Monday, October 21, 2013

Heroes and Horrors: Captain America 254

Captain America #254 (Feb. 1981)
"...To Battle Baron Blood!"
Roger Stern-John Byrne-Joe Rubenstein

Doug:  Only 10 more days to Halloween, and what says "October" like 100-year old vampires chewing on the neck of the Star-Spangled Avenger?  I say to thee -- nothing!  So let's get after it with the conclusion to last week's quite-fun cliffhanger.

Doug:  We start where we stopped last issue, with Captain America in a trance brought on from the powers of the vampire Baron Blood.  John Byrne draws a wiry ugly in the Baron, and we see him snaking around Cap's back and about to sink his fangs into our heroes neck.  Also on the scene are Lord Falsworth, in whose bedroom the scene climaxes, his daughter Jackie Crighton (the former Invader Spitfire), and her son Kenneth.  We get a 6-panel flashback to catch us up, and then the fangs sink into... nope, they don't.  Chain mail.  Getcha every time.  As a kid reading Avengers reprints drawn by Don Heck, I always thought Cap's shirt had little feathers all over it, somehow related to the wings on his mask.  I've said around here before that I did enjoy the manner in which John Cassady left no doubt as to the shirt's make-up.  Anyway, here the Baron gets nothing but a toothache -- and that ticks him off!  He lunges for Cap, swearing to break his neck.  All that breaks then is Hell, on the loose!  Cap launches his nemesis across the room, and then Kenneth stupidly moves in brandishing a floor lamp.  Against a supernaturally-strong vampire.  A floor lamp.  Blood dodges it and grabs Ken about the throat -- what is it with these guys and throats??  Fortunately the sun moves above the horizon, and you know what that means.  Everyone gets a chance to catch their breath.  Well, after Cap makes one more lunge to try to get Blood; he misses, but does a nice landing (certainly with a high degree of difficulty) after his trouble.

Karen: I much prefer a concise flashback to the  modern "Previously in Captain America" text page. That just seems like the easy way out. Besides, it's fun seeing how they will manage to incorporate the flashback. Will it be a memory or a recounting to another character, or something else entirely? Regarding Cap's chain mail, it seems to me that most artists tended to draw it more like scale mail -the "feathers" you so aptly describe, Doug. There's a big difference between chain and scale mail, as any former Dungeons and Dragons player could tell you! Here, Byrne and Rubenstein seem to get it right. You'd think Baron Blood would be smart enough not to try to bite through metal, but maybe he's gotten a bit daft over the years  And Kenneth...ah Kenneth...he has the Falsworth fire, but not the skill. He's lucky Cap interceded. And what an agile move by Cap as he tries to grab the fleeing Baron. I always think of Cap as being just a notch below Spidey and the other acrobatic heroes. 

Doug:  I couldn't agree more about the recent tradition of recap pages to lead off a comic.  It just seems to me like the reader, already paying a price point of around $4, loses a story page.  You're also right at the need for creativity in incorporating the storyline's summary into a somewhat seamless presentation to new readers (without ticking off the reader who was present for those previous issues!).

Doug:   As the group at Falsworth Manor collects themselves, Kenneth's friend Joey Chapman strolls onto the scene, in a bit of a crabby mood.  It seems the ruckus of the fight, as well as the thousands of rats Blood had marshaled, served to wake up ol' Joe.  Cap cops an attitude with him, though, asking him how it was that right when Baron Blood disappeared, Chapman appeared.  Joey doesn't take to kindly to the accusation and grabs Cap's left arm.  A pop in the noggin and quick reversal later, and Joey's shoulder's about to crack.  Kenneth talks Cap down, assuring him that Joey's not the vampire.  Cap simmers down, and then asks Jackie to go with him to contact Scotland Yard.  As they leave, Kenneth gets Joey put back together and then tells him the origin of Baron Blood.  Longtime readers of the Invaders would recognize this tale from that book's first year and a half.  John Falsworth had been largely cut out of his father's will, with brother James instead getting the mantle.  Ticked off, John went to the continent and made his way to Transylvania, where he figured he'd just go find Dracula and wake him up.  You know, to control him.  Riiiiight.  The Dark Lord awoke, bit ol' John on the neck, and now who's controlling who, huh?  Falsworth ended up back in Britain as an agent for the Kaiser and stirred up some trouble in the First World War.  Later, he cozied to the Nazis where he encoutered the Invaders, and his death.  During the final melee, the original Union Jack was crippled in battle and Jackie Falsworth ended up in need of a blood transfusion -- she got it from the Human Torch!  Of course, you may recall that the mingling of his android blood with her own gave her super speed (only in the comics, friends!).  Joey hears all this and thinks it's no wonder Cap was a little tense!

Karen: This is one of those rare times where we actually see Cap ticked off. He just manhandles Joey. It's embarrassing. Then another flashback! The whole Dracula story is pretty silly, but it's a means to an end. I haven't read those Invaders issues in ages. As I've mentioned before -loved the concept and most of the stories, but hated the art. 

Doug:  Cap was stressed in this story, wasn't he?  I think he felt a real responsibility to Union Jack and Spitfire, now aged and unable to protect themselves from the threat at hand.  Cap's always had a paternal side, though.


Doug:  We cut to a cottage, where a very large bat takes aim at an open window on the second floor.  Crossing the sill, it's Baron Blood who lands inside.  Licking his wounds from his battle against Captain America, he knows he'll have to have a better plan.  But for the time being, he needs to get into his disguise, which protects him from the sun.  And that disguise is...?  Doctor Cromwell, who we met last issue.  And doesn't John Byrne draw him creepy here!  The doctor greets his patient Jenny at the door -- she of the low iron in her blood who we met last ish.  Cut to the Falsworth home where an assault team is being assembled to sniff out Baron Blood.  Kenneth and Joey offer to help, and Cap says they can use every hand on deck.  On the sidelines, this riles Lord Falsworth, who feels responsible for Blood.  As the team fans out to search the countryside and nearby villages, we see later in the day our two young friends take a break in their favorite pub.  Who should wait on them but Jenny?  Kenneth remarks that she looks pale, and then drops us a line that he intends to marry her.  As she protests, saying Kenneth's mom would never allow him to marry a commoner, she faints.  As the boys move her to a cot in the back room, Joey notices fang marks on her neck!

Karen: I like the way this slowly unfolds. The vampire hunters do the usual job scouring the near-by area for the vampire, not suspecting he's right there among them. Lord Falsworth's quiet desperation tugs at the heart strings. And the Cromwell disguise is so bizarre -it's so distinctive that I wonder if  Byrne might have intended it to be a caricature of someone in the comics industry.

Doug:  Next is a brief interlude, as Bernie Rosenthal helps Mrs. Kapplebaum clean Steve Roger's apartment.  They engage in some small talk, with Mrs. Kapplebaum attempting to do some match-making.  Bernie's having none of it when the phone rings.  It's a guy with an advertising job for Steve -- and he quickly withdraws the offer upon hearing that Rogers is in England with no contact number!  Bernie wonders how this will turn out between she and Steve, while Mrs. Kapplebaum things they should plan a June wedding!

Karen: And speaking of caricatures -was "Carmine" from the advertising agency supposed to be Carmine Infantino?

Doug:  Or, Carmine could have been "The Big Ragoo" from Laverne and Shirley.  Nah...

Doug:  Back in the UK, we get a rather touching scene as Cap returns to Falsworth Manor.  Intent on upping the security around the home, he checks in on James Falsworth -- to find his old ally suited up as Union Jack!  While still wheelchair bound, the former hero of two World Wars tells Cap that maybe he can draw his brother out of hiding.  He also tells Cap that should the Baron get the best of him, Cap has his authority to end his life so that he not become a vampire.  Jackie happens by, and thinks to herself that her dad has his spark back.  She wonders if she, too, could be of help and sees her old Spitfire costume hanging on the wall.  Too many years, she says.  Too many years...

Karen: Seeing the two men together, two heroes from wars long past, but one old and infirm, and the other still miraculously young, we are reminded that the qualities that define a hero are more than just physical. Lord Falsworth's desire to be useful,  to make a sacrifice that will ultimately save lives, gets at the true core of what it is to be a hero. 

Doug:  And not an "anti-hero".  A Hero.  However, Jackie just as quickly turns on her father.  I think she became scared for him -- if she, at 20-some years younger could not compete in this battle, certainly he'd be killed instantly.  But he resists her verbal assault and again reiterates that because Blood is a Falsworth, it's their responsibility to deal with him.  But in the excitement, his heart acts up and he nearly lurches out of his wheelchair.  Some time later, he's in his bed (still clothed in his fightin' togs) when Dr. Cromwell arrives.  Uh oh -- this ain't gonna end well for somebody!  Cromwell does some preliminary examination of Lord Falsworth, and then ushers Cap and Jackie out of the room -- you know, it's going to be a long exam.  But as soon as they exit, the wolf leaps from the sheep's clothing and it's a quite-distraught Union Jack who says to Baron Blood, "but... you were defeated... your remains locked away in the Tower of London... How?"  Blood gives him the lowdown about his revival, the ruse of manipulating the real Dr. Cromwell and of killing him and his daughter (hence, the female skeleton in the casket in the Tower).  Then he tells Union Jack that he's going to drain his blood slowly, and make him an eternally old man among the undead.  But what should surprise the heck out of us but a suddenly revitalized, built-for-destruction hero rising from the mattress and slashing Baron Blood's midsection??

Karen: I gotta say, I really love that Union Jack costume. The full-face mask, the midnight blue -that's just a sexy outfit.

Doug:  Not only did Union Jack sit up all musclebound, he lays a double-footed roundhouse on the Baron's chin!  Blood figures that this is obviously some imposter, and in his rage wants to end it quickly.  Jack gets off a shot but misses.  Suddenly Cap bursts through the room's door as Blood knocks the revolver from Jack's hand.  Cap plants his left boot firmly in Blood's gut and then socks him in the head as Jack doubles the vampire over backwards.  But Blood is able to escape and flies out into the hallway.  He yells behind that he is leaving Falsworth Manor -- but a star-spangled shield to the gut changes his mind.  Union Jack follows Cap and leaps upon Blood, brandishing a silver dagger.  But the vampire is not to be taken so easily, and lunges for Jack, fangs bared.  Cap cannot get there in time, so throws open the drapes -- yep, it's still daylight.  Blood cries out, and yells at Captain America that he will not be saved by the sun again.  Cap's able to parry the next attack with his shield, and jumps onto Blood's chest as the vampire hits the floor.  Each man spouts his mantra, Cap of life and liberty, Blood of death.  As the vampire rends Cap's mail shirt, our hero reflects on something Lord Falsworth had told him last issue -- "There is only one way to totally destroy a vampire!"  Cap fights his conscience, his faith, and his oath as an Avenger... and then decapitates John Falsworth.

Karen: Cap really lays into Blood!That kick looks like it could take down a horse. The way Byrne and Rubenstein portray him, Cap is quite formidable. I never felt like he was truly out-classed by Baron Blood, despite the difference in their power levels. As for Blood's ultimate demise, I was truly struck by Cap's remorse. Despite -no, perhaps because of his time served during the war, taking any life, even one as abased as Blood's, causes Cap great distress. It seems like this is a trait of Cap's that developed later in the Silver and specifically the Bronze Age, to the point where ten years after this book came out, he'd be getting into a major disagreement with Iron Man over whether or not to kill the Kree Supreme Intelligence at the end of the "Operation Galactic Storm" storyline.  Here, Cap is quite devastated by having to end  Blood's reign of terror in such a gruesome manner. This took me back to earlier this summer, watching the new Superman film, Man of Steel, and all the controversy over having the main character take a life in it. I think Cap fulfills the same role (or used to) in the Marvel universe that Superman does/did in the DC universe -that of moral compass. Both set an example for the heroes of their worlds and we expect the best of them. What Cap does here is necessary but he still regrets having to do it.

Doug:  I am trying very hard to remember my reaction to the Black Knight's decision to slay the Kree Supreme Intelligence during "Operation: Galactic Storm".  I recall at the time having that "heroes don't kill" thought.

Doug:  As the rest of our cast enters the room, Joey Chapman removes the mask of Union Jack.  He tells Kenneth that he never would have been able to withstand Blood's attack; Kenneth doesn't argue.  Later, as night falls, the body of Baron Blood is taken to the moors and laid on a funeral pyre.  His remains become smoke, and Kenneth says to his grandfather that Baron Blood will not again menace the Falsworths.  But Cap tells him that Lord Falsworth cannot hear him.  You see, as his brother's body burned, James Falsworth went to meet his Maker.  The last page of the story is a wonderful splash, and you can see it below.  To say it carries a degree of grandeur would be an understatement.

Karen: The illustration is beautiful, although I had mixed feelings about the text. I don't know that I'd want to celebrate everything about Britain's 'empire'- but I'll take it in the spirit of the story. All in all, I really enjoyed this two-parter. It was a nice reminder of Cap's past adventures during the War, featured his sense of obligation and loyalty, gave us a glimpse into an era of his personal life that didn't involve SHIELD or other super-powered friends, and the horror story aspect was highly reminiscent of classic Hammer horror films. And what can you say about the art? Simply fantastic.

Doug:  Great choice of a story for the middle of the month, partner!  Really, if all comics were this good...  Well, I don't even know what I should say next but I think you know what I mean.  Roger Stern and John Byrne made a fabulous combination during this all-too-short run.  I'd like to comment, too, on the inks of Josef Rubenstein.  I mentioned last week that I'm reading from the Marvel Premier Hardcover that reprints the run.  At least in the version I have, Rubenstein's inks gave off an early Silver Age vibe at times, akin to those who layered Kirby's work in early Avengers and Tales of Suspense stories.  It was kind of cool to me, given the ages-spanning aspect of this story.  Fun, fun, fun!


Edo Bosnar said...

Great review, Karen & Doug! You really captured my own enthusiasm for this issue, or rather both issues in this two-parter. I particularly like that panel in which Cap brings his shield down to behead the Baron: the reflection of the act in shadow, with Joey muttering "Bloody...!" Very dramatic and effective.
And Karen, I totally agree with you on two points:
1. Union Jack's costume. As per that 'patriotic-costume' post from a while back, I think it's the coolest-looking flag costume, bar none.
2. That last page: yes, beautifully drawn, but that rather syrupy text about the Empire "upon which the sun never set," which I took in stride as a kid, makes me a bit uncomfortable now.

Otherwise, though, I have little to criticize as far as this issue goes, or the entirety of the Stern/Byrne/Rubinstein run on Cap.

Doug said...

Thanks, Edo! It's a blast reviewing great comics. Now, as for next week's fare... well, stay tuned!

I wouldn't go so far as to say the Byrne/Rubenstein combination is as good as the Byrne/Austin combo, but Josef R. does nothing to hurt himself or our impressions of Byrne's pencils. This is some really nice art! Any wonder why Byrne was at the top (lurking somewhere very close was Mr. Perez) during the late Bronze Age?


William said...

Awesome reviews the last couple of weeks of two of my favorite issues from one of my all-time favorite creator runs in comics. Think I'll re-read the trade that "Captain America: War & Remembrance" which collects the entire run.

However, whenever I read those comics it's always just a little bitter sweet thinking of what might have been. From what I've read Stern and Byrne's stint on the book was cut short by a boneheaded executive order to suddenly make all Marvel comics "one and done" issues. Well, as it turns out Roger and John were already well along on a three part story featuring the return of the Red Skull, when the word came down that it would have to be compressed into one issue. It couldn't be done, and as a result the guys quit the title in protest. {sigh}. We can only imagine how totally awesome that story would have been. It probably would have gone down as one of the greatest Captain America tales of all time. As it is we have to settle for seeing the few pages of the first issue that Byrne had already pencilled. (They are reprinted in the back of the TPB).

Edo Bosnar said...

William, I totally agree with you about that run - it's far and away my favorite Cap run, and one of my favorite comic book runs in general.
However, that story about how it ended, i.e., some editor (usually Shooter gets the blame here) insisting on "done in one" stories, is untrue. Even though Byrne insists this was the case on his site, on his own blog and elsewhere Shooter insisted that no such edict was ever issued. And to be honest, at the time I don't recall a sudden switch to only done-in-one stories across the Marvel line.
Anyway, a while back Roger Stern explained why they left the book, which, while still placing the blame on a questionable editorial decision, is a bit a less dramatic than the "they f-ed us on purpose" thesis:
Go about halfway down the page, to this question:
"Can you explain why John and you left Cap after #255?"

Anonymous said...


That last panel about Union Jack and the British Empire is offensive and tone-deaf.

I am sure all the people the British conquered wouldn't see it that way at all.

Garett said...

Nice review, and you made me pull out this series again to take a look. Interesting comments about Cap's struggle over killing. There was a recent answer to the question of "Why doesn't Batman just kill the Joker?" that resonated, and here it is:

William said...

Thanks Edo, I never read that Stern interview before. His account does sound more plausible (and detailed) than the other explanation.

MattComix said...

Just my take on the final page there. I think you have to remember that even though Captain America wears the flag he's not representing a particular political ideology or favoring an administration. He's more about the ideals we strive for as a people.

I think the same goes for Union Jack and it's in that same spirit that the page is intended. It's not meant as an absolution of the crimes of the empire anymore than Caps existence is meant to excuse the crimes and failures of America.

Anonymous said...

While I have mixed feelings about Captain America and what he represents - I can usually play along with his stories from the perspective of the idealized notions of American democracy (as opposed to their reality).

However, that Union Jack splash page uses the language of empire in a way that does more than just not apologize for it, but makes it seem like a good and noble thing that the empire was formed.

I see how it is trying to capture the same "spirit of a nation" that Cap can be seen to have, but the language and context make that fail because of its historical underpinnings. It would be like trying to use CIA shenanigans in Latin America as a way to laud what Captain America stands for.

Anonymous said...

"#@!* American! Crikey, what a kick!" Gotta love an American writing British dialogue.

Yeah this issue was a great one. Roger Stern took inspiration from the original Dracula novel and incorporated some elements here - specifically, Kenneth Falsworth and Jenny mirror Jonathan and Mina Harker. Blood's control over Jenny in this story is reminiscent of Dracula's hold over Mina.

Cap's face as he beheads Baron Blood is well drawn by Byrne and Rubinstein here - it reminds me of Neal Adams' artwork.

Yeah, that last splash page was overly effusive about the British empire. Does Stern have British heritage or what? I know he probably tried to write a patriotic ode, but it comes across as too heavy handed. Still, overall it was a good issue, and a fitting tribute to Frank Robbins. While I've never been a fan of his work on the Invaders, I can understand why Stern & company would want to dedicate a story to him. To many people, when an Invaders comic book is mentioned, Robbins' artwork comes to mind.

- Mike 'yeah I always thought Cap's chainmail was feathers too!' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Graham said...

Years ago, I bought Captain America #247 completely on impulse. I'm so glad I did, because I didn't miss out on any of the Stern/Byrne/Rubenstein run. I can still remember reading this two-parter the first time. That run ended way too soon, but I'm sure glad we got the little bit that we did.

Rip Jagger said...

These reviews made me go out and find a copy of War and Remembrance and I've been enjoying it. Stern and Byrne had a real vibe in this brief run on Cap. Thanks guys!

Rip Off

Teresa said...

I haven't read these. I must find them in a tpb. I'm a sucker for the Invaders, All Stars and WWII characters in general. This looks really good.
I was not aware of this Byrne, Cap run until these recent installments.
Thanks BABs!

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