Monday, October 14, 2013

Heroes and Horrors: Captain America 253

Captain America #253 (January 1981)
"Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot"
Writer: Roger Stern
Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: Joe Rubenstein

Karen: Today we start a two-part review, and it's sort of doing double-duty: one, it's part of our "Heroes and Horrors" line-up for October, and two, we're getting to more of that great Roger Stern-John Byrne Captain America run that we've planned to review. This story was both familiar and unusual for Cap, as it revisited his history with the Invaders yet dealt with a supernatural menace.

Doug:  Both of these creators had by this time established themselves as premier talent in the Marvel Bullpen.  John Byrne shows that he could work with other writers (beside Chris Claremont) at a very high level.  This is just a very readable comic, full of characterization, action, and intrigue.  Talk about 20 minutes well spent!

Karen: We open on a very rainy night in a village just north of London. A policeman and a doctor are inspecting the body of a young woman. She's had her throat slashed and been drained of blood. This is the third victim of such a death this month and the men are beside themselves. After taking the body to the doctor's office, they go to inform near-by Lady Crichton of the grisly discovery. The older woman (who looked a bit like Judy Dench to me) tells the men that she'll contact Inspector Sweeney of Scotland Yard. However, upstairs and hidden from view, an elderly man in a wheelchair thinks to himself that he knows who is responsible, but none of these men can stop the perpetrator. The only one who can is in America. That's our cue to the streets of New York City -specifically, a liquor store that's being robbed. As two thugs harass the shop-owner for more cash, the star of our book appears. Cap calmly dodges a shotgun
blast and knocks out one thug, then uses his shield to stop the other, who was running down an alley to escape. This one still has his gun though. But Cap shows no fear and approaches the thief, telling him that lots of men have tried and failed to kill him, so he'd better just hand over the gun. The creative team does a nice job of showing Cap's overwhelming confidence and authority. The robber meekly hands over his pistol and Cap then gives it to the elated shop-keeper, who said he called the police and they're on their way. Since Cap was in a hurry, he leaves the man holding the gun on the thief! I found this a bit hard to believe, but even Cap says he would normally wait for the cops to show up. Cap then takes to the rooftops to recover his valise, containing his clothes, and changes into civilian gear.

Doug:  You mention Cap's authority -- isn't that a character trait inherent to this hero?  Really, no matter what era Cap was written or written in, it's his larger-than-life persona that's stands above almost everyone else around him.  I did not, however, buy the line from the second hood that he thought Cap was a myth.  C'mon...  could anyone really utter that in a comic published in 1981?  That just seemed silly.  I liked that Cap kept his clothes in his artist's portfolio -- seemed to me a much better ruse than stuffing one's shoes and sportcoat into a cape-pocket!  But back to the beginning of the story, and your comments.  I really like stories set overseas.  Part of the allure is that stereotypical Old World vibe that we get from American writers, but it gives any yarn like this an aura of mystery.

Karen: We discover why Cap was in such a hurry: he has a date with his girlfriend, Bernie Rosenthal. They're going to see a production of "Oklahoma" and Steve is just barely on time. Steve muses to himself that the first time he saw it was in 1943! Later, they go back to his place and talk over coffee and a little snuggling on the couch. Bernie remarks about how old-fashioned he is. He hasn't yet revealed to her his Captain America identity. While they are getting close, he gets a call from Jarvis, the Avengers' butler. A telegram has arrived for Cap, in some sort of code. It indicates that he is needed in England and is signed "Falsworth." This puts a charge into Steve. He tells Bernie he has to leave immediately on "personal business," apologizing for disrupting their weekend plans. Bernie says its OK, an old boyfriend is coming to town and she'll be fine. Once she leaves she chides herself for making up a foolish story like that, just because she was mad that Steve wouldn't tell her what was going on. Steve wishes he could be more honest with her, but he doesn't feel ready yet.

Doug:  The hero/girlfriend/secret identity trope gets tired, doesn't it?  Although we all knew that Cap had to get to vampire huntin' sooner or later, I wanted to enjoy a bit of the development in Steve and Bernie's romance.  I know these things are played for tension and serve as a vehicle toward a hero's clay feet, but the scene could have lasted just a bit longer.  One of the things I've enjoyed about Cap's mag over the years is that the Avengers (and their mythos) are reoccurring supporting cast members.  That Jarvis called didn't seem like a guest appearance -- it was quite natural and comfortable.  Bernie's reaction was understandable -- I especially liked that she dispensed her venom with such a carefree, matter-of-fact delivery.  There were no icy words, just a quick and effective good-bye.  Yet, when we got to see her out in the hall I had a real sense that this couple cared for each other and she was truly remorseful for reacting as she did.  But Cap was ever-dutiful, wasn't he?

Karen: As Steve flies over to England -on a Concorde - he thinks back to his days with the Invaders. "Falsworth" of course refers to the two British members of that WWII group: Union Jack, who was originally Lord Montgomery Falsworth, and then his son, Brian, and Spitfire, who was Lord Falsworth's daughter, Jacqueline. He manages to get his shield through customs with a quick flash of his Avengers ID, and then he's off to the Falsworth estate. He comes across an older woman working in the garden and discovers it's Jacqueline. She is now Lady Crichton. She is excited to see him, but quickly realizes that she is now older than him. After briefly cleaning up, they regroup in the mansion and do some catching up. Steve explains that he hadn't completely recovered all of his memory until recently (a nice way to explain why he hadn't recognized his old buddy the Sub-Mariner and a number of other things that were retconned into existence) and Jackie tells him of her marriage, and recent widowhood. But when Steve asks why she summoned him there, she's puzzled. She didn't send the telegram! Suddenly Lord Falsworth appears, pushed into the room in a wheelchair. He is physically frail, but very fired up. He tells Steve that their old enemy, Baron Blood has returned! He describes the murders but Jackie interjects that the inspector believes it to be the work of a madman. Besides, Baron Blood's body is locked up in the Tower of London. Lord Falsworth is insistent though. Steve says he'll check things out, and Lord Falsworth is wheeled away to get his medication. Jackie apologizes and says her father is senile, but Steve will hear none if it. He says Falsworth is as sharp as ever, and Cap is going to investigate.

Doug:  For those of you who have read this story and its conclusion, you know that it is dedicated to Frank Robbins.  We've long discussed our general disdain for Robbins' art on the Invaders, but you know what?  I really cannot "see" the Invaders in my head unless it's an image from Robbins' pencil.  That's impact, friends.  The scene of Cap going through customs was awesome -- you talk about authority!  That agent's reaction to Steve's ID bordered on reverence!  Jaqueline Falsworth certainly wasn't the first woman who'd known Steve Rogers from the war years to feel the unkind effects of aging in his foutain-of-youth presence.  I was doing a little math concerning Lord Falsworth, the original Union Jack.  Active in World War I, Falsworth must have been born somewhere around 1890 or so -- he'd have certainly been an old codger by 1981!  But as we've discussed Marvel's lack of legacy heroes, it was nice to see not only the Invaders flashbacks in this issue, but the use of characters from "the War years" as well -- though obviously they were retconned as so only six years prior to this issue's publication!

Karen: Now in his red, white, and blue suit, Cap goes to the office of the village doctor to talk to him. Dr. Cromwell is just saying good-bye to a young female patient, telling her to keep taking her iron supplement and she'll be fine (hmmmm....) when Cap arrives with the constable. At first the Doctor is pleased to meet him; he says he saw Cap in action during the war. But as soon as Cap mentions the possibility of the killer being a vampire, the doctor goes ballistic and orders him out. The constable explains to Cap that the doc is
sensitive about vampires. It seems a few years before, when the doctor was new to the village, there was a vampire scare, with the villagers believing Dracula himself was on the loose. They thought they trapped a vampire in the doctor's cottage and set it on fire. But the doc's daughter was inside. He rushed in and tried to save her but it was too late. The doctor got badly burned (he is drawn with a huge bead and glasses but you can see some scars). I have a feeling there's more to this doctor than meets the eye.

Doug:  The doctor's stunning about-face when Cap mentioned vampires took me by surprise, and although we'd only seen the guy previously in a few panels seemed really off.  So that you suggest something might be amiss is perhaps the effects of capable foreshadowing.

Karen: Cap then goes to the Tower of London to check out Baron Blood's body. The corpse is kept in a vault covered with crosses and garlic. When Cap and Inspector Sweeney reach the coffin, they unseal it and inside rests what appears to be the costumed skeletal remains of the Baron, with a wooden stake protruding from its chest. Cap looks it over for a moment and then yanks the stake from its chest! The Inspector is shocked but Cap says the corpse isn't a vampire -it's not even a man! The coroner later confirms this; it is the body of a woman, dead perhaps twelve years. Baron Blood is on the loose!

Doug:  I really enjoyed all of the classic vampire antidotes, talismans, what have you that were employed in this story.  Why is this story in our October monsters reviews?  Sheesh -- ya hafta ask?  I was curious, though, as to why Stern/Byrne chose to say that Baron Blood had been out of the crypt for 12 years.  Why, then, had he seemingly just surfaced to menace the locals?  That's a long time to just be hanging out (albeit upside down, I suppose).

Karen: Cap returns to Falsworth manor just as Jackie's son Kenneth has come home, bringing along a pal, Joey. Apparently Jackie is upset because she feels Joey is low-class. Joey greets Cap enthusiastically, but before much can be said, Lord Falsworth shows up and Cap tells him he was right in his suspicions. The old man goes ballistic, while Jackie questions Cap's findings. Cap and Falsworth go off to the library to discuss the situation. In a touching scene, Falsworth realizes that everyone thinks he's senile. He asks Cap if he's losing his mind. Cap assures him he isn't and that he will stay there and stop Baron Blood.

Doug:  I was unsure what to make of Kenneth and his boi Joey.  Joey wanted to wrestle with Cap -- that really made me think something was up, that he might somehow be Baron Blood in disguise.  Stern had me thinking.  And I agree with you about the scene between Cap and Falsworth -- shoot, Cap would be in his mid-60s if he'd aged naturally (assuming real time instead of Marvel time).

Karen: The object of Falsworth's fears is lurking just above their heads, sitting atop the manor roof. He waits til the occupants have gone to bed and then creeps, spider-like, down the walls to the window of the room where Cap lies in bed. He's just about to sink his fangs into his neck when Cap backhands him with his shield. Cap, playing possum obviously, jumps up and is about to attack when the Baron knocks him into the hall. Despite his slight frame, Cap reminds himself, the vampire is possessed of supernatural strength. But Cap is prepared. He grabs a string of garlic from under his shield and shoves it in Blood's face, slowing him. However, the Baron has all the powers of the vampire, and turns himself into a mist, reforming behind Cap and striking. While they tangle inside, Blood uses his abilities to summon hundreds of rats outside the estate. Jackie and Ken hear the commotion and come out of their rooms. As Cap and Blood struggle, they knock open the door to Falsworth's room, and the aged lord sees his old enemy again. Cap is about to regain his feet when Blood strikes with his hypnotic powers, and freezes the Captain in his tracks. Unable to move, Cap stands stock-still while Jackie and Ken look on as Baron Blood prepares to drain Cap of his blood, killing him and eventually turning him into a vampire!

Doug:  Frenetic scene, huh?  This was all-out action, with Cap perhaps overmatched?  It's difficult to think of a Marvel hero of Cap's powerset who wouldn't be overmatched.  Spider-Man, certainly super-strong, would have an advantage in agility.  Daredevil, while perhaps able to anticipate a vampire's next move, would certainly fall short in the strength department.  So this is an interesting match-up.  While it's a grudge match, there really isn't any mention of Blood's Nazi-era past.  Nope, this one's personal as Cap tries to protect the Falsworth family as well as get to the bottom of the mysterious murders near their estate.  I know Jackie Crighton had remarked earlier that she's lost her Spitfire powers, but did you half-expect her to find just a bit of that super-speed on her way into Steve's quarters?  I was hopeful, but then I'm a sucker for nostalgia.

Karen: I enjoyed the first part of this story. It's been many years since I read this and I don't recall all the details so it's almost like a fresh story. It's an interesting mix of Cap's past and the unusual setting for him of the supernatural, something he didn't deal with all that often. It also reminded the reader about Cap's past and that Cap was still very much a "man out of time." As the years went on, this seemed to be less relevant to the character, but here, that idea was brought back and used very well. The art is also spectacular and complements the story. Looking forward to the conclusion!

Doug:  You're lucky, as you had read this previously -- this is my maiden voyage, and I'm sure glad you chose this for this month's docket (Karen slotted all of the reviews this month, fans -- and she did a great job!).  What a great period for Marvel, just before (in my opinion) they began to ebb with the close of the Bronze Age.  I was out of comics when this would have hit the stands, but the X-Men were still riding relatively high, Daredevil was of course going strong, Amazing Spider-Man was steady as was the Fantastic Four, and etc., etc.  I have the Marvel Premier Hardcover Captain America: War and Remembrance, which covers the Stern/Byrne run.  Wise investment on my part.  See ya in 7 for the conclusion!


Edo Bosnar said...

Any excuse to pull out my (tpb) copy of War and Remembrance is welcome - and so last night I did just that in anticipation of your review (and only managed to read the first part of the Baron Blood story, as I decided to also read the Batroc/Mr. Hyde two-parter that preceded this one).

As usual, my compliments on your review - very thorough.
As to the story itself, I thoroughly love it - it's probably my favorite in the all-too-brief Stern/Byrne/Rubinstein run, which is in turn my absolutely, bar-none favorite Cap run, ever.
Doug, interesting that you mentioned that brief scene between Steve and Bernie, and the way Bernie reacted to getting brushed off - with no temper tantrum a la Mary Jane or Lois Lane. Although I first read this as a kid way back when it came out, I only came to appreciate how well that whole scene was written as an adult. And it just cements my view that Bernie should have been Cap's one-and-only from that point forward.
I would comment on a few other points you made, but that might give away too much of the story - in case anyone else here hasn't read it yet.

Rip Jagger said...

I keep meaning to buy this trade and I then for whatever reason forget. I have the original issues, but I'd love to read it in a fresh format.

I must buy this trade! I must buy this trade!

Now maybe I can remember

Rip Off

Anonymous said...

I love the way the policeman is holding an old-fashioned lamp, we Brits did have modern torches and batteries in 1980 !! That was the most bizarre thing about Marvel in those days, they seemed to think Britain and Europe still lived in the 19th Century. And of course the two British members of the Invaders had to be aristocrats because the rest of us peasants were far too stupid and inferior to be super-heroes - cliche upon clice upon clice !

Doug said...

Wait, Colin! You mean all that isn't true? ;)

Thanks for the kind words, all. Next week's issue was a blast to read and review as well.


Steve Does Comics said...

I first read this story about twenty years ago in the aforementioned War and Remembrance. I think this is the only British-based Bronze Age American super-hero story I can ever remember enjoying - despite its "interesting" portrayal of a Britain where cops carry oil lamps and serial killings are dealt with by the local bobby.

Mostly I liked it for Byrne's art and the presence of Baron Blood who is a pleasingly unpleasant character.

The one thing I couldn't cope with was Inspector Sweeney, who, if you're British, pulls you right out of the story every time he's mentioned. For anyone who doesn't know, The Sweeney was the 1970s cop show that Life On Mars was originally based on, and calling a cop Inspector Sweeney is like calling a cop, "Inspector CSI Miami."

MattComix said...

I know Doug mentioned the secret identity trope feeling tired but it doesn't to me. I enjoy the contrast of the "normal" life with the heroic one as part of my enjoyment of the idea of transformation in superheroes.

Actually since modern comics have hacked the idea of the secret identity to pieces looking at it here feels rather refreshing to be honest.

I really love the look of Byrne's artwork from this time. I don't want to be one of those "his old stuff was better" kind of fans because I don't think he's lost anything in terms of skill. There's just an aesthetic quality to his 70's and 80's stuff that works for me.

Doug said...

Hi, Matt --

For everyone's reference, here's what I wrote in regard to what Matt has brought up:

The hero/girlfriend/secret identity trope gets tired, doesn't it? Although we all knew that Cap had to get to vampire huntin' sooner or later, I wanted to enjoy a bit of the development in Steve and Bernie's romance. I know these things are played for tension and serve as a vehicle toward a hero's clay feet, but the scene could have lasted just a bit longer.

I fully agree with you, Matt, on the hero life/private life dichotomy. And I agree with you that I'm not a fan of the modern version of that trope where everyone knows everything. What I was trying to get at, and maybe didn't state as well as I'd hoped, was that I'd have liked to see some extended time given to the private life of our hero. It just seemed that it was formulaic in the Bronze Age to give the obligatory page to that aspect of the magazine, and then it was off to more slam-bang action. I'm no dummy -- I know why we buy superhero comics. And I'd not advocate what I've heard of Chris Claremont -- John Byrne has said that Claremont got to a point where he'd have rather done issues as all character development with people just sitting around talking (Bendis-like). Nope -- don't want that, either. But I would have bought an issue with a 2-3 page conclusion of the previous issue's dilemma, then some lengthy private life development, followed by a 2-3 page lead-in to next month's baddie-du-jour.

But I am serious that the hero/girlfriend thing got tired. It's a wonder these jokers had any romance at all!


Edo Bosnar said...

Doug, the thing I like about the Stern/Byrne run on Cap is that everything seems so perfectly balanced: set-up sequences, snippets from his personal life, back-story explanations, action... Everything in just the right measure. I recall when I first bought the trade and re-read the entire run as an adult how surprised I was at how little supporting characters like Bernie actually appeared - yet I remembered them so vividly from my readings of the original issues (which, by the way, I read over and over again quite a bit back then).

And Rip, yes, you must buy this trade: it is so well worth the money. I think you should also be able to find inexpensive used copies in good condition. I bought mine, in almost mint condition, for about $5.

MattComix said...

Hey Doug! Ah, thanks for clarifying. I see what you mean I guess I'm more forgiving of it now because it just so beats the hell out that Bendis syndrome.

They had 22 pages and they were determined to give you a complete experience so sometimes that meant trimming the slice of life stuff to get to the heroics.

As for the heroes romantic lives I think maybe part of making that work is that the hero really does need to come up with stuff that sounds believe rather than letting them coast too consistently on ambiguous terms like "personal business".

david_b said...

Ok ok, I'm the odd man out here.., but as reviewed eons past by the sisterly 'Two Girls' site, it's nay impossible to enjoy any post-Englehart Cap stories for this 'true believer'. Oh, and I've tried, trust me. 'Secret Empire' was and will always be the pinnacle Cap for me (outside his Avengers role..).

I never thought much of Byrne on solo books (DC or Marvel), not sure why.. They don't do anything for me, which along side his last year of FF, has made it a chore to enjoy Byrne. It's both his style of composition and his facial drawings. Unfortunately for this tale, as wonderfully as it was written (AND reviewed), I'm not a big vampire fan.. Never was.

As I've said before, his short stint on the Avengers arcs were good, and some of his earlier FF work was fine, but aside from those entries, not much excites me about Byrne.

All in all, I can feel the excitement seething in this review, so good goin', you two..!!

Fred W. Hill said...

Re the discussion on Steve Roger's life out of costume, I think one of the main reasons Englehart's run is generally held in high regard is because he dealt with Cap out of costume to a greater degree and in less of a cliched manner than any previous writer. Heck, for most of his run in Tales of Suspense and well into his own series, Cap had very little life outside of costume, except for a few dates with Sharon Carter, often spent trying to convince her to give up her professional career as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Strangely, this era of Cap was unique in that Steve Rogers had a supporting cast of friends who knew nothing about his life as a superhero. At least Stern & Byrne were trying to display more of a balance during their run, a trend DeMatteis continued but, to my recall, Gruenwald essentially dropped in favor of more costumed heroics and travelling around the country.
Also, seems this era was one of the last in which Cap would meet with his WWII colleagues, outside of the ex-Howler, Infinity Formula inbibing SHIELD agents. In this story, Jacqueline could still be in her mid-50s but now she'd be in her late 80s. My stepdad, who joined the Navy in 1943 at age 17 and was still only 19 when WWII ended just turned 88 last week. Even allowing that Bucky was a 15 year old camp mascot when he & Cap teamed up in early 1941, Bucky would be about 88 too now.
All that aside, this had a great story and great art, and a really fun read. Wonderful super-hero/horror pick, Karen & Doug!

Anonymous said...

Whatta blast from the past!

I remember reading this particular Cap story many years ago so it was a real thrill to see you guys review this issue. This story arc really highlighted Cap's 'man out of time' dilemma, as illustrated by Bernie's comment about Steve being old fashioned and Jacqueline Falsworth's reaction to seeing Steve literally not aging after 40 years.

Baron Blood was a worthy foe here; Roger Stern paced this story beautifully - he could have just had Baron Blood attack Cap and do a straight forward Marvel bustup, but here you get the impression that he and Cap have some real history between them. I must say that the Byrne and Rubenstein art team works well here too.

Can't wait for the review of next issue!

- Mike (said in fake Brit accent) 'I say old chap care for a spot of tea?' from Trinidad & Tobago.

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