Monday, September 20, 2010

The Single Greatest Story Arc in Comic Book History Ever!!!

I first got into heavy duty comic collecting in the early ‘70s. Sure, comics were around school and I’d see them when I went to the comic shop (the legendary “Comic Collector Shop” in downtown San Jose, Caifornia, owned by the equally legendary Bob Sidebottom) to pick up the new Famous Monsters of Filmland and Creepy, but comics never really caught my fancy until a school friend gave me a box of Marvels his brother had been collecting. Said brother was off to high school and everybody knew you’d better not be caught dead with a funny book on campus or you’d be a pariah, sent off to lunch with the Trekkies. That box of Marvels today would probably be worth a couple grand. Most of them were Spider-Man (circa 1968-1970), with a few Thor, Silver Surfer, Avengers, and Fantastic Fours thrown in for good measure.

I read every comic in that box cover to cover (yes, boys and girls, there was a time when youngsters read their comics with ungloved hands and then simply tossed them into a pile in the corner next to the dirty clothes your ma picked up twice a week) and became engrossed in the Marvel Universe.

I was soon buying just about every title Marvel published (except for Night Nurse and the western titles). People, I was the original Marvel Zombie so berated by the Comics Journal in the 1980s. Nine times out of ten, comic historians and comic fans in general will point to the 1960s Marvel line as the greatest comics of all time. I disagree. For me, the pinnacle years of Marvel were 1971-1975.

I’ll pause here while you laugh out loud.

Settled down now? Good, I’ll continue.

When I think of Marvel, I don’t think of Kirby, Lee and Ditko (though Ditko’s work at Warren in the 60s does stand out in my mind). I think of Mindworm, The Punisher, The Jackal, Gwen Stacy’s clone, Professor Warren’s clone, Spider-Man’s clone, Man-Thing, Morbius, The Vision and The Scarlet Witch, Gullivar Jones, Conan, Werewolf By Night, Ghost Rider, The Defenders, Luke Cage, Dracula, Man-Wolf, Kull, Iron Fist, Neal Adams’ The Avengers, and a kazillion other four color images that pop into my head.

Marvel’s writers would dream up the coolest ongoing storylines and they weren’t afraid to pull rabbits out of their big hats. Remember when you found out the Vision was really the Golden Age Human Torch?; Gwen Stacy and The Green Goblin died and then rose from the dead?; Thor ave up his godly powers for the sake of his earthly love?; Reed Richards was forced to “shut down” his son and then watched helplessly as his wife left him?; Bill Everett returned to the Sub-Mariner?; you almost couldn’t stop yourself from reading that “sizzling shocking surprise” that awaited you in the final panel? God, what fun it was taking the bus downtown to see what was out that week. We didn’t have the internet or Diamond shipping lists to check. We just showed up and got what was there.

Which brings me to the topic at hand. I remember the first Captain America and the Falcon I bought was #151. It had The Scorpion on the cover. The Scorpion happened to be one of my favorite Marvel Super-Villains (right up there with The Goblin and The Lizard). He seemed devoid of any human emotion, a psychotic, dangerous villain. Even though you knew the hero would pull it off in the end, the Scorpion still gave you that “what-if” feeling.

The Scorpion tale ended up being a so-so two-parter involving Mr. Hyde (conversely, this guy was one of my least favorite bad guys), but I really dug all the ongoing sub-plots. Was Cap fooling around with Nick Fury’s girl, Contessa Valentina Allegro De Fontaine? Would patrolman Bob Courtney discover that fellow cop Steve Rogers was actually Cap? Was Muldoon really on the take? Could Steve find happiness with S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter? Could Sal Buscema ever draw an action figure that didn’t grit his pearly whites and clench his fists?

I can’t remember the answers to those questions and I don’t have the comics anymore to look through. In the mid-90s, after finally collapsing in disgust at what Marvel and most of the other companies were foisting at me, I sold my 25,000+ comic collection. I did keep my horror comics. I never tire of reading House of Mystery and Chamber of Chills, but the hero comics went south. I sold every single superhero comic I owned... except for 4 issues of Captain America and The Falcon. Why those four issues? Because they make up my favorite storyline in the Marvel universe. "The Return of the Original Captain America," written by Steve Englehart.

This gets complicated so please try to keep up. I won’t be repeating anything. After taking way too much guff from her boss at S.H.I.E.L.D., agent Sharon Carter decides to quit her job and become Steve Rogers’ (aka Cap) full-time squeeze. Their first order of business is to take off to the Bahamas for a well-deserved vacation. Saving the world every thirty days can drain the batteries. Cap has been moonlighting as a patrolman and hasn’t exactly been a regular at work. Some of the other cops begin to wonder what Rogers could be doing in his spare time. Meanwhile, The Falcon (aka Sam Wilson) wanders the streets and questions his own life. Is he just another “honkey,” as his girl Leila insists, or is he a vital part of the neighborhood, a role model for the youth of the ghetto? Even as he’s sorting through the differing vibes, he catches wind of something unbelievable.

According to Leila, Cap has been seen in the neighborhood, beating on the residents to gain information on The Falcon. Since The Falcon watched Steve and Sharon’s plane depart, he knows this can’t be the real Cap. When he finally tracks down the bogus Cap, the obligatory battle ensues. The Falcon handily beats the fraud and unmasks him, only to find an exact replica of Steve Rogers! The Falcon is nailed from behind and when he comes to he’s faced with Captain America and Bucky!

No, true believer, it’s not a hoax! Not a dream! Not an alternate-universe story! This ain’t Bizarro Cap and Bucky. And, as The Falcon learns the hard way, these guys fight like the real Cap and Bucky because, in a sense, they are the real Cap and Bucky.

After beating up on The Falcon, the bogus Cap gains entrance to Avengers Mansion and discovers the location of Steve and Sharon. There the two psychopaths head to destroy the man they believe to be the fake Captain America. Getting confused yet? Well, hang on another paragraph or three. I’ll get to the flashback shortly.

So “Cap and Bucky” track down the two frolicking lovebirds on a remote beach and, in a chilling scene, catch him off guard with a glimpse of his long-dead partner. The two pound Steve, Sharon, and The Falcon, who arrives as the action is taking place.

Tied up, the three listen to the fake Cap tell his story.

He grew up obsessed with Captain America and, after the hero disappears and Bucky is killed in an explosion (we know now that Cap went into a deep freeze), becomes equally obsessed with taking Cap’s place. He grows older and the obsession grows with him, until finally as a young man he discovers the formula for the Super Soldier Serum ad convinces government officials that the Korean War is the perfect training ground for the new Cap. He has plastic surgery to make the charade complete, but, in a cruel twist of fate, has his dreams dashed as the Korean War comes to an end and America decides it doesn’t need another hero. Taking the name Steve Rogers, he settles down quietly as a history teacher until one fateful day, as he’s walking through th park, he happens upon a young boy reading “The Life Story of Captain America.” Turns out the boy’s idol is Bucky. The two decide to inject themselves with the Serum and go off to fight super-baddies like The Red Skull and The Man With No Face.

But the boys begin to fight with a little too much verve. The government fears “schizophrenic paranoia,” zaps the heroes, and places them in suspended animation until “we can cure them.” Years later, one of the men in charge of the bodies develops a bit of “schizophrenic paranoia” himself (when then-President Nixon visits China) and thaws Cap and Bucky. Crazier than ever before, the two lunatics set out to right all the wrongs perpetrated by the “home-front traitor” known as Captain America.

Eventually, as expected, the two Caps have their showdown and the real Cap shows who’s the better trained super-soldier. Cap exits the final panels telling Sharon Carter: “I guess the authorities will put (the fake Cap and Bucky) back in their suspended animation tanks until a cure can be found—if one can be found. And I’ll go back to fighting for a better America while they sleep. But all the time, I’ll be thinking... that he could have been me.”

A great story. Great stories were few and far between for Captain America and The Falcon after this arc, though. Falcon would quit every fourth or fifth issue, tired of being “Cap’s puppet” or “Cap’s shadow” or whatever. Cap himself would quit and become the Nomad, only to see the error of his ways and re-don his red, white, and blue uniform in time for the return of Jack Kirby to Marvel and Captain America and The Falcon in 1975.

A few years ago, in a very popular arc in the newest reboot of Captain America, Bucky Barnes returned as The Winter Soldier. But that’s fodder for another column and, frankly, another writer.


James Reasoner said...

I remember that storyline very well. Marvel produced some excellent comics in the first half of the Seventies, definitely. I still prefer the Sixties stuff (because that's when I started reading them, natch), but like you, I didn't burn out on them until the Nineties, when EVERY SINGLE CREATIVE DECISION anybody there made was WRONG, WRONG, WRONG . . . Sorry, I get a little overwrought.

Best run ever is FANTASTIC FOUR #36 - 60. Had to get that in.

Matthew Bradley said...

As I have delineated ad nauseam at Bradley on Film, that's my own favorite period at Marevl as well. In fact, it's high time I wrote another of my "Marvel Snapshot" posts when time permits. Englehart was, and remains, one of my true heroes.

Peter Enfantino said...

Well Matthew-
You're certainly welcome to post your Marvel Snapshot here on this blog. John and I would like to expand bare bones to become what it was when we published it ten years ago: a forum for the best genre writing we can find. Send something our way.