Monday, 26 November 2012
On "Captain America" #1
In a world that's ever tending towards the post-modern, it's inevitable that just about every fictional hybrid that's conceivable - no matter how ludicrous and counterproductive - is eventually going to appear. Slamming together the qualities of previously distinct and apparently incompatible work in the search for novelty and sensation will inexorably inspire the kind of ill-worked fusions which would previously have been considered fit only for media-mocking parodies. So it is with Rick Remender's new take on Captain America, in which the writer and his artistic collaborators have appropriated a great deal of Jack Kirby's latter work on the character for a comic featuring not just super-adventuring hi-jinks, but also graphic wife-beating, physically invasive torture, and childhood trauma. It's a bizarre, enervating collision of substance and surface, in which the reader is pushed from a savage beating of the youthful Steve Rogers' mother - by his drink-sodden father - to a battle with a crew of clearly pathetic eco-terrorists spouting later-era Kirby-speak. "You're far too late, Prince Protector of Pollution." embarrassingly shouts one of the Earth-threatening minions of the "Green Skull" at the entirely indomitable Captain, who's capable of clinging onto a vertically crashing bomber with a single wounded hand. How disconcerting, to find a grab-'em-by-the-pants, Saturday-Morning-pictures punchup following on from a sincerely meant if hammy kitchen sink mini-drama wherein a mother's face is beaten to a pulp by her drunken husband. From a scene in which we're faced with the traumatic consequences of one man's brutality to one in which there's no physical consequences of any importance for the brave and true Captain at all. It's a case of narrative whiplash which leaves the book's scene of spousal abuse feeling at best out-of-place, and at worst a gratuitous self-indulgence. Similarly, all the planet-saving punching in the world can't make the physics-defying powers of the adult Steve Rogers seem impressive, or even interesting and worthwhile, after his mother's been shown suffering such an excess of domestic violence.
It's not that there's the slightest suspicion that the book's creators are approaching their work cynically. In fact, quite the opposite seems true. Although the excess of torture which appears later in Captain America is regrettably framed as just another playful marker of heroism and villainy, there's no doubt that all concerned are horrified by the idea and meaning of the beating at the beginning of the issue. And yet, the shift from the tone and content of the first scene to that of the rest of the book means that Remender might as well have added a caption between the two stating "Don't take anything of what you read in this comic seriously at all". The rightfully serious shifts on a penny into the totally ridiculous, and little so undercuts the value of a depiction of savage domestic abuse as does it leading straight into a jamboree of absurd characters and out-there, deliberately silly plots. This is a book which is trying to mix and match form and content that just doesn't belong together unless a tremendous degree of care is invested in the matter. As such, everything in Captain America becomes reduced to popcorn entertainment, because most of it's so self-consciously daft and purposefully unconcerned with logic that it's impossible to take seriously. Yet. domestic violence is far too serious an issue to be used as the soap operatic seasoning for a superhero potboiler, no matter how Kirby-referencing it is, and the deleterious structure of the book works against its maker's best intentions.
Later, Remender has his artistic collaborators - John Romita and Klaus Janson - present us with several pages in which Steve Rogers is brutally tortured by Arnim Zola. As a very long metal probe is fearsomely thrust into our hero's chest, blood spurts and howls echo, and yet nothing will stop Captain America from wrenching himself free and escaping. It would be a shocking business if it wasn't so blatantly manipulative. In the foreground of the most explicit of the panels concerned - see the bottom of the page - we're presented with the appallingly violated and screaming superhero, while behind him is the patently silly figure of Zola spieling out his B-Movie villain banalities. What's both remarkable and depressing about all of this is that Remender and Romita have again made no serious attempt to reconcile the gratuitous use of real-world concerns with the comics-for-boys fun of it all. At the book's beginning, domestic violence was followed by light-hearted heroic adventuring. Here the appalling and the daft are all mixed in together. Consequently, torture is reduced, as it so often is, to a trope to show how butch and brave the victim is, and the silliness of the situation reduces the whole business to thrill-a-panel conflict and nothing but. (As with torture, so with wife-beating, as catastrophic social problems are reduced to drop-in melodramatic seasoning for the important business of showing how tough and admirable Roger's is.) That's particularly obvious when the tortured superhero hauls himself out of the hi-tech he's been insecurely strapped to and stumbles before a monster crying out, "I tried to tell! Why leave his body with arms?" Of course, why would any super-genius leave Captain America's arms largely unrestrained while he's being tortured, and how can we take anything seriously if that's so? For when the majority of the plot is actually a celebration of the nonsensical aspects of the super-book, everything in the book is tarred with the same brush. As such, Captain America is nothing but a parade of the most enthusiastically-presented and shallowly-constructed fannish cliches, with the reader being left to mash it all together - or not - into a consistent and satisfying narrative.
It's not the logic-be-damned, anything-for-sentiment'n'thrills storytelling that so condemns this Marvel Now title, although it does mean that Captain America really isn't a comic that's for anyone who likes their books tightly-plotted and internally consistent. (Start listing the plot-holes in Remender's script and you'll be at it for a very long time indeed.) What ultimately sinks the comic is the suggestion of emotional and moral depth that the presence of the wife-beating scene combined with Rogers' "liberation" of Zola's child attempts to create. We're clearly supposed to associate Captain America with the boy he's escaped with, and the implication is that they've both been abused and they'll both end up bonding over their common suffering. It's a suggestion of meaning that seems designed to ground all the go-for-broke spectacle in a vague, eye-moistening air of emotion and importance.
But it doesn't succeed in achieving anything of the sort. The attempts to lend weight to Captain America #1 are as awkward and ill-judged as they're saccharine and unconvincing. For this isn't a book that actually deals with the real-world horrors which it tries to put to use. Instead, issues which should only be raised in order to be discussed in their own terms seem here to exist simply to make the superheroics of it all seem more substantial and affecting. In truth, Captain America's an enthusiastic if paper-thin and shiny shoot-'em-up which - inadvertently, no doubt - exploits serious social problems which ought to have been been left alone or treated with the immense respect they're due.