Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: Captain America #440

Captain America #440, "Dawn's Early Light," Taking A.I.M. part 1 of 4, Cover Date June 1995
Written by Mark Gruenwald, Pencils by Dave Hoover, Inks by Joe Rosen

Captain America 440 Cover

I should admit going into this that I'm not a fan of Captain America. I think he works fine as a part of the Avengers, but I think he's an incredibly dull protagonist compared to just about every other Marvel character. So while I know a lot of obscure trivia about most Marvel characters, I've only read a few scattered issues of Captain America before Brubaker and Epting tricked me into buying an amazing crime book that featured Captain America (until he was killed off 25 issues in).

Last time, on the Avengers: after a confrontation with Red Skull in Canada, the team was surprised at their mansion by a returning Captain America, who is dressed in a big armored uniform due to health complications during an ill-conceived storyline where Cap's body rejects the super soldier serum. This issue is meant to take place a brief time later, but the Avengers meeting with Cap is never shown.

We begin with Captain America flying into an underground tunnel "beneath the bedrock" of Manhattan. It's not clear whether this is above or below the Morlock Tunnels, Mole Man's lair, or any other potential underground dwellers. Cap meets with his old friend D-Man, who has apparently become the king of the homeless underground people, and asks for his help against A.I.M. D-Man refuses, and Cap leaves. Very important scene right here.

Captain America 440 Black Crow Falcon
I wish the next panel was the Falcon dunking on these kids.

In Brooklyn, Falcon sees a group of kids and a Native American man in a wheelchair playing basketball. Falcon asks the wheelchair bound man, Jesse Black Crow, if he could help Cap, but Black Crow blows him off, saying if he could help anyone, he'd probably fix his crippled legs. Fun fact: apparently there were plans for Black Crow to temporarily replace Steve Rogers as Captain America way back in 1984, until editor Jim Shooter shot the idea down. This issue was Black Crow's first appearance in a Captain America comic since that storyline, 140 issues earlier.

Meanwhile, in a Manhattan hospital, Captain America's current sidekicks, Jack Flag, Free Spirit, and Fabian Stankowicz, meet with a friend before attending a briefing with Nick Fury, Cap, and Falcon aboard a flying ship Cap can apparently borrow whenever he wants to infiltrate an A.I.M. base. Fury explains that A.I.M.'s island base has been the scene of energy spikes that resemble the cosmic cube's energy signature. Cap insists it's worth risking an international incident to keep WMD's away from terrorists, but politically-savvy Nick Fury bails, jumping out of the plane and using a glider-suit thing to avoid falling to his watery grave.

Captain America 440 M.O.D.A.M.
Have M.O.D.O.K. and M.O.D.A.M. procreated? They should.

At the tropical island of Boca Caliente, A.I.M. sends in M.O.D.A.M., (Mental Organism Designed for Agressive Maneuvers), the female M.O.D.O.K., into a room to attempt repairs on the cosmic cube-making device. M.O.D.A.M. monologues that A.I.M. must have classified her as "expendable" to give her such a mission. Five miles from Boca Caliente, Superia confers with the incredibly obscure henchman "Snapdragon" about how Captain America must be on his way following the information she provided him.

Captain America 440 Quicksilver Black Widow
That's Namor in a wig, right?

On cue, Cap's team sneaks onto the island by sea, then splits up into two groups. Despite an internal monologue about Jack and Free Spirit's lack of experience, Cap lets them wander off alone, where they witness Red Skull show up and murder a few A.I.M. goons. The pair recognize an opportunity and start putting on the dead henchman's uniforms when they notice the two henchman have suddenly revived, and taken on the shapes of Rhino and Knockout, but colored green. Cap and Falcon meanwhile, find the source of the energy signatures, and Cap leaps in, only to get a full-on blast of energy. The Falcon notices the A.I.M. goons fighting amongst themselves, then one of them turns into a green-tinted version of minor villain Killer Shrike. The Avengers, meanwhile, fly in, after voice of reason Quicksilver asks "uh, why didn't we just go with Cap?" Black Widow's explanation makes no sense, but at least Dave Hoover takes the time to draw a super-exploitive shot of Black Widow's butt.

Captain America 440 Falcon
Dave Hoover showcases perspective for his students.

Nearby, Captain America lies in a field, helpless, as Superia approaches. Cap laments that any "man, woman or child" could get the better of him, but Superia merely gives him a syringe directly into his cheek, saying "consider this a free sample." But did she inject him with poison, or... an antidote? To be continued!


For being part 1 of a crossover, this issue is pretty tough to follow for somebody that wasn't already keeping up with Captain America. Especially irritating is that the cliffhanger ending of last month's Avengers, where Cap promised to "come clean," isn't dramatized, either here or in the Avengers issue that makes up part 2. Instead, we get a couple of seemingly pointless meetings, as Cap checks in on D-list superhero "D-Man," and Falcon breaks up pickup basketball to bother Jesse Black Crow, a character that hadn't interacted with Cap in 11 years. We get these two scenes instead of a straightforward explanation of Cap's health concerns. We also get way too much internal monologue, as Cap, Free Spirit, and M.O.D.A.M. all get their own, with Free Spirit's being a cursive handwriting that is both unnecessary and a little tough to read (blame my ability to barely read script on my poor grammar-school education that was phasing out cursive to talk more about this "inter net" that people thought might catch on). I can only hope that scenes re-introducing Black Crow pay off down the road, because they make this issue read like a sloppy mess that's nothing but set-ups for future pay-offs. There was more action in the last two months of "prologue" in the Avengers books. I also can't emphasize enough how hard it was to keep track of some of these villains as a kid before wikipedia and the marvel appendix existed. My introduction to these characters was trading cards, but only major Cap villains warranted their own cards- Baron Zemo, Red Skull, Crossbones, etc. Snapdragon and Superia were not included in those sets, and it's easy for a 10 year old to get pretty confused when the comic takes for granted that we know who these people are. Thankfully, Gruenwald does include an extremely useful list of footnotes on the letters page, explaining not only the first appearance of the cosmic cube, but where Black Crow last appeared, and that the A.I.M. henchman are all taking the form of villains that apparently appeared at A.I.M.'s weapon expo in Cap #'s 411-413. I love the idea of a villainous weapons expo, by the way, although how crazy is it that it's a reference from almost 30 issues earlier? That's pulling out an explanation from a 2.5 year old story, and then giving it away in a footnote.

Dave Hoover's art here is borderline grotesque, it's so exaggerated. I've read that Gruenwald intended the whole "Armor Cap" story to be a sort of 90's commentary on excess, so I wonder if he wasn't telling Hoover to intentionally go over the top with his style. Hoover's work on Starman and the Wanderers over at DC is far more restrained, because this is all-out. Awkward posing, impossible muscles, weird-faces. He also makes a couple of really leery cheesecake shots of Free Spirit and Black Widow. It's not particularly surprising that following his retirement into teaching art at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, his only continuing contribution was pin-ups of Supergirl and other heroines.

All things considered, this is a big step down from the general quality of the Avengers title. It seems to be content to just keep telling its own stories, ignoring the fact that this is a crossover and as such should at least try to attract fans who don't already read the book. I kind of wish Jack Flag and Free Spirit would be brought back though, because I find basically every Cap sidekick more interesting than Steve Rogers. Also, to pick on Bendis and his awful New Avengers (vol 2) run, he re-introduced Superia, noted misandrist who wore a full-body costume with a female symbol logo across her chest, as Green Goblin's lackey who dressed like this (costume by Mike Deodato). Then she dressed up like brunette Ms. Marvel as version 2 of Norman Osborn's "uh, let's all dress up like Avengers" plan, complete with Ms. Marvel's 70's short-shorts.

90's fashion: Cap's armored suit, 'natch. The teens playing basketball all wear jeans, and one's t-shirt reads "ShaD 1" for some reason. Shaquille O'Neal reference maybe? Jack Flag covers his face with Grifter's mask from WildC.A.T.S. Red Skull has apparently changed out of his yellow ensemble, as here he's wearing silver armor with a bunch of guns strapped to his back, making him look a bit like Deathlok.

Editorial Blunders: Superia tells Snapdragon: "Don't worry, dear Snapdragon... your previous Captain will get his antidote" (emphasis added). I think she means "precious."


  1. I'm a big Captain America fan, and Mark Gruenwald's run is my favorite era for the character, but the final year or two are kind of rough. Gruenwald seemed to be burning out, and it really shows. But the first four or so years, up to around issue #360 (roughly the end of "The Bloodstone Hunt"), are really good, and the quality stays fairly strong all the way up to number 400 or so, with fun stories and interesting sub-plots.

    Many point to the "Man and Wolf" storyline as the nadir of Gruenwald's run, and I would be hard-pressed to disagree. For the first time, the book seems to be engaging in shameless sales tactics, with gratuitous guest appearances by Wolverine and Cable, and of course -- "Cap-Wolf". It's around that time that Gruenwald begins to lose some focus. The stories seem less thought-out, and the sub-plots are no longer compelling. But even those final 40 issues have some redeeming moments.

    Just a handful of notes you may or may not appreciate:

    1. Black Crow does return in Gruenwald's final issue, #443.

    2. I can't believe I never realized until just now that Superia's costume emblem was a stylized female symbol. I was also unaware that Bendis had brought her back.

    3. The plane Cap flies around in is called his "Flagship". Get it?? For a while his personal pilot was Colonel John Jameson, from Spider-Man, though by this point it's Zachary Moonhunter (introduced in the above-mentioned "Man and Wolf" story).

    4. SPOILER ALERT: Snapdragon here is actually Cap's ex-girlfriend, Diamondback, working in indentured servitude for Superia after killing the original Snapdragon.

    I have no real problem with Gruenwald referencing a story from a couple years before. Comics do that sort of thing all the time. And heck, he wrote the story, so why not? Now, if there hadn't been a footnote, I would be miffed, but he played fair and listed the relevent back issues, so what's the harm? That's the sort of thing that really got me into comics in the first place -- "Hmm, issues 411 - 413? I should track those down!" Which of course would lead to a new footnote in one of those issues which I would also go after, and so on.

  2. You were probably better off not knowing re: Bendis, since she acted completely out of character, and when she beat up Luke Cage and company, they all acted like it was unheard of that they could lose to such a scrub.

    I don't have a problem with the footnote, it just shows how different things still were in this era. You just wouldn't see many writers today pull out a reference to a subplot from years earlier today. Hickman is the only current Marvel writer I can picture doing something like that.

    I didn't even get into the "Fabian Stankowicz does meth" subplot the book had a few issues earlier, but man does that sound like something I don't want to read in a 90's Captain America comic.

    As I hopefully made clear, my issue with this comic is that it's supposed to be starting a crossover, and seems to lack focus and doesn't spend enough time explaining what on earth is going on.

  3. You're definitely right about footnotes being a thing of a bygone era. Personally I miss them, but I sort of understand why they were phased out.

    I had forgotten about Stankowicz on meth! That was part of "Streets of Poison", the anti-drug story where Cap questioned his very existence as the product of a performance enhancing substance, and had the super soldier serum flushed from his system. Fortunately someone realized how stupid that line of thinking was, and the serum returned in fairly short order.

    "Streets of Poison" is of course most notable, though, for the scene where the Kingpin and the Red Skull strip to their undies and wrestle inside a force field.

    "...when she beat up Luke Cage and company, they all acted like it was unheard of that they could lose to such a scrub."

    I hate this attitude, and Bendis seems to do it a lot. Just because you as the writer think a character is lame, doesn't mean the characters do. Whatever one's opinion of Superia outside the comics, within their pages she has always been presented as a credible threat, and should be recognized as such by the characters.

    (Though I guess to be fair, it sounds like Bendis at least wrote her as a threat, if she mopped the floor with the Avengers. The attitude still buge me, though)

  4. I've always liked Cap (and like Matt, the Gruenwald run is a favorite - though I honestly don't think I've read much past #400 or so, aside from random crossover issues like this). Something about his resilient spirit, his inability to give up, that really appeals to me. There's a post-Heroes Return issue where he fights Korvac, and Korvac keeps recreating reality with himself as the overlord of it all, and Cap always rebels and fights back in the face of Korvac's power, again and again, because he'll always fight against oppression.

    That's Cap to me, and the best Cap stories are the ones that tap into that somehow.


    blame my ability to barely read script on my poor grammar-school education that was phasing out cursive to talk more about this "inter net" that people thought might catch on

    Say what what you will about contemporary American education, but man, I can't think of a single thing I was taught that has proved to be more useless than cursive.

    Jack Flag covers his face with Grifter's mask from WildC.A.T.S.

    Ha! I could have sworn it was at least a red-white-and-blue Grifter mask, but apparently not...

    @Matt: Just because you as the writer think a character is lame, doesn't mean the characters do.

    Yeah, I'm not sure what's worse - that, or when a writer has their hot new villain wipe the floor with a previously-established villain, just to show how awesome the new villain is.