Synopsis: Steve Rogers knows the art of survival better than most. Decades under ice will do that to a man. But the Avengers chipped more than rock-hard morality and super-strength out from under that permafrost. When Cap takes out a terrorist cell threatening to poison the world, he’ll discover a threat far more deadly. An incurable virus has hidden in his body for years – and now it’s come to the surface. To save the world, he’ll have to return to his own personal hell: deep freeze.
And he’ll have to take an old friend with him. Having survived his own death by inhabiting a clone of Steve Rogers, the Red Skull has inherited the virus – and he’s a little less willing to play martyr. As the deadly disease shifts and evolves, new patterns emerge. Can Captain America contain the Red Skull before the virus runs rampant?
The tenth title in Titan Books’ Marvel Fiction reissue program, Captain America: Dark Designs focuses on the ongoing conflict between arch-nemeses Steve Rogers and Johann Schmidt, better known as Captain America and the Red Skull. Rather than taking place in its own separate universe, this story actually references and builds upon two key moments within Captain America continuity; the time that Cap fought against the Sleeper robots in Tales of Suspense # 72-74, and the time that the Red Skull had his memories implanted in the body of a Steve Rogers clone (Captain America # 350) by Arnim Zola. The novel provides enough backstory to explain these events to those unfamiliar with the original comics to ensure the story is accessible to all, but it is interesting to see the novel tied so tightly to the Marvel Comics continuity.
Much like Superman over at DC Comics, Captain America has something of a “boy scout” quality to him and writer Stefan Petrucha explores the character’s inherent honour and willingness to sacrifice himself to do the right thing. Whilst reading, I often found myself recalling Chris Evans’ take on the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how he puts his duty before his own personal gain. Petrucha challenges the character by giving him a threat that he can’t punch into submission, and forcing him to face his greatest fear – becoming frozen in time once again. While Cap’s conflicts with the multitude of Sleeper robots is entertaining and provides the reader with plenty of action set-pieces, it is his attempts to deal with the isolation brought on by the virus that really drives the narrative here.
While this is undoubtedly a Captain America story, the novel also features some memorable guest appearances from Nick Fury and Iron Man as the pair attempt to support Cap during these testing times. These cameos help present the novel as part of the Marvel Universe where crossovers and team-ups between heroes are as frequent as alien attacks and radioactive experiments gone wrong. With the level of danger that occurs in this story, it would be remiss not to have a secondary superhero make an appearance and the unique friendship between Captain America and Tony Stark translates to prose just as well as it does to the panel and the big-screen.
The highlight of the novel for me was the Red Skull segments and how Petrucha subverted the usual multi-layered machinations of the super-villain to instead present a dying man attempting to survive at any cost. Bad guys are always more interesting than the heroes, and this remains true for this novel as I found the sequences with the Red Skull to be the most engaging chapters of the book. Petrucha writes the Red Skull well, balancing his evilness and hatred for Captain America with his newfound desperation and weakness. There were a number of moments that subverted my expectations throughout the story, and it wasn’t until reading the twist-ending epilogue that I could see the eponymous ‘Dark Designs’ that were truly guiding the events. Outside of the Marvel Universe, it might be a twist too far – but this is a world where gods and monsters exist together.
Moving from panel to prose effortlessly, Captain America: Dark Designs loses none of its impact as an action-packed adventure. Stefan Petrucha understands just what makes these characters tick as he places them both on an inevitable path towards a final conflict. A refreshing alternative to comics, this longer-paced narrative allows readers to spend a bit longer with the characters and feels just as big-budget as the latest cinematic entries.
Score – ★★★★
Captain America – “Dark Designs” is currently available in paperback on Amazon, or as an eBook from Amazon Kindle. An audiobook version is available for free on Audible, if you sign up for a free 3-month trial.