James Robinson, Marcos Martin, Javier Rodriguez and Cory Petit’s What Makes The Man, from 2009’s Captain America Comics #1, is a fond and respectful tribute produced for the 70th anniversary of Marvel Comics’s precursor publisher, Timely. Fleshing out the period immediately prior to Steve Rogers’ transformation into Captain America, it strives to add to his origin without in any way damaging its irreducible aspects. But in doing so, What Makes The Man shows how easy it is for even highly able creators to undercut and diminish the very material they’re fulsomely tipping their hat to.
It would be foolish to suggest that there’s a single, immutable origin tale of Captain America that demands complete and unchanging respect. Following his first appearance in early 1941, under the guiding hands of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Marvel’s super-soldier has developed an ever-accreting back story. At any one time, this or that tradition is lent more or less weight in Marvel’s storytelling, while new elements are constantly fed into the mix. The result is a canon which, while grounded in a relatively small number of commonly agreed story-facts, is constantly in a state of flux and marked by contradictions. Yet, for all the leeway that this provides for developments both considerable and minor, there are limits to how far the most fundamental aspects of Captain America’s history can be modified. Nowhere is this more true than in his origin tale, which, for all that it’s been repeatedly and considerably reworked over the past eight decades or so, still demands that certain plot-beats remain in essence as originally depicted.
In What Makes The Man, the Steve Rogers of 1940, not yet America’s star-spangled defender, is shown encountering a mortally wounded ‘Fed’ on a Brooklyn street. Having tragically met his match after ‘bust(ing) in on a gang of fifth columnists’, the agent hands Rogers an amulet containing secret information and exhorts him to keep it out of enemy hands. It’s a plot-twist that plunges Rogers into the role of an action hero as he’s forced to flee and then, cornered, to fight a trio of Nazi spies. The purpose of this, as established in the narration Robinson gives to Cap’s future sidekick Bucky Barnes, is to establish that Rogers was a noble and heroic figure prior to becoming a super-soldier. It’s an undeniably interesting retcon (*1), in that it allows both a closer look at Rogers prior to his scientific elevation into demi-godhood and a series of period action sequences.
At the same time, the tale pays close attention to the central pillars of Captain America’s founding myth. Immediately prior to the arrival of the expiring secret agent, we’re shown Rogers being rejected as 4F, as canon insists, by the US Army for being ‘simply not in shape to be an American fighting man’. As soon as the amulet’s safety has been secured, we’re presented with Rogers’ recruitment into the super-soldier programme. The intention of adding a pleasing and character-revealing spin to a long familiar tale seems clear. But this insertion of Robinson’s apparently minor retcon in-between two pillar’s of Captain America’s origin only over-complicates and, finally, undermines the origin’s allure. It hardly helps that it throws one too many coincidences into an already profoundly unlikely tale. That Rogers, in despair after his failed attempt to sign up, just happens to chance upon a desperately wounded agent who, fleeing fascist thugs, entrusts him with an amulet containing information ‘written in spidersilk, almost invisible to the human eye’, is a laughable accident of fate. That it happens just after Rogers has despairingly and repeatedly expressed his longing to serve his nation as a fighting man is similarly improbable. That the sole surviving ‘Nazi rat’ of those outfought by Rogers should then be the enemy agent who ‘killed the scientists and destroyed the super-soldier data’ is simply too neat a bow.
*1:- I’m working on the presumption that this episode is an invention new to Captain America Comics #1. Should it be an earlier addition to Cap’s mythos, my apologies, although its status as a problematical addition to the character’s origin would, I’d argue, still stand.
In terms of illuminating Rogers’ character while foreshadowing his future, lifelong mission, his encounter with a heroic Federal agent is a plot-twist that draws far more attention to itself than it ever repays. Perhaps if Martin’s art were less captivatingly contemporary in tone, the story might just be able to sell itself as a nod to the fabulous daftness of turn-of-the-40s Timely tales. But both writing and artwork are very much of the 21st century. Lean, direct, measured, visually inventive and, on the surface, quite logical, it’s simply not a breed of storytelling that might obscure, excuse, or even celebrate, such a howlingly farfetched sequence of coincidences. Form and content are uncomfortably ill-matched. It’s often the very brevity, heedless pace and unashamed ridiculousness of pre-Bronze Age origin stories that makes them so curiously appealing and effective. One speedy and overwhelming overload of the fantastical can deliver a maximum of both spectacle and feeling. The patently ridiculous, in its most concentrated and least self-conscious form, demands that the out-there is embraced rather than interrogated. Permission is there to focus on effect rather than sense. In that, a burst of fundamental absurdities can deliver a rich, involving experience that more restrained and careful storytelling can struggle to match.
But with What Makes The Man‘s 21st century verisimilitude fatally undercut by Robinson’s plot, any additionally awkward plot contrivances can only draw attention to themselves. So they do, and, the spell being broken, there are any number of them. What might be winning nods to the history of both Captain America and Marvel Comics now appear, in the light of the story’s central conceits, awkwardly obvious and unconvincing. It could have been cute, and yet ends up as sadly just cutesy, that the ‘Feds’ Rogers chances upon are operating out of the Timely Building. (So too a foreshadowing of Captain America’s shield, that I’ll return to later.) Improbabilities compound with carelessness in the scene set there. Having protected the amulet entrusted to him, Rogers somehow – it’s never explained – ends up in the base of a secret, hardpressed Federal force dedicated, it appears, to combating fascist spies. There, the senior Agent takes Rogers into his confidence about the existence of a ‘super-soldier‘ programme ‘applied to … American serviceman’. It’s as daft an idea as having a script featuring General Groves in, say, 1943, mentioning the existence of the Manhattan Project – which is at least a more opaque codename – and its relevance to bomb making to a casual acquaintance. ‘I’m breaking all kinds of protocol here’, declares the Agent who we’re clearly meant to respect as a man of both power and authority. But having the character admit that he’s acting in an entirely inappropriate way doesn’t explain or excuse his behaviour. It only fails to hide the implausibility in plain sight. (As a strategy, having characters admit that they’re behaving in unsupportable ways rarely makes them appear any more credible.)
As if to muddy the waters even further, the tale provides another nameless figure who could have been used to square this apparent circle. (You can see him in the scan above, appearing to give some kind of nod to informing Rogers about the nature of the rescued information.) Although his role is never made precise, this moustached character is clearly associated with the super-soldier programme and, at the very least, respected by the Agents in the Timely Building. (They may all be directly associated with the programme. Who can tell?) He can be seen watching Rogers while he fails the medical at the book’s beginning, he takes a silent part in the interview Rogers has when he brings the amulet to safety, and he subsequently invites Rogers to join the Super-Soldier programme. It’s a storytelling choice that only increases the obvious weight of coincidences in the story without helping to either explain away or obscure them. So Rogers was being watched by a shadowy government-sponsered presence working for the very agency, or agencies, whose information the future Captain America would save? Without knowing the hows and whys of this surveillance, it’s impossible to use the figure’s presence to shore up the story’s plot-holes. The result is less an air of mystery and more one of bafflement.
Whatever their relationship as individuals and government employees, both Agents share a taste for bizarrelly unprofessional behaviour. Why, for example, does the figure who we first see watching Rogers’ rejection by the Army wait at the tale’s end before inviting the future Captain America to join a secret government programme? By that time, Rogers has left the privacy and security of the Timely Building’s offices and is standing on a crowded sidewalk. Isn’t this the very last place to discuss such ultra-classified matters? What will happen if Rogers refuses the offer, and has to return to Brooklyn as a marked man, his face and neighbourhood now known to the last surviving Nazi agent? Not only would Rogers very life be at risk, but under torture, he’d be able to reveal the covert existence of a ‘super-soldier’ programme. As before, an obvious and ill-fitting plot contrivance has drawn attention to itself, which causes a mass of other problems to crowd into view.
to be concluded tomorrow ….
nb: The above isn’t intended to suggest that there isn’t a great deal of indubitably fine work available from both James Robinson and Marcos Martin. For the former, I’d heartily recommend The Golden Age, Chance, Firearm, Justice Society and Starman. For the latter, I happily tip my hat to his work on Batgirl, Spider-Man, Daredevil and The Private Eye.