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Avengers Disassembled: Captain America (Review/Retrospective)

The fourth volume of Captain America had a brief but troubled run. Launched on the Marvel Knights imprint by John Nay Rieber, the book was originally intended to follow the eponymous hero as he attempted to make sense of the world after the September 11th attacks. It was precisely as heavy-handed and awkward as you might imagine. After Rieber departed the series, supposedly due to differences with editorial, Chuck Austen arrived to write a story where the US government apparently conspired to freeze Captain America in the block of ice because the hero had discovered plans to use a nuclear weapon. So, when Robert Kirkman was assigned the task of helping the series limp across the finish line so that it could be relaunched as Ed Brubaker’s Captain America, it felt somewhat appropriate that the writer cast the story as a much more conventional and goofy superhero adventure.

A punchy little run?

I’ll freely concede that I’m not the biggest fan of Kirkman’s work. I think that his run on Ultimate X-Men was easily the weakest run on a title that struggled to find its feet and The Walking Dead has left me cold every time I tried to jump on in. That’s not to suggest he’s a bad writer, just one not to my own tastes. In fact, I can actually clearly see what Kirkman is trying to do in each example of his work, and he tends to be a driven “high concept” writer – he latches on to a particular idea of a property and develops it in that direction.

His Ultimate X-Men was an affectionate homage to the X-Men stories of the late eighties and nineties, with some pre-Claremont references thrown in as well. His Captain America book is a conscious throw-back to the Silver Age era of the character, designed to celebrate Captain America as an unashamed superhero. There’s goofy concepts, tried-and-tested plotlines, evil villains with little motivations and a sense of fun to the story. There’s never a hint of peril, and a rather convenient deus ex machina to help tie everything up.

Leaps above the earlier issues in the volume?

As a result, Kirkman’s Captain America feels more than a little out of place. As a tie-in to Avengers Disassembled, one would assumed that the story would be about pulling the character apart and critically analysing the way that he works. Captain America: Disassembled feels like the opposite, a conscious attempt to put the character back together, telling a bunch of simple done-in-one stories all connected by a number of lose over-arching plots. The result feels somewhat jarring. He seems to admit that these are the darkest of days for the Avengers (“I’d say we’ve been through worse before… but we haven’t”) and so it feels strange that this is probably the lightest series of adventures the character has had in a while.

Indeed, the character finds himself facing off against an increasingly absurd selection of his foes. Batroc the Leaper puts in an appearance, complete with stylistically corny dialogue. “I’ve rendered you insensate with a blow that will keep you quite immobile for some hours,” he exposits at one point during the fight. Naturally it doesn’t last. Later, Steve and Diamondback are captured by the Serpent Squad, providing Steve with his biggest moment of angst in the entire collection. “Oh no,” he gasps, “that movie I rented!” That’s his biggest concern. “I’m going to have late fees.”

Better off red?

Kirkman goes out of his way to tie up everything smoothly. In the penultimate chapter, it looks like the writer is planning on stuffing Diamondback in a refrigerator – a term used to refer to the practice of killing or harming a female character to motivate a male character. In fairness, this is a bluff on Kirkman’s part, as Nick Fury shows up to provide some healthy out-of-left-field exposition that retroactively makes everything conveniently okay. Discussing the S.H.I.E.L.D. traitor Nolan, Fury explains, “He also sold our boy the Red Skull here this nifty S.H.I.E.L.D. exo-armour and a brainwashed Diamondback — who it turns out isn’t really Diamondback at all. Do you need anything repeated yet?”

Hell, even Nick Fury seems uncharacteristically jolly, given his characterisation at the time, and to the present. An imposter is able to show up riding a jet pack and joking with Captain America (“can Captain America come out and play?”) without raising an eyebrow. Far from the grim and weary spymaster of recent years, this version of Fury is entirely trusting and open with his colleagues. When Captain America asks for an explanation, Fury responds, “That’s very classified information… but you’ve been through a lot, so you’ve earned it.” This doesn’t sound like the scheming and manipulative Fury of stories like Secret War or Secret Warriors. Of course, that is entirely the point.

Capping off a controversial volume…

There are acknowledgments of the darker and edgier events unfolding elsewhere, and Kirkman seems to lament the cynicism that has crept into once idealistic comic books. The most ridiculous villain featured here, Batroc, is dismissed by Steve as an “idiot”, as if to suggest that it’s somehow “beneath” Steve to deal with him at the moment. Batroc himself seems to notice a change in Steve, suggesting the hero has moved towards the darker and edgier school of superheroics. “You’re not playing around. I’ve never known you to be this brutal.” In contrast, Batroc is playing up his classic supervillainy. He’s claiming to have planted bombs in a packed stadium while robbing the patrons. Of course, he’s bluffing. Not every supervillain is a mass-murdering psychopath.

Kirkman is writing unashamed superheroics, in a simple and bright world. The best part of this arc is actually the superb covers, which hark back to an earlier and simpler time. Several of the covers brag about their contents in a manner that will remind many readers of classic Silver Age issues – complete with alliteration and exclamation marks. “The Hordes of Hydra Attack!” we’re told on the very first issue, for example. Unfortunately, I think they’re the only aspect of it thatreally works.

Snakes in the grass…

Elements of the story just seem a little too self-aware and a little too cheesy. There’s never any tension, just this consciously stylistic awareness of genre conventions. It seems Kirkman leans just a little too heavily on the ridiculous lightness of superhero comics, with Hydra goons complaining about their salaries as compared to those at the other nebulous evil Marvel organisation, A.I.M. Captain America is talking about repair to his apartment, and asks, “Do you guys have a super hero discount? Fifteen percent? Good — thanks.”

This sort of cheeky winking at the goofiness of the set-up works quite well if you’re willing to go the whole way – but it seems like Kirkman would be better suited to writing a straight-up spoof than drafting a conventional superhero story that just happens to make all these silly references. It’s hard to care too much about Nolan’s secret S.H.I.E.L.D. conspiracy or the Red Skull’s latest attempt to kill Captain America when the comic is far too busy nudging our elbows and nodding its head.

Maybe the “disassembled” title was literal?

I can see what Kirkman is trying to do, but I’ll freely concede that I’m not entirely buying it. There are stronger examples of decidedly “retro” comic books out there (Mark Waid’s Daredevil and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men come to mind), and it feels strange for Kirkman to close out a volume of Captain America by returning the character to the world of pulpy superheroes. On the other hand, this short run did pave the way for Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run, and is far stronger than what came before. It’s not the most successful comic book tie-in ever, but there have been far worse.

Check out our look at the Avengers: Disassembled tie-ins:

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