13 May 2008

Re-Cap, Part 9: Power Records Presents . . .

I remember issue #168 of Captain America and the Falcon vividly from childhood. This isn’t because I read the issue when it came out (I was less than a year old at the time) or that I read a reprint of it, but because it was featured as an audio dramatization on a Power Records LP that I owned and played on my portable kiddie record player.

Power Records was an imprint of Peter Pan Records, which made those book-and-record sets for children (come on, you know you had one). Power Records aimed at older children with their series of superhero audio dramas; instead of a read-along with a narrator, the superhero stories feature full casts and sound effects. They have huge nostalgic value for a lot of folks my age. There are websites dedicated to them, and the records sell well when they pop up on eBay. Of those ones I owned as a child, the Captain America story contained on the Amazing Spider-Man and His Friends album was my favorite. The story it told was, “. . . And a Phoenix Shall Arise!”

Which comes, almost verbatim, from issue #168. Except for a few cuts, mostly to excise continuity with the previous issues, the audio dramatization follows Roy Thomas and Tony Isabella’s script word-for-word. The overly-descriptive style of comic book writing of the day, with characters loudly proclaiming what they were doing as they did it, fit ideally to the audio drama format, so few changes were needed. It even keeps the narrator box that reads “look to the next panel,” which makes no sense at in an aural dramatization.

The boys at Power Records made a smart choice, since “. . . And a Phoenix Shall Arise!” is an excellent one-shot story that had a lasting impact on Captain America and the Marvel Universe. It introduced the villain who would later destroy the Avengers Mansion and found the anti-hero team the Thunderbolts. Meet Baron Helmut Zemo, son of the late Captain America adversary Baron Heinrich Zemo. For this one instance, he goes under the codename “Phoenix” and wears a silly flame-based outfit. For his subsequent appearances, he’ll wear variant of his father’s mask to hide the horrible scarring he suffers at the end of this issue.

Heinrich Zemo was created in Avengers #4 to explain how Steve Rogers was frozen in ice at the end of World War II. An older Zemo would plague the Avengers in their magazine and Cap in the flashback stories in Tales of Suspense, until Avengers #14, when he dies in an avalanche. The character of Zemo is so bound up with Captain America’s World War II days and his partner Bucky’s death, that it’s easy to think that the character, like the Red Skull, was invented in 1940s issues of Captain America Comics. But Zemo was really a Silver Age character, and all his World War II appearances are “retcons.”

Marvel Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas had apparently planned to bring Zemo’s son Helmut onto the scene for a number of years, since the letter column in the previous issue mentions that he was itching to try out this story. So, for his guest writer fill-in issue, he trots out Zemo Jr., who is enraged at Captain America for driving his father into madness and eventually death.

The ending of the issue, after Zemo has apparently perished in a molten vat of his father’s invention Adhesive-X, contains a particularly strong exchange between Cap and Falcon, in which the writing captures the essence of Captain America’s dilemma as a relic of World War II:
CAP: The Big War just claimed another victim, Sam. And I couldn’t save him.

FALCON: Come on, Steve. It wasn’t your fault.

CAP: Wasn’t it, Sam? The Avengers revived more than an out-of-synch soldier when they freed me from that iceberg.

FALCON: What do you mean, Steve?

CAP: They revived a whole generation’s hatreds. Hatreds that should have been left frozen a quarter of a century ago. Say it again, Sam. Say it isn’t my fault. Maybe the second time, I’ll believe it.
Helmut Zemo isn’t dead, of course, but it will be over a hundred issues until we see him again.

Having re-listened to the audio drama, I have a few thoughts:
  • I can’t stop snickering at Phoenix/Baron Zemo’s “Boris Badanov” voice. That’s either Paul Frees or an incredible imitation. Probably the latter, I don’t think they could afford Paul Frees.
  • Cap apparently is doing his Gary Owens impersonation. I had no idea that Cap moonlit for Roger Ramjet.
  • The sound effects seem to indicate that the Falcon is flying. He wouldn’t gain his wings until a few issues afterward, but when the audio drama was made the producers must have decided that kids expected the Falcon to have wings.
  • I can so visualize the Clutch Cargo-esque animation to accompany this. It would be exactly like those 1960s Marvel Superheroes shorts.
  • Many of these lines are great on the page, but when bellowed out in a theatrical voice . . . Cap referring to the Phoenix as “bananas” . . . and that great speech I quoted above loses its impact with such thunderous delivery.
  • “Don’t be a fool, man! You don’t know how to use my shield!” That’s gold, right there. I think I’ll put that on my answering machine.
Last episode: The Fury of Yellow Claw

Next episode: Captain America Is Back . . . Just in Time to Quit