Oh, God — How could this happen here?
– Steve Rogers, Captain America #1
It seemed inevitable that Captain America would have to respond to September 11th. After all, the terrorist atrocities were an attack on the American way of life, and the iconic superhero was perhaps the hero best equipped to explore the scars left by the still-recent attacks upon the American psyche, much as his Secret Empire plot allowed him to respond to the Watergate Scandal. Unfortunately, John Ney Rieber’s work on the character is – while well-intentioned – clumsy, awkward, groan-inducing and cliché-ridden. Even the fantastic artwork of John Cassaday cannot salvage the run from its own tired and trite pseudo-philosophical ramblings.
Captain America has always, by its nature, been political. The iconic cover to the first issue featured the hero punching Hiter in the face, before the country even entered the Second World War. Of course, times are different – such a direct political statement would not work today. If an issue opened with Captain America punching Osama Bin Laden in the face, people would have deemed it crass, exploitative or in poor taste. Things are more complex now.
And, to be frank, that’s not a bad thing. Anybody browsing classic Golden Age comic book collections will be aghast of the explicit and implicit racism of many of the books keen to jump on the patriotic bandwagon by portraying America’s enemies as little more than savages – racial caricatures of Huns or stock Asian stereotypes. They weren’t right then, and they aren’t right now. Nobody would advocate a similar response to the terrorist attacks on New York City. (Save maybe Frank Miller, but that’s another kettle of fish.)
However, there’s a tendency to run too far in the other direction, to bow too much to political correctness. There’s a valid discussion to be had about American foreign policy – both of today and of years long past. However, tethering the debate to the attacks committed against a civilian target seems just as exploitative as using those attacks to justify an aggressive foreign policy. America was not to blame for those attacks, the men in the planes and the people who inspired them were responsible. They justified it to themselves in some crazy and warped fashion, but to grant legitimacy to their warped world view feels like pandering.
The New Deal, the first collection of John Ney Rieber’s controversial Captain America run is full of such thinly-veiled concessions about culpability. Terrorists launch an attack on the American heartland (the awkwardly-named “Centerville”) and justify it by claiming there’s a bomb factory nearby. “This is how you feed our baby?” a wife asks her husband. “With bombs? You make bombs?” The implication is clear: the husband is, through his passive complicity with his employer, somehow responsible for the chaos that has come to the small town. He can’t even defend himself properly, and responds with a semantic distinction – he only makes parts.
Rieber never seems to acknowledge that the bombs can be used for good. They liberated Europe from the grasp of a genocidal tyrant during the Second World War. More recently, they curbed an attempted genocide in Kosovo. Of course, not all uses of American military technology are so easily justified, but Rieber seems to ignore the reality of the political situation. While these weapons cause untold suffering, they also have helped to save lives in the long-term. One cannot, to be fair, be weighed against the other, by Rieber seems to ignore the fact that the morality of warfare is grey rather than black.
Steve Rogers never seems to score any rhetorical points against the generic evil bad guys who, naturally, blame American military imperialism for their woes. The main bad guy offers this generic Freudian rationale for his actions: “Guerrillas gunned my father down while he was at work in the fields — With American bullets. American weapons.” He challenges Steve to name his country, as if to make a point about how widespread that problem is. Of course, the bad guy doesn’t target the guerillas who murdered his family, but rather the people who produced the weapons.
His logic seems flawed. Which wouldn’t be a problem if he were a generic nutso supervillian, but Rieber seems to insist that his bad guys can only be defeated by understanding them. He seems to suggest that his villains have world view that is relatable, even if their methods are not. The problem is that Rieber seems to be writing these foes with a legitimacy that they lack. And, to a certain extent, that’s largely true of real life terrorists as well, at least ones on that scale – they have motivations, but to reduce them to this level of simplicity and use them to channel soul searching in the victims of these atrocities seems a bit forced.
Even Captain America himself seems quite neutered here. At one point he has to kill a terrorist to stop a massacre. He appears on television, lamenting the outcome, “I killed Faysal al-Tariq. The responsibility– The failure is mine.” While the idea of Cap claiming responsibility for the death is a nice touch, I find it hard to believe that Captain America deems the death of a hostile in combat while threatening civilians to be a ‘failure.’ The guy was a soldier. He signed up to fight a war. Yes, he mourns the loss of life, but the nature of the character is to accept that enemy combatants may die.
Of course, this characterisation of Steve Rogers would plague the awkward fourth volume, even after Rieber departed. One particularly terrible plot from the impressively and consistently woeful Chuck Austen would suggest that Captain America was actually frozen by the United States government when he discovered the plans to deploy the nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Keep in mind that this was a soldier who had volunteered to follow orders during the war, who had served in the trenches and seen the horrors of extended combat. I know it’s very fashionable for fans to diss the Disassembled era of Marvel Comics, but Ed Brubaker’s Captain America was a godsend compared to the woefully misjudged stories the character found himself subjected to here.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that comic book characters are incapable of exploring important philosophical challenges and ideas. Maus, after all, is one of the most harrowing accounts of the holocaust ever written. However, Captain America is a guy who wanders around in a bright costume beating up bad guys. It takes a very fine hand to use that as a vehicle to explore the post-9/11 feeling in America. I’d argue that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight did an exemplary job of using the superhero genre to respond to the attacks, and that Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers is a long-form exploration of the country’s need for heroes in the wake of the atrocities, but the problem is that Rieber simply isn’t up to the task of using Captain America to explore that feeling.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. After all, it would be a few years before popular media could bring itself to address the events of that day. There’s always generally a lag before pop culture at tunes itself – one or two exceptions not withstanding. Chris Claremont made Uncanny X-Men relevant by exploring the Civil Rights metaphor – over a decade after the height of the struggle. Brian Michael Bendis brought the iconography of 9/11 to superhero comics with Secret War and Avengers: Disassembled, but after a lot of time had passed.
Rieber’s writing is just too blunt, just too awkward. While their politics don’t align, Rieber shares a flair for Miller-esque narration, but without any of Frank Miller’s irony. “The sky should be burning,” Cap observes, in what’s probably a deep internal voice. “Or bleeding — If God’s watching this.” Profound. Later, he ratchets the angst up several notches until the dial on his internal angst-meter comes off in his hand. “Blood on your hands, they say. As though it stops there. At your wrist. Like a glove. As though you could do — This. And there could be any part of you that wasn’t stained and dripping.”
Rieber’s storytelling isn’t any better than his dialogue. At one point, we get the clumsy visual metaphor of Cap dangling, hanging on to a flag for dear life. All while his captions go on and on and on about holding on to the dream. In case you didn’t pick up on it earlier, Rieber actually names the town attacked by America as “Centerville.” I feel a bit dizzy – I’m probably suffering from blunt metaphor trauma. It is quite close to painful at times. I can’t believe that nobody at Marvel was warning anybody about what a mess Rieber was making.
Still, perhaps we are lucky. The arc ends somewhat abruptly, but none-to-soon, with the evil mastermind (who seems be up to nothing more than being generically evil) had planned to take Cap on a world tour including the Congo and Guatemala. Considering the angst generated by a trip to Dresden (“You didn’t understand what we’d done here — until September the Eleventh”), I think we can consider ourselves somewhat lucky. Also, as an aside, is Steve Rogers pretentiously lecturing himself in the second person? I’ve given up trying to make sense of this, and I like to think I’m a pretty forgiving guy when it comes to comic books.
That said, his first issue isn’t that bad. I mean, it’s just as simplistic and shallow and melodramatic as the ones that follow, but it doesn’t deal too much with the philosophical quandaries arising from the event. Instead, it’s the kind of “stick together” narrative we frequently saw in the wake of the attacks – similar to the ham-fisted ending of Spider-Man where the city seems to come to our hero’s aid. It is predictable and bit trite, but it’s easier to forgive in the context of the attacks. “We’ve got to be stronger than we’ve ever been. Or they’ve won.” It doesn’t seem as awkward and ill-advised as what followed, but it’s not especially good. At least it’s better than Doctor Doom and Magneto mourning the loss of human life, with Doom shedding a single tear.
The New Deal feels like an awkward attempt at relevance, but it just feels like an awkward attempt at pretentious naval-gazing. The series would limp on for quite some time before Robert Kirkman would put it out of its misery with Captain America: Disassembled, and that couldn’t come too soon. Thank goodness for Ed Brubaker.
Filed under: Comics Tagged: | Avenger, brian michael bendis, captain america, captain america: the first avenger, Dresden, ed brubaker, frank miller, god, john cassaday, john nay rieber, john ney rieber, joss whedon, MarvelUniverse, New York City, Osama bin Laden, Secret Empire, september, Steve Roger, steve rogers, terrorism, United States, Watergate Scandal