Friday, 14 March 2014

Essential Captain America volume 3

In addition to continuing our Captain America month, today sees the return to UK screens of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. So here's a volume with, amongst other things, some appearances of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Essential Captain America volume 3 is made up of issues #127-156, with the book's title becoming Captain America and the Falcon from #134 onwards. Additionally it contains the covers from the all-reprint annuals #1 & #2. The writing covers the end of Stan Lee's run, brief runs by Gary Friedrich and Gerry Conway, and then the start of Steve Englehart's. The art is a mixture of runs by Gene Colan, John Romita and Sal Buscema, with individual issues contributed to by Gray Morrow and Gil Kane.

This volume continues the search for a clear identity and direction for both the character and series, with a mixture of science-fiction spy drama, down to earth tales from the road, gritty urban crime and some bizarre out of this universe moments all presented as a succession of authors grapple with the problem. However, solutions slowly present themselves. The first issue in this volume sees a blow to the status quo as Cap falls out with S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury after they question his loyalty and put him through a fierce test to smoke out a traitor in the ranks. S.H.I.E.L.D. may nowadays be portrayed as a ruthless organisation who will suspect anyone easily, but at the time its portrayal in earlier issues was as a cosier, friendlier organisation. Such an abrupt shift in presentation is jarring, even though it serves a purpose in cutting down on Cap's ties to allow him to go on the open road. The next few issues see Cap climb on the bandwagon of going out on the road to find one's self, taking off on a motorbike into the country at large. Although it doesn't last long, it does allow the opportunity to take him away from the various trappings around him and drill down into the character as he sees the country at large and faces up to the fact that not everything is black and white. At one stage he tries to ditch his costumed identity but he soon finds himself drawn back to it. "Looks like I can no more shed my shield-slinging other self than Nixon can shed ol' Spiro!" declares Cap in issue #129. (Clearly he didn't foresee events of the next few years when Spiro Agnew would prove rather easier to lose than the average Vice President.)

"Here's where I oughta step in and make like a swingin' hero! But how do I know whose side to take?" thinks Cap as he watches a student riot in issue #130. The famous Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 was only five months old at this stage, and indeed may not have been the first to highlight this point, but the idea was clearly taking root that heroes can't always simply swoop into a tense situation and put things to right by vanquishing one side. Later in the same issue Cap goes on television to talk about law and order, but instead he steers a middle line against both violence and aloof establishments that drive people to desperate measures. Here we see the first clear repositioning of Cap as loyal to the concepts underlying his country rather than to the authorities of the day. It may at this stage seem to be a subtle splitting of the hair but it helps to move the character away from an authoritarian, establishment line that would likely have doomed him to cancellation as the 1970s wore on.

And then we get multiple attempts to provide Cap with a partner. A two-part story during this road stage sees the seeming return of Bucky, but it feels badly disjointed. The first part sees Baron Strucker searching the gyms of San Francisco for suitable bait to trap Cap and coming across an amnesiac young man who looks exactly like Bucky. Strucker is soon defeated and Cap is left apparently reunited with his partner. However the next issue reveals that this is in fact a robot duplicate made by Doctor Doom as part of a challenge set by Modok and A.I.M., with Strucker having been manipulated by Modok. Unfortunately Doom has made the robot too well so that it perfectly duplicates Bucky's outlook and thus it cannot bring itself to kill Cap. Although the elements of the plots are actually quite good when considered on their own, give or take Doctor Doom so easily performing a task for others just because his skill has been deliberately questioned, the way Strucker is suddenly revealed to have been unknowingly guided by thoughts implanted by Modok feels like a fast U-turn. The fact that it comes so close to Cap acquiring a regular partner - notably an equal rather than a mere sidekick - suggests that originally the intention was to bring back the real (and original) Bucky before someone decided that this wouldn't be such a great move and so retconned him out this way, then went down the Falcon route.

The Falcon had already been introduced in the previous volume but he returns in #133 where he and Cap realise they have a lot in common, both being lone heroes but they soon come to work together. The pairing may seem surprising, with Cap traditionally focused on national or global threats and the Falcon operating against urban crime in Harlem, but there's a strong bond between the two that sees each drawn into the other's world, helped somewhat by Cap also gaining a day time job in his alter ego of Steve Rogers. Initially asked to go under cover as a police officer to investigate disappearances in Harlem, Steve opts to maintain the role, finding a purpose for himself away from the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. However there are signs that he can't maintain the job forever, often having to call in sick or go away because of his work as Cap, ad by the end of the volume his sergeant and patrol car partner are secretly investigating him. Still it allows Steve a chance to evolve away from the mask.

Meanwhile the Falcon finds himself caught between multiple roles. As Sam Wilson, his day job is a social worker in Harlem but he finds himself often denigrated for working with whites and being "an Uncle Tom". Even a woman he is attracted to attacks him for this. At the same time his relationship with Cap has its ups and downs and the two briefly split but soon find they need each other the more. The Falcon is loyal and dependable but absolutely not a subordinate sidekick, and the two make for a good odd couple many years before the teaming of Power Man and Iron Fist.

Although Cap initially breaks with S.H.I.E.L.D., the organisation doesn't disappear and he soon finds himself working with them again and again, though Nick Fury is angry about Cap's refusal to become a full time S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and at one stage issues an order revoking Cap's S.H.I.E.L.D. clearance and banning any agent from having contact with him. Fortunately for Sharon Carter this doesn't last and she and Steve soon resume and develop their relationship. Meanwhile S.H.I.E.L.D. demonstrates what passes for its equal opportunities policy when it presents "Femme Force One", with Sharon yelling "Right on, sisters!" and "If this doesn't make you believe in the women's lib movement... I don't know what will!" Cap quietly just says he believes in Femme Force "and let it slide at that!" It's not the most liberated presentation of women and the unit is not helped by a rather catty relationship between Sharon and her deputy, Val de Fontaine, due to the latter's flirting with Cap, apparently in reaction to Nick Fury's relations with another woman. The whole mess climaxes when Fury turns up at Steve's apartment to have it out with him, until Val shows up to explain her actions. The whole storyline feels awkward, forcing several people to act out of character to make it work, and it's unsurprising that it's swept aside so easily in the first issue by a new writer.

There's an attempt to develop a supporting cast away from S.H.I.E.L.D. with a couple of significant characters introduced, each a part of the down to earth urban environment both heroes are now based in. Leila is a strong minded woman from Harlem who looks down on Sam for supposedly selling out, but he is nevertheless strongly attracted to her. Sergeant Muldoon is Steve's immediate superior as a police officer. A hardliner who reminds Steve of his wartime superior Sergeant Duffy, Muldoon is subsequently suspended for bribery and corruption but then embarks upon a private investigation of Steve's affairs.

As on a number of titles, Stan Lee departs on a cliffhanger, here midway through a saga involving the Grey Gargoyle and S.H.I.E.L.D. Lee's final page shows the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier destroyed and the Gargoyle about to seize the most dangerous substance on Earth. A replacement helicarrier is soon deployed and the Gargoyle defeated, but it's a telling sign of how series were often written on the hoof as though it were a game of Consequences.

If there's one area where the series continues to be particularly deficient, it's in the villains. Only two new foes of any substance are introduced in these pages. One is Stone-Face, a Harlem crimelord, and the other is the Monster Ape, a scientist who becomes a giant primate. There are a few imports from other series in the form of encounters with first the Mole Man and later the Grey Gargoyle and the Kingpin, then the Scorpion and Mr Hyde in tandem. Meanwhile of Captain America's more established foes, the Red Skull shows up here on no less than three separate occasions whilst Batroc appears twice, the first time with "Batroc's Brigade" made up of Whirlwind and the Porcupine, the second time with a Brigade made up of ordinary thugs. Baron von Strucker, Modok and AIM also all appear again, albeit in just one storyline. And then there's Hydra, with the Supreme Hydra on this occasion revealed to be the son of the Kingpin, actually serving as a subordinate to reclusive Las Vegas millionaire "Harold Howard" who is in fact the Kingpin himself, who in turn doesn't realise it's his son under the mask, but both are in fact being manipulated by the real mastermind, the Red Skull, who unleashes yet another sleeper robot to attack the US. Isn't this all a wee bit excessive? Or there's the case of Batroc's second appearance in this volume when he's again accompanied by his Brigade, who are kidnapping on behalf of an unseen contractor who seemingly turns out to be the Stranger but is in fact the being Jakar, the sole survivor from another universe, impersonating the Stranger. I suspect the original plan was to use the actual Stranger until there was an editorial intervention, and the result is the rapid creation of a lookalike character to cover the usage.

Whatever the intention, the Jakar story sees the series at a low, entering a science fiction world in which the villain is trying to repopulate his world and has hired Batroc to kidnap people for it. The two just jar heavily, even more if Jakar was actually meant to be the Stranger, and the whole thing feels like a storyline more at home in the Fantastic Four or Thor. The earlier storyline with Hydra, the Kingpin and the Red Skull also feels out of place, with the setting of Las Vegas and a villain having kidnapped a Howard Hughes type reclusive millionaire and using his business empire for criminal schemes showing the influence of the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever a little too much.

The last four issues see the arrival of Steve Englehart as writer and almost immediately the series makes a bold step forward, starting to explore more deeply the role of Captain America amidst competing visions of patriotism. Englehart's first storyline explains the Captain America stories published in the 1950s, revealing that the Captain America and Bucky (and, in passing, also the Red Skull) seen in them were all replacements. With Roy Thomas as the editor, it's easy to see where the idea came from. But instead of a straightforward exercise in retroactive continuity, we get something that works on a whole different level as we get a solid contrast between differing visions of patriotism and the eras the Captain Americas are drawn from. For the 1950s Captain America embodies fanatical super-patriotism that denounces disagreement as Communism and treachery, and dismisses blacks and others as not being "pure-blooded Americans". Together with an equally fanatical and vicious Bucky by his side, the result is a strong clash of ideologies between the original Captain America, with his Roosevelt-Kennedy liberal patriotism, and the 1950s Captain America, awash with McCarthyism. When originally published in the early 1970s the President of the United States was Richard Nixon, who had built his national reputation as an anti-Communist two decades earlier. Was this story also an early subtle jab at Nixon? The 1950s Cap and Bucky have been brought out of suspended animation by men upset by Nixon's to China (now there's a challenge and a half for those who try to update the Marvel timeline!) but for many these actions did not negate his earlier role. At a more personal level the original Captain America is left shaken by the possibility that he too could have easily gone down the route of "super-patriotism, madness, and mayhem" but for having received the vita-ray treatment which his successor did not get. Equally chilling is the fact that his 1950s counterpart was a fan and historian who took his worship of his subject all the way to having plastic and vocal cord surgery to completely resemble the original. The very term "fan" is short for "fanatic" and often fanatics can do the most terrible things in the name of their idols, with the idols having no say in the matter.

It's fitting that it's an issue (#155) from this final story which provides the cover, as it's here that the series gives every indication of stepping up a pace. Most of the earlier adventures are so so with some dips as the series takes an awkward turn or two, but the Falcon has proved a successful new element who has shaken up the series for the better. Things are encouraging for the next volume.

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