28 November 2007

Got change for a million?

The stories of "stupid criminals" consistently amuse because we, as a culture, like to think that anyone who goes into crime is a first-class idiot. Sadly, this is not universally true, since plenty of clever crooks are ripping off decent people daily, and even the not-so-bright ones can grab enough firepower and moxie to steal from much smarter people. A Ph.D. doesn't mean much when staring down the barrel of a shotgun, even if the finger on the trigger belongs to a fellow who flunked first grade—twice. Tales of idiot criminals are a rebellion against this, where the honest and sharp folks trump the bullies of the world.

Still, how stupid do you have to be to try to open an account at a bank with a one million dollar bill? (By the way, whose face is that supposed to be on the bill? I would suggest placing a no-account president like Millard Fillmore or William Henry Harrison—who was president for a whole whopping month—as the cover star.) What's more amazing is this sort of thing has happened before. My favorite case is a 2004 incident where a woman tried to pay for $1,671.55 worth of purchases at Wal·Mart with a $1 million dollar bill. (This one had the Statue of Liberty on it.) Aside from the stupidity of imaging the clerk wouldn't question this unheard of denomination—which would only makes sense in a futuristic comedy as the punch line to a joke about the devaluation of currency—did the would-be perpetrator think that the cashier would just hand over $998,328.45 in change? Imagine if she had asked for it in singles… or quarters! (For the laundry, you know.) If a million dollar bill did exist and you had a few on you, would you really be shopping at Wal·Mart? Why aren't you jet-setting it in Paris, Milan, Singapore, Beverly Hills? Even Key West, for cripes sake.

Perhaps our clever con-woman Alice Pike figured that the more outrageous an amount she had, the more likely people would believe it. After all, who would seriously carry around a million dollar bill? It's so ludicrous that no trickster could hope to succeed with it... so it must be real!

Uh… wait. That's putting too much thinking into this. It's more likely that anyone trying to pass off a million dollar bill is just really really stupid and assumed everyone else is equally really really stupid. We all know what a million dollars in cash looks it: it comes packed in paper-bound stacks inside a silver metal suitcase carried around by a man in a dark suit with mirrored glasses who uses a zodiac-based codename.

23 November 2007

Uncle Ryan

For those of you who want to get the quick gist of a blog entry and then move on, here it is: I am going to be an uncle. My family and I found out yesterday that my sister Colleen is pregnant.

Now, for the rest of you hanging around anyway, here are the details of how we found out.

My sister and her husband, Armin, live in Munich. They called my mother's home around two o'clock Pacific Time, when most of the family was at the house for that holiday that comes about a month after Halloween. (I can never remember what its called, but it has something to do with football and a dead bird.) Colleen said she had sent a picture to Mom's email and wanted her to look at it. Mom dispatched my brother Reed and I to go to her upstairs computer and get the picture. Unable to log-in to Mom's computer, Reed took out his laptop with a better wifi connection and logged into Mom's email account that way. We found the email marked "Thanksgiving Picture," expecting some photo of Colleen and Armin infront of German mountains or something similar, but both of us immediately knew that the picture we were looking at was a sonnogram of a fetus. (We were raised by a mother who teaches childbirth education; we know these things.) Reed and I then took the computer downstairs to Mom, knowing she was going to explode with joy when we showed it to her. That's exactly what happened; you'd have thought she had just won the lottery.

This is probably the best things that's happened to this late November holiday (uh, what's it called...?) since the days when the local channels ran a Twilight Zone marathon. Comedy Central ran a Mystery Science Theater 3000 marathon one time, which was also pretty awesome. Maybe not "I'm going to be an uncle" awesome, but still pretty great.

22 November 2007

F.A.M.I.L.Y. or famulus?

My recent post about a spam email quiz turned my thoughts to some of the other junk in my inbox that floods in from well-meaning acquaintances, specifically relatives who can’t resist forwarding “adorable” jokes and uplifting stories. You know the type.

The uplifting tale belong to an email genre that Snopes calls “glurge.” They define this onomatopoeic word as “the sending of inspirational (often supposedly ‘true’) tales that conceal much darker meanings than the uplifting moral lessons they purport to offer, and that undermine their messages by fabricating and distorting historical fact in the guise of offering a ‘true story.’ ”

One example always pops into my head, “The F.A.M.I.L.Y. story.” It has various guises, but each version I have encountered features a loving parental figure explaining to a contentious child the importance of family with this statement: “Do you know what family means? It means Father And Mother, I Love You.”

Sweet, huh?

(You in the back, stop gagging.)

Whoever wrote this glurge in the primordial days probably knew this wasn’t true, and that the noun “family” was not any sort of acronym. But he or she couldn’t resist the cute way the letters formed into a heart-warming affirmation of love.

If the original author knew the real origin of the word “family,” he or she would have never approached the subject. Because, as Snopes’s definition of glurge predicts, there’s a darker meaning that peeks through.

“Family” comes from the Latin word familia, which means “family” in a broader sense than the way we use the word today. It doesn’t denote people related through blood or marriage, but a household. To the ancient Romans, the original speakers of Latin, a household included slaves. The Latin word for household slave is famulus, which is where familia comes from.

Not a pretty truth: “family” ultimately derives from a word for “slave.”

But truth is always much more interesting than glurge. A cute acronym can't cut the way that genuine etymology does.

21 November 2007

And you didn't include The Haunting?

Moviephone has a list of the Twenty-Five Worst Remakes of All Time. I agree with almost every choice they made, except for one egregious omission:

Where is the 1999 remake of The Haunting?

How in the world did this travesty slip their minds? How did this get past the writers? Jan de Bont’s cheap CGI take on the classic Robert Wise original (based on perhaps the finest horror novel of all time, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson) is the textbook example of how not to remake a movie: Take everything that made the original work and throw it into the dumpster, cram the movie with shock tactics, overdone CGI, simplistic motivations, lame dialogue, and assume your audience has the brain power of a mentally challenged snail.

Gus van Sant’s Psycho (the #1 worst remake on Moviephone's list) is indeed atrocious, but at least I understood what the director was trying to do. De Bont’s Haunting is as brainless and misguided a remake as anything ever committed to celluloid.

20 November 2007

Of Spam and Psychology

I've come across this “chain letter quiz” more than once, usually sent by an acquaintance in a mass email. I have analyzed it here to show how its apparent "psychic" trickery actually operates. This is a good example of confirmation bias, where a reader "counts the hits, not the misses," making the test seem accurate when it actually gets nothing right that cannot be accounted for through basic psychology.

Here is one version of this letter. I've lifted this example from an old email (I have changed none of the spelling, capitalization, or punctuation—grit your teeth and try to get through):
Your instincts has its advantages all the time . . . This is freaky as anything . . . DO NOT CHEAT (You'll will kick yourself later) BUT NO CHEATING! This has a funny/spooky outcome. Don't read ahead . . . just do it in order! It takes about three minutes . . . it's worth a try

First . . . get a pen and paper.

When you actually choose names, make sure it's people you actually know and go with your first instinct.

Scroll down one line at a time . . . and don't read ahead or you'll ruin it!

1. First, write the numbers 1 through 11 in a column.

2.Then, beside numbers 1 and 2, write down any two numbers you want.

3. Beside the 3 and 7, write down the names of members of the opposite sex.


4. Write anyone's name (like friends or family. . . .) in the 4th, 5th, and 6th spots.

5. Write down four song titles in 8,9,10, and 11.


6. Finally, make a wish. And now the key for the . . . . .

1. You must email (the number in space 2) this letter .

2. The person in space 3 is the one that you love.

3. The person in 7 is one you like but can't work out.

4. You care most about the person you put in 4.

5. The person you name in number 5 is the one who knows you very well.

6. The person you name in 6 is your lucky star.

7. The song in 8 is the song that matches with the person in number 3.

8. The title in 9 is the song for the person in 7.

9. The tenth space is the song that tells you most about YOUR mind.

10. and 11 is the song telling you how you feel about life.

this is so accurate NOW . . . email this bulletin within the hour . . . IF you do . . . your wish will come true . . . If you don't it will become the opposite u must send this email in 3 hours!!!! GOOD LUCK
Uhm, "you'll will"? Never mind . . .

Before I get into the claims, all you need to know about the true nature of this email is contained in answer key #1 ("email this to __ number of people") and the boilerplate chain-letter conclusion, warning of negative karmic consequences if you don't follow instructions. In other words, this letter only exists to trick you into spamming your friends. Don't do it.

On to the analysis:

To help explain, I wrote down my own answers (I did not skip ahead to look, as requested) and honestly tried to just have names, song titles, and numbers pop into my head. After all, didn't the quiz shout at me to GO WITH YOUR INSTINCT PEOPLE? (What are "instinct people"? Are they similar to "extinct people," like the Hittites?)

#1 and #2 are meaningless, of course. In fact, no explanation for the number provided for answer #1 is ever given. Perhaps this email had it lopped off accidentally? The answer for #2 is merely instructions on how many people to spam with this. No hits here.

Answer #3 is the "secret weapon" of this quiz. If the quiz can convince you that the person of the opposite sex written down here is actually your true love, it wins. You will fall for the rest of the answers regardless of their accuracy. Of course, if asked to list two people of the opposite sex (the quiz assumes heterosexuality) the chance is extremely high that the first person listed will be the one you are either involved with or interested in. Who else will spring to mind so fast? Confirmation bias leaps in immediately: if you are interested in someone, being told that they are the person you love will make you feel darn great; if you are already with them, you will say, "damn, the quiz is right! Spooky!" Either way, you count it as a "hit" even though the answer is a psychological safe bet.

My answer? I'm not telling you her name, but I am interested in her. However, I know this isn't a hit. Not remotely. It's a near-certainty of human nature.

The person in #7 is "the one you like but can't work out." I'm unsure exactly what this means, but since this is the second of two opposite sex names, the probability is high that he/she is 1) someone else you like, but not as much as #3; 2) a former relationship. Either way, the answer of "you like, can't work out" sounds like a hit.

The quiz flopped on my end, however, since I listed my Grandmother Ruth for #7. She died in September, and this last weekend was her birthday, so she has been on my mind a great deal. Perhaps some people might call this a hit, since I can't work anything out with someone who is dead, but honestly . . . a full out, complete "miss" from my perspective.

It should come as no surprise that the person listed in #4 is someone you care about. Note the wording of the question: "Write anyone's name (like friends or family. . . .)" This immediately makes the quiz taker focus on people close to him, people he likes.

I put my sister's name here. Is she the person I "care the the most about"? I love her, of course, but I love all my family, so I resent the quiz's presumption that I will single one out. Many would call this a "hit," but it's psychologically probable and not spooky or freaky, etc.

So the person in #5 knows me very well, huh? I have no proof of this, since it's not talking about what I know. Again, this is probably a relative or a close friend, so the chance seems good that this person knows the quiz taker well. But so what?

I put my brother's name here, which makes sense after my sister. But my brother knows me as well as my sister, so is this any answer at all? Any relative or friend placed here would "know me well." Useless.

Every version of this quiz has the meaningless "lucky star" designation, as we see here with #6. What does this mean? Anything at all? No, it's an ambiguous phrase where the reader is supposed to fill in the meaning for it, thus giving a "hit."

Oh dear, oh dear . . . even given the senselessness of "lucky star," my own answer makes no sense whatsoever. Right after I wrote down my brother and sister, one of my co-workers, Efrain, walked past my desk. Since his name jumped to mind I wrote it down. (Just following instructions, quiz. "Instinct" and all that.) I hardly know Efrain and rarely talk to him; he's another guy at work. "Lucky Star"? Miss, miss, miss, miss, a thousand times a miss!

Now we get to the songs. Did you list a love song for #8? I'll bet you did! (And how many love songs are there, or songs with titles you can interpret as love songs?) The quiz thinks you will, because it matches (gasp) the person in #3! Again, an obvious psychological tactic.

I plunked down "All You Need Is Love." Admittedly, by this point I had guessed exactly what the quiz was trying to pull.

The quiz hopes the #9 song hopes you plunked down is another love ditty to match up the failed romance of #7. Same tactic again.

Whooops. I put "Detroit Rock City." Which supposedly matches my Grandmother. Who never listened to rock music in her life. And never went to Detroit. Whatever.

Song #10 supposedly tells you something about your mind. Of course it does, you thought of the song title. Whadda stretch.

I put "Bang a Gong (Get It On)." Which does tell me something about my mind: at this point, I was pulling out names just to make the quiz look idiotic.

Finally, the #11 song tells you about how you view life. By this time, if the list has suckered you with enough vague emotional appeals (did it have you by #3?), it doesn't matter what this answers is. You'll take it as a hit.

Unless, of course, you answered "Midnight Shift," like I did. ("If you see ol' Annie why don't you give her a lift? / Annie's been working on the midnight shift . . .") Which doesn't mean anything. I don't work the midnight shift and know nobody named Annie. Great dance song, however.

Right now, somewhere out there in cyberspace, someone is probably emailing this to his poor friends, thinking, "Wow, it's spooky how well this works!"

Yes, spooky how well spam can convince people to propagate it.

How not to look for a job

I usually don't talk about my day job, since I don't pretend to think that the average reader will want to know about it. This is mostly a writing-pop culture-liteature-travel-movie-philosophy blog, with bits of my personal life tossed in here and there where I deem it may have some relevance to the general reading population.

But today I just felt I had to share my thoughts on "How Not to Apply for a Job."

Our company right now is running an ad in a few Los Angeles newspapers looking for potential new commodities brokers. The ad gives them the main number to call, and Martha, our wonderful receptionist, gives them the information on where to send in their resume (fax or email). If Martha isn't available, such as late in the day, than either Julie or I take the call. We aren't supposed to give out any information about the job, since we aren't doing the hiring and don't know the details on what they're offering. We just tell them where to send the resume, and the boss will call them if it looks promising.

Now when I first heard that this was the system we would use to for applicants, I was a touch skeptical. Anyone out searching for a job knows the frustration of trying to contact a potential employer and not really knowing what it is the company does. However, after receiving numerous time-wasting calls, I can see why a company screens the applicants themselves before calling. Furthermore, after this one call I got today, I know exactly why we ask people to call in so we can give them the fax number/email address for them to send the resume, instead of placing it on the add: it's so the completely inappropriate people can weed themselves out.

Let us watch how one particular idiot weeded himself out:

I pick up the phone, and the man asks about the ad in the L.A. Times. He also mentions "Can Make $250,000/year" from the ad, the first time I've heard any caller bring that up. (This is no exaggeration, by the way. Some of our top brokers make $300,000 a year.) He then says, "Can you send me a check?"

Hah hah, the fellow is a real comedian. This guy must have learned from the Enron school of mark-to-market accounting: "If I work for your company, I might make $250,000 dollars a year, so can you pay me that now?"

So this is off to a roaring start. It will go down hill quickly.

I give him the usual info about sending in his resume, and he asks for more info about the job. I tell him that he will have to talk about that with the people hiring when they call him. He says something about, "Let me read you the ad so you know which one I'm talking about." Good one, act like the guy on the line doesn't know his own job. Racking up the point here, pal. I tell him that we're only running one ad, you can send in your resume and they will contact you.

Although I have done nothing but act calm and given the same response that has worked for the serious applicants, the man gets belligerent. "Well, why didn't you put the number in the ad?"

I answer, "They want people to contact us first by phone."

However, he answers the question himself: "That sounds real fu**ing stupid. I don't think I want to work for your company."

"Then goodbye sir," I say and hit the 'disconnect' button.

I really wanted to say, "Then good luck at finding any job, sir." But hey, I'm the polite one here. Nothing gets the jerks of the world more enraged than when you keep your cool.

No, the policy isn't "real fu**ing stupid." It's actually darn smart. It weeds out nasty, unhireable people from the process. Can you imagine this man trying to call up potential clients? Can you imagine how his interview might have gone?

Does he ever wonder why he is currently unemployed?

16 November 2007

My Grandmother's birthday

Today is my Grandmother Ruth's birthday. Had she not died on September 3rd of this year, she would have been ninety-two years old. It is astonishing to me how vividly I remember her 80th birthday celebration, almost as if it happened only a few years ago, when it happened over a decade in the past. Astonishing.

Now she is gone, and the family has only memories, which have flooded back to all of on this day... her first birthday that she will not be around to enjoy.

14 November 2007

The Shadow in Garden of Death

Garden of Death (1941)
By Walter B. Gibson writing a Maxwell Grant

It’s easy to pick up another adventure of The Shadow once you have finished one. They’re short (40,000 words is standard) and usually a single shot of the mysterious detective-avenger isn’t enough to satisfy my cravings. So, I followed up Chain of Death with Garden of Death. Later I may tell you about Atoms of Death and Master of Death, but let’s just say that if you write three hundred or so Shadow novels, you would start to run out of unique titles too.

Garden of Death appeared first in the 1 October 1941 issue of The Shadow twice-monthly magazine. During the 1940s, the series of novels were getting less epic, and Garden of Death is mostly a pedestrian effort with a small scope. Two chemical company owners are competing for a Somnotone, a drug invented by horticulturist Theophilus Malbary. One of the owners ends up dead, along with two members of his household, from some kind of poison gas.

The Shadow, in a moment completely out of left field, gets attacked by an orangutan while searching the house. Yes, Walter Gibson can still pull some weird ones, even in a lesser novel. Oh, a killer puma disguised as an ocelot, a giant vampire bat, and a strangling ficus plant show up as well. Which, I’m sorry to say, makes the book sound much more interesting than it actually is. The middle section slogs on too long, and only in the last three chapters does the pace pick up for the interesting, animal-filled wrap-up. The scenes in the conservatory (which is far from a “Garden of Death,” but the magazine needed a snappy title for the cover) and the discovery that Malbray uses the flowers as a sort of naturalist clock, just didn’t grab my attention.

Gibson does try something unusual for a mystery novel: he has the hero and his accomplices figure out the entire plot not long after the middle of the book—and they let the readers know it. The rest of the story is about how our heroes try to bring down the villain of the piece with this knowledge. Gibson set up an interesting challenge with this, but doesn’t fully succeed. It's another reason the book sags in the middle. That the murderer's identity is pretty transparent even before this doesn’t help, either.

Still, the animal attacks and the villain’s death-by-ficus make for amusing reads. Next time I read a Shadow novel—a few months will pass before I feel the urge to grab another—I'll switch over to one of Gibson's earlier entries, when his and the publisher’s enthusiasm was higher.

Garden of Death is currently available in a single volume with The Vampire Murders.

12 November 2007

The Shadow in Chain of Death

Chain of Death (1934)
Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

A couple times during the year, I find myself pulled back to my stacks of reprints from the hero pulps of yesteryear to thrill again to the adventures of Doc Savage, The Spider, G-8 and His Battle Aces, Operator #5, and… The Shadow.

Of all these heroes, The Shadow is the one I enjoy the most. The Doc Savage adventures by Lester Dent are certainly a high adventure kick, but their comic relief grows a touch tedious. How much of that silly pig kickin’ around with Monk can you take? The Spider novels by Norvell Page are about as bonkers as anything written during the time, but their utter insanity means I can only take the loopiness in smaller doses. But I am always surprised with Walter B. Gibson’s cleverness in his Shadow espisodes: considering that he wrote two of these novels a month, he seems to have really taken his time constructing clever mystery plots.

I just finished reading another Shadow novel, Chain of Death, which appeared in The Shadow magazine in 1934. This is one of Gibson’s less action-oriented entries, and leans toward suspense and deduction. The principal conceit is two sets of codes that the Shadow must crack if he is to get to the bottom of “Crime, Inc.,” an organization of criminal planners in which each member only knows two other members, the one who recruited him and the one whom he recruited. They set up the titular chain of death that sends suggestions for crime schemes up and down the links using their coded messages. Imagine what these blokes could have achieved through email! But that would take away from the clandestine fun of hiding the messages. Eventually, the Shadow cracks the code in time to intercept Crime, Inc.’s new scheme aboard a luxury yacht and so bring the novel to an action finale.

The codes are clever ideas, and since I doubt Gibson had the time to concot them both out of nothing (this was the second novel he wrote for that month) he must have had some outside inspiration. The first code uses a simple substitution method, and the codebreakers in the police department decipher it rapidly. But that code is a purposeful blind from Crime, Inc. to distract from the importance of the second code. The second code is not based on the characters, but the spaces between the characters. An entire chapter deals with the Shadow sitting in his sanctum and deducing the meaning of this strange scrawl of symbols, and it makes fascinating reading.

Astonishing that Gibson could come up with this kind of stuff week after week… and keep it up from 1931 until 1949, with only a few breaks! The pulp era was truly a different writing world than what we have today.

Chain of Death is available in single pulp-sized volume with Death’s Premium.

10 November 2007

Re-Cap, Part 5: Captain America vs. Captain America

There’s a large gap from where we left off in Captain America to where we pick-up today, but I’ve moved ahead to a huge time in the character’s history, one of his sterling ages: The Steve Englehart Years.

With issue #153 (1972), Captain America finally got back on its feet. After Stan Lee surrendered the writing chores in #142, the magazine went through a down-phase. The letters from readers of the time indicated that they were aware of the slump in the writing. Gary Friedrichs and then Gerry Conway took over the scripting duties, and neither man is a slouch (Conway created the Punisher, fer cryin’ out loud, and killed Gwen Stacy in the most famous Spider-Man story of all time), but until #153 and writer Steve Englehart, Captain America was definitely in one of its least interesting eras. A very long Hydra plot that gave way to not one, but two secret masterminds (the Kingpin and then—for the four-hundreth freakin’ time—the Red Skull), a ridiculous child-kidnapping story that throws Cap and the Falcon against an alien mastermind called The Stranger (sorry, that’s work for the Fantastic Four or the Avengers, not a more realistically centered hero like Cap), and some other forgettable one-offs that I can’t even recall at the moment (hence the term “forgettable”) . . . well, it wasn’t a compelling series of issues.

But finally, a classic era started when I got to #153. I knew it was coming, since I’m familiar with Cap’s publishing history, but Englehart’s first arc on the title is such a fresh and exciting piece of work that I could feel the excitement of it thirty-five years later.

Englehart’s tenure on the comic is one of the major periods for Captain America. Three legendary stories arose from it: “The Secret Empire,” which puts Cap against an internal enemy of the U.S.; “The Nomad Saga,” where Steve Rogers surrenders the mantle of the Star-Spangled Avenger and takes up a new identity; and the “1950s Captain America” epic which starts in #153 and runs until #156 . . . and continues to have repercussions to this day.

This story is also an excellent example of how “retroactive continuity” (i.e. altering a character’s back history to affect current events) doesn’t have to be annoying or a cop-out. Properly used, a retcon can generate thrilling creative possibilities. Englehart must have looked over years of questions from readers who wanted to know: “Who was the Captain America who appeared in the 1950s comics?” This question popped up in many earlier letter columns, and at one point Stan Lee simply dismissed it: those comics came from another time, and they don’t necessarily carry over into our present comic history. (He also said that—unlike DC Comics—Marvel would not create any alternate Earths to explain the Gold Age versions of current heroes. Smart move.)

It’s a good answer from Stan. I wish more comic writers today would stop worrying about continuity concerns and simply go with the flow. Discrepancy from thirty years ago? Man, just ignore it. Follow the Tao. So many writers and artists, so many years . . . it no longer matters that everything fits together. Seek the way of the water.

But Steve Englehart devised an ingenious retcon that actually advances and serves the character of Captain America.

What was it that needed retconning? Answering the reader question mentioned above: “Who was the Captain America of the 1950s?”

If you aren’t a comic book reader or a Captain America fan, this will all be new to you and possibly a touch confusing. Hang out a bit and I’ll see if I can clarify this with a chronological approach.

Captain America and his partner Bucky first appeared in comic books in 1941 and stayed immensely popular during World War II. The characters continued to appear in comics after the end of the war, but Cap’s popularity declined until 1950, when his last starring magazine got the axe. (Other spandex-wearing do-gooders were vanishing around the same time as the superhero bubble of the 1940s burst.)

In 1953 Cap and Bucky returned in issue #24 of a comic book called Young Men (originally Young Men on the Battlefield). This was meant to be the same hero from the 1940s, since he still has the name Steve Rogers. But he’s a bit . . . uh, different. He now works as a college professor in his day job, and plays the part of “Commie Smasher!” in his superhero identity. No Nazis anymore, so Cap takes up the Cold Warrior job. This new version didn’t work out with the readers, and after a few issues Cap vanished from the newsstands again.

We leap ahead to 1964, and Avengers #4. The Silver Age has gotten underway, and Marvel has made a name for itself as the innovator of the new era. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decide to bring back one of the company’s older heroes (one whom Jack co-created), Captain America. In this famous issue, the Avengers find Steve Rogers frozen in a block of ice in the North Atlantic. The story explains that Cap was in suspended animation since the closing days of World War II, when an exploding Nazi drone plane he was trying to stop apparently killed Bucky and tossed Cap into the ocean. It’s a clever retcon that got the classic Captain America back into modern action without aging him—and gave him solid conflicts (man out of time, dead partner) as well.

But this re-writing of Captain America’s history created a discrepancy. Who were those other Captain Americas? The ones who continuing appearing in comics until 1950? And what about that one who appeared briefly in the mid-1950s? They couldn’t be Steve Rogers; according to the new history, he was napping in an ice cube all that time.

The question of the Captain America of the second half of the 1940s would eventually get retconned: they were other heroes the government hired to take Cap’s place so the citizens of the U.S. wouldn’t know he died. But the Cap of the 1950s was the one that Englehart took on and explained when he debuted on the magazine.

In issue #153, while Steve Rogers takes a well-deserved holiday with sweetie Sharon Carter in the Caribbean, somebody in a Captain America costume shows up in Harlem and starts beating people up and using inappropriate racial language. The Falcon tries to stop him, and finds that although this man looks and sounds exactly like Steve Rogers, he’s inhumanly strong and vilely bigoted, shouting a bunch of McCarthyesque nonsense about “the Reds.” And he has an equal vile sidekick named Bucky. In issue #154, Falcon notices that this “Cap”’s costume isn’t correct either. The impostor Cap and Bucky, however, claim they are the real deal and that the other Cap is really the fake, probably working for the commies! He and “Bucky” race off to the Caribbean to take care of the real Captain America, and Falcon races down there to cut them off and get a warning to Steve about these maniacs.

The two impostors lay an ambush and capture Cap, the Falcon, and Sharon, and then we finally find out who these nutcases actually are (although judging from the letter columns, quite a few fans could guess): they are the Captain America and Bucky of the 1950s.

Issue #155 is a weird but cool “origins” issue, which uses actual panels from Young Men in a clever re-working of the 1950s version of Cap. This unnamed individual who took on the name “Steve Rogers” (even to this day, his real name remains unknown) idolized Captain America, and through his tireless research he discovered the formula for the super soldier serum that created the original the Living Legend of World War II. “Steve Rogers” tried to sell the U.S. government on making him the new Captain America to beef up morale during the Korean War, but darn it, just when the deal looks set, the war eneds. The project got scrapped, but “Steve” went ahead with the project on his own, and turned one of his college students (Jack Monroe, although he won’t receive that name until later) into his sidekick.

And thus, a new Captain America and Bucky are born!

But all is not well. . . .

The new Cap ‘n’ Bucky never underwent the vita-ray treatment to stabilize the super soldier serum in their bodies. This means they have super-strength greater than the real Captain America’s, but the unstable serum eventually drove them insane. They turned into paranoid whack-jobs who believe anyone who isn’t a WASP must be a commie agent! This is Englehart’s not-so-subtle but nonetheless effective comment on the HUAC witch-hunts of the 1950s, and the unthinking jingoism that had gone so out-of-date by 1970s. The U.S. government finally recognized that the new Cap was dangerous, so they captured him and Bucky and placed them in suspended animation until some cure might be found for their affliction. None was, and the years passed. . . .

Nixon’s trip to China triggered some loon to unleash the old 1950s Cap and Bucky on a world that “needs” their kind of stupid bigotry, which leads to this whole exciting affair in Captain America #153–#156.

What Englehart handles exceptionally well here is having the real Captain America confront the stereotype of what many readers of the 1970s might have held about the character. The magazine had dealt with this problem since the late 1960s; in the growing radical environment (and most of Marvel’s readers were college kids), was Cap’s old-fashioned heroism passé? Was he, in fact, a near-fascist symbol? Could Cap evolve with the times?

As the 1970s got underway, the magazine continued to wrestle with the problem of making Cap modern in a world where most people would dismiss him as an “establishment goon.” Hell, if I were a student in the period, that’s exactly how I would pin down the character.

Englehart’s opening arc confronts the problem in a superb way, by having Cap confront the possibility of what he might have turned into. And he blames himself for this maniac. Here was a boy who idolized him, but somehow turned into everything that Cap hates: a racist, a fascist! The story says, “Captain America isn’t a fascist, isn’t an outdated symbol—but look how thin the line between the two is.” We see what Captain America actually stands for, but also experience the dark side of that meaning at the same time.

Great comic book writing: taking the central core of a character, and using his history to peer deeper into it—and at the same time telling an awesome action story.

I’ve known about this story for most of my life, but now that I’ve read the actual comics . . . I’m in awe.

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