This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!
Mark Waid and Ron Garney’s ten-issue run on Captain America is a bit of an oddity. The run follows an impressive ten-year stint by writer (and editor) Mark Gruenwald, but is situated right before Marvel’s attempt at a mid-nineties reboot with Heroes Reborn. As a result, the run feels like it is over before it begins, more of a blip on the radar than a bold new beginning for the character – indeed, it is very much a bold new beginning right before another bold new beginning.
Mark Waid is probably one of the most easily overlooked writers to work on Captain America. He has written over fifty issues featuring the character, but his work has been scattered across multiple volumes and divided by editorial decisions. His longest unbroken stint on the character is thirteen issues of the same comic book. It’s a very weird relationship to have with a character, and there’s a sense that Waid’s take on Captain America was never as developed as it might have been. It feels like scattered snapshots rather than an entire mosaic.
However, Waid and Garney’s Captain America is an interesting read because it seems so firmly opposed to the larger movement in nineties comic books. Waid is a writer who tends to appeal towards nostalgia. That is the problem with Waid’s Captain America: Man Out of Time miniseries, feeling like a sentimental appeal to a past that never existed and an attempt to ignore or gloss over some of the more problematic aspects of the character’s history. His original ten-issue stint taking over from Gruenwald works better.
Waid’s best work is shrewdly positioned at points where that nostalgia is most relevant and most effective. Kingdom Come is a scathing critique of nineties comic book aesthetics; his Silver Age Daredevil throwback follows over a decade of “Daredevil-as-a-Frank-Miller-redux”; his Captain America serves as a reminder that Steve Rogers is an interesting character without having to reimagine or rework him. It’s a testament to Mark Waid’s work that the whole Heroes Reborn era feels like nothing more than a surreal interlude between his work on Captain America.
In the nineties, Marvel had decided that some of its core properties were simply not working. While titles like The Amazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men were at the height of their popularity, the Avengers range of titles weren’t attracting the sales numbers that Marvel wanted. So, the company tried a number of attempts to make them more popular. The Crossing got rid of tired old Tony Stark and replaced the character with a younger version of himself, dismissively nicknamed “Teen Tony” by fans.
Eventually, it was decided to just bundle the problematic characters off to their own pocket universe, where they could be rebooted and reimagined by high-profile creators like Jim Lee or Rob Liefeld. It’s a testament to how thoroughly The Avengers were over-shadowed as a brand that all this occurred in an X-Men event, Onslaught. This ultimately move didn’t work out in the medium or long term.
Marvel soon brought the characters back to the main universe (branded Heroes Return), launching comics a decidedly nostalgic approach to them. Dan Jurgens wrote Thor, Kurt Busiek and George Perez brought back The Avengers, and Mark Waid was put back on Captain America. It’s a testament to Waid’s skill with the character – and the effectiveness of this ten-issue run – that he was drafted back in, as if to pick up where he left off.
Indeed, Captain America‘s critical and sales performance actually began to pick up during Waid and Garney’s short stint on the title, as if to suggest that the duo were reinvigorating the character successfully. The whole Heroes Reborn event and direction may have been a big deal at the time, but – in retrospect – it feels like a bump in the road; a surreal detour; an unwelcome interruption in Waid’s take on the star-spangled Avenger.
It’s interesting that Waid and Garney were handed Captain America as a dead comic walking. As Waid has explained in the years since, Marvel knew they were going to cancel the comic from almost the start of the run, but neglected to inform Waid and Garney until two issues before cancellation:
Nothing punishes like success, because Ron and I were dead men walking on that first run — which we weren’t told of until there were about two issues to go, even though Marvel did know that before they assigned me my first issue. We were kept in the dark, which is probably just as well. That way I could concentrate on the story instead of worrying about anything else. But [in the first run] we were allowed to do what we wanted to do. The editorial demands were just negligible. Everybody was very supportive because it’s not a book anybody had a lot of confidence in, editorially.
Indeed, the book ends rather dramatically. The first two arcs seem to set a lot of story ideas that Waid could use down the road, but the conclusion feels a little rushed. The final issue is dedicated to tying up Sharon Carter’s development, which is very clearly a character arc in mid-flow.
Still, that’s a problem outside Waid’s control. What’s interesting (and slightly ironic) about Waid and Garney’s Captain America is that it consciously feels like a shake-up. It’s obviously not as hard a reboot or relaunch as would directly follow their work, but there’s a clear sense that this is a new take on Captain America. Mark Waid is taking over from an author who worked on the character for decade. Even ignoring the weaker stories towards the end of Gruenwald’s run, that’s still a pretty big shadow.
So Waid follows Gruenwald in exactly the manner that Rick Remender would succeed Ed Brubaker; he clearly marks this as a new story rather than a continuation of what came before. Gruenwald’s run closed with what might be the death of Captain America, suggesting a sense of closure to his take on Steve Rogers. Logically, Mark Waid begins with a re-birth, a new beginning for the red, white and blue hero.
The opening arc is titled Operation: Rebirth, which certainly sets an agenda. However, there are other clever elements at play here. The first issue in the run only barely features Steve Rogers. It allows the character some space, and gives Waid a chance to contextualise Captain America – to explain the role that Steve Rogers fills without immediately undermining the close of Gruenwald’s run. It allows Waid to set out an agenda, which is a shrewd move.
“On Olympus,” Hercules explains, “we measure wisdom against Athena… speed against Hermes… power against Zeus. But we measure courage against Captain America.” That’s a pretty iconic description of the character. He clarifies, “That was his legacy. He taught us that there’s always a way.” Even in a comic book that doesn’t feature a direct appearance from Captain America, Hank Pym assures his colleagues, “Believe me… he was here.”
There is a tacit acknowledgement that Captain America is in something of a decline. In the wake of Gruenwald’s run, Waid explains that Steve Roger was almost killed by “the expired super-soldier serum” – a way of conceding that perhaps some aspects of the character have passed their sell-by date. Operation: Rebirth sees the character knocked down a few pegs, as if starting again from scratch, stripped of his advantages. Without the serum, Waid starts with Steve Rogers as a normal person. “Normal blood equals normal man!” he insists to Sharon Carter.
However, Waid is only knocking down so he may build again. Steve needs to build himself up. He needs to earn the title. In Operation: Rebirth, Steve Rogers proves himself a hero when stripped of his superpowers. In Man Without a Country, Steve Rogers proves himself a hero without the familiar outfit and support of the United States government. Waid is very much trying to demonstrate Rogers’ heroism is still applicable and valid, even if you strip him down and have to rebuild him from scratch.
Waid makes it clear that he is taking Steve Rogers back to the beginning. This is cleverly built into the comic. We open with Steve encased in ice, conjuring up classic images of the origin. One of the shrewder details of Waid and Garney’s run has Operation: Rebirth opening with Steve Rogers undergoing a medical procedure; however, for a flashback scene in the character’s fiftieth anniversary issue, Waid and Garney use the exact same layout – four insets detailing the procedure laid out on a larger panel on the right. As such, they draw a clear connection; this is a new beginning.
There’s a sense that Waid is trying to centre the character somewhat – to push the character towards those big iconic moments from his history. Indeed, the opening story is clearly written with a view to Captain America’s own past, filling in a gap in the character’s history, a hole in his legacy. “This will be your greatest battle!” Sharon Carter declares. “The very one Captain America was born to fight!” Mark Waid pits Captain America against Adolf Hitler, astutely pointing out that the character’s history leaves that particular thread unresolved; Steve Rogers was frozen before the war ended and never got to take the fight to Hitler.
“It tortures you to know that you were created to defeat him… and never had your chance,” the Red Skull boasts. Waid uses this as an opportunity to finally allow Steve Rogers to defeat Hitler, as if to vanquish the last ghost haunting Captain America from the Second World War. He also has Bucky appear, in spirit, to tell Steve Rogers that he needs to live in the present. Waid insists that Steve Rogers is no longer truly a man out of time. Even when he dreams of returning to the forties, he can’t help be imagine mobile phones and modern jets. Steve Rogers can’t remain frozen in time, as appealing as that might be.
Mark Waid acknowledges that nineties geo-politics are more complicated than they used to be. Steve finds himself entangled in issues of proliferation in Eastern Europe, navigating tense international relations. “Listen,” Sharon tells him, “I learned a lot more about America from the outside than I ever did from the inside.” Waid forces Rogers into the awkward position of viewing America from the outside, trying to immerse himself in the wider world in Man Without a Country.
There are occasional awkward moments, when it seems like Waid and Garney fall victim to many of the tropes casually employed in nineties comics. In particular, Waid’s jaded version of Sharon Carter occasionally reads too much like a nineties anti-heroine. She’s all bitter cynicism and bubbling resentment, justified by traumatic experiences. Waid seems to awkwardly imply sexual violence into her recent past, referencing the “degrading” things she had to do to survive and how prison guards enjoyed “pawing” her.
This is uncomfortable, because it feels like it casually plays into sexist comic book clichés – a way of suggesting that Sharon Carter is “broken” and needs to be fixed. The problem is that Waid really only seems interested in using Carter as a way of validating Steve Rogers. He needs to earn her trust again, as if to prove that the world is not as cold and cynical as she thinks that it is. It’s probably something that could have been fixed with a bit more room or development – a thread cut short by editorial concerns.
Still, even with that misstep, Waid and Garney offer a unique vision of Captain America, a conscious effort to update and fix the character for the nineties. Ironically, it’s the kind of approach that would have made Heroes Reborn completely unnecessary. Instead, it feels like a truncated run that has some great ideas and a nice direction, but stops before it can really get started.