Friday, April 18, 2008

Secret Empire, Part 2: Captain America #170-171

Captain America and Falcon
Captain America and Falcon #170 (1974)

Books examined:
Captain America 170-171

Written by Mike Friedrich over Steve Englehart’s plot. Pencils by Sal Buscema with inks by Vinnie Colletta. Covers by John Romita, Sr.

Doug: Note: As Falcon earns his wings in #171, the cover corner icon changes to reflect such. His costume also changes on the icon, though it is the same in the interiors as it had been in #170. The covers for issues #172-174 (by Gil Kane doing his best 1970’s “up your nose with a rubber hose” faces – “dynamic” was never his shortcoming; noses were!) of the series will pale in comparison to Buscema’s #169 and Romita’s work on #’s 170-171 and 175-176.

Coloring observation: for the tpb, the color reconstructionist should have chosen a different shade of blue for Cap’s eyes to differentiate them from his cowl. It’s kind of annoying. Not sure what the original colors looked like…

Karen: As I write this the day after reading it, I believe the eye color was a lighter blue.

Doug: See, the brightness of the tpb paper isn’t always for the betterment of the story, in my opinion. I just found it distracting – minor, but not a good look.

Moonstone shows up and beats the tar out of Cap, displaying powers ranging from super strength to finger-lasers to flight to invisibility. His origin later is just plain silly (the powers of the Watcher??) – a take on the formulaic “I was holding something and then BAM! it exploded and gave me powers!” situation we’ve seen everywhere from Barry Allen to Don Blake to whoever. I did, however, enjoy the dichotomous perspectives of the origin’s telling. His costume is reminiscent of Lucifer from the Silver Age X-Men, specifically as depicted in “The Origin of Professor X”.

Sharon: Good observation.

Doug: The assembled crowd wildly cheers Moonstone’s defeat of Cap – I’m just not believing that would happen. As a free agent, even with American distrust in the gov’t, I don’t see middle-class men-on-the-street turning on this icon so easily. Do you think that Cap was wrapped in the flag made him easier to drop than other heroes of the day like Elvis Presley, Reggie Jackson, Warren Beatty, or Joe Namath? Do you think this aspect of the story is realistic?

Karen: I do think the public turns on Cap pretty quickly. But then again, during that time, there was so much distrust of authority, and Cap certainly represents authority. The public can be very fickle, and there’s no denying that people love to see a hero fall.

Sharon: I thought it was kind of sudden…but then again, I much prefer this kind of storytelling to today’s (ugh!) decompression. And actually, in previous issues, Peggy Carter did mention the radio commercials, so the situation had been building up for a while.

Doug: The Black Panther/Falcon sequences strike me as odd. Not the giving of Wakandan technology to Sam Wilson – that doesn’t bother me and is believable. I was just overcome by how obnoxious Leila is. Pardon me, but here you are in this marvelous playground, you’ve never probably even been out of Harlem, and all you can do is complain about being bored?? I loved how Leila’s escort, Tanzika, ripped on her slang as well as her uneducated manner. Oh, yes – and the use of the term “fox” was priceless!! I couldn’t even begin to tell you the last time I heard that term or its derivative “foxy”! The year 1974 was near the height of “blaxploitation” films. The Stoneface scenes fit nicely into this homage and the dialogue was just as ridiculous. Richard Roundtree should have rescued Leila!! The scene where T’Challa and Falc first attempt their rescue reminds me of a cop buddy film, like Lethal Weapon. Again formulaic, but necessary to show Sam’s growing mastery of the new equipment and also his growing confidence.

Karen: I disliked Leila as a kid, and she doesn’t come across any better now! She’s just a petulant, selfish child. It also made me wonder why Falcon would be interested in this woman. You know, like that friend of yours that you think is great, but you can’t stand their significant other?

Sharon: From what I’ve seen of her so far (Cap Essentials), Leila really has little in terms of redeeming qualities. She is usually so unpleasant! I too wonder why the Falcon likes her here, other than for physical reasons; but it’s not even like they were having sex (that would have meant revealing his Sam identity to her, and she didn’t know he was Sam, right? This was back in the days when people couldn’t recognize people they knew who just happened to be dressed in skintight costumes, so she didn’t know Sam and Falc were the same guy, correct?)

Doug: As far as I know, Leila didn’t know. But, I haven’t read too many of these books outside of this storyline.

Karen: Reading it now, some of the ‘jive talk’ is just downright painful! I guess it worked at the time (or did it?). As a white kid growing up in southern California, I had only one black friend, and I don’t recall him ever talking like that. Then again, we weren’t living in Harlem!

Doug: Buscema’s splash of the Falcon and his new wings was powerful and exciting – not unlike a pose brother John might have penciled!

Sharon: I love the sheer beauty of John’s work, but Sal’s is just so much more accessible to me.

Captain America 171 Black Panther
Captain America and Falcon #171 (1974) 
Doug: Moving into #171, the plot thickened with the jailbreak. The fight scene after Cap awakened from being gassed was well choreographed. I think Sal has sometimes taken a backseat to John in form, storytelling, etc. We’ve discussed the issues of Avengers Sal penciled under Sam Grainger’s inks and how nice they looked. Even though I’m not a Colletta fan overall, there’s just enough of the backgrounds left (you know Vinnie was notorious for erasing details!) to really put some punch (ugh!) in the fight. Cap’s power, speed, and agility shine through. It is funny, however, to see the last three panels in the battle with Cap holding Number 4 by the shirt – Cap just doesn’t look menacing to me here, at least not like Batman would!

Karen: Cap even remarks along the lines that “he doesn’t realize I would never carry out those threats” or something like that. I’m just thinking, who is gonna be afraid of Cap hurting them? You know damn well he’s not going to break your arm or anything like that. Now Batman on the other hand…

Doug: I’m thinking Tony Stark is just too busy of a man to go sit in Sam Wilson’s office and wait for him to return. I’ll give Englehart/Friedrich the benefit of the doubt – since Iron Man and T’Challa had been together in Vermont in Avengers #119, I can assume that T’Challa told him where he was going and what he was doing. Perhaps their communication continued to the end of the Panther’s time with Falc.

The battle with Moonstone to conclude this part of the story was again done simply to show that the Falcon wasn’t ready for the big time yet. Cap really had no chance to show that he’d learned anything from the first Moonstone encounter, as he spent this battle trying to save Sam from splatting all over the alley. That Moonstone dropped him so easily was no surprise, and provided a cliffhanger toward issue #172.

Karen: After I read these three issues, back-to-back-to-back, the first thing that struck me was, it took me about an hour to read three comics!

Sharon: Yes, it took me a while too. And I felt it was a far more satisfying read than anything I get with today’s books, unless I read in tpb form.

Karen: With today’s books, I could read about 7 comics in that time.

Sharon: I can’t even call this reading. I call this “flipping through some pages in a store.”

Karen: We really got so much more exposition, and I think the biggest difference is, we got to read the characters’ thoughts back then. I really wish they would bring back thought balloons, not as Bendis does them, but as a way of revealing inner feelings. I miss that.

Sharon: Me too. I always felt it was an advantage comics had over, say, movies…you could show thoughts in a scene alongside spoken dialogue.

Doug: Thought balloons worked especially well in books with one main character, like Spider-Man. I always think it’s just dumb when a character says something that no one should/would want to hear.

Karen: Quentin Harderman is an interesting villain, certainly an unusual one.

Sharon: Supposed to be a play on Haldeman, right?

Karen: I assume so. The emphasis on business and government corruption is a very different storyline than we normally get in comics. I like how Harderman thinks of the public as “consumers” (when they gather around Moonstone). It’s a different kind of villainy, a far more insidious kind.

Doug: Agreed – not unlike what the Kingpin did to Daredevil when he exposed his identity and ruined his life.

Karen: Cap comes across as much more emotional here, if not downright impetuous at times, than I recall him being in the Avengers. I know we’ve talked about this a little before, how his Avengers persona is different than his solo persona, but I really could feel it in this story.

Sharon: This is what I mean! I simply cannot reconcile the solid, stolid Cap in the Avengers with this wimp as portrayed in his own feature (not just in Secret Empire, but in the preceding Cap issues I’ve read via the Essentials)… he is so emotional, needy and insecure. And his attitude toward Sharon Carter—forcing her to quit SHIELD (in an earlier issue)—and Sam—constantly questioning their partnership…well, it’s so contrary to the Cap I was used to for years in the Avengers. Granted, back then the Avengers book was not the place to show character development or the innermost personal thoughts for the Big Three (because they had their own mags), but even in the Avengers, IM flashed his sense of humor and Thor his air of divinity…Cap just seems like a different person. (I know in the early days of the original Avengers and with the Kooky Quartet, he questioned his place in today’s world, but this was not an issue after, say, 1968 or so, in the Avengers at least…he seemed very together and secure).

Doug: Do you think Cap played not necessarily himself, but a role on the Avengers? Do you think his various scribes (Stan, Friedrich, Englehart, etc.) chose to use the solo book to explore the man and not the mythos?

Karen: But he’d also just come off some big stuff in his book, like defeating the insane 50s Cap, so I suppose he had a lot to deal with. I think maybe Englehart just tends to write his heroes a bit more emotional than a lot of other writers (like his take on the Vision for example).

Sharon: IMO, it wasn’t just Englehart writing him like this…as I’ve mentioned in some prior emails, Cap in his own book seemed to be pretty much an emotional wreck for a while, stretching back to when Stan was writing him.

Doug: I don’t like the feeling when I wake up and can’t remember what day it is – I can’t even comprehend what it would be like to be “Rip van Winkle”!

Sharon: It’s like in every other issue, Cap wanted to renounce his identity (so “Steve Rogers could live!”), or was bemoaning that he had no friends (hello? What about Hawkeye, for one? ), and supposedly, he had no real it's like, he didn’t want to live in Avengers Mansion and preferred a seedy hotel room instead? Why?

Doug: Do you suppose in some way he didn’t feel worthy? Even after his WWII experiences, he perhaps still thought of himself as the guy with the humble background – wanted to do well but wasn’t qualified. Also, given that Rogers chosen vocation was artist, do you suppose that attraction to the arts made him a more passionate/emotional person?)

Sharon: He wanted Sharon Carter to give up her career (and he succeeded, at least during this timeframe), plus he was constantly questioning his partnership with Sam. This was not the Avengers stalwart I’d grown up with. This portrayal of Cap was so at odds with how he appeared in (one example) the Kree-Skrull War, where he was calm and in charge and allaying everyone else’s fears.

Doug: As you say, it was a war. Cap is at home in that environment – it’s who the mask and shield are.

Karen: I enjoyed the Sal Buscema art; I thought (and still think) it suited the book. Just good solid storytelling.

Sharon: I agree, he’s such a solid artist…generally does pretty good characters (a great Black Panther IMO) and as you’ve noted, his storytelling skills are great. He is a good example of someone who doesn’t just draw pretty pictures for effect; he moves a story along at a pace that really engages the reader (well, me anyway! )

Doug: I really enjoyed his Marvel Team-Ups!

Sharon: The only thing that bothered me was his overuse of the “character’s hand on someone else’s shoulder” pose…but maybe if I’d read these issues singly (instead of in a couple of sittings), I wouldn’t have noticed the frequent use of this pose.
I think these three issues contain a good blend of a provocative story and solid artwork, even if the plot contained some contrivances and the message was somewhat heavy-handed.

Doug: As I said, a little decompression might have been a good thing.

Sharon: To me this storyline so far seems like a culmination of several years’ worth of Cap stories…he’s always questioned his pertinence in a modern, changing society (see the famous Gene Colan illustrated sequence that opens Cap #122), and like America, he’s gone through several changes himself (as mentioned, an Easy Rider stage; he’s “died” on previous occasions, etc.). The questioning of his existence, what he stands for, the deaths and resurrections, the rises and falls--yes, even his relationships with his allies--have always been a part of the Cap character (and continue to this day)…I guess these ebbs and flows mirror America’s. Englehart daringly tied Cap’s situation to real events, but I think the basic elements were always present.

Doug: Here are the notes from Englehart’s website, concerning not only these issues but the entire arc. Here is the link to the actual site:

169-171: Mike Friedrich scripted the second half of the first issue and all of the next two from my plots; I was moving to California.
173: The X-Men - still guest stars without a book of their own.
175: People often ask if Marvel hassled me for the political vibe in this series and others, and the honest answer is that they almost never did. It was a wonderful place to be creative. Here, I intended to say the President was Nixon, but wasn't sure if Marvel would allow it and so censored myself - probably unnecessarily.
176: An equally daring issue in a different way: there was no action at all. Steve Rogers broods on the roof of
Avengers Mansion and various heroes come talk to him about his decision. But the emotional content was intense.

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