Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest - Captain America: The Chosen #1

Posted: Sunday, September 2, 2007
By: Keith Dallas

“Chapter One: Now You See Me, Now You Don’t”

Writer: David Morrell
Artists: Mitch Breitweiser, Brian Reber (colors)

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Editor’s Note: The first issue of the Captain America: The Chosen limited series arrives in stores this Thursday, September 6.

Average Rating:

Bryant Frattalone:
Paul Brian McCoy:
Judson Miers:
Caryn A. Tate:
Dave Wallace:

SPOILER WARNING: The following reviews discuss plot developments of the issue.

Bryant Frattalone

Plot: A Corporal fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan gets a little extra help.

Commentary: Right from its opening page, this book had the feel of the now defunct Marvel Knights run of Captain America. Art wise, layout, captions, everything. We all know how that turned out. Miserably. So it was with much trepidation that I began to read this issue. My trepidation held until almost the very end. Taken as a whole I looked back on what I’d just read and decided, you know what? I like it. Yes, it has the look and feel of the Marvel Knights Cap, but this story is starting out much better than those storylines ended.

Captain America is first and foremost a soldier and here we have a look at soldiers. Soldiers are simple. They do what they do, as Corporal James Newman this story’s protagonist states, because they want to help our country and the world at large. That’s it! And thank God for them. Say what you will, but you need folks who are willing to serve and die for their country. It’s that very single-mindedness that is challenged on this most extreme of battlefields. We see that’s that is the real battle. It’s a battle of conflicting ideals in the heart and mind of the idealist. Here Morrell simply yet beautifully lays out the factors that contribute to this inner struggle. Newman needs to do what he is doing, but who is the enemy and who is the innocent victim? The lines are too often blurred. The long hours of fighting with seemingly no end or results wears on the combatant who only wants victory. One of my favorite lines here is, “I’m so used to being scared I’m numb.” And that’s how it must be for many soldiers. Being scared is their constant state but in an alert and energizing kind of way. Still, the constant stress eventually takes its toll. Then there’s thoughts of loved ones back home and the ache of missing people and the apprehension of ever seeing them again. Physical discomfort and the weight of ordinance are constant companions.

Considering the obstacles above, the only things that seem to get you through are loyalty to cohorts and country and a single-minded rage at the enemy you know is out there. Morrell gives us all of this. Ultimately, the loyalty and fury are not enough. In comes Captain America with all the grandeur and strength a symbol should have. Really, in all his incarnations that’s what Cap is at heart: a symbol of a set of ideals all of which the beleaguered soldier in our story needs to keep fighting the good fight. A twist occurs late in the issue, and that’s when the comics and sci-fi elements are brought in. It works because the premise has already been grounded in reality.

Breitweiser’s art serves the story well, giving us gruff and gritty terrain where we really do believe sand is in everything. Uniforms, guns, jeeps and tanks all have a great semblance to reality and the rustic simplicity of the enemies’ dwellings and garb is captured well. Into this tan backdrop comes the colorful figure of Cap, looking as if again he’d stepped out of the pages of Marvel Knights, chain mail scales and all. The best shot is of Cap picking up a section of wall over his head and hurling it to the roof of a building to take out a shooter. We sense something out of the ordinary is up here because as far as we know Cap doesn’t have that kind of strength normally. As I hinted before, this isn’t your normal Cap and the idea is that power and strength come more from what’s on the inside than physical ability or pumped up sinew. This takes on a very literal meaning by book’s end. It’s a tricky message to get across story wise and visually, but Morrell and Breitweiser do it justice, and I look forward to how this theme develops moving forward.

Final Word: A nice start to what is hopefully another great add on to the recent spat of good Captain America stories.

Paul Brian McCoy:

This book is a hard one for me to critique. But that’s only because the book just didn’t inspire much of a response at all. I’ve read it again and again, trying to pull up some sort of critical stance, but I just can’t find a way in to caring about this book. It clearly wants to be important and touches on events and situations that should resonate with a large number of people. But at the same time it seems calculated and determined to be relevant by any means necessary. And the story suffers for it. What story there is.

David Morrell is apparently a respected writer. I haven’t read his work, but I know he wrote the novel First Blood which introduced the character of John Rambo to the culture. I loved the film when I was a kid, and from my internet research it seems that I would probably like the book much more. Regardless, I read this with no idea what to expect and no preconceived notions, and I wasn’t really impressed at all. In fact, the weakest part of this first issue is the internal monologue of the main character, Corporal James Newman. He is a young white soldier with a pretty wife and a new baby at home. I know that this is an attempt to create drama and sympathy for the character, and that there are hundreds of soldiers serving overseas with wives and babies waiting at home, so it’s not that it’s unbelievable. But it was cliché. Nothing makes this character an individual. He’s a collection of facts and research with no distinction.

For example, the Corporal mentions that his wife had to buy his body armor, which I know happened to soldiers and their families for real. This was news years ago, just after the U.S. went into Afghanistan, which prompts the realization that this story has been waiting in the wings for a few years now (thanks to both world events and the extremely slow pace at which the artists are working). Because there are no dates included in the story (only the place – Afghanistan), I read this as being contemporary to my reading experience. If this is an attempt at timelessness, it doesn’t work, since this story is so rooted in specific real-world events. If the story takes place a few years ago, then this is startling and outrageous news. Today, it is dated.

The scenes of terrorists and of fundamentalist violence, meant to establish how dangerous the threat is, are also hampered by weak dialogue that relies on more clichés, that even if accurate in their representation (and I know they are), sound ridiculous on the page. This is especially true in the stoning sequence, where the dialogue (“I caught him listening to music!” and “She isn’t wearing a veil!”) establishes the reasons for stoning a woman and boy but are flat and, again, cliché. The scenes of terrorist attacks without dialogue work very well, but then at the end we are again given a bit of horrible dialogue that ruins the effect of the scene: “I get to be a martyr! I go to paradise! Virgins wait for me!” For some reason, even though the character in the scene is driving a van full of explosives at an embassy, when I read the lines, I hear them as silly and maybe being spoken by kids in a recruitment video who then give a big thumbs up before an Al Qaeda logo comes up accompanied by cheesy synthesizer music.

There are some very nice things going on artistically with this book. Bretweiser and Reber are experimenting with how every element goes onto the page, and at times it can be breathtaking. But it’s not spotless. For every panel with remarkable realism and detail in everything from the weaponry to the uniforms to the settings, there are little things that break the spell. The faces and expressions are blandly stiff and occasionally, when portraying great emotion, border on caricature. The emotion doesn’t come across as realistic as the physical elements in the scenes. Because of this, I found myself distanced from Corporal Newman. An emotional connection to the character is made even more difficult by the shortcomings of the script, mentioned already. The action is also hampered by some confusing layouts that make it difficult to really follow what is going on and from where. The technique and style of the art is very good, but the storytelling mechanics need work.

The final page reveal brings us out of what seems like real world Afghanistan and fully into the Marvel Universe. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I think the story would be stronger if it focused more on developing the character of Corporal Newman and exploring his experiences under fire, instead of creating some sort of science fiction mystery story that involves Captain America, S.H.I.E.L.D., and weird technologies. At the same time, there’s an interesting theme developing about Captain America as an inspiration for (the refrain for the overall story) “courage, honor, loyalty, and sacrifice. ” I think I’d rather Cap wasn’t actually in this story but just influenced the story. It might be better that way.

Judson Miers:

Basic Storyline: Big headline--Captain America is alive! His shooting and death was just a dream, like Bobby getting shot on Dallas. Well, sort of. In the normal Marvel continuity, he’s still gone, but this storyline takes place out-of-continuity akin to an “Elseworlds” story.

They story opens as a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, a Marine named James Newman, is cleaning his weapon and getting ready for the day’s patrol. Newman relives the events that brought the U.S. to Afghanistan and the Middle East while he thinks of his wife and newborn son. Beyond the idealism that brought him to this conflict, he is a grunt who questions his role and America’s role in a country where the citizens don’t want us, helping or not.

Then, his patrol is ambushed. Newman doesn’t think but starts reacting, thanks to the intense training and months of being under fire. Newman ends up in a building with seemingly innocent bystanders being held at the end of his M4 rifle. He has just shot a sniper and came inside the structure to see if any others were waiting for him. It’s at this point that he begins his emotional breakdown. Then HE appears: Steve Rogers, Captain America, in silhouette comes into the building where Newman is having a crisis of faith. “You want to know how long we can keep doing this? As long as we’re able to lift a finger. As long as we can draw a breath.” His appearance gives our Marine strength, companionship, and the much needed pep talk he needs most when he needed it the most. Busting out of the structure, the two show courage worthy of a Medal of Honor saving his entire company of Marines, but there’s twist that I won’t spoil.

Review: I’m not familiar with any of Breitweiser’s work until this issue. I did find it to be most appropriate to the setting in the sands of Afghanistan in the middle of a war zone. We see realistic people who are either a part of the conflict or innocent complacent bystanders. The artwork doesn’t present them as caricatures or 2-dimensional stereotypes.

Breitweiser also really conveys the horrible conditions our fighting men and women are choosing to endure in a land so very much unlike our own. You can almost feel the sand in your teeth as the patrol roars into town and the trickle of sweat running down your back as the action begins.

Overall though, I find myself in an awkward position. I have been a HUGE David Morrell fan since high school. I typically find his stories to be intellectually challenging and full of expertly woven plot twists on several levels. The one thing I have found is that it usually take a little while to understand how deeply woven Morrell’s stories are. The real shame is that this issue is just too short to really grab my attention at this point. To be honest, if Cap hadn’t just been shot, and David Morrell wasn’t one of my all-time favorite authors, I probably would have passed up this issue.

Steve Rogers is one of those people everyone wants to be around. He always seems to know what’s troubling you and then have the absolute right thing to say or do. I think Spider-Man said it best when he said that “He’s a legend, and I’m just a man who has to live with the choices I make.” We just didn’t see a lot of these qualities in Cap’s brief exposure in this issue.

Let’s hope that this storyline is on par with the rest of Morrell’s other works. If that proves to be the case, we’re in for an awesome story. Regardless, seeing Cap go back to his roots as a soldier and symbol of all our armed forces was especially nice to see.

Caryn A. Tate:

I would have to say that all in all, this is a perfectly average comic. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have any value or talent applied to it, but it’s not a story or execution that would stay with me for much longer than the time it takes to set the comic down after I finish reading it.

The tale centers on a U.S. Marines corporal named James Newman who is stationed in Afghanistan fighting the War on Terror. It explores the chaos, confusion, fear and strife that is no doubt universal for all soldiers there (chief among the topics touched upon is that soldiers like Newman can’t tell friend from foe just by looking at them). At a mental and emotional breaking point, Newman is led and inspired by Captain America—both his presence and his code.

The idea of this story is great. It’s a simple but effective and classic account of Captain America and his legacy, and how he inspires everyone who believes in what he stands for.

The execution, though, sometimes stumbles over its own heavy handedness. While the concept is one that is probably universal for most Americans, the implementation turned the story into more of a political piece than it ever should have been. It could have been a simple story that we all could identify and sympathize with, regardless of personal beliefs or political opinions; instead, it became so overrun with self importance and clumsiness that it would likely turn off many readers who don’t feel the same way as the story’s creators and/or editors.

Now and then the dialogue is a bit amateurish and unnatural. One example occurs after Newman has seen and spoken to Cap, but then he can’t find him and he calls out for “Captain!” A soldier appears (not Captain America) and he says, “What’s the matter, Corporal? You look surprised. What other Captain did you expect to see? I’m the only Captain here.” No one would actually speak like that. It’s long winded and awkward. There are several other examples, but that was one of the most glaring.

The pencils and colors, though, I liked quite a bit. They were well suited to this kind of a story—the pencils are a bit hazy and disassociated at times, mirroring the soldier’s feelings about being where he is and doing what he’s doing. The colors did a great job of capturing the chaos and confusion with a washed out look—and they became more vibrant when Captain America was in a panel.

On the whole, this isn’t a bad comic, and if you’re a big Cap fan (I’m talking the kind of Cap fan who will read anything and everything with him in it) or a big War story reader, you’ll enjoy picking it up. For the rest of us, it’s probably better to pass.

Dave Wallace:

I’ve become quite a fan of the new, repurposed Marvel Knights imprint, as I’m always happy to see creators given a little more leeway to tell stories which allow them to elaborate their own personal takes on a character or concept which aren’t bound by the constraints of continuity that might prevent them from making certain bold choices or from taking their plot in a particular direction. Captain America: The Chosen is the latest series to be published under the imprint, and sees Rambo creator David Morrell examine the character of Captain America through the eyes of a young solider stationed in modern-day Afghanistan.

As Morrell’s first work in comics, it’s accepted that this book may lack the kind of nuances that we might expect from more experienced writers, but much of the larger storytelling elements prove fairly successful regardless of his inexperience in the medium. Morrell takes the time to set his scene fully before we get a glimpse of the titular star of the series, introducing Corporal James Newman and his fellow soldiers and encouraging us to sympathise with their point of view before throwing them into a tense conflict and effectively capturing the noble essence of Captain America in his brief, ambiguous appearance towards the issue’s end. Mitch Breitweiser’s artwork conveys Morrell’s script very well (particularly the first shot of Captain America as he appears as a saviour in Newman’s time of need), and he provides the requisite visual thrills during the action sequences to bring the more intense moments of the story to life. I’m only familiar with Breitweiser through his fill-in work for Greg Land on his Ultimate Fantastic Four run, but it’s good to see him show that he’s able to carry a full project here. Yes, his style is a little sketchy at times, and the most impressive images of the book have already been released during advance promotion (lessening their impact here somewhat), but his storytelling skills and ability to convincingly capture the real-world environs of Afghanistan prove a real asset for the story.

However, the book isn’t without its flaws, and some of the issue’s earlier section is written with such broad strokes that it draws attention to itself and becomes a distraction. I’m happy to see Captain America’s evergreen idealism juxtaposed with the murkier reality of current world events, but I’d question whether we really need to see replays of the events of 9-11 (accompanied by a commentary on how crazy and hateful the “zealots” are) in order to understand where Corporal Newman is coming from. Also, despite a couple of candid assertions concerning the less-than-perfect state of the U.S. military, there’s a tendency to paint the soldiers as cliché idealistic heroes who long to return home to see their loved ones after they fight the good fight (“I want to help this country.” “I hope to make America safe.”), and to demonise their opponents (“Death to America! Death to Satan! Death To Zionists!” “I get to be a martyr! I go to paradise! Virgins wait for me!” - real Team America stuff). It lacks depth or sophistication, it’s overly exaggerated, and it smacks of a certain jingoism that threatens to undermine an otherwise fairly politically restrained story. Morrell seems eager to expound the virtues of Cap’s credo of “Courage. Honour. Loyalty. Sacrifice,” but over-eggs the pudding to the extent that it may make readers question the writer’s own point of view on world events far more than it will evoke any emotion in them against his fictional terrorists. Still, I suppose it’s possible that Morrell is attempting to capture the mindset of a regular American footsoldier, and that these passages are meant to be more indicative of his character’s own prejudices than they are of his writer’s heavy-handedness. It’s also possible that American readers won’t read these passages in quite the same light as a non-American like me. Either way, though, it’s the least successful element of the book - and seems like unnecessary dressing for a story which could have put the space to better use in showing us a little more of Morrell’s take on Captain America. As it is, this feels more like a teaser for something more than it does a satisfying first chapter in its own right.

I’ll admit to being slightly disappointed by this first issue given the impressive preview art and the apparent strength of the story concept, but I’m wary of writing it off too soon as it feels like we haven’t really gotten to the meat of Morrell’s story yet. The final page hints at a more Cap-centric story in future issues than this opener provides, and there are also some interesting hints at the hero’s impending death (this project was originally conceived as Captain America: The End, after all) which imply that his ghostly apparition in Afghanistan may be a little more than simply the fevered imaginings of a stressed soldier. There’s enough here to provide the potential for a satisfying series, so I’ll reserve final judgment for now and give this story at least another issue for Morrell to convince me that there’s something worth following here - but this isn’t the runaway success that I was expecting.

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