I wonder if it's fair to say that 1996 was the year that the mad energy of the early 90's was finally spent. The peak year was probably 1994, but it took some time for the wave to break and roll back in earnest.
Things were certainly rolling back for Marvel, anyways. By 1995-1996, most all their franchises were doing pretty bad. The X-Men were shambling through the Onslaught debacle, which would be the point where the formerly bulletproof X-franchise started seriously running into the law of diminishing returns; and the Avengers franchise had just endured The Crossing.
We've talked about all of the above at length here at the Prattle, but haven't touched on the related changes that were going on with the Crossing (besides the Iron Man stuff) What they boil down to is this--Thor lost his powers, started dressing like He-Man and there was some stuff about him banging the Enchantress and worldengines and stuff (also known as a mild case of Warren Ellis) and Captain America was dying.
It had sort of been dying for awhile really. Like Chris Claremont, Mark Gruenwald had stayed on the book way too long and had really run out of stories he really wanted to tell. Instead, we got an awful lot of what might have been good ideas wrapped in some really dreadful stories, all of which ended up grist for the blogging mill--Cap as a woman! Cap as a werewolf! Cap as Robocop!--the list is long and infamous.
Sadder still, the bad stories were fresh enough in everyone's mind that they'd forgotten that early on Gruenwald had told some pretty great stories with the character, specifically the extended storyline which saw Steve Rogers replaced and John Walker take over as Captain America. It was a fantastic story that if I remember right ran over a couple years before finally culminating in a big anniversary issue wherein it was revealed that the Red Skull was shockingly 1) not dead and 2) had had his brain transferred into a clone of Rogers, yet another step on the way to making the characters each others' opposite number, which culminated in the movie's assertion that they were products of the same experiment, more or less.
In any event, Gruenwald finally moved on, and plans were afoot for Rob Liefeld to do his heroes Reborn thing (which was planned as a rather tortured Miracleman-cum-King Arthur story wherein Cap's shield functioned as Excalibur, another legendarily feeble story which has been blogged about ad nausauem elsewhere) but before that dropped, they had about eleven issues to kill, and since whatever filled them was lame-duck stuff (and it wasn't as if Captain America could really be doing any worse), they had the freedom to roll the dice a bit
Enter Mark Waid and Ron Garney. Waid was starting to get some notice for his run on The Flash, which was going to make his rep (well, that and Kingdom Come, which was also going to drop contemporaneously with this book) and for a run on the X-Men, which, sadly was yet another example of someone not wanting to transcribe editorial plots, which we've also covered elsewhere. Ron Garney had drifted around doing fill-in work (I mostly saw his stuff in various Annuals here and there--him and Tom Raney's work seemed to pop up near-constantly) and this was his first feature work as a "name" artist.
Waid and Garney's approach was one of simplifying things. Gone were the long-winded speeches about America that had somewhat ossified the character up to that time and made him easy to dismiss as a JSA-esque relic of an earlier, simpler time/ In his place was a vital man of action, who made very few speeches and spent one hell of a lot of time doing various action-packed things in his stories. Mark Waid has said it he'd had in mind the pacing of a Jack Ryan film (remember those?) but what Garney brought to it was more a Jackie Chan approach. Action was the watchword, and action is what we have.
But first, Waid had to do something about the whole "Cap was dead" thing, which was where Gruenwald had left things. Waid begins his run with an issue framed around a hostage crisis which is less an actual plot than a means for the Avengers on hand to exposit about what Captain America is so great (and also as a teaser for the next arc) It's not a great issue taken in isolation, but it serves an important function in the larger narrative--it allows other characters to do all the speeches that Captain America had been making way too many of, and so he didn't have to, and slow things down.
The next issue kicks off the first story arc: "Operation:Rebirth" Captain America breaks free from a block of ice, not dead, but not at full strength, either. This rude awakening is compounded when he discovers his longtime love interest, Sharon Carter, is not dead, and doesn't like him too much, either (While Waid can overdo their bickering at times, they had great chemistry together as the bitter cynical realist vs. the calm, confident symbol of a nation) To make matters worse, his resurrection was brought about by the Red Skull, who circumstances force him to team up with.
Turns out that there's a Cosmic Cube floating around, with the spirit of Adolf Hitler inside it. This is, it should be said, a Bad Thing, and Captain America, created to stop Hitler, is the only one who can defeat Hitler. But it's not exactly as cut and dried as all that . . .
"Operation: Rebirth" is a great arc which moves like a house on fire and doesn't fatally bog itself down at any given point. It uses a bunch of Cap tropes we've all seen dozens of times (even if you never read the books)--the Red Skull, the Cosmic Cube--but shuffles them around enough to where it feels a lot fresher than it had been in a long while (No mean feat, that, as Captain America vs. the Red Skull is something that's been done so many times before and since, that it's hard to think of a new spin to put on it) and generally it feels like a fresh start.
My trade paper back of the Waid/Garney run omits the "First Sign" crossover with the Avengers books, which I'm totally fine with, because as bad as The Crossing was, "First Sign" was a confusing, bewildering mess of a story that managed to be even more muddled an incoherent in four issues than The Crossing managed in . .geez, like, twenty.
In any event, the trade picks up properly with the next story arc, "Man Without A Country." Some of the fallout from "Operation: Rebirth" and Captain America's uneasy alliance with the Red Skull lead to Steve Rogers citizenship being revoked. It's a bit of an extreme reaction, but it sets up another action-packed four-parter that sees Captain America and Sharon Carter kicking ass and bickering up a storm as they run riot over Europe trying to beat the clock.
The run wraps up (all too soon) with a final story that's meant to wrap up both the run and the series proper (remember--Heroes Reborn was a permanent thing, at first. Heh.) and manages to get things to a decent stopping point. It should be mentioned that by this point, Captain America had regained some of its cachet to the point that the notion of Liefeld forcing Waid and Garney out was something fandom took substantial umbrage at. But the decision had been made at that point, and well, if you're morbidly curious, you can see the results for yourself . . .
Waid would return, of course, in the massive course-correction that followed Heroes Reborn. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the magic of that initial run wasn't quite there the second time around, and while most of it's not bad, it never hits the heights of the first run.
However, thanks to Marvel's rather inconsistent, but a little more thorough than it used to be trade program, you can pick up the early run in hardcover and trade (I'm sure the movie has a lot to do with it being so readily in print, but then, so is that "Cap is a werewolf" story) It's a good run, even if you don't much care for Captain America, and a good example of how you can revitalise a comic without a bunch of "everything you knew is wrong!" hugger-mugger and just tell good stories.
One wishes that lesson had been a bit better learned.