A while back I read one of Mark Waid’s JLA stories and found it one of the more depressing iterations of super-hero genre douchebaggery extant. (Update: I also had a troll tussle with Waid, which you can read about at that link.) On the other hand, Waid’s goofball pseudo-Silver Age comics’ covers were deliriously demented in the best possible way. I didn’t figure that Waid’s Captain America would be as good as the second, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be as lousy as the first.

And I got my wish…barely. Operation:Rebirth — the trade collection of Waid’s first few issues on Captain America — isn’t quite as thoroughly godawful as Waid’s Midsummer Night’s Dream storyline for JLA. The art by Ron Garney is marginally better than the JLA art, for one thing. And with only one hero, there’s less self-congratulatory puffery about how we’re all just the greatest heroes ever, aren’t we so cool?

I mean, don’t get me wrong; there’s still plenty of that. Tthe comic opens with a by-the-numbers eulogy about how Cap is the best in all of us, how will we survive without him, and on and on and on. Because everyone thought Cap was dead. But he’s not. And then he wakes up and Sharon what’s her name is there back from the dead too, except now she’s all cynical and hardened and has a frizzier hairstyle. And then the Red Skull pops up and has to stand in line to kiss Art Spiegelman’s ass, after which he travels back in time to take Noah’s place on the ark — but Captain America and Sharon dress up as warthogs (Cap in red, white, and blue, of course) and then they….

Okay, right, none of that happens, no matter how much I would have liked it to. Instead Cap and the Red Skull team up to find the cosmic cube inside of which Hitler may or may not be trapped and then Cap goes inside it and lives his perfect dream life until he self-actualizes and comes back to face reality. And then he and Sharon whatshername banter a little. Along the way, Cap hits a soldier or two and tightens his jaw like Tom Cruise to show us that it pains him. Sharon makes some cracks about what a goody-two-shoes Cap is. And there’s the obligatory panel where we see her dim-lit, perhaps nude ass and she makes some vague comment about how she was degraded because intimations of prostitution are always welcome.

I do think, having read this, that Waid is at some sort of extreme of what super-hero comics can be. It’s not that he’s the worst writer in the world. Steve Gerber’s Man Thing is worse. The original Power Man is worse. But they manage to be worse by actually making some sort of effort. Gerber and the folks who worked on Power Man had pretentions to social and moral relevance that were tediously presented and hideously executed, and which made them very bad comics indeed.

But those same pretentions gave you at least some sense of why the comics existed in the first place. They were hackwork, no question…but you felt like the creators had put something of themselves into the creation. Gerber had a whiny, existentialist persecution complex; the guys who did Power Man had some sort of ax to grind about racial and social justice. Stupid, sure, and poorly handled, but the stuff from which actual artists who don’t suck have created actual art.

Whereas with Waid, there’s just nothing. Oh, sure, there’s the usual mouthings about truth, justice, and the American way, and there’s the fight against the Nazis. But there isn’t even a token effort to pretend that Waid or the readers give a crap. The Nazis are just central casting heavies; there’s no ideology involved. The best Waid can do is burble on about how Cap was born or reborn or rereborn or manufactured to defeat HItler…which, what does that even mean? Cap is Hitler’s natural arch-enemy? I mean, what about Winston Churchill? If anybody was going to go into a cosmic nether-space and self-actualize about trouncing Adolf, why not Winston Churchill? Oh, sure, he doesn’t wear his underthings on the outside, but he looks kind of like a bulldog. Surely that counts for something?

Anyway, the point is…Waid wrote this thing with his brain on call-waiting and his heart in the other room snoozing to infomercials. Really, it could have been composed by a computer or a monkey — except then there’d be absurdist touches. But here…you finish this and you figure, Mark Waid must be the absolute dullest man on earth. Cliché after cliché flows effortlessly across the page (teaming up with the villain; spiritual reunion with lost partner; saving enemy from certain death, and on and on) without any spark of life or even interest. The bland grey surface is unmarred by either skill or incompetence. There are no ideas, either bad or good. The book just sits there, like a lump on a bump, but without that much personality.

So I’m baffled. I know Waid does have a personality; that he can be witty and arch and goofy and mean-spirited. Maybe he feels it’s just not appropriate to bring that stuff to his mainstream bread-and-butter series? But, good lord, if you have a brain and heart, not to mention a sense of humor, as he appears to, how could you sit down and write this without slitting your throat? Even if it’s just hackwork for a paycheck…how could you resist doing something, anything, to show that it was you, and not some faceless drone, who put this book together?

In my review of JLA, I said that Waid made me despair of super-hero comics, and that kind of holds true here as well. When I read Man-Thing, I just hated Man-Thing and Steve Gerber and wanted it to stop. But you can’t really hate Waid when you read Captain America, because there’s no sense that he even exists. You’re left with just absence; with characters who move and speak and pretend to be human, but who are really just empty masks perched upon a void. The super-heroes seem like hollowed out tropes, dead but somehow upright. It’s uncanny and depressing. Management missed a trick, I think, when they didn’t have Waid write Marvel Zombies.

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