29 September 2009

Re-Cap, Part 11: Captain America Is Nomad Is Captain America again

Steve Rogers laid aside his role as Captain America in issue #176 of his eponymous title. Now what?

Captain America #177 is the first issue without its title character. Steve Rogers is in it, and Cap appears in an opening dream that Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, has (probably put there so someone who flipped open the comic on the newsstands would feel assured that this was indeed a Captain American comic), but otherwise we are now into the “Nomad Saga” and won’t see Rogers get back into the costume until the last page of issue #183. But there are seven issues to fill with a different sort of drama.

The saga breaks down into two “acts.” Issues #177-179 stay mostly with the Falcon, and Steve remains entirely away from costumed crime-fighting, only once rushing into a fray to help save his former partner, using a ski-mask as a disguise. This will only anger the Falcon more, who has a hard time accepting that his old partner would simply walk away from his life’s calling, but at the same time not wanting to feel he must always live in Cap’s shadow.

The Falcon will take on a smaller role in the second act, which deals with the rebirth of the Serpent Squad under Madame Hydra—who now takes on the name of “Viper”—and Steve Rogers donning a new superhero identity, “Nomad.” This puts a new strain on his relationship with Sharon Carter, the only person in Steve’s life who welcomes the end of Captain America, since she thought they could have a quiet life together in retirement. A hint that Sharon will start a new relationship gets tucked into all the other madness . . . we’ll see where this goes once the Nomad tale is done.

While all this occurs, a few individuals decide to take up the vacant role of Captain America. The first two are jokes: a professional baseball player and a motorcycle gang member, both of who flop on their first outing. The third newcomer is a young man named Roscoe, who works at the gym where Steve Rogers still practices his intense physical regimen. Roscoe speaks in an annoyingly-written Brooklyn accent that’s often tricky to navigate, but his brief stint trying to be Captain America will have an important affect on the story—a tragic one. (The comics never tell us where these sudden new Captain Americas got their outfits, or their shields. Costume shops? If so, the shields are probably made out of plastic, and that’s fine if you’re going to take out a loser like Plantman, but will present problems with everybody else from your great aunt on up.)

During the run there will also occur a shake-up in the creative team. Sal Buscema, the steady artist since Gene Colan’s departure, finishes his superb long run on Captain America, one of the definitive in the character’s history, with issue #181. Sal Buscema was the third long-term artist on the title, following Jack Kirby and Gene Colan, and one of its best. In the next number, Frank Robbins takes over the penciling. Robbins was already a comics legend, writing and drawing the newspaper strip Johnny Hazard since 1944 and doing important work on Batman, but he was fresh at Marvel, and the editors knew that his style was radically different from the clean, brawny style of Buscema—the letter column in #181 admitted as much. Robbins would have a medium-sized run on the comic, and co-write some of the issues, but the enormously touted return of Jack Kirby would remove him. Frank Robbins is a great artist, but I don’t like his style on Captain America: it’s distorted and often grotesque, and very out-of-tone for the character and his stories. The editors were experimenting, and when the experiment ended, they were back with the tried and true . . . Jack Kirby.

However, we’re leaping a bit ahead. Staying for the moment with the Sal Buscema issues, #177 brings in the villain Lucifer, a transdimensional invader who had previously fought the X-Men, to tangle with Falcon as he strives to make it on his own. Lucifer splits himself into two identities, and they have some humorous banter between them as they try to prove which one is more pure than the other. As an interdimensional creature with world domination as a goal, Lucifer doesn’t have a very auspicious trip to earth: eating a chocolate bar contaminates his system and forces him to merge with a human (I’m not making this up), and then the dual-Lucifers let themselves hire out to Harlem gangster Morgan to kill the Falcon. That world-conquest thing is going to take awhile, at this rate. In issue #178, Steve Rogers helps bring the Lucifers down with his quick-thinking ski-mask gag. Readers at this point in 1974 must have known that Englehart was already planning to put Steve Rogers back in the Red, White, and Blue—the pieces were falling back into place as Steve starts to miss crime-fighting even as he tries to renew his dedication to never return to the superhero fold.

Issue #179 brings in what seems to be a completely lame new villain, the Golden Archer, who looks like a parody of DC Comics’ Green Arrow. The Golden Archer suddenly starts firing his arrows at Steve Rogers, apparently aware that he was once Captain America. Taunting Steve with horrendously clichéd “Olde Ynglish” dialogue, he promises to meet him three times, and kill him on the fourth.

What’s the gag? It’s actually Hawkeye of the Avengers in disguise. The whole chase game with the Golden Archer is his way of convincing Steve that he should take up superheroing once more. If not as Captain America, than maybe as somebody else. That plants the idea, and Steve can’t get rid of it. Next issue will see the creation of Nomad.

That Hawkeye turns out to be the Golden Archer almost excuses the general silliness of the issue. The comic is trying to find ways to keep its main character in action without him putting on the costume, but Hawkeye’s masquerade is a bit of a stretch. It’s better than having to add this dippy “Golden Archer” to a roster of forgettable villains, and does explain the hackneyed Old English, which is nothing more than Hawkeye trying to imitate Thor.

Issue #180, “The Coming of Nomad!”, is another landmark number, which witnesses the creation of the Nomad persona (one that Jack Monroe, the 1950s Bucky, would later take on), and the rising of a new Serpent Squad under the command of Madame Hydra. She was last seen in an excellent arc early on in Cap’s solo title, but she’s no longer part of Hydra and needs a new name. So, with usual supervillain logic, she breaks the Viper out from his police escort, and then kills him so she can adopt his name. Viper, pretty much an idiot since his first appearance, gets a hilarious send-off. When his apparent rescuer tells him that she plans to use the name “the Viper,” he says, “Uh . . . won’t that cause confusion in the marketplace? I mean, I’m the Viper too . . . Say, listen—if, uh, you’d like me to change my name—well, what’s in a name, after all. . . .” Remember, the Viper was an advertising executive before trying out the supervillain business—and he never got away from that world until the bitter end. The former Madam Hydra shoots him, after giving a speech, of course, and goes off to rule the new Serpent Squad, which consists of former members Cobra and Eel and the new Viper’s compatriot Princess Python.

Steve Rogers creates his new costume, while carrying on a monologue about what name he should take. After ditching some real winners (did he seriously consider “the Bum,” even for a moment?), he picks “Nomad” in a big single-panel page. He includes a cape on the costume, since he never got to wear one before. In a nice bit of comic-convention parody, Nomad trips on his cape when he first fights the Serpent Squad, and immediately ditches it as a mistake. Thus, Steve Englehart beats out The Incredibles for the “No capes!” joke.

Nomad’s first adventure is confronting the Serpent Squad as they kidnap the head of Roxxon Oil from a movie theater. The theater is showing a documentary about the career of Captain America, which allows Englehart and Buscema to create counterpoint between Nomad taking down the Squad (until his wardrobe misfire) and quotations from Captain America on the screen. It’s obvious, but it works—and it’s unfortunate that we only have one more issue of Buscema’s run.

The issue closes with Serpent Squad’s true purpose revealed: world conquest! It seems odd to have them talk about this in a junky warehouse, and members like the Eel and Cobra are really thieves and not conquerors (bringing this up gets the sexy new Viper very steamed, however), but Viper now plays her trump card: her ally Krang, Atlantean warlord, and the seven-headed Serpent Crown of lost Lemuria! Krang, an adversary of the Sub-Mariner, seems an odd character to throw into Captain America at this point, but Viper wasn’t going to manage to conquer the world with just the help of the Eel, Cobra, and a woman with a pet snake, was she? The Serpent Crown is one if Marvel’s “Very Useful Items,” like the Cosmic Cube, that pop up to increase the ante whenever needed.

The cover of issue #181 is a deception. Someone at Marvel, and I would guess it was Stan Lee, was worried that Captain America was no longer in Captain America, even though the action was still clicking, and he made sure that Cap appeared in some fashion on every cover. But on #180 he was only a blurry background figure who transforms in Nomad. On #181 he’s the front-man again, bashing away at the Serpent Squad and bellowing, “Out of my way, you cheap hoods! You don’t stand a chance against the new Captain America!” Falcon holds Nomad back, telling him that it’s the new fellow’s turn.

Nothing like this occurs in the magazine. The “new” Cap is actually that feisty Roscoe kid from the gym along with his silly Brooklyn patois. He only shows up briefly to pester the Falcon to let him go on patrol with him, and the Falcon understandably tells him to go home. “An’ just like I told you, kid, wearing that uniform isn’t a game!” We’re heading toward an important moment with the “Roscoe Cap,” but the Falcon and he are only tiny pieces of this issue.

Which otherwise is the Battle for the Serpent Crown on an oil rig. Sub-Mariner, after a bout of misunderstanding with this Nomad fellow, transports Steve out to the oil rig where Krang and the Serpent Squad plan to use the Roxxon drilling device to drag up the entirety of the continent of Lemuria from the Pacific. I didn’t know there were any oil rigs that powerful, but this one is at least conveniently placed over the sunken continent. The Serpent Crown has a petty role in all this; it’s used to control the head of Roxxon Oil and force him to operate the rig. Strange, I didn’t think oil company CEOs had hands-on drilling experience, but we’ve got to threaten the world somehow. Nomad shows up, and Sub-Mariner waits patiently in the car while the non-superpowered human beats the hell out of Krang and the Squad. Viper and Cobra manage to escape with the Serpent Crown, and a ticked off Nomad punches out the obnoxious leader of the “task force” that abruptly lands on the drill for the dust-up. Steve is having a hard time dealing with the disrespect people show the neophyte Nomad character, and despite his screams about “The Nomad will go on!”, we’re all looking at our watches and waiting for him to just go Cap again.

There’s still a clean-up job to do with the two free members of the squad, and that occurs in the first half of issue #182, “Inferno!” The Dante-influenced title is extreme overstatement: the inferno is just the burning house where Viper and the cringing Cobra are trapped. Nomad apprehends Cobra, and Viper pulls a classic supervillain “no body recovered” vanishing act. The Serpent Crown falls into the sewers, where some other villain will try to get it in the future. The most interesting part of this fight, aside from getting used to Robbins’s unusual artwork and character contortions, is seeing Nomad get easily knocked unconscious by law enforcement officials when he tries to charge into battle. You see, it’s interesting becase 1) Nomad just doesn’t get any respect, not like, say, Captain America did, and 2) how in the world would Steve Rogers let any average human knock him unconscious?

Meanwhile, Roscoe in his Captain America duds and imitation shield (really, where did he get that?) keeps pestering Falcon, and the Falcon relents and agrees to let the young man tag along on patrol so he can train him. The Falcon is really doing this only to keep an eye on the boy and eventually convince him to stop this dangerous business, but he is impressed with Roscoe’s energy.

There was a possibility that the comic could have played out this unusual relationship between Roscoe and the Falcon a bit longer; Sam Wilson seems enthusiastic about helping out the young man. However, Englehart has a tragic conclusion to set up. Falcon and “Roscoe-Cap” leap down on some bank robbers, only to get stunned from behind by the robbers’ leader . . . The Red Skull!

Yes, he’s back. After a three year span where the comic wisely decided they couldn’t have him pop up as every hidden criminal mastermind, Cap’s greatest enemy has returned at this key moment in the character’s history. The issue ends with the obvious statement: next month, Captain America returns!

Which means Roscoe has to die. The cover of #183 shows a dead Captain America tied to a chimney, and with Nomad watching behind, we know who’s in that costume. In the actual comic, Roscoe’s body is only shown from behind, with the indication that the Red Skull—ticked off that he had trapped an impostor and not his real lifelong foe—brutally mutilated and killed the boy. (That wasn’t going to make the cover!) The superb cover, by the way, isn’t by Frank Robbins, but by Gil Kane and Joe Sinott. Kane, one of Marvel’s greatest artists, was responsible for many covers during this age of comics.

The story in “Nomad: No More!” begins with the last adventure of Steve Rogers as Nomad. And it starts on a weird note, as we find Nomad fighting on the rooftop with a pack of guys in rooster costumes, the leader of whom called himself “The Gamecock!” (Oh come on!) Steve is trying to track down Falcon, whom we last saw at the mercy of the revived Red Skull. The chicken-villains don’t last long, and here’s hoping we don’t see them again.

Nomad dashes across New York, and witnesses a few disturbing sights: civil unrest in Harlem in support of the Serpent Squad (huh?), and growing panic over bank-robberies. Nomad hears people talking about their lack of faith in government, and that Captain America was part of the problem—hence, his resignation. Steve starts to perceive that some villain has taken advantage of Cap hanging it up to sow seeds of discontent.

It all snaps into place when Nomad discovers Roscoe’s mutilated body, and the savagely beaten Falcon lying nearby with the story that the Red Skull has returned. Steve leaps into a two-page monologue as he decides to go back to being Captain America: he’s been naïve, he let his country down, and he has to fight all of its foes, whether internal (Secret Empire) or external (the Red Skull). He puts on his old costume, and invites us to a royal Red Skull butt-kicking in the next issue. A caption also reminds us that thirty-four years ago today, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Captain America, and the spirit lives on.

Honestly, I find Steve’s line of thought hard to follow in these pages—he swings all over the place. The real justification for going back to being Cap has already developed over the last few issues, and most of this talk here is unnecessary, really more of a bookend for the long speeches in issue #176. Steve has to return to being Cap because there is no other life for him, it’s that simple. He can’t let someone else take on the risks that are his burden, and he can’t allow a lunatic like the Red Skull run loose. Also, the magazine is a healthy seller for Marvel. So, Captain America it is. (And don’t think that this is the last time Steve will surrender the shield. There’s a helluva great arc in the mid-80s . . . we’ll get to that eventually.)

Although the Skull is free and apparently planning a major economic crisis for the U.S., this issue brings an end to the “Nomad Saga.” In the days before trade paperbacks required every comic book arc to wrap up cleanly, comics often had new stories starting up in the middle of continuing ones, and here we have a Red Skull story going on right as the Cap-gives-up-Cap tale ends.

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