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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