Captain America Epic Collection volume 4 1971-1973: Hero or Hoax?


By Stan Lee, Gary Friedrich, Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway, Steve Gerber, John Romita Sr., Sal Buscema, Gil Kane, Gray Morrow & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1003-7 (TPB)

Created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby in an era of frantic patriotic fervour, Captain America was a dynamic, 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 where the Star-Spangled Avenger was in danger of becoming an uncomfortable symbol of a troubled, divided society, split along age lines and with many of the hero’s fans apparently rooting for the wrong side. Now into that turbulent mix crept issues of racial and gender inequality…

This resoundingly resolute full-colour Epic Collection re-presents Captain America #139-#199 (spanning July 1971 to March 1973) with the Sentinel of Liberty adjusting to having a new full-time crimefighting partner in the form of Harlem-based social worker Sam Wilson AKA the Falcon

As the Falcon works to end a gangster’s dream of monetising New York’s racial unrest, the Good Captain is whisked away for a top-secret mission heralding the beginning of a lengthy and direction-changing saga…

For years Captain America had been the only expression of Steve Rogers’ life, but now goes undercover as a police officer to solve a series of disappearances, subsequently regaining a personal life which would have long-term repercussions…

With the Red, White and Blue subsumed by plain Rookie Blues in ‘The Badge and the Betrayal!’ (by Stan Lee & John Romita) Steve finds himself on a Manhattan beat as the latest raw recruit to be bawled out by veteran cop Sergeant Muldoon

As police officers continue to disappear in increasing numbers and Rogers is getting into more fights on the beat than in costume, Wilson is challenged by seductive black activist Leila Taylor and undergoes a far from voluntary and unwanted audition for S.H.I.E.L.D. …

Inked by George Roussos, issue #140 exposes the plot’s perpetrator as ‘In the Grip of Gargoyle!’ takes events in a frankly bizarre direction, with moody urban mystery inexplicably becoming super-spy fantasy as the nefarious Grey Gargoylesteals a mega-explosive from S.H.I.E.L.D. and turns the Falcon into his petrified minion.

With Joe Sinnott inking, Lee & Romita deliver ‘The Unholy Alliance!’ as the stony duo attack a secret base stockpiling ultimate explosive Element X, with Cap, recently-renewed love interest Sharon Carter and Nick Fury attempting to save the world and the Falcon from the Gargoyle…

Spectacular but painfully confusing until now, the epic is dumped on new writer Gary Friedrich to wrap up with ‘And in the End…’ (Captain America and the Falcon #142) wherein the resurgent heroes race a countdown clock of doom to save the day…

All this time Sam has been trying to get friendly with “Black Power” advocate Leila and, with the sci fi shenanigans over, a long-running subplot concerning racial tensions in Harlem boils over…

‘Power to the People’ and ‘Burn, Whitey, Burn!’ (both from giant-sized #143 with Romita inking his own pencils) sees the riots finally erupt with Cap and Falcon caught in the middle, before copping out in the final chapter by taking a painfully parochial and patronising stance and revealing that the seething unrest of the ghetto underclass has been instigated by a rabble-rousing fascist super-villain in ‘Red Skull in the Morning… Cap Take Warning!’

Nevertheless, Friedrich makes some telling and relevant points – and continues to do so in CA&F #144’s first story ‘Hydra Over All!’ (illustrated by Romita) with the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s all-woman attack squad Femme Force One(stop squirming – at least they were trying to be egalitarian and inclusive…).

To facilitate their efficacy the women are assigned to train with the Sentinel of Liberty himself…

The issue also offers a solo back-up tale ‘The Falcon Fights Alone!’ (by Friedrich and drawn by the great Gray Morrow) wherein the street hero designs a new uniform and rededicates himself to tackling the real problems on his turf: drug-dealers, thieves, racketeers and thugs endangering the weakest, poorest members of society…

Captain America and the Falcon #145 expanded the Hydra storyline with ‘Skyjacked’ (stunningly limned by Gil Kane & Romita) as the hooded terrorists kidnap Cap’s students in mid-air…

Sal Buscema began his long tenure on the series with ‘Mission: Destroy the Femme Force!’ and ‘Holocaust in the Halls of Hydra!’ (#146 and inked by John Verpoorten) wherein devious dealings in the halls of power are uncovered before Falcon races to the rescue of the severely embattled and outgunned heroes, culminating in the unmasking of a hidden kingmaker in #147’s ‘And Behind the Hordes of Hydra…’: a staggering Battle Royale in Las Vegas with a hierarchy of old villains exposed, before the ultimate power behind the power reveals himself in Friedrich’s swansong ‘The Big Sleep!’

Now increasingly at odds with super-scientific government spy-agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (which back then stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division) and its Director Nick Fury, the troubled Patriotic hero returned to his secret identity as a New York beat cop as Gerry Conway assumed the writing chores for issues #149-152: an uncharacteristically uninspired run that begins with ‘All the Colors… of Evil!’ (illustrated by Sal B & Jim Mooney) wherein Gallic mercenary Batroc resurfaces, kidnapping ghetto kids for an unidentified client. This turns out to be the alien Stranger (or at least his parallel universe incarnation Jakar) who intervenes personally in ‘Mirror, Mirror…!’ (inked by John Verpoorten) but is still defeated far too easily.

‘Panic on Park Avenue’ (Buscema & Vince Colletta) then pits Cap against enfeebled villains Mr. Hyde and the Scorpionas Conway sought to retroactively include Captain America in his ambitious Mr. Kline Saga. Android copies of the super-creeps had attacked Daredevil and the Black Widow in their own comic book and here we discover what happened to the originals during that period.

Assuming S.H.I.E.L.D. is responsible for their woes, the thugs target Steve Rogers and his secret agent girlfriend Sharon Carter with disastrous results, climaxing in Frank Giacoia inked ‘Terror in the Night!’ featuring all-out battles and new plot-complications for officer Rogers and his hard-boiled boss Sgt. Muldoon…

Captain America and the Falcon #153 heralded a renaissance and magical return to form for the Sentinel of Liberty as writer Steve Englehart came aboard, hitting the ground running with a landmark epic rewriting of Marvel history and simultaneously captivating jaded die-hard fans…

The wonderment opens with ‘Captain America… Hero or Hoax?’ (inked by Mooney) as Falcon, Sharon and Cap endure an acrimonious confrontation with Fury and decide to take a break from S.H.I.E.L.D.

While Sam Wilson goes back to Harlem – splitting his time between social work, chasing Leila and stamping his mark on the local gangs in his costumed persona – Steve and Sharon book a holiday in the Bahamas. Shockingly, not long after, Falcon catches Captain America committing racist attacks in New York. Enraged, he tracks down the perpetrator but is easily beaten since his partner has somehow acquired super-strength and a resurrected Bucky Barnes

In ‘The Falcon Fights Alone!’ (Verpoorten inks) the maniac impostors claim to be “real” American heroes as they reveal what they want: a confrontation with the lily-livered, pinko wannabe who has replaced and disgraced them…

Even after torturing their captive they are frustrated in their plans until the faux Cap tricks the information out of the Avengers. Battered and bruised, Falcon heads to the Bahamian holiday refuge but is too late to prevent an ambush wherein Rogers learns ‘The Incredible Origin of the Other Captain America!’ (Frank McLaughlin inks and including repurposed excepts from the 1950s comics by John Romita): a brilliant piece of literary sleight-of-hand that ties up the Golden Age, 1950s revival and Silver Age iterations of the character in a clear, simple, devilishly clever manner, and leading to an unbelievably affecting fabulously gratifying conclusion in ‘Two into One Won’t Go!’

After meeting and defeating a shade of the nation’s ugly past, Rogers hopes for less troublesome times, but instead ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici: Viper!’ (plotted by Englehart, scripted by Steve Gerber, with Sal B & Verpoorten illustrating) begins an epic, engrossing storyline by introducing a despicable advertising executive-turned snaky super-villain ostensibly working for an enigmatic boss named the Cowled Commander.

It transpires that corrupt connections at the police precinct where Rogers serves have been stirred into murderous action by our hero’s presence, leading to good cops being framed, bombs in offices and the Viper taking out survivors with lethally experimental poisonous darts…

When Falcon follows news of Cap’s death he also succumbs to toxins until ‘The Crime Wave Breaks!’ (Englehart, Buscema & Verpoorten) sees last-second salvation, a ramping-up of criminal activity and Rogers’ abduction, leading to a ‘Turning Point!’ wherein super-scum-for-hire Porcupine, Scarecrow, Plantman and the Eel’s ill-conceived attack give the game away and expose a hidden criminal mastermind in the heroes’ midst…

Rounding out the riotous adventure, bonus extras include the cover to the all-reprint Captain America Annual #2, assorted house ads, rare Romita colour roughs for Captain America #139 and 144, plus a stirring short selection of original art pages and covers by Romita, Morrow, Kane and Buscema…

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 illustrated by some of the greatest artists and storytellers American comics has ever produced.

As the nation turbulently changed 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…
© 1971, 1972, 1973, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.