Mar 13, 2014

Fighting Chance and Operation: Rebirth

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is out next month, so for the entirety of March, all of my articles will be about the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan! Today, we talk about...

Fighting Chance and Operation: Rebirth
Awesomeness by Omission
by Duy

As a kid in the 90s, I wasn't a big fan of Mark Gruenwald. I found him to be a writer of limited skill in comparison to his grand ambitions (Squadron Supreme is probably the best example of this — lots of ambition but in my opinion falling really short on execution). So I wasn't picking up Captain America on a regular basis or anything, even if, by concept, Steve Rogers is one of my favorite superheroes. I love the idea of a perfect physical specimen also being the symbol of liberty and freedom. I often see people online talking about how Captain America is unrelatable to people who aren't American, because of him being a symbol of America, but I have to say that that's never been a problem for me. What's important are the principles for which he stands.

Gruenwald wrote Captain America for 10 years, and he decided to wrap it up with as close to a "death of Captain America" storyline as he could possibly get. It ran for a couple of years and was called "Fighting Chance." With artist Dave Hoover, he kicked off the almost-two-year-long storyline with the whole idea that Steve Rogers' Super Soldier Serum, responsible for his peak human abilities, was degenerating and that it would eventually lead to his paralysis and death. The run was really panned, and people seemed to hate it because it put Cap in such unfamiliar trappings. For example, when he needs to arm himself so as to make up for his cellular degeneration, he gets a battle vest.

When his body finally does give out but his mind is still active, he has Iron Man make him a suit of armor.

People hated this stuff just like they hated when Superman went electric or Batman got replaced by some dude with spikes, but hey, I liked it. It wasn't the greatest thing in the world or anything, but it was kinda neat to see Cap just get distilled to pure determination and a desire to do right, which is what he had before he ever had the serum in his blood.

I like to call this kind of thing "Awesomeness by Omission." A characteristic is highlighted because something is being omitted. Superman going electric was an exercise in showing that Superman is the guy who does the right thing and figures out what he can do given his powers, and if he doesn't have those powers, he'll adjust. Batman getting his back broken and being replaced by Azrael in "Knightfall" was all about how Azrael is a crappy Batman. The Superior Spider-Man series is about what a fucking terrible Spider-Man Dr. Octopus is and how awesome Peter Parker is in comparison. "Reign of the Supermen" is all about how no one can possibly replace Kal-El.

Awesomeness by Omission tends to go over the heads of a lot of fans, who seem to think changes like these are permanent (they never are). But what got me about the then-negative reaction to "Fighting Chance" was that Captain America had lost the mantle of Cap before, twice — once when he quit and became Nomad, and once when he was fired by the government and became "The Captain." Maybe yeah, readers didn't know that this kind of thing happened to Cap all the time, but I was also 13 then, so what do you want, a fair and impartial judgment? Leave me alone.

Another thing that got me then, and it gets me now, is that for all the 90s-ness of Cap's armor and battle vests, it seemed kinda clear that Gruenwald was trying to poke fun at the tropes. His armor shot "mylar shrouds," which were really just saran wraps. His battle vest had air bags!

We got introduced to new sidekicks, Jack Flag, whose mask indicates he was based on the WildCATS' Grifter, and who carried a boom box around, because the 80s were never gone in Gruenwald's heart; and Free Spirit, officially the Favorite Captain America Sidekick of Every Adolescent Boy and Dirty Old Men, like Back Issue Ben.

Anyway, this all led to Mark Waid and Ron Garney's run. Gruenwald set the table for them by having Cap disappear, and before Waid and Garney decided to bring Cap back (Cap dies and gets brought back once every 12 or so years, you see. More on that next week.), they do more Awesomeness by Omission by having the Avengers each give their own testimony about the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan. My favorite is Hercules': "On Olympus, we measure wisdom against Athena... speed against Hermes... power against Zeus. But we measure courage... against Captain America."

Waid and Garney bring Steve back in the next issue though, in a storyline called "Operation: Rebirth." And from there on out, it just starts to gain momentum. First, Steve wakes up, shocked to find he's alive because the last thing he remembers is being close to death. Then, he discovers that his old girlfriend and the closest thing he had to a true love, Sharon Carter, Agent 13 of SHIELD, is alive and well after being dead for around 15 years in real time, and kinda hates his guts. And then he discovers that to save him, Sharon had to flush out all his blood and receive a complete transfusion, which impairs his physical capabilities for a while. But as usual, the fate of the world is at stake and Cap decides to still help.

That's the last time we see Awesomeness by Omission, because when his abilities start to come back, he realizes that the transfusion could have come from the only other person in the world with the serum running through his veins.

Turns out the Red Skull had a Cosmic Cube, one of those trinkets that make one's thoughts a reality. (Red Skull always has one of these. How it became his "thing," I don't know. You don't think it'd be a good fit or anything. But I guess it makes as much sense as "dying and coming back every 12 years" does for Cap.) But imprisoned within that Cube is the mind of Adolf Hitler. Cap doesn't know whether or not to believe Skull, but regardless, Skull tricks him into entering the Cube anyway, on a quest to destroy whatever it is in the Cube that's preventing the Skull from using it properly. And just as when it looks like Steve's about to bite, he breaks right out of the Cosmic Cube.

Steve Rogers, by sheer force of willpower, breaks out of the Cosmic Cube. After that, he threatens to kill the Red Skull. He doesn't actually do it, but it's pretty clear, at this point, Captain America is back in full force.

And that's when the run really kicks into high gear. Waid and Garney do "Man Without a Country" next, where Steve is branded as an outlaw and has to give up being Captain America for a while (another thing that happens to him a lot), and by the tenth issue of their run, one of my favorite moments ever in comics happens. While on a mission to free some prisoners of war in Tap-Kwai, Steve tells Sharon to lead them towards a rendezvous, and meanwhile, he'll hold off the army.

And of course, he does.

Unfortunately, that was it for Waid and Garney. Rob Liefeld got a hold of the character afterward for the outsourcing event Heroes Reborn, but Waid and Garney's run was building up and building up and building up that people in general thought taking them off the book so quickly was just a big waste of potential, so they were tapped to bring back Captain America in 1997 with Heroes Return. Unfortunately, I think Waid in general isn't as good on something the second time around (I don't know why this is), and Marvel moved Garney onto a Captain America spinoff title, Sentinel of Liberty, six issues in, replacing him with Andy Kubert. It wasn't the same. The momentum was gone. Garney had a dynamism and a sense of action that Kubert didn't have, despite a more commercially successful style. As it is, the Waid/Garney team left us with the promise of greatness, and some truly great moments, but without ever really fulfilling that promise.

It's a shame, but I guess one could say that Liefeld taking over the title was Awesomeness by Omission, this time for Mark Waid and Ron Garney.

You can read Fighting Chance and Operation: Rebirth here:

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