Thursday, November 1, 2012

Wing-Head and the Dude

The first nickname refers to Captain America, the World War II super-soldier rescued and thawed from ice by the world famous Avengers. The second belongs to Steve Rude, a perfectionist illustrator already celebrated by this blog for his remarkable series The Mighty Thor: Godstorm. In 2003, Rude and Cap teamed with writer Bruce Jones for the weekly comic What Price Glory?

In four dense issues, this story showcases the Dude's meticulous, detail-heavy pencils much like Godstorm did- in homage to visionary artist Jack Kirby, designer of most of the Marvel Universe throughout the 1960s. Steve Rogers (Cap's civilian identity) is a lantern-jawed gent, whose clean-cut aura of naivete starts nearly as many brawls as his acrobatics finish. He drinks Mr. Pibb whenever possible, and always has an ear free for the half-dozen damsels orbiting him. Bikers and gangsters never fail to mistake him for a gift-wrapped milquetoast, attacking with the mindless fury of arena bulls.

While costumed (as a star-spangled dynamo), Rude's Captain America has the Kirby playbook memorized in every muscle. His kicks, somersaults and shield tosses rocket the narrative forward (though I often read the fight scenes circuitously, trapped in beautiful loops). Motion lines, intrusive when attempted by some artists, superbly accent Rude's action. It's also worth remembering that most "street level" heroes fight with a helpful gimmick: Spider-Man uses his spider-sense, Batman uses the shadows, Wolverine stabs people, etc. Captain America, more than any other fighter, is concentrating.

You or I might find that difficult, trapped in a world of Bruce Jones' fetishes. Making his name in the 70s horror scene, Jones found renewed fame writing The Incredible Hulk in the early 2000s. Now, I'd never read him before the Hulk. Under his guidance, it's a great thriller, reminiscent of the 70s TV show, with lots of momentum and intricate twists. But his endless portrayals of women as conniving she-devils become tough to ignore after, say, the fifth one.

What Price Glory? begins with a view into the bathroom of a blonde bombshell as she showers. A man named Sal enters in his wheelchair, and she says, "Letch," while posing with a towel. Nothing but innocent role-playing here, as we find that Sal (a Desert Storm veteran) and Kate are married, and it's his birthday. She kisses him, repeats enthusiastically that he's a letcher, and he replies, "Yeah... if only in spirit, right?"

Ah, what gateways to the magical comic books are! Only here can the action of a summer blockbuster meet the scintillating drama that Cinemax might show at 2AM. Soon, when Steve Rogers visits with some cake, Sal privately says to him, "You my friend, Steve? My buddy? You do anything for me? Then give me a real birthday present... make love to my wife!"

Steve passes, on that offer and another to go dancing. But Kate does give him the address of a dive across town. After some gleeful brawling that barely interrupts Steve's soda break, our hero's picked up outside by the limo of the shady Charles Frizini (whom Rude draws as Dennis Franz). This meeting leads to the larger adventure of rescuing Frizini's daughter Pasha from a Las Vegas gangster named Spano.

Though the Dude illustrates Brooklyn and its architecture beautifully, the more colorful venue of Vegas kicks this tale up a notch. Approaching the city, Steve spies outside his plane window the gigantic face of the Red Skull, his Nazi nemesis. Perhaps too cutely (though perfectly in touch with the Kirby motif), this occurs because a Captain America theme park is under construction. So we're treated to some cleverly surreal moments within Vegas' palatial trappings. One involves a fight between Spano's goons and construction workers. After a life-size statue of Cap is trashed, we hear, "Hey, Angelo... didn't we just knock that statue down?" The real Cap stands on the platform a moment before springing to action.

Pasha, meanwhile, is introduced alongside a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Tina, who's there to back Steve up in various secret capacities. Both women, naturally, are stunning, and require of Steve the utmost stoicism. This is an ubiquitous comic trope, whether the hero wears a flag or not. Unique to Bruce Jones' work, however, is that these women (Kate included) each lie to and manipulate the astoundingly upright star in service to a smutty, convoluted plot.

Rude's hyper-talent, thankfully, steals back the spotlight from Jones on every page. What we end up with in What Price Glory? may just be what everyone involved intended- Captain America lightly mixed with James Bond. It comes from an era at Marvel that produced many daring stories, Wolverine's Origin and Daredevil's Father among them. It also contains a telling final page that indicates how slowly Rude creates four glorious comics. When Tina and Steve go to the top of the Empire State building, he says, "There you go. Beautiful, huh?" She thinks he speaks of planes. He actually refers to the haunted space once occupied by the World Trade Towers.

Most comics addressing 9/11 came out within a year of the tragedy. What Price Glory? was a weekly release in May of 2003. To me, ending a romp fueled by poker chips and bikinis with ghostly towers seems rather expensive.


  1. I forgot how chilling that final panel is. And of course all this Steve Rude-worshipping makes me yearn for a Four Color Opera look at my beloved Nexus ...

  2. Nexus Schmexus... maybe next year!