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Gimmick or Good? – Captain America #400

In this column, Mark Ginocchio (from Chasing Amazing) takes a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and gives his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence “Gimmick or Good?” Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We continue with 1992′s gatefold cover of Captain America #400…

Catpain_America_400_gatefold_cover

Captain America #400 (published May 1992) – script by Mark Gruenwald, pencils by Rik Levins, inks by Danny Bulanadi

To commemorate the 400th issue of Captain America, Marvel busted out a number of gimmicks. Keeping with April’s “theme” for “Gimmick or Good,” the comic has a gatefold cover revealing vintage Captain America illustrations from the character’s earliest days. The comic also sports a “flip book” format, where if you turn to the book’s back cover and then flip it, you reveal another comic to read. With these giant-sized anniversary issues, the flip book format was a popular way to reprint a Silver Age issue, as Marvel did for Captain America #400, re-running Avengers #4, Cap’s first Silver Age appearance.

But what about inside the comic?

In addition to serving as a centennial issue (which have historically featured “special” stories and bonus content), Captain America #400 is the 15th part of the massive Operation Galactic Storm storyline, an unofficial sequel to the ballyhooed Kree/Skrull War which ran in the Avengers series in 1971-72. This time around, both the Avengers and the West Coast Avengers are caught in the middle of a cosmic war between the Kree and Shi’ar empires. The arc is notorious for it’s downer ending, which sees a small group of Avengers, led by Iron Man intentionally kill their adversary, the Kree Supreme Intelligence, despite Captain America’s objections.

This dramatic final scene is a quintessential Captain America moment, demonstrating his unfailing devotion to his moral code, while also exhibiting the icy relationship between Cap and Iron Man that would go on to define the Avengers series for years to come. Unfortunately, this fantastic moment did not occur within Captain America #400 but rather Avengers #347.

Instead Captain America #400 reads more like a placeholder instead of as a significant component of the larger arc.

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Cap has been imprisoned by the Supreme Intelligence when he’s unexpectedly confronted by some of his most diabolical villains: Red Skull, Crossbones, King Cobra, Flag-Smasher and the Viper.

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The five gang up on Captain America until it is revealed that they are actually a mental manipulation by the Supreme Intelligence.

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What’s frustrating about Gruenwald’s script is that from the very beginning of the story, Cap is expressing the implausibility of this confrontation and that these villains must be a figment of his imagination or a manipulation of some sort. And still Gruenwald tries to cast some doubt on this logical explanation….

Cap_400_03

until the big reveal is that … Captain America was right all along. It just feels very circuitous and does little to nothing to advance the immediate story of Captain America #400 and the larger Galactic Storm plot.

That’s not to say there’s really anything objectionably “bad” in Captain America #400, but absolutely nothing that sets it apart either. It’s probably the only issue in the Galactic Storm arc that can stand on its own without additional context needed from any other issue. Avengers #347 features such an iconic Captain America moment, I wish Marvel could have used its story for Captain America #400 instead. These centennial issues should have a special, historic feel to them, and instead this comic is a glorified villains greatest hits list, complete with a battle with zero consequence since it’s blatantly obvious that the whole thing is a hallucination.

The big question for me, is if I’m a new or casual reader picking up this comic when it came out in the early 90s, what would I have learned about Captain America, the character, beyond the names of a few highlighted members of his rogues gallery? Wouldn’t highlighting a moment that shows how Captain America is even willing to stand up and severe relationships with his teammates if he believes they’re ethically doing the wrong thing be more compelling to new Cap fans?

Granted, what I’m doing right now is the comic book reviewers equivalent of Monday morning quarterbacking, but as a sincere Captain America fan, I’m just disappointed by how humdrum issue #400 comes across. While this issue came out during the infancy of the “Chromium Age” of gimmicks, Marvel still should have done more to sell the story of Captain America #400 rather than making its featured story just a middling component of a larger arc, while the rest of the issue is just the usual fluff and reprints used to fill out annuals and “anniversary” issues.

Verdict: Gimmick

15 Comments

I like Cap’s sassy talk in that one panel. “That’s it? No Baron Zemo?”

At that point, Gruenwald had been writing Cap for almost 100 issues, since #307 in 1985, and was out of good ideas long before then. I’ve always found Gruenwald one of the most consistently dull writers of his era with almost no memorable stories in his entire run except the “replacement Cap” stories, and a lot of filler characters like D-Man, Diamondback and *yaaawn* Crossbones. His long story arcs quickly lose steam and he’s out of his depth with any threat more serious than bank robbers.

About 1990, since his main Cap stories were so boring, he tried writing shorter stories and fluffed out the back of the book with insipid continuing tales of the book’s minor characters which were even more boring. #400 has a good example of this, with 18 pages of US Agent and Falcon looking for D-Man in the snow, and 11 pages of Diamondback and Crossbones as teenagers. Wake me up for Capwolf! Oh wait, that was Gruenwald too… Sometimes the 90′s felt like they lasted about 20 years!

I completely disagree with Ganky in just about every possible way. While it’s true that Gru did struggle towards the end of his run, it’s not until that starts with #402 that the series starts declining. And like many Marvel titles at the time – in fact all of them – his stories weren’t being helped by the Image-lite art style being forced on the book.

But Gru had a ton of great storylines beyond just the replacement Cap. I was a big fan of the Serpent Society stuff that ran before the replacement arc, and after it we got the Bloodstone Hunt, the introduction of Crossbones, the Streets of Poison arc and lots more. Plus there was cool character work with Diamondback. And I happened to like all the backup stories as well, it really rounded out Cap’s universe. One of Gru’s mission statements when he took over the book was to add a deep supporting cast and to also add more villains to the book’s thin rogue’s gallery and he succeeded on both counts.

Far from being boring, I found Cap to be one of the more entertaining and flat out better books Marvel was putting out at the time, especially in the period from #332-383. An excellent 50-issue run is nothing to sneeze at.

As for #400 itself, I think it’s not great as you say. It reads very much like Gru was trying to work around #400 being stuck in a crossover when he really wanted to write a big anniversary retrospective. The result fails on both counts. You can just about skip it entirely if you are reading Galactic Storm (something true of about half the issues in the story anyway) and the O:GS elements just make it weird from a pure Cap perspective. Oh well.

The next issue, #401, is one of the best in the whole series, though.

I walked in a goddamn blizzard to pick this up from a gas station when I was like 13…and I knew it was pretty crappy then…

still, I had my own reprint of Avengers #4, and the rest of Operation Galactic Storm wasn’t that bad…

So after all the times Cap whipped Batroc’s ass and had him tossed into jail or SHIELD custody, he’s never seen him without his mask? Really?

I agree with Scott Harris in just about every possible way. While he had some occasional duds, Gru’s run was character defining. Some brilliant and defining moments. Sure, he could get a little preachy at times (well a lot) but i understood his frustration at the way comics were going at the time – mass murderers and sociopaths like the Punisher and Wolverine being viewed as “heroes.” Marvel’s willingness to sideline heroes like Cap for all those “anti-heroes” who were pretty much all the same.

And if Cap didn’t know what Batroc’s face looked like Gru would have known. He was a walking encyclopaedia for Marvel. A true fan.

Weirdly, Cap rarely threw Batroc in jail. It happened at the end of Cap #252, but prior to and after that Batroc generally got away from (or fled) his encounters with Cap.

Well, it only takes one unmasking to know what the guy looks like. I mean, if Cap can remember details of battles from WWII you’d think he’d remember the face of one of his most persistent foes. Plus, it’s not like Batroc has a secret identity. Batroc is the guy’s actual last name. He’s an international criminal whose identity is known to law enforcement authorities on at least two continents. Given how many times Cap has been portrayed as a stickler for the other Avengers keeping mission files up to date (including in some of Gruenwald’s stories) it seems unlikely that in all the times he’s clashed with Batroc, he’s never bothered to look at his SHIELD or Interpol file, which most likely would have had a picture of the guy.

I’ll just file this one away in the same place as the story where Cap undergoes a severe moral crisis and becomes a wanted criminal for killing (unintentionally) a terrorist who was about to murder an auditorium full of innocent people. (This is the same guy who fought on the front lines of Europe in WWII and was more than once shown mowing Nazis down with a machine gun.)

To be fair, Cap had an anniversary issue shortly before this. I think it was in the 380s, which, at that time, may have been too recent to have yet another ‘defining’ anniversary comic. I can see how the editors at the time must have been wondering what to do since the crossover fell right at this time. It IS awkward, especially considering the importance of centennial issues in the 90s (man, they were just packed at that time).

I’m a big fan of Gru’s Cap, with the US Agent stuff being actually some of my favorite comics. That dude was crazy.

I’m all for solving my problems with words, but wouldn’t it have been much more visually exciting (and make a whole lot more sense) for Cap to rip off Batroc’s mask during a fight instead of “Batroc ol’ bean, be a pussycat and just take off your mask for me, would you”?

Cap deliberately refused to find out what Batroc looked like, because ever since the end of the Kree-Skrull war he has been anticipating having to fight mental representations of villains from his past manifested physically by the Supreme Intelligence at some point.

Prep time, baby!

Ok, so it’s a reach, but then again, for some reason the police in the Silver Age were very reluctant to remove the costumes from super villains when they put them in jail.

Also I don’t have the relevant issues in front of me, but I thought the heroes at the end of the Kree-Skrull war were created by Rick Jones using the destiny force, and that only humans could use it. How did the Supreme Intelligence create the bad guys again?

As for Gruenwald’s run on Captain America, it’s not perfect, but it was a very impressive length run and overall a pretty solid body of work, with a ton of creativity and a definite vision for what the character should be. There are worse ways to go.

LouReedRichards

April 21, 2013 at 9:13 pm

Gruenwald was writing Cap when I started picking it up on a monthly basis (right around the whole Flag smasher storyline). It was OK, not great, but OK. I stuck with it out of fondness for the character.

I really started having doubts about the current run when I picked up several of the J. M. DeMatteis/Mike Zeck back issues. Those blew me away. They were so much better. I continued out of loyalty to buy the book, hoping and hoping that it would pick up steam, it never did. I bailed when Ron Lim became the regular penciller. I checked the book out from time to time and it just seemed to get worse. I know Gruenwald ‘s run is highly regarded, but I just don’t get it.

I remember seeing the “Cap-Wolf” issues and thinking “Man I wish Gruenwald would just drop dead” and then he did and I felt like a total piece of crap.

I don’t think his run is all that great, but it was obvious that he had a great love for the character, I always appreciated that.

[...] from the 1990s for my recurring “Gimmick or Good?” column at Comics Should Be Good. This week, I take on Captain America #400, which was both a special “centennial” issue and the 15th installment of the Operation: [...]

I loved Gruenwald’s stuff, even the silly bits. He had a clear vision of how he wanted to write Cap and ran with it, which is something I respect. I do dislike that he left so many danglers/unresolved stuff when he ended his run, although he resolves quite a bit leading up to his poignant final issue.

The “angst over killing a terrorist” bit was silly, although it set up the fantastic Super Patriot storyline. It could have been much better had Cap killed the guy in some way that caused him to doubt his abilities realistically–here, it’s literally the only way to prevent a massacre. Perhaps if Cap had accidentally killed the guy during a fight, leading him to wonder if he had meant to do so out of rage or something.

Gru was also very underrated at writing supporting characters–he had a nice take on John Jameson, U.S. Agent, Paladin, etc.

I also really loved Crossbones. In reading old letters pages, I like how a lot of people swear Crossbones is actually an established character because of his “speech patterns.”

Bernard the Poet

April 22, 2013 at 5:49 pm

On the whole, I enjoyed Gruenwald’s run, but I think it is fair to say he struggled to write entertaining stories with Cap as the central character. In this run, Captain America never got scared, he always did the right thing and he couldn’t be defeated – Gruenwald seemed to be at a loss as to how to make him interesting. His solution was to highlight Cap’s enemies – first the Serpent Society, then Superpatriot and later the Red Skull – and keep Cap in the background.

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