27 September 2007

Re-Cap, Part 2: Captain America Fights On!

After the Red Skull’s reappearance in issue #65, the Captain America feature in Tales of Suspense launched into back-to-back three part stories. Apparently, the readers who had written in to Marvel to complain about multi-issue stories made up a minority—or writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby just got tired of having to wrap-up every one of Winghead’s adventures in a mere ten pages. So issue #66 tosses us into a three issue mini-epic about the Red Skull brainwashing Captain American to kill Eisenhower, followed by the three-issue “Greymoor Castle” tale. The cliffhanger endings show that Stan at least realized that the title of the magazine had the word “Suspense” in it, although I have the feeling that everybody at the time called it “The Iron Man and Captain America comic book.” It really should be Tales of Action, but why invite DC Comics to sue you because of their similarly titled Action Comics?

The cover of issue #66, a split image of Iron Man facing Attuma and Captain America under the gun of the Red Skull, contains this hilarious Stan Lee ad line: “If one picture is worth a thousand words, just imagine what these two pictures are worth!” I don't know Stan, I’m guessing . . . two thousand words?

The beginning of the Red Skull arc has almost no action: Cap sits bound to a chair while the Red Skull relates his tortured past that made him the most feared man in Nazi Germany. This is a crucial moment, since it re-writes (retcons) the Golden Age history of the Skull into his “Johann Schmidt” origin that has stayed with him ever since—although later writers would embellish it, especially in “The Life and Times of the Red Skull” in Captain America #298 (1984). The name Johann Schmidt is never mentioned in this version, nor does the Red Skull’s civilian face appear clearly, but the foundation is laid: an orphan and petty criminal becomes fascinated with the Third Reich and is “discovered” by Hitler in a hotel where he works as a bellhop. Hitler turns him into the ultimate Nazi spy, and as the fearsome Red Skull he eventually wields power almost equal to Der Führer himself.

In issue #67, the Skull has a brainwashed Cap and a pack of hysterically accented SS goons—reading Stan Lee’s “vee must kill der verdammet Captains America, achtung!” dialogue gets riotous after a few panels—attempt to assassinate Eisenhower. I’m guessing it’s Eisenhower since the Skull ordered the death of the “Supreme Allied Commander.” The Skull No Like Ike.

Thankfully for the good ol’ U.S. of A., Bucky Barnes has infiltrated the SS hit squad, and wakes Cap up in time to stop the Skull’s scheming. This occurs early in the third installment, “The Sentinel and the Spy” in issue #68, so our heroes spend the rest of the remaining ten pages stopping one of the Skull's agents from getting hold of a British “vanishing ray” invention. Cap pulls a great “please don't throw me in the briar patch” reverse psychology to make the Nazi thief over-power the weapon and blow himself up. Nazis sure were easy to fool in the comics.

With issue #69, Cap and Bucky start the “Midnight in Greymoor Castle!” story arc. The Red Skull lurks behind this plot as well, although we never see him. Traitorous British scientist Dr. Rawlins, who looks a bit too much like the standard German mad-scientist, plans to use a shrinking process on America’s two greatest heroes. Oddly, we only see the shrinking used on two dummies of Captain America and Bucky in this first issue, and then Stan and Jack seem to forget all about it. Dr. Rawlins’s sister keeps begging him not to betray their people to the Nazis, but he only listens when his German superior plans to stick the poor girl, along with the captured Cap and Bucky, into the V-2 rocket he will fire onto 10 Downing Street. (Hmm, I wonder if Stan Lee had recently read the James Bond novel Moonraker.) This closes out issue #70, which also features the one of the best Tales of Suspense covers Kirby ever drew.

With the next issue, Captain America breaks free and the scientist helps him fire the rocket onto a German platoon that was about to destroy Steve Rogers’s own outfit. With the close of Tales of Suspense #71 everybody who isn’t dead ends up happy, except the Red Skull, and there’s just no pleasing that guy.

After this, the Captain America stories in Tales of Suspense return to modern-day adventures. According to a narrator box in issue #72, this was due to popular demand. You would never have guessed it from the previous letters pages—“Mails of Suspense!”—where readers seemed evenly split on whether to keep Cap in the past with Bucky or to concentrate on his newly revived 1960s version.

However, the choice was made, and issue #72 begins with Cap in the Avengers mansion, where he has just finished telling the story of Greymoor Castle to the other three Avengers. (This occurs after the famous Avengers #16, when all the founding members left, and Cap, to everyone’s astonishment, recruited three former villains to fill the vacancies. The Avengers was a daring comic for its day.) Just to make sure the readers understand that this is the contemporary, “haunted” Captain America, he broods over Bucky's death and the vanished days of World War II glory.

But wait, what’s this? The Red Skull’s image taped to Steve Rogers’s ceiling? Oh, wait, it’s Cap having a dream. I thought that Hawkeye was playing a prank.

And, yes, it’s time for more retconning! What happened to the Red Skull at the end of World War II? Steve remembers the Skull getting blown up by his own grenade, but . . . perhaps he survived? (Of course he did. He’s died more times than the combined number of marriages of Elizabeth Taylor and Larry King.) Before “dying,” the Red Skull reveals his final dreadful scheme: in exactly twenty years, three giant “sleepers” will awaken and complete the plans of the Third Reich.

Why the Red Skull didn’t activate these ingenious devices immediately, when they might have been some help to the collapsing Nazi cause, is the sort of question you just can’t ask in the Silver Age of comics. The Red Skull set them to activate in twenty years so they would match up with a 1965 issue of Tales of Suspense starring Captain America. So there. It’s pleasant to see villains with a sense of long-term planning. Maybe the Skull should have sold life insurance.

Right on schedule, the first sleeper, a wonderful Jack Kirby giant killer robot, busts out from a mountain in Germany and goes on a rampage. Cap, who parachutes down just in time to see the emergence, can’t stop it! What will happen when the other sleepers awaken in the next issue? Tune in for the next episode of “Re-Cap” with “Where Walks the Sleeper.”

Last episode: Captain America on DVD-ROM

Next episode: Captain America #1(00)