Captain America: The Man with No Face

Posted by on August 20th, 2010 at 2:27 AM



Captain America: The Man with No Face
Ed Brubaker, Luke Ross, Steve Epting and Butch Guice
Marvel Comics; 168 pp.
$19.99 color hardcover
ISBN: 9780785131533

Libraries, I find, are now stocking graphic novels as if they were regular books. Librarians are doubtless grateful for the form because they think it induces young people to read, something librarians often think no one else does. As for me, I’m particularly grateful for the induction of the graphic novel to Dewey Decimals: It means I no longer must buy every graphic novel in order to review them all. (Even though I decided about three years ago that I can no longer do what I initially set out to do in the various places I write for — namely, to review everything in comics as it came out; there’s simply too much. Too much of a good thing.

I checked out Captain America: The Man with No Face by Ed Brubaker, penciled by Luke Ross and inked by Fabio Laguna, Rick Magyar, Mark Pennington, Butch Guise and drawn from pencils through inks by Steve Epting and Butch Guice in various of the initial serial publication as comic books — and colored, impressively, by Frank D’Armata. A cover blurb from Laurel Maury at NPR proclaims this book “far edgier than almost anything you’ll see in literature right now.” Maybe the “literature” on her nightstand, but in superhero comics, we’ve been facing the end of the world repeatedly for decades, and this book just does another turn in the same old dance.

Captain America, played here by James “Bucky” Barnes whenever he’s not canoodling with the Black Widow (who goes by two first names here, Natalia and Natasha — or is one a diminutive for the other? or merely a proof-reading mistake?), finds out that the remains of the first Human Torch have been stolen in order that a fiendish Oriental scientist (I know: it’s supposed to be “Asian,” but we’re apparently still operating under the fictional device of fiends always being Oriental) can use them to infect the world with the current version of the bubonic plague or some other debilitating affliction. Bucky stops him, naturally, and saves the world. Then he takes what remains of the Torch and has it interred in the Arlington National Graveyard as a way of memorializing what the Torch did for Liberty and the American Way during WWII, when Bucky was sidekicking with Cap America, the first one.

This tale is complicated with several side issues and a lot of needless flashing back and forth in time. Bucky finds out about the disappearance of the Human Torch’s, er, ashes (how else would the Torch end up?) when attempting to foil the theft as it is transpiring under the direction of Batroc; they fight for several pages. When Bucky finally figures out where the Torch’s remains are being transformed into a virus, he enlists the Submariner to help him. The Black Widow comes along.

If Brubaker hadn’t wanted to rope in as many superheroes as he could, he could well have written this tale without either Batroc or Submariner: The latter is just another pair of fists in the Good Fight, and Batroc disappears after a fight with Bucky. During that fight the “man with no face” (MWNF) shows up. We never see his face, and we don’t know much about him except that (a) he has no face and (b) he was possibly created by but certainly hung out with the Oriental fiend. Thus, the presence in this country of the MWNF suggests to Bucky that the Oriental fiend (whose name is Chin) is somehow behind the heist of the Torch’s mortal left-overs. Right. So that’s when Bucky goes to the Mysterious Orient to find Chin and rescue the dead guy.

The distracting flashbacks, sprinkled through the first half or so of the book, inform us that Bucky knows Chin and, in fact, once saved his life, and then, on a subsequent encounter when Bucky was the Winter Soldier, spared his life when he might have killed him. You’d think, then, that the book’s ultimate event, the confrontation between Bucky and Chin, would embody a certain moral dilemma: If you saved the guy’s life twice, wouldn’t you think about whether you should now take it? Particularly if you’re lollygagging around in the Orient where some of the residents are reputed to think if you save someone’s life you assume responsibility for it. Brubaker, however, never mentions the perplexity of such moral ambiguity. But he gives to the Submariner the task of breaking Chin’s neck. By then, the MWNF has been killed; and we never know, really, why this whole story carries his name. Apart from being a formidable foe in a fist fight, what’s his function?

By not bringing up any ethical considerations, Brubaker effectively destroys the function of the numerous flashbacks that infect the book. They make the story more complex than it otherwise would be and, hence, add to the reading pleasure one may experience. But that experience is simply turning pages from one bunch of beautifully rendered panels to others.

It’s a story without much plot: First, this happens, then this, then this, then this — without much explanation for why some of it happens. “Why” is normally answered by plot. The only big “Why” here is why Chin wants to destroy humanity. A bigger “Why” is why introduce all the previous encounters Bucky has with Chin if not to make something of them? “Something” in this case could constitute an interesting moral quandary. But Brubaker is apparently having none of that.

In visual terms, the storytelling — panel composition, breakdowns for pacing and dramatic impact — is entirely adequate. But the pictures throughout are simply beautiful. D’Armata did a superb job. But impressive pictures cannot rescue the tale from being merely an action-packed potboiler. Too bad.

One more annoyance: Much of the story is told through captions that are narrated by Bucky or Natasha, and Bucky’s narrative, often reflective, drones on even through sequences of intense physical action. Here he is, getting booted in the face by Batroc, but murmuring on to himself about what he’s doing, how to defeat Batroc, and the meaning of it all. Too much.

In short (yeah, I shoulda done the short thing rather than rattle on like this), the book is an engaging, fun read for lovers of action movies. But where it could have risen somewhat above its genre, it doesn’t. And that’s a disappointment.


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