The Comic Book Club: Steel and Ultimate Comics Captain America

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up discussing what we picked up. This week, Graeme McMillan and Douglas Wolk talk about the Steel one-shot and the first issue of Ultimate Comics Captain America.

GRAEME: It’d be really optimistic to guess that the reason Steel #1 read so much like a generic superhero comic from the 1990s was a misguided attempt to pay tribute to the decade of the original Death of/Return of Superman storyline that this is a sequel to, wouldn’t it? Because, otherwise, what we’re left with is something that’s just… not good. It just seems so half-hearted, so cynically heartless that I don’t even know what to do with it.

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DOUGLAS: Yeah–note that the “tattered rag fluttering in the wind” final panel is a direct allusion to the cover of Superman #75, the death-of-Superman issue. But yes, it’s not good any way you slice it: dull, slow, utterly predictable, devoid of interest. It’s kind of grimly amusing that the backup preview of DC Universe Online Legends #1 riffs on the exact same image, and that one story goes “have to release… the nanobytes!” and the other one goes “Brainiac’s ships… unleashing his exobytes…” [One is a unit of information so small it doesn’t actually exist. The other is a misspelled very large unit of information.]

GRAEME: Writer Steve Lyons gave an interview at Newsarama where he revealed that his original story for this one-shot was thrown out after the fact, and replaced with an editorially-mandated plot that necessitated a new artist (Ed Benes, whose work here is… boring, really; I’m not a massive fan of Benes in general, but this is less interesting than what he was doing in Justice League, if you ask me), and this really feels like that: The narration and dialogue is filled with cliches, and even the “shocking” finale feels passionless and half-hearted.

(I also don’t really think that Steel is dead – The death scene feels more implied and, as Brian Hibbs calls it, false jeopardy than anything else. I mean, he’s definitely coming back before the story’s done, right? Would anyone at DC think that it’s a good idea to kill off one of their few name black superheroes to launch a crossover after last year’s death of Ryan Choi mess?)

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DOUGLAS: Did you ever read that amazing Kyle Baker miniseries Special Forces? The war comic where the first panel is a black soldier getting his head shot off, captioned “the black guy dies first”? Mere months after DC gets the Internet firehose turned on them for throwing nonwhite characters overboard, they start a new “event” by… throwing a nonwhite character overboard.

Maybe a charitable reading is that if you tell creative people that they absolutely mustn’t do something, they will find a way to do that very thing. (Of course, the same goes for recidivists.) Still, Lyons seems to have been put in an unenviable position, and to have responded by phoning in a script like nobody’s phoned it in in a long time.

GRAEME: There is nothing here that makes me want to read any more of this crossover, and more than a little to suggest that no one at DC really cares whether I do, or not, either.

DOUGLAS: I’m with you there. This is straight-up scraping the totally empty barrel of the early ’90s–I kept thinking of that scene in Infinite Jest where the freebaser is reduced to “all-fours scrutiny of the carpet in hopes of a piece of lint that looks enough like the Material to try to smoke… smoking first the Chore Boy-scrap she’d used to trap the vapors and form a smokable resin, then bits of the carpet and the acetate panties she’d filtered the solution through hours earlier.”

There is nothing left of what made “The Death of Superman” a story that people cared about. You cannot bring back Doomsday and trot him through these paces and pretend it’s anything other than a desperate attempt to remind people to whom that story 19 years ago mattered in some way that it mattered back then. This comic book is smoked bits of carpet.

(The only good thing I can say about it: it did make me want to go reread some of the old Priest/Denys Cowan run on Steel, just to get the smoked-carpet taste out of my mouth. That was a very odd series, and badly flawed in a lot of ways, but Priest was pushing so hard to make it original and personal–it became an adventure-comedy serial about a serious-minded inventor raising his trouble-prone teenage niece in Jersey City. I liked it a lot.)

DOUGLAS: As for Ultimate Comics Captain America #1: I thought the point of the Ultimate line was to do things with the Marvel characters that couldn’t be done in a 616 series–the extended teenage soap opera that is Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man, the chopped-and-screwed remix that was Ultimate Fantastic Four, the let’s-break-all-the-toys dick move of Ultimatum. (I also thought both this and Ultimate Comics Thor were supposed to be released day-and-date digitally, but as of Wednesday night, when I’m writing this, neither this issue nor last week’s Ultimate Thor are on Marvel’s app yet.)

But this? This is a couple of paste-ups away from being a straightforward Marvel Universe Captain America miniseries. The biggest twist is the appearance of a 25-year-old character at the very end of the story, with his role slightly modified. Aaron’s a solid dramatist–that opening scene is pretty effective–and it’s interesting to see Ron Garney working in that slicked-up, Bryan Hitch-ish style that’s become the default for the Ultimate line. (It’s also interesting that, like Rob Liefeld, Garney apparently doesn’t like to draw feet: there are only seven pages this issue on which we see a full human figure, and there are a couple on which characters’ bodies extend beyond the panel borders but are cut off at the thigh. That’s the risk of “widescreen” layouts, I suppose.) I just don’t understand why it’s an Ultimate title, other than that Ed Brubaker’s basically got a lock on the Marvel Universe version of Captain America (with a more interesting interpretation).

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GRAEME: I’m glad it’s not just me who thought that this was a retread of stories I’d already read elsewhere. It seems pointless to accuse the Ultimate line of being unoriginal, despite Brian Michael Bendis’ constant “This is the line where ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN!” claims; more and more, the Ultimate line seems like the place where writers can live out their fanfic for the stories they loved in their youth. It’s not bad, exactly, but there’s nothing really that interesting about it, either, and “Cap versus Extremist Replacement Cap!” as an idea feels like something that Steve Englehart did a lot better thirty-odd years ago.

That said, I really liked the art here. Garney’s a weird artist who used to live or die depending on who inked him. Here, with no inker and a relatively sympathetic colorist, I think he looks really good – and I didn’t even notice the lack of feet anywhere.

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