Roger Stern and John Byrne's War and Remembrance
One Brief Shining Moment
I don't really like saying absolute statements like "This is what superhero comics should be like," since that feels like imposing my tastes in too extreme a manner to be taken seriously, but there are times I'll make an exception or at least choose my words carefully while essentially saying the same thing. Captain America: War and Remembrance, written by Roger Stern and drawn by John Byrne, which ran in Captain America #247–255 (1980–1981) is one of those exceptions.
This run, short as it was, is one of those rare perfect combinations for me. I can't say enough good things about Roger Stern. For my money, he's one of the two greatest pure superhero writers ever, and by "pure superhero writer," I mean someone who tells his stories in a straightforward, conventional manner and reinforces what's great about a particular character instead of someone who overturns conventions and takes those characters down before rebuilding them (the comics buzzword is "deconstruction," but I hate that since it's actually an inappropriate term). In that sense, Roger Stern for my money has the highest batting average.
Meanwhile, on the list of comic book artists that I love so much, there are very few I'd put above early 80s John Byrne, and I can count them on one hand. This probably shouldn't count as a surprise since George Perez is my favorite artist of all time, but you know what? I actually would take early 80s John Byrne over George Perez of the same era. I think he was the superior artist then, and I think Byrne in that time was the perfect superhero artist.
And of course, Captain America is one of my favorite characters ever, one of my three or four favorite Marvel superheroes, and my absolute favorite superhero who doesn't have any superhuman powers. Sure, he got his powers from a Super Soldier Serum, but the dude was 4F, physically frail, and from poverty, and he wanted to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do. I'm sure we'll forgive him for not being a perfect genetic specimen and rich enough to train his body to the peak of human conditioning and is driven by obsession. Steve Rogers is the perfect hero because he was a hero before he ever had any physical right to be.
So we're talking my favorite pure superhero writer, one of my absolute favorite superhero artists at the peak of his powers, and my favorite nonpowered superhero ever. But as is often the case in comics (or in life, really), a combination of great parts is nothing if you can't bring it together. Fortunately for us all, Stern and Byrne brought it together on War and Remembrance. And like I said, I don't want to say things like "This is what all superhero comics should be like," so I'll phrase it a little differently and say this instead:
If I could give an aspiring superhero creative team a comic to study and emulate, it would be War and Remembrance.
Let's look at some of the things this book can teach aspiring creators.
Tell What You Must, Show What You Can
The first scene of War and Remembrance has Captain America running across the Brooklyn Bridge, jumping on top of a bus, hitching a ride to Midtown New York, jumping off in the middle of the road to an awning then to a flagpole then to a rooftop, and running for a while until he finally gets to SHIELD headquarters.
All throughout, Cap's thought bubbles fill us in on what's going on in his mind and what the purpose of his litte trip is.
The interdependency of the words and pictures, meaning the fact that they add something different to the story, makes the storytelling incredibly efficient. Stern's advancing the plot by telling you what you need to know, and Byrne's showing you just how capable Cap is in terms of physical skills and athleticism.
Now for sure, Stern still does do some unnecessary explaining — it's an 80s comic, after all, and it should still be read in that context. The thing, really, to remember about 80s comics is that accessible back issues were still a novelty, so exposition was a necessity. But Stern was very good at making it unobtrusive for its time, and it still does, to a large extent, hold up pretty well now. The important thing is that comics are a visual medium and the artist should shine, and Stern wrote sequences in such a way to make sure that Byrne did, in fact, shine.
Continuity Should Be a Tool
So Cap is running to SHIELD headquarters in that first sequence because he's got some questions about his past. This is because, when Roger Stern was editor of the book in previous years, he was stuck with a story that contradicted a lot of Cap's established history, and he wanted to clear that up. While there could easily have been a way to make it the focus of a multi-part story, Stern resolves the issue in one page. The entire thing is just a way to get Captain America to SHIELD where, because Nick Fury is missing, we see Steve Rogers and Dum Dum Dugan's friendship re-established, and then Baron Strucker attacks, kicking off the main story and the direction for the first three issues of the run.
The continuity problem was resolved in one page. Cap needed to get to SHIELD and it was as good an excuse as any. Stern killed two birds with one stone.
So to recap: for the first half of the first issue, we've seen Cap's physical capabilities, learned what he's after, resolved a continuity problem, established he's friends with multiple SHIELD agents, and kicked off the direction for a few issues. That's pretty economical.
Villains Should Be Threatening
Among the many villains Captain America fights in this collection are Baron Blood, an immortal vampire; Dragon Man, who's gone toe to toe with the mighty Hercules; and Mr. Hyde, who regularly fought Thor.
Cap was constantly overmatched in this run, and it gave off a real sense of danger as well as a sense of curiosity because you wanted to know how he was going to win. Of course, there was little doubt that he was going to win, because he's Captain America. Which leads us to our next point...
The Hero Should Be Awesome
Captain America is pretty awesome. We all know it. The guy's the perfect physical specimen, the best and most capable nonpowered superhero in existence. But the man has his limits. And like every great hero, he excels at going past those limits. Here he is bending a massive chain just enough to break free.
The one who's chained him to that boat is Mr. Hyde, who was introduced in comics as an enemy for Thor, and who has teamed up with my favorite Captain America villain, Batroc the Leaper! (I unabashedly love Batroc. Here's why.) Now Batroc's a villain, but he's not incredibly stupid, so he knows that Hyde would turn on him eventually, so he's actually the reason Cap is fighting Hyde at all.
Yep, of all the people Batroc could have called in to help fight Hyde, he chose Captain America. Now that's awesome.
It seems there's a lot of traction today in having heroes lose or fail, and maybe there's something to that. But I always think that win or lose, heroes should be awesome. We should be able to look up to them. More, we should be able to want to be like them.
As an aside, I really love Captain America's shield. The idea of a discuslike weapon that is both offensive and defensive and cannot be broken lends an air of myth and fantasy to someone who is otherwise a relatively (to the rest of his peers) grounded character. It adds the touch of "legend" to Marvel's living legend.
Vary the Tone as the Story Calls for It
Stern and Byrne didn't hesitate to go with changing the tone of each scene to suit whatever mood they were going for. It seems to me that these days a lot of superhero comics tend to go with a specific tone for each series, but Stern and Byrne proved that you can vacillate between lighthearted moments, tense moments, and even dark and disturbing moments. For example, here's Steve Rogers being introduced to the new tenant in his apartment, Bernadette Rosenthal.
A fun moment, right? Bright colors and all smiles and everything. Some issues later, he's fighting the vampire Baron Blood, and he tricks Blood into attacking him by pretending to sleep. Suddenly—
|Cap tricks a vampire into coming really close to him. I love Cap.|
I love that scene. Byrne really made you feel the collision with the shield.
When it is clear that Cap wasn't going to be able to beat Blood before the sun goes down (which would give Blood more strength),the color scheme shifts into a darker palette, and Cap does what any soldier would do — not that he has to like it.
That's the new Union Jack (essentially, he's the Cap of England) looking at the decapitation happening, by the way, and showing his reaction while he's engulfed by the shadow of it is probably more effective than actually showing the decapitation.
But the best issue to demonstrate these tonal shifts is probably the one where a third political party endorses Cap for president, starting a media blitz that has the nation believing that he would, in fact, run. Check out this panel where the Beast tells him about it. Byrne manages to convey frustration, disbelief, and amusement all in one go.
Then, here's Cap reacting to the reactions of Iron Man, the Wasp, and the Vision.
And then by the end, he just gets really serious, turning it down because he knows that politicians, even those he respects, would have to make compromises that he, as Captain America, wouldn't and shouldn't make.
In the second issue, actually, Cap makes a mental note that Nick Fury's job must in fact be a dirty one, and that he feels bad for him and respects him at the same time. There's an underlying complexity to the run, with Cap knowing that the dream and the reality are, at the moment, incongruous, but that he'd never stop doing his part in it as the symbol of the dream and that he's grateful for those who need to get their hands dirtier and make compromises so the reality can come closer to the dream. It's nothing the run dwells on for too long, but it's there, and you know it's there because Roger Stern put enough words in Captain America's thoughts and speech to remind you, and because John Byrne conveyed it as well as anyone could, without ever once forgetting that this was a superhero book and that bad guys needed to be punched.
So I don't usually say things like "This is what most comics should be like," but again, I'll say this: If I could give an aspiring superhero creative team a comic to study and emulate, it would be War and Remembrance.