A few years before Superboy, Steel, Cybrog Superman, and Eradicator, before Az-bats, Kyle Rayner, Ben Reilly, or teenage Tony Stark, Steve Rogers stepped down as Catpain America, replaced by a character who had been introduced just a year earlier.
This wasn’t the first time that Steve Rogers had put down the shield, but it was the first time he’d been fired.
It also wasn’t the first time Cap had been replaced, although back then it was because he was presumed dead.
So this was harsh. This wasn’t Steve’s choice and this wasn’t someone stepping up to try to keep the ideals of Captain America alive because Steve was gone forever. This was someone taking the mantle away from him.
John Walker aka Super Patriot had been introduced in the pages of Captain America a year earlier, the 80s macho man patriotic hero attempting to cash in on the idea that Cap, then well into his sixties, was out of touch with the real America.
Walker had an agent. He staged fights. He did interviews. He was in this for fame and fortune until the government offered him the chance to replace Steve Rogers.
That’s the core of John Walker: he was meant to be an opportunistic jackass from the start, but given the chance to do something with meaning, he took it. He left behind his team and stepped into a huge role because he thought he could make a difference.
The problem with replacement heroes is that they are always temporary and their second acts can be watered down versions of the original characters. For every War Machine, there’s a Thunderstrike. For every Steel, there’s an Ion. They are forever trapped in the shadow of who they replaced, unable to find their own identity or evolve.
Did John Walker aka Super Patriot aka Captain America aka Jack Daniels aka U.S. Agent manage to pull that off? Did he have a life beyond Captain America?
The answers to those questions lies with the creators who’ve worked on him.
While Walker was created by the, great Mark Gruenwald and Paul Neary, his tenure as Captain America was mostly told by Gruenwald and Kieron Dwyer, who also went on to create the US Agent persona.
Gruenwald and Drywer did most of the heavy lifting with regards to John Walker and they do an amazing job. Walker becomes a three dimensional character whose actions, no matter how extreme, are organic, stemming from events in his life.
There’s an earnestness and naivete about Walker that makes him likable even after he took Steve Rogers’ job. He genuinely wants to help his country and its people. He truly believes that the government has his best interests at heart.
He is regularly betrayed at every turn. He bows out gracefully, even convincing Rogers to take up the mantle again. Then the government has him shot, facts his death, and brainwashes him. So you can understand why he has some issues.
Unfortunately, when Walker leaves Captain America he moves to the West Coast Avengers/Avengers West Coast, first written and drawn by John Byrne, later written by Roy Thomas.
While Byrne at least gives Walker a little bit of depth, Thomas writes him as a typical hard nose, straight edge jerk, complete with lots of stereotypical Thomas dialogue — if there were a drinking game for “blazes” I wouldn’t have survived Thomas’ run.
Thomas tries to establish a reverse Captain America/Hawkeye relationship with Hawkeye/US Agent and it’s an excellent idea but it’s poorly executed. It just serves to make Walker look horrible and Hawkeye look stupid. Worse, every other member of the team acts like a dick towards Walker, so the fact that he even sticks around is unbelievable.
The character that Gruenwald had made three dimensional was stripped down to his stereotypical core. Even when Thomas attempts to redeem US Agent it feels forced. It doesn’t feel like payoff for a natural character arc.
Fortunately, when Avengers West Coast comes to an end, US Agent joins the team that rises from those ashes: Force Works.
Force Works get a lot of grief for being a typical 90s comic and those are reasonable critiques. But the series actually contains some solid stories and some excellent character development, particularly for US Agent. He also gets a new suit and a new shield made of energy that disappears and reappears whenever he needs it.
Walker becomes friends with the Scarlet Witch, Iron Man, even Wonder Man, but the best relationship he forms is one with the former Spider-woman, current (I believe) Arachne, Julia Carpenter. He’s particularly good with Julia’s 9 year old daughter, Rachel. There are hints that US Agent and Arachne could become more than friends, but nothing comes of it.
U.S. Agent also manages to establish a relationship of sorts with Hawkeye, his supposed nemesis from his days in the Avengers. Since it was such a hamfisted story, writers Abnett and Lanning have an easy time evolving their dynamic into one of mutual respect. Agent also comes across as the more mature character in this moment, as he’s trying to mend fences between Hawkeye and the other former Avengers.
But Force Works would come to an end and U.S. Agent would spend the next couple of years in limbo.