Captain America and the Falcon #176-183

Captain America #176 cover

"Captain America Must Die!"/"Lucifer Be Thy Name!"/"If the Falcon Should Fall!"/"Slings and Arrows!"/"The Coming of the Nomad!"/"The Mark of Madness!"/"Inferno!"/"Nomad No More!"

Written by Steve Englehart
Penciled by Sal Buscema and Frank Robbins
Inked by Vince Colletta, Joe Giella and Frank Giacoia
Colored by Linda Lessman, Petra Goldberg, Bill Mantlo, and Stan Goldberg
Lettered by Artie Simek and Tom Orzechowski

There wasn't anything waiting for me at Phantom this week, so I decided to splurge a bit on some back issues. I've been reading plot summaries of Steve Englehart's Captain America run over at the Appendix to the Handbook of the Marvel Universe, so I figured, why not?

Unfortunately, Phantom didn't have issues #153-156 (Captain America vs. Captain America), and they only had a few spotty issues between #165 and #175 (where Cap fights the Secret Empire and discovers just much things have changed since his time). But they did have these issues, where Steve Rogers abandons the identity of Captain America because he's not sure he believes in America any more.

Reading these issues, I was surprised how inessential issues #177-182 were. It's very tempting to just jump from this...

Captain America #176, p. 17

Captain America and the Falcon #176, p. 171

...to this..

Captain America #183, p. 17

Captain America and the Falcon #183, p. 172

After all, that's the meat of the story, right? Steve Rogers decides he can't be Captain America any more, then realizes he's made a mistake and climbs back into the costume? Well sure — but that would make for a very short story. So Englehart drags things out for eight months. He gives us three adventures for an uncostumed Cap. He gives us three schlubs who take up the mantle of Captain America and fail — each failure worse than the last.3 He gives us scenes where Captain America's supporting cast adjust to life without him, and scenes where Steve Rogers discovering that life as a non-star-spangled sentinel isn't any easier.

But the problem is none of that filler material is any good. Lucifer is one of Marvel's least-interesting villains, and his fight against the Falcon feels like a fill-in issue. Hawkeye's attempt to bludgeon Cap out of his inaction is a hoary old Marvel cliché. And the Serpent Squad's plan to raise Lemuria off the ocean floor is just unbelievably bizarre — as far as I can tell, they don't have a real reason, other than just wanting to be villanous. We even get to see Viper II (Madame Hydra) kill the Viper (Jordan Stryke) — a tragedy, since the original was a much more interesting character. The character subplots are tedious, and the scenes with the replacement Captain Americas are so ham-handed that it's immediately obvious where Englehart is going with the story.

So what we're left with is a story with a memorable beginning and a stirring ending, and a completely forgettable middle. Unfortunately, it's in the middle that a story lives or dies — had I been reading Captain America in 19744 I'd have dropped the series before the conclusion to this story.

One Last Word: I think Cap's stirring speech from issue #183 is still stirring today. Cap recognizes that his current approach to America's troubles — namely, sitting around and whining about them in the merry Marvel manner — is counterproductive, and vows that in the future he'll be a more active participant in shaping America's destiny. I can think of some Democrats who desperately need to get that message.

  1. The "acting" on Sal Buscema's Cap is incredible. The first panel is a more-or-less standard Cap pose — except his shoulders are ever so slightly slumped and his head ever so slightly lowered. The second panel shows a several conflicting emotions — sadness, anguish, and even anger — all expertly conveyed by the set of Cap's jaws and the shading on his temples. And finally, those eyes — those very, very tired eyes. These three panels combine to create an effective portrait of a man with great reserve making a decision he isn't too proud of.
  2. There's some nice storytelling by Frank Robbins. Tight zooms, shrinking panels, and a gradually warming color scheme all help to heighten Cap's intensity. The final pan takes you over to Roscoe's body wearing the Captain America costume, reminding you of both Cap's responsibilities and his failures and at the same time breaking you out of Cap's inner monologue and returning you to the real world. These days, this scene would be probably be done as a single splash of Cap ranting in front of an American flag; there'd be nothing to linger on, and you'd forget it ten seconds later.
  3. Why three times? Because twice isn't enough to drive the point home, and four times is belaboring the point. The triad is a recurring motif in all forms of art, because it's stable without being regular.
  4. Which is unlikely, since I was being conceived when the last issue was on the newsstands.
  5. For anyone who's interested, these issues also feature the first appearance of Roxxon president Hugh Jones and his first contact with the Serpent Crown. So at least they're historical.

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