05 May 2010

Re-Cap, Part 12: Cap on a Second Down-Time

Considering all the news I’ve been reporting about the upcoming Captain America film—only fourteen months away now!—I would be remiss in not returning to my overview of the history of Cap in his own comic book, which I am now retro titling “Re-Cap.” I go in starts and stops on this series, since I tend to ride story arcs and writer/artist runs, and temporarily lose interest when a big shift occurs.

Last time in “Re-Cap,” the year was 1975 and the issue was #183. We had just reached the close of one of the greatest of all storylines in the Star-Spangled Avenger’s history: the Nomad Saga. Steve Rogers finally picked up his adamantium shield, slipped back on the Red, White, and Blue of Captain America, and answered the call . . . to kick the Red Skull in the shins. Really hard. Bastard has it coming.

Yes, the Skull has returned, after a three years’ absence. The writers and editors must have felt that Red Head had gotten overexposed in Captain America’s early run—and they were right. But with all the enthusiasm rising from the Nomad Saga, the creative team had to find something to top it and keep the momentum going. So not only did they bring back the Red Skull, they also decided to drop a massive, continuity shredding bomb of a surprise: the Red Skull created and controls the Falcon, Steve’s partner since issue #117!
This produces a three-issue arc (#184–#186) which ends Steve Englehart’s great tenure as Cap’s master plotter. Unfortunately, it’s a relative threadbare patch in his otherwise richly woven work on the magazine. One of the problems is Frank Robbins’s art, controversial with readers at the time and for solid reason: it’s too grotesque and mangled. His Red Skull especially looks distortedly ridiculous. But most of the storyline’s weakness comes from a feeling of desperation around the “reveal” on Falcon’s nefarious background. It’s too much of a gimmick, a way to try to top the Nomad Saga. Englehart doesn’t feel as engaged here, either, already halfway out the door.

Make no mistake, the Skull’s re-write of the Falcon’s history is a retcon. Stan Lee and Gene Colan certainly had not planned way back in #117 that the Falcon was actually a result of the Red Skull’s manipulation, and that Sam Wilson was originally a criminal whom the Skull programmed with the Cosmic Cube into believing he’s someone else—all so the villain could plant a sleeper agent with Cap. Too much believability about the Red Skull’s ability to create extremely long-term planning has to be hurled out the eightieth-story window for any of this to work.

However, this is the “official” Marvel Universe history of the Falcon and remains in force to this day. Get used to it.

Although the Skull/Falcon arc is disappointing, Captain America is now about to drop lower and go into one of the least interesting periods in its publication. The last lull happened during a shifting around of writers after Stan Lee’s departure, which ended when Steve Englehart re-energized the magazine with the famous Cap vs. Cap story. With Englehart off, and Robbins’s weird art still on, Cap hits a slump for a few issues until a certain familiar face takes over both scripting and artwork duties. But that’s for 1976.

The Englehart-less tenure begins with the worst issue to come along since “The Stranger” fiasco back in #150. Issue #187, “The Madness Maze,” has John Warner on the writing duties; he had started to segue into the magazine as co-writer in the last few installments. It feels like a stall-tactic issue, as if the creative team, having no idea what to do in the wake of the Falcon’s unmasking, decided to stick Cap in a self-contained action story to keep him occupied while they came up with a way to deal with the new order.

So, with the Falcon lying unconscious on the ground before Cap’s feet and our hero’s view of the world shattered . . . an egg-shaped flying craft flashes onto page two, snatches Cap up into the sky, and zooms away with him.

What? Huh? Just as confused as you are, folks.

The entire Falcon plot gets put on pause while Cap fights his way through sponge monsters and robots in a shifting maze under the control of “The Druid,” who appears to have seized a helmet off one of Jack Kirby’s Asgardians. Although he looks like a new character invented for this quickie plot, Dredmund the Druid first appeared in issue #144 (1966) of Strange Tales as the villain of a “Nick Fury of SHIELD” story. He mixes science with alchemical talk, and in general acts like most ineffectual world-conquerors.

The whole issue is a parade of dull science-fiction action that are more Golden Age-friendly and appropriate for the Fantastic Four. Maybe a surreal artist like Jim Steranko could have done something with the changing maze concept. As is, the whole issue is both strange and bland. At the conclusion, Cap fights his way to confront the Druid, who has some plan to destroy SHIELD by forcing Captain American to fight . . . The Alchemoid! (Duh-duh-dum! Yawn.)

I’ve complained about artist Frank Robbins as the wrong choice for Captain America before, but his artwork here is particularly terrible. Cap most of the time looks like a bendy, distorted scarecrow, and his facial expressions make it seem as if he’s screaming in a horror comic.

The second issue in this story, “Druid-War,” improves because of the fill-in art from Sal Buscema, one of the greatest pencilers in Cap’s history. It’s too bad he’s only back for this one issue. It’s like a refreshing wind blowing through a damp day looking at it. Issue #188 also benefits from cutting away from Cap’s battle with the talkative Alchemoid and the Druid to pick up the thread of the Falcon plot. Sam is resting in intensive care under SHIELD supervision, but Gabe Jones, Peggy Carter, and Falcon’s girl Leila all want access to him. SHIELD assigns Gabe and Peggy to investigate Sam’s history, and every possible way the Red Skull could have influenced him. SHIELD then locates Cap and the Druid and conveniently drop in on the last two pages of a pretty dull fight.

I wonder if writer John Warner realized that issue #187 was a stinker and tried to wave it all away with self-mockery in this issue: there’s a lot of Cap complaining about clichés, the narration box makes fun of the hopelessness of a pack of clumsy men in purple robes trying to take down the world’s greatest fighting machine, and there’s even a topical reference few people will understand now. (“I’m beginning to feel like a character in a Richard Lester film!” Cap quips as his adversaries fall on their faces. Richard Lester, at the time, was mixing comedy slapstick and action in The Three Musketeers and The Four Musekteers.) Some of this made me smile; that’s more than I got out of “Madness Maze.” The close promises to get back to the Falcon business next month.

That does it for John Warner’s two-issue stint on Captain American. Frank Robbins will come back for a few more issues on pencils, co-writing with Tony Isabella, as we hack through this down-time interregnum for our hero. Don’t fret: Jack Kirby is on the horizon!

Previous episode: Captain America Is Nomad Is Captain America Again

Next episode: The King’s Coming! Clean This Place Up!