In September, 1971, I bought my first issue of Captain America in almost two years; today, fifty years later, I’m not sure how to account for my long abstinence from the adventures of the Star-Spangled Avenger, especially considering that I was buying every other superhero title Marvel Comics was putting out at that time. (Well, almost every other title. Hulk remained a tough sell for your humble blogger, except for those occasions when his series crossed over with other books I followed, like Avengers.)
Maybe I should blame Rick Jones. As I’ve written about in earlier posts, back in 1968-69 I was fully invested in the plotline developed by Jim Steranko (beginning with the artist/co-plotter’s first issue, Captain America #110) in which Rick, a longtime supporting character in both Hulk and Avengers, had, after years of hints and teases on Marvel’s part, finally suited up in Bucky Barnes’ old gear to become Cap’s new partner. And thus I was displeased when, within just a few issues of Steranko’s departure, scripter Stan Lee (in collaboration with artists/co-plotters John Romita, John Buscema, and Gene Colan) contrived matters so that Rick was summarily rejected as partner by “Cap” — who was actually a body-swapped Red Skull. Nor was I mollified by Rick’s subsequently landing on his feet as the new partner (so to speak) of Captain Marvel, courtesy of Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, in issue #17 of the latter stalwart’s title. I liked the Captain America-Rick Jones combo, and I was irked that it ended the way it did.
That shouldn’t be taken as meaning that I didn’t enjoy the Red Skull-Cosmic Cube storyline that wrote Rick out of Cap’s book on its own merits. I did — at least, I enjoyed those installments I was able to find and buy (somehow, I missed three out of the saga’s five chapters, including the conclusion). Those included Captain America #118, featuring the first foray into superheroic action of one Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon (who’d technically debuted in the previous issue, #117). I liked those comics, and I liked the Falcon; but perhaps my general dissatisfaction with the title’s direction made it easier for me to abandon the book when Marvel instituted a new line-wide “no continued stories” policy at around that same time — a policy whose period of implementation would, not so coincidentally, closely correspond to a run of months from late 1969 through early 1970 when I bought hardly any new comic books at all — and maybe my residual dissatisfaction also made it easier for me to ignore the series when I returned to buying comics in force in mid-1970, even as I began to routinely pick up Marvels that I’d paid relatively little attention to prior to taking my hiatus, such as Iron Man and Sub-Mariner.
Quite a lot had happened in the two years I’d been gone, obviously. On the creative front, after seven years of writing Cap (first in Tales of Suspense and then in his solo title), Stan Lee had given up that role. Originally announced in July as part of the Marvel editor’s “couple of weeks” away from comics scripting for the purpose of working on a screenplay, Lee’s departure proved to be permanent — and so, as of issue #142, Gary Friedrich became Captain America‘s new writer. Meanwhile, Gene Colan had wrapped up his substantial run as the book’s artist earlier in the year, yielding the pencil to John Romita with issue #140.
On the story side of things, the biggest change was one that was reflected in the very name of the series (at least as represented by the cover and title page logos, if not in the fine print of the indicia), beginning with issue #134: Captain America and the Falcon. Once again, the Sentinel of Liberty had a partner; and this time, it looked to be a lasting change.
It’s easy to miss this point from the perspective of a half century later, but Sam Wilson’s eventual role as Cap’s partner doesn’t seem to have been a sure thing from the moment of his creation. Perhaps it was in the back of Lee’s mind from the moment that he and Gene Colan introduced comics’ first Black American superhero; but if so, he hedged his bets by having the Falcon tell Cap “so long for now” following the duo’s takedown of the Red Skull in #119. After making his exit at the beginning of issue #120, Falc wouldn’t turn up again until #126; he then disappeared again until #132, for a storyline that continued into #133, at the end of which Cap finally asked Sam Wilson to become his partner. Perhaps it was always going to happen; nevertheless, it took a year and a half for the first Black Marvel hero destined to rock his own logo to actually attain that historic status.
In any event, as of September, 1971, the Falcon had officially been Cap’s partner for eleven months; John Romita had been drawing the series for six months; and Gary Friedrich had been writing it for two. What was it about Captain America #144 that made my fourteen-year-old self decide, “OK, I’m ready to give this book another shot”?
I feel pretty certain that the cover was the main selling point, if not the only one. To begin with, the new logo that had been introduced a month earlier was very striking (ironically, it would be gone after the following month’s #145). Also, the black background was dramatic, and the torn-photo concept of Romita’s illustration cleverly tweaked the new “picture frame” cover design that Marvel had instituted across its whole line in August. Then, of course, there was the information conveyed by the cover — most especially, the news that Cap and the Falcon were splitting up.
To be clear, I don’t believe that I was eager to see the partnership end, either because I was still jonesing for Rick Jones to come back (by then, I knew that ship had sailed), or for any other reason. In fact, I suspect that I didn’t take the “split” all that seriously in the first place; after all, if Marvel really were dropping Sam Wilson from the Captain America title, would they be going to the trouble to give the guy a brand-new costume at the exact same time? Because that’s what they were doing in this issue (though fans had technically gotten their first peek at Falc’s new threads a month before, courtesy of the title’s new trade dress, with its miniature figures of Cap and the Falcon flanking the logo, which had debuted on the cover of CA #143).
No, I didn’t think that Marvel was breaking up the Cap-Falcon team for good. But it did seem like they were beginning a brand-new storyline in the book — which meant this might be an opportune time to jump on board, and see if I enjoyed the ride.
As it turned out, that was a pretty good call.
Two pages into Friedrich and Romita’s story, and I felt that I was on very familiar ground. Cap fighting the hordes of Hydra alongside Nick Fury and his agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? I’d read this sort of thing before… though that didn’t necessarily mean I’d mind reading it again.
Ah, yes… Remember the days when Nick Fury would take time out in the middle of a military-type action to light up a cigar? Well, then, you’re probably about as old as I am.
“Phase Two” commences when Cap and his cohorts jettison their jetpacks, so they can bring the hurt to Hydra on foot…
“Just no way I can fall into that scene!” “…some kind of ego trip I’m on…”
Gary Friedrich’s attempts to have the Living Legend of World War II speak in a contemporary idiom haven’t aged very well, I’m afraid. The writer would probably have done better to let Cap talk like,,, well, like a Living Legend of World War II, frankly.
Of course, there’s something to be said for no dialogue at all…
Why, yes, that is indeed President Richard Milhous Nixon and friends watching the proceedings (which apparently don’t represent a “real” raid on Hydra at all; kind of a disappointment, if you ask me). “Tricky Dick” had been turning up in Marvel’s comics with some frequency of late; an android duplicate of the Prez was featured in this same month’s issue of Hulk, and the real deal would show up in the following issue.
Fury’s remark to Nixon concerning “the economy” reflects contemporary American concerns over rising inflation and unemployment — concerns which would lead the President to establish a national wage and price freeze in August, after this story had been written, but before it had been published. (That action ultimately resulted in problems for Marvel related to the company’s rapid successive price changes during the summer of ’71, as we discussed on the blog a couple of weeks ago.)
Incidentally, that’s Sharon Carter, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 13 (and Cap’s longtime love interest), silently monologuing at us in the last panel — but you probably knew that already.
Friedrich’s “hip” dialogue for Cap earlier in the story may have made one wince a bit, but that which accompanies the entrance of “Femme Force One” is truly cringeworthy. Not to mention that the concept itself doesn’t make a lot of sense, even in its original 1971 context. We’ve seen women like Carter and Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine acting as full-fledged S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in Marvel’s conics for years by this time — so what’s the point of this initiative? If the idea is to field more female agents, then kudos, but why a special unit segregated by gender? Perhaps it would be best just to give Marvel a few points for at least trying to rise to the cultural moment, and not think about the specifics too much.
Fury seems to realize that he’s losing his grip on his august audience’s attention, but he has one more weapon in his arsenal to persuade the Prez to support S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new projects — which, along with expanding the Femme Force, include building a bunch more Life Model Decoys (LMDs), the latter of whom have of course provided the Hydra-garbed cannon fodder for today’s demonstration. Yes, it’s time for the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. to bring out his big gun… a diagram!
The two officials flanking Nixon in the last panel above don’t appear to be based on any actual persons living or dead, but that’s definitely Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew in the right foreground, and the round-faced gentleman at left appears to be Melvin R. Laird, U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1969 to 1973.
And with that last weary sentiment from Captain America, our story makes an abrupt segue into… something very different:
“The Falcon Fights Alone!” features a statistically rare Marvel job by artist Gray Morrow (who also contributed the chapter’s uncredited lettering); I say “statistically” rare, as 1971 was actually one of the artist’s most prolific where the publisher was concerned, at least in the post-Atlas era, with a full three stories appearing under his byline, (In addition to his half of Captain America #144, Morrow had also drawn a 7-page romance tale [and accompanying cover] for My Love #14 [Nov., 1971]; more notably, he’d provided the character design and artwork for the origin and first appearance of the Man-Thing in Savage Tales #1 [May, 1971].) But regardless of whether or not a reader of this issue of Cap had seen his work before, Morrow’s distinctive, illustrative style stood out not just from the John Romita art that had preceded it, but virtually everything else then appearing in Marvel’s superhero titles, as well.
I need to note here that, according to the letters column of CA #148, John Romita “touched up a few figures of Captain America” throughout Morrow’s chapter, “in order to keep him looking consistent throughout the whole story”. But I’d also like to point out that I’m pretty sure I didn’t notice this at all when I first read this comic in 1971; and I’m not sure I would recognize Romita’s hand now, if I weren’t looking for it. Compared to, say, Murphy Anderson’s redrawings of Superman and friends in Jack Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen around this same time, Romita’s touch-ups to Morrow’s Cap renderings are quite subtle.
The object of Sam Wilson’s aspirational affections seen above had been introduced into the series’ supporting cast in Captain America #139 — but since Friedrich’s script for this issue rather oddly never refers to her by name, I’d have to wait until her next appearance (in issue #149) to learn that the young woman went by the handle of Leila. (For the record, not only yours truly, but every other reader as well, would have to wait until 1975’s CA #188 to learn that her last name was Taylor.)
Seems like Sam would have at least asked Cap, “Um, just how long have you been lurking there outside my window, pal?” But maybe that’s just me…
The “near-riot” referred to by Cap, chronicled in the previous month’s extra-length CA #143, involved Black people in Harlem being manipulated into committing acts of violence by a mysterious masked leader who ultimately turned out to be… the Red Skull! This type of scenario, involving groups with a variety of legitimate concerns — including the Vietnam War, pollution, and women’s rights, as well as racial injustice — getting duped by supervillains who only cared for their own evil agendas, recurred with a depressing frequency in Marvel’s titles during what we now think of as the “relevance” era of American comics.* Regardless of the individual creators involved, Marvel seemed to be perpetually torn between sympathy with the concerns of those Americans pressing for serious social change, and fear of what such radical change could mean for those who, at the end of the day, were fairly well served by the status quo (i.e., middle and upper class white men, especially those beyond draft age).
On the other hand, for all of the plaudits Marvel’s rival DC had received for its forthrightness in dealing with social issues in Green Lantern and other titles (plaudits mostly deserved, in my opinion), that publisher still had few if any Black people appearing as regular characters in their comics — and no Black costumed heroes as yet (though we should note that John Stewart’s debut as a new Green Lantern was only one month away at this point). So, perhaps we should say again that Marvel was trying; as indeed was DC. Each of the two major publishers was perhaps doing a bit better than the other one in some areas, though both still had a long way to go (and, it may well be argued, still do).
Oh, and if you’re wondering (as I was, in September, 1971) what Cap said to Falc in the immediate aftermath of #143’s narrowly avoided riot (and is now trying to apologize for), it was this: “Well, all’s quiet for now — but who knows what little something it will take to make them explode again!” Little something? Yeah, I’d say Sam had a pretty good reason to be ticked off.
The Falcon’s “new set of threads“, designed by John Romita,** would prove quite durable; with a few modifications that would be coming up in the near future (including a gauntlet for that right hand, and — of course — the now iconic wings) this basic look would take Sam Wilson into the 1990s; and its red and white color scheme has stuck with the character virtually up to the present day.
I’m not certain if this is Marvel’s first story to deal directly with drug addiction since the revision of the Comics Code back in April; regardless, it’s interesting to compare it not only to the “Speedy is a junkie” storyline running concurrently over in DC’s Green Lantern, but also to Marvel’s original, Code-busting efforts regarding the subject back in Amazing Spider-Man #96 – 98, in which Spidey’s friend Harry Osborn ran into problems with unspecified, but highly potent “pills”. In a relatively short time — just seven months since the first installment of the Spider-Man story shipped — we appear to have arrived at a new, relatively realistic standard for the depiction of illegal narcotics in American comic books.
Arriving at the scene, Falc has a moment of self-doubt (” What if I blow it my first time out?!”), but manages to shake it off — and just in time, too…
I have no idea whether the Captain America shirt worn by one of the neighborhood bystanders was Friedrich’s idea or Morrow’s, but it’s a nice, nuanced touch.
The story concludes a bit abruptly, with an inset panel clearly drawn by Romita, rather than Morrow (and lettered by Artie Simek, who also handled that job for the comic’s first ten pages). And that’s that for this stylistically varied, even disjointed issue.***
Regardless of how disjointed it is, however — and how little of lasting consequence actually happens, outside of the introduction of the Falcon’s new look (spoiler: Cap and Falc will resume their active partnership almost immediately) — Captain America #144 was about as good a jumping-on point as my younger self could have wished for. In hindsight, sure, becoming a regular reader now meant I’d have to read some pretty middling stuff before the book got really good — but when it did start to improve, following the advent of Steve Englehart as the book’s new regular writer with issue #153 (Sep., 1972), I’d be glad I was already on board. I look forward to sharing that issue with you next June — trust me, it’ll be just the first of many really good Captain America comics to come.
*Examples include a university campus protest in Captain America #120 (Dec., 1969) where events were manipulated by M.O.D.O.K. and his cohorts at A.I.M.; environmentally-motivated demonstrations against a Stark Industries plant in Iron Man #31 (Nov., 1970), where a villain named the Mastermind was responsible for similar machinations; and the Enchantress’ posing as a feminist champion, the Valkyrie, as she led a group of mystically-influenced superheroines, the “Lady Liberators”, against the male members of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in Avengers #83 (Dec., 1970).
**As a special bonus, here’s Romita’s original color sketch for the Falcon’s new costume:
***The available forensic evidence suggests that “The Falcon Fights Alone!” was originally intended to run as one segment — perhaps the centerpiece — in an extra-length, 25-cent version of Captain America #144 which never came to fruition, due to Marvel publisher Martin Goodman’s decision to end his company’s experiment with a larger and more expensive format after about a month. Let’s start with a look at the final two panels of CA #143:
As should be evident, this scene dovetails neatly with the beginning of the Falcon chapter in CA #144 — or at least with the dream/flashback portion of the chapter, beginning on page 12. So far, so good. But what’s this in the “next issue” box about Cap heading to Las Vegas? We all just went through issue #144 together, and we know that didn’t happen.
But it does happen in #145’s 21-page “Skyjacked!”, in which Cap, as well as the Femme Force, do indeed board a plane for Sin City, only to be hijacked en route by, you guessed it, agents of Hydra. As I see it, then, the most likely explanation is that Captain America #144 was originally supposed to contain “Hydra Over All!”, “The Falcon Fights Alone!” — and the first, fourteen-page chapter of “Skyjacked!”, which was pencilled by Gil Kane and inked by John Romita. (The second and concluding chapter, only seven pages long, was both pencilled and inked by Romita alone.) That would make for 34 pages of all-new content — the second 25-cent/48-page issue of Captain America that could have been, but never was.