Inside Pulse 12

Retro-Reviews: Captain America #449-454 By Mark Waid & Ron Garney For Marvel Comics

Captain America #449-454 (March ‘96-Aug’96)

Written by Mark Waid (#449-454)

Penciled by Ron Garney (#449-454), Sandu Florea (#449), Pino Rinaldi (#453)

Inked by Denis Rodier (#449), Scott Koblish (#449-454), Sandu Florea (#449)

Spoilers (from twenty years ago)

So I’d dropped Captain America and a number of other titles in the early 90s, as I both prepared for heading off to university, and as I got increasingly bored with much of the Marvel line.  I started hearing good things about Mark Waid’s work with Cap in 1996, and picked up issue 450 to see what was going on.  I found it interesting enough to stick around through the Onslaught stuff and the title’s cancellation.  

One thing I find interesting, now that I’ve dug back into my collection, is that I didn’t bother to pick up Waid’s first arc, and only grabbed issue 449.  This is not because these would have been hard to find – Toronto was not lacking comics stores in the mid-90s, and many of them kept up to a year’s worth of recent issues available for cover price during this glut period.  I guess I just wasn’t all that interested.  Often for these columns, I go back and fill in some small gaps in my collection, but I don’t feel the need for this one, and will instead pick up with the first issue I own.

Waid’s entire run featured less characters than the average Gruenwald issue.  Here are the appearances from these comics:

Villains

  • Agents of Zodiac (#449)
  • Machinesmith (#451-453)
  • The Cyberops (four armored, nameless mercs; #451)
  • X12 (#454)

Guest-Stars

  • Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (acting head of SHIELD; #449)
  • Thor (#449)
  • Enchantress (#449)
  • Bill Clinton (US President; future primary candidate for first First Husband; #450, 453)
  • Dum Dum Dugan (apparently Director of SHIELD; #453)
  • Dr. Doom (#453)

Supporting Cast

  • Sharon Carter (#449-454)
  • Edwin Jarvis (#449)
  • General Chapman (US Army General; #450)

Let’s look at the events of this series in detail, with some commentary as I go along:

  • Issue 449 opens on Sharon Carter, who we find out has never been dead, but has instead been undercover overseas for years, holding a SHIELD bureaucrat out a window on a Helicarrier.  Cap shows up and stops her from dropping him.  It seems Sharon wants to know why SHIELD left her in the lurch for years.  Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine shows up, and informs them that Nick Fury is dead.  She wants Sharon arrested and debriefed, but Cap steps in and says that Sharon will come back when she chooses for debriefing.  They pair get put down on the Brooklyn Bridge, but suddenly a forceshield appears, cutting Manhattan off from the rest of the world, and shutting down all devices, including gas-powered ones.  Sharon is outside the shield.  Cap goes to investigate, and saves a pair of people from a helicopter that has crashed into the river.  He then discovers that some poorly dressed goons calling themselves Agents of Zodiac are behind all this nonsense.  He fights some, but there are hundreds of them, and we learn that they have a device that is sapping power from everywhere to run their shield, and that they want to cut the city off from the stars or something.  Cap goes to Avengers Mansion (no longer the headquarters – I guess that changed somewhere along the way), where he rescues Jarvis from more Zodiac guys.  He keeps fighting his way across the city, until he gets to Thor’s apartment, where he learns that Thor has raggedy wild hair, and is shacking up with the Enchantress.  Also his hammer is only a hammer now.  This story was continued in issues of Thor, Iron Man, and Avengers, but I never read any of them, and don’t care to.
  • Sharon Carter is hanging out in Cap’s apartment when some guys in suits bust in, and she thinks they are after her.  She fights them and escapes.  Steve shows up, and we learn that the suits are there to arrest him for charges of treason.  One of them finds his Cap uniform.  Cap, now in costume, arrives in handcuffs for a meeting with Bill Clinton and General Chapman.  They believe that, since Cap fought alongside the Red Skull during Waid’s first arc, and that since he’s harboring Sharon, he’s up to something.  It looks like Machinesmith got access to information about a secret anti-aircraft cannon called the Argus that only Cap and Clinton knew the plans to (because of course they would know how to make high-tech cannons).  Clinton believes that Cap traded state secrets in order for the Skull to heal him with the cosmic cube (from whatever happened at the end of Gruenwald’s run).  Because Cap knows so many more secrets, Clinton decides to exile him to England instead of putting him on trial (because we are supposed to believe that CIA secret prisons began to operate only under GW Bush?).  Cap is flown to London and is about to hail a cab when a figure in black grabs his arm.  They fight, and we learn that the person is Sharon, who has followed him to help him, and is now on the run for illegally landing a plane.  Cap is determined to figure out who framed him.
  • In London, Sharon is upset to find Steve in a state of self-pity.  She gives him a new costume, which is basically the same as his old one, without any patriotic trappings.  She also gives him a plasma field shield.  Steve tells her that he wants to go to Moldavia, the country where the Argus is, so he can track down Machinesmith to find out how he got the information that was in his head.  Machinesmith sends four armored goons, which Sharon later calls cyberops, to track Steve down.  On a train, Steve and Sharon speculate that Machinesmith may have jumped into Steve’s body at some point when the Skull had him frozen (presumably this happened in Waid’s first arc).  While they talk, the cyberops attack the train, tossing Steve out.  He returns in his new outfit, and they fight.  Steve and Sharon jump off the train, and rush to a nearby American Air Force base, where Steve hopes Sharon can hack the computers to find the Argus.  The cyberops follow, and there is more fighting.  Steve steals an F-15, thinking that if he flies into Modavia’s no-fly zone, he can find the location of the Argus, because the Moldavians use it to shoot him down.  His plane explodes with he and Sharon still on it.
  • Sharon wakes up and realizes she is falling from her shot-down jet, strapped to her ejection seat, without a parachute.  Steve dives towards her, and gets the chute released, but he pulls her out of the chair before it lands. They spend the night in a cold cave, not huddling together for warmth, and when Sharon wakes, she is surrounded by four Moldavian soldiers.  She escapes them, just as Steve shows up in a stolen army jeep.  They drive to a checkpoint disguised as Moldavians, and Steve stops Sharon from shooting a soldier.  While Sharon fights off a number of soldiers, Steve makes his way to the Argus cannon and uses his new plasma shield to blow it up somehow.  He is blown clear of the blast, and Sharon feels that she has to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on him.  A gas grenade is launched at them, and they pass out.  When they wake up, they are being held by Machinesmith, who explains that he has all of Steve’s knowledge encoded on a coin, which he uses to take control of a SHIELD Helicarrier and aim it at a mountain.  We also discover that Machinesmith has one of his bodies close to Clinton.
  • While Sharon tries to return control of the Helicarrier to SHIELD, Steve smashes stuff and finds a way out of Machinesmith’s bunker.  Sharon manages at the last second to save the Helicarrier, while Steve runs to the Latverian border, where his Avengers identicard gains his entrance to the country.  He is taken to Dr. Doom, and he makes his case that war in Moldavia would be bad for Latveria.  Doom arranges a flight back to America for him.  At Camp David, Machinesmith and his robots arrive, and he attacks, grabbing the ‘football’, the briefcase that controls America’s nuclear arsenal.  He beams his consciousness into Clinton’s head to retrieve the codes, and Clinton realizes that’s what he would have done to Cap too.  Just when things look bad for President Clinton, Cap arrives (wearing an imitation outfit provided by Doom).  He fights the robots and grabs Machinesmith, who jumps into the ‘football’.  Cap throws the ‘football’ into a fuel tank next to some flames and it explodes.  Later, Clinton apologizes to Cap and gives him back his shield.
  • Sharon is in the Asian nation of Tap-Kwai, where she is offering to sell the coin encoded with Cap’s memories to X12, a young man who secretly runs the country.  Just as the deal is about to go bad, Cap shows up on a motorcycle.  He scoops up Sharon, who is not happy to see him, and they drive through the Yankeetown neighbourhood and dive into the bay at the end of a street.  Cap has stashed a jet ski, which they use to get out of the city.  They begin jogging through some grass, arguing.  Sharon takes Cap to a jail, where we learn she lived for eight months after being abandoned by Cap.  We learn that X12 runs the security forces that run the country, and that depend on slave labour from other countries.  When Sharon starts to jog to their exfiltration site again, she notices Cap is not with her; he is freeing the chained up labourers.  The army arrives and starts shooting at them.  Cap turns back to hold them off while Sharon leads the freed prisoners to a nearby SHIELD Helicarrier which beams them all up.  When Cap catches up, Sharon decides to stay in the country to fight X12.  Cap and her almost kiss, but salute instead, and Cap beams up to the Helicarrier.

These are not great comics, but when placed against the contest of the rest of 1996, they are in fact kind of remarkable.  Waid took the book in a new direction, and while it’s more decompressed than anything Gruenwald ever did, they felt pretty fresh at the time.  

Waid’s take on Sharon Carter is interesting.  She comes off as a very complex character, but her actions aren’t really clear or explained.  It’s hard to know what her status is – is she wanted by SHIELD?  Is she a fugitive from the government?  What are her feelings towards Cap?  She helps him out when he’s exiled, even arranging a new costume for him, but she also shows very little trust for him when he goes off to rescue Clinton from Machinesmith.

Ron Garney’s art on this book felt dynamic at the time, but reminds me of why I’m not generally a fan of his (although his recent work on Men of Wrath and Daredevil has caused me to reevaluate that position).  His panels are gigantic, and very little happens on any given page.  This is part of the decompression of the era, but I remember thinking at the time that he was a trendsetter that way, instead of someone who was just following a new house style.

I think the abortive nature of this run is very telling.  Reading the letters pages, it seems that Waid and Garney’s run was very well received, and I believe that sales were climbing at this time.  I mean, it was the positive word of mouth that got me to pick the book up again at a time where I was buying only a handful of Marvel books.  So, what does Marvel do?  The same thing they do today – they cancelled and relaunched it.  I’m speaking, of course, of the Heroes Reborn fiasco, that had Rob Liefeld redesign Cap.

Even in 1996 I had a rule about Rob Liefeld, so I didn’t buy his issues, opting instead to drop the book.  I did, however, sample it after Liefeld left, so we’re going to take a look at that next time around.  These columns are going to be short and more frequent for the next little while, as so were my forays into Cap’s various titles.

If you’d like to read any of the columns about Captain America that preceded this one, you can check these links.

#266-300 – JM DeMatteis and Mike Zeck’s classic run

#301-306 – Mike Carlin’s placeholder run.

#307-332 – Mark Gruenwald and Paul Neary’s run

#333-350 – John Walker as Captain America run (Gruenwald and mostly Dwyer)

#351-386 – Steve is back as Cap; Gruenwald, Dwyer, and Lim’s runs

#387-413 – Gruenwald and Levins, at least until I dropped it

If you’d like to read the stories I talk about here, you can follow this link for a trade paperback that encompass these issues.

Captain America Epic Collection: Man Without a Country

 

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