25 October 2007

Re-Cap, Part 4: A One-Shot Captain America Glut

Further along in my Captain America DVD-ROM and my effort to eventually read every single issue of Cap’s comics. . . .

After issue #109 (an even longer re-telling of our hero’s origin, with Jack Kirby going for gold in the artwork, and also creating continuity issues for many later writers), a lot of creative re-shuffling took place. Kirby moved with his family to Southern California and took on fewer projects at Marvel, putting his energies mostly into The Fantastic Four and The Mighty Thor—and eventually left the company entirely to work for a spell at DC. A round-robin of artists started on Captain America, most notably Jim Steranko. His trademark surreal style was a complete blast for the few issues he did, which covered Rick Jones trying to take on the mantle of Cap’s old partner Bucky and the appearance of Madame Hydra (later to rename herself Viper) as one of the principle villains.

This would lead immediately into a great arc in issues #110–#113 where Cap seems to die, but then arranges his dramatic return (in a stunning two-page spread in a graveyard fight) in such a way that people think that Steve Rogers was never Captain America. This undoes the revelation of Cap’s secret identity made earlier on, and returns to the superhero status quo of having a hidden life. Other events will further eradicate the “secret identity” problem in the pages of The Avengers, where the Space Phantom wipes away everybody’s memories of the connection between Rogers and Captain America. Not only do they not believe that Rogers is Cap, they don’t remember ever having believed it. Whoa. Weird.

After this, a Red Skull epic starts, and after single issues drawn each by John Romita Sr. (currently in the middle of his famous stint on The Amazing Spider-Man) and John Buscema (currently in the middle of his famous stint on The Avengers), the magazine finally gets a new regular artist, Gene Colan. Colan was drawing the Iron Man feature in Tales of Suspense when Captain America was sharing the magazine, and he must have seemed a natural to take on Cap. Colan’s artwork is more realistic and shaded than most of Marvel artists, which is ideal for Tomb of Dracula, his signature series. I find him a bit too gloomy for Captain America, but I can’t deny his considerable talents. The huge arc with the Skull is a kick, involving the return of the cosmic cube and the Skull forcing a body switch on poor Cap. This leads to a hilarious sequence in #116 of Cap—in the Red Skull's body—participating in a car chase with the police. Hey, it’s different.

However, Stan Lee seems to have forgotten that the Red Skull's face is only a mask in this issue. Cap runs around in a panic because he looks like the Red Skull and authorities will attack him the moment they see him, but he doesn’t think to just take off the stupid mask! In #117, he suddenly “remembers” that the face is merely a mask and rips it off. He immediately alters his features with some clay so the Skull’s true face won’t be revealed to readers. That’s a stretch; I don’t think Stan had carefully thought this part out yet and was trying to patch up a potential problem.

Issue #117, “The Coming of . . . The Falcon!” is one of the crucial points in Captain America’s history: the introduction of the Falcon, a hero who will become Cap’s closest ally and his partner in crime-fighting (and in the comic’s title) for many years. He followed in the wave of African-American heroes who were emerging in comics, but unlike the exotic Black Panther, an African ruler, the Falcon comes from the streets of Harlem, U.S.A.

The character immediately grabbed readers’ attention (as the praise in the letter columns shows), and breathed new life into Cap’s personal story, which was growing a bit stale with the “I-love-Sharon-but-we-can't-share-our-life” business. Not that those issues will stop either. At least Rick Jones leaves the equation, since he got a major supporting role over in the Captain Marvel title, and had no time to worry about if he’ll succeed as Bucky or not. It will be a long time before Rick Jones shows up in Captain America again.

However, with the end of the Red Skull epic—AIM conveniently de-powers the Cosmic Cube in time for Cap and Falcon to beat the obdurate Nazi nutcase—the magazine enters into a dull holding pattern of one-shots. From evidence in later letter columns, it seems that readers were complaining about too many multi-issue tales, so Stan responded with the order of doing one-issue stories. This didn’t last long, since the fickle readers soon started complaining the other direction, and the writers and artists increasingly found themselves pushing into longer stories anyway. But for the time being Captain America tried to fit the “one issue/one story” pattern.

And the first one-shot in #120 isn’t too bad. “Crack-Up on Campus” is one of the most realistic stories to yet appear in the magazine, and it brings Captain America into contact with the protest counterculture of 1970, something that hadn’t come up much before. How do Cap’s old-fashioned attitudes and credentials as of a member of “The Establishment” contrast with the progressive attitudes of the youth of the day? Specifically, the youth who were reading the comic book? Stan Lee’s scripting is purposely trying to make Cap look less stuffy here, while also making him more dramatic and conflicted. Here our hero stops a student protest that gets out of hand when AIM tries to manipulate it for its own ends. The student radical painted at first as the villain ends up aiding Cap. We’re going to see more of this kind of story in the near future.

In the next three four issues, Cap faces Man-Brute, Scorpion, Suprema, and a cyborg in forgettable one-offs. Both Man-Brute and Suprema are utterly disposable menaces; Scorpion is a major foe from Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, but nothing too interesting happens here and he and Cap only get in a lesser scuffle.

In #125 our hero flies out to Vietnam! Another political turning point has come in the Captain America comic books, where Cap sees the conflict as deeper and more ambiguous than the silly “Red Menace” tone that Marvel took toward the country in the mid-‘60s; just compare it to Tales of Suspense #61 to see the enormous difference in attitude. Stan Lee mentions in one of the letter columns that the company decided no longer to use foreign nationals as convenient villainous scapegoats, and here Cap intervenes in the Vietnam conflict not to overtly aid one side or another. It should have been an epic; this one-issue tale can't do the idea justice, and the villain the Mandarin shows up only long enough to blast a few things and end the story. A shame.

The Falcon returns in issue #126, and it’s another excellent idea chopped off at the knees by the need to wrap everything up in twenty pages. Captain America and the Falcon battle a hate group called the Diamond Heads in Harlem, and eventually discover that the leader of the group is actually a white member of the Maggia (Marvel's equivalent of the Mafia) who has manipulated racial tension in order for the Maggia to take over crime in the neighborhood. Seen today, some of the racial attitudes sound a touch paternalistic (constant talk of “your people”), but nevertheless comics were moving into serious social issues in a way they never had before. And again, the Falcon really breathes life into the comic. The mask the leader of the Diamond Heads wears is also groovy—too bad nobody ever found a running use for the concept.

In #127, Nick Fury and SHIELD purposely frame Cap in order to draw him into a battle with a cyborg so they can ferret out an actual traitor. This outlandish plot gets Cap pretty steamed at SHIELD and further puts a barrier between him and Sharon; it’s also just a bit contrived. Cap gets out of town in #128, buying a motorcycle (and having yet another flashback to Bucky’s death, because he was riding a motocycle the day Bucky bought it) and heading for parts unknown. True to evolving form, he saves some kids at a peace-lovin’ rock concert from some nasty bikers! Stan Lee’s hilarious admission that they had mis-drawn an entire scene, but had to let it slide, is a nice view of how chaotic things could get at Marvel.

Okay, the Skull returns in the next issue, and we’ll soon climb out of this one-plot-per month rut. And, off on the horizon, the amazing tenure of Steve Englehart as Cap’s author.

Last episode: Captain America #1(00)

Next episode: Captain America vs. Captain America