11 May 2010

Re-Cap, Part 13: The King’s Coming! Clean This Place Up!

At this point in “Re-Cap,” my continuing voyage through all the issues of Captain America, there are four more numbers left in 1975. Starting in 1976, Jack Kirby makes his return to the comic, as artist and writer and editor. The announcements in “Stan’s Soapbox” and in the letters page put the fans into a frenzy about the return of Marvel’s most famous artist to the Marvel Universe—where he would create Devil Dinosaur! (I’ve always had a love for that character.)

The letter writers also take a few more angry swings at current artist Frank Robbins, and the editors sort of grudgingly admit that, yeah, Robbins was a controversial choice and few people seem to have liked him. (That’s a serious understatement. One letter writer called for the Red Skull to kill Robbins. That’s a bit extreme.) I think that Robbins improved on these last four issues, as if he were finally get the hang of how to draw the cleaner and sharper world of Captain America, but still, I’ve never felt better about having an artist leave this title so far in my journey through its history.

Admittedly, I thought that Gene Colan was a strange choice for regular artist when Jack Kirby first left, and his style felt too dark and shaded for Cap, but I ended up enjoying the unusual slant, and it gave a harsh realism to some occasionally weak stories. Robbins’s art style, however, is too twisted and stretched to ever completely gel with the Star-Spangled Avenger.

The letters page (still called “Let’s Rap with Cap,” a name that will change over the years) also give Steve Englehart space to explain that his supposed “vacation” for two issues would be permanent. He’s decided to move on to some black and white magazines and no longer has time on his schedule for Captain America.

Before going on to review the last developments of writer Tony Isabella (with Robbins and Bill Mantlo occasionally credited as co-writers), I’ll share a letter from a reader regarding issue #187, which I critiqued in my last episode of “Re-Cap” as the worst in years. This letter appears in “Let’s Rap with Cap” for issue #191, the same letters page where the above mentioned reader demanded a fictional character assassinate the comic’s artist. This epistle comes from Ed McCarthy of New York, NY:
Dear Marvel,

“Simply Unbelievable” was the only comment this judge could manage after finishing ‘The Madness Maze.’ Here we have a comic that for two years has been a showcase for tight creative writing: a comic that got passed around. A comic that succeeded in involving the readers to the point where we believed that your hero was indeed a symbol of America. It wasn’t easy but Englehart made not only Captain America relevant to the times but the entire cast as well. Peggy, Gabe, Sharon, Dave, Sam, Leila—I’m going to miss them them. They were real and it’s been fun.

This isn’t one of your “Bring Back Ditko” or “I Want Barry” letters. All of your titles have seen their prime creative teams depart at one time or another and they’ve always gone on—eventually—to greater things and I’m sure Cap is no exception. It’s not that Steve left (voluntarily I assume) that grates on me so much as the fact that someone ordered John Warner [author of the issue in question] to stall for time. I can only speculate why. Either he is truly the Flaxman Loew of Marvel Comics (and I find that hard to believe—his last issue wasn’t bad) or there is someone waiting in the wings to take over Cap—someone so full of potential that you’re willing to let things simmer until he arrives. If this is true he or she better be well worth the wait cause you have no idea of the anger I feel seeing a comic I enjoy so much blatantly trip on its cape and fall on its face.

Next issue at the very apex of the Druid’s consummate triumph let him be run over by a truck so we’ll be back where we started. Or are you all pawns of the Red Skull?
Everybody is a pawn of the Red Skull, Ed. Didn’t you know that?

Cripes, why don’t I go back and delete my last post of “Re-Cap”? That letter pretty much sums it up. The only difference is, I’m looking through the prism of thirty-five years and don’t feel an anger about this, only bemusement at what was clearly stalling for time. But the editors assure Mr. McCarthy that they do have someone in the wings: Jack Kirby! Which means they’ve just threw Tony Isabella and Frank Robbins under the bus.

(And honestly, Kirby’s return wouldn’t be as kewl awesome gnarly as everyone seemed to think it would be at the time. It was good, but not Silver Age great. And it ended up irritating a lot of readers. I just thought I should preface that before I start on Kirby’s ‘70s stint on Captain America with the next post.)

Okay, let’s see what we have here from issues #189–#192. We start with two issues involving SHIELD under the control of a villain who really had no reason to come back, but end with the return of one of the best of all Captain America villains—indeed, probably my top personal villain after the Red Skull. In between this, we’ll get a resolution of “The Falcon Dilemma” and the first Captain America appearance of one of Marvel’s dumbest villains.

On the continuing story arc level, issues #189 and #190 deal with Falcon’s awakening—through a contrived fight with Cap that SHIELD’s acting director demands—and subsequent realization that he is both Sam Wilson, his identity of the past six years after Cap defeated the Skull’s brainwashing, and “Snap” Wilson, drug-runner and criminal whom the Skull snatched up as his tool. On the action level, it’s a silly but decently exciting tale about SHIELD falling under the control of (gasp!) Deadly Nightshade!

Uh, who? She appeared back during the early Englehart days, in the horror-themed #164, where she turned Falc into a werewolf, and then apparently died in a leap from the side of her castle. This was part of the build to the wonderfully pulpy “Yellow Claw” saga. On her own, Deadly Nightshade is just too silly (“Oh, pooh!” she says when finally defeated) and too much a token “villainess in skimpy bikini.”

Issue #190 has a cover that promises “all-action,” rarely a good sign, and also sports an extremely Jack Kirby-ish robot. That’s because the robot is a special SHIELD defense device that first appeared in Strange Tales #142, and was drawn by, yep, Jack Kirby. The issue is all action, but it’s probably the best-looking action that Robbins has drawn in the magazine to this point. At the end of the battle, with Falcon finally coming fully out of the coma of the last few issues, he knows he’s “two men,” and one has to answer for his crimes.

That leads to the last two issues for Robbins, with Bill Mantlo writing on #191 from a plot by Tony Isabella, and Marv Wolfman taking over writing for the fill-in #192. These issues must wrap up the Falcon situation to some satisfaction before the new one-man team seizes the steering wheel. Issue #191 promises “The Trial of the Falcon.” But unfortunately it has Stilt-Man on the cover, one of the lamest super-villains in modern Marvel history. A guy in a suit that can extend its legs. This is what passed for a Daredevil bad guy in the days before Frank Miller. A few years ago, during the Civil War crossover event, the Punisher did us all a favor and simply killed Stilt-Man with a rocket launcher. Why else have a fellow like the Punisher around if not to squash out the occasional doofus?

Anyway, here’s Stilt-Man on a Gil Kane cover, claiming, against all evidence to the contrary, that “The Stilt-Man never fails!” I know that the chances of this being a good issue are slim, but the kook-factor from the cover gets me pretty excited. This may be the Bronze Age, post-Gwen Stacy Kill days, but there’s still such wonderful loopiness going around.

The issue opens with the Falcon drama in SHIELD headquarters, with Co-Director Cochren still acting like an ass, antagonizing Sam until he snaps briefly and he and Cap almost come to heavy blows. Suddenly, Nick Fury—whom we’ve haven’t seen in a spell—bursts in and busts some SHIELD underling heads (and shows he has a rather wide stance when sitting in his office chair) and temporarily clears up problems.

The upshot of this contrived opening is that Sam Wilson, who may possibly also be criminal Snap Wilson, will go to L.A. to stand trial there for his crimes in his former identity.

And, yes, the comic has finally cleared up the “is-he-or-isn’t-he” problem of Sam Wilson. Gabe Jones and Peggy Carter of SHIELD have finished their (off-panel) investigation into Sam’s history to see if the Red Skull really did create the Falcon identity from a criminal, or if this was just trickery from the supervillain. They finally determine it was a retcon by Steve Englehart. Oh wait, my notes. . . . They finally determine that the Skull was telling the truth. The Falcon is made of two personalities: the early Snap Wilson drug-runner, and the later Sam Wilson social worker/superhero.

A well-done full-page panel (in general, Robbins works feels better here than on any previous issue, although his Cap still looks distorted and unheroic), we learn of how the nation feels torn about who the Falcon truly is. There’s some clumsy race politics inserted here (the Falcon feels that as a black man he won’t get a fair trial), but this feels appropriate for the way Captain America has developed over the last five years.

But wait . . . we need some crazy superhero action in this tale, right? Snap Wilson’s funky former drug bosses in L.A., who sport sunglasses ripped off from the aliens of Planet X in Invasion of Astro Monster, decide they can’t have Wilson naming names at his Los Angeles trial. So they call in the best assassin they can: Stilt-Man.

The L.A. cartels have so much to learn.

The comic goes from shaky but interesting drama right into the crazy. Stilt-Man first appears on a montage page that ties him into events from, of all things, Ghost Rider, one of Marvel’s newest hits. Crossing over with Ghost Rider #13, the villain the Trapster, another of Marvel’s weakest heavies, gets launched into the air from his combat with Ghost Rider, grabs onto Stilt-Man’s leg, and then gets all his equipment confiscated by Mr. Exentdo-Legs. Stilt-Man marches on, confident that with his ability to grow his legs really long and the cast-offs weapons of a villain who once got beat by an empty building,* he’ll succeed in killing the Falcon.

I’ll admit that I genuinely enjoy some of Marvel’s third-string stupid baddies. They have such naïve charm, and clever writers can make them seem either dangerous or purposely hilarious. (Spider-Man’s encounter with The White Rabbit and the Walrus comes to mind as a perfect example of the second case.)

The fight between Cap and Falc against Stilt-Man when the, ahem, assassin breaks into the court room to silence the Falcon, isn’t either clever or mocking. It is a fun fight, however, and again I think that Robbins has developed toward a smoother and cleaner style fitting the comic. But that Stilt-Man presents any problem for one of Marvel’s most famous fighting duos for even a second stretches credulity. Cap lets the Falcon administer the final thrashing, and it’s exciting seeing Falcon re-claim his status as a true hero, burying the Snap Wilson stigma—even if he’s just kicking a loser like Stilt-Man. The court suspends Falcon’s sentence, and assigns him Nick Fury as a parole officer.

Nota bene: In the “Stan’s Soapbox” column for the issue, Stan Lee makes it official that Marv Wolfman has taken over as Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics as Len Wein steps down. The editorial position rotates quickly during the ‘70s, until settling down into the famous/controversial Jim Shooter era. More about that as the situation develops.

It would seem that the Falcon Dilemma has gotten resolved. It was too facile a finale, and Englehart would have made a better drama out of it. But this is all a clean-up operation. Now we have one more issue to tide us over before Jack Kirby II. (III counting the Golden Age.)

Thankfully, fill-in writer Marv Wolfman chose to bring back the great villain Doctor Faustus for his single issue. After Stilt-Man and Deadly Nightshade, this is a worthy adversary for our hero.

As #192, “Mad-Flight,” starts, Cap is moping about in his civilian duds, wondering about Sam and if they can ever be trusting partners again. So despite the optimistic end of #191, this subplot still has some simmer left in it. Except that the rest of the issue forgets about it entirely; Falcon never appears at all.

Instead, Steve Rogers gets in such a rush to get a flight back from Los Angeles to New York that he forces his way onto a charter flight . . . filled with outrageous gangster-types that even Cap thinks might have wandered out of a production of Guys and Dolls. In a “you’ve got to be kidding me” Silver Age-style coincidence, the leader of this charter of crime that Captain America has accidentally boarded is . . . Doctor Faustus. The bad doctor plans to loot New York with the help of these goons, his powerful intimidation tactics, and weapons stolen from Stark Enterprises that neutralize people’s brains. Steve changes into Cap in the 747’s bathroom and beats everybody up until the problem is solved. Faustus goes out the window, but he’ll be back in the great “National Force Saga” in 1979, and in some issues of The Amazing Spider-Man before that.

Not the best one-shot filler, but Faustus is a realistic villain with an interesting psychology slant, and the action aboard the plane is an adequate thriller. As a bonus, you get the first appearance of Dr. Karla Sofen (simply called “Karla” here and assisting Faustus), who would turn into the major villain Moonstone and join the Masters of Evil and later the Thunderbolts.

Cap’s closing words in this issue sound as if Marv Wolfman had the idea (as he probably should, since he was Marvel’s new Editor-in-Chief) that Jack Kirby would ditch most of the magazine’s older subplots and supporting characters and hew an independent “Captain America Universe” during his tenure. Cap, back in New York, wanders into a seedy Times Square scene and makes use of the thought balloons to get readers ready for a new era on the mag:
. . . and now with Sam . . . the Falcon. I don’t know what to think about him. Except maybe to let everything ride . . . to forget everything that has happened . . . and to take whatever is going to happen as something new. Yeah, something tells me that is the only road to walk. We’ll see. Lord, we’ll see.
See you next time with the start of the next (and last) Jack Kirby run with the character he co-created.

* In The Fantastic Four #265, if you care.

Previous episode: Cap on a Second Down-Time

Next episode: The Kirby Kontroversy