RETRO REVIEW: Captain America #344 (August 1988)

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Or  – “Just Say No To Viper Venom.”

Often times, when the subject of old comics comes up, my response is “It was the 60s/70s/80s.  Things were different then.”  Of course, a year or so ago, we discussed the time when Steve Rogers fought the President of the United States and gave up being Captain America.  Today, we look at the time where, 15 years later, Steve Rogers gave up being Captain America and fought the President of the United States.

Apparently, things weren’t quite as different as I might have thought…

CAPTAIN AMERICA #344
Script: Mark Gruenwald
Pencils: Kieron Dwyer
Inks: Al Milgrom
Colors: Bob Sharen
Letters: Joe Rosen
Editor: Ralph Macchio
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: $1.50
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $3.00

Previously, in Captain America: After Doctor Eskine’s formula turned him from a 4F loser to a 4-star hero, Steve Rogers turned the tide against the Red Skull, was frozen in a glacier, founded the Avengers and fought Richard Nixon.  Then, the Commission On Superhuman Activities ruled that the man in the Captain America mask should be answerable to the government (more specifically, to the Commission On Superhuman Activities) and Steve Rogers resigned his commission rather than be tied to politics and the vagaries thereof.  Taking up a new identity as “The Captain”, Rogers continued his activities as a superhero, while the red-white-and-blue costume of Captain America was passed on to a man named John Walker.  Walker has begun to melt down from the pressure of the role, while The Captain has been trapped in a war between factions of the Serpent Society, but that’s nothing compared to the morning that President Ronald Reagan has been going through…

Even Jimmy Stewart wouldn’t recognize his old friend under all those scales…  President Reagan’s transformation isn’t the only one, as the entire city of Washington, DC finds itself in chaos, thanks to a snake mutagen slipped into the water supply by the nefarious Viper (aka Madam Hydra, not Randy Orton) and the members of the Serpent Society.  Of course, not all of the snakes are in on the evil plan…

Things start to get complicated here, but I have to say that I love Kieron Dwyer’s rendition of Steve’s Captain costume (later re-cycled as The U.S. Agent’s suit) especially the boots and gloves.  The Serpent Society, at this point in time, consists of almost every snake-themed villain in the Marvel Universe, but The Cobra has had the bad luck to end up partnered with the newest members, all of whom are loyal to Viper and the Society’s actual leader, Sidewinder.  The girl in the oh-so-eighties legwarmers is Diamondback, Serpent Society member in the midst of her Heel-Face turn, helping Cap to track down the traitors on her team.  Cobra escapes (after revealing that he’s not loyal to Viper), only to run into Captain America’s partners, Nomad and Demolition Man.

D-Man gets a terrible rap from fans, but I have always found him kind of charming in his slow-witted good nature.  I honestly think that a large part of the popular distaste for him comes from the way he interacts with the rest of Steve’s entourage, specifically Nomad.

Of course, the fact that his costume is a ham-fisted melange of Daredevil’s old costume and the mask that Wolverine wore on the cover of Giant-Size X-Men #1, there’s a lot of ammunition to use against poor Dennis.  Viper (looking particularly axe-crazy there, I might add) makes good her escape by BITING HIM IN THE THROAT with her envenomed fangs, escaping out into the night as the city erupts in snake-skinned violence.  The hubbub is such that the Commission calls in their own hero, along with his new partner.

Again, Dwyer delivers an awesome visual in the Battlestar costume, even as the new Captain America cleans up from another of his blood-soaked battles.  The use of John Walker as a bad alternative is a precursor to the later use of Azrael to show how cool Batman is, but done much more effectively here.  While Cap heads for Washington, The Viper makes her way to the White House, where she seeks out the President.

Nancy Reagan’s appearance here marks the second consecutive review featuring a President and First Lady as plot devices, interestingly enough.  Captain America heads for the White House as well, while Diamondback follows (to try and impress Cap), leaving D-Man alone with the captured Serpent Society members.  Mark Gruenwald is one of my favorite 80’s writers, partly because of the complexity of his plots, and this issue juggles nearly a dozen characters, using each of them well, such as when Battlestar arrives and confronts a drugged and delusional Demolition Man.

I’ve often wondered if Battlestar didn’t have more stories in him after this run and his stint in Silver Sable’s Wild Pack.  He’s probably the most together non-Steve-Rogers character in the book, and there could be some cool stories left in him.  While everybody fights everybody else, Captain America trails the Viper to the White House, musing about his current situation as he goes.  (It is, after all, an 80s comic.)

But no matter how cool the Sentinel of Liberty is, he is completely unprepared for… AN ATTACKING PRESIDENT IN HIS UNDERPANTS!

The Viper’s plan (destroy everything, undermine society and enjoy the nihilistic rush of society burning) seems wildly successful, as The Captain tries to reason with Reptile Ronnie, before suddenly realizing that the Iguana-In-Chief is sweating profusely during their combat…

That Viper face?  Two words: Axe.  Crazy. The Captain’s fight ends abruptly, as the President’s transformation wears off.  Cap catches The Viper (with help from, of all people, Cobra) and things return to normal in DC…

Well, almost normal, anyway.  This issue is right in the middle of Gru’s 20-issue long epic “Cap Quits!” story, but mostly stands on its own merits.  This run is why Keiron Dwyer is one of my favorite artists, and the concept of this issue seems goofy, but is played straight-forward and Viper’s unusual motives make it an unpredictable story.  Captain America #344 is a fave-rave from my youth, serving as a brilliant transition between the relevance of the early 80s and the excesses of the 90s, earning 3.5 out of 5 stars overall.  Next up: Captain America fist-fights Millard Fillmore!

Rating: ★★★½☆