no powers
she has whips on her wristbands). DBack uses Sidewinder’s cloak to teleport
them to safety. Steve receives her hotline call and mobilizes his team to meet
with her. Back at SS HQ we see Viper has poisoned all of the other Serpent
Society members giving them a choice to join her within an hour or die. Steve
sends Vagabond with Sidewinder to the hospital and then takes his team to SS
HQ. They are greeted by Anaconda (super strength, stretch powers and gills),
who Diamondback thinks escaped but in fact has defected to Viper. Anaconda,
Rattler (bionic tale that makes vibration attacks) and Rock Python (rock hard
skin and trick egg weapons) attack. Steve leaves his teammates to fight them
and continues where he encounters and defeats Puff Adder with ease. Diamondback
joins them and the two of them find Viper, Slither (literally a snake man) and
Coachwhip with the prisoners. Steve takes out Viper’s minions, while Rachel
frees Cottonmouth (expandable jaw with fangs) who then attacks her as he too
has defected. Steve saves her, and she manages to free the still poisoned Asp
(mutant with venomous laser blasts). As the battle continues, we cut to the
ambulance carrying Sidewinder where Black Racer overtakes it. Vagabond manages
to win her first fight and defeats her. Back at SS HQ Steve’s team has won
their fights but Viper is escaping

Chapter 13 – Walker and Battlestar arrest a porcupine
powered mutant as part of the Mutant Registration Act (it was a thing in the
X-books at this time stemming out of Fall of the Mutants, basically Civil War’s
registration act but only applying to mutants). Lemar doesn’t feel good about
being asked to round up and persecute minorities (in this case mutants) for the
government. Back at SS HQ Viper is taking off in a Serpent Saucer when Steve
manages to use gymnastics to catch the landing gear. Falcon tries to assist but
the craft is too fast for him. However Rachel (DBack) loads the team up into
another craft and chases them. While enroot Nomad tortures Slither for info on
Viper’s plan. Back with Walker
where he and Lemar are under attack by a mutant group called the Resistants (so
named because they are against the aforementioned Registration Act). They
electrocute Walker,
set Lemar on fire and after freeing porcupine dude blow the helicopter out the sky.
We cut to Washington DC where Copperhead, Cobra (stretchy powers
and poison dart weapons) and Boomslang (no powers, uses boomerangs) pour a
chemical into the water supply under Viper’s orders (via radio). Back in the
air Nomad has Rachel fire missiles at Viper’s craft (D-man doesn’t approve but
bows to Nomad’s seniority). They blow the craft up but Viper teleports away,
while Steve uses his vibranium shield to absorb the impact of falling from the
sky. He battles Viper on the ground and defeats her as Nomad lands and is
horrified to learn Steve was on the ship he shot down. They tell Steve of
Viper’s poison plot (obtained by Nomad from Slither) and they have Falcon use
his Avengers ID to call in an emergency alert. Back with Walker and he and
Lemar survived the crash but their military pilot is dead. And finally at the
White House we see the President drink some water just as the emergency call
comes in.

Chapter 14 – President Reagan has been turned into a snake
man by Viper’s chemical in the water. In DC scaly people who consumed the water
are rioting. As the villains observe their handiwork Cobra regrets throwing in
with Viper—he’s worked with her before and she’s always been an anarchist whereas
Sidewinder kept the Serpent Society working only on paying gigs (as
mercenaries) and compensated everyone well. Steve and Rachel meet the three henchmen
and Steve dispatches Copperhead and Boomslang while Diamondback allows Cobra to
escape when he convinces her he is a double agent. In truth he’s a coward and just
wants to escape but when he next runs into Nomad and D-Man with Viper as
prisoner he shoots one his darts to kill her but Nomad deflects it with a stun
disc thinking he’s trying to free her and ironically the deflection causes it
to hit her manacles and she frees herself. She then poisons D-Man and escapes.
Steve and Rachel find D-Man and administer anti-toxin but with his heart
condition he’s in real trouble. Steve trusts Rachel to guard him while he
chases down Viper, who is now storming the White House. In the streets of DC
Nomad runs into the riot and without powers he’s dragged down by the sheer
number of snake people and beaten into critical condition.  Viper gets her hands on the first family and
gives them more water. Walker
finally makes his way back to DC and finds Diamondback. They fight briefly and
she runs away and he gives chase. Battlestar finds all the prisoners and D-Man.
D-Man attacks Lemar (thinking he’s another Serpent villain in his delirium) and
after three pages of fighting Lemar wins, while Walker returns with an unconscious Rachel.
Steve arrives at the White House where Viper forces him to fight a fully
mutated President Reagan. Steve is able to work the toxins out of his system, and
then is forced to escape Secret Service. Outside he finds Cobra who has
captured Viper and turns her over to Steve, then escapes. In the epilogue we
see the Commission is now holding Nomad, D-Man and Diamondback prisoner.

Chapter 15 – The Commission has video of Steve’s new costume
from White House surveillance cameras and begins briefing Walker on a mission to capture Steve. Falcon
tells Steve he has to get back to his life in Harlem,
while Steve decides to stay behind in DC to search for D-Man and Nomad. In Georgia the Watchdogs take Walker’s parents hostage in retaliation for
his first mission. Walker
learns of this and the Commission refuses to give him permission to save them
so he goes AWOL while Lemar stays behind to cover for him. Sidewinder and
Vagabond teleport into the Commission’s prison and frees Diamondback. Rachel
convinces him to also free the heroes in repayment for saving the Society from
Viper. Nomad takes him up on it but D-Man refuses citing Steve’s example in
Vegas. Vagabond also decides to stay behind causing Nomad to break up with her.
He uses the hotline to get in touch with Steve, who finds him very drunk in a
bar. He clues Steve into D-Man’s fate and then decides he’s done helping Steve
if Steve won’t take on the government to get his identity back. In GA, Walker surrenders to the
Watchdogs. They plan to hang him in front of his parents. Walker makes his move to escape at the last
second but the Watchdogs gun down his parents before he can stop them. Walker then goes batshit
and violently kills everyone in the room (at least a dozen men). We then see
him talking to his dead parents clearly no longer sane.

 

Chapter 16 – The Commission picks up Walker from the local sheriff’s office, then
we see them interrogating D-Man about Steve (and holding him without due
process). Cut to the Resistants who free Mentallo from a prison van so they can
have a telepath on their team. Back in DC Commissioner Rockwell suspends Walker then reports to a mysterious man in red silhouette,
who instructs him to keep Walker
on as Cap. Meanwhile Battlestar is assigned to Freedom Force (a government run
mutant team made up of members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants) and they are
tasked with capturing the Resistants with the plan of Mystique impersonating
Quicksilver and standing trial to draw them out. Rockwell reinstates Walkers as
back-up to Freedom Force for this mission. The Resistants attack the trial by
throwing a meteor at the courthouse but Destiny gets everyone to cover in time.
While Freedom Force and Lemar are digging out of the debris, Walker attacks the Resistants, goes apeshit
and massacres them.

 

Chapter 17 – We open with Walker in costume threatening a little old
lady, in this case the mother of one of his former partners. This indeed
succeeds in getting the attention of Hector and Jerome. Meanwhile Steve is
still being held without due process making him question if the Commission was
acting outside the law when it stripped him of being Cap. Meanwhile the second
Communist Red Skull escapes from prison only to be killed by Scourge, whom we
learn is following orders from last issue’s mystery man. Left and Right Winger
meet up with Walker in Texas
and we get another fight with Walker
again showing he is deranged. After Walker
wins he ties both men upside down over a gasoline spill and sets kit on fire
causing an explosion that presumably kills them both.

Chapter 18 – Flagsmasher is being attacked by his own
terrorist group ULTIMATUM but he defeats his pursuers and escapes. The
Commission suspends Walker
again, but then Reagan shows up to congratulate him while also questioning why
he wasn’t informed of the decision to fire Steve. He also orders them to
release Steve, noting Steve saved him during the Viper incident. After he
leaves the Commission decides not to fire Walker
until Reagan is out of office in a couple months since otherwise they’ll look
bad. Flagsmasher takes over an arctic science lab and demands Cap meet with
him, so the Commission decides to send Walker
in hopes that he’ll die and save them from cleaning up his mess. Steve is
released from prison. Walker
refuses to negotiate with Flagsmasher even when he threatens to kill a hostage
causing Flagsmasher to realize he’s not the original Cap. They fight and
Flagsmasher wins despite Walker
going crazy again. Battlestar arrives and Flagsmasher orders him to return with
Steve or else he will kill Walker.
Steve meanwhile heads off to go deal with the Inferno crossover in the pages of
Avengers.

Chapter 19 – Steve is arriving at Avengers Island following
the Evolutionary War crossover, noting how the team had disbanded while he was
in prison (thanks to my favorite Avenges villain Nebula actually) and vows to
reform the team. D-Man finds him there and Cap makes D-Man an Avenger.
Battlestar arrives and D-Man wants to engage him in a rematch until Steve
intervenes. Battlestar fills Steve in on last issue. Flagsmasher is torturing Walker when ULTIMATUM
attacks. The Quinjet arrives just then and Steve and Lemar take the fight to
them while Dennis pilots. Steve fights his way to Flagsmasher who reveals he
left ULTIMATUM when he learned they were being secretly funded by the Red Skull
and are about to operate a doomsday device. Lemar frees Walker and leaves to get him medical
attention. Steve, Flagsmasher and D-Man storm ULTIMATUM HQ then when they get
to the doomsday machine Flagsmasher reveals he doesn’t know how to disarm it so
Steve orders Dennis to crash the Quinjet into it (and parachute to safety once
it is aimed in the right direction). Several ULTIMATUM agents land on his wings
and begin planting bombs and in a scene drawn to recall Bucky’s death D-Man
attempts to disarm the bomb and is caught in an explosion over the water. Steve
searches but doesn’t find the body.

Chapter 20 – A man who looks like Steve is sparring with
five faux Caps and kills them all. In the hospital Walker is mad at Lemar for calling in Steve;
later he gets a mysterious phone call about his missing shield (Flagsmasher
took it from him and Steve took it from Flagsmasher.) The Commission is yet
again discussing Walker
with most of them except Rockwell feeling firing Steve was a mistake. At night
Steve breaks into the Commission offices to return the shield and catches
Rockwell talking to the mystery man. When Steve confronts him the phone sprays
the Red Skull’s Dust of Death thus killing Rockwell. Meanwhile Walker finds himself confronted by the man
who looks like Steve. After convincing Walker
he is Steve/original Cap, he has members of the Watchdogs, ULTIMATUM, Sweat
Shop, Resistants and Scourge attack him. Walker
of course goes apeshit and kills them all Shining
style. Steve meets the mystery man (via video screen) who claims to be the Red
Skull reincarnated in Steve’s body. He takes credit for the Commission firing
Cap and then shows Steve video footage of Walker
as Cap committing several murders/massacres and claims that tarnishing Cap’s
legacy is his ultimate victory. Cap searches the building to find Walker astride the
aftermath of his latest massacre and we finally get the fight scene two years
in the making and it’s a great one. Walker is
stronger than Steve and thanks to Taskmaster has the same training but Steve of
course still wins proving that it’s the man and not the costume, shield or
super powers that make him Captain America. Afterwards Red Skull
arrives saying that just as he has a new life, he has a new M.O. and he will be
more of the untouchable corporate/political crook than the over terrorist/Nazi
he was before. He tries to Dust of Death Steve but Walker hits him from behind causing it to blows
back into his face giving him an actual red skull head instead of a mask like
he always had before; however the Skull escapes. In the aftermath the
Commission offers Steve his identity back and he turns them down at first until
Walker convinces him to take it so that Commission doesn’t hire someone else to
try to live up to Steve’s impossible legacy and with that Steve is once more
Captain America.

Chapter 21 – a brief back-up tale shows how Arnim Zola put
the Red Skull in a cloned body of Steve’s and we get the Red Skull’s origin and
a chronology of every one of his comic book appearances up to that point.
Critical Thoughts: Yea,
this is still the greatest Captain America story ever told and high in
the running for best Marvel story period for my money.

Why I like this story so much. Obviously the primary theme
that Captain America is more than just the flag costume is one that as a major
Cap fan is one I’m going to like and be partial too. That said I also think the
pacing of this story is perfect in terms of the slow build to Steve vs. Walker. I like the
nuances used to get their. For example, Walker
starts out legitimately trying to do his best to live up to Cap’s legacy. I
like the distinction of how the Professor Power incident shows that Walker probably was never
going to be that guy even if his parents hadn’t been killed. I like how we
don’t see there is a mystery man behind the Commission until the third act:
after all the Commission’s case for controlling the Cap identity has its own
logic. It’s also why Steve’s decision to disagree with them but still accept their
logic when he surrenders his identity is believable. And ultimately I think the
climactic battle between Steve and Walker delivers on the long build on both
the surface action level and the deeper thematic level of Steve proving he’s
more than his strength, shield and training.

The final battle ties into another big strength which is the
fight scenes are very well choreographed throughout particularly those
involving Steve and his partners. These are generally speaking under-powered
characters: Steve and Nomad are basically human; Falcon flies which is usually
a secondary power; and while D-Man has true super-strength, he is also the
least experienced and isn’t exactly Hulk class as he finds out in the Titania
fight. In all of the group fights the reader can understand what the heroes
strategies are and why; something sorely lacking in a lot of current books.
Let’s use the Vault escape as a perfect example of using fight scenes to
further establish character. The most obvious example here is the difference between
Nomad and Steve on letting a villain fall from the cliff. Look closer you also
have the different ways Steve. Falcon and D-Man battle stronger foes: Steve
finds a way to win against Mr. Hyde because that’s what he does. Falcon takes
on Griffin
because as an experienced hero he knows he has to, but when he sees he’s
out-powered he falls back on his experience as a longtime partner to Cap (and
member of teams the Avengers and Heroes for Hire) to find a teammate to help
him overcome his stronger foe. D-Man at first underestimates Titania and then
when offered a rematch lets her go because he doesn’t think he can win (and he’s
probably right given his inexperience).

This leads to my next positive, the story has a large cast
and yet it’s filled with nuanced characterizations. D-Man and Nomad are two
different types of heroes. Some members of the Serpent Society live up to their
mercenary roots and defect to Viper right away, others like Cobra do so reluctantly
only to save their own lives, while a few remain loyal to Sidewinder.
Sidewinder reveals he would not have killed Fer De Lance even though she’s not
a member of his team yet just out of professional courtesy. Armadillo can be
talked into surrendering by Vagabond because he misses his wife and wants to be
paroled one day and have a normal life. Left and Right Winger’s frustration at
being left behind when their two partners get good government jobs is
understandable and we see them later express regret when they learn their
revealing Johnny’s secret on TV led to the death of his parents. Taskmaster
trains Walker
in exchange for early parole. Time and again Gruenwald takes a big superhero
story and yet brings it down to a human level.

I’d also point a lot of the supporting heroes are quite
likable in this story in their own right. This primarily applies to D-Man and
Battlestar, who are given plenty of opportunity to show how loyal they are to
their respective Captain Americas. Even Vagabond has a nice little character
arc from super hero groupie to a minor hero that proves surprisingly capable
despite her lack of powers and training in dealing with both Armadillo and
Black Racer. This is why I often criticize a writer like Bendis, who always
treats minor characters like jokes. I think narratively there’s more value in
showing these smaller characters as heroes even if they aren’t the world savers
that the A-listers are.

Finally I think the ending set-up a better status quo for
the Red Skull moving forward, by making him both Cap’s physical equal and
making his face the skull instead of it just being a skull mask. This does lead
to my only criticism of the story, which is while I like the Skull as a master
manipulator, having him be behind every single threat Walker faced as Cap (plus
half of Steve’s foes since issue 300 when he died as well) is overkill. It is
one thing for the Skull to finance terrorist groups like the Watchdogs or
ULTIMATEUM surreptitiously, since their actions help destabilize the government.
But as the X-men have shown since forever there is no shortage of anti-government
mutant criminals so the Skull’s involvement with the Resistants is a stretch,
while a super-villain killing vigilante like Scourge working for him makes
almost no sense at all; particularly standing in a room with all those other
criminals to attack Walker-Cap. Still it’s a minor criticism for what is an
otherwise superb story on every level.

If I have one of other nitpick about this trade it is I’d of
liked to see it begin with issue 327 instead of 332 as 327 is the first
appearance of Super Patriot, in which he fights Cap to a draw and questions Steve
on whether his ideals are still relevant while doing so. Clearly Cap’s victory
over the now-better trained Super Patriot in the finale is the payoff to the
story thread that began in that issue; plus you’d see Hector and Jerome in
action as Walker’s
partners making their arc more relevant as well. While not as essential issues
328-331 is D-Man’s introduction as Cap’s partner. I understand this trade is
already gigantic at 20 issues but it would be nice to have the earlier story
threads included too.

Grade A+. Nuff
said.