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Only shines brightly in the second half,
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This review is from: Captain America: Death of the Red Skull (Captain America (Unnumbered Paperback)) (Paperback)
J.M. DeMatteis sure does likes his sympathetic portrayals of psychopathic super villains. In this case, the Red Skull, sworn enemy of Captain America, and quite possibly the most evil baddie in the Marvel Universe. Created in the 1940s, as the epitome of Nazi corruption, the Red Skull has always been a pretty two dimensional character. But J.M. DeMatteis, a writer well known for exploring the twisted psychology of any character he gets his hands on, isn't going to rest content with the central antagonist of his piece being a stereotypical super villain. Especially not when this is the final confrontation in the decades long war between said antagonist and the hero (at least, it was supposed to be, but we all know what comics are like). So, instead, we're treated with one of the most interesting explorations of the Red Skull there's ever been.
Before making his name, with such comics as 'Spider-Man: Kraven's Last Hunt' and 'Justice League International', DeMatteis' wrote a lengthy run on 'Captain America'. 'Death of the Red Skull' was the final story arc of that fan favourite run (barring an annual, which was released shortly afterwards). The age of this story definitely shows, and it's clear that DeMatteis was still some way from his creative peak in the late '80s and early '90s, but many of the attributes that would make him such a prolific comic book writer can be found here in an earlier, rougher, form. As I already mentioned, we have the sympathetic super villains, the Red Skull and his daughter, Mother Superior (now more commonly known as Sin), who makes her début within these pages (and if you've ever read Ed Brubaker's fantastic Captain America run, this will fill you in on why she's so demented). Also, like Spider-Man in 'Kraven's Last Hunt' and Batman in 'Going Sane', we have the hero come face-to-face with his own mortality, and a psychological exploration of what it means to be a hero as two major themes. There's no doubt that this story definitely paves the way for DeMatteis' most famous work, the aforementioned 'Kraven's Last Hunt', and many of his other stories to come, for that matter. With that, DeMatteis is able to do something that only Ed Brubaker has ever been able to do for me since, make Captain America a believable and interesting character.
But, as a single story with a beginning, middle and end, this book suffers from the same faults that most trade paperback collections of older Marvel comics endure. Back in the 1980s, comics weren't written with a collection in mind like they are now, so as a single unit, this is haphazard and somewhat arbitrary when compared to modern TPBs and graphic novels. References are constantly made to previous stories, things happen that are resolved elsewhere (like the short digression which ties into 'Secret Wars') and it feels incomplete. This isn't just because of the nature of old comics, but also due to the fact that this is the final story arc of a lengthy run of stories by the same writer, tying up lots of loose ends from his previous arcs and, at the same time, intentionally leaving a few open for the next writer to take up (like the unresolved ending!). Furthermore, the writing has definitely dated. Anybody expecting the level of sophistication of 'Kraven's Last Hunt' or Ed Brubaker's Captain America run will be disappointed for the most part, as the early glimmers of DeMatteis' genius alluded to earlier in this review don't become apparent until the last few issues. Most of this is your typical light-hearted superhero action fare, full of all the cheesiness and deus ex machina that you'd expect from a Marvel comic during this period. That said, however, both the writing and the art (which is great, I should add) hold up far better than your random 1980s superhero comic by lesser talents. Add the fact that one of the supporting characters in here is gay (though he's never directly attributed as such), and it's clear that J.M. DeMatteis was way ahead of his time when he wrote this.
As much as I enjoyed this book and would love to give it a four star rating, I have to be pragmatic about it. I need to bear in mind that many of the people drawn to this book will be coming to it fresh from the films, and possibly also being used to the far more sophisticated style of modern comics. Therefore, I can't rate this without comparing it to today's standards and expectations, and the disjointed nature of this collection and some of the juvenile and contrived plot points knock off a star. After all, many 1980s comics do still hold up to today's generally far higher standards of storytelling in the areas where this doesn't. But, if you can suspend some disbelief, look past the melodramatic old-fashioned dialogue and read it for what it is, 'Death of the Red Skull' is a worthwhile read and an integral part of Captain America's history.