The 4th of July is just around the bend, so now’s as good a time as any to start thinking ’bout America–Captain America.
So how about that Avengers movie, eh? Did you head out for the big Re-release?
I think at this point, the spoilers are out there, but just in case: SPOILER warning, read no further until you’ve seen the film or decided you don’t care about spoilers. I mean, it’s been over two months now. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re running out of theater time. They can only rerelease so many deleted scenes before this thing settles as the top grossing movie of all time!!! Not adjusted for inflation, of course.
One great thing that the movie does is that it gives Chris Evans’s Captain America an ending, a much deserved ending. The character had given so much of himself over the span of the MCU, it was really nice to see him be a bit selfish for once. Speaking of Evans, I can’t go far enough in my praise for Evans and how he’s handled the role. The Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t work if the two leads, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man and Evans’s Captain America, don’t work.
Iron Man was easy enough–they made Iron Man into Robert Downey, Jr. It was great casting movie-wise, and it lead to a better comic character. RDJ’s charm is overwhelming, and Marvel Studios rightfully let it overwhelm–and then Marvel comics followed suit and changed Tony Stark around his movie portrayal. It was the right call. Iron Man’s personality was such that the Downey-fication only helped to solidify the character.
Cap, on the other hand, was more idealized. In recent years of Marvel comics leading up to the cinematic debut, Cap had been built up as a pariah, a symbol of what’s good and right and moral–even when it wasn’t the popular or even legal position. He was taken off the board during Brubaker’s Death of Captain America storyline, and the resonance of the character and his absence were felt across the Marvel Universe. Evans had to step into that role and make people believe. He had to become a symbol that characters–and fans by extension–could rally behind. He had to be more than just a big boy scout. He couldn’t play things off just for laughs or just with a swarmy charm. He had to inspire and lead and make it feel real. It was a real challenge for a bit player in efforts like Not Another Teen Movie or the first Fantastic Four franchise, and he pulled it off masterfully. I can’t recall another movie situation where I’ve been more pleasantly surprised. With each appearance, the Evans Captain America grew to embody taht inspirational spirit. Even in real life, Evans did all the things you would want a famous actor to do like visit sick kids in the hospital or carry himself with diginity, but he did more than that. Evans stuck his neck out to stick up for people who were being oppressed. Whereas many stars would worry about alienating the less savory audience members and missing out on their box office cash–Evans was Captain America. He was going to do what was right. When he summoned Mjolnir, I couldn’t help but believe that both Cap and Evans both were worthy. By the final minutes of Endgame, I not only believed Evans as Cap, but I believed in Evans as Cap, and I my heart was glad he got a happy ending.
While Evans was embodying Cap on the silver screen for close to a decade, the comic Cap seemingly lost his direction. After a Rick Remender man out of time storyline, Cap was aged and replaced and then de-aged and made to join Hydra in Nick Spencer’s Secret Empire story that never quite landed in the way it was intended. Cap as a character was lost and rudderless, and he needed the comic book equivalent of Chris Evans to help pull everything back together and make the character believable and inspiring again.
Enter Mark Waid and Chris Samnee.
Waid and Samnee began their storytelling collaboration in the pages of Daredevil before taking their partnership over to the criminally under-rated Black Widow series. Both series are worth your time if you haven’t picked them up yet. Also, if you’re on Twitter, I highly recommend giving a follow to @ChrisSamnee—you’ll be rewarded with frequent sketches and process pieces and just general awesomeness. Today, we’re going to look at thier final collaboration before Samnee’s Marvel contract ran out last year: Captain America: Home of the Brave. The story originally ran in the Captain America title issues 695-700.
Samnee’s art is a favorite of mine. Art is subjective, of course, and there are plenty of folks that aren’t crazy about Chris Samnee’s work. They’re wrong, by the way. Traditionally, the argument against Chris Samnee’s art—that it’s so cartoony— is actually the reason why Samnee works so well for certain types of stories like this one.
One day we’ll go through the double page spread from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics that perfectly illustrates the point, but bascially, there’s a big triangle between resemblance, meaning, and abstraction. The more specific and lifelike that art becomes, the less relatable it becomes. It’s why every comic artist isn’t just out there phototracing by now. The closer to photorealism comic art becomes, the fewer people can relate to and connect with the character. The fewer lines and brushstrokes used in the composition of a story, the more simplified the visualization, the more relatable the characters become for the audience.
With a character like Cap, you want people to see a bit of themselves in the character. You want to give them something to aspire to be. Back to McCloud’s theory: with a simpler style, a wider audience becomes able to see themselves in those characters. If you go too abstract, however, the balloon of meaning floats away. The trick is finding the right balance of detail and form so that the story is not so abstract that its meaning dissipates, but it’s not so realistic that it becomes unrelatable. For a story like this, where the goals to get Captain America back on track and inspiring the best in others, Samnee is the perfect artist. His cartoony style has a dynamic form to serve the meaning of the story, but his characters have an abstract enough style to attract a much wider audience. I hope that wasn’t too confusing. Bottom line: Samnee is awesome.
Mark Waid, too, is a perfect writer for an assignment like this as well. In addition to being quite the comic historian, Waid is known for being able to strip characters back to their essence and remind audiences why certain characters work in the first place. He’s had a number of runs with Captain America, often to right the ship and get the character back on course after some less than stellar storytelling. Waid’s coda for Cap here is a simple one: if the strong protect the weak, eveyone can thrive.
Matt Wilson’s colors and Joe Caramagna’s letters complete the team that’s been together from their time on Daredevil, and they keep this finely-tuned machine humming. Wilson is one of my favorite modern colorists, as his colors are subtle and add detail, but they’re never intrusive. They fit perfectly with Chris Samnee’s style–which isn’t something that applies to a lot of colorists. Some try to do too much and it looks garish; some colorists keep the colors too flat and it loses some of the pop–Wilson is the just right man for the job.
The first story in this trade has Cap crossing the countryside, trying to regain the trust of every day Americans after the events of Secret Empire. Cap realizes that he doesn’t need to be in New York all the time like most other super heroes, so he finds himself in Nebraska, strolling back into town ten years after taking down a terrorist cell, just in time to do it again. He takes on the new Swordsman in a story that is simple, aspirational, and inspirational. The action scenes are crisp and exhilarating, and the story is one that helps to re-establish Cap that any new or longtime reader can appreciate. The smaller kid is protected by the bigger kid who is protected by Cap because the strong protect the weak.
Next we move onto an elaborate plot courtesy of Kraven the Hunter to catch a Cap’n. Not only does Cap fight Kraven, he also fights a tiger! This leads to another man-out-of-time story where Cap wakes up in a dystopian 2025. He ends up helping the rag-tag group of freedom fighters that includes the thing and opposes a mind-controlled Hulk. Cool.
It wraps up by the end of the trade with Cap finding his way back to the present day after close to a year in dystopia–only now he’s able to save the day. I won’t go into the how he saves the day, but I will say the two pages as the clock is counting down and Cap is talking to himself sums up the essence of Captain America as a symbol for me. He stares out, talking to no one in particular and says, “I don’t know how to stop. I never did. Hope is not a plan. But you sure as hell can’t win without it.” When you pair those lines with Samnee’s visuals and you see what happens, you’ll get chills, I assure you.
Waid and Samnee do such a masteful job in this run that was cut way too short. They reestablish the value that Captain America has on the local community level, and they also show how valuable and rewarding being part of the community is for Cap. Then, they plug into classic Cap time-travel shenanigans to tell a story that would fit right in the classic 60s and 70s versions of the character. I haven’t read the subsequent Waid or Ta-Nehisi Coates issues involving Cap. I hear they’re still dealing with the fallout of Hydra Cap, which is fine. It’s definitely a story worth telling. More importantly, though, is that they have Captain America back on track to tell the types of stories that can live up to the masterful job Chris Evans has done with the character over the past decade, or even the inspiring efforts of the best of the creators that have worked on Captain America before. All of that started in earnest here with Waid and Samnee, and I’m really glad I read it.
Before I go, I would be failing if I didn’t mention the 10 page story put together by Mark Waid with art by Jack Kirby! Waid apparently dug through Kirby’s work with Frank Giacoia from Tales to Astonish and noticed he frequently used 4-6 panel grids. So, Waid went through and picked out panels that he could cut, paste, and repurpose into a brand new story. Matt Wilson chipped in on colors here again, and Michael Kelleher gets listed as “cleanup”–whatever that entails. It’s a really cool experiment that resulted in a fun story that hearkens back to the golden age of comics.
Red Skull, Batroc the Leaper, and Nick Fury all make appearances, and it genuinely was fun way to celebrate Cap’s history. Something old in the art, something new in the script, lots of stuff borrowed, and a hero dressed in blue. What an occasion!
All in all, I would highly recommend this collection to any lapsed fan of Cap or someone looking to get started with the hero. Just like with Chris Evans’s movie portrayal–this is Cap done right.
Captain America: Home of the Brave Final Grade: A.