This final issue of the legendary “Born Again” storyline in Daredevil, by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, finds Captain America helping Matt Murdock battle against the Kingpin’s final attempt to break him. Although the entire Daredevil story is deservedly heralded as a classic, the portrayal of Captain America in this issue is simply stunning, and along with Marvel Fanfare #18 (with which it shares several themes), it hints at what Frank Miller might have done with an entire Captain America book if given the chance. (The 1980s Frank Miller, at least.)
Personal note: Because I read most of the classic Daredevil before I ever read any Cap, this may have been the first portrayal of Captain America I saw (other than Avengers Annual #12, which I read as a kid and had no memory of until I revisited it three decades later while writing my book).
And what a portrayal it was, starting with his first appearance in what has become a classic panel (the first of several from this comic), about which I blogged ten years ago. Narrated by reporter Ben Urich (seen in the first panel), it shows how normal people in the Marvel Universe see Cap, with awe and respect for his benevolent authority in the face of disaster. (This perspective would be extended to magnificent effect in Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels.)
What’s the source of the emergency, anyway? After destroying Matt Murdock’s personal life but failing to end him once and for all, the Kingpin “borrowed” an unhinged super-soldier named Nuke (introduced in this storyline) from a friendly general and sent him to Hell’s Kitchen to kill Daredevil using whatever firepower necessary, including ground-to-air missiles, which started the fire seen above. While Cap and Thor deal with the damages and save civilians, Daredevil manages to defeat Nuke—who, below, is asking for one of his adrenaline pills, which come in red, white, and blue, natch—after which Iron Man takes charge, as he likes to do.
As Tony gets what he wants, Cap looks at Nuke, begging for his pills, and a profound sadness overcomes his face.
I’d like to think Cap also has a “there but for the grace of God go I” moment, like after he defeated William Burnside, the similarly twisted Captain America from the 1950s, in Captain America #156. (In the first arc of Wolverine: Origins in 2006, it is explained that Nuke was involved in the seventh iteration of Weapon Plus program; the first transformed Steve Rogers into Captain America and the tenth—”Weapon X”—created Wolverine.)
Later, Matt visits the church where his mother, Sister Maggie (also introduced in this storyline) serves, where he comforts Karen Page—who got him into this whole mess in the first place by selling his secret identity—and listens in on his best friend Foggy Nelson talking intimately with Matt’s recent ex-girlfriend Glori O’Breen, before he hears something more ominous.
It’s very interesting to read about how Matt Murdock perceives Captain America: his breathing and his scent (what about them, though?), his steady heartbeat, his speed exceeding his stealth (“on your left”), and his muscles easily and smoothly maneuvering his mass through acrobatic contortions.
Cap asks Matt about Nuke, to which Matt gives a snide answer (betraying a very cynical view of Cap) before he reveals that Nuke is not just another chemically enhanced super-soldier.
Below are two astonishing panels: The first panel is revealing, particularly in Cap’s simple statement of why Nuke bothers him so much, and also surreal, in that Matt dives off the building as if there were a swimming pool below, as well as giving a glib response which cuts differently depending on whether Cap is aware that Matt is blind. (I don’t think he does at this point.) The second panel is simply gorgeous, thanks to the colors of Max Scheele, and reveals a reverence for the flag itself that is rarely seen in the Cap comics—with the notable exception of Marvel Fanfare #18—as well as an equally rare sense of defeat, as if he’s fighting a lonely, losing battle. (If he knew Matt was blind, he might not have taken his comment so hard!)
Next, we visit the office of the Kingpin’s pet general…
…where Cap shows up, demanding answers about Nuke. The general takes evasive verbal action, but when he invokes Cap’s loyalty, it prompts another classic panel, which encapsulates Cap’s philosophy in eight simple words.
Note the emphasis on the flag again, reminiscent of similar imagery in Marvel Fanfare #18—go look, I’ll wait—as well as referring back to a scene in the previous, Daredevil #232, in which the Kingpin struck the same pose while convincing Nuke to attack “our enemy”:
After leaving the general, Cap heads down to the computer room in the basement, giving the young corporal a love tap, just enough to incapacitate him, but we can still imagine him saying “this hurts me more than it hurts you.”
The next page contains a wealth of material—I would have chopped it up, but it seemed a shame. It begins with a reflection on how Cap increasingly finds himself at odds with his government and military, which he couldn’t have imaged in the days of World War II, but has become a more frequent occurrence since the first Secret Empire storyline (starting in Captain America #169) and anticipating the pivotal Captain America #332. (But I do get a chuckle out of his comment about computers, considering how he praises them in this month’s Captain America #320.)
The second half of the page is the real kicker, of course, as he discovers the truth about the revived Project Rebirth—hardly the first, as we know now—and Nuke. (This revelation will be played out again in an even more emotional way when Cap learns in Captain America: Truth about Isaiah Bradley, the lone survivor of 300 Black men experimented on in an earlier attempt to recreate the serum.)
However, let’s not pass over his comment in the middle of the page about how history would have been different had the serum not been lost after transforming him into the first super-soldier. Here, he focuses primarily on the possibility of ending the war without the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—not to mention the firebombing of Tokyo earlier in 1945—but not considering what creating an army of super-soldiers would mean for the military as well as society as a whole. (Interestingly, this did not go unmentioned when Project Rebirth was first being developed, as we see soon in Captain America Annual #8.)
Echoing the sunset panel above, we see Cap below, sitting silent and morose while he processes what he just learned, until an alarm rouses him to action…
…alerting him to Nuke’s rampage after being told by the military brass that he was being sent overseas (because “that’s where the enemy is”). Nuke desperately wants to continue fighting the domestic “enemies” the Kingpin sent him after, so he breaks his shackles, downs a bottle of adrenaline pills, and fights his way out of the complex, only to run into the mighty shield, backed by Captain America.
Cap removes Nuke from the scene the fastest way he can…
…and after landing, thinks about how things were different in his day, when the purpose of the fight seemed clearer and brighter days seemed guaranteed when it was over.
As he rises, and helps his fellow super-soldier to his feet, Cap slowly realizes what the approaching helicopters are planning to do, and nonetheless chides himself for thinking that renegade agents of his own military would shoot him in order to get Nuke (while silently acknowledging that very truth).
Daredevil arrives just in time to save them both…
…and Cap plays defense (as lightly as he can, we trust) as Daredevil escapes with Nuke.
(If those are the same troops who were in the helicopter, Cap’s restraint and respect are all the more admirable.)
Daredevil “commandeers” a taxicab to try to get Nuke to a hospital, but the super-soldier dies before he even gets close, so he changes course for the Daily Bugle and Ben Urich. Cap watches him from above, and returns the favor done above.
In the end, Daredevil delivers Nuke’s body to the Bugle, whose subsequent first-page story fingering the Kingpin for the disaster in Hell’s Kitchen brings down his plans… for now. (And Matt Murdock begins the slow process of rebuilding his life.)