Captain America #354
Issue(s): Captain America #354
The innovation this issue is the same one that John Byrne did on Fantastic Four #277, which had two simultaneous stories, one running across the top of each page and another on the bottom (incidentally, Kieron Dwyer was John Byrne's stepson for a while, although from that same interview i linked to he says that he didn't have much contact with Byrne). I found Byrne's experiment in FF #277 distracting and i feel the same way about this issue.
There are some differences, though. The first is that Dwyer lays things out so that there are direct art parallels between the top and bottom story.
That makes the split experiment more worthwhile, visually. But on the other hand, the benefit of the Fantastic Four issue was that the stories were loosely related plotwise. The idea was that the Dire Wraith's attack on Earth was empowering Mephisto, so it made sense to show the two sets of events simultaneously. Here, the stories have nothing to do with each other.
The top story has Captain America inspecting the last known location of Machinesmith, where Cap thought the robotic villain died until he recently began suspecting that he was still alive after the defunct SHIELD base's computer systems went haywire a couple issues back. Cap doesn't find anything, but decides to bring one of the Machinesmith's robot duplicate heads home with him. He also makes a mission statement that continues the trend of seeing this book as a companion title for the Avengers, talking about how in the past the Avengers haven't been good about cleaning up their battle sites, but now that he's the chairman, that'll change.
I'm also fairly certain that's the first time we're seeing Damage Control referenced outside of its own series, and without a doubt the first time it's been referenced in a serious way. Cap then returns home and there's some more set up for the Avengers, and this one's a little weird. It's introducing Fabian Stankowitz as the Avengers' new mechanic ("resident inventor").
It's weird because there doesn't seem to be any acknowledgement that Stankowitz was just here trying out for the Avengers in the previous arc. Stankowitz does say "So you finally wised up and decided to make me an Avenger", but that "finally" makes it sound like something that's been brewing for a while, not two issues. And since Stankowitz was just here trying to be an Avenger, Cap's comment about Stankowitz having been a villain seems out of date. And there's no acknowledgement of Fabian's try out or Cap telling him (as part of the group) that he had the raw talent to be an Avenger and just needed to work on his fighting skills. Stankowitz used the name Mechanaut last issue, but Cap called him "Stankowitz" then, so it's not like he didn't know who it was. There's no direct contradictions and it can all be interpreted to fit, but it is definitely an odd way to script a character who appeared two issues ago written by the same writer.
Anyway, Stankowitz's recruitment is conveniently timed, since as they are talking Cap gets a report about a robot on a rampage in Massachusetts. When Cap and Stankowitz arrive, they find the fourth Sleeper.
Stankowitz turns out to be a comic book fanboy, able to cite the plot and issue # of the Sleeper's previous appearance.
It's a shift going from Cap's maudlin "Sharon... my dear departed Sharon" to Stankowitz's geekout, and Cap's "comic book version" is a little befuddling. Was there more to the story than we saw in that issue? Or did Stankowitz see less than we saw in our comic book version? The conceit that Marvel Comics exists in the Marvel universe is fun, but it's a strain when it bumps up against a "serious" plot. On the other hand it adds some levity to an otherwise straightforward plot
Anyway, despite the report of the robot being on a rampage, it's inert now, so Pym brings it back with the idea that he'll ask Henry Pym (not Stankowitz, whose job is only to invent new things, not play with old ones; so why did Cap take him along?) to take a look at it. They get it back to Avengers Island where Cap is like, yeah, just throw it in the pile with our other evil robots, and Stankowitz has another fanboy attack.
More seriously, it turns out that the Sleeper had been playing possum, and it now activates itself.
The fear is that whatever is controlling it (i.e., the Machinesmith) might also gain access to the other powerful robots that are in stasis. But Cap gives the order that Thor or Gilgamesh be put on "stand-by" rather than have them come help out.
Why doesn't Cap want help against the potential threat of four super-powerful robots? Because it's his book.
It's confirmed that the Machinesmith is behind the attack when the head that Cap brought home comes to life.
It could just be me looking for it, but Machinesmith's dialogue feels like it's meant to be read in a faaaaabulous gay voice stereotype (think Shore Leave from the Venture Brothers, for example). Machinesmith's personality in the past was pretty dry; he didn't use words like "ninny" or call his opponents "cute", and that "over heeee-eeere!" is in the same tone as well.
Cap does manage to stop the Sleeper and none of the other robots get infected.
The bottom half of each page begins with Battlestar investigating the unsolved assassination of John Walker, and shifts to showing what actually happened to Walker without letting Battlestar see it. Battlestar discovers that the armor of the Watchdog that shot Walker wasn't authentic, and he calls Val Cooper to tell her that. Then we switch over to General Haywerth, who is acquiring the Iron Monger armor.
Haywerth really just wants the Iron Monger to pit against his new super-soldier, the US Agent.
And of course that is John Walker. It turns out that he wasn't really killed. The person in the Watchdog costume was really a government agent, and Walker and all of the incidental people that got shot in that staged assassination weren't really killed. However, the Scourge that killed the Watchdog was not part of the act. Since then Walker has undergone a personality rehaul. "In the weeks that we had him on ice, we established a new cover identity for him. Erased old mannerisms and gave him new ones. He even underwent speech therapy!" The idea is that this hides from the public the fact that he was the guy that violently attacked the Watchdogs and other groups. Haywerth did all this without the approval of the Superhuman Committee and they're not happy about it, but we end with Walker having successfully passed the test of defeating the Iron Monger (while barely saying a word)...
...and the Committee wondering what they're going to do next. We're told we'll find out in West Coast Avengers #44. Doing a full page scan as a reminder of the book's split-story format.
The question of what the do with USAgent (i.e. whether or not he's a redeemable character) is really not addressed here and John Byrne will share some responsibility for developing that in West Coast Avengers, although the character will still be used in this book as well, starting with a back-up story during the upcoming Bloodstone Hunt. And speaking of the Bloodstone Hunt, that's three issues away and will provide some direction for this book for a good portion of the rest of the year. And at least the next two issues will get Captain America away from Avengers Island. So far, while i like the return of Machinesmith, Cap's book has felt like "Tales of the Avengers that didn't merit the whole team" since the end of the John Walker period and that's not a great identity for a series.
Quality Rating: C
Chronological Placement Considerations: N/A
Continuity Insert? N
My Reprint: N/A
Inbound References (5): show
Gruenwald was definitely writing Machinesmith as a stereotypically 'flaming' character. He later uses him in an Avengers fill-in where he's spying on the Avengers and spends half the time either cattily chewing out the mansion's interior decorating or ogling the Vision. It sure ain't nuanced, that's for sure.
Posted by: James M | September 23, 2014 1:48 PM
I always thought that the "stories written in comic book form in the Marvel Universe were not the actual events word-for-word. Also, Captain America probably brought Stankowitz along because Stankowitz does say he's really good with robots. It could have come up that Cap would have had to disable the Sleeper using Stankowitz's skills. As far as Machinesmith, he could just be getting crazier every time he changes bodies. Imagine transferring yourself again and again. I'm sure it would play havoc with your "saaaaaanity".
Posted by: clyde | September 23, 2014 2:48 PM
Prior to "dying," Starr Saxon seemed kind of flamboyant and I thought I heard he was intended to be obliquely gay. That said, Machinesmith in Captain America is way, way over the top (to the point where when Machinesmith poses as Magneto, Cap correctly points out that Magneto doesn't say things like "Cappy, old sport").
Posted by: MikeCheyne | September 23, 2014 7:03 PM
"The question of what the do with USAgent (i.e. whether or not he's a redeemable character) is really not addressed here..."
When you mention USAgent being a "redeemable character", fnord, do you means in terms of being :heroic" or in terms of being "an interesting character that can be viable to read about?" (note that those attributes don't have to overlap. Or maybe they do, which is why I'm interested in what you meant by "redeemable.")
Posted by: Jon Dubya | September 23, 2014 7:22 PM
I think that's exactly the line that we'll see get blurred as we go on for the character. So far he's fallen into the "interesting character that can be viable to read about" category and that will continue with John Byrne's West Coast Avengers run. And i have no problem with him existing as that type of a character. I think he works well as a type that can play off of other characters, be it Steve Rogers here or the other Avengers in WCA. But it's harder to keep the audience remembering that they're not supposed to sympathize with the character when he's in solo stories, so my recollection is that eventually we just sort of forget that he started off letting old ladies get mugged and letting his sidekicks terrorize foreign exchange students. And eventually he just becomes a hard ass and maybe a more right wing or authoritarian version of Captain America, but basically a still hero.
But i see that the first issue of his 1993 solo series is titled "Road to redemption" so i'm looking to see if he really does "redeem" himself along the way or if his roots were just forgotten.
Posted by: fnord12 | September 23, 2014 7:45 PM
Note that Cap says "with SHIELD gone" in this issue- that means SHIELD still hasn't been revived at the time of this issue. I think this issue is intended to take place relatively shortly before West Coast Avengers 43-44, making Bobbi look even dumber in those issues.
Posted by: Michael | September 23, 2014 7:58 PM
Yes, Barry (Windsor) Smith has said Saxon was supposed to be gay. I don't know if that was his idea or Stan's or both.
Posted by: Thanos6 | September 23, 2014 8:00 PM
No, USAgent is not redeemable in any way. Next.
Posted by: Luis Dantas | September 23, 2014 10:02 PM
Luis - totally agree with you on USAgent. I never liked him. But I don't think he was meant to be a "good" guy from the beginning.
Posted by: clyde | September 23, 2014 10:32 PM
Gruenwald continues with his professionalization of being a superhero for Cap. His supporting cast are now people who work with superheroes full time. This is my biggest complaint of the Gruenwald era although I like many of the stories individually.
I find Kieron Dwyer's tenure of the book to be a creative high point for the Gruenwald era. It is just a lot better than what had gone on before. Still not a fan of Milgrom's inks, but things look more clean once Danny Bulanadi becomes inker.
I didn't like the idea of Machinesmith coming back, so my fan idea is that Starr Saxon is truly dead, his soul in whatever passes for Marvel heaven and hell, and that the personality inhabiting him is merely a sophisticated computer program constructed from whatever recorded memories of Saxon remained.
I happen to like these early appearances of USAgent, but he works best as a flawed man trying to do good, but undone by major flaws. He works as super powered foil, like JJJ, not a hero or an outright villain.
Posted by: Chris | September 23, 2014 11:02 PM
Fnord, Luis, clyde- I'm curious as to your distinctions between redeemable and between hoping the readers forget how the character started out. Because Gruenwald's work with Diamondback, and most writers' work with Emma Frost, both involved forgetting a lot of the horrible, unforgivable things they did in their early appearances. In Rachel's case, her role in Porcupine's death and her trying to force Steve to have sex with her were forgotten about so she could date Steve. In Emma's case, her crimes against Firestar were ignored because no one in their right mind would accept her as a teacher otherwise.
Posted by: Michael | September 23, 2014 11:05 PM
John Byrne had both USAgent and Quasar forced upon him by Mark Gruenwald, just so you know.
And I think the idea of swapping costumes between Rogers and Walker is just stupid. Granted, I thought the Captain costume was pretty cool, but this was the wrong way to preserve it.
Posted by: Vincent Valenti | September 23, 2014 11:44 PM
Who's writing the comics for Captain America in Cap's world? I have an issue where Cap is a comic book artist but I don't think he's still doing it now. When does he have the time and how many comics come out a year? So many questions...
Posted by: JSfan | September 24, 2014 6:46 AM
Sonavagun! I thought the USAgent I was reading in WCA was Steve Rogers. Arrrgh!
Posted by: JSfan | September 24, 2014 6:52 AM
One of the many reasons why USAgent should never have existed at all is the plot difficulty that will probably be addressed in the review of, IIRC, #355.
Just a few issues ago Steve refused to submit to the Commission and thought of his autonomy as more important than the blue costume. Being asked after the fact whether he has any problem with their appropriation of the black one makes him appear both naive and weak. Gruenwald glossed over that as much as he could, giving Steve the least possible information and making his answer a reflex, but I'm not sure that helps at all.
It ends up making his relationship with the government that much more unbelievable and ambiguous, not that those were convincing in the first place.
Posted by: Luis Dantas | September 28, 2014 5:32 PM
Michael - Re: "I'm curious as to your distinctions between redeemable and between hoping the readers forget how the character started out."
Posted by: clyde | September 28, 2014 5:54 PM
"It's weird because there doesn't seem to be any acknowledgement that Stankowitz was just here trying out for the Avengers in the previous arc."
If you had as bad a showing as he did, wouldn't you want to pretend like it never happened? ;)
Posted by: clyde | July 9, 2015 1:16 PM
The whole concept of Marvel comics on Earth-616 is always bizarre and hard to make work properly. It works best in a humorous vein (like, say, Thing beating the crap out of John Byrne or the chase through Marvel Comics in X-Men Annual #7). But here, you have to wonder how much about "Agent 13" the writers would have known. How much does Fabian know? It's clear Cap cuts him off because of the pain he's feeling thinking about Sharon (hey, Cap, don't worry, she'll come back! - after she's not Uncle Ben or Bucky), but it's strange to wonder how much would have been in those comics - after all, Fabian refers to her as Agent 13 and not as Sharon Carter (although I think she still just was Agent 13, but hey, Fabian as a fan would know who she was, and, oh, this is where it gets ridiculous).
Posted by: Erik Beck | August 26, 2015 1:00 PM
Agreed about "Earth-616." It seems so DC, and, although I admire plenty of that company's efforts, I don't mean that in a complimentary sense here. Also, it's rather ironic, isn't it, that this Marvel Universe-defining concept was apparently created by Al--, er, The Original Writer.
Posted by: Instantiation | August 26, 2015 1:23 PM
Instantiation, Erik is talking about the existence of Marvel comics in the Marvel universe, not the Earth-616 label.
Posted by: fnord12 | August 26, 2015 2:30 PM
If there were no comics about the heroes in the Marvel Universe, She-Hulk would be out of a job. ;)
Posted by: clyde | August 26, 2015 3:25 PM
True, Clyde, but that's Byrne again, the man who drew himself getting thumped by Ben Grimm. I brought it up here because this was the issue that really made me wonder how much the Marvel writers in the MU actually knew - obviously their issues can't line up perfectly with ours since we know the secret identities of the heroes and they can't know that. Yet, Fabian is citing exact issues, of course.
Who knows. Maybe Fabian is the fnord of the MU? ;)
Posted by: Erik Beck | August 26, 2015 3:30 PM
I always assumed that Fabian was very knowledgeable about all the Marvel Comics that had been published. Therefore, he's basing his knowledge on the fictitious adventures portrayed in the comics. IIRC it was said somewhere that the comics change some details, both to protect secret identities and to make them more exciting to readers. I could be misremembering that.
Posted by: clyde | August 26, 2015 3:36 PM
Ah, yes, I see. Sorry, guys, too hasty. I'll stand by my remarks, except "Agreed about," though. :-)
Posted by: Instantiation | August 26, 2015 4:38 PM
If I recall correctly, the closest we see of how the Marvel Comics characters are portrayed in the Marvel Comics Universe on Earth-616 is in the series of Marvels Comics Group one-shots published back in 2000.
There was a Guardian of Freedom: Captain America one-shot by Peter David and Ron Frenz that was published, which showed how cap was portrayed. I don't have that issue though, and I'm not certain whether it (or the other one-shots) fall under the scope of Fnord's project.
Posted by: Aaron Malchow | August 26, 2015 4:57 PM
In terms of comics within Marvel comics, an early example dawned on me ... in FF #4, there's a scene in which Johnny, on the outs with the rest of the group, goes into a flophouse and discovers a beat-up 1940s issue of a Sub-Mariner comic book. Of course, the amnesiac Subby himself also just so happens to be among the bums and thus joins the "Silver Age" ....
Posted by: Instantiation | August 27, 2015 9:38 PM
I agree with Fnord's assessment of the split-page format, although I think Gruenwald and Dwyer pull it off better than Byrne did -- partly due to the parallel in layouts between the top and bottom stories, and partly because Gruenwald's plot is more accessible than Byrne's in Fantastic Four #277, which partly a continued story from issue 276, but also a tie-in with the Thing's own comic, and with Rom, while including a guest appearance by Doctor Strange. Too much going on narratively to experiment with cutting between scenes on every page.
Here, while picking up on ongoing subplots, the Cap/Battlestar/U.S. Agent stories are still fairly self-contained, even though they certainly reference several prior stories, which is a minor setback.
That Dwyer can pull this storytelling off better than Byrne certainly speaks to a potential that I wish had better been tapped into by Marvel in how they supported and used (or failed to do so) Dwyer.
Posted by: Aaron Malchow | August 28, 2015 3:04 AM
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