Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 8

By Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas, Tony Isabella, Mike Friedrich, Sal Buscema, Alan Weiss & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9929-8 (HB)

Created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby in an era of frantic patriotic fervour, Captain America was a bombastic, dynamic and highly visible response to the horrors of Nazism and the threat of Liberty’s loss.

He faded away during the post-war reconstruction but briefly reappeared after the Korean War: a harder, darker sentinel ferreting out monsters, subversives and the “commies” who lurked under every brave American kid’s bed. Then he vanished once more until the burgeoning Marvel Age resurrected him just in time for the turbulent, culturally divisive 1960s.

By the time of the tales gathered in this eighth Masterworks volume (available in luxurious hardback and accessible eBook formats and re-presenting issues #160-175 of Captain America and the Falcon from April 1973 to July 1974), the once convinced and confirmed Sentinel of Liberty had become an uncomfortable symbol of a divided nation, but was looking to make the best of things and carve himself a new place in the Land of the Free. Real world events were about to put paid to that American dream…

Into an already turbulent mix of racial and gender inequality played out against standard Fights ‘n’ Tights villainy came creeping overtones of corruption and betrayal of ideals that were fuelled by shocking real-world events…

Following an informative behind-the-scenes reminiscence from scripter Steve Englehart in his Introduction, the action opens here with ‘Enter: Solarr!’ (illustrated by Sal Buscema &Frank McLaughlin), offering an old-fashioned clash with a super-powered maniac as the main attraction.

However, the real meat is the start of twin sub-plots that would shape the next half-dozen adventures, as the Star-Spangled Avenger’s newfound super-strength increasingly makes partner-in-crimefighting Sam – the Falcon – Wilson feel like a junior and inferior hindrance, even as Steve Roger’s long-time romantic interest Sharon Carter leaves him without a word of explanation…

Inked by John Verpoorten, Captain America and the Falcon #161 ramps up the tension between Steve and Sam as the heroes search for Sharon in ‘…If he Loseth His Soul!’, and find a connection to the girl Cap loved and lost in World War II in a deadly psycho-drama overseen by criminal shrink Dr. Faustus. This culminates one month later in a singular lesson in extreme therapy which only proves ‘This Way Lies Madness!’

‘Beware of Serpents!’ heralded the return of super snakes Viper and Eel, who combine with the Cobra to form a vicious but ultimately unsuccessful Serpent Squad to attack the heroes. Defeated former ad-exec Viper then vengefully begins a media manipulation campaign to destroy the Sentinel of Liberty with the “Big Lie”, fake news weapons and the worst tactics of Madison Avenue. Although the instigator quickly falls, his scheme rumbles on with slow, inexorable and dire consequences…

Issue #164 offers a stunningly scary episode illustrated by Alan Lee Weiss, introducing faux-coquette mad scientist Deadly Nightshade: a ‘Queen of the Werewolves!’ who infects Falcon with her chemical lycanthropy as an audition to enlist in the fearsome forces of one of the planet’s greatest menaces…

The full horror of the situation is only revealed when ‘The Yellow Claw Strikes’ (Englehart, Buscema & McLaughlin); renewing a campaign of terror begun in the 1950s, but this time attacking his former Chinese Communist sponsors and the USA indiscriminately. Giant bugs, deadly slave assassins and reanimated mummies are bad enough, but when the Arcane Immortal’s formidable mind-control dupes Cap into almost beating S.H.I.E.L.D. supremo Nick Fury to death during the ‘Night of the Lurking Dead!’, the blistering final battle results in further tragedy when an old ally perishes in the Frank Giacoia inked ‘Ashes to Ashes’

One of the Star-Spangled Avengers most durable foes sort-of resurfaces in tense, action-heavy romp ‘…And a Phoenix Shall Arise!’ (scripted by Roy Thomas & Tony Isabella and inked by John Tartaglione & George Roussos) before Viper’s long-laid plans begin to finally bear bitter fruit in #169’s ‘When a Legend Dies!’ (with additional scripting from Mike Friedrich).

As anti-Captain America TV spots make people doubt the honesty and sanity of the nation’s greatest hero, the Falcon and his “Black Power” activist girlfriend Leila Taylor depart for the super-scientific African nation of Wakanda in search of increased powers, leaving Cap to battle third-rate villain the Tumbler.

In the heat of combat the Avenger seemingly goes too far and the thug dies…

‘J’Accuse!’ (Englehart, Friedrich, Buscema & Vince Colletta) sees Cap beaten and arrested by too-good-to-be-true neophyte crusader Moonstone, whilst in Africa Leila is kidnapped by exiled Harlem hood Stone-Face: far from home and hungry for some familiar foxy ghetto friendship…

‘Bust-Out!’ in #171 finds Cap forcibly sprung from jail by a mysterious pack of “supporters” as Black Panther and the newly-flying Falcon crush Stone-Face preparatory to a quick dash back to America and a reunion with the beleaguered and tarnished American icon.

‘Believe it or Not: The Banshee!’ opens with Captain America and the Falcon beaten by – but narrowly escaping – Moonstone and his obscurely occluded masters, after which the hard-luck heroes trace a lead to Nashville, encounter the fugitive mutant Master of Sound and stumble into a clandestine pogrom on American soil.

For long months mutants have been disappearing unnoticed, but now the last remaining X-MenCyclops, Marvel Girl and Professor Charles Xavier – have tracked them down, only to discover that Captain America’s problems also stem from ‘The Sins of the Secret Empire!’, whose ultimate goal is the conquest of the USA…

Eluding capture by S.H.I.E.L.D., Steve and Sam infiltrate the evil Empire, only to be exposed and confined in ‘It’s Always Darkest!’ before abruptly turning the tables and saving the day in #175’s ‘…Before the Dawn!’, wherein the vile grand plan is revealed, the mutants liberated and the culprits captured.

In a shocking final scene, the ultimate instigator is unmasked and horrifically dispatched within the White House itself…

At this time America was a nation reeling from a loss of unity, solidarity and perspective as a result of a torrent of shattering blows such as losing the Vietnam war, political scandals like Watergate and the (partial) exposure of President Nixon’s lies and crimes.

The general loss of idealism and painful public revelations that politicians are generally unpleasant – and even possibly ruthless, wicked exploiters – kicked the props out of most Americans who had an incomprehensibly rosy view of their leaders, so a conspiracy that reached into the halls and backrooms of government was extremely controversial yet oddly attractive in those distant, simpler days…

Unable to process the betrayal of all he has seen, the Star-Spangled Avenger cannot accept that this battle has any winner: a feeling that will change his life forever – in the next volume…

Any retrospective or historical re-reading is going to turn up a few cringe-worthy moments, but these tales of matchless courage and indomitable heroism are fast-paced, action-packed and still carry a knockout conceptual punch. Here Captain America was finally discovering his proper place in a new era and would once more become unmissable, controversial comicbook reading, as we shall see when I get around to reviewing the next volume…
© 1973, 1974, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.