An Equal Tomorrow: “Avenging Spider-Man #5”

When Spidey confronts Cap with the big, secret revelation of this issue in the opening pages of this month’s Avenging Spider-Man, Steve Rogers’ Captain America simply responds, “Oh, you know…stuff.” The big, secret revelation isn’t much of a big secret at all, but it’s a revelation. By the second page already we discover that before he underwent the Super Soldier enhancement program, Steve Rogers had been a comicbook writer-artist, and a poor one at that. The first page of Avenging Spider-Man (a book dedicated to exploring the interpersonal dynamics between Spidey and his fellow Avengers) mimics a page written and drawn by Steve Rogers during the ’30s. This was long before the Super Soldier serum slowed down Cap’s aging, long before he spent most of the Cold War frozen in a chunk of ice, long before the Captain America alter ego even. So when Spidey confronts Cap with Cap’s own former nerdiness, he has only one question, “Why’d you put down your pencil?”

Drawn by Leinil Francis Yu, Cap’s single line response literally flows out over the most beautiful double-page spread. It’s Cap with his back to Spidey, both of them facing the reader. All around them, Cap’s memories of the War come vividly to life. There’s Cap leading a charge of the Howlin’ Commandos, they’re all taking heavy fire, but Cap, tucked up behind his shield, points to the unseen target. There’s Cap punching out Hitler. The dictator has drawn his weapon, but Cap clearly covered the distance between them much too quickly — the dictator wasn’t even able to take aim before a solid left hook knocked the blood from his mouth. And there’s that defining moment, Cap on that rocket, believing those to be the last moment’s of his life. And that’s where the Cap’s response finally closes. “Oh you know,” he’d already said that earlier on the page as the memories just spilled out, almost literally like milk from a jug. But it’s here when our eyes move what must have felt like the final moments, that he finishes his response to Spidey’s earlier interrogative, “…stuff.”

The moment is beautiful and vivid, and embraces you fully, whoever you are. There’s very little that you can think of to make this moment better, either visually or in the prose. And of course there are dozens of ways that the story could have been told. But the power of Zeb Wells words and Leinil Yu’s lies in their fine crafting of a moment you really must surrender yourself into. A moment you can scarcely imagine being played out any other way. And that curtailing of your own imagination makes this an incredibly powerful and meaningful issue. It’s only just now tilting at the promise of summer, and already Avenging Spider-Man #5 seems promising for the standout single-issue of this year. Cap’s sojourn back in time, and his briefly being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of history he’s witnessed firsthand, is only the first stage in teasing out the puzzle that lies at the heart of this issue. It’s what happens next — Cap crumpling up his own work, that has just been valued as incredibly high-priced, and tossing it into the trash — that provides the impetus for Spidey’s investigation. If Cap had really been a nerd during the 1930s, prior to undergoing the Super Soldier enhancement, then he and Spidey have much more in common than Spidey ever hoped for. But why would Cap treat his own past with such aggression? What’s going on here?

As the Avengers undertake a mission to curtail the Serpent Society, Spidey pushes the boundaries of politeness to team-up with Cap and try to get an answer. It’s here where the true power of this title shines through. Searching through the catalog of my mind now, it’s hard to think of another mainstream book that is character driven. The story here is not about the Avengers, or about the team-up between Cap and Spidey or even about the mission. Instead, the heart of the story is the characters themselves, and how their unique outlooks frame the events them find themselves embroiled in. This makes Zeb Wells, probably one of the more courageous writers in mainstream comics at the moment. It certainly makes him one of the more interesting. And all the while, while you find yourself locked into reading Spidey and reading Cap as characters for what feels like your first time as an adult, there really is an evolving back story. Last issue’s team-up with Hawkeye saw the first strike of the Serpent Society, this issue sees Cap leading the Avengers into a preemptive strike against the same supervillain faction.

Already five issues into this series, and I feel like I’m only now brushing up against the power of this book. The first storyarc, teaming Spidey up with Rulk (the “Red Hulk”), felt like a misstep. J. Jonah Jameson, now Mayor of New York, erstwhile EIC of the Daily Bugle, perennially a thorn in the side of Spidey had been kidnapped by the Moloids who inhabit the underworld below NYC. Spidey and Rulk were pulled into Moloid civil war. The three-issue opening storyarc to the series had everything a good Spidey story needs–witty dialogue, a quick-change transition from the familiar to scifi, Spidey winning the day although it seems unlikely. But the Rulk storyline showed almost nothing more than Rulk and Spidey interacting. There was no genuine drama arising from their very different characters. Issue #4’s team-up with Hawkeye too seemed off-kilter. There was more Hawkeye here than there was Hawkeye/Spidey. But this issue with Cap, it’s one of those issues that will have a long and terrible grasp. Decades from now you’ll still be saying to people, “You want to be more like Spidey, less like Cap” and no one will get the reference.

Zeb’s storytelling is so vivid I can’t help but get embroiled in my own past. I ask myself, when I finally return home, when I do, will I ever go back to that old, familiar Local Comics Shop I used to frequent during the ’90s? I do doubt that I will. I stopped visiting there long before I left town. It had all become too much, like that moment in that song by the Counting Crows when you realize you’ve been here before, and then leave and drive out to the desert. I remember the joy and the promise when the LCS moved crosstown into what felt like, not only a grander commerce, but greater respectability. But in those last few weeks, the LCS began to feel like a bar we could never leave, like just a few years out of college and already I was middle aged. But Zeb’s story at least gets me thinking about this. At least gets me asking, “Would I go back?”

And of course, this isn’t the real power of the issue. The real power of this issue is the kind of country we’ve become not only since the tragic events of 9/11, but since the 2008 election of Hope and Change and promise that ushered President Obama into the Executive. Zeb’s story has me tangled up in my own past. But it also pushes me to reach beyond myself and into something more, into the kind of world I’m living in, living through. The emotional core of this issue lies in the question, can we be free of the past. For Steve Rogers, it’s not his wartime past as Cap that haunts him, its his past as a “puny” cartoonist that threatens him still.

It’s impossible for me to read this issue and, given the military nature of Cap as a superhero, not summon to mind the only line I can readily remember from one of Lincoln’s States of the Union. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” I think of that line and I think of the of Michael Moore’s Capitalism, a Love Story. We may not share all of the same politics but Moore’s framing of an America that developed not only the physical infrastructures, but the democratic traditions of the nations devastated during the Second World War seems to toll the same bell as Lincoln’s quote, and Cap’s struggle with yesterday. At the heart of this issue of Avenging Spider-Man is a past that desperately needs to be, not so much, disavowed, but neutralized, its power no longer a power that threatens the present. And for a character like Cap, unable to break the cycle of strength and weakness, it takes an Avenging Spider-Man to find the courage and imagination to defang that past, without forgetting its lessons.

RATING 10 / 10