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Ultimate Comics: Captain America (Review/Retrospective)

In celebration of the 4th of July and the release of Captain America: The First Avenger later this month, we’re jumping into Marvel’s comic book alternate history and taking a look at the star-spangled avenger every Wednesday this month.

I have a certain fondness for Jason Aaron. He’s a writer who has fantastic success in taking the more hardcore elements of the Marvel Universe and making them work. His Ghost Rider is acclaimed as one of the best runs ever on the character, while his Wolverine is considered some of the greatest work on the title in quite some time. Even his Punisher MAX run has enjoyed considerable success, despite following in the footsteps of the defining Garth Ennis run. So I was initially extremely excited when Aaron was given the job of writing the Ultimate Comics: Captain America miniseries. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with his work here. It’s still competent and engaging, but it lacks to sort of energy and focus that one associates with the writer.

Apocalypse... Now?

Much like Jonathan Hickman’s much strong Ultimate Comics: Thor, Ultimate Comics: Captain America does well to draw from Mark Millar’s sensational tenure on The Ultimates, while crafting a story that doesn’t rely excessively on other sources. The miniseries only really features tiny supporting roles for Carol Danvers and Hawkeye, with the rest of the story focusing on the eponymous character and Aaron’s ultimate version of Nuke, the villain used so effectively in Frank Miller’s Born Again arc in Daredevil. It’s a smart move, because it avoids the story getting too bogged down in continuity or internal references, and manages to make the story accessible to even the most novice of readers. All you really need to know is that Captain America was frozen for fifty-odd years before waking up, and even that is the subject of much exposition.

The set-up is certainly interesting. Aaron seems to have something of a strange synthesis with writer Mark Millar. His run on Wolverine is the strongest since Mark Millar did two short runs on the character’s book, and here he proves he can get inside the head of one of Millar’s more unique and complex creations. The Ultimate version of Captain America is quite distinct from his mainstream counterpart, in that he is more clearly a man out of time, and is more extremely conservative and patriotic. When you compare it, for example, to Brubaker’s mainstream Captain America run, the differences could not seem more pronounced.

Firing on all cyllanders?

However, this iteration of the character is easy to parody or to push to extremes as a flag-waving jackass who represents the worst stereotypes of American nationalism, crossed with the arrogant posturing of a high school bully. There is undoubtedly an element of that, but Millar’s work on the character stands out because he was able to dig a little bit past that, and hint at the tragedy and self-awareness of the character. Aaron does the same sort of thing, suggesting that this version of the character has the same uncertainties bubbling below the surface as his regular counterpart

Indeed, Aaron does well to borrow elements from Warren Ellis’ work on the character. The latter worked on the Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, and explored the nature of Rogers’ religious beliefs, in the context of a man who faces Armageddon on a frequent basis. Here, we’re shown a Steve Rogers who prays as he prepares to meet his maker, and sees his faith vindicated after a fashion. It’s clever that the story ends with the character attempting to share his faith, which Aaron cleverly ties to the character’s nationalism, with somebody who could really use a little. Aaron understand that, beneath the tough talk and the violence and the arrogance, Steve is something of an idealist, somebody holding on to hope. After all, surely that’s the best of America? The capacity to find triumph in the most unlikely of places?

Gun to your head, who wrote the best Ultimate Captain America?

The story is pretty straightforward. In fact, it’s one of the more routine and basic Captain America stories. Somebody out there is trying to create their own army of super soldiers, and supplying them to various hostile regimes around the world. Steve Rogers is assigned to find the source of these experiments, and stumbles across another failed attempt to recreate him during his famous extended absence. This creates a conflict between the two characters, contrasting their distinct reflections on the American way of life and their impact on the world. It’s not exactly groundbreaking, and some of those themes were even handled by Millar on The Ultimates or Ed Brubaker during his concurrent writing on the mainstream title.

I can see the logic in adopting such a straight-forward approach. It’s simple. It’s accessible. And it cuts right to the heart of the character, which is important when you only have four issues. Indeed, the same ideas have formed the basis of some great stories in the past. it’s all about execution, and Aaron has the character of this iteration of Steve Rogers down to a “t”, so how difficult could it possibly be? It turns out that the problem isn’t the characterisation of Rogers, it’s in crafting an interesting and compelling counterpoint for the super soldier who served during World War II.

Book 'em, boys...

Millar suggested that the Punisher was the equivalent of Captain America produced during Vietnam over the course of the Civil War crossover, so the idea of pitting Steve against his counterpart from that conflict is perfectly fitting. However, Aaron doesn’t really do anything interesting. Simpson beats Rogers, tortures him, lectures him, mocks him and subjects him to the screams of countless innocents murdered by America. The problem is that none of it seems nearly as dramatic as it should be. Instead, it feels almost like a corny movie montage, as we get shots of Simpson simulating drowning (“just keep telling yourself… waterboarding isn’t torture”) or reading from a history book (“let’s begin to catch you up on some of what you missed, shall we?”).

Part of the problem is that none of this feels legitimate. There are plenty of reasons to take issue with American foreign policy, and Simpson has had decades to reflect on them. Is pointing to Richard Nixon as “the most evil man who ever lived”the best that he can do? His arguments and critiques are the kind of poorly-considered surface logic that you see on internet message boards. There’s no nuance or depth. He’s really just hitting Steve with stuff that any half-literate teenager has already confronted.

Flagging this guy as a threat...

In fact, Aaron seems to acknowledge this at the climax. “You think I’d never heard of Richard Nixon before?” Steve goads his opponent. “Or every other earthshaking secret you had to tell me? I know all those stories. And a hundred more just like them that are even worse.” In short, the character reacts to the observations much as the audience does. However, if Simpson’s attacks on Captain America were not meant to be taken seriously, or not intended to upset the character, then it seems there was very little drama to a significant portion of the story. The politics of Grand Theft America aren’t necessarily more complex, but they are at least more interesting.

There’s a nice moment at the end of the story where, after defeating his adversary, Steve offers a public service announcement to the villagers. “Don’t grow up to be terrorists, kids.”It’s wry, sardonic and very witty – a line that’s as sourly serious as it is tongue-in-cheek. This is a man in a bright blue uniform fighting international terrorism after all. It shouldn’t take itself too seriously, even as it deals with serious issues. The rest of the miniseries could have used a similar sort of cheeky charm to it.

Out of the red, white and blue...

On the other hand, Ron Garney’s work here is just amazing. You can see it from the images attached. I am now anticipating the Jason Aaron Wolverine Omnibus even more than I was before, reminded of how skilled an artist Garney is, rendering both action sequences and quieter moments. It’s crisp and clean, and I like it.

So, Ultimate Comics: Captain America isn’t all that it might have been. It’s an entertaining stand-alone tale with the character, but I can’t help but feel it could have been something so much more. After all, there are a whole host of valid arguments to make about America’s place in the world, it just seems a waste to pit the character against a character so clearly deranged. Ah well… maybe Aaron will return to the character in time.

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