The big summer news in mainstream comics is DC Comics’ announcement of a scheduled September company-wide reboot. The company says it will essentially start all over again, setting 52 titles to #1 and streamlining the last 70 years of storylines for a nice, smooth reimagining of the DC Universe—one that will, DC executives hope, make buying serial superhero comics appealing to people who aren’t already comics readers. DC editors try something like this every few years, hoping to make some sense of the conflicts, contradictions, and confusing timelines that have accumulated over the decades. Most of them don’t work.
First was 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, which tried to make sense of the discrepancies between Golden Age heroes like Flash, Hawkman, and Green Lantern and their later modern-day incarnations. Then came Zero Hour: Crisis in Time in 1994, which accounted for all the DC Universe stories set in the future. Identity Crisis, in 2004, fixed what Crisis on Infinite Earths had left undone. In Infinite Crisis, in 2006, Geoff Johns reversed Crisis on Infinite Earths by having the problematic Superboy from Earth-Prime literally punch a hole in time.
Confused? You should be.
DC and Marvel are trapped by these tangled internal histories. On the one hand, the obsessive attention to continuity detail is built into the appeal of comic books; the sense of a secret shared history is a big part of the reason middle-aged fanboys still buy the dozen or so X-Men-related books that seem to be published every month. But a single issue of a Marvel or DC comic can be incomprehensible if you aren’t already initiated—writers and editors assume you know all the backstory (and that you’re also reading all the related titles and tie-ins that month.) The amount of money and time required to keep up with the main storylines of each publisher has become a burden for the casual reader and a barrier to new fans, especially young ones.
So be grateful for the opening of Captain America: The First Avenger this weekend. The anticipated blockbuster presents Marvel with an ideal opportunity for an all-new series that dispenses with Cap’s complicated recent backstory and delivers a leaner version of the hero for general audiences. Writer Ed Brubaker has wrapped up five years of complex storylines—from the Civil War crossover series that pitted Cap against Iron Man to the return of Cap’s World War II-era sidekick Bucky Barnes to Cap’s apparent death and resurrection—to prepare for Captain America #1, a gentle reset that is accessible and coherent and balances necessary exposition with genuine thrills. That it’s the first time Steve Rogers has worn the Captain America uniform in four years is almost immaterial, though that fact does provide some extra emotional oomph for long-time readers. This is what picking a random comic book off the shelf should be like.
Marvel has had creative success with this kind of movie tie-in before: Matt Fraction’s new Iron Man series, which began running around the time the first Iron Man movie was released in 2008, has been one of the company’s best titles over the last three years—action-packed, intelligent, emotionally resonant, and almost entirely unrelated to everything else happening in the Marvel Universe. Captain America #1 looks like it could do the same for another of Marvel’s flagship characters.
The new issue, drawn by Steve McNiven and Mark Morales, starts with a funeral, a fitting way to pay tribute to the resolution of all the plots and subplots that have run through the various Captain America comics since Civil War in 2006 and 2007. The funeral scene collects the key characters from Cap’s modern-day incarnation—Rogers, Sharon Carter, Nick Fury, and Fury’s military/espionage colleague “Dum Dum” Dugan—for a brief retrospective, as Rogers contemplates the sacrifices his superhero identity has required. (Rogers’ flashback sequence also functions as a quick intro to Cap’s history as a World War II supersoldier frozen in ice and thawed years later. It’s just long enough to be useful, not long enough to be tiresome.)
There’s action, plot development, romantic entanglement, an appearance by the international terrorist organization HYDRA, and a very big reveal at the end that could set up a classic Cap storyline. Brubaker has proven he can write that—now let’s see if he can start all over and do it again.