Monday, April 7, 2014

Captain America Must Die: Captain America 176

Captain America #176 (August 1974)(cover by John Romita)
"Captain America Must Die!"
Script: Steve Englehart
Art: Sal Buscema and Vince Colletta

Karen: After the terrible reveal of last issue, Cap is at a crossroads. He stands on the rooftop of Avengers' mansion, brooding. How can he go on being Captain America, wearing his uniform, representing his country, when he's just seen so much corruption at its heart? We get a flashback to Cap's origin, and I think this is one of the better re-tellings of his story. There are interesting little details here - were we told before that Steve was born and raised in Manhattan? We see him in a movie theater, watching news reels and getting righteously angry over the atrocities the Nazis were committing in Europe. All of this would get incorporated into the Captain America film too. We see him volunteer for the super-soldier experiment and become transformed, and then have the genius behind it, Professor Reinstein, get murdered by a spy. This is all achieved in 4 pages, and culminates with Cap thinking that he had truly become the embodiment of America -but things had changed drastically since then.

Doug: My question is, how did they get Chris Evans's head on that scrawny little body? But really -- if Steve Englehart claims to have written all the stories that would become the first Batman franchise, then he could certainly lay claim to the origin of Captain America. Except that Jack Kirby had done it a couple of times earlier. Anyway, you can sure see the influence of these panels in the Super Soldier portion of the first Cap film. Bone to pick, though -- wasn't the original doctor named Erskine? This fella's name is Reinstein, as you said. I wonder when and why that was changed. I thought Vinnie Colletta's feathery line was really conspicuous in this sequence, with Rogers bare-chested. And given our review of the second part of "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" and Superman's decision to end his career after the death of Mr. Mxzyptlk, it was ironic that Rogers felt sorry but not sorry about pummeling the Nazi spy into the control panel where he was electrocuted.

Doug: The two-page spread showing the rapid-fire history of Captain America was pretty awesome. The cascading effect was nice, although there was certainly room left to have added even more characters and events. But it was still effective, leaving a full-body image of Cap with an essence of distress at the end of the line. 

Karen: His thoughts are interrupted by the appearance of Thor, his long-time team-mate. Let me take a moment to say that Sal and Vinnie do a great job on the God of Thunder in his brief appearance. As one might expect, Thor counsels the Captain that he is a fighting man, and it is in combat that he is at his finest, and most noble. Cap says he's not even sure what 'nobility' is any more. He's even still beating himself up for stealing that electron-gyro a few issues back. Sure, he did it to help clear his name, and he stopped the Secret Empire, but it bothers him that he stooped to do it. The Thunder God says that whatever Cap decides, he'll have his friendship, and he launches himself into a storm-tossed sky.

Doug: The coloring as Thor arrives on the rooftop is particularly nice and adds to the moodiness. I was struck most in this sequence by the respect Thor has for Cap. When you think of how much longer Thor has been alive, and of all the worlds he's seen and the battles he's fought, that he would try to rouse Cap from this funk because he enjoys a good brouhaha at his side... well, it's a lot to take in.

Karen: I've always thought that these two have similar codes of honor that help to unite them. Cap re-enters the mansion and runs right into another old friend -Iron Man. This is the Shellhead with the nose, so it always looks weird to me. Iron Man takes another tack with Cap -namely, that their powers obligate them to help others. He reminds Cap of different times he's saved lives - or even how he's always agreed to perform at charity events. The star-spangled Avenger bitterly responds that people turned on him the first chance they got when Harderman and CRAP (one more chance to use that acronym!) started spreading lies about him. People took all his help for granted. Shellhead says, so what? Doing good deeds can still give his life meaning, regardless of how fickle the public can be. Just then, Cap's partner, the Falcon, bursts in.

Doug: Iron Man had the nose when I came to "new" Avengers comics, so it's never been odd to me. I actually like it for two reasons: it dates the character to my earliest comics memories, and it sure seems more practical than the flat faceplate! Cap sort of gets an "It's a Wonderful Life" lesson from Iron Man, and I think it's effective. The Avengers are sure giving him the hard sell. How disheartening must it have been for Thor and IM to see Captain America, the mainstay of the team, so downtrodden. But to your comment about Cap's anger at how the crowds so quickly turned on him -- that's a Stan Lee trope as old as the Marvel Universe. Personally, I get very tired of it, but I'll give Englehart credit for taking it and crafting a pretty darned good tale because of it.

Karen: It's funny when you think about the cycles Cap went through: he was pretty miserable when he first got out of the ice, then seemed to settle in to his existence, and then whammo, this situation comes along. Falcon gives Cap some tough love, angry that his partner had just split from Washington without a word. He brought along Sharon Carter and her older sister Peggy (although Peggy was confused as to why Falcon looked for Cap at Sharon's place... oh dear...). Cap says something happened at the White House, something he can't talk about. Falcon replies that the officials have clamped down on that too. But he's shaken by the change he sees in Cap. Cap has always been rock-steady. He briefly recounts his first meeting with the Avenger and how Cap trained him and made him into  "the man I always wanted to be," the Falcon. When the two of them became partners, Falcon felt like he was becoming part  of a legend. Falcon says that as heroes, they are examples to others -they can lead others. Cap more so than anyone else. But Cap is not so sure. He says that the people in charge of the country were also supposed to be heroes, people that the citizenry could look up to -and they were criminals. But the Falcon says that's all the more reason for Cap to hang in there -the people need him now more than ever! You really feel Falcon's passion here as he tries to reason with Cap.

 Doug: So even if this issue transpires the same night as the fracas at the White House, don't you think it would have gotten out that the president is dead? There were members of the media everywhere, the army was present, and for crying out loud -- there was a flying saucer on the back lawn! Wouldn't someone have been looking for their nightly television to have been interrupted by a presidential news conference? I agree that Falcon's fire comes through loud and clear, but more than that I feel Englehart's fire. The Falcon serves as his cipher here, speaking the author's trepidations with America's corruption in the mid-1970s. And to editorial and this issue's creators -- yes, this is an epilogue to the "Secret Empire" story, but it's also a phenomenal jumping on point for new readers. That being said, I wonder how a new kid would have felt if next month he picked up the new copy of _ _ _ _ & the Falcon?

Karen: Peggy picks up the plea, as she comes from a different viewpoint. She says politicians come and go, but America is still the greatest country in the world. After everything the country was going through at this point, it seems a bit tough to swallow, but it was a viewpoint held by many at that time (and today). She says that Cap is the living symbol of freedom. She reminds him that he just recently fought a 'fake' Captain America (the 1950s Cap who was psychotic -hopefully we'll review those issues one of these days) who did not represent his views of America -is he ready to give up on America so quickly now? He's not just any super-hero -he's Captain America!

Doug: Peggy's soliloquy might be the best of the lot. She really put Cap on a pedestal he so richly deserved. However, at the bottom of the final page of her pep talk, Sal and Vinnie give us an image that made me feel like I was riding "It's a Small World" at Disney World! Native costumes, indeed!

Karen: Cap takes it all in, but then calmly replies that America has changed a lot since he took on his name. Americans have many different ideas and creeds -they are far more divided now. When people look at him, what does he represent? After saying that, Cap asks to be left alone. His friends all walk out, but then he hears an unearthly voice. He turns and sees his Avengers' team-mate, the Vision, materialize through the wall. The synthozoid simply asks him if he can give up a life of adventure, and then leaves him alone with Sharon Carter. She asks him no questions, just tells him that whatever he decides, she's with him, the man under the mask, and gives him a kiss and leaves.

Doug: The Vision's appearance was notably creepy, yet somewhat puzzling. I just didn't know. again other than the visual of his phasing through the wall, that his presence in this scene meant anything. Given what he said, I mean. If he'd spoken of the travails of being human, or of something to do with logic in an illogical world, then I guess I'd have felt differently. But I didn't think there was any mileage at all out of those three panels. Cap and Sharon weren't too shy about that kiss, were they? Peggy was a doorway away. And you have to think Vizh might have been onto it.

Karen: Finally alone, Cap stops to consider what was said. He had hoped someone would present him with a viewpoint he hadn't thought of -but they didn't. He thinks to himself that they all missed the main point: he was created by the government to protect the country. He did his best, and although he was not always proud of everything he did, he served as well as he could. Now though, he finds that the government has been serving itself. "I just don't understand! I just don't understand!" Cap thinks in anguish. Clearly his whole world has come crashing down around him. This is the hardest decision of his life. He opens the door and faces his friends, and tells them, "I've asked myself if Captain America must die, and if I had the courage to carry out my verdict. The answer to both questions - is yes."

Doug: When you first read this, did you think he would relent and stay on as Captain America? Even though I knew what was going to happen, I still hoped that Steve Rogers would rethink it -- after all, he is Captain America. Hmph... is this another case in our discussion of who is real -- the hero or the secret ID? Is Captain America Steve Rogers, or is Steve Rogers Captain America? But what Englehart chose to explore here is very interesting. From time to time we've all been disillusioned by our government in total, or at least in governmental policies. But when one's entire identity is wrapped in the flag -- literally -- and when one is the living embodiment of the red, white, and blue... well...

Karen: I recall at the time it was pretty shocking! And it seemed like it took forever for him to put the red, white, and blue back on, even though I believe it was only 8 issues. But this was the first time I saw a hero call it quits, and trying to understand why he did it was important. I knew things were not right in our country but I didn't quite know why. Cap was one more clue.

Karen: This is the pay-off of the whole series of issues we've reviewed, and I think it's a terrific one. At some point, I want us to go and review the follow up, with Steve Rogers dealing with life without Captain America, because I think it's actually more interesting than the "Secret Empire" story! But we'll save that for a later date. It's not easy to see a living legend thrown into such a state of utter disillusionment and confusion  -"I just don't understand!" - but it was a great mirror to what much of the country was going through at the time. Despite all the different reasons given for Steve to remain Cap (and using the Avengers and Cap's friends was a terrific method), Steve must be true to his convictions, and they tell him that he can't wear the colors of a country he no longer feels confident representing. It was a bold story then, and I think it still is now. 


Fred W. Hill said...

Great overview of this classic, Doug & Karen. As Reinstein/Erskine, I believe in the original 1941 story, Reinstein was the name used, obviously derived from the most famous scientist of the day, Einstein -- too obviously, as in a later origin, written by Lee (I think) it was revealed that his real name was Erskine and that Reinstein was merely a code name.
Anyhow, for my 12 year old self first reading this story it was quite a shocker but it kept me hooked wanting to know, what's going to happen next? At that time I hadn't even read the stories where Spidey hung up his costume, in ASM's 17 & 50. Of course, Cap's hanging up of his cowl & shield was much more drawn out, but it entirely made sense and this was a great story arc, although I wish our pal Sal had been able to stay around to pencil the whole thing. When Frank Robbins took over, I still enjoyed the story, but loathed the art.

Comicsfan said...

Was it ever firmly established that it was the President who offed himself in the oval office? As Doug notes, that kind of news isn't going to be able to be "clamped down on" or however Englehart attempts to sweep it under the rug and keep it as a "Cap's eyes only" event. I always felt it was simply a high-level politician who had a lot of responsibilities and visibility in the administration, a person that Cap and probably many others knew by reputation and who had credentials that were beyond reproach. The point, after all, wasn't the person's actual identity or political standing--it was the impact it would make on Cap that such a major representative of the U.S. government would be steeped in corruption and treason.

Edo Bosnar said...

Another great review, Karen & Doug. Since I've never read this story, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one (and not just in this particular post).
By the way, I really like Sal's Sterankoesque flashback sequence on that double-page splash.

Comicsfan, you're right, it was never explicitly stated that Cap came across the president. Englehart himself has said he left that deliberately ambiguous. Most people, however, assume it was Nixon, and given the context of the Watergate/post-Watergate time in which it was written it's easy to see why this would be so.

Otherwise, I hope you do decide to review the Nomad story some time down the road...

Anonymous said...
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david_b said...

Ok, I need to intake another cupful of java before I start..

{gulp..} whew..

This issue was BIG.



Not that I read a lot of comics by the time this came out, but I clearly understand this didn't happen much in comicdom.. A virtual 'time-out' from the action, an issue set aside totally for self-absorbed (perhaps for you critics..), self-analysis.

Why not....? It certainly was a Bronze milestone.

How many other comics ever did this..? ASM ish 50 scratched the surface, but to have your hero not only self-reflect.., but then quit for several issues..?

This was Steve's CA&F unmatched masterpiece. After a long story arc like the Empire, to have to go into this..?

Got to get back to work for a few, but I'll definitely chime in more in a few.

"Go on, talk amongst yourselves.."

Dr. Oyola said...

Since Comicsfan asked the question and I am not sure how many people saw this in the last post on Cap. . . here is this link again: Captain America and Today’s ‘Secret Empire,’ by STEVE ENGLEHART

Garett said...

It's interesting to read through these reviews, and the storyline seems quite significant for the times. Growing up next door in Canada, the atmosphere felt quite different, at least to my 6 year old self in '74. Trudeau was still a popular leader, we'd just had the big success of Expo '67 and the '72 hockey series against the USSR--the situation felt much more positive and unified in Canada than in the US. So this Cap storyline would've seemed quite distant to me then, but I think I could enjoy it more now.

Sal's drawing and layouts look solid throughout, but it would be nice to see an inker who could add more detail and personality on top.

Garett said...

Thanks for the Englehart writeup, Dr. Oyola. Good to see him connect the '70s with today's political situation. I want to read more by him now--wish he was still writing comics! I see he has a recent novel series with a character Max August. Anyone here read these?

Karen said...

Colin, I think you really have to consider the time in which this was written. There actually were people who looked up to politicians as leaders and men of integrity. Cap, as a man coming from the 30s and 40s, still had a very different mind set than the young rebels of the 60s and 70s who surrounded him. Englehart was breaking down that man from the past and rebuilding him right here in front of our eyes. He had to go through stages -he became bitter and angry, he was hurt, he was frustrated -but eventually, Cap's more positive side won out. He decided that the ideals of America were still good, and he could still stand for those ideals. I thought it was an absolutely brilliant way to take a character that could have become completely irrelevant, or even a laughingstock, and turn him into someone who mattered again.

We see some of this in the new Cap film, as he struggles to work for SHIELD, to understand how the world has changed and figure out what role he can play. I definitely felt there were some echoes of Englehart's work in the movie.

J.A. Morris said...

Well stated Karen. It's also important to remember that this issue would've been sold to and read by kids at the local mom & pop drug store. Lots of them probably would've been shocked to read what Captain America said in this issue. I figure Englehart was talking to them as much as the older college-age crowd that began reading Marvel comics in the 60s.

david_b said...

Agreed and agreed. This issue really, I mean REALLY spoke to it's time of publication. Our world was quite different at that time.

It felt like a national fabric was unraveling, to an extent. It was one thing to politely mock a president in media, which was done with much more civility back then. But to have a president's administration exposed with such surgical scrutiny in papers, on radio, on national television for MONTHS..

It was unlike any other event, the only other event which may come close was Iran Contra and of course, Bill Clinton's impeachment for perjury. Nixon of course left office prior to any impeachment. It made August 1974 (the cover date on this issue...) very monumental.

Back to this ish, it was one of the few actual "OMG, OMG" feelings I ever recall reading comics, next to Reed&Sue's separation, which was being played out during the same time. For a young Marvel Zuvembie, this was indeed the most riveting time. While meant for the college crowd, I indeed found myself in good company being drawn into this story. Along with local softball and escaping the Watergate coverage, this issue defined my summer of 1974.

I'm for one was VERY glad and relieved that Marvel (or Steve..) never came back and established the identity of Number 1.

What's wrong with mystery..?? Just.., 'leave it alone'. The story's comes off much better simply not knowing.

Sal's drawing was perfect here. He could do those famous mid-air pile-drivin' whompings when he wanted, but he really mastered expressions here. As already mentioned, everyone's speaking parts and contributions were spot on and well-paced as the story unfolded.

Great mention on that 2-page history recap spread, just a magnificent idea.

More so than any other issue of Cap, Steve Rogers was truely a thinking, breathing human being here. The pinnacle of my CA&F devotion..

Sidenote: Fred, great point on Robbins. I really wish Sal would have stayed on. That terrible art was such a slap in the face in ish 182 and onward. Herb Trimpe was a welcome relief in ish 184 if only for one issue; graciously Sal came back for ish 188 as well.

Indeed, Marvel at it's Bronze finest.

Anonymous said...

Karen, you are correct. What is hard for the present us to remember is the times that we were born and grew up in. America, as a country, had saved a world, fought communism, witnessed Camelot come to life, put a man on the moon, made a commitment to save a government over there and befriended a tiny country surrounded by enemies. The greatest generation had know basically one success after another. Every time their leaders of this country had challenged them, they had risen to the occasion. But now the strings at the bottom of the tapestry were unraveling. The DNC in Detroit, National Guards in Ohio and the deep South, the use of terror to kill many of our national leaders were all changing what our country felt and believed.

As I said before, Cap wanted to join SHIELD because he saw it as the greatest defense of our way of life. Now, so many decades later, we ask ourselves, what price liberty, what price freedom, what price security? Does it matter who we vote for? They're all crooks anyway.

I think it's hard to remember that times weren't just simpler because we were younger, but because we knew less. Mr. Engelhart made mention of there being fewer only four major networks, and I agree, but how many of our major stories were broken by newsmen? The modern day, real life Phil Sheldons, Chloe Sullivans, Lois Lanes.

The Prowler (remembers the first time his cape got stuck in his bike chain).

J.A. Morris said...

Does anyone else get a "Gwen Stacy" vibe from Romita's rendition of Sharon on the cover?

Doug said...

Put something in her hair, J.A., and I could definitely see that.

It's sort of funny -- sometimes we talk about stories holding/not holding up. If I am reading everyone correctly, this storyline holds up because it's anchored in the mid-1970s. The fact that it is dated by quasi-historical events seems to elevate it above other story ideas from the Bronze Age that seem silly or passe' on the 40-years later re-read.

Karen and I have discussed doing the Nomad storyline for 2015, but like many of you, we are not looking forward to the art in the latter 1/3 of the arc. And I've gone on record as saying that Herb Trimpe's finest hour had passed by 1975; Hulky Herbie was an oasis, however, near the end of the story as David mentioned.


Fred W. Hill said...

I remember the election of 1972, when I was 10 years old. At my school, Bonneville Elementary in Salt Lake City they had us kids cast our votes for the presidency (at that age I had no idea it didn't really count, but maybe it was to get us used to the idea of voting). Now in that era, I don't recall my parents ever discussing politics, or any major social issues. My dad was in the Navy (on recruiting duty in SLC), but wasn't particularly conservative; they were more middle of the road, I suppose. My pre-adolescent self really had no clue as to the differences between Nixon and McGovern, but since Nixon was President I picked him, and when they announced the results a couple of days later, the results of the school election echoed the election that put Nixon back in the White House for a 2nd term. Less than two years later, with Watergate an ongoing reality tv show for months or however long it was, I was gradually coming to the realization that authority figures aren't necessarily honest or well-meaning. This aspect of the aftermath of the Secret Empire storyline was part of the growing up of superhero comics of the early '70s. Of course, back then they would only go so far -- Harry freaked out on drugs and Gwen was murdered, but Reed and Sue eventually got back together and Franklin was cured; Cap got over his crisis and back into uniform, much wiser than when he saw Number One, whoever he was, blow his brains out. BTW, I wonder if in the MU the official line is that Number One killed President Nixon before Cap could stop him -- without revealing that Number One WAS Nixon, so a sort of half truth. But if they took that route, who would they say was Number One?

Anonymous said...

First impressions - I think Thor connected well with Cap on an elemental level because both of them are warriors at heart; Cap is a truly patriotic soldier and Thor is a warrior prince of Asgard after all. Even though I was never a fan of the Iron Man 'nose' it kinda looks OK here.

Yes, I do agree that this story stands up because it parallels the uncertainty that the American public felt in the aftermath of Watergate. If the leaders of the nation could set such a bad example, why should the people trust or follow them?

I think this was at the heart of Cap's self doubt here - all the values he held dear were suddenly turned on their end. Being a living symbol of American values didn't seem all that important anymore. He didn't know what to do now. Englehart brilliantly captures Cap's inner conflict in this story.

I haven't seen the Winter Soldier movie yet but if it does incorporate Cap's questioning of his values in a post 9/11 world then that's a good step. Fortunately, all the reviews are mostly positive.

- Mike 'who was Deep Throat?' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Edo Bosnar said...

Um, Mike, don't know if you're being facetious, but Deep Throat's identity is no longer a mystery. It was Mark Felt, who at the time of the Watergate scandal was, I believe, a bigwig in the FBI (deputy or assistant director or something like that). He acknowledged this in 2005...

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