Monday, February 24, 2014

Enter: Moonstone -- Captain America 170

Captain America #170 (February 1974) (cover by Gil Kane and John Romita)
Steve Englehart/Mike Friedrich-Sal Buscema/Vince Colletta

Doug: Welcome back to the second issue in our romp through the "Secret Empire" storyline. You know, I'm just really at home when we're here in the mid-'70s. These stories are my personal "golden age" of comics, and even though I'm reading from the trade paperback you know I'd be all over the ads, letters page, Bullpen Bulletins -- the whole ball of wax. Pardon me while I wipe a tear from my eye...  OK. Enough of that sentimentality -- let's get on with it!

Karen: Aw, don't be ashamed -I'm right there with ya, partner! Let's go!

Doug: It's not so good for Cap as we open. If you'll recall the end of last issue, the Star-Spangled Avenger had been accused of murder, as a fellow we knew to be the Tumbler died in an altercation with Cap. This seems to us to be some sort of frame-up by the Committee to Regain America's Principles (C.R.A.P. to you, friend) and its leader, Quentin Harderman. Harderman's on the scene as the Tumbler falls, and instantly thrusts an accusing finger at our hero. Cap lurches toward Harderman and grabs him by the shirt, pulling him in close in a most-threatening way. The cops nearby take note and rush to the scene.  Now Cap's faced with a decision -- fight or flight! Overwhelmed by a sense of paranoia ("...what if they, too, are part of the set-up!"), he decides that escape is his best option. But even as he runs, Cap wonders what he's doing -- is this the sort of example Captain America should set? Is this the training that Steve Rogers received? He pauses at a lamp post, distraught over the events of the past days. Suddenly, Cap's struck down to his knees by a force. Groggily, he turns to face his attacker -- a huge, burly guy who shouts out his name: Moonstone!

Karen: Cap is acting most un-Cap-like! But he's in a situation he really hasn't been in before -one where he's adrift, uncertain who he can trust. And he too has lost the public's trust. It's disconcerting to see Cap so rattled, but I think a lot of that comes from seeing him so solidly in command years later on. And how about Moonstone? I thought Sal gave the villain a unique bulky look that was a lot of fun.

Doug: We're next treated to a dozen panels of the real reason we buy comics -- to see two grown super-powered beings beat the living snot out of each other! Problem is, this one's pretty one-sided, with Moonstone holding serve due in large part to the element of surprise. But we do get to see his powerset: super-strength, quicker than average, and the ability to shoot lasers from his fingertips.  Not too shabby.  As I said, Cap's pretty much on the ropes in this fight, but I did want to note one panel that seemed silly to me, and that's when Cap is launched toward a brick wall.  He says, "Got to... get my... shield around... Cushion the impact!"  OK, so his head didn't smack the wall; nope, instead it smacked his shield which went up against the wall.  Of course, this isn't as dumb as that panel somewhere in Daredevil when DD was falling to a rooftop and put his hand to the side of his face to cushion said blow.  Duh... Moonstone shows one more power before the scene ends -- the ability to disappear and reappear.  He uses this last trick to thoroughly befuddle Cap, and it's at that point that a laser blast fells ol' Winghead.  Shortly, Harderman's back in the spotlight, hailing Moonstone as the new hero of the people. And the crowd goes wild.


Karen: Even though Englehart didn't script this issue, you have to feel that he must have expressed to Friedrich how Harderman should talk; saying things like "evil must be purged by time honored American competition," thinking of the crowd as "consumers," and Moonstone as "stock" really gets across the corporate baddie mindset here.

Doug: You may also remember that last issue the Falcon had asked Cap to assist him in a power upgrade.  Sam had been experiencing feelings of inferiority during this period, as Cap had attained super-strength beyond the advantages the super-soldier serum had bestowed upon him back in the War. Cap had enlisted T'Challa, the Black Panther, at Falc's request. A Wakandan airship had arrived in Harlem to pick up Falc and his lady friend, Leila. Now we see them in Africa, in one of the Panther's high-tech computer labs. Leila immediately grates on my nerves, as does the writing of her speech patterns by authors Englehart and Friedrich. Did Falc really say, "I'm sorry, T'Challa -- this fox isn't known for her tact!" Oh, my...  Blaxploitation, indeed! It only gets worse (in my opinion) when T'Challa offers Leila the companionship of one of the "court hand maidens", Tanzika, to show her around the palace grounds while the men tried to figure out how to augment the Falcon's powers. "Court hand maiden"... should I hear "concubine"? After all, this set-up in Wakanda has all the hallmarks of a feudal, even medieval, society -- perhaps even a sense of imperial China inside the Forbidden City. We've discussed before (just a few weeks past) that Wakanda seemed to be very out-of-step with contemporary governments of the West.  I know I don't have a handle on how it worked! Anyway, as this is the last Monday in February's Black History Month observance, we'd invite some further commentary from our readers in regard to the portrayal of Blacks in this story.  Are they honored, or caricatured?

Karen: A problematic scene all the way around! You also have the aspect of the men getting rid of the women so they can get down to business, although I see this as minor, since Leila actually has nothing to contribute to the Falcon's quest. But yes, why is Tanzika a "hand maiden"? Could she not just be an assistant? It's probably just a careless use of the word but it seems like so many writers did not really bother to think through the Wakandan culture, at least prior to Don McGregor's arrival as writer of the Panther's Jungle Action series. I agree with you thoroughly on Leila though: she's flat out annoying. There's a difference between being fiery and being a...well, you know. The Falcon is such a cool guy, you wonder why he would put up with her? Maybe there's a couple of answers. One, it may be purely physical. Two, she may supply him with the sort of street cred he feels he needs. And maybe I'm thinking too deeply about 70s comic characters. I don't know. But boy, is she a pain!

Doug: Back in the States, we find Captain America in jail! Captured after Moonstone had knocked him out, Cap awakes to find his foe standing alongside Harderman and having a press conference just outside his cell! One of the reporters asks if Moonstone wouldn't mind relating the origin of his powers. We get a pretty cool dual narration over the next few pages, with Moonstone holding court in the narration boxes while Sal's pictures tell just a slightly different story. It's fun, and a nice touch given that Moonstone's a thug anyway. After that interlude, Harderman reaffirms to the assembled media that Moonstone is America's new hero, and that C.R.A.P. is all over him.  You know what I'm sayin'...

Karen: You're having way too much fun with that acronym! Yes, it's a clever way to show how our chunky villain got his powers, although I can't help thinking there couldn't be too many blue moon rocks out there, and some clever reporter should be able to piece together the botched moon rock robbery and Moonstone's lie. But let it slide.

Doug: Sceneshift again to Wakanda, where T'Challa and Falc are interrupted by a spear landing in the middle of their work table! Falc recoils and whirls, to see Leila standing in a doorway. He chastises her recklessness, and her only response is that she's bored (I am serious -- I hate her character.  Hate her). Sympathetic T'Challa again steps in to try to allay her "suffering", offering to send her to a large city so that she can feel more at home. He calls for another craft, and for two of his top men as her escorts. Soon, a Wakandan ship drops down in Lagos, Nigeria so that Leila can wander the markets. Even T'Challa's men feel uncomfortable in her presence, as she exudes tension. While shopping, a large sedan suddenly pulls up and out steps Stoneface -- a tough from Harlem who the Falcon had defeated earlier. Now Stoneface has found what he wants: a hometown girl to make him feel "at home". Of course his overtures are rebuffed, which doesn't work out so well for Leila's escorts. As the Wakandans fall, Stoneface's men grab Leila and push her into the car.

Karen: You know, I sort of want her to just disappear and never come back! There really isn't anything about Leila that makes her appealing to me. She's just depicted as so superficial and selfish. 

Doug: Stoneface could have been doing Sam Wilson a favor! Back in the kingdom, one of T'Challa's intelligence officers (dressed like he stepped right out of a Johnny Weissmuller flick) becomes worried when he cannot reach the men escorting the Falcon's girlfriend. He tells his lord the news, and T'Challa orders his ship readied. As the Black Panther ponders how to tell the Falcon, we hear a voice offstage say to not worry about it. And the the Falcon steps into the light, revealing a set of wings! For our benefit, he tells that they are controlled by his mind and allow him to glide on the winds. While not allowing flight per se, they do give him a huge advantage over his formerly grounded abilities. The two men board the craft and point it toward Nigeria.

Karen: That's a really gorgeous illustration of the new and improved Falcon by Sal. Very dramatic and when I saw it, it sort of hit me, 'well of course, he's the Falcon, he should have wings!'

Doug: As we close the issue, we're taken back to Cap's jail cell. His guard tells Cap that he feels he's getting a bum rap, and to hang in there; Cap just sits with his head hung. As he tries to come up with his next move, the wall of his cell suddenly blows up! A team of commandos stands outside, saying they've come to free him from his false imprisonment. But now what should Cap do? If he stays, he's at Quentin Harderman's mercy. But if he leaves, he makes the situation infinitely worse. What should the Avenger do?

Karen: Another big moral predicament for Cap! This was part of what made reading this storyline so fun for me as a kid -it was not only action-packed, it made me really think about all of the choices he had to make. And poor Cap sure agonized over every one. 

Doug: Fun, fast-paced issue, huh? I'm really stuck on Leila as a character. She certainly fills the role of antagonist well, even though she's supposed to be somewhat of a protagonist, I guess. I think we all know certain characters were created to be that "fly in the ointment" -- Flash Thompson, Mantis, Dr. Druid to name just three others. What did you think of Vinnie's inks after seeing Frank McLaughlin last issue? I actually thought Vinnie's line was pretty normal, even heavy at times. But his signature feathering was here and there on every page if you looked. I've enjoyed the two cliffhanger endings so far in the series -- I can imagine the stress of it all if you were a kid having to wait 30 days for the next installment!


Fred W. Hill said...

I loved these sort of multi-issue epics, which in this era, late '73 through early '74, included not just the Secret Empire yarn, but also the first Thanos epic in Captain Marvel and other mags and Black Spectre in Daredevil, among others. Yeah, the wait was hard, and I really hated it if I missed an issue. But this type of story had a level of dramatic tension and excitement that even the best done-in-ones couldn't match. And this story is so perfectly suited to Captain America, genuinely testing him in a way that wouldn't work for, say, Spider-Man, Superman or Batman. Of course, this does use the ridiculous premise that a masked hero arrested for a serious crime would not have his mask and costume removed immediately, but then it was common in the Silver & Bronze ages even for villains to get to wear their costumes in jail. Overall, a great issue, even with the Falcon's annoying lady love.

Anonymous said...
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Rip Jagger said...

This is prime time Cap for me as well. With the beginning of the 50's Cap saga, the book entered what I still think was its best period (save for the much more recent Winter Soldier saga which sadly I didn't follow, but hear great things about).

The Secret Empire storyline goes into the core of what makes Cap distinctive as a representative of the United States itself and what that can mean.

The Falcon's transformation into a flyer was not an idea I supported, but I have to confess I've grown used to it and think ultimately it was the right way to go. I'd still have preferred they kept the green and gold costume (change the design, but those colors contrast fantastically with Cap).

Rip Off

Doug said...

I'm not sure what you mean, David. I think we addressed both the blaxploitation speech of Leila as well as the odd seemingly medieval ways of the Wakandans in the review. I agree that the issue is not inherently skin color, but perhaps the perception by white authors of how American inner-city Blacks and these mythical Black Africans are/should be portrayed.

Am I hearing you right?



david_b said...

I'm going to throw in some additional sensitivity here. I wouldn't ask 'how Blacks are portrayed here', rather how 'Wakandans' are portrayed ~ This is more about a different, richer culture, more so defining than the color of skin, (well 'cept for Stoneface and his thugs), a welcomed return since Sam didn't really have a Rogues Gallery.

Echoing Fred, this was a classic in terms of both internal and external tension (Sam and Steve, Leila and everyone, then Moonstone, the crowds, the ads, etc..), of pacing, of surprises along the way, even the mention in Avengers 121 where Cap shows up for a few panels against Zodiac. Like Fred, I also loved Black Spectre in DD, Thanos, Reed-Sue separating, Spidey still getting over Gwen's death and even Steve's kooky fore-mentioned Zodiac arc w Mantis and Libra as her father (having just finished the summer-long Defenders clash..).

It was just a glorious time to be a Marvel Zuvembie.

This, THIS was why I quit comics after a year or so later. Marvel never quited seemed this good again.

Just an awesome chapter of depth and change, probably the most interesting of the entire story.

Doug said...

Anyone just now coming to the comments, and seeing me address David before he even makes a comment... yes, I am clairvoyant!

No, he deleted a comment just ahead of mind and then posted an amendment. But my comment to him stands.

Clear as mud?


david_b said...

Apologies Doug, I sometimes review again to, try as I might, correct missing paranthesis's, mis-edited thoughts, or other ignorances I'm too dumb to catch before publishing.

No worries, I appreciate and applaud how certain references were addressed here, I was speaking more towards Wakandan culture and their differences over the color aspect. Not to say they weren't addressed, the statement referenced just seemed odd to these eyes at first. I'm sure some folks here were lucky enough to have grabbed McGregor's Panther Masterworks Vol 1, also from this period. With both Don and Steve's focus, I will say that the Panther and Wakanda received much more layered attention during this era than any other, which served as a nice 'breath of fresh air' alternative to how America was being depicted at that time, an intelligent divergence from the blaxpoitation theme's which were rampant during this time.

Doug said...

Thanks, David.

It seems to me that Englehart/Friedrich were almost going out of their way to create this Black dichotomy of the advanced and proper Wakandans with the blaxploited urban Americans. Sam remarks either in this issue or #171 about Leila being from the projects. So I really don't know what to make of this writing, other than it's sort of wonky, clunky, whatever. Honestly, I don't know which portrayal bothers me more, that of Leila or that of the Wakandans.

I just know that neither feels right.


Doc Savage said...

I find the premise that the public would turn against Cap because a thug apparently died during a fight to be ridiculous at best. Makes it hard to take the rest seriously.

Marvel does this a lot: hero who saved us a million times, yet the public turns so easily. At least with Spider-Man you can blame the Bugle, but Captain America?

david_b said...

Matt, I'd say Steve's orchestration of public distrust through all the weeks (well, months for us readers..) of anti-Cap ads running swelled the tide against Cap; the Tumbler death was only a supposed 'final nail in the coffin' opening volley, followed by the planned jail break and so on.

Hokey..? Perhaps. To that charge I will offer, 'Just how many times CAN you bring back Bucky..?'

I'm talking pre-Winter Soldier here. :)

Anonymous said...

Nice review Karen and Doug. Like david_b said - it was a great time to be a Marvel Zuvembie!

Loved this storyline and loved the cliffhangers. About six months prior to this issue, continued stories made me crazy trying to figure out when the next issue was coming. Once I figured out the distribution schedule, I was usually at the local convenience store spinner racks the same day the next issue came out. And on a good day I had to go and kindly ask the clerk if he would PLEASE come out and unbundle the comics. Great memories.


Edo Bosnar said...

Nice review, yet again. As I noted before, I've never read any of these, so I can't comment on the story itself - I'm just enjoying the ride.
As for the way Wakanda is portrayed, I always thought it kind of Afro-futurist, and in that sense pretty cool. My main exposure to this was in McGregor's Panther stories in Jungle Action, and I don't recall any necessarily "medieval" trappings (besides the country being a monarchy). He really seemed to make an effort at portraying Wakanda as sort of its own unique thing.
Looking at the panels you posted here, I have to say I agree about Leila's (and Sam's) speech patterns. Really grating.

Karen said...

I think if you look over many many issues that the Falcon was really struggling to be his own man and beyond just the power disparity, he was portrayed as also having the feeling that he had to prove himself as being a "real" Black man. Let's face it, he's teamed up with a guy who couldn't be any whiter. No, Cap wasn't a racist,furthest thing from, but again, he's wrapped in a flag that, in 1974, meant something very different for a lot of people than it might today, especially for the African American community. Leila was a way for Sam to say he was real, he was a part of that community. Now how he could put up with her petulant, idiotic behavior is another thing, but clearly that's what Englehart was going for. And hey, who was it that created her in the first place? It seems to me she was around before he got on the book. I might have to do some research when I get home tonight. Could it have been Stan the Man that foisted her upon us?

david_b said...

Tom, you inquired about the unbundling of comics too..???

I recall a few Tuesday mornings when the grumpy small-town, local 'gift shop' guy still had the bundled comics on his countertop.

I sheepishly asked him whether he'd go ahead and open 'em up.

And he'd always give me that snarky stare like either I was crazy, or I owed him something for doing that small favor.

You'd think this guy would gladly take regular income from a kid for these 'funny books', even it it was a dollar or two.

Incidentally, this store was a small storefront-type place, primarily dusty old glass and tacky antique art sculptures there, with dingy old toy stock on the back shevles. It pains me that there were some ultra-cool '60s GI Joe MIB sets among the cheap toys sitting there, waiting to be bought.

"Oh, the pain.."

Say, who here's working on that time machine anyway..?

Doug said...

RIP Harold Ramis.

Ghostbusters, Stripes... man, what a huge piece of the 1980s this guy occupied.


Doc Savage said...

RIP Harold Ramis...Ghostbusters and SCTV were huge for me as a kid. What a shame.

Doug said...

Before it goes much further, I want to politely ask everyone to hold those wonderful memories of comic book distribution until Sunday. Yesterday I was considering a post on that very topic, and today Tom and David have shown with their reminiscences that it's a great idea.

Be looking for an Open Forum on the subject coming your way on March 2.



david_b said...




What a terrible loss..

He was always my favorite in front of the screen.., whether it be Ghostbusters or Stripes, not to mention all his directing fame.

Ah, Doug, good timing, I'm heading to DC on the 2nd for 3wks for military training at Belvoir ~ You won't be around there, will you..?

Doug said...

Nope, David. The next time I'll be in Washington will be mid-July.


Edo Bosnar said...

Man, bummer. RIP Harold.

J.A. Morris said...

Very sad to hear about Ramis, I was a big fan. Lots of great stuff here, but I have a feeling 'Groundhog Day' is the one that's going to be revisited the most in the years to come. It's his masterpiece.

Back to Cap for a minute (if it's okay), I've been re-reading this tpb myself to keep up with this series of reviews.

As for the "consumers" quickly turning against Cap, I can buy it. Not just because of the campaign (mentioned by david_b) but also due to the fact that the Tumbler is wearing street clothes, not a costume when he dies. Plus, this wasn't the Red Skull, this was a c-lister.

Since I've bashed Vince "The Eraser" Colleta here in the past, I have to say his inking looks fine here, doesn't blot out Sal B's pencils.

Great review so far, looking forward to future chapters.

Anonymous said...

To put some of this in context, aren't we, as a country, post-Watergate? Weren't the hearings being broadcast on TV? Or was that later? Subliminal messages and images in advertising? As a country, we were struggling with whom we could trust. And in the grips of the oil embargo from the Yom Kippur War. Taking a stand, coming to the aid of an ally, wrapping oneself in the flag was now anathema. We were asking ourselves: What's in it for me?

In my opinion, as a US American, the country was just as deeply enmeshed in an identity crisis as Steve Rogers.

And looking back, as a pre-teen and early teen, we may not have been the target audience for the comics market. In With Great Power The Stan Lee Story, Lee talks about how popular Marvel was on college campus. Important issues needed to be put out into the debate of America's free market of ideals. Or ideas.

Last, and most personal point, dialects in writing have always been a sore spot with me. Yes, I will admit, there is a Southern Accent where I come from. With the character Rogue, it seems somebody in comics mentioned "ya'll or y'all" is what they say in the South. So Rogue would use it all the time. I mean, EVERY-OF-THE-TIME!!! Even when talking to an individual. The would is plural. I have never, in all my born days, heard anyone use that word to address an individual. Are y'all going to church? Where are y'all getting married? Is that all y'all brought? Was it much?

The Prowler (typing with no accent whatsoever).

Fred W. Hill said...

Looking back, seems Englehart had this story planned out well in advance, maybe by at least 10 months, going back perhaps to the first Viper story but certainly with the first Serpent Squad story wherein the Viper initiates the plan to shred Cap's reputation through an advertising campaign. Englehart wasn't just taking a whack at Nixonian politics but also at media manipulation of the public. I'm sure former adman Steve Gerber gave him some pointers on that. And we should remember it was a media campaign that helped Hitler win popular support in Germany and spread hatred of the Jews. The Nazis didn't have to convince every German with their big lies -- just enough of them.

johnlindwall said...

Regarding Cap using his shield to protect himself from the wall: I always thought his shield was part admantium (for strength) and part vibranium (to totally nullify impact). So I figure getting the shield up was critical, and the vibranium completely absorbed the shock of the impact.

The splash where Falcon debuts his new wings was great, but does he stutter there a bit on the phrase "Super strong"?! i guess he really really wanted to emphasize how strong they are!

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