Captain America: War & Remembrance trade paperback
Writers: Roger Stern & John Byrne
Pencils/Cover artist: John Byrne
Inks: Joe Rubenstein
Colors: Bob Sharen & George Roussos
Letters: Jim Novak, John Costanza & Joe Rosen
Editor: Jim Salicrup
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $12.95 US/$15.75 CAN
If the cover price cited above seems a little low for this softcover collection of a classic run from Captain America from 1980-81, there’s a good reason for that. This review is of the first printing of this trade paperback, originally released in 1990 (a quick Google search reveals the book was reprinted several times in the years since, including in what appeared to be a hardcover edition). I’ve got stacks of comics, graphic novels and collected editions lying around my place I’ve never gotten around to reading, the reasons being as numerous and varied as the material itself. The books have amassed as a result of impulse purchases, bargains and review copies I’ve received over the years. I’ve been meaning to put a dent in my figurative and literal pile of unread comics, and that’s why War & Remembrance made it into my reading rotation recently.
My first thought after reading the book was that I should be ashamed I neglected this gem for as long as I did. While it’s often fun to revisit vintage material for the campy factor, to delve into a different, simpler approach to storytelling in the genre, War & Remembrance holds up incredibly well. The only thing that’s really dated here are the fashions. Stern and Byrne’s stories are relevant and resonant. Furthermore, they’ll connect with readers who are only just discovering the Marvel Universe thanks to the high profile afforded it by the Marvel movie franchise juggernaut. My favorite Cap runs in the past have been those crafted by writers Mark Gruenwald and Mark Waid, but it’s clear Stern and Byrne had set the bar awfully high a long time before they came along and teamed with the Sentinel of Liberty.
One of the enjoyable aspects of this trade paperback edition is that it doesn’t collect a single story arc. Such arcs seemed limited to no more than two or three issues back in the early 1980s, and that means this book offers a more diverse array of plots, characters and themes for the titular hero and the creators to explore. This volume essentially offers five separate stories: a melee with Machinesmith, Cap’s battle with Batroc and Mister Hyde, a reconnection with Cap’s allies (and en enemy) from wartime, and an origin recap. I was surprised the latter was the closer here rather than the first story, but that was the order in which it was published. I don’t think much would’ve been lost had the reprint editors altered the order, as it would made War & Remembrance the perfect primer for all things Cap.
This particular run from Cap introduced a rather unconventional character who was quite interesting — but what was most interesting about her was how normal she is. Stern and Byrne introduce Bernie Rosenthal, who’s clearly intended as a romantic interest for the title character (though the romance doesn’t blossom until after the issues collected here). Bernie was an atypical romantic supporting character in the super-hero genre. Byrne has definitely avoided presenting her as the usual and expected super-model stunner type. The far more slender and wide-eyed Bernie looks and behaves more like a real person than a Lois Lane, Mary Jane Watson or Vicki Vale. Here, we see the beginnings of the pair bridging a generational gap (unbeknownst to her) to make a real connection. Bernie Rosenthal is yet another way these creators demonstrated they were ahead of their time (and in a lot of ways, were even ahead of the 21st century).
John Byrne is still quite active in the medium today, but in a lot of ways, I think his best work is behind me. While his work on Uncanny X-Men and Fantastic Four is often heralded as the pinnacle of his career, this work on Cap holds its own easily in comparison. While this work predates his professional highlights, the artist has clearly hit his stride. This isn’t a case in which we see the artist as he’s developing. By this point, he’s definitely arrived, just as strong here as he was for his career-defining moments. There’s so much energy in the visual storytelling here, and a great deal of it flows from his depiction of Steve Rogers. His legendary nature shines through in every panel, but there’s also a clearly human, grounded tone in how he carries himself as well. Mind you, his portrayals of the villains bring just as much personality to the mix, if not moreso. Machinesmith, Baron Blood, Batroc… they’re all mesmerizing in their stories, albeit in different ways.
The first thing that struck me about the opening Machinesmith story was a quick but powerful reference to the trying of Nazi war crimes. Nick Fury’s confrontation with an imprisoned Baron Von Strucker and the initiation of extradition to Israel for trial pass by in just a couple of panels, but they quickly establish the maturity of the storytelling one will find in this collection. As the three-issue arc progresses, writer Roger Stern and his co-plotter and artist John Byrne offer some colorful super-hero action, but they ultimately lead their readers into a poignant exploration of the notion of dying with dignity.
There are rarely any Cap stories that are more fun than those featuring Batroc the Leaper, with his flamboyant attitude and goofy, exaggerated French accent. The villains’ extortion scheme in that third story is wonderfully over the top, but again, what was striking about it is that behind its exaggerated simplicity, there was a powerful punch of relevance, even more than three decades later. The baddies threaten New York City with a tanker loaded with liquefied natural gas, and seeing the dangers of energy exploration in a dated story such as this took me by surprise.
Speaking of the past, one of the reasons I’m so pleased I have a first printing of this collection rather than one of the newer reprints is that it predates modern comics printing methods. This book still employs the old-school Ben Day dot color process, and it captures the tone of the original source material wonderfully. I wouldn’t trade this edition for a more recent one at all, not even the hardcover edition, as I would expect newer editions likely went through a recoloring process to bring it line with modern printing methods and requirements.
The most memorable and iconic story in this trade paperback is the done-in-one “Cap for President” piece. Today, politics are so polarized, and the us-versus-them mentality (as opposed to an emphasis on responsible governance) is so ingrained in the political realm, be it in the U.S. or beyond, it makes one long for a day when things were more civil. But this glance back 35 years suggests the seeds for the divisiveness of 21st century were planted a long time ago. Also interesting about the concept is how it allows the creators to explore the politics of so many notable denizens of the Marvel Universe.
Almost as well known and fondly remembered as the presidential plot is Cap’s return to Britain to face the menace of an enemy from wartime, Baron Blood. Remember what I said about diversity in storytelling in this book? Well, this story sees the creators blend horror with the super-hero genre, and they achieve a thoroughly entertaining effect. Now, the twists in the plot are rather transparent, but there’s a classic monster-movie riff at play in the story that’s an incredible bit of fun. 9/10
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