This issue of Captain America serves as a coda to the “Operation: Galactic Storm” event that started in issue #398 and ended in last month’s Avengers #347. It’s also one of the most significant comics we’ve covered so far at this blog—and if you’ve been following along in recent posts, you can guess why. After objecting to many of the Avengers’ actions during the interstellar episode, Captain America questions much of what he’s been doing as their leader, and when one of his teammates takes him out to relax, they’re interrupted by another one—and not one who typically helps Cap relax.
The issue starts with the ominous shadowy image below, in which Cap offers to resign as leader of the Avengers. (“Chief executive,” really?)
This is followed by an impressive group shot that unfortunately features few verbal reactions.
We’ll zoom in on the most relevant one, courtesy of the man in the iron mask, who identifies the biggest controversy of “Operation: Galactic Storm” before letting us know of an earlier vote that absolved the responsible members of punishment for it.
Regarding Tony’s comment about “appropriate conduct in a time of war,” even if we grant that traditional standards of morality may not always apply in the extraordinary circumstances of war—a concession some scholars are not willing to make—this does not necessarily condone what Tony and the others did when they executed the Supreme Intelligence, an act that, as we saw in Avengers #347, was motivated more by vengeance and anger than strategic advantage. Certainly, some Avengers argued that the Kree leader should be killed to prevent him from wiping out other races, but that was not an imminent threat, which makes killing him seem more like a pre-emptive assassination rather than one carried out to end ongoing aggression, and is therefore hard to justify with recourse to some ill-defined notion of “wartime ethics” that involves split-second decision-making under intense pressure. (For various perspectives on the general issue of killing in war, see this recent edited volume, and for a focused debate on assassination or targeted killing, see this book.)
After Clint suggests they all just need a break, Cap agrees, but before he adjourns the meeting he announces an event that evening that I would be very eager to attend and with which I would be more than willing to help out—I have a handout prepared and everything!
Of course someone had to ask that, right? I’m sure it would have been USAgent had he been there, but John is elsewhere at the moment. (We may even see him before this issue’s finished.)
After Cap leaves, several of his teammates express concern for him, vocally or silently…
…but Quasar has another matter to discuss, which Cap seems to understand, and the reasoning for which only confirms his assessment of the young hero’s character.
Cap wishes Quasar well and lets him know he’s always welcome in the mansion, but when the compliment is returned, Cap is not sure how to take it.
If you’re thinking Cap could really use a hug right now, don’t worry… he’s got one coming.
Without signalling whether he appreciated Peggy’s concern, Cap gets right down to business, following up on the two back-up stories from the last issue. (Really can’t blame him, because we didn’t even cover them in our post!) Peggy doesn’t know yet that Falcon and USAgent discovered D-Man alive, so as far as Cap is concerned, it’s all just bad news, and he becomes even more despondent.
And things do not look better once he refocuses on Avengers matters, as his thoughts turn to his “old-fashioned” moral code and whether it is relevant in the modern world, which celebrates heroes willing to cross traditional lines of ethics to “get the job done.”
(Gee, someone oughta write a book.)
Below we see that a lot of Avengers apparently took Cap’s answer to Thor’s question to heart, which only makes the three who do show up to Cap’s seminar even more worried about him. (I mean, he turned down a workout session!)
They cover for their teammates the best they can, but Cap clearly sees what’s going on.
(Any teacher who’s offered an extra study session knows that the students most likely to show up are usually not the ones who need it the most.)
Cap’s words as he leaves only make his three friends more concerned…
…so they discuss ways to help, with Natasha (whose workout idea already bombed) suggesting Clint reach out to him.
Despite his reservations, Clint seeks out Cap, finding him in his room with his boots on the bed?! Wow, he’s in worse shape than anyone could have imagined.
Facing tough resistance, Clint resorts to infantile behavior, no matter what the rules say. (I’m pretty sure they say “no boots on the bed,” but whatever.)
Clint takes Steve to what he describes as a “lowlife bar” (as opposed to a “yuppie bar” and an “old men bar”), then has to convince him to have a beer, despite Steve’s concerns about providing a good example for… the other people drinking in the bar? (How many people would recognize him without his costume anyway?)
Before long, Steve opens up to Clint, starting with responding to his “regular Joe” comment. He laments his inability to maintain a private life as Steve Rogers alongside his public one as Captain America, as well as his lack of “civilian friends” (which, I’m happy to report, is being addressed in the current Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty run).
When Steve turns to his feelings of ineffectiveness as Avengers leader, Clint suggests—partially in jest, I trust—that they both quit altogether and form a Superhero Ethics Squad, but Steve doesn’t want to “compete” for action. (Tell that to the Fantastic Four, the various X-Men teams, the New Warriors…)
And when Steve refuses to consider even stepping away from the Avengers temporarily, Clint calls him out on his neglect of his own well-being, which has a negative impact on his performance as a superhero as well. Skeptical at first, Steve soon mentions that there is a woman he’s kind of sweet on…
…but there’s a hitch.
Steve seems to be on the edge of a breakthrough when uh-oh… look who shows up. (Thanks a lot, Peggy.) Steve and Tony get off to a glorious start before Clint finds himself dismissed from the table.
As the expert marksman goes off to relieve some of the local rubes of their cash, the other two longtime Avengers get down to it, rehashing the history of their ethical conflicts to date, in an early (and less violent) version of 2006’s Iron Man/Captain America: Casualties of War #1 (during the Civil War). They begin with the Armor Wars episode, which reached its head in Iron Man #228…
…and which Tony didn’t account for, either then or later. As Einstein looks on, Tony admits he went overboard then, before hitting the nail on the head with respect to the key difference in their ethical perspectives. (For even more detail on this than my Cap book has, see my later book A Philosopher Reads Marvel Comics’ Civil War.)
This partially explains their disagreement over Tony’s actions during Operation: Galactic Storm, but there is the additional element of Tony making too many decisions without consulting the team (although, to be fair, this wasn’t always possible).
They finally get to the most recent and serious transgression, which Tony again justifies with claims that traditional ethics don’t apply to war, but this time Steve suggests a more preferable and just option—and in any case, the Avengers lacked the moral authority to execute the Kree leader on their own. Not all is bad between them, though: As Tony predicted, Steve does agree with the decision to leave him behind on Hala to deal with the Nega-Bomb. (Now tell Clint that!)
Nonetheless, Tony explains how much that decision weighed on him and how much he would miss Steve if he were gone. He tells his friend how much he looks up to him and admires his refusal to let the injustices of the world bring him down, but admits that he can’t live up to that example, chalking it up to Steve’s “perfection”…
…which Steve rightly dismisses (but stops short of calling it out as a lame excuse to not try to be better). He praises Tony for coming forward and, recognizing all they have in common, agrees to disagree on the rest. (As we will see, this will be not always be easy!)
After Clint collects his winnings, he and Steve return to Avengers Mansion, where some old friends (and John Walker) are waiting for him.
The good news Steve so dearly needed comes in the form of D-Man, who’s alive…
…but not quite himself, which Steve promises to take care of. But first, he thanks USAgent—which surprises John more than anyone—and then reflects on the value of his friends, civilian or otherwise.
Captain America (vol. 1) #401, June 1992: Mark Gruenwald (writer), Rik Levins (pencils), Danny Bulanadi (inks), Christie Scheele and Gina Going (colors), Joe Rosen (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Collected in: Captain America Epic Collection: Blood and Glory and Avengers Epic Collection: Operation Galactic Storm.
PREVIOUS ISSUES: Captain America #400 and Namor the Sub-Mariner #26 (May 1992)
ALSO THIS MONTH: Infinity War #1 and Death’s Head II #4 (June 1992)
NEXT ISSUES: Captain America #402-403 (July 1992)
This is, in my opinion, one of the best single issues from Mark Gruenwald’s decade-long run writing Captain America.
As I recall, this was the point when I decided that Rik Levins, whose work on the series over the past year had been really underwhelming to me, really seemed to step up his game, turning in some superb penciling that really brought Gruenwald’s story to life. I feel that Danny Bulanadi’s inking also contributed significantly to the story’s atmosphere.
I agree completely with Cap on one aspect: the Avengers definitely should have put the Supreme Intelligence on trial for war crimes. Attempting to execute the SI right on the spot was a huge mistake. At the time the SI was not an immediate threat,and it severely undermined the Avengers’ credibility & moral standing at a key moment. The attempt to kill the SI enabled it to fake its own death and go into hiding, during which it *did* once again become a major threat. This also prevented the truth of the SI being the one who started the Kree-Shi’ar War and detonated the Nega Bomb from becoming public, and as a result it was easy for the Kree survivors to be manipulated into believing the Earth was responsible for the destruction of their empire, which in turn led to several devastating terrorist attacks against humanity. So, yeah, it was a *really* bad decision.
Several people have commented on the oddness of Cap saying that the Black Widow was one of the few Avengers who doesn’t actually need to attend his seminar on superhuman ethics. This would be the same Black Widow who is a former Soviet spy, saboteur & assassin and who also participated in all sorts of SHIELD black ops for Nick Fury, right? I guess there was a brief point in the early 1990s when Natasha was being written as if she was a traditional superhero, but for the majority of her existence, both before this story and after it, the Black Widow has been depicted as morally ambiguous, ruthless and all too willing to use lethal force.
(I replied to this on Saturday — not sure what happened. Sigh.)
I agree with you completely, Ben — incredible issue.
Great point about Natasha — I recently reread her early appearances in Daredevil and even Matt was concerned about her violence (before he became more violent himself in the Miller era). I’m curious too when she and Cap became so tight, to the point where she teases him and he makes her his deputy leader (and then successor). Maybe that time they were trapped together for most of a biweekly summer Avengers event (can’t remember which, those all run together)?
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Was it in “The Collection Obsession” maybe?
This is something that I did not notice at the time because I had only started following comic books regularly in the late 1980s, but now, having subsequently read a whole bunch of back issues, it really stands out for me: When the Black Widow rejoined the Avengers during Larry Hama’s brief run on the book, she hadn’t appeared in that series in any sort of noteworthy capacity since “The Korvac Saga” over a decade earlier. But as soon as Hama brings Natasha back suddenly everyone (Gruenwald, Harris, DeFalco) are writing her as if she’s always been an Avengers mainstay, and presenting her & Cap as if they’re close friends & confidants. It’s really odd.