Oct 15, 2010

Comics Cube! Reviews: Captain America: Patriot

Thanks to Brian Cronin over at Comics Should Be Good, my attention just got drawn to the new CAPTAIN AMERICA: PATRIOT miniseries, written by Karl Kesel (one of the most underrated scribes of the 90s!) and drawn and colored, respectively, by Mitch and Bettie Breitweiser. I bought the first two issues this week, and my reaction? I'm blogging about a comic that I didn't even know existed until Cronin pointed it out, so yes, it's THAT good. You HAVE to get this.

Despite what you may think at first glance, the series isn't about either Steve Rogers (the original Cap) or Bucky Barnes (the current Cap). Aside from one scene, Cap doesn't even show up (thus far) in the series)In fact, the main character is one you've most likely never heard of! His name is Jeff Mace, and his code name is The Patriot, and he's been around for nearly seventy years.

As per the Comics Cube!'s M.O., it's time to give some history. You have the option to skip it and  go straight to the "Do you really need to know this before reading the book?" paragraph right after it.

See, in the 40s, after the war ended, superheroes were considered outdated by the public, so sales on superhero sales started going down. By the 50s, aside from a handful, they were all gone, including Captain America. Then, when superheroes made a comeback, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought back Captain America and ushered him into what was then the modern age. The explanation they gave was that Captain America and his sidekick Bucky fell into arctic water at the end of the war, and that Cap had been trapped in suspended animation since.

Of course, there was a problem. Cap had adventures after World War II, so how to solve this? In one of the earliest instances of fixing continuity that didn't really need to be fixed (I think we could have just ignored all the post-WWII stories), Roy Thomas made it so that after Captain America died, the government decreed that Captain America can't die. He was too big a force of inspiration for the American people. So it was decreed that people would stand in for Cap. One of those was low-rung Golden Age hero, Jeff Mace, The Patriot.

This miniseries is pretty much of Jeff's life, from the time he became the Patriot in 1941, presumably until the time of his death. Now, although the Captain America franchise is now going strong, and will only get stronger because of the upcoming movie, this is still an incredibly risky move, because in theory, it's the character who sells, or at least the concept of the character who sells. Jeff Mace is so obscure, even among comic fans, that I can't believe they went through with this project.

Do you really need to know this before reading the book? No, you don't. The Patriot could be an all-new character, and you could know absolutely nothing about Captain America, and you could pick up CAPTAIN AMERICA: PATRIOT and read it as a complete story thus far. In the first scene alone, Kesel already establishes the inspirational force that Cap is when he encounters a young reporter, Jeffrey Mace.

You never even see Steve Rogers after that scene, and his impact is felt throughout the whole book, because that moment inspires Mace to become the Patriot. The rest of the story is about him trying to become the best superhero - or, should I say, mystery man - he can be, trying to live up to Captain America's example and the name his idol gave him. It's an interesting story, because Mace ends up joining a team called The Liberty Legion, and not only is he the only one on it without any powers, he's also the only one on it who has neither a ton of money or a college education. He's got a really strong inferiority complex, but he's constantly called upon as the symbol, leader, and spokesperson of their group, specifically because he is so relatable.

Kesel, who is no stranger to second-tier characters, having written SUPERBOY and DAREDEVIL in the 90s, does an excellent job in portraying Jeff's character and the time period. Not only is the dialogue authentic (with a radio show saying of the Patriot, "Careful, ladies! His fists break jaws -- but his blue eyes break hearts!"), but the advantage of doing a period piece - especially one with a character so unexplored - is that you can go places that you can't go with the main guys, and places that they never went to back then. Case in point: there's a scene where Jeff, now Captain America, finds out that a friend of his committed suicide after he was discharged from the navy. This friend was blue-ticketed - discharged for homosexual behavior - and he was pretty much out. In the unenlightened 40s, this was not cool with the American public, and Jeff wants to go, but his fellow heroes simply won't let him, because if he goes, he'll destroy everything Captain America stands for. Young men won't believe in him, and his legend will be destroyed. The solution is an inspired one -- touching and painfully obvious at the same time.

The entire story works within the framework already established by previous Marvel writers. But where most other writers would see this as an excuse to just clean up continuity and establish more of its history, Kesel uses the continuity to suit his story, not the other way around. He contradicts nothing (as far as I know), and he fills in all the blanks that even hardcore comics fans like me never knew needed filling. For example, there's one story in the 40s where Jeff saves girl reporter Mary Morgan from a scientist, but not till after she had been imbued with superpowers. Morgan then becomes the superheroine, "Miss Patriot," proclaiming herself to be the Patriot's sidekick, but then never showing up again. Kesel takes this tiny bit of history and turns it into a benefit for his story, bringing in Mary Morgan in a prominent role, all the while explaining why she was never around for the Patriot's adventures. And again, is all this history something you need to know when you read it? No. It's really, really not.

I'm of two minds about the artwork. On the one hand, I've always believed that unless you're going for a painted look, I should be able to appreciate the art if it was in black and white. And in that respect, I don't think I can appreciate this art in black and white.

It looks too disjointed for my taste. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that Mitch (the penciller/inker) and Bettie Breitweiser (the colorist) are obviously close - and I'm not going to say that they're husband and wife, because I'm not sure - and that the final product is great to look at. I've seen them work together before, in a backup story in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #600, and I pretty much felt the same way. Not particularly crazy for the figure work, but I liked the final product.

On the plus side, remember what I said the other day about artists who can draw basic emotions but can't draw the subtle ones? The Breitweisers are not in that category. Check out Jeff's look when he finds out the government doesn't want him to join the European frontlines, while some of his teammates were chosen.

Kesel and the Breitweisers have done, in two issues alone, an excellent job of making a previously flat and undefined and incredibly obscure character into a sympathetic and enthralling one. In this story, the Patriot is an important figure, specifically because he's not. It's a great read, and one worth your time.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: PATRIOT's first two issues are still in comics stores near you. There are two issues left, and I'm in for the sweet and wonderful ride.


Unknown said...

With respect sir, I appreciate the article, but you should not confuse your unfamiliarity with Jeff Mace with the idea that he is an obscure character. As a long time Captain America reader, I saw Jeff featured in The invaders, A Marvel Premiere two parter that crossed over into the Invaders and Fantastic Four. And finally a storyline in Captain America, which has a dying Jeff Mace returned to the role of Captain America for one final mission by the Contemplater to team with all the previous existing Captain Americas' to battle the android Atom II. Later in the Captain America storyline, Cap (Steve Rogers) fights through adversity and bad guys to race to the hospital to be with Jeff Mace at his death bed. a very poignant story.

Jeff Mace was not an obscure character.

Duy Tano said...

I am familiar with all of those stories you mentioned. There's no way they'd be familiar to anyone who hasn't been a Captain America reader. Having read those stories doesn't make the character not obscure, any more than reading Thor comics makes Harokin a familiar character to anyone who doesn't read Thor.

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