OK, this is a pretty expensive book - my copy cost me around twenty quid, though you can probably pick it up for about £18 if you shop around the Amazon marketplace. Now, given the rather lukewarm review I gave an earlier Captain America collection from the same era, Scourge Of The Underworld, you might wonder why I'd spend that much again? Well, two reasons really. One, I remember really enjoying this story when I first read it as a kid; and two, it isn't actually that expensive when you consider it collects twenty comics, two of them double-sized... even me, with my Grade B mathematics GCSE from 1986, can work out this comes to less than a quid an issue (well, if you count the double-sized issues as two each)... and less than a quid an issue is, as far as I'm concerned, an On The Ration price.
That said... was it worth the money?
I'd have to go with 'yes' this time... for me at least... though your own mileage may vary. The story begins when a government body called The Commission decide to call Steve Rogers to order. "Your days of running around being a hero of the people are over," they tell him. "We paid for the creation of Captain America - you work for us. Toe the line, winghead, do what we tell you, or we'll find someone else to sling that old indestructible shield."
Now Steve being Steve doesn't take too kindly to this kind of ultimatum. Captain America, he argues, is bigger than politics. He is a symbol of all the good stuff America stands for - not the grubby reality of political compromise. But rather than kick up a fuss, he hands in his shield, stops wearing the red, white and blue... and goes off to find his future.
Meanwhile, the Commission draft in another hero to fill his shoes. John Walker, aka the Super-Patriot, a good old Southern boy who's more accustomed to following orders... and a man who may not be playing with the full deck. He's Guy Gardner without the comedy value. Naturally, Walker finds it tough to live up to his new role and things go rapidly downhill when his identity is exposed and he suffers tragedy at the hands of a group of far right hatemongers called the Watchdogs.
Meanwhile, Steve Rogers is struggling to adopt a new costumed identity - The Captain - and take down the villainous Serpent Society's plans to turn the whole of Washington into snakes. Steve's mission is further hindered by squabbling sidekicks (Nomad and D-Man) and his lack of shield, plus the betrayal of his old friend Tony Stark who's gone rogue during this period of Marvel history in the original Armour Wars saga.
The two storylines converge in the inevitable face-off between the two Captains, wherein the identity of the villain behind The Commission is revealed... and there are absolutely no surprises here. Along the way we get to see Steve Rogers battle a serpentine Ronald Reagan, witness John Walker's vicious vengeance against the former friends who exposed his identity, and watch Serpent Squad member Diamondback attempt to go straight for the love of a (too) good (to be true) man.
Captain America: The Captaintook me ages to read. As a trade paperback it's longer than many Essentials collections, but with the added benefit of full colour which is particularly appreciated when Kieron Dwyer arrives as regular artist. Dwyer draws every issue from #339 - 350 (following a more traditionally illustrated opening from Tom Morgan) and his art here has a wonderfully fluid nature that reminds me of early John Byrne (no surprise, considering Byrne is Dwyer's step-father). Mark Gruenwald's script is overwritten by today's standards, but that's par for the course when re-reading comics from the 80s. I didn't notice the strong political leanings of Gruenwald's storyline when I was a kid. It's obvious he paints Rogers as the democrat hero, and Walker as the bigoted, headstrong republican who could never fill those big red boots. It's obviously written in reaction to a decade under the heel of the Reagan administration - turning Big Ron into a forked-tongued reptile isn't the most subtle of political allegories - but it made me wonder if such partisan political satire would be allowed by Marvel today?