Thursday, May 23, 2013

This Exists!: Captain Awareness: Assault on Campus

This Exists! is a semi-regular column about particularly strange, ridiculous, and/or obscure comicbooks I happen to have stumbled across.

I can't remember exactly where it was that I found Captain Awareness: Assault on Campus, but I know from the sticker on the cover of my copy that it only cost me 25 cents. It must have been years ago, since I'm sure I read it back when I first picked it up---otherwise it wouldn't be stored in a longbox but instead sitting in one of many growing  piles of unread comics---but I have zero recollection of that initial reading experience. My assumption is that I bought the issue simply because it was cheap and looked sort of goofy, whizzed through it without much thought back in the day, and then stashed it away and forgot about it until it caught my attention recently while I was mining my collection for something new to write about.
Rereading Captain Awareness for this column, I was unexpectedly impressed with a lot of the material, which was thoughtful and honest in its dealings with the incredibly sensitive subjects of rape and sexual assault on college campuses. That it chooses to discuss these problems in the context of a superhero comic is arguably a bad call, not because superheroes can't deal with such serious things (they can and have), but because writer/artist D. DeAngelo's superhero work isn't nearly as deep or detailed as his handling of rape. Captain Awareness is an interesting concept, and a nice if obvious metaphor, but ultimately as a character it's a ham-fisted stock superhero persona, which is always hard to take entirely seriously. Therefore, the potential exists for the title character of this story to actually detract from its message by making it seem sillier than it is. But I do think DeAngelo avoids making that mistake as much as possible here, so in the end this is a successful effort.
Make no mistake, it's an after school special. I can't pretend that DeAngelo's dialogue is anything less than forced and unnatural, with characters shooting sexual assault statistics at one another and everyone, even the villains, openly discussing their feelings and points of view in no uncertain terms. The main bad guy, Rick, is as bad as they come, a bully and serial rapist with a pseudo-mullet who feels no remorse and flaunts his conquests to everyone. There are no real layers to his or any character, because everyone has a single role to play to the max: the horny asshole, the respectful good guy, the damaged victim, the concerned friend, and Captain Awareness as the do-gooder who's just as pure as Rick is wicked. DeAngelo isn't going for subtlety or even realism, because this comic is trying first and foremost to be comprehensive, then accurate, and only at the bottom of the priority list is being a great piece of fiction. If it has to sacrifice nuanced storytelling so all of its points can be made clearly, it does so, and where I might usually take issue with that tactic, in this case I think it works.
     In the space of only 36 pages, if your aim is to examine the innumerable causes and consequences of rape on America's campuses, you're going to have to trim the fat and get right down to it. That's what DeAngelo does, by having his characters speak plainly and directly about the topics at hand. It allows the reader to see things from many different angles, and get a fuller picture of all the ways rape can affect someone's life. It's not just Diane, Rick's most recent victim and the comic's narrator, whose life is dramatically and forever changed. Her roommate, Denise, is also deeply affected by the events, as are Denise's boyfriend Mike, new student Maria, and Rick's ex-girlfriend and previous victim Helen. That's a decent number of brand new characters to move through, and even if they aren't entirely three-dimensional, they at least have distinct attitudes about and reactions to the incidents of the story. Between them, they cover a lot of ground, so DeAngelo can discuss not only the mindset of rapist and victim, but those of the people around them, too, good, bad, and ugly.
I can also understand the impulse to lay everything out overtly in a story like this, if for no other reason than to avoid any chance of misinterpretation. Not that DeAngelo was worried his comic would come across as pro rape, but if what Captain Awareness wants most is to give a voice to the victims, and that certainly seems to be its primary goal, then it's absolutely essential to have that voice be loud and clear. Which is what we get in Diane, a straightforward and emotionally raw expression of the shame, fear, anger, disgust, self-doubt, and other miseries being sexually violated can (and does) bring about. Her narration is bold and brutally forthcoming, and certainly the aspect of the writing which DeAngelo gives the most attention. Running throughout the issue, Diane's description of what was done to her and how it made her feel, and continues to make her feel, is the true heart of this book. She is very much the star of this story, and its biggest creative strength as well.
Really quickly, I should probably talk about Captain Awareness itself (not himself or herself, see below), because it's the title of the damn book and also a genuinely interesting idea. The concept behind Captain Awareness is that, rather than being a single individual, it is a set of powers---strength, invulnerability, flight, and "cosmic awareness"---that can be granted to literally anyone when they need it. In this issue alone, Mike, Denise, and two different unnamed character all get a turn in the costume, each contributing to the fight against Rick's widespread damage in their own way. That's a neat idea, and not one I can remember seeing before, although it's the kind of thing I have to assume someone else has done somewhere else at least one other time. Regardless, DeAngelo introduces the mechanics of Captain Awareness on the first page, and from there lets the character speak for itself. And there is a definite, unique voice for Captain Awareness, no matter who specifically is playing the part at any given moment, which, again, is something I rather like. Captain Awareness is a single entity with infinite possible bodies and minds, the opposite of a secret identity, basically. Everyone knows about it and what it stands for, and they all seem to be in on the fact that anyone can become Captain Awareness at any time. That's a bizarre and original relationship for the public to have with a superhero, and though it is not at all the point of this comicbook, it's an idea worth applauding.
     The artwork is also noteworthy, though not necessarily for DeAngelo's pencils, which are serviceable but never amazing. What is pretty amazing is the line-up of inkers: George Perez, Gordon Purcell, Norm Breyfogle, Dick Giordano, and Jimmy Palmiotti, among others. Each of these recognizable and respctable industry professionals handles only a few pages worth of inking duties, but they all help to solidify DeAngelo's work and message. There are also some pin-ups in the back of the issue by the likes of Colleen Doran, Dan Jurgens, Trina Robbins, and Mike Wieringo, as well as Purcell and Breyfogle again, plus a cover by Phil Jimenez. And they're all nice additions to the Captain Awareness tapestry. Except, I guess, the first pin-up, by Alex Ross and Brent Anderson, which for some wholly inexplicable reason is of Winged Victory from Astro City. I mean, cool character to throw in there, and thematically related inasmuch as Winged Victory's whole deal is female empowerment, but still a weird choice.
Colleen Doran delivers my favorite pin-up
Captain Awareness: Assault on Campus is hokey and often awkwardly scripted, but done with such earnestness and care that it still manages to be a success. It tackles its subject matter with very little reservation, opting for wholehearted honesty rather than emotional subtlety and subtext, using a spotlight instead of a flashlight. This doesn't make for an exceptional superhero comicbook, but it's a damn fine attempt at discussing a serious and widespread problem, as relevant today as it was in 1998 when this was first published. If you can't take my word for, "Comics With Problems" has the whole issue available online for free (really starts on page 4). They seem to be poking fun at it, which I think is in poor taste, and I'm not entirely certain that reprinting it digitally like that is even legal, but it's there nonetheless. And if you're interested, there also exists the official Captain Awareness website, which appears to be way out of date, but has some interesting background bits and pieces as well as a discussion of plans to change the character's name to Major Impact. Not sure if that ever really happened, but the idea made me smile.
     Did DeAngelo ever do anything concrete with Captain Awareness beyond this one issue? I don't know, and it doesn't really matter. The issue itself is a complete narrative, and an ambitious stab at dealing with taboo but important content. Not the greatest of creative triumphs, and not even the most effective, I don't think, strategy to employ in the fight against college sexual assault. Yet still a worthwhile and in many ways impressive effort from all involved, DeAngelo especially, since it is his pet project. He clearly put a lot of himself and those close to him into this book, and his bottomless concern and care comes through on every page.

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