Axel-In-Charge: Facing the 'Divided' Marvel NOW! Future
I bought a bunch of these comics at a sale my comics shoppe was having, so that’s the reason a lot in a row have been standard DC and Marvel superhero books. Sorry about that. On the one hand, a lot of people have already read these, so they can reminisce about them. On the other hand, while some of these might be mediocre, none of them have been eye-bleedingly bad, like we occasionally get with this series. Those are definitely more fun to write, I’ll tell you that much, and probably to read as well. C’est la vie! Today, it’s another fairly standard mid-1980s Marvel superhero book. Check out its identity after the cut!
And, of course, I must direct your attention toward the ground rules for these posts. Does Captain America #297 (“All My Sins Remembered” by J. M. DeMatteis, Paul Neary, Roy Richardson, Diana Albers, and Bob Sharen, published by Marvel, cover dated September 1984) fit the criteria? Will a first-time comic reader be comfortable with it?
Before we even begin, there’s an ad on the inside front cover for The Last Starfighter. Any comic that advertises The Last Starfighter has to be awesome, doesn’t it? I saw that movie in our high school auditorium. No lie. In my high school, every once in a while we’d all go to the rather large auditorium (there were about 2000 kids at the school) and watch random movies. I only remember a few of them – we saw this one and Mary, Queen of Scots (with Timothy Dalton? – dang, how old is that dude?), but I can’t remember which other ones we saw. It didn’t happen that often, and I have no idea why the administration did it or how they selected movies, but that’s where I saw The Last Starfighter. Good times!
Anyway, the comic. We begin with a full-page splash of a dude wearing a ridiculous costume. He has a purple mask with a gold headband on, a fur-trimmed collar, a purple outfit, and yellow gloves and yellow fur-trimmed boots. A first-time comic reader might be put off of comics just by this vision, but if you’re going to read comics, you’re going to have to get used to guys crouching menacingly and saying stuff like: “The hour has come round at last! The hour of vengeance! The hour of … ZEMO!!” So, already we have a goofy-looking bad guy who refers to himself in the third person (it’s fairly obvious he’s speaking about himself, although a first-time comic reader might be confused initially). That’s what superhero comics are all about, right? So we turn the page and a woman dressed in what looks strangely like a nun’s habit except her legs are bare because the bottom of the outfit is cut like a swimsuit says, “You prattling idiot! How dare you speak with the voice of command! It was Mother Superior who bested Captain America!” We learn that this happened last issue, which is nice. We assume, because villains like to refer to themselves in the third person and she looks like a nun, that this is Mother Superior, but in the next panel, Baron Zemo (we learn he’s a baron in the next panel) calls her “Enchantress.” So who is she? Ah ha! A first-time comic reader wouldn’t be confused, because they would just assume he’s saying she enchanted him and they don’t know there’s another Marvel character named “Enchantress”! Confusion averted! It appears the argument will escalate, but then a figure steps from the shadows and tells her that she has disappointed him. He also calls her “daughter.” She defeated a weakened Captain America, and even then, just barely. He asks her if she’s forgotten the lessons he taught her, the lessons of … the Red Skull! Okay, so we know who he is. She tries to justify her actions, but he whacks her with his cane (the Red Skull is an old-school parent, y’all!) and tells her that, in his shame, he must turn to Baron Zemo. Man, that has to suck when someone dressed as goofily as Baron Zemo is your means for revenge!
Zemo tells Mother Superior that when she twisted his mind, she wanted him to see “evil on a cosmic scale.” He tells her she succeeded, and now he has surpassed her, because his hatred is born of true love, something she has never experienced. We get a quick recap of Zemo’s life – his mother was a saint, his father was like unto a god, the greatest scientist of the Third Reich, until Captain America showed up and some mask his father was wearing became permanently bonded to his face, which drove him insane. Baron Zemo tried to destroy Cap years later, and he would have succeeded to, if not for those darned kids … oh, I mean Cap’s “black lackey,” the Falcon. Wait, being a villain isn’t bad enough – they have to make Zemo racist? That’s just so uncool, Marvel! Zemo was apparently knocked into a “vat of adhesive” – presumably the same adhesive that caused the mask to bond to his father’s face – and his face disfigured. He, of course, must show his ugly mug to the reader and Mother Superior, proving that his hatred is deeper than hers. Baron Zemo FTW!
We then switch to the star of our comic, who is a bit confused. He appears to be standing on an army base of some sort, but he doesn’t know what’s going on. Then he realizes that Bucky is standing next to him. BUT BUCKY’S DEAD!!!!!! Oh dear, this is fucked up. Bucky, meanwhile got beaten by the ugly stick:
Man, Paul Neary, what’s up with that? Anyway, on the very next page, we see a panel at the top showing the Skull and Mother Superior, surrounded by swirling smoke, looking intently at … something. We see them again every once in a while, and even a first-time comic reader can figure out that this is probably happening in Cap’s mind (if the cover didn’t give it away). We’ll see. Cap narrates that suddenly it’s all clear – it’s 1945 and they’re on a base in England, trying to stop … Baron Zemo! He has unleashed “a massive hulking android that can grow from nothingness to … to …” Well, it’s some kind of giant dude:
But that’s not important! What’s important is that Cap still doesn’t know what’s going on. He wonders how he knows about events he hasn’t seen. But he knows he has to stop Zemo from stealing an experimental drone plane! He and Bucky smash through the window and attack the android and Zemo, but Cap still feels wrong, like he’s “an actor in a play!” Bucky gets bonked by the android, so Cap goes to see if he’s okay. Zemo takes this opportunity to shoot our hero in the back like a Nazi chump. No wonder those Ratzis lost the war – they’re bad sports!
“Elsewhere” … a mansion stands on a barren moor. Inside, a woman named Bernie is tending to a weird catatonic dude named Arnie Roth, who was apparently subjected to something awful last issue. I mean it – check out Roth:
Falcon (whose real name is Sam) is grumpy because the “Sisters of Sin” got the drop on him. Bernie remains optimistic, which leads Sam to drop another crucial piece of information – she’s engaged to Cap. Falcon flies off to check the place out and finds what he calls a “bona-fide silver lining.” That’s the last time we see those two in this issue, so we never get to learn what that silver lining is!
Back in “1945,” Zemo has taken Cap’s and Bucky’s uniforms off and dressed them in regular uniforms, then strapped them to the drone plane. Zemo claims that Hitler will want to view their lifeless bodies when the plane lands in Berlin. Wait, so why wouldn’t Zemo kill them before the plane launches? I mean, does he expect them to die in transit just because they’re buffeted by the elements? Wouldn’t it be smarter to deliver two bodies with bullet holes in their heads to Hitler? Cap somehow knows that his ropes aren’t securely bound – clearly Zemo wasn’t a Boy Scout – and he and Bucky leap to safety. The plane leaves the hanger and begins to taxi, and while Cap knows they have to stop it, he also knows that if they do, “something horrible will happen! A tragedy so great — it will haunt [him] for the rest of [his] life!” But he doesn’t know what it is. Oh dear. That has to suck.
As Cap and Bucky chase the plane on a motorcycle, Cap looks in the rearview mirror and sees that he’s an old man. What? He realizes it’s been forty years since World War II and … since Bucky died! (Or was frozen and turned into a Soviet assassin … six of one, half-dozen of the other, don’t you know.) He also realizes he’s been given a second chance, and as they leap for the plane, he grabs Bucky and they both dive into the ocean. The plane explodes harmlessly (it was booby-trapped by the Allies just in case a Nazi in a ridiculous magenta outfit and an android that is well over ten feet tall but can shrink to almost no size whatsoever tried to steal it). All is well! Cap and Bucky break the surface of the water, and Cap is gleeful … and in the present Baron Zemo wakes up really, really angry. Wait, it was all a dream? Well, shit.
Zemo is grumpy because he was controlling the re-enactment with his mind, and the shock of seeing Bucky die again should have killed Cap. Mother Superior mocks him again, and Zemo tries to strangle her, but the Skull stops them both. He’s disappointed again … this time in both of them. He releases Cap and “Bucky” (who is called Nomad by Cap) and tells them that he still has those he loves as prisoners, so Cap shouldn’t try anything fancy! The Skull tells Cap that his “deus machina” does not “fashion dreams — it creates realities out of mindstuff,” so if Bucky had died in the dream, “Jack Monroe” (Nomad) would have died in the present. Only Cap’s indomitable will stopped Zemo, and for all intents and purposes, Cap has indeed saved Bucky Barnes! Well, that’s good to know. Zemo says it sounds as if the Skull expected it, and the Skull tells him he hoped it would, because even Zemo cannot comprehend how much the Skull hates Cap, and therefore he also respects our hero. Therefore, only the Skull can kill him. Cap has taken off his mask and looks really old (how old is he supposed to be in the 1980s, anyway?), and the Skull takes off his own mask. It’s time for the final showdown … face to face! The Skull, not surprisingly, is really old:
And so we end with a big teaser for the next issue, which, apparently, delved into the “life and times” of the Red Skull. Would a first-time comic book reader come back, though? DeMatteis is a fine writer, so he knows what he’s doing, but occasionally he tends to be a bit … oblique? However, on a regular, monthly superhero comic, he knows what to do, and he does it pretty well here. A new reader might not have the emotional connection that someone who knows all about Cap’s guilt over Bucky’s death would have, but we get the gist. A new reader will also have to accept that Cap was around in World War II but is still an active superhero in 1984 without knowing his backstory, but that’s again easily accomplished with suspension of disbelief and the bare minimum knowledge of how time passes in superhero books. We can infer quite a good deal from the book, which is nice. Plus, DeMatteis knows how to end strongly. We get a sense that the battle between the Skull and Cap will be some kind of apocalyptic, end-of-all battles, and the teaser for the next issue works pretty well (a cynical comic book reader would know that there’s rarely such a thing as a “final battle” in a book like this, but first-timers might still have their illusions). The logic of Cap actually “saving” Bucky makes no sense, but that’s okay. It’s a comic book!
I can’t say a first-time comic reader would be blown away by this book, but it does a very good job bringing us up to speed without being too obvious about it. There’s no obnoxious recapping either through narration or dialogue, and DeMatteis trusts us to pick up on things just from the interaction between the characters. There’s obviously a lot of history we’re missing, but this issue still gives us enough so that we can enjoy it. Individually, it’s not a great comic, but it does its job. I certainly want to know more!
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