Shiny Shelf

Captain America #21, The Crew #7 & The Ultimates #12

By Mark Clapham on 20 February 2004

Captain America is a tricky character to get right, a character who can easily end up a cardboard jingoistic stereotype. How do you deal with a perfect hero who symbolises an imperfect country? Should the stories reflect the ideal or the reality? Last week, three comics came out that address the problem in different ways.

Robert Morales wrote ‘Truth’, the ‘black Cap’ mini-series that came out early this year. #21 is his first issue of the regular ‘Captain America’ title, where he’s writing for Steve Rogers, the original blue-eyed blond model. Morales has gone for a contemporary action tale here, with a clear distinction between good guys and bad guys, but some more subtle social commentary around the edge of the story. The slavers that Cap takes down in the first few pages are clearly bad, bad men, and the government is right to close them down… but their victims, set to be shipped back to countries they tried hard to leave, add a shade of grey to the story.

The rest of the issue concerns Steve meeting an attractive young commercial artist, who talks a little about the power of symbols and his role as an icon, and then sets up the main plotline, as Rogers is ambushed on the way to a meeting with the Department of Homeland Security. The ambush allows for some striking action – Steve is out of his costume and minus his shield, so he picks up a couple of dropped guns to fight back. As is pointed out, Cap tries not to kill – but he’s willing to use whatever weapons are at his disposal to complete his mission.

The set up for the rest of the story is an intriguing one, involving a few topical issues. At the moment, Morales approach to the Department and its actions sits neatly on the fence – mistakes were made, and Cap is brought in to make sure things are done fairly. The writer will have to be careful that the story doesn’t veer into either propaganda or paranoid conspiracy, but so far Morales is off to a good start, with an issue that manages to be exciting, intelligent and occasionally funny. Morales’ Rogers is, on this evidence, a quiet man who fights his corner for what he sees as right, but doesn’t get involved in much beyond his mission. He’s the man who does his job, and providing he isn’t ordered to do anything too wrong, he’ll keep doing it.

Morales’ writing is complemented by Chris Bachalo’s pencil art, which is inked here by Tim Townsend. Bachalo has a lovely, distinctive style, but his frequent failing can be a lack of clarity, figures merging into each other with all that overlapping detail. Townsend’s inks go some way to keeping things readable, and the distinctive colouring of Cap’s costume – and his baseball jacket when in civvies – gives the reader something to follow in the more chaotic moments. Bachalo’s approach to the costume gives it a bit more of a textured, real world feel, and in the stylised world Bachalo creates it looks less ludicrous than normal. Bachalo’s strengths are brought out by the New York scenes, particularly with his eye for colour – an old school diner is sepia tinted, while a red dusk glows through an office window. Nice work.

While Morales is just getting started on ‘Captain America’, writer Christopher Priest is having to prematurely wrap up ‘The Crew’ with #7. While occasionally weighed down by its topsy-turvy narrative approach and abrasive characters, this has been a brave attempt to write superheroes with different, more complex personal priorities. The pace has picked up with the last few issues, as muslim preacher Josiah X has been revealed as the son of the black supersoldier from ‘Truth’, and has taken on a variant of the Cap costume himself. Josiah represents a new angle on Captain America, a similar hero coming from a different background, representing an America not much represented in the corridors of power. To Josiah, the stars and stripes are a symbol that has lost meaning to his community, and as a hero he intends to reclaim the flag for his own people. Josiah’s a great character, and deserves an encore – hopefully there’ll be room for him in Priest’s forthcoming ‘Captain America and the Falcon’ series. Also deserving of credit is Joe Bennett, whose work bridges the gap between mainstream superhero art and the more distinct stylings of an Eduardo Risso or Alberto Dose.

While ‘The Crew’ has ended after too short a run, ‘The Ultimates’ just keeps dragging on, regardless of long gaps between issues. The twelfth instalment of this beautifully drawn but painfully badly written book is the usual ‘Ultimate Millar’ drivel – bad action movie transferred to the page. Lame wisecracks, stupid set-pieces, inconsequential story. It ‘merits’ a mention here on the basis of the use of ‘Ultimate Captain America’, who has increasingly emerged as a fists-first right-wing nutjob of the first order. Here Cap heroically slams his shield through an alien’s ribcage, shouting the odd ethnic slur as he does so. As a lesson in how not to write the character, it’s extaordinarily precise, turning Rogers into an obnoxious thug. It’s entirely possible Millar thinks he’s writing a devastating satire of the right-wing mentality, but if so he’s crippled by his inability to convey such a complex sentiment. Like so many ’satirical’ ‘Judge Dredd’ stories, it seems more like an authentic right-wing power fantasy than a satire of such things. Popular this may be, but good it ain’t.

So, three Caps: a promising new approach, an unfortunate cancellation and a low quality success story. Let’s hope there’s no lessons to be learnt from this, and the good stuff will rise to the top eventually.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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