When Steve Englehart came on board as the new writer for Captain America in June, 1972, your humble blogger had been a regular reader of the series for about ten months — coming on board with issue #144 — after having been an off-and-on one ever since #105, way back in June, 1968. Originally drawn in by #144’s dramatic cover by John Romita (the effect of which was unquestionably enhanced by the Falcon’s sharp new costume design, also by Romita), I’d hung around for the quite enjoyable Hydra/Kingpin/Red Skull multi-parter that had followed, as delivered by writer Gary Friedrich and a cadre of artists including Gil Kane and Sal Buscema. And when that storyline wrapped up in issue #148, I’d stayed with the book — despite the fact that the subsequent yarns concocted by Friedrich’s replacement Gerry Conway weren’t all that compelling. I suppose that inertia may have been carrying me along by that point; that, and the fact that by mid-1972 I was buying the vast majority of Marvel Comics’ superheroic output. In the context of the Marvel Universe as a whole, Captain America felt like a key title, and I didn’t want to miss anything important.
But even at that level of “eh, why not?” enthusiasm, I was apparently in a growing minority of comics buyers. According to an interview Englehart gave the fanzine Alter Ego in 2011: “Captain America had a long history, but at the time it was a failing book. Nobody knew what to do with Captain America. It was in danger of being cancelled.”
Handed the scripting assignment for the title — his third regular writing gig for Marvel, following the “Beast” strip in Amazing Adventures and Defenders — Englehart received no specific directions for turning the book around from Marvel’s newly installed editor-in-chief, Roy Thomas:
I think, when Roy gave me those two books [Defenders and Captain America]—and this is a story I think I’ve told 5000 times now — he said, “If you can make these books sell… if you can bring them in on time every month and keep doing that, then that’s great, but if you can’t we’ll fire you and get somebody who can, because we don’t have time to edit.” That was the beginning of what I considered to be a wonderful environment. You were basically given those books and told, “Here you go. Jump into the deep end of the pool. See if you can swim.” You had a great deal of freedom… In retrospect, I didn’t notice it at the time, but I’m very grateful that Roy had the sensibility to realize that comics work better if the writers and the artists get to put into a story what they want to do.
But Thomas didn’t completely leave Englehart on his own — at least, not on Captain America.
The backstory for the star-spangled Avenger’s current exploits, as established by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby way back in Avengers #4, was that Captain America had been frozen in ice near the end of World War II in 1945, and not resuscitated until 1964. But being a big fan of old comics, as well as a major continuity maven, Thomas was well aware that the company now known as Marvel had published tales of the shield-slinger well past the end of the war; indeed, the original run of Captain America Comics had lasted until 1949, after which the character was briefly revived in 1953-54. So who’d been running around in the flag suit while Steve Rogers was on ice? Having conceived this question, Thomas tossed it to Englehart as a possible springboard for his first Cap story:
That whole storyline was Roy’s suggestion. When I got that book, he said, “Here’s an idea that you might want to run with.” It was a pretty good idea. He gave me a stack of those ’50s comics and made me come up with an explanation for it. Roy was trying to ease the way into writing Cap for a guy who was still fairly new to writing comics.
I said thank you very much and made up a story to explain the 1950s Cap and Bucky… You could have ignored the 1950s stories, but that wasn’t the Marvel way. We’d paid attention to the 1940s stories, and not recognizing the 1950s stories wouldn’t have been logical.
The explanation that Englehart came up with would provide the backbone for the writer’s first four issues of Captain America, beginning with issue #153 (Sep., 1972).* First, however, he and his artistic collaborator Sal Buscema (who would remain on the book for most of the remainder of Englehart’s nearly three-year run), joined by inker Jim Mooney, needed to finish up a plotline that had begun during Gary Friedrich’s tenure and continued through Gerry Conway’s, involving S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury’s being upset with Cap over the romantic overtures shown the latter by the Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine. Of course, as we’re dealing with a Marvel comic here, the tension between the two men culminates in a bout of fisticuffs that dominates the first half of Englehart’s first issue; and so, by the time the characters are able to clear the air and patch everything up, we’re already eleven pages in to the twenty-page “”Captain America — Hero or Hoax?” — and Steve Rogers is more than ready for some much needed R&R with his one true love, Sharon Carter (aka S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 13):
After seeing Steve and Sharon off on their Bahamas-bound flight, Sam Wilson (aka the Falcon) heads home to his Harlem neighborhood. The next morning, he’s just stepped out of his favorite breakfast place when he sees Leila, the militant activist who is simultaneously attracted to Sam and dismissive of him as an Uncle Tom. He calls “hey” to get her attention…
“Where’ve you been, baby? I’m talkin’ about — Captain America!”
Sam can’t believe his ears at first, but he quickly realizes that Leila’s dead serious. Still, he put Steve Rogers on a plane the day before, so what’s going on here? After a short return home to change clothes (and to pick up his other crime-fighting partner, the falcon Redwing), he heads back out to look for some answers…
Leery of letting “Cap” tag him again (“He’s the strongest foe I’ve ever faced!”), Falc is gratified to discover his foe has a weak midsection — and a glass jaw…
“This is all real!” And with that confident declaration, the first chapter of our story comes to an end — to be followed up on one month later.
Captain America #154 picks up right where #153 ends, as inker John Verpoorten joins Englehart and Buscema for “The Falcon Fights Alone!” That title fits this second chapter of our story like, well, a falconry glove — especially in its early pages, as Sam Wilson puts up a valiant fight against these strange doppelgängers of both Steve Rogers and his long-dead (okay, long-thought dead) original partner, Bucky Barnes. Inevitably, however, our hero finds himself overmatched, as “Bucky”, like “Cap”, is unnaturally strong — and ultimately, he succumbs to their blows, falling unconscious at their feet.
“Good work, li’l partner!” “Cap” congratulates “Bucky” as the two stand over the Falcon’s prone, senseless form. “Now we’ll make him tell us where that mug calling himself Captain America is hiding. Even if it means — torture!”
The two boys who’ve witnessed the savage beatdown of the Falcon, Chunky and Jody, race to the office of the latter’s uncle; unfortunately (at least in this instance), Jody’s uncle is one Sam Wilson — and he’s not answering his door, for obvious reasons. Wondering where to turn next, the boys espy Leila, who’s out for a walk with Rafe Michel — another militant activist, as well as Sam’s rival for Leila’s affections. “Rafe’s a honcho on this block, Chunky!” Jody tells his friend. “I bet he can help!”
But upon hearing that the Falcon is in trouble, Rafe is unmoved. “Who needs that boot-lickin’ jiver?”
Acquiescing to the will of his neighbors, Rafe agrees to pull together a group to attempt to rescue Falcon. Meanwhile, at Tyler’s Warehouse…
Soon afterwards, there’s a knock at the door. “Bucky” goes to see who it is, cracking the door open just enough to take a quick peek — and then…
“…but we got the numbers, man — and you can’t take us all forever!” Indeed, “Bucky”‘s superior strength is ultimately no more proof against overwhelming odds than his astonishment at this show of uppitiness from “the coloreds” — and he goes down.
At this point, the previously confident “Captain America” begins to become a bit anxious…
I’d love to tell you that I caught the clue spotted by Falc when I first read this comic back in July, 1972, considering how obvious it appears in retrospect… but I honestly can’t remember whether I did or not.
Once the Falcon gets his wind back, he asks his rescuers to spread the word that the man they just fought is not the true Captain America — and then he’s off again in pursuit of the impostor and his partner. It’s a search that ultimately proves fruitless, however, at which point Falc decides he needs to call Cap and let him know what’s going on. But when he phones the hotel in the Bahamas where he knows Steve and Sharon are staying, he learns that they’ve departed for a remote island called Mosca Cay, and can’t be contacted.
Realizing that he’ll have to fly down there himself to warn his partner, Falcon decides to let Cap’s teammates in the Avengers know about the situation, and to ask them to be on the lookout for the fake Captain America while he’s gone. He then heads over to Avengers Mansion, where, after showing his I.D. at the door to the team’s butler, Jarvis, he’s welcomed inside…
OK, so might issue #154’s cover be considered somewhat misleading, seeing as how the Avengers only appear on the story’s final two pages? Yeah, I think that’s fair — although I don’t recall being irked about it at the time I first read this comic, fifty years and one month ago. I tended to forgive that sort of thing when the story was really good — and this one met that criterion.
Another month’s passage brings us to August, 1972, and to the ostensible topic of this blog post, Captain America #155… though before we go any further, I encourage you to scroll back up to the top of the page to take another look at this issue’s highly memorable cover by Sal Buscema and Jim Mooney.
All done? Then it’s on with our story:
We’ll pause at the credits box long enough to note that this issue brings us another change of inker, as Frank McLaughlin comes aboard, and… hmm, what’s this about “a special tip of the winged cowl to Johnny Romita“? Time will tell, I suppose…
As Steve races down the beach after the mysterious boy, his thoughts race as well: “I know it can’t be he — I know it! I’m over believing he’ll ever return — but as God is my witness, that looked like Bucky!”
A few moments later, “Steve” steps out of the palms and beckons to the waiting Sharon: “Hey, come here! Look what I found!”
As Englehart’s narration tells us, Sharon Carter is capable of outrunning almost any man — but this isn’t just any man. “This is a bundle of superhuman madness, spurred by his private devils… He is unstoppable –”
The Falcon has just enough time to apologize to Sharon for not arriving sooner before “Steve” is back on his feet, and the fight is on. Of course, being sexist as well as racist, the false Cap is supremely confident about the eventual outcome. “Listen, boy,” he tells Falc, “we took Captain America! We can take a darkie and a frail!”
We’ll pause here to note that in its original 1972 printing, most of the coloring distinction between the sunburned real Steve (and Sharon) and the non-sunburned fake Steve (and Bucky) was lost — or as Steve Englehart put it in his 2013 introduction to Marvel Masterworks — Captain America, Vol. 7, “someone at the coloring center up in Connecticut ‘fixed it’ for us…” The reprint/digital version we’ve used for this post has, obviously, fixed the “fix”.
To be perfectly honest with you, I’m not 100% sure that my fifteen-year-old self had known before this moment that there even was a “Captain America of the 1950’s!” Perhaps I’d come across a reprinted story or two, or seen a reference to those stories in a letters column. But even if I hadn’t, I’m pretty sure I picked up pretty quickly on what Englehart and co. were up to here — and if I still didn’t get it, what they had coming up just a few pages later would make it absolutely clear.**
In Germany, our still-unnamed Cap-stan*** made a deep dive into the archives of Nazi records. After poring over obscure documents for weeks, he was perusing “the 1941 files of a supposedly minor espionage officer” when he made a stunning discovery:
It’s not at all clear who the bespectacled, gray-haired government official who gives Cap-stan the go-ahead is supposed to be (if indeed he’s supposed to be a “real” person at all); for years I’d assumed that it was supposed to be President Harry S. Truman, although this gent doesn’t look all that much like him. But Truman left office in January, 1953 — and while that plays okay for the first part of our flashback, it doesn’t work at all for the later scenes. So, I dunno.
The next step for Cap-stan, who was determined that the American public should believe he was the original Captain America, was more research. Eventually, he was able to dig up our Cap’s real name, as well as information about what he’d looked and sounded like. From there, the would-be super-soldier had his own name legally changed to “Steven Rogers” — and then…
When you think about it, it’s pretty remarkable how Bucky Barnes lookalikes kept turning up in the Marvel Universe — there was this guy**** in the Fifties, then Rick Jones in the Sixties…
The editorial note above is spot-on, as we’re about to get a nice helping of panels straight from the first Captain America story published as part of his brief mid-’50s revival. Young Men #24’s “Back from the Dead!” was drawn by a then twenty-three-year-old John Romita (hence the acknowledgement on this issue’s opening page); its writer is uncredited, though Don Rico has been suggested as a likely candidate (both for this and the other fifteen ’50s Cap tales, all of which were drawn by Romita). As best as I can determine, with the exceptions of a pair of quotation marks dropped around a “we”, and some minor editing to a single narrative caption, not a word of this material’s original text has been changed for its presentation here.
As you can probably guess, in the original story there’s no suggestion that “Professor Steve Rogers” and “Bucky” are anybody other than the same Captain America and Bucky who fought the Nazis in the Big One.
At this point, Englehart and Buscema are required to drop a new page in between the fourth and fifth pages of the 1953 Young Men tale, because… well, you’ll see.
The montage in the first panel above effectively hits the highlights from the run of Captain America stories that appeared in Young Men (issues #24-28), Men’s Adventure (#27-28) and Captain America (#76-78) in 1953 and 1954. Everything from the last panel forward, however, is all Englehart and Buscema — and all new information.
Did the nameless anti-communist who released the ’50s Cap and Bucky back into the wild get busted later for his malfeasance? I expect he did, although I don’t believe we’re ever shown or told that for sure.
Before leaving the flashback sequence and returning to the main, “present day” (i.e., 1972) portion of our narrative, let’s take a moment to consider what we’ve just read — beginning with some commentary from Steve Englehart’s 2011 Alter Ego interview regarding how he saw the differences between the “real” Captain America and his “replacement”:
This guy, the 1950s Cap, was a reflection of what was going on in the 1950s. He wouldn’t have been a Roosevelt, New Deal liberal (for the times) type young man. The 1950s Captain America was older than Steve Rogers would have been in 1940, very anti-Communist, and I’m sure that the writers of those 1950s comics were pitching to that type of an audience. That’s what was out there. Twenty years later, an older, more seasoned Captain America of the 1970s was appalled by that stuff. Using those contrasts in men was an easy way to shape that story.
This is very useful for understanding the thinking behind Englehart’s framing of the 1950s Cap and Bucky as fanatical anti-communists/right-wing extremists/racists/sexists/bigots-in-general — a framing that I believe is entirely valid, in the context of the writer’s creative process. But it’s probably not all that useful as a commentary on the actual changes in America’s sociopolitical climate from the 1940s to the 1970s, especially as reflected in the nation’s comic books (not that I am saying that Englehart himself necessarily intended it as such).
Yes, the strident fervor of the anti-communism on view in the 1953-54 stories of “Captain America… Commie Smasher!” — fervor which sometimes seems to shade into overt racism, as in the panel shown at right, with its reference to Cap’s Communist enemies as “yellow scum” — is undeniable. (UPDATE, 8/15/22: As pointed out by reader Cornelius Featherjaw in his comment below, it’s possible [and, upon reflection, even likely], that “yellow” is being used here in the sense of “cowardly”, rather than as a racial epithet. Still, the latter interpretation is at least within the realm of possibility, especially given that the setting of the story the panel comes from [“Come to the Commies!” in Captain America Comics #76] is Southeast Asia.) But it’s not all that different from the fervor against the “Japanazis” that characterized the adventures of Cap and other superheroes during “the good war” — and it’s not like that conflict didn’t inspire the demonization and racial caricaturing of America’s enemies, especially the non-white ones. As early as Captain America Comics #5 (Aug., 1941) — a comic published a full seven months prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor — our hero’s creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, were putting our hero up against Japanese foes described (and depicted) as “sinister-looking Orientals”, And by July, 1942, Simon and Kirby’s successors (including the artists who’ve been credited for the panel from Captain America Comics #18 shown at right: Al Avison, Syd Shores, and George Klein) were evidently comfortable with portraying “Paw, the mad Japanese genius” as literally inhuman, with pointed ears and fangs.
By comparison, the visual depiction of the “Red” Asian enemy in most of the Romita-illustrated ’50s Cap stories is quite restrained, if not completely benign. And more than one of the stories are at pains to point out that not all “yellow” people are “scum”. In Captain America #77 (Jul., 1954), we see Cap working closely with a policeman in New York’s Chinatown who nobly protects his community of “law-abiding” Chinese-Americans; while in CA #78 (Sep., 1954), ordinary Chinese people are depicted as being decent, “honest” folks who have the misfortune to be ruled by evil men. Sure, the attitudes of Cap and the other white Americans in these stories are rife with condescension and paternalism; nevertheless, I’d call their portrayal of Asian people an improvement over the monstrous looking Japanese villains seen in some Captain America stories of the 1940s.
And as we move forward from the Fifties into the Sixties, it can hardly be said that militant anti-communist themes disappear from the pages of Marvel’s comics. While Captain America himself would largely manage to stay out of the Vietnam War (though whether his non-involvement was for good or ill was a topic of lively debate in the letters pages), with the exceptions of two brief rescue missions — the first in Tales of Suspense #61 (Jan., 1965), the second in Captain America #125 (May, 1970) — his fellow Avenger Iron Man was a different matter entirely, as the armored hero’s origin, as well as many of his early adventures and adversaries, were steeped in “Red Menace” tropes. Yet another Avenger, the mighty Thor, fought communists in a couple of his early adventures as well; even as late as 1969, in Thor #168-170, the God of Thunder had to deal with an attack on New York City by the Thermal Man, a “humanoidal engine of destruction” devised by the Chinese military to invade the United States.and “bring America to its knees”. Only three years separated that Stan Lee-Jack Kirby story from CA #155’s “The Incredible Origin of the Other Captain America”; and while that seemed like a long time to my fifteen-year-old self back in the summer of ’72 — and perhaps seemed like a long time to the then-twenty-five-year-old Steve Englehart, as well — it wasn’t really all that long at all.
Bearing all this history in mind, I think we’d be well-advised to maintain a distinction between “the Captain America of the 1950s” that appeared in comics published by Marvel in 1953 and 1954, and the one that was conceived of and written about by Englehart in 1972 — and not only because the latter suffers from chemically-induced “schizophrenic paranoia” (although that’s obviously the device by which the writer can justify how and why his “Fifties-Cap” and “Fifties-Bucky” are so much more extreme in both attitude and behavior than the originals ever were). While we’re at it, the same should probably hold true for the Cap of the 1940s and the Cap of the 1960s as well — by which I mean to say that the actual content of the comics of those eras, and what Englehart thought about that content, are two different things — though in terms of the inspiration it provided for the writer to tell his own stories, the latter may be considered just as “real”, in its own way.
And now, having said all that, we return at last to our narrative, where Fifties-Cap has just completed recounting his and Fifties-Bucky’s backstory…
OK, time for another historical note (but a much briefer one this time, I promise). I imagine that Englehart came across the lack-of-stripes-on-the-back bit while thumbing through the “stack of those ’50s comics” that Roy Thomas had given him. But while it’s true that Cap’s costume didn’t have such stripes in 1953-54 (see left for an example from Young Men #26), he didn’t always have them in the 1940s, either — as shown in the panel at right (drawn by Jack Kirby and Reed Crandall), which comes from Captain America Comics #2 (Apr., 1941). (Kirby seems to have altered that particular costume detail [in Cap’s first issue, he did have the stripes going all around his torso] at the same time that he upgraded Cap’s shield from the original triangular model to the round design we all know and love.) So while the Falcon is correct about the “real McCoy” Cap sporting stripes all the way ’round in the present day, in going with the blue-back look Fifties-Cap was also correct in following the example of his ’40s predecessor and idol — i.e., that same “real” Steve Rogers.
But let’s move on, shall we? After Fifties-Cap backhands Falc, he angrily stalks away, declaring “You’re against me, like all commie scum! Have your little laugh — but see if you’re still smiling when I kill you!” However, as soon as our three stalwart heroes are alone…
It was pretty thoughtful of the bad guys to bring Steve and Sharon’s suitcase along, don’t you think? Otherwise, they’d be stuck in their swimwear as we roll on into September, 1972, and the conclusion of our tale in Captain America #156 (as presented by the continuing team of Englehart, Buscema, and McLaughlin).
As “Two into One Won’t Go!” begins, Cap, Falc, and Agent 13 are preparing to surprise their erstwhile captors — but then Cap realizes that the aircraft they’re in is making its descent, and opts to wait until they’ve safely landed before resuming hostilities. Once the seaplane is resting on the surface of the ocean besides the city of Miami Beach (“The closest big city I could get to,” Fifties-Cap explains), however, the fight is on:
The false Cap and Bucky emerge onto the seaplane’s wing, with the true Cap right behind. The two Captains America then grapple over Fifties-Cap’s gun, while Fifties-Bucky struggles to find his balance…
Cap would prefer to pursue his would-be replacement and end this all right now — but his aid, as well as the Falcon’s and Sharon’s, is needed to help rescue the crew of the destroyed Coast Guard vessel; and so it’s sometime later that the trio are at last able to cross Biscayne Bay and head for the Torch of Friendship monument in downtown Miami for the final showdown…
For all Falc’s bravado, Fifties-Bucky is still stronger than he is, thanks to the super-soldier serum — and he’s able to repel the Falcon’s assault. Luckily, Sam Wilson isn’t alone…
Meanwhile, at the site of the Torch in Bayfront Park, Captain America asks the police to hold the curious crowds back while he proceeds on to what “could be the toughest battle of my life!”
Throughout this whole storyline, we’ve seen Fifties-Cap’s shield and costume — the emblems that identify him visually as Captain America — deteriorate ever further. It’s a very direct sort of symbolism that Englehart makes even more obvious by having the real Cap taunt the impostor over his “materials” that “are too cheap to fool anybody!”
In September, 1972, my fifteen-year-old self was hardly unfamiliar with the idea of “super-patriotism” — after all, a whole three years earlier I’d read Mad #129’s “Primer of Bigots, Extremists, and Other Loose Ends”, with its memorable couplet defining a Super-Patriot as “someone who loves his country/While hating 93% of the people in it”. Indeed, I’d probably even encountered similar characters — i.e., vicious bigots who claimed to represent the interests of “real” Americans — in Marvel comics stories before this one. But to see such ideas expressed in the familiarly heroic form of Captain America? That was unprecedented — and something that was only possible now for a reason that, on the face of it, might seem counterintuitive, if not outright contradictory.
That reason? Nothing more or less than the willingness of Steve Englehart to consider afresh what it might mean in the present day for Captain America to be not just another highly-skilled street-level fighter — albeit one who chose to dress up in the stars-and-stripes, rather than as a bat, devil, or some other such — but an actual, living symbol of America.
As Englehart would explain in the Marvel Masterworks intro I quoted from earlier, in the early 1970s everyone still seemed stuck on the idea that Captain America was eternally bound to the 1940s; he was “the Living Legend of World War II”, an avatar of patriotism designed for a time when the nation faced an existential threat. in the opinion of the hero’s new writer, however, this mindset had ultimately caused Steve Rogers to lose his way:
…No one writer had done it, or even intended to do it; it was, to my mind, simply that people had always looked at him as something from another era, and so not supposed to be as much ours as all the other Marvel heroes. Cap was an icon. Cap was from the 1940s. Cap was both alien and untouchable.
…With Cap, there was always a gap. He had lived in an era we didn’t know. Was there anything that could bridge that gap and connect his first era to his second? Well, he did have that flag on his chest…
But to go there, I’d have to say that the flag stood for something special, and that was not a popular position in the midst of the Vietnam War. I mean, I could just “say” it — “America is great, and I, Captain America, believe that” — but all I’d get was a character very few readers would like… That didn’t solve anything.
But y’know, that flag could also stand for the American ideals… the part of America that most Americans believe in. It wouldn’t then matter that the American reality had gone wrong. Whatever the people in the current America were doing, the spirit of America was something special, and it transcended the current time.
In fact, by transcending the era, it was just as valid in 1940, when Cap was created… American ideals could be the thread that ran through Cap’s complete history.
What if I wondered, Captain America stopped pretending he didn’t have a flag on his chest? Not by “saying” it, but by acting like someone who really believed it.
From the perspective of half a century later, Steve Englehart’s crucial insight may seem all too obvious. But I’m not sure it was, really. And if it does seem inevitable in hindsight, perhaps that’s simply because, in making it work, Englehart set a precedent that virtually everyone who’s successfully written Captain America since him has followed.
Of course, it was hardly a given that the author’s approach would make such an impact right out of the gate as it did with this four-part storyline — a storyline that was almost providentially dropped in his lap by an editor who probably didn’t have anything more serious in mind than ironing out a troublesome bit of Marvel Universe discontinuity. But as things worked out, Steve Englehart got to plant his thematic flag (if you’ll pardon the expression) with a story that set his conception of what “the spirit of America” was in bold relief by demonstrating what he thought it wasn’t. It’s a story that, in representing the conflict between two competing visions of America as a slugfest between two muscular men in red, white, and blue, had something meaningful to say to comics readers, as indeed it still does to this very day.
It was also a Captain America story that would be hard for Englehart to top, though he ultimately did so (even if it took a while)… but that, of course, is a discussion we’ll have to have in another post, at another time.
For a second 50th anniversary take on Captain America #153-156, please check out “Two Into One Won’t Go!” — a recent post by crustymud (who also frequently graces this venue with his comments) at his blog, The Crusty Curmudgeon’s Comic Classics.
*As it turned out, Englehart didn’t entirely answer Thomas’s question, since — as we’ll soon see — his solution only addressed the Captain America adventures published in the mid-’50s, leaving the mystery of who starred in all those Cap tales that had come out between 1945 and 1949 unresolved. Rather than deal with the issue at that time (see the “don’t have time to edit” comment quoted earlier), Thomas waited five years or so, then wrote his own story that revealed the existence of not just one, but two other Captains America who’d filled the role between Steve Rogers and “50s Cap”. This tale appeared in What If #4 (Aug., 1977), and despite the fact that that series generally dealt with alternate realities, this entry was (and still is, to the best of my knowledge) straight-up Earth-616 canon. (Yeah, it was confusing forty-five years ago, too.)
**I may not have been the only person in the vicinity for whom the existence of a 1950s-era Captain America was news, either. Was the real Steve Rogers aware before this moment that he’d had a stand-in (or three) in the years between his going into the ice and coming out of it? As we’ll soon see, it wasn’t exactly what you’d call a secret, and it sure seems like the kind of thing that would have come up sometime between 1964 and 1972. But Englehart’s script skates past this question — and is pretty nimble in doing so, if I’m going to be honest, since I don’t remember being at all bothered by this bit when I first read this story a half-century ago.
***In later years, it would be revealed that the Man Who Would Be Captain America was born William Burnside; but Englehart’s script never gives him a name other than “Steve Rogers”, and we’re going to stick with that.
****As with his mentor, it would be years later before “’50s Bucky” got a real name: Jack Monroe.
A few random thoughts…
I regard Steve Englehart as one of the most important writers on the Captain America series. As you observe, so much of what has been done with the character of Cap over the past half century has its roots in Englehart’s work.
I feel that Frank McLaughlin was one of the best inkers Sal Busecma was paired with during the 1970s, and I wish the two of them had worked together much more often.
Perhaps you can offer an alternate perspective on this, but having been born in 1976, I’ve always found it a bit, well, odd how Cap’s revival during the Silver Age was framed by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby. Cap goes into suspended animation in 1945, and he is revived in 1964 to find that EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED. I guess there was a tremendous amount of social & political change between the 1940s and the 1960s. It’d be weird to attempt to do a similar story today where, say, a superhero went into suspended animation in the year 2003 and was revived in 2022, because it feels to me that things have not changed all that much during that span. I mean, I could see said superhero getting dumbfounded to learn that Donald Trump somehow became President, and they’d no doubt be aghast about COVID-19 and the extreme political polarization, but other than that there really isn’t all that much that’s dramatically different now than it was at the beginning of the 21st Century.
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That’s an interesting observation, Ben — and one that’s making for an interesting discussion over at https://www.facebook.com/groups/captainamericacomicbookfans as I write this. 😉 As you yourself noted over there, it’s easier to sell the break between Cap’s going into the ice and his resuscitation in the “present” as super-dramatic the longer that break becomes due to Marvel’s sliding timescale. But it’s also true, as others in the Facebook discussion have observed, that some 20-year spans see more societal change than others.
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it might be interesting to note that the first ten-odd pages of #153 tidied up an old plot thread that came to a head in this issue: Nick Fury’s sawn off because Val has been making eyes at Cap. The grist of his complaint is that he’s an old grey warhorse, while Steve Rogers popped up young as the day he was snap-frozen.
All well and good – except four years later in Marvel Spotlight #31, Jim Starlin and Howard Chaykin show how Nick’s been taking his “Infinity Formula” for the last 30 years, the annual application of which keeps him looking as young as he did back in The Big One – which kind of renders the whole plot about Fury’s age complex completely redundant.
I guess they just decided to sweep it under the carpet and presume everyone’d forget about it*. And one supposes they had to come up with something to explain how Fury was able to be a WW2 vet while remaining an active SHIELD Director 30 years later.
(* how could they know a grumpy old pedant would be waiting 45 years to bring up the subject…?)
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But then, at the same time they had Dum Dum Dugan & Gabe Jones in those SHIELD stories and several other comics of the late ’60s and well into the ’70s, with Dum Dum even taking a big role in the Godzilla series of the late ’70s, and all without having to take the Infinity Formula. And at any rate, as depicted in particular by Kirby, Steranko, et al, although shown to be in very good physical shape, Fury is decidedly not depicted as looking like he’s still a 20-something year old man, but more like someone who is at least in his mid-40s, maybe even in his 50s. I don’t think it was a real problem that needed addressing in the late ’70s, although certainly by the late ’80s or especially in the ’90s it would have been very problematic but still the Infinity Formula was a rather silly solution, IMO. Because anyone who knew Nick Fury would have been aware that he was a famous World War II hero and would ask “how is it someone who must at least be in his 60s or 70s looks like he’s only about 40-something?” Certainly, Dugan and Jones would have been wondering and asking, “hey, Nick, you have something to share with your old WWII buddies?” It’s not like he could have kept his use of something to keep him looking so young, aside from dye and plastic surgery, a top secret. But then, that seems to be working for Ringo Starr! He just turned 82 but looks decades later, at least in recent photos I’ve seen of him. Assuming that old Nick himself enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1940 at age 18, he’d be a century old by now or very close to it. Not a whole lot of wiggle room in that, particularly as in those comics depicting his exploits in WWII, Nick was most definitely not depicted as a fresh-faced teen-age soldier, but as well into his 20s with lots of experience.
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Englethart started off with a bang on CA&TF with this great epic. It did occur to me while reading this that the concluding panels of this story in issue 156 are somewhat echoed in the conclusion to the Secret Empire story in 175, with the knockout punch on the baddie, although in 175 there was the additonal scene of Cap chasing #1 into the White House and the subsequent suicide after the unmasking and then Cap, totally emotionally shattered, walking away to be alone, with even bigger ruminations on what it means to be American and wearing a costume based on the flag of the United States of America.
As I mentioned in my post on Crusty’s site, I got the first part of this epic but missed the next three, not getting the full story until the ’80s,and 50 years ago my knowledge of Cap lore, as it stood in 1972, was still very meager. I also still had little detailed knowledge of the Anti-Commie mania of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and of the rampant racism of much of U.S. history, and which still permeates some communities of the U.S. even to the present day, although nowhere near as much as was the case in 1953. My family was white and my parents from northeast Texas, and they had grown up in the segregated south, but as my dad joined the U.S. Navy at age 17 in 1957 and spent the next 27 years in the service, with my family moving around quite a bit, and with the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s in place, I grew up in integrated communities and attended schools with other students and teachers who were black, Asian and Hispanic without thinking anything was odd about it. But, if I had been born just 10 years earlier, or if my parents had stayed in northeast Texas, things may have been very different. By the way, one of my sisters-in-law is black and the other is Filipino, as is my stepmother, so my family is integrated in way that would have been illegal in many states up until the Loving v. Virginia U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1967. Much had changed in America between 1953 and 1972.
Your references to the even greater racism and very ugly depictions of Japanese in early 1940s comics was very apt, and that had changed for the better by 1953, but even well into the ’70s, most comics still used that garish yellow as a skin tone for most Asian characters, despite the fact that perhaps aside from someone with a very bad case of jaundice or some other terrible disease, no one anywhere in the real world has that particular skin tone. I don’t think I paid much attention to that as a kid, at least not until reading comments by Bill Wu, among a few others, in various letters pages in CA&TF and Master of Kung Fu and a few other titles in the mid-70s. Now it really looks horrid to me. Depictions of black people in comics up through the 1950s were also often terrible, even in Will Eisner’s classic The Spirit, in which Ebony White is depicted in very demeaning stereotypical manner, albeit as a good kid who helps out the Spirit. With all his talents, Eisner himself couldn’t overcome the racist tropes of the era, at least not until much later. From what I’ve seen of EC comics of the early ’50s, Gaines and his editors and writers largely eschewed the old stereotypes and depicted racial minorities, even North Koreans with whom the U.S.. was actively fighting at the time, in a far more realistic manner. Not sure about the skin tones that may have been used, as most of what I’ve read of them is in black & white or otherwise might have been re-colored from the originals. Also not sure if the ugly depictions of Japanese in particular but all Asians in general of Golden Age comics (even with the very first issue of Detective Comics with the evil Asian on the cover) up through the end of WWII, faded away after the war for more recognizably human depictions (aside from the coloring) as in Romita’s art of ’53-’54. Of course, by that point, the Japanese were now our friends and the Chinese our enemies. Jules Fieffer did a great cartoon of the evolution of the Yellow Peril as depicted in comics art (including editorial cartoons) from the late 1800s through the mid-1960s.
Getting back to the story at hand, one aspect which might have flown over my head in 1972 but comes off as glaring now is that in 1953 no one in the story asks, “what the hell is up with Bucky? He hasn’t grown at all since 1941! Is he some sort of midget freak, maybe a mutant???” And apparently no readers in 1953 asked, “why is Bucky still in grade school when he should at least be in college by now?” As to so many kids that somehow resemble Bucky, seems comics artists in general, even Kirby, had a sort of generic look for young male sidekicks with black or brown hair, so that Robin, Bucky, Toro, etc., all looked almost interchangeable. But then, even in the 1970s, most young adult blonde men in comics tended to look very similar, so that in a meeting of Donald Blake, Clint Barton, Steve Rogers, Warren Wrothington, III (with his wings strapped down under a suit), Johnny Storm, and Henry Pym, it might have been difficult to tell them apart as they all even tended to have the same hair-style as drawn by most artists of the era. Can’t really blame the artists, though, as the main point was to get the work completed and hopefully depict a compelling story and very few superheroes had really distinct faces and hairstyles — Peter Parker and Reed Richards, for example. Not counting those who had mutated features, such as Hulk and the Thing.
Lot of food for thought come to mind from this storyline, Alan, even for kids who read it or at least part of it 50 years ago and those of us contemplating it in the present and maybe still even for those not yet born who may look upon it in the 2070s or later as a snapshot of aspects of 1970s culture. Just as we look upon those comics from the ’40s and early ’50s from before our own births.
Great overview, Alan!
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Thanks for the plug! I hadn’t meant to step on any half-century toes, but when June came and went without you covering any Cap, I figured you probably hadn’t bought the issues at the time and thus wouldn’t be covering it. This would be understandable since, as you pointed out yourself, the work by Friedrich and Conway that preceded Englehart’s debut was no great shakes. Apologies for the unintended double coverage.
Having said that, if there are comic storylines that could truly never get too much coverage, this would certainly be one of them. When I began researching my own post, I was surprised to learn (or be reminded) that this storyline was Englehart’s first, right out of the box. A great storyline that was artistically and thematically brilliant. Not many writers can whip up a character-defining storyline like this in their debut on a title. Just amazing.
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You’re welcome, crustymud, and no apologies necessary! I enjoyed reading your take — and, besides, it’s not like I have a trademark on 50th anniversary funnybook retrospectives, or anything. 🙂 Plus, as you said, this storyline is worthy of the extra attention.
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Thanks for another enjoyable trip to the past Alan. As I mentioned in an earlier comments section, I had briefly quit comics in mid May 1972. This did not last long and In June 1972, I slowly cam back to Marvel comics but quit nearly all DCs that I was buying (except Batman and JLA for another year). I had intended for Cap 152 to be my last Cap comic and I do recall that I had a similar reaction to you regarding Gerry Conway’s brief run (149-152). They weren’t bad and weren’t badly drawn but weren’t that great either (I still don’t understand to this day why Gerry brought in the Stranger of all characters and then apparently changed his mind and called him something else in Cap 150). I happened to see Cap 153 on a newsstand at the end of June 1972, and it caught my interest and that ending certainly hooked me. I was not very familiar with Steve Englehart’s name. I had missed Defenders 1 (which I would eventually get in a few months) and had read Amazing Adventures 12-13 with the Beast but that really didn’t tell me much about Steve’s writing capabilities. But after reading Cap 153 I was impressed; I remember I especially liked the way Steve tied up the Nick Fury subplot in a very entertaining way. The next 3 issues were excellent and by the end of Cap 156 I was completely hooked and stayed with Englehart for his entire run even though I was less than pleased when Sal left, and in retrospect there are a lot of problems with the last issue he wrote and maybe someday you’ll discuss that. In any event, the next few years (1972-74) Steve and Sal would provide some entertaining and enjoyable stories. Steve and Sal have both stated that during this period Captain America shot up to being one of Marvel’s top books (allegedly in the top 5). I believe in one interview Steve claimed that Cap was the top seller then but that seems unlikely since Spider-Man would most assuredly have taken that spot with the FF most likely in second place. I’m not sure if you’ll get to it this month or soon after, but as I’m sure you know, August 1972 was the month that Steve took over the Avengers. It seems now to be a very sensible choice, but again, in retrospect, it is somewhat surprising if you consider that at that point in time Steve did not have much of a track record…a few issues of a minor book, Amazing Adventures, 2 issues of Defenders, and 2 issues of Cap. Presumably the other available writers Gary Friedrich and Gerry Conway were too busy. But the reason I bring this up is…perhaps on the strength of his writing on Cap it was decided he would be a good fit for the Avengers. Just wondered if you knew anything further…. It does appear to have been a fortunate opportunity for Steve since at this time The Avengers was one of Marvel’s biggest sellers and an important A-level book. Thanks again for the overview of one of the best and one of my favorite Cap stories.
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Look for my Avengers #105 post next Wednesday morning, brucesfl!
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Regarding that man in charge in Washington, DC, seems Englehart left it purposely vague as to who he was supposed to be and presumably Sal also purposely drew him not to look too much like either Truman or Eisenhower, although he more closely resembles the former than the latter (not as bald as Ike but still more hair than Truman had in ’53). Maybe he was really meant to be the Secretary of Defense. Charles Wilson became Secretary of Defense under Ike in late January 1953, and although in pictures I’ve found of him online, he didn’t wear glasses, he still more closely resmebles the man in Sal’s drawings than either Truman or Ike, but I’d guess that’s more due to coincidence than intent as Sal likely didn’t draw him to look like anyone in particular. The red phone in one panel might be taken as a clue that it was meant to be the President, but that hot line to the Soviet Union wasn’t established until 1963, during the Kennedy administration, about 10 years after the period the story is set in.
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I’ve never been much of a Captain America fan, only buying a Cap book intermittently since kicking the completist habit, but I am an Englehart fan. Except for Snap Wilson I can’t think of any Caps tory he wrote I didn’t enjoy.
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We’ll, I must say this Steve Englehart retcon is one of my most reviled comic stories ever, occupying a place in my “hall of shame” alongside such travesties as Crisis On Infinite Earths and the Flash Murder Trial plot line that led to the cancellation of that title!👎👎👎
Let me explain.
Some years earlier Marvel had reprinted some of the 1950s Atlas Captain America stories in Marvel Super Heroes. I found I preferred that version of Cap with a younger sidekick a la Batman and Robin over the melancholy Steve Rogers in Tales Of Suspense.
But the higher powers at Marvel decreed that not only was the’50s Cap not the genuine article but he was a lunatic villain to boot!
Ok. Rant over.
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Well, sockamagee, if it helps you feel any better, the lunatic villainy doesn’t seem to have emerged until after that run of ’50s stories was over! 🙂
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Yep. 😆Thank goodness for expensive reprint volumes!
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Huh. I took the “yellow scum” comment as referring to cowardice, but I can certainly see how it could come across as racist.
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That’s a good point, Cornelius, and it’s possible that that was the writer’s intention. My reading was influenced by the larger context of the story, which is set in Southeast Asia, but that’s obviously not definitive. I’ll make the appropriate adjustments to the post. 🙂