Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Rebirths Of Captain America

Rumours are starting to swirl that Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, may be on the verge of returning to the Marvel Universe, a little more than 2 years after his death in the well-publicized Captain America # 25. During his absence, we had a brief period in which there was no Captain America to be found, followed by the assumption of the role by his former sidekick, Bucky Barnes.

Today I read, for the first time, a classic story in the always-entertaining history of the character. I've known the cover to Strange Tales # 114 (shown to the left) since I was a wee lad, but I'd never read the tale behind it until recently... not even in reprint form! So it was a thrill to finally peruse it, as I work my way through my back issue pile from last year's Chicago convention.

You may be wondering, why is this comic so significant? Well, Captain America had been a big hit in the 1940s but had fizzled out after World War II, as many of the superhero fixtures did. He came back briefly in the 1950s for some bizarre reason (at which time he took on Communists in place of Nazis) - this was before Marvel Comics redefined itself with the launch of Fantastic Four in 1961 - but mostly had remained off the map when this issue of Strange Tales arrived on the newsstands in the autumn of 1963. Just imagine what fans of the time must have thought when they saw that cover, showcasing the Fantastic Four's Human Torch facing off against the gone-but-not-forgotten Captain America! (As a side note, one of the many interesting aspects of having those two characters meeting up was that, back in the 40s, Captain America had often interacted with the original Human Torch, who was a human-looking android with essentially the same powers that Johnny Storm would receive from cosmic rays, a couple decades later, in Fantastic Four # 1!)

On the very first page of that historic issue of Strange Tales, readers were urged not to reveal the twist ending of the tale... but 46 years later I feel safe in doing so. You see, it wasn't really Captain America returning from the dead (or anywhere else), but rather the Torch's old nemesis, the Acrobat, posing as the WWII hero. You don't find that out until the very last page, though, despite clues aplenty throughout the proceedings that would lead one to believe that this couldn't really be Cap. One of the possibly-unintentional indicators, in fact, was that Cap's costume is miscoloured every time he appears! His shorts, after all, aren't really red... or even purple, as they're shown on the cover... but rather blue, like the rest of his pants.

After the story wraps up, there's even a little editor's note telling us that it was just a test, to see how readers would react to the idea - if not quite yet the reality - of Captain America making the leap from the Golden Age of Comics into "the Marvel Age" (really, the Silver Age).

I think we can now safely assume that the reaction was, in fact, somewhere well to the north of "tepid", because it was only a few months later that the real deal showed up, in Avengers # 4. Here, an explanation was provided for the hero's long absence: he'd fallen from a Nazi rocket into the north Atlantic Ocean and been frozen since the late stages of the Second World War! This was also the place where we learned that his longtime WWII sidekick, Bucky, had stayed with the rocket long enough to keep it from hitting its target, valiantly giving his life in the process. (Or so we thought, until writer Ed Brubaker brought him back, with a replacement cybernetic arm, in the 21st century. Somebody had to replace Steve after he died in 2007, after all!) The survivor's guilt that Steve Rogers felt over Bucky death would be the seed for many a Captain America story over the next couple of decades.

Oh, but wait: what about those very strange 1950s Cap stories, which were now a problem on at least two different levels (why did he act so out of character, and how come he was up and running around with a sidekick named "Bucky" in the 1950s if Bucky died, and Cap went into suspended animation, a decade earlier)? Well, it only took about 10 years or so before someone dealt with them, in the pages of Cap's own comic. The "1950s Cap and Bucky", it turned out, were a government black ops experiment to see if they could duplicate the Super Soldier Serum that had created the original Cap back in 1941. So those adventures against "the red menace" had actually featured a replacement pair, who were slowly going mad. It only took someone in the Nixon administration re-activating those earlier agents to put things on a collision course toward the inevitable: Cap vs Cap! (And on the under-card: the Falcon vs Bucky!)

Just a few reasons why I love the history of Captain America so much!

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