Friday, May 3, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 4 by Steve Englehart, et al.

Not a good run
Marvel Comics’ Essential Captain America, Volume 4 reprints numbers 157 to 186 of the Captain America and the Falcon comic book, issues which were originally published from January 1973 to June 1975. Almost every issue in this volume is written by Steve Englehart, who is a pretty prominent name in Marvel history. The direction he took with this title leaves a lot to be desired, however, and Volume 4 is a lot less enjoyable than Volumes 1, 2, and 3.

When Steve Rogers took the super soldier serum in World War II, he was endowed with the strength and agility of a superior Olympic athlete. Early in Volume 4, however, through an accidental and mysterious fluke of chemistry, Cap suddenly gains “super strength,” a condition which persists through the end of the volume. The extent of this strength is never clarified nor investigated and barely has any bearing on any of the stories. It only comes into play once in a while when Cap needs to rip through a steel door. The primary purpose for this plot device seems to be to make the Falcon jealous of Cap’s newfound power. In Volume 3 the Falcon was an equal partner to Cap, but here he spends much of his time whining as Englehart has relegated him to a sidekick role. While initially Marvel used the Falcon to explore racial, social, and urban issues, Englehart tosses that by the wayside in favor of weird stories and compulsive retconning.

A frequent villain in these issues is the Viper, a man in a snake suit with deadly venomous powers. Englehart, however, finds the most interesting aspect of the character is the fact that he used to work for an advertising agency, a detail that is repeatedly emphasized with his every appearance. Similarly, the most fascinating thing we learn about the Banshee (back when he was a villain) is that he’s a fan of American country music. Englehart resurrects the Yellow Claw, an Asian stereotype from the 1950s. Then there is the introduction of Nightshade, a teenager in a dominatrix outfit who declares herself “Queen of the Werewolves.” Cap’s status as America’s superhero is challenged by a contender who fights him for the hearts and minds of the American public, and that rather unimpressive challenger is . . . Moonstone? (The original male Moonstone). Other bad guys include Plantman, Porcupine, Solarr, Lucifer, and the Gamecock. It’s as if Englehart went out of his way to pick the oddest and least threatening villains he could think of. High points in this run are an appearance by Dr. Faustus and the early formation of the Serpent Squad. At the end of the book the Red Skull makes a triumphant return that is genuinely frightening, but Englehart uses it as an excuse to retcon the Falcon’s origin, making it even stranger than before. For good guys, there are guest appearances by the Black Panther and a few of the X-Men. This is also the period when Steve Rogers briefly gave up being Captain America and adopted the silly costume of Nomad.

For most of this book, the art is handled by Sal Buscema, who epitomizes the default Marvel style of this era. For four issues at the end of the book, the art duties are taken over by Frank Robbins, who has a very weird cartoony style that calls to mind Harvey Kurtzman’s work in EC Comics. His exaggeratedly misshapen figures are a refreshing change from Buscema’s standard fare. Either way, the art is a lot better than the stories, and the faults of this volume lie almost exclusively on the shoulders of Englehart. Thankfully, Jack Kirby returns as both artist and writer in Volume 5.
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