Thursday, September 03, 2015

Captain America 1970 - 1979

Captain America #122 - Feb 1970
“The Sting of the Scorpion”

Stan Lee drew the words. Jack Kirby wrote the pictures. But what would Stan Lee have been like with no Jack to bounce ideas off? The question was most famously answered in the first issue of the Silver Surfer, when Lee was teamed up with John Buscema, a fine artist, but no story-teller. The result was that the Surfer spent an entire double-sized issue delivering industrial sized speech bubbles about Man's Inhumanity to Man. It was the summer of love. Silver Surfer #1 shared shelf space with many a copy of Sgt Pepper.

Two years later we see Stan "writing" Captain America alongside legendary horror artist Gene Colan. There is lots of writing: lots and lots of writing; but nothing very much happens. Captain America spends fully half the comic walking the streets, talking to himself.

“I’ve spent a lifetime battling — for liberty, for justice — but is there never to be an end to it?” he asks on page one. It's only five or six years since he was resurrected, so chronologically he's only about 30, but Stan is scripting him as a much older man — as a world-weary veteran in his forties or fifties. [*]

He is still at it on page 2 “There are those who scorn love of flag, love of country, those to whom patriotism is just a square, out-moded word! Those who think of me — as a useless relic — of a meaningless past!" 

And page 4: “I think it was Mathew who said — 'what is a man profited if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?' Where am I to find the soul of — Steve Rogers?”  Most people's internal monologue would have said "didn't Jesus say...?" or "doesn't it say somewhere in the Bible...?" but if Cap wants to refer to specific Gospels I suppose he's allowed to. Perhaps Stan still thinks of him as a nice Jewish boy, relatively unfamiliar with the New Testament. ("For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" Matt 16:26 and  Mark 8:36)

It reaches a cringe-inducing climax on page 5 “So I belong to the establishment! I'm not going to knock it! It was that same establishment that gave them a Martin Luther King  a Tolkien  A Mc Luhan (sic) and a couple of brothers — named Kennedy!” Cap has been doing a lot of reading since coming out of the ice. 

By this point he has gone to bed, which might have been expected to give the reader some respite. But, of course, he carries on talking in his sleep. "Why must the girl I love — risk her life daily — when I long to protect her?" 

It's clear enough what is going on. Stan Lee provides the artist with a vague idea for a comic. "Cap is staying in a hotel, feeling miserable about Sharon. The Scorpion gets out of jail and decides to pick on a civilian...but the civilian he picks on is Steve Rogers!" Jack Kirby would have expanded that into a complex epic, with explosions, Nazi villains, three new cast-members and a flying saucer. (And decided that it wasn't the Scorpion after all, it was the Beetle.)  Lee would have taken Kirby's crowded panels, assumed that must be what he had asked for,  and typed out with witty exposition so the reader could tell what was going on. Gene Colan, who's an illustrator but not a story-teller, takes the plot Lee actually gave him, and does the only thing he can do with it: pad it to 20 pages with big atmospheric panels of Cap walking through moody moonlit streets. Lee has often jokingly said that his comics are the modern equivalents of Shakespeare; and that the things he most loves, apart from comic books, are Broadway musicals. So he fills the big panels in which nothing is happening with what are basically song lyrics. Captain America can't so much as put his pants on without delivering an aria:

No matter how I KNOCK it, 
it's always a KICK 
getting back in costume!
It as though
I'm becoming the REAL me!
As though I'm shrugging off
Some FALSE identity!

Even the villain gets in on the act

I've stayed out of sight for month's since my parole
testing my powers, regaining my strength! 
But now
the time has come for the final test
when I must effortlessly defeat a live victim! 
Then, and only then, will know that the Scorpion is ready to assault mankind once more!
This unsuspecting fool, so blindly approaching me, will serve as a perfect test!

Zemo has died several times since the Avengers, and Cap has transitioned from Bucky-Guilt Guy to Soliloquy Guy.

Oh, is there never to be an end of it?

Gene Colan’s art is utterly gorgeous.

[*] If you believe in Marvel Time, then Cap was defrosted in Spring 2005 and this story takes place the follow Autumn. Which is why you shouldn't.

Captain America #128 - Aug 1970
“Mission: Stamp Out Satan’s Angels”

Captain America #139 - June 1971
“The Badge and the Betrayal”

Captain America buys a motor bike, which has absolutely nothing to do with Peter Fonda stealing his name and decides to trek around America for a while. (He has avoided motorbikes since his resurrection because Bucky was killed on one “but I must learn to bury the past, to live for today and tomorrow”.)

Captain America worked fine as an Avengers supporting character. “A stuffy old Golden Age Hero tries to get three teenage ex-villains to behave like a team" is a far more dramatic proposition than “Four mighty heroes grimace at each other." But dump him in his own comic and he still feels like an Avengers supporting character. Send him over to help Nick Fury and SHIELD fight Hydra, and suddenly the Captain America comic looks like the SHIELD comic.

No-one has ever been able to figure out what a Captain America solo gig is meant to be about. Cap doesn’t have a supporting cast. His best mate spends most of his time being dead and his girl friend, Sharon Carter, is pretty much a place-holder Shalla Ball. Good for agonizing about in your sleep, but not much else. 

"Cap hobos around America on a bike, fixin' everyone's troubles" could, in fact, have been quite a decent premise for a comic. But no-one commits to it. He spends more time fighting Hydra agents than he does on the road. A year later, Stan has a different idea.

This time, Cap decides to settle down and get a job as a New York Police Officer. And it seems to me that if we could persuade ourselves that Captain America was a New York Police Officer and had always been a New York Police Officer, that would be a pretty good thing for Captain America to be. It gives him an off-stage life, and it provides an endless sources of crimes to investigate. Sgt. Muldoon (drawn as a cigar-chewing Kirby-alike) is an explicit call-back to the un-named Sarge from Steve’s Army days, the only time he properly had a secret identity. But some sort of narrative gravity drags him back to the SHIELD helicarrier, the Red Skull, agents of Hydra. His police career amounts to a few comedy scenes of Muldoon chewing him out for never showing up to work. 

“Once I decide” screams Cap on the the cover “There can be no turning back”. About 20 issues later, the idea of Captain Policeman is quietly forgotten about.

Captain America and the Falcon # 134 - Feb 1971
"They Call Him….Stone Face "

Captain America never properly acquires roots  or anything to do when he's not been being a superhero, but he does acquire a sort of sidekick.

Yes, we remember him swearing that he'd never take another partner, but he's so over being guilt-man now. Rick Jones even got his turn at being Bucky for four or five issues between #110 and #115.

This was the era of the Defenders who, to start with at least, weren’t a Superhero Team, but just what happened when Doctor Strange and the Hulk an the Sub-Mariner found themselves doing stuff together. No-one ever formally declares Cap and the Falcon to be a double act, but it happens.

Very probably, this is Marvel’s riposte to the socially aware Green Lantern / Green Arrow pairing, but although Sam Wilson is prone to say thing like “It was outtasite working with Cap again...but my jobs in the ghetto, helping my own people” it never becomes quite so self-consciously socially aware. 

Black Panther beat him to the title of first black superhero, but Falcon is almost definitely the first superhero who is an African American. Maybe in retrospect his costume could have been less “ethnic”. And maybe it was a bit obvious for him to be a social worker in Harlem, where the globe trotters come from. He’s down wid the kidz and can out-soliloquize Cap “Where do they go, Cap? What do they do? What chance do they have? Kids who’ve lost faith in the the world around them..and in themselves?”  But he wasn't meant to be Captain America's Partner. He and Cap just became good friends. And so naturally, they worked together, sometimes, on and off. It can feels like two different comics under one cover. The Falcon worries about drugs and gangsters and Cap carries on moonlighting for SHIELD. 

The comics masthead said “Captain America and the Falcon” for seven years; and he remains a major part of Captain America's life afterwards. I doubt that Stan Lee ever said "Wouldn't the best civil rights message we could send out be for Captain America’s best mate to be a black guy?” But it was.

And giving Captain America a confidante went a long way to humanizing Steve Rogers.

Captain America and the Falcon # 155 - Nov 1972
“The Incredible Origin of the Other Captain America”

I expect that some comic book fans assume that the murder of Bucky by Zemo actually happened in a 1940s comic, rather than being a 1960s retcon. Similarly, the 1950s Captain America, introduced in this story, is so much a part of the Legend that it is hard to remind ourselves that the 1954 Captain America was originally just Captain America, fighting Uncle Sam's foes after a short hiatus.

And it is strange to go back and read the comic which introduced the idea that that Captain America was a crazy impostor. It comes across as an intellectual exercise; a weirdly post-modern solution to a continuity problem that no-one apart from Roy Thomas cared about. 

If Captain America was frozen in 1945 then the Captain America of the '50s must have been an impostor. Run with it. 

I only wish it could have been called “The Credible Origin of the Other Captain America.” Seems that what really happened was that in the 1950s, a history teacher became so obsessed with Captain America that he researched his life, discovered a lost tome which revealed the formula for the Super Soldier serum (written down after all), legally changed his name to Steve Rogers and, er, had plastic surgery so he looked just like his hero.

Oh: and he had a rather unprofessional friendship with a student called “Bucky”. Who looked just like Bucky and was equally obsessed with Bucky...

I don't believe it for one minute. 

We get two issues of the 1950s Cap and Bucky running around saying things like “We can take a darkie and a frail!” while the real Cap is on holiday; an issue explaining the ret-con (which goes so far as to cut and paste the actual artwork from Young Men #24) and one very good issue in which our Captain America and the 1950s Captain America have a fight. Seems that the imperfect Super Soldier Serum has gradually driven Fake Cap and Fake Bucky mad, to the extent that they see Commies where there are none. It also makes them use racist epithets in ever sentence, although they stop short of the actual n-word.

Fake Cap honestly believes that Real Cap died in the war and therefore honestly believes that Real Cap is a Fake. He is genuinely shocked when he finds out that the person he's fighting is his big hero — the one he altered his face to look like. ("He knows he know the awful, terrible mistake his has made. He knows he has loathed what he should have loved”). I think this would have worked better if he had been a well-meaning individual who truly hated Communism rather than a raving loony who calls the Falcon a darkie. If Fake Cap is simply mad, then the metaphor which writer Steve Englehart wants to draw out — that 50s Cap is the dark reflection of 40s Cap; that communist paranoia is the flip side of American patriotism — is rather spoiled. 

This is one of a stream of 70s episodes that try to sort out minor continuity glitches. But in retrospect, what it introduced was a new take on what Captain America was about. The continuity thing was pernickety and fannish; but the idea that 1970s idealism and 1950s paranoia could have a stand up fight was hugely appealing. Over the next few years, Cap would be fighting enemies with names like Flag Smasher and Everyman; and would respond to the Marvel Universe’s thinly veiled Watergate analogue by giving up being Captain America for ever [*] and becoming Nomad The Man Without A Country. 

Monologue Man has regenerated into Allegory Man, or at any rate Unsubtle Political Metaphor Man. 

[*] Forever = 4 issues.

Captain America and the Falcon # 163 - July 1973
"Beware of Serpents"

Captain America and Peggy Carter drop in on Dave Cox, a Viet-Nam vet turned C.O. “This is a nice place you’ve got here” says Cap “Thanks. Its my little piece of the world so I keep it as best I can” says Dave. 

This scene sticks in my memory, because there is no sense of the civilians saying “It can’t be…. It is! The great Captain America Exclamation Mark” or on the other hand of saying (as Stan Lee pretended that everyone said all the time) “What are you doing in those silly clothes?” It’s like, in 70s Marvel, a superhero costume was just a uniform. Being a “superhero” was lifestyle choice, like being punk or a member of the Salvation Army. 

Actually, what it feels most like is Sesame Street: a sort of vague analogue to the real world where brightly colored puppets hang out with the inner city kids because, hey, you got a problem with that, man?

Captain America # 200 - July 1976
“Dawns Early Light”

By a nice coincidence Captain America #200 fell in 1976, which was the 200th anniversary of the United States. 

By an even nicer coincidence, Jack Kirby had come back to Marvel with his tale between his legs the previous year, so the special Bicentennial issue was done by Cap’s original creator. 

Kirby still looked a bit like Kirby. There's a cartoony joy to Captain America propelling himself feet-first into a room full of goons that hardly anyone else, then or now, could have carried off. And Kirby drawing Captain America felt like a really, really big deal. (When Steve Ditko did some work for Marvel in the '80s, he specifically asked not to be assigned to either Spider-Man or Doctor Strange.) But where Jack’s self-created titles of this period — Eternals, 2001, Devil Dinosaur — still crackled with continuity wrecking originality, his Captain America offered us evil monarchists in wigs launching “madbombs” to destroy America on independence day. It felt old fashioned. Silly. And Cap felt like a generic superhero in a Captain America suit, not the character who’d grown up over the last 140 issues. 

Black Panther, who had spent the previous several years being all civil rights and comics-aren’t-just-for-kids spent his first Kirby issue looking for a time travelling frog. Some fans never really forgave Jack for that.

What If...? #4 - Aug 1977
"What if the the Invaders had stayed together after War 2?"

What if...?#5 - Oct 1977
"What if Captain America hadn’t vanished after World War 2?"

These comics are a guilty pleasure, but god, I do love this kind of thing. 

What If…? was supposed to be a series of one-shot alternate earth stories; but unlike DC’s Imaginary Tales they were heavily rooted in Actual Continuity. DC could give you “What if Superman were a hamster?” but Marvel was only interested in “What if the Goblin had not killed Gwen?” 

But issue 4 wasn't an alternate earth story line at all: it was Roy Thomas playing around in the Marvel Universe — stitching together Golden Age comics that no-one apart from him remembered into an official Marvel Comics version of World War II. 

Avengers #4 says that Captain America perished before the end of the war, but as a matter of fact the comic stayed in print until 1949? Well, that’s because the President appointed a very minor superhero called Spirit of 76 to fill Captain America’s boots. He died a heroically and a third hero called the Patriot became Cap, bringing the total number of Captains America up to four (including psycho-commie Cap). 

Remember that Torch Kills Hitler thing? That is totally canon. It turns out he was trying to do the Fuhrer a good turn, as you would: offering him the chance of a fair trial in America rather than being killed by the Russians. He is forced to burn him when Hitler tries to pull a switch which would have blown the bunker and the Berlin sky high. 

Note that Hitler still says "afire" rather than "on fire" because that's what he said in the 1954 comics which Roy Thomas is riffing on. This is rather typical of his approach to continuity. Something which has happened in another comic, however obscure and however silly, has to be treated as really having happened in the Marvel Universe. But any writer is free to add more information; to show a wider context; to tell us about things which happened before or afterwards; in order to allow the scene to make sense or harmonize it with other comics. What if...? #4 "saves the appearance" of Young Men #24; but it takes all the fun out of the idea that a flaming android killed Hitler because Hitler was evil and fighting evil was his job. As a retcon, it's right on a level with Greedo shooting first.

The follow up issue, which tells us what might have happened if Steve Rogers and Bucky had survived Zemo’s trap, is a lot of fun too. (Steve would have become head of SHIELD; "Buck" Barnes would have taken over the role of Captain America and Rick Jones would have become Bucky's Bucky. And then Buck would have passed the shield on to Rick. (And yes, "Buck" does wish that Captain America had adopted him so he could be Buck Rogers.)

I suppose, to a great extent, that was the whole fun of What If…? By pretending to tell us alternative histories of the Marvel Universe, it very much established that the Marvel Universe had a history for there to be alternatives to. Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths and the annual continuity reset have become predictable and impenetrable and probably done more to put general readers off superhero comics than anything else. But in '77 it was still just an aging fan boy having fun with the characters he grew up with.

Captain America # 225 - Sep 1978

"War is neither glamorous nor fun. There are no winners, only losers. There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: The American Revolution, World War II and the Star Wars trilogy." - Bart Simpson

On a good day, Steve Gerber could come up with Howard the Duck and the criminally curtailed Omega the Unknown: two of the best series of all time. On a bad day, he offered evil oil billionaires call Franklin Armstrong Schist. (Really and truly.)

And then there’s this kind of thing. 

Steve Rogers had no back story in 1941: he’s just a weakling who gets injected with an experimental formula. By 1978, it’s a plot point that he can’t remember his childhood. So Gerber retcons one for him.

It turns out that Captain America grew up in a little house in Maryland and had a brother we never knew about. His brother is a cool, sporty, baseball playing jock; but Steve prefers pressing wild-flowers and talking to the clouds. He “pursues his artistic impulse, reads voraciously, and spends much of his time alone” and says things like "I’m the scrawny one, the sensitive one, the family let-down and I don’t apologize”. His brother volunteers for the navy (can you guess what's coming?) and Steve goes to college to study fine art ("and cuddle up to his socialist pacifist scum of the earth friends" explains his father.) It appears that the 1930s and the 1970s were exactly the same in all respects.

If this had been Howard the Duck (which is what it reads like) we'd expect Young Steve to become the Beatnik Painster and dedicate his life to humiliating baseball teams everywhere with a giant sketchbook. In fact his brother is killed when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour, and Steve decides that he had better volunteer after all. “I’ve always loathed the idea of war, or violence of any kind…and as much as I despise the whole military mentality, as evil as I find the notion of organized slaughter…dammit there’s no other way…I’m obligated like it or not.”

So. Captain America was a very reluctant solider: the sort of milk-and-water pacifist who says that we are allowed to fight but only if we do it with long faces and pretend we're ashamed of the whole idea. As you can easily tell from the joy with which he and Bucky dispatch Nazis in those early issues. 

Apparently, no-one in the 1970s could imagine that the Universal Soldier could be interested in anything other than putting an end to war. Before you are allowed to fight Hitler you have to say how much you hate fighting. Whatever happened to going with songs to the battle?

I get that some of these second generation Marvel writers had seen friends killed in Vietnam and were reluctant to say that war, any war, even the war against Hitler, was heroic. But surely this is a very inept way of dealing with it?  Either Cap needs a sudden epiphany, like Tony Stark, in which he renounces war once and for all, or (better) he needs to retain his Greatest Generation military mindset and hookup with a hippy side kick (Rick Jones, say) who sees things differently. The notion that Captain America was a 1960s college boy in 1941 is beyond ridiculous. 

Fortunately, this nonsense was ret-ret-conned way a couple of years later. They were false memories that a villain had implanted in his brain because yadda yadda yadda.

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