Retro-Reviews: Captain America: Dead Men Running By Darko Macan & Danijel Zezelj For Marvel Comics

Captain America: Dead Men Running #1-3 (March – May ‘02)

Written by Darko Macan

Art by Danijel Zezelj

Colours by Matt Madden

Spoilers (from fourteen years ago)

I stopped reading Captain America in late 1998, having grown very bored with the book, having gotten a lot busier in life, and having cut my pull-file list to the most essential only.  The thing is, I’ve always liked the simplicity of the character, and after a few years, I found that I missed him.

In 2002, Marvel was doing some more interesting things with their characters than they had in a decade.  The Ultimate line was in its infancy, Grant Morrison and Joe Casey were stirring up the X-Men in totally unexpected ways, and Brian Michael Bendis had introduced us to Jessica Jones.  

In this midst of all of this innovation and new excitement, Marvel put out a three-issue miniseries about Captain America done by a pair of Croatian comics creators.  Darko Macan had caught my eye with his Grendel Tales miniseries, and Danijel Zezelj had been one of my favourite artists since I first saw his work in the Vertigo Congo Bill mini.

Needless to say, I was down to see how a pair of European creators would approach the most iconic American character.  Let’s take a look at what happened in this miniseries:

  • The book opens in a jungle, where five American soldiers are looking a little rough.  The story is narrated by one of the soldiers, Sergeant Roberto Solano Vicq (Bob Solo), who is always shuffling a deck of cards.  We quickly learn that their Corporal is dead, as is his radio, and that they’ve been pursued by some Colombians for days.  We also learn that they are accompanying a group of children who don’t say much, and that the Corporal had requested reinforcements before he died.  We see a plane fly overhead, and a single person parachute into the jungle nearby.  The soldiers learn that it is Captain America who jumped, and that he’s there to take them to an extraction point two days away.  The men are happy to see him, and he has them set out towards a convent a day’s walk away.  We learn that Cap speaks fluent Spanish.  Cap detects an ambush before it happens, and helps the soldiers subdue their pursuers.  As they walk, Cap learns that it’s not the Colombian army nor insurgents that chase them, but the cocaine mafia.  Cap tries to question the kids about why they were prisoners of drug lords, but as they reach the river the convent is on, a helicopter appears, calling for the Americans to release the kids and surrender.  One of the children calls out to her father, on the helicopter.  Cap gets shot in the shoulder, and one of the soldiers, called Hulk, throws Cap’s shield at the copter.  It maneuvers into a part of an oil well, and explodes.  The men return his shield to Cap, and Solo moves to treat his shoulder wound.  At the same time, Cap starts questioning the men’s mission.  Solo has drugged him, and he collapses as we learn that the soldiers intend to take over some of the drug trade, and that the kids were taken as hostages.
  • The soldiers approach the convent, with one of them, Nystrom, carrying Cap’s shield in front of him.  The main nun does not want the soldiers to come inside the convent, but offers aid to the children and to Cap, who is unconscious.  The Lieutenant and Sore shoot the nun’s guards, and the Lieutenant takes her hostage.  Once inside, Nystrom argues with the others, while Solo begins a long narration about his relationship with the church.  The Lieutenant shoots the nun in the head, and the other nuns come out, expecting the same treatment.  Hulk finds a radio, and the men lock up the children, Nystrom, and Cap.  We learn that Sore has a grudge against Cap, dating back to his childhood, when his great grandfather would beat him for not living up to Cap’s example.  He begins to beat on the barely-conscious Cap.  The Lieutenant uses the radio to call his Major, who does not seem happy to learn they do not have ‘the goods’.  He gets their coordinates.  The Lieutenant walks around the compound with Cap’s shield in hand.  Cap comes to, and begins to argue with Sore.  He manages to knock him out with one punch.  The Lieutenant has climbed a high wall, and sees two F-18s flying his way.  One fires its missiles right at him.
  • Somehow these missiles do very little damage.  Cap’s shield takes the force of one missile, but the Lieutenant is still fried and decapitated.  Sergeant Solo goes a little crazy, shooting a burned nun, taking the shield, and attempting to flee when Cap arrives with the unconscious Sore.  Cap gives him a long lecture, and together they begin to dig out the other survivors.  Cap wants to still push to the rendezvous he has arranged, but the others want to stay to hold off the ‘cocaine mafia’.  Cap and the nuns leave, and Solo tells him the name of the Major behind the whole situation.  The ‘Coke Mob’ arrive in skeleton suits, Sore puts on Cap’s mask, and they begin to fight.  Cap, the nuns, and the children, make it to the plane that is waiting for them, but the others, outnumbered and in bad shape, continue to fight to the end.

This was a strange miniseries, especially considering that it came on the heels of the 9/11 attacks, but did nothing to reference them (of course, it’s always possible this was in the pipeline or in a drawer somewhere from before that).  Makan is a good writer, and is clearly interested in writing about what Captain America means more than the actual character.  The problem is, he’s tossed him into a strange situation without having enough space to fully develop the story.  We never get a sense of whether these soldiers were forced to go on this mission, or if they were coerced, or duped.  It’s clear that some of them are solid, good people, but for the ones who aren’t, we don’t get any real indication of why that might be.

Another thing I’d be curious to know more about is this ‘Cocaine Mafia.’  Why is this group not called a cartel?  Why are they wearing such garish outfits?  I’d have liked more background to this story, so I’d be more invested in it.

Zezelj, of course, is great.  It was the right decision to strip Cap of half of his uniform, as Zezelj’s superheroes look a little silly.  What he is good at is drawing real people in a moody, Impressionistic way, and in drawing gorgeous establishing shots.  I’m never going to be completely unhappy when his name is attached to a project.

That’s it for this short miniseries.  The next Captain America comic that Marvel released was huge, in that it reassessed and changed the way Cap has been drawn (in his traditional uniform) ever since.  I also don’t remember it as being very well written, so we’ll have to see how it’s stood up over time.

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

#449-454 – The back half of Mark Waid and Ron Garney’s first run

Volume 2 #7-11 – Heroes Reborn (James Robinson issues only)

Volume 3 #1-11; Sentinels of Liberty 1-3, 8 – Heroes Return (Waid’s second run, with Garney and Kubert)


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