Captain America: Theater of War
written by Paul Jenkins
illustrated by Gary Erskine, John McCrea, Fernando Blanco and Elia Bonetti
Captain America has been so firmly emblazoned in comics-readers’ minds that it’s hard to reimagine him. British writer Paul Jenkins has done it successfully, and what he’s created in his series of one shots (collected here under the banner of Theater of War) is compelling, wrenching stuff. It’s exactly how an icon like Captain America should be depicted.
Theater of War was originally published as a series of single issues wherein Jenkins was joined by a variety of artists (Gary Erskine, John McCrea, Fernando Blanco, and Elia Bonetti). Jenkins places Captain America physically in action in World War II and the Iraq War in the first three stories within the book. In the last, Captain America exists more as an idea, an embodiment of the true spirit of America, and as such, he abides from the Revolutionary War on through the present day, hitting on most major conflicts and ups and downs of the country’s history. All four artists are distinct but their styles match enough that the entire collection reads cohesively. The stories mesh together nicely.
As the title suggests, these are war stories, and they’re unflinching. Jenkins based many of the soldiers on real people, and he makes it clear who the real heroes of his stories are. The two strongest standout stories come in the middle: “A Brother in Arms” takes place during World War II, and Captain America and his team of soldiers have brought the war deep into the heart of Germany. Against almost impossible odds, they’re winning, and they’ve managed to take a prisoner of war. While his men want to kill the German soldier, Captain America ensures they treat him according to the rules—with honor and dignity. In “To Soldier On,” a young soldier in Iraq finds himself a multiple amputee—because he had been placed in excessive danger on Captain America’s orders. It’s gritty, sad, and harrowing. Jenkins does not shy from showing the true cost of war in any of his stories.
Theater of War would be a fine addition to any high school library, and adults should enjoy it too for its hard-hitting honesty and gritty action (which may be too intense and violent for young children). How it incorporates the fictional Captain America into the real-world bloodshed of our nation’s wars is respectfully and powerfully done. Captain America is not exactly the hero of these tales. Instead he’s the impetus for much of what happens, and he draws many of the participants together. But the brave soldiers fighting on and facing the horrors of war are the ones Jenkins gives the real focus to. There are some real historical lessons to be gleaned in these pages.