All Rise Please…

Hello, my name is Dave. I used to write a lot about superhero comics.

Back in those days, I was particularly interested in the role these strange tales have played in the dialogic construction of American identity (through the prism of the “notional pastime”–a corollary of the thesis that pop culture has taken the place of the Bible as the primary textual touchstone for belligerents on every side of today’s socio-political scrum… The idea being that thinking about contemporary arguments about Captain America as analogous to mid-19th century arguments about Grace and the Millennium could help us to understand  what the hell is going on here…)

I’ve been doing other things, of late… writing about Montreal, McDonaldland and Ronald Reagan, mostly… but then… totally without warning… came the perfect asstorm that is Warner Todd Huston (high on tea and the ink he sniffed out of Captain America #602).

Here’s a sample of this sad sack’s “perspective” on ol’ winghead:

Isn’t it wonderful that a decades old American comic book hero is now being used to turn readers against our very political system, being used to slander folks that are standing up for real American principles in real life — and one called “Captain America” at that?

The group in question?

Man I can’t wait for the Overstreet Guide entry that reads–“602: controversial tea bag panel.”

Did you get that these people (I use the term with some misgivings) are “real American heroes”? Like, they’re practically G.I. Joes man! Thank GOD someone has the balls to stand up to these socialists!!!! And then Duncecaptain America (or anyway, the creators of the icon’s mag) has the temerity to suggest these people wouldn’t recognize a socialist if they found one in their borscht. Rally round the flag boys!

Anyway, the whole sad affair has generated many intelligent responses… You’ll note that, in the last of these, Todd returned with an even more damning outburst, in which he asserts that he HAS TOO read Captain America before (although not very carefully, as this page will eventually show) AND makes sounds like John Wayne (“little lady”??????????????????????) when he’s talkin’ out his ass.

Sadly, the really important response is the one that Marvel came up with–and man does it ever suck.

So that’s it–I don’t care how long it takes, I’m finally going to write the Mark Gruenwald series I’ve promising to do for about 7 years… It might take a long while indeed, but by golly we’re gonna review Captain America #307 to 443 (1985 to 1995) if it kills us all!

We’ll start soon–but first, a short personal preamble about my relationship with the series.

I’m not going to make any great transcendent claims for these books. In the first place, I don’t believe in great transcendent claims; and, in the second place, I know that I encountered them at exactly the right age (I was 11 in 1985), and in exactly the right context (off the rack at the comics store/and with a pretty extensive knowledge of what the rest of those racks contained during the mid-to-late 1980s) for them to achieve maximum impact. I understand that Gruenwald’s work is hard to appreciate without an intimate knowledge of the Bronze Age superhero idiom (with all of its very particular tics with regard to dialog, plotting and icon development)–and that many who DO possess this knowledge still don’t think very highly of Captain America, Squadron Supreme, Quasar and D.P. 7. I’m not here to change your mind about that–or to wheedle you into reading these comics for the first time. I just want to tell you how I feel about them.

One thing I do want to stress, re: Gruenwald, is how much I appreciate his refusal to join the “Comics Aren’t Just For Kids” sweepstakes of the mid-1980s. We can all agree how dumb that was, can’t we? What I  love about these books (and about Squadron Supreme in particular) is the way they wade into the same contested super-political waters that Miller and Moore were then “braving,” without swaddling these ambitions in the cloak of the medium’s much-trumpeted “coming of age.” Basically, Gruenwald is saying that the genre was always concerned with these questions–damn the “prestige format,” full speed ahead!

Okay, enough of that. Let’s conclude for today with a very brief overview of Captain America‘s history, and of the title’s strong (if, admittedly, erratic) progressive credentials–i.e. of the chasm that separates the character as he has (usually) been written from the “Super Patriot” that Warner Todd Huston (and his audience) thinks he is or ought to be… Of course, these people don’t have to take my word for it. They can read Brett Schenker on the subject. Or they can just go directly to the 28-issue storyline (which kicks off with the introduction of…..the Super Patriot) that was going on during the very period that WTH claims to have been reading the title.

So… created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in late 1940, Cap was (and is) the preeminent symbol of “premature anti-fascism” (to use HUAC terminology) in the history of American literature. He is, quite simply, THE Popular Front (that’s a New Deal era coalition of communists, socialists and others leftists) icon. There cannot be any dispute about that. Punching out Hitler meant something very different in December 1940 than it means when today’s Neocons cum in their PJs while dreaming about it…  After the war, the character went into eclipse–except during a very ill-advised mid-1950s revival in commie-smasher guise…

Here, basically, is the Captain America that Huston wants:

He lasted THREE issues.

Stan Lee defrosted him during the TV Dinner Age, using the character to comment upon the incompatibility between New Dealism and sixties New Leftism. This produced a few interesting storylines. During the 1970s, Steve Englehart gave us a “Won’t Get Fooled Again” portrait of Cap as a kind of damaged ’60s radical, saved by the icon’s hard-wired WW II era idealism. This approach, too, yielded very ripe textual fruit. Then: the return of the King! Creator-Kirby recreated a very Tea Bag-friendly Cap in the image of the political cynicism and conservatism that afflicted him (along with the many “Reagan Democrat” types of his generation) during this period. As with a lot of stuff that The King did during the mid-to-late-1970s, no one knew what the hell to do with his expressionistic two-year run on Cap, and people rarely discussed it again, until the great age of Everything-Kirby-Ever-Did-Is-Great-Because-Corporate-Comics-screwed-him-over dawned. (In fact, I agree that these comics are very fun to look at–but, politically, they are…ahem…somewhat out of touch). Okay–AK (after Kirby), we get a bunch of people doing some very perfunctory things with the character–i.e. even Stern & Byrne’s much-lauded run  (which I like very much in itself) is toothless enough for today’s Marvel-Disney to endorse it… Of course, J.M. DeMatteis did come up with a few memorable tales (geriatric Cap vs.  Skull), and developed the crucial figure of Bernie Rosenthal (introduced by Stern and Byrne)…

Then, in 1985, Mark Gruenwald grabbed hold of the reins, and…

Next: Cap #307!

good night friends

Dave

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “All Rise Please…

  1. AHA! The man of many blogs gets yet another!

    Good!

    Looking forward to this, quite a bit…can a website devoted to Werner Roth be far behind?

    DeMatteis, before Kurt Busiek came along the comics pro who seemed most enamoured of the books I was most enamoured of, I think may have had his best corporate run on Cap…at the time, to this fannish mind, his work always seemed to betray its promise, but Prof. Fury’s about convinced me that I did the man serious wrong by measuring him on somebody else’s yardstick (that Busiek suits the yardstick so much better is a whole other story, I think), and in particular he’s convinced me (sorry, do not have the specific link here handy) that DeMatteis was pursuing a more radical kind of American Dialogue through the character than Gerber or Englehart would have chosen. But then, I was that guy, perhaps like the famous friend of Jonathan Lethem’s, who didn’t really care for the apparent downshifting of the Englehart Cap to the Kirby Cap, but still devoured every mind-melting issue of the Kirby run even as I protested it…somewhere in my unconscious depths recognizing the value of its sheer peculiarity. I mean, “Texas Jack Muldoon”, this was a guy Englehart would’ve torn the mask off! I couldn’t believe Kirby was even serious! But then there was the freaky stuff that seemed to intimate something darker to my young mind — the Night Flyer declaring himself to be “The Perfect Man!!”, Abner Doubleday’s microplanetoid and big interdimensional transport gun (presumably built from spoons and trays stolen from the asylum cafeteria?) run by an ostentatious “society of crazies”…Akron, the dead man from the future. AKRON, for heaven’s sake.

    You can’t tell me Kirby didn’t have a little Phil Dick stashed on the bedside table, during this time!

    But what it all really signifies for, what Jack translated it into, even today I’m just not quite sure if you could pull any pattern out of it at all. I know it was, in Harvey Jerkwater’s terminology, “shit-gripping”…but I don’t know much more, except when you hit the new Brotherhood of Evil in the Annual you wonder where the hell Magneto even found these clowns, and why the hell Kirby even bothered to pretend to give them names. Stern and Byrne I thoroughly understand, though — heck, I think we all do, it was just the first part of the act Byrne’s always excelled at, artful and popular sanitization, 80s-style nostalgic reassurance, followed by sadistic, chain-jerking autodestruction…but he never got around to the latter part with Cap, for reasons that would probably merit a blog of their own.

    Which is all preamble, to my confession:

    I didn’t read those goddamn Gruenwald Caps. An issue here and there. I was pleased he brought back the motorcycle — does that make me a shallow person? But I had a grudge against Gruenwald from his younger days, I confess I never gave his Cap a chance.

    So Dave…I am your ideal reader, I think!

  2. awesome Plok–you are any blogger’s ideal reader!

    I thought starting a specific Cap blog would help me to keep on this one, rather than drifting into other projects… it probably won’t, but, at the very least, it will always be here yawning for more entries, and that COULD save me from my own lack of discipline!

    also, as always, there is the grand example of Jason Powell to consider… perhaps he can inspire me to get through all 136 issues (#307-443, minus one)

    re: the DeMatteis run–I must admit that I haven’t looked at any of these since the 1980s, but they’re present and accounted for on the DVD-ROM that I bought a few years ago (before Marvel decided that these sets were too good a deal for the public and kiboshed ’em)… I DO get the sense that there’s more to the DeMatteis than originally met my eye–and someday I’ll have to put that to the test—but I mustn’t swerve from the task at hand!!!

    oh–and the Kirby IS magnificently, mentally Dickian, I remember THAT much about it, for sure!

    a bientot mon ami!

    Dave

  3. A la prochaine, mon vieux!

    Okay, I’ll do the Kirby Cap blog, enough arm-twisting Dave PLEASE…! It is going to be half Kirby Cap, half David Lodge books. AND I WILL MAKE IT FIT!!!!

    Come Biblical reference or Biblical reference.

  4. Blach

    “One thing I do want to stress, re: Gruenwald, is how much I appreciate his refusal to join the “Comics Aren’t Just For Kids” sweepstakes of the mid-1980s. We can all agree how dumb that was, can’t we? What I love about these books (and about Squadron Supreme in particular) is the way they wade into the same contested super-political waters that Miller and Moore were then “braving,” without swaddling these ambitions in the cloak of the medium’s much-trumpeted “coming of age.” Basically, Gruenwald is saying that the genre was always concerned with these questions–damn the “prestige format,” full speed ahead!”

    Alan Moore has always said that he never considered himself a part of the “comics are for kids” camp. He thought, as you do, that comics have never needed to grow up. You can find quotes of him getting pissed off at people hailing watchmen as a “grown up” comic because it has a well put together narrative; His agenda was always just to tell a great story.
    Miller is another story altogether and I’ve never really been impressed by him, even though I’m a pretty die-hard batman fan.
    Because, again like you, I don’t think comics have ever needed to grow up is why I’ve always hated the term ‘graphic novel’. It presents a safe non-embarassing way to comics but it implicitly casts the very idea of comics as childlike or not serious. Bullshine!
    This blog is a great idea and I can’t wait for you to cover his transformation into the Captain or D MAN.

  5. ah–thanks Blach–good to have you aboard!

    and you’re quite right about Moore–whom I like a lot, despite the way I often sound when I wind up talking about him… still, I do think there’s a bit of a difference (“A BIT” he says?!) between Watchmen and Squadron Supreme–in that the former is clearly making itself available to “comics aren’t just for kids” punditry (even if that wasn’t Moore’s intention–intention is always a tricky thing to talk about, at best… but with Moore, I think the comments you’re referring to came AFTER he saw what people did under the influence of his “bad mood”), while the latter does not… Sq. Supreme looks exactly like any other Marvel comic from the mid-1980s… and in some ways it IS exactly like them… while in other ways it is completely out of its mind in the best way possible

    re: Graphic Novel… You mean Graphic Wacoustas, right?

    I think the idea of “growing up” is a bad thing in general–although, of course, I do read a wide variety of books (with drawings and without) that most people would consider “adult” and “complex”–and a recipe for foolishness when applied to superhero comics

    onward to D-Man!

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