Or – “Who He Is, And How He Came To Be…”

This was originally supposed to be last night’s recap, but a series of unfortunate events that ended with a visit to the emergency room pretty much put the kibosh on that. (Pinched nerve in the neck causing tremendous pain in the arm and shoulder, but I’m okay, thanks.) So, for the sake of argument, pretend it’s Sunday. You’ve just watched Grey’s Anatomy, or Battlestar Galactica, or whatever it is that NBC puts up, and you’re dreading the hateful Monday morning to come. That’s when you click on Major Spoilers.com and see, “Hey, more Captain America!” But not just any Captain America, my friends and neightbors, oh no no NO. This is the big one, the original wellspring, the piece de resistance, the omelette du fromage, the origin of Captain America. But Matthew, you say, where’d you dig up the 55 large to buy such a book? And how dare you scan it with your rickety old HP chunk of crap scanner? Are you crazy??? Indeed I am. But have no fear, as even I have more couth than to damage a Golden Age book for the sake of a recap… I’ve done one better, getting my hands on Cap’s 40th-anniversary retelling of the origin (from the Roger Stern/John Byrne run on the title) and it’s a very special issue indeed.

cap1.jpg1981 was nearing the end of an era at Marvel Comics. After Stan Lee vacated the post of editor-in-chief in 1972, a series of Marvel’s finest writers (most of whom came up through the ranks of fandom) took turns in the big chair, with generally less than stellar results. These editors, in turn, hired more writers who had previously been fans, and for the first time, a real eye was turned to the continuity of the characters, and entire story arcs were devoted to explaining things like The Vision’s connection to the original Human Torch, or the REAL parentage of the Scarlet Witch, or how, if Cap were frozen in 1942, how did he manage to have a few adventures as a Red-Baiter in the McCarthy era? This particular issue echoes that mentality, as the various retellings of Cap’s origin (did he get INJECTED with the formula, or was it INGESTED, or did it take VITA-RAY treatments) are finally folded into one cohesive origin, with a little bit of modernism stirred in to keep it all spicy…

This comic begins (after a nice splash page of Cap punching Hitler and an interesting Frank Miller cover which shows the same thing, only with Hitler looking like Count Chocula) in the Oval Office, with President Roosevelt about to sign off on the logbooks of “Operation: Rebirth,” an experiment designed to give us a platoon of super-soldiers to fight the war in Europe. The test subject is a young lad named Rogers, whose father died young, and who watched his single mom struggle to support the family during the depths of the Great Depression. After watching newsreels of the war in Europe, young Steve runs off to enlist, only to find out the unpleasant truth…

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I’ve seen many stories go bad after a statement like “I’ll do anything…” But that’s just the nature of internet fanfic. In Steve’s case, it means that he’s taken to a secret base, where he is shown a lab setup straight out of H.G. Wells, and introduced to “Doctor Reinstein,” actually a code name to disguise famous supposed-to-be-dead Doctor Erskine (cleverly sidestepping the two different names given in two different accounts of the origin). Rogers is first giving a series of injections, THEN ingests a special formula from the world’s biggest test tube, and THEN is subjected to an experimental Vita-Ray treatment to finalize the process (and didn’t they work harder than holy heck to make all the origins fit together?) But the question is, will it work?

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Byrne’s Cap always borders on the ridiculously muscular, a bodybuilder’s physique with the moves of a gymnast. What’s most impressive, though, is the rebuilding of the bonework in his jaw, something that I’m sure Joanie Laurer wishes would have been as quick and painless for her. The process is a success, and “Reinstein” assures the American agents that an army of super-soldiers is now officially going to happen… until he gets shot in the chest by a foreign agent. The Nazi tries to escape but finds out exactly how hard a super-soldier punches, not only getting knocked across the room, but slamming through the Vita-Ray generator and getting electrocuted in the process. Roosevelt laments the loss of the project, but is impressed with it’s sole result.

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General Phillips! Gasp! Who in the blue @&#$ is General Phillips? I suppose that name-dropping only works when the names are dropped on someone who can catch ’em. Bygones… Finally, after months of training, Steve is called into the Quartermaster’s office and shown a picture of the Nazis latest agitator: a masked man known only as “The Red Skull.” The Americans want to counter-program this attempt at demagoguery with a masked man of their own…

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Wow, that’s a lot of dialogue for one panel. Read it out loud, and see how long you spend saying it, then imagine the cramps that ensue from posing heroically while doing so. Note also the triangular shield… In the REAL world, the one where Steve’s just a comic character, Captain America’s original shield went away because MLJ (now known as Archie) Comics felt it was too similar to their superhero The Shield, and rightfully so. No explanation was ever given, to my knowledge, why his funny little hat was changed in the original 40’s comics, but this is Marvel in the 80’s, a time when people actually gave us origins for Thor’s hammer, Cap’s round shield, and The Wasp’s costumes, and thus Stern explains why the uniform changed after only one appearance back in the day.

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Gasp! His secret identity was nearly given away forever! And, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that young photog none other than J. Jonah Jameson? Remember, this was 1981, when it was still chronologically possible for Jonah to have been a young man in 1941, and still be vital enough to publish the Bugle a couple decades later. Cap continues facing Nazis, fifth columnists, and sympathizers, making enough of a name for himself that he is called to the Oval Office in person.

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The one-of-a-kind Vibranium/Adamantium alloy shield’s origin is pretty simple (a brilliant metallurgist fell asleep while experimenting with vibranium, and woke up to find the shield fully formed, like Athena from the brow of Zeus), and the non-replicatable experiment that created it mirrors the one that created Cap himself, a nice piece of narrative parallel. Now fully trained and armed, the Captain enters phase two of the project, his field work. Given a secret identity (bumbling Private Steve Rogers), he is sent to the front, and does his masked work undercover. A few weeks later, though trained in tactics and field techniques, he’s still green enough to get caught changing into his identity by a young kid named Bucky Barnes. Luckily, the government figured they could fix the problem by putting Bucky in his own costume (and eventually, he did die in combat) while Captain America quickly established himself as the gold standard for all costumed adventurers.

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I love that image, distilling something like fifty years of comics into a montage full of floating heads. Flash forward to the present of 26 years ago, as Steve Rogers returns home to his Queens apartment after a night of crime-fighting. He’s nearly exhausted, but still has to finish an assignment for work (At the time, Rogers was a freelance artist, even at one point drawing the Marvel Universe version of the Captain America comic book… Is it irony, or contrivance? Only Jim Shooter knows for sure.) Steve wonders if all the work is worth it as he turns on his TV for a little background noise. The station is signing off (proof that this comic is old, as nobody really seems to sign off anymore, they just play infomercials), and the beautiful strains of the National Anthem make his decision for him…

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“The dream never ends…” That’s a nice ending for this issue-long flashback book (and it even has a Hostess ad!), and it’s nice to see Byrne’s work before all his faces devolved into the same skeletonous hollow-cheeked jughead. The story combines elements of several different origins into one whole, something that probably wouldn’t ever happen today. They’d just revamp the whole thing, and probably ruin all the best notes with inappropriate dialogue and scratchy art.

The events of the last week have convinced a lot of people to start ripping through my back issue bins for old Captain America stories (some to read, some to speculate with), and I’ve been re-reading my books as well (The Nomad arc reads interesting, but hasn’t aged well, and the “Cap Gets Fired And Replaced By Rambo” arc that gave us U.S. Agent is still pretty awesome). The Captain may be gone, but that doesn’t mean we can’t remember him well. All told, this issue earns 3 stars, with well done art (reproduced from Byrne’s original pencils, rather than inked pages) and a clever mid-70’s “Connect-All-These-Dots” story.

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The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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