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Thursday, December 18, 2014

John Walker…The Crazed Captain America!

All images © Marvel Comics. Used in Fair Use of Copyright Law.

Before Jean Paul Valley...there was John Walker.

And Before Knightfall, there was Captain America No More! (Also Known as The Captain on trade paperbacks)

Back in the mid-1980s at Marvel Comics it became fashionable to put a new character in a veteran superheroes’ boots and see if they could fill them. After the sales success of Jim Rhodes as the new Iron Man a few years earlier, Marvel decided to give it another try with Captain America. With a master craftsman like the late Mark Gruenwald penning the story comic fans were in for a treat.

Yeah, Mavel was all about change in the 1980s. Wolverine’s Brown costume. Spider-Man’s Black costume. Iron Man’s red and silver armor. Thor’s beard and later his armored look. The Joe Fixit Gray Hulk. And because the stories were just AWESOME the reaction to the changes at Marvel was mostly positive. Most Marvel fans like myself back then just went with the flow. And I’ll have to say we got some of the best Captain America comics in the history of the character.

One day in 1987, (Captain America Vol.1 #332) The Commission of Superhuman activities decided they wanted to control the actions of Captain America. And Steve Rogers being the freedom-loving All-American patriot that he is wasn’t having it. So he gave up his Red, white and blue costume and shield.

Steve, not discouraged by the Comission taking his costume decided to keep fighting the good fight even without the Captain America costume. Donning a Red, white and black costume and continued fighting crime as The Captain.

Hey, heroes in Black were the in thing in comics in the 1980s. Black costume Spider-man sold a kajillion copies. Black Iron Man sold a kajillion copies. Gray Hulk sold a kajillion copies. So a Black Costumed Captain America would sell just a kajillion more.

And after Steve left the Comission decided that Captain America was just a costume. In their eyes anyone could be Captain America. So they chose John Walker, formerly known as Super Patriot. Walker was the new n’ improved super soldier more in line with the grim n’ gritty Regan era 1980s. Complete with a hardass attuide and no-nonsense approach to crimefighting Walker’s personality was much more relatable to fans of 1980s action heroes like Rambo, and Joe the American Ninja.

And thanks to strength augmentation by the Power Broker he had enhanced powers ready to take right on those rougher, tougher grim n’ gritty 1980s badguys. With super strength, a higher resistance to injury, and training from the Taskmaster, he was twice as dangerous as that old fart Steve Rogers.

Besides, who needs truth and justice when body counts are the in thing?

Along with came a new partner Bucky, Lemar Hoskins. Unfortunately writer Mark Gruenwald had no idea that “Buck” was a racist term regarding Black people. And the idea of a Black man who was bigger and stonger than Captain America dressed up in a child’s costume was offensive to many Black readers. But with Gruenwald being a man of character, owned up to his mistake, and dealt with the issue in a later issue in the storyline. In a few issues, Lemar changed his costume and got the new code name Battle Star. Shame we haven’t seen much of Battle Star in the last few decades. He had a lot of potential as a character. 

For all his new powers and new partner, Walker unfortunately lacked one thing: HEART. Yes, he was a responsible, conscientous man. But his approach to crimefighting was NOT that of Captain America. Walker like Jean Paul Valley was emotional, aggressive and downright brutal. He was the kind of guy to throw Captain America’s mighty shield and decapitate a guy. Yeah, this kind of thing was considered “cool” back in the grim n’ gritty 1980s but at the end of the day many comic fans realized it’s just not heroic.

On his first mission as Captian America John Walker beat supervillain Professor Power to death. And that little incident of excessive force only foreshadowed the future carnage Walker would get himself involved in. After having his identity revealed by his former friends Left Winger and Right Winger, he and his parents are kidnapped by the Watchdogs, a terrorist organization. In the cross fire, he witnesses the murder of his parents. Seeing his parents die in front of him in such a gruesome fashion, Walker snaps, murdering most of the Watchdogs in an extremely violent and brutal ways.

But in spite of this traumatic event and Walker’s mental breakdown, he was allowed to keep working for the commission. Head Comissioner Rockwell said he’d invested too much money in Walker and he just didn’t want to lose it. So On the day of his parents’ funeral Walker is sent to shadow Freedom Force as they plan to capture the Resistants. Enraged, Walker compromises the by brutally beating and murdering several of the mutants.

 After this incident, Walker terrorized Left Winger and Right Winger’s parents telling them he’s going to kill their sons. This leads up to a brutal confrontation at an oil refinery where he brutally beats both men and leaves them to suffer before they’re blown up.

Wolverine boasts that he’s the best there is at what he does…But with the body count John Walker racks up during his term as Captain America I’m thinking he could give Logan a run for his money. When the bad guys see that smile…Things are just not gonna end well.

Walker continues to leave a trail of bodies in his wake like a 1980s Cannon Group action movie until he botches a mission to catch Flag Smasher. As he screws up this mission, Battle Star is forced to call in The Captain Steve Rogers (missed that issue at the newsstand,) to salvage the mission where D-Man unfortunately is lost and Walker loses Cap’s shield to Steve. It’s after the botched Flag-Smasher mission that some Commission members realize they might have made a mistake. That maybe not anyone could be Captain America.

But the head Comissioner Mr. Rockwell takes his orders from a mysterious man behind a red screen and he’s just LOVING John Walker’s work. So Walker is STILL allowed to keep working as Captain America in spite of NUMEROUS fuck-ups that would gave gotten anyone else fired.

Eventually we get a big clue into who the Mysterious boss of bosses with Steve Rogers’ face is during a morning workout where he takes five a day…lives, that is. The opening first four pages of Captain America #350 are some of the most chilling a comic fan will ever read. Watching the man with Steve Roger’s face make light work of those Taskmaster henchmen stil sends a chill down my spine 25 years later.

One panel in particular will eerily seem familiar to Batman fans. Yeah, that’s where I think DC got the idea for Batman: Knightfall. I’m just sayin.

Further along in the CLASSIC Captain America Vol 1. #350 Walker gets a call telling him to come to the Smith Building to get his shield. And the man with Steve Rogers face is ready to reveal himself to Walker, the Crazed Captian America. On seeing the numerous terrorists working for the mysterious stranger and being told the man with Steve Rogers’ face is Steve Rogers, the Original Captain America, Walker loses it. At this point you feel for the bad guys. Why?

Because when Cap says it’s Party Time…Shit is about to get Real.

Steve Rogers in his Captain garb has seen Rockwell, the head commissioner die a horrible death that gives us a hint to who the big villain of the storyline is. Steve heads down to the Smith Building where the Crazed Cap has brutally slaughtered all of the henchmen. And now Steve Rogers has to face the full on fury of John Walker, the CRAZED CAP!

Thankfully Steve is up to the challenge. And after a battle with his replacement he shows that brains always over come brawn. Once he dispatches of the Crazed Cap, Steve has a confrontation with the mastermind of this whole mess: The Red Skull. But before the Skull can attack Steve, Walker makes one last heroic action as Captain America and throws his mighty shield making sure the Skull takes a face full of his own dust of death. But because he’s a clone he doesn’t die from it. So he’ll be back to terrorize Cap another day.

With the Skull defeated, The Captain and the John Walker head back to the Comission to find out what’s to come of the mantel of Captain America. Realizing that Walker is just too dangerous to have operating in the field.

 But Steve ain’t taking no orders from the Comission. So he leaves in his cool ass new red, black and green costume. But Crazy John Walker has a moment of clarity and realizes that he’s just NOT Captain America. That Steve created the morals, ideals and code of conduct that make Captain America an ICON. And that no one can do the job of being Captiain America better than he does. So on Walker’s concession, Steve takes the costume back and goes back to being the Living Legend Captain America!

While John Walker fakes his death, goes out to get some meds, some psychotherapy, and would return to crimefighting in Steve’s red white and black as the U.S. Agent. The Agent would make SHIT EXTRA REAL for the West Coast Avengers before fading into obscurity. Trust me, the less said about Walker’s later career after the West Coast Avengers the better.

FORCE WORKS *SHUDDER* Maximum Security *FACEPALM* New Invaders…*DOUBLE FACEPALM*. Gamma Flight…Good Gravy.

And what happened to him in The Siege…Damn. Just Damn.  

Yeah, I hear he’s back with all his limbs after being healed by a lobotomized Venom symbiote from a pocket dimension (Damn, that’s convoluted), but someone needs to just give Mr. Walker a good story where he can be a badass patriot and not a joke. Maybe even team him back up with Battle Star, another character who fell off the map. Walker is too good a character to get screwed the way he’s been the last 25 or so years. I’d hate to think being the Crazed Cap was the high point of his career.

Captain America No More/The Captain reinforces a cardinal rule about replacement heroes: No matter how New N’ Improved things are everything always goes back to classic. And there’s a reason why everything always goes back to classic: It’s not who wears the costume, but what they stand for.

In Knightfall, the breaking of Batman was the climax of the story. We saw how much Batman could take from the bad guys before his body broke. But in Captain America No More/ The Captain, we see the contrast. The breaking of Steve Rogers is the inciting incident. When he’s stripped of Captain America’s costume we see a powerful internal character transformation begin as the man behind the mask rebuilds his character and resolve in his mission to continue fighting to protect the country that he loves. And as he rebuilds his character and resolve to adapt to the challenges put in front of him, we see it’s the values of the man behind the mask are what makes him a hero time after time.

Most of today’s modern comics just can’t compare to Captain America No More/The Captain. When there’s a PERFECT Buildup of a storyline and the payoff delivers in HUGE dividends the way this one does it’s just SO WORTH IT. I mean, Gruewald took 50 ISSUES to build to the Red Skull’s comeback after his death in the 300th issue! And he took at least TWO YEARS to build from Steve losing the costume of Captain America to his eventual return to the red, white, and blue costume. When you consider that most comic series can’t even GET to the 25th issue these days building into this kind of storyline in a slow, organic fashion is a FEAT that shows the SKILL and CRAFT of the writer and the creative team.

And the fact that Gruenwald dug DEEP into the Captain America mythos and repackaged obscure villains in his rogues gallery like the Mutant Force into the Resistants and made us CARE about D-listers like the Serpent Society and D-Man shows how great a storyteller he is. His kind of craftsmanship when it comes to storytelling is something that lacks in a lot of today’s comics.

Captain America No More/The Captain was the second big comic storyline I got into when I started collecting comics seriously at 14 in 1988. And I’d have to say enjoyed it MORE than Armor Wars, the storyline that got me HOOKED on comics! All the build up over a dozen or so issues led to an AWESOME payoff. I never saw that Red Skull twist coming!

I’m gonna go on record saying we really need an Omnibus for the late Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America. As a writer, the late Mark Gruenwald is one of the greats in the comic book industry. His legendary knowledge of Marvel Comics history, The Marvel Universe of characters and skill at weaving a tale were all on display during his legendary hundred issue run on Captain America. Gruenwald’s storytelling skill is something that needs to be preserved in one volume so that aspiring comic book writers can see the skill and craft of comic book writing. I’d say he’s just as much a visionary at Marvel as Chris Claremont, John Byrne, George Perez, Walt Simponson, David Micheliene, Bob Layton, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. If you see a copy of The Captain in the trade paperback section of your local comic shop pick it up. It’s one of the best comic storylines of the 1980s.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this. Not many seem to like Walker or few writers seem to care for the character's potential. Too Republican for them. :P

    I can't say much. Just started reading the comic books at 29. :)

    I started with the Thunderbolts. I like the underdog/redemption stories.

    Battlestar shows up for a moment there. He was working with Silver Sable at the time.

    According to wikipedia he also appears on Spencer's Captain Falcon for a charity wrestling match.