We live in a time of metacomics. Readers, authors, and artists revel in stories delving into the deep histories of characters, teams, and situations, stories that probe and examine and question the assumptions and traditions and interpretations pervading the canon of American superhero comics. In Captain America: Peggy Carter Agent of Shield, editor Mark D. Beazley has set out to investigate the titular heroine and her relationships in the world of Steve Rogers. He has chosen not to write a unifying narrative in the style of such metacomic practitioners as Grant Morrison and Alan Moore. Instead, he has assembled a collection of comics featuring Peggy Carter, silently allowing the meaning and commentary to arise from the juxtaposition of the stories themselves. He includes, in order, Kathryn Immonen and Ramon Perez’ Captain America and the First Thirteen #1, a World War II spy thriller from 2011; Captain America #1 by Ed Brubaker and Steve McNiven, a weird tale of the World War also from 2011; Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and John Romita, Sr.’s 1966 Tales of Suspense #77, a story of heroism and remembrance; and Captain America#184-186, a three issue arc from 1975 by Steve Englehart, John Warner, Frank Robbins, and Herb Trimpe, which tells an adventure tale featuring the entanglement of Steve Rogers, Peggy Carter, and Sam Wilson with the Red Skull.
However, none of these stories feature much about Peggy Carter as an agent of SHIELD. Certainly they highlight Peggy’s intelligence, bravery, and heroism. But the plots simply don’t bear out the promise of the title. Rather, these issues concentrate on Steve Rogers and his ongoing relationships with Peggy and Sam. That these are crucial in his life is not in doubt. But Rogers remains firmly in the center of the action.
This illustrates a problem seen throughout comics, and especially the superhero books of D.C. and Marvel. The stories naturally center on the great name heroes, with other characters supporting them, rather like a brotherhood of squires in service to a knight from a medieval romance. Nothing wrong with being a squire, and it was in fact a crucial step to knighthood. But very few squires in the world of the superhero win their spurs. These books illustrate why. The very structure of the fictional world wraps around the major heroes, making it incredibly difficult for any lesser character, no matter how well written or drawn, to rise to a higher level. In truth, only Wally West, the former Kid Flash; Dick Grayson, the former Robin and Nightwing; and Steve Rogers’ own companion Bucky Barnes have ever really succeeded in the ascent, and all have had their travails in the process. Peggy is taking a perilous and lonely path. That is the true message of this rather peculiar assembly of stories.
This is not a book; it is a marketing device. With the advent of Peggy Carter's new television series, Marvel has obviously assembled these tales in an attempt at synergy. They are good stories, and it seems a little churlish to complain. But, in truth, the collection simply does not, and perhaps cannot, deliver what it promises. Let us hope that Peggy Carter herself, in the coming months and years, can do better.