Captain America Epic Collection 14: The Captain: COMICS RETROSPECTIVE. The debut of John Walker

Updated: Feb 22

Warning: The TV show The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was partially based on this story, and mild spoilers are contained within.

Kieron Dwyer brings two Captains together

Mark Gruenwald was not a cool man. In 1987, even as a 12-year-old reader, I could feel it. The odd photo of him that turned up in Marvel had him looking like a ‘hip’ high school principal: balding, mustachioed, ponytail, tucked-in shirt. He worked on books that felt stodgy, like Captain America and Quasar. Compared to the young guys at Marvel like Jim Lee, Todd MacFarlane, or Rob Liefeld, Gruenwald felt like your dad’s comic maker.

My own photos from this time period are more embarrassing

And like many 12 year-olds, I was pretty dumb. What I thought was cool at age 12 was already embarrassing at age 16. And now I look at the comics Gruenwald made with a lot of respect. He seemed apathetic about trying to be cool, and instead just made good all-ages comics with enough nuance to keep an adult interested. And doesn't that make him the coolest of them all?

I was really excited for this collection to come out. It collects Captain America Vol.1 #333-350 and crossover issue Iron Man #228, which make up a majority of the saga of The Captain, in which Steve Rogers gives up the mantle of Captain America and is replaced by a new-at-the-time character, John Walker, the Super Patriot. Issue 332, which isn’t included in this collection, was the issue where Rogers retires, and at the time picked up a little buzz. I myself wasn’t a Cap reader, but it got thrown around as potentially ‘collectable’ and I picked it up. It was interesting enough that I stuck with it for a few issues, but tapered off long before the story came together.

Huh? There's a B on his cowl?

The book follows two tandem plots. One is of the Super Patriot, John Walker, chosen by the government to become the official Captain America, trying to live up to the name Captain America. The other is the original Cap, Steve Rogers, as he travels across country with his sidekicks Falcon, Nomad, and D-Man, as they try to help Cap get his mojo back.

The real marvel here is the characterisations. Steve Rogers is well-portrayed, but Gruenwald goes to great lengths to give motivations and personality to everyone, even the C-level villains. The best of them all is John Walker. Right up front, I doubt most readers expected him to be the new Cap forever. For one, Steve Rogers never leaves the book for more than an issue. On the contrary, the book frequently features him. But Walker is given a great character arc. If you’ve seen his TV debut in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier or his later appearances as the U.S.Agent, you know he’s a troubled man. But he’s not a good guy, and he’s not a bad guy. He’s shown to be someone who wants to be decent. He places his faith in his government to lead him in the right direction. He had named himself the Super Patriot!

When the government is getting the Taskmaster to train you, that's probably a bad sign

What’s more, Gruenwald places Walker in situations which challenge his own sense of morality. His first assignment is to infiltrate the Watchdogs, a conservative militia that is introduced blowing up a pornography store. They are criminals, but they are–by their claims–preserving American decency. Walker doesn’t support criminal action, but he does support their ideology. In another set of issues, he goes up against a group of mutant freedom fighters named the Resistants, who fight against the unjust Mutant Registration Act of Marvel’s late 1980s comics. Gruenwald manages to create villains who each have their own motivations, and force Walker to make moral decisions in how he will deal with them.

Just a pornography store in a scenic field by a grove

The least complicated of the villains is the Serpent Society, who are plain costumed villains for the most part, but they manage to be the most interesting of them all. The Society was a creation of Gruenwald’s, with numerous snake-themed villains. Their motivations were all over the place, leading to them fracturing up over the course of a few issues. Some just want money, some want anarchy, and the rest just want to go with whichever side they suspect will win. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the writing nuanced, but there is a lot going on simply within the broad strokes of the story.

"I just don't see where the money is in poisoning a city!" I have had the same thought many a time

Gruenwald makes use of word balloons in a way that is generally outdated in mainstream comics today. Modern comics use narrative captions, but they are usually stuck using one character as a point-of-view character, and can’t get the degree of pulpiness old comics do. The thought balloons aren’t simply narration, but a way of showing contrast between the character’s thoughts and action.

Cap realizes he isn't fighting at his full potential, while the Falcon does less glamorous but no less important heroics

The word balloons get out of control in places, but never to the point that I found the book to be boring.

In this case, a little decompression would have worked better, but a lot of story needs to be crammed in

A really interesting note for people living through America’s culture wars in the year 202*, Cap’s black partner takes on the name Bucky. In some parts of America, Bucky would be considered to be a racist insult to a black man. While the story was in progress, Gruenwald was informed of this and was horrified. Instead of doubling down and saying that he didn’t mean it like that, or trying to erase it from the book, he wrote it into an issue and changed the character’s name to Battlestar.

Gruenwald took it as an opportunity to make a positive change, and develop Lamar’s character at the same time.

I had never heard this either, but there's no reason to doubt others' lived experiences

I have doubts this sort of issue would be handled nearly as intelligently if it were to come up in a mainstream story today, on either side of the issue.

The book has a surprisingly smooth narrative flow. It goes on detours, especially the crossover with Iron Man and that year’s crossover event, Fall of the Mutants, but those are still used to develop character and don’t hold the overall story back. The plot threads keep intersecting, as Rogers and Walker get closer and closer to duking it out in the double-sized 350th issue.

Walker is pushed in an increasingly difficult direction, leading to him snapping. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier show, that is one of the big turns of the series, though the groundwork isn’t laid out nearly as well as in the 18 months of comics in this collection.

"Uh, John, maybe you need to take a break from active duty."

As well, a living Steve Rogers is a much better foil for Walker to compare himself to, than to simply put him up against the Falcon and Winter Soldier. Basically, I liked this a lot more than the TV show that borrowed from it. And to be fair, I enjoyed the show well enough, but its six episode run suffers in comparison to 400 pages of story. When Walker finally becomes unhinged, it’s more than just a nod to PTSD under the surface.

The series also gets weird in a way that I totally missed out on at the time, and I can’t believe it hasn't become Cap-Wolf levels of famous: The Viper’s sinister plan is to turn Washington, D.C. into snake people, and she succeeds! In another double-sized issue, The Captain goes up against a snake-ified Ronald Reagan wearing nothing but tightie-whities! The then president attacks Steve Rogers with a flag in the Oval Office. While reading, I was astounded they could take it that far.

He does say his catchphrase "Mommy" in this issue

The art on the book is handled by reliable Marvel artist Tom Morgan for the first half, and later on by Kieron Dwyer. Morgan is solid, but unexciting. Dwyer was never a great fit for mainstream Marvel comics, he’s just too quirky. I like it though. He gets different inkers, and by the end of the collection, you can see him drawing like himself more or less. He has a good sense of humor, and the book looks best when he exaggerates the movement in a scene.

Hey baby, why are you laughing? Don't you know your life is in danger?

As Dwyer was fairly new at Marvel, the covers for his issues went to Tom Frenz (except issue 350, which Dwyer does himself, and is used as the collection cover). Frenz was deep in the zone of his Jack Kirby tributes on Thor at this point, and while they aren’t all exceptional covers, they capture some crazy energy.

That's a wild, crazy-looking cover

There’s so much good about this book. This is going to come across like faint praise, but while I was reading this, it made me think of a show like Law and Order, where episodes don't usually surprise you, but it’s just really well done. Gruenwald's stories have arcs and subplots, the subplots go places and are resolved, and stuff happens in every issue. The plotting of the book is incredibly sturdy.

There are a bunch of these Epic Collections out already, though most are already out of print, but I'm keen to read more. These captured a lot of what Marvel used to be great at: consistently engaging comics that work as punch-fests, soap operas, and occasionally manage to make you think.

I told you he said "Mommy"!


Ian McMurray is a Canadian, now settled and working as an educator in Sapporo, Japan. Starting with Uncanny X-Men #200 in 1985, an unreasonable percentage of his income has gone toward purchasing the sequential arts. He is a lifelong comics proselytizer, yet is genre agnostic, and makes comics under the name Ian M.

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