"Captain America and the Ringmaster of Death!"
Joe Simon & Jack Kirby (ink assist from Al Avison)
Doug: What have we here? A Golden Age story, on the Bronze Age Babies? Why not? We all know that our collections are littered (I say that affectionately) with GA material, whether in books like Fantasy Masterpieces, in the various Giant-Size issues, or in hardcovers such as The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. I asked Karen back in February if she had a problem in my branching out; certainly we've covered the Silver Age and even beyond the Bronze Age. Today we complete the cycle of comics history.
Doug: Back in 1990 when I thought I had to have everything that might be worth something someday, I purchased the slipcased, two volume hardcover Captain America: The Classic Years. I read through all of it at the time. It was OK -- but I was like, "what's the big deal?" Now that I'm infinitely more cultured as an almost-47 year old than I was at 24, I want to take a second look. I chose this story because the baddie will be familiar to our Silver- and Bronze Age readers. It's none other than C-lister The Ringmaster - we'll see if he's brought his Circus of Crime.
Doug: We open at the circus, where Private Steve Rogers and his companion Bucky Barnes stroll the midway. Who should they meet up with but General Blaine, who Bucky refers to in a whisper to Steve as "the old man". As Bucky plays the carnival games, we go behind the scenes in an adjacent tent and find one Ringmaster of Crime spinning his own wheel of misfortune -- and tonight's target is going to be General Blaine himself! Putting his machinations in order, the Ringmaster summons Tommy Thumb, the "circus midget" (hey, it was the politically incorrect 1940's!) and orders him to do a dirty deed. When Tommy balks, the Ringmaster takes after him with his whip! While this is only silhouetted, I was still taken aback at the brutality of the act. We then see Tommy slide up next to the tiger pen and undo the latch. This ain't good...
Doug: The tiger, now loosed, attacks the first passerby -- and as bad luck would have it, it's General Blaine. In one of those panels that can only be appreciated at blogs like superdickery.com, Steve orders Bucky, "off with your clothes, kid!" They slip into the shadows, basically costing the general his life while they shed their G.I. uniforms and emerge as Captain America and Bucky. In a scene reminiscent of Tarzan, Cap gets the big cat in a choke hold and snaps its neck (the Lord of the Jungle always preferred the full nelson, by the way). Bucky spies the midget (I feel bad just writing that...) and even calls after him, "A midget -- hey, are you the one who opened the cage?", because you know that midgets just do that sort of thing. Bucky's knocked out by a hammer handle-wielding goon as Cap arrives from pronouncing the general dead. Cap lays out Bucky's assailants, punching one guy clean through the side of a canvas tent (man....) and punching the other fellow into the vacated tiger cage. A previously-unseen thug watches from a hiding place, and goes to tell the Ringmaster.
Doug: Back at base, Sergeant Duffy is in no way happy that Rogers missed curfew the night before. Of course the penalty for that is peeling potatoes, so Steve and Bucky commence with this monotonous job. Up walks Betty Ross, "special government agent", and the boys relate the goings-on of the night before. Convinced that the general was set up, Betty decides she'd better clue in Defense Commissioner Newsome. But, the Ringmaster is back at the circus spinning his wheel and -- you guessed it: Commissioner Newsome is next in line! It's worth mentioning that the Ringmaster does not employ the hypnotic circle on the band of his hat as would the Silver Age version -- the only circular image employed by this guy is his "wheel of death". The Ringmaster muses to himself that once he kills all of the swine chosen to be his victims, he will rule this leaderless land as Hitler rules Europe, with the mob as his Gestapo! I thought these panels were interesting, as on the cover of the mag there is clearly the Nazi vibe, but while there are these and other references to the War in the story no one is pictured with swastikas, etc. The Ringmaster assembles his circus performers (not referred to as the "Circus of Crime" at this point) and lays out his plans to kill Newsome. He threatens them with his whip should they fail, and then sends them into action.
Doug: As Newsome works in the armory, the acrobats form a human chain across the chasm between rooftops. Omir the snake charmer (no Princess Python, he) moves across and sets up just outside some duct work. Playing, the snake begins to rise form its basket and slithers into the ventilation system. As Newsome hears the notes playing, he's suddenly beset upon by the snake and killed. Outside, Betty Ross is walking briskly toward the armory to warn Newsome that he might be on a hit list. A gang of thugs leaps from the shadows and attempts to drag her away. Cap and Bucky, keeping her in their sights for safety, leap to action and pummel the baddies. As they round up the five goons, Zandow the Strong Man emerges from the shadows and wallops Cap. Down and out, Cap is unable to prevent the gang from spiriting Betty away, Bucky helping his mentor rather than giving chase. But when Cap awakens, he's fighting mad and tells Bucky they are going to the circus.
Doug: The Ringmaster addresses Betty with all the bravado we'd expect from a creep like him, and tells her that if Captain America comes for her, it will be the end of him. And sure enough, outside we see Cap and Bucky now on the circus grounds. As they move about, attempting to conceal their presence, they round a corner and fall right into the Ringmaster's trap -- all of his goons, the circus performers, and the elephants! Cap pays ol' Zandow back for the knock on his noggin, and Bucky takes out "the missing link". But an elephant grabs Cap in its trunk and hurls him -- headlong into the bad guys! Yeah, that shield will leave a mark! Inside the big top, the Ringmaster has suspended the now-unconscious Betty from a rope high above the center ring. As our heroes enter, the Ringmaster slices the rope -- and their isn't any net for this trick! Cap commandeers a trapeze, with Bucky holding onto his boots. They swing to the middle and Bucky is able to grab Betty and spirit her to safety while Cap goes after the Ringmaster.
Doug: Cap easily catches the Ringmaster in the tent that serves as his headquarters. The beating he takes is pretty severe, and Simon & Kirby do a fun job of showing that with just a series of sound effects. In the next panel we see the slumped over, would-be crime lord with his wheel of fortune bashed over his head. Bucky comes in and reports that he was able to collapse the big top on the rest of the gang -- it's a victory for the good guys. And as the cops arrive, Cap and Bucky make tracks. Betty thinks to herself, as most comic book girlfriends do, that maybe some day she'll figure out who those guys are?!
Doug: So, what's so Golden about this story? Well, first of all it was only 12 pages long, as most Golden Age comics had several stories crammed between the covers. Secondly, while the art was dynamic and full of action, it was somewhat crude by Silver and Bronze Age standards. But for its time, it's really hard to knock Simon & Kirby. Third, there were several Wertham-worthy moments, such as the comment about Bucky getting his clothes off, the beating of the "midget", the mutilation of the general by the tiger, Cap's dispensing of justice to the Ringmaster (even though off-camera), Betty in bondage, Bucky being put into countless incidents of danger as a child, and probably some other minutiae that I've missed. Lastly, it was a self-contained story, common for the era. But, was this good stuff? I'd say I had a fair enough time reading it. I took it for what it is (was) and wasn't disappointed. Whereas I tend to look at Silver Age books as the ground floor for the Bronze Age, Golden Age stories have a bit of heritage to them that places them on a pedestal as formative to the industry as a whole. We cannot overlook their significance.