With Captain America, perhaps more so than with other recent Marvel reboots, there’s an accumulated history of public interest having been piqued. Steve Rogers (the original and at that point current Cap) was after all, killed just a few short years ago, and killed to much public outcry. Creator Jeph Loeb, writer of the Captain America: Fallen Son limited series had gone on NPR to express a sense of grief that clearly tied to the passing of his own son, Sam. Captain America regular writer, and mastermind behind killing Cap, Ed Brubaker had stated that Cap seemed something of a cipher; all shades of the political spectrum seemed to be able to read Brubaker’s Cap as endorsing their position. Brubaker for his own part seemed to simply want to carve out a tale of how, even in the ideologically fractured landscape we find today, Cap was still emblematic of American ideals. The battles fought during those early days of the Brubaker run seemed only to put Cap into more subtle ideological dilemmas than into clear victories.
But of course things changed. Bucky, Cap’s World War II sidekick, inherited the mantle after Steve Rogers’ passing. After Rogers had been frozen in Arctic waters for decades, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes had been kidnapped by Russian scientists and cybernetically enhanced. During Marvel’s “Secret Invasion”, “Dark Reign” and “Siege” mega-events, Brubaker’s (and others) storytelling focused to Captain America as a concept. The idea that there can always be a Captain America became core to this new era. But now even that change has passed, and that events at the close of the last series have led to Steve Rogers reassuming the mantle of Captain America.
With the new first issue, creators Ed Brubaker and (artist) Steve McNiven definitely find a wellspring. There is a vibrant kineticism to Brubaker’s scripting and McNiven offers a richly textured palette that visually disjoins the present from the past. Brubaker writes the opening part of the “American Dreamers” storyarc like a perfectly sequenced cinematic event. It is deeply reminiscent of the first issue of Captain America all the way back in 1941, rendered by industry legends writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby. Steve Rogers is skillfully pendulumed between near-maudlin meditations on the insurmountable history he has personally accumulated, hair-raising action sequences, and sober-minded investigations in an attempt to unravel the mystery he, Agents Carter and Dugan and Colonel Fury finds themselves embroiled in. It is this interchange between these three story-modes that gives an audience a sense of that original Captain America #1.
The difference between these two number ones however is stark. Brubaker and McNiven’s number has that extra element, a Cap bedraggled by his own history. Nearly a year prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the original number one still read like a wartime story. Cap, along with Bucky, was on the hunt for Axis spies operating within the US. Despite the dark world the book was born into, there was a hopefulness to Cap. Brubaker’s Cap #1, and rightly so given the history subsequent to 1945, reads like the opening rounds of a vast and immeasurable game of chess being played with Cap’s own past. What unresolved wartime threat might pop up next? What unsatisfied grudge might yet be lurking to impel a new Uma Thurman to Kill Bill her way into a confrontation with Steve Rogers?
But perhaps this is exactly the quality of the drama Brubaker sees in Captain America; that if Cap is to be a credible icon for America it means publicly wrestling with the accumulation of history. We have seen this kind of maturity emerge in strange places this decade past; Elvis Costello’s Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (or perhaps his slightly better follow-up album National Ransom), Eric Clapton’s Reptile and subsequently Me & Mr. Johnson, cartoonist Joe Sacco’s magnificent journey through rock, But I Like It coming long after Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde.
Costello perfects a transformation into an American identity that John Lennon never could, Clapton returns to his home which is the blues, and Sacco wrestles with the path that allowed him to perfect his skill as cartoonist. These are not re-calibrations, nor are they artistic reinventions, but like Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited or AC/DC’s Black Ice or Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, these are meditations on having lived in the world and walked a certain path. Perhaps Ed Brubaker has realized that for Cap, as well as for America, the past must always linger.