How far we’ve come in seventyfive years

75 years of Captain America: from anti-fash to Hydra agent

So in the latest “shocking twist” Captain America is revealed to be and always have been a Hydra agent and sympathiser. And it’s not a hoax, not a dream, not an imaginary story:

SPENCER: Issue 2 will lay a lot of our cards on the table in terms of what the new status quo is, but the one thing we can say unequivocally is: This is not a clone, not an imposter, not mind control, not someone else acting through Steve. This really is Steve Rogers, Captain America himself.

And of course, this being comics, there’s a zillion ways all of this could be true yet the status quo restored inside of a year or whenever the twist loses its novelty. Everybody knows this is a ratings stunt with no real meaning behind it, just like when Sam Wilson got to be Cap for a while. But, you know, having Cap die for a while or having a different person behind the mask for a while or whatever other stunt you could think of is completely different from turning him into a goddamn nazi. A hero created by two Jewish kids from New York, who punched out Hitler in his very first appearance, a full year before America would join the war against the nazis. Even in an industry rife with shitty stunts, this is a particularly shitty stunt. It’s also exactly the sort of stunt you’d expect from a penny ante industry like comics, but you’d think Disney would be a bit more sensitive about such a stunt reflecting badly on the movies if too much mainstream media pay attention to it…

Actually, I’d rather have Captain America: Serpent Society

Amongst all the news of more, many more superhero blockbuster movies to be put out by Marvel, was one announcement that made very happy, until it didn’t:

11:16 a.m. — Feige points out the Russo brothers in the audience, and says, “they reinvented the franchise of Captain America, they shattered and changed everything going forward, and they will be back for Captain America 3.” The subtitle for the film (out May 6, 2016) will apparently be Serpent Society. (Some disappointed faces in the crowd, hoping for Civil War.)


After that Avengers 2 footage showing the hard feelings between Rogers and Stark, Feige says he’s been having second thoughts about that Serpent Society subtitle for Captain America 3. A new title card appears, giving the fans what they want: Civil War.

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’d much rather see Captain America versus the Serpent Society, rather than a movie rethread of what was probably the dumbest story Marvel has ever published (perhaps second only to Alice is a skrull). It’s not just that Civil War made no sense and makes even less in the movies, for all the reasons John Seavey lays out here, but that it goes against the very core principles of the Marvel Universe: righteous rebellion against overbearing authority.

Let’s not forget that Steve Rogers himself was a premature anti-fascist when he socked Adolph Hitler on the jaw, a year before the US would enter World War II. Or that the foundational act of the Silver Age Marvel Universe is the Fantastic Four stealing their rocket from the army to launch into space, against the wishes of the military brass.

Civil War went against this, by arguing that the establishment is right, that superheroes cannot be trusted without supervision by a quasi fascist, paramilitary organisation.This is supposed to be realistic, like heroes using torture, but it’s a very adolescent sort of realism. Despite the attempts to dial down the worst effects of the Civil War, much of the MU still suffers from this sort of realism, of endless stories of heroes torturing and killing and forming shadowy groups to take the though decisions that can’t be left to lesser people and the even more endless talking about it. Marvel’s cinametic universe also suffers a lot from this, but this is more an artifact of the post-Bush political landscape it was constructed in, rather than a deliberate decision to piss on seventy years of Marvel history.

supervillains who just want to unionise, not take over the world

The Serpent Society on the other hand, for all that it’s used here as a dumb punchline, was actually a pretty good attempt at creating a realistic supervillain group, one without delusions of grandeur, not wanting to rule the world, just wanting a proper dental plan and decent legal coverage. that’s right, the supervillains team up to form a union, to defend themselves not against the heroes, but the harsh realities of Reagan’s economy.

It’s a typical Gruenwald sort of story, where you have a core of realism in an old school, bronze age capes vs capes superhero story. Gruenwald always worked within the confines of the monthly superhero comic grind, a fact that might have worked against the recognition of him as a writer, at his best when he was on Captain America. Having a bunch of second and third tier snake themed villains team up for union benefits is brilliant, makes complete sense in the context of the early eighties Marvel Universe, but isn’t the sort of easily recognisable, signposted “realism” you have to hit comics fans over the head with for them to get it.

But still, wouldn’t you’d rather see Captain America, the ultimate Roosevelt Democrat, taken on a bunch of unionised everyman supervillains banded together because of the economic regression than whatever the movies will make of Civil War, no matter how much shipping fuel a Tony/Steve catfight will give the fanfiction writers?

Your Happening World (July 14th through July 22nd)

  • 1974 -1986: A Spotlight Chronology (work in progress/draft) | Bits of Books, Mostly Biographies – What is perhaps most notable in placing a series of press reports on abuse scandals over any period of time is that there’s a lot of shock and outrage and not much action from anyone in a position of duty, responsibility or power to do anything except to apparently express more shock and outrage, this time on our behalf, before swiftly moving on. Something the collection of press reports at SpotlightOnAbuse ably demonstrate and which forms the spine of this chronology.
  • BBC – Blogs – Adam Curtis – WHAT THE FLUCK! – That at the same time as the police pursue the dodgy private investigators, like AIS, who are bugging and hacking their way into thousands of peoples' lives, the very same police – along with the security services, GCHQ and the NSA – are doing exactly the same to millions of other people. The only difference is that it's legal – because the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000, and other laws, allow them to do it.
  • How to find the missing Buk system |
  • i believe you | it’s not your fault – Can we use our collective life experience to be a safe haven for kids who need it? Can we tell stories and answer questions and offer solidarity and resources and maybe break some cycles before they begin? Can we do it with humor and transparency, and without coming across like dorky, hand-wringing moms? After all, so many of us are still those kids. So many of us will always be those kids. Well, we can try. … We’re just people who’ve been through stuff, and we’re here. Ask us anything. It’s not your fault. We believe you.
  • Rick Remender, Alleged Statutory Rape, and Jet Black – If your discomfort with the whole Captain America #22 issue is simply the fact that sex had happened between two consenting adults in the presence of alcohol, this isn’t for you. You’re free and completely entitled to hate that and view it with great disdain but my attitude and problem with the fandom is not because of people finding issue with that overused plot device to get two people to finally be comfortable enough to do it but because of people making claims that Jet Black is 14 years old (when she’s not) and thus stating that despite her even saying she’s beyond those years to dare accuse Remender writing a statutory rape scene and faulting Sam Wilson as a rapist. If you had any of these thoughts, this is for you. Before you continue your crusade, please at least let me provide you with some facts.
  • The End of Fan-Run Conventions? | Cheryl’s Mewsings – My point is, however, that there is no upside to running fan conventions anymore. There is no satisfaction in a job well done. The only probable outcome is that you will spend the weeks after the convention dealing with angry and disappointed attendees, and avoiding social media because you don’t want to have to read the awful things that are being said about you.

Fifty Essentials in Fifty Days 50: Essential Captain America Vol. 04

cover of Captain America Vol. 04

Essential Captain America Vol. 04
Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema, Frank Robbins and friends
Reprints: Captain Amercia #157-186 (January 1973 – June 1975)
Get this for: Englehart gives Cap a wakeup call — four stars

And so I come to the end of my little experiment of reading fifty Essentials in fifty days. It’s not always been a pleasure to read these collections and review them, but I thought to end the series on a high note. Essential Captain America Vol. 04 continues Steve Englehart’s run on the series and includes his most famous Captain America story as well. This is a run that has been often refered to since, especially the Secret Empire saga, both inside Captain America itself and in other Marvel titles, but not one I had read before.

Reading such highly regarded but possibly dated stories is always a bit of a crapshoot — will their reputation be validated or turn out to be overblown. For the stories collected here the verdict is mixed, as there are a couple of duds mixed in with the obvious classics. The worst being the four part Deadly Nightshade/Yellow Claw series in #164-167. The Yellow Claw — Marvel’s version of Fu Manchu before they got the real thing — is an embarassing yellow peril cliche here, while Nightshade is a blaxploitation cliche equally cringe worthy. That’s the low point of the collection, more than balanced out by the good stuff.

Now until Steve Englehart started writing him, Captain America was always a straight law ‘n order guy, on the side of the establishment, comfortable being a freelance agent for SHIELD. Previous writers, including Stan Lee had allowed some doubt to seep in, but it was only under Englehart that Cap being less and less comfortable with being a government man and it’s in this collection that things come to a boil. Considering when these issues were written, during the height of the Watergate scandals and the mistrust in government in America in general, it’s not surprising that some of this echoes in Captain America, but Englehart does much more than that.

In his most famous story, the Secret Empire saga, Englehart makes Cap the victim of an old adversary’s unusual revenge, as the ad writer turned supervillain the Viper uses his connections on Madison Avenue to start a campaign against Captain America, through the Committee to Regain America’s Principles. That turns out to only be the start of the conspiracy against him, as he’s framed for murdering another old villain, the Tumbler, then taken into arrest by Moonstone, the Committee’s new superhero and replacement for Cap. Things only get worse when he is forced to escape prison, then helped by his partner the Falcon goes looking for evidence to clear his name, as they run into the X-Men, who themselves are looking for why mutants are disappearing.

Their problems turn out to be related of course, as the Secret Empire turns out to be behind both, with the disappeared mutants being used to power their machinery. (All this happened when the X-Men no longer had their own title by the way, which is why they kept on wandering through titles like Captain America and The Avengers.) Cap and the Falcon manage to infiltrate the Empire’s headquarters just as they launch their assault on the White House, the plan being to “defeat” Moonstone as the defender of America and then use their agents in place all over the country to launch a coup. When Captain America and the Falcon foils these plans, the Secret Empire’s number one flees into the White House and commits suicide, after Cap pulls off his mask and looked in shock at the not seen by us person in “high political office”. So shocked he is, he gives up being Captain America the next issue, but the identity of the Secret Empire’s leader is never revealed.

It’s Nixon of course.

It’s never been officially confirmed, but who else could it have been to have this effect, Henry Kissinger? But Marvel could of course never say this outright; imagine the outrage by the seventies’ teaparty equivalents. A pivotal moment in Captain America’s development, something subsequent writers would come back to again and again. It’s not just Cap’s crisis of faith and rejection of his identity that e.g. Mark Gruenwald and Mark Waid would come back to, but also the resolution of it, Cap’s realisation that he’s not a symbol of the US government, but of the American Dream. Corny perhaps, but Englehart did hit on something real, something that was always true about Captain America. He never was a jingoistic symbol of my country right or wrong, but somebody who punched out Hitler on the cover of his first issue a year before America joined World War II. He’s everything that’s right about America, while never closing his eyes to what’s wrong with the country either.

In the aftermath, Englehart keeps Captain America out of uniform for no less than seven issues, with only the Falcon there to provide superhero action against old X-Men villain Lucifer for the first two issues, before Cap returns as the Nomad to take on the renewed Serpent Squad. This is another classic story I’d so far only encountered in synopsis, as the Serpent Squad kidnaps the president of Roxxon Oil, subject him to the ancient evil magic of the socalled Serpent Crown, then use him to get to an experimental oil platform which they want to use to raise Lemuria from the ocean floor. I’ve always been a sucker for Serpent Crown stories, ever since I first came across it in a Marvel Team-up story.

When Captain America finally returns as himself, it’s to take on his worst enemy, the Red Skull. It’s a decent enough story, but ends on an absolute downer, as it’s revealed that the Falcon, Sam Wilson, is in fact a career criminal from L.A. called Snap Wilson, brainwashed by the Red Skull when the Skull still possesed the Cosmic Cube to use as a hidden weapon against Captain America. It’s a wretched bit of writing that’s luckily been retconned since.

Let’s end this with a few words about the art. Most of it is provided by Sal Buscema, doing his usual dependable job, nothing spectacular but good enough. At the end though Frank Robbins replaces him and, well, it’s not good at all. The weird musculature he gives his characters and strange positions he draws them in, impossible for any real person, the overall “offbrand” effect of his art, it’s awful. Robbins was always more a newspaper strip cartoonist than somebody comfortable doing superhero comics and he certainly should not be judged by his work here, but boy is he a disappointment whenever he’s used on a Marvel title…

Conclusion? A great volume to end this series with. Tune in tomorrow for an epilogue/dissection of this whole mad project.

Fifty Essentials in Fifty Days 40: Essential Captain America Vol. 03

cover of Captain America Vol. 03

Essential Captain America Vol. 03
Stan Lee, Gary Friedrich, Steve Englehart, Gene Colan and friends
Reprints: Captain America #127-156 (July 1970 – December 1972)
Get this for: Captain America goes relevant — four stars

The previous volumes of Essential Captain America were heavy on the action, with Cap fighting enemies like the Red Skull and his Sleepers, Hydra, Baron Zemo, A.I.M. and Modok, often working together with Nick Fury and SHIELD. These were all fairly uncomplicated stories, but while the action continues in this volume, something does change as Captain America goes relevant. Stan Lee had dropped hints before that Cap was unhappy with his life and in #128 he went to find himself by touring America — somewhat of a cliche yes, but not so much when Cap did it.

And even on the road he’s not free of his old enemies, as he’s attacked by Batroc’s Brigade and runs into the Red Skull yet again. Nothing much changed there then, but like in Spider-Man at the same time, Lee does notice and comments on the changing attitudes of seventies America, having Cap interfere in a campus dispute and such, though as usual it turns out some supervillain was behind it. The same was of course the case with the return of Bucky Barnes. While Captain America has once again met with the disappointment of not having Bucky back, his next partner does stick around.

In issue 133 the Falcon, introduced in the previous volume, returns. The very next issue the series changed name to Captain America and the Falcon, showing how important this partnership was. The stories change again, becoming more gritty and streetlevel, centered on New York and Harlem though of course the supervillains are never far behind. Much of the background tension in the series at this point is provided by the race issue, as the Falcon has to find his place as what the world sees as a Black sidekick to a white man. It’s all very heavyhanded of course, both under Lee and his successor Gary Friedrich. So for example in #143 there’s the People’s Militia wanting to burn Harlem to the ground to “send a message to the honkies” that the Black man won’t be confined to the ghetto anymore, who turn out to have been manipulated by the Red Skull.

Old winghead goes through a lot of writers this volume btw. Starting with Lee for fifteen issues, then Gary Friedrich takes over for seven, then Gerry Conway gets to do four and ending with Steve Englehart for another four. Conway’s short run is the worst, with a complete mischaracterisation of Cap’s and Nick Fury’s relationship. Englehart starts strong, bringing back the fifties Captain America and Bucky as paranoid rightwing bigots. Friedrich was his usual self, a slightly hipper, with-it Stan Lee.

Artwise, this volume starts off well, with Gene Colan being a good match for Cap’s adventures. He’s succeeded by John Romita, who is slightly too clean cut for my liking here. Sal Buscema is the last artist to grace this volume, he’s doing alright but not great. It’s always been that way with Captain America, never a title to be considered for its art, save for some brief shining moments.

Somewhat of a mixed volume here then, not unmissable but for the hardcore fan. Like me.