Or – “SPAK! PUM!!“
Journey back with me, Faithful Spoilerites, to a time when the editorial staff decided that the Marvel Universe was so flush with talent that they could just kill off characters at the drop of a hat.
(No, it’s not last week.)
Before we get to the events of this issue, a little background. The Marvel Universe of 1986 was a slightly different place than today’s M.U. (For one thing, there were fewer than 100 X-Men, and most of the Fantastic Four was still alive at that time.) These were the days before (if only slightly before) universal crossover madness, a time when the editors took it upon themselves to deal with continuity problems, rather than letting superstar auteurs do what they want and dealing with the fallout later. In these heady times, senior editor Mark Gruenwald came up with a brilliant notion to thin out the hordes of minor Marvel supervillains with a truly inspired idea: a super-villain serial killer. By mid-1986, an unknown assailant or assailants had hunted down and executed The Enforcer…
…The Wraith (though Scourge’s actual target was Flash Thompson, who had been falsely revealed as the man behind the mask of the Hobgoblin)…
…the Phone Ranger (yes, really)…
…the Blue Streak…
CAPTAIN AMERICA #320
Scripter: Mark Gruenwald
Penciler: Paul Neary (breakdowns)
Inker: Dennis Janke
Colorist: Ken Feduniewicz
Letterer: Diana Alber
Editor: Michael Carlin
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: 75 Cents (Current Near-Mint Price: $4.00)
Previously, on Captain America: Steve Rogers blah blah living legend blah scrawny loser blah blah 4F blah miraculous formula, supersoldier blah blah blah fishcakes. By 1986, he had been through a lot of junk, and had taken up traveling the highways of America in a modified van, using a hotline to get tips from the average joe in the street to assist in his war on crime. After the execution of Death-Adder, the entire villain community was in panic mode, and the hotline recieved a call from an unusual source. Adder’s Serpent Society teammate Diamondback came to Captain America suggesting a partnership, bringing the Sentinel of Liberty into the loop on the mysterious villain-killings. Captain America agrees to help, but Diamondback is herself accidentally injured and hospitalized. Soon after, Cap receives a mysterious call asking him to meet someone with information at the waterfront, but his arrival is met with an attack from an animated wall of water. Captain America easily out-maneuvers the clumsy affront, discovering that the culprit is minor-league villain, the Water Wizard.
W.W. turns out to be the biggest loser of all the loser villains, but ironically his terrible luck ends up being his salvation. After arriving late to a villain meet-up at the Bar With No Name (an off-duty hangout for the villains of the Marvel Universe), he found that Scourge arrived on time and executed nearly TWENTY of his cohorts! (If you’re interested, the Joe Bob totals on this kill-spree included Bird-Man, The Cheetah, Commander Kraken, Cyclone, Firebrand, The Grappler, The Hijacker, Hellrazor, Jaguar, Letha, Mind-Wave, Mirage, Rapier, The Ringer, Shellshock, Steeplejack, Turner D. Century and The Vamp, eighteen villainous personages in all.) Stashing the naturally shellshocked (pun fully intended) Water Wizard, Captain America rushes into action and… takes a nap.
We can give the guy a pass on this one, since at the time of this issue he was approximately 65 years old. While Cap catches some well-deserved z’s, a nervous Diamondback finds her hotel room invaded by an unknown costumed figure. She attacks with her throwing diamonds, only to realize that the invader is her Serpent Society pal, The Cobra…
The interactions between the Serpents are always fun, and Mark Gruenwald (the writer of this issue, natch) delivers nicely here. Cobra is motivated by teamwork, sure, but also by the fact that D-back is the hottest of his cohorts, a nice touch. When Scourge arrives, he barely misses assassinating the two snake-themed bad guys, and Cobra simply takes off, remarking that fighting a maniac isn’t in their job description. It’s a nice bit of characterization on all fronts, and Diamondback shows her first twinklings of rehabilitation in her desire to confront and stop Scourge in action. The next day, Captain America and the local police confer on a plan to draw the villain-murderer into the open, starting with a news report…
Mirage (or at least Steve Rogers in Mirage’s suit, a reality that must be pretty creepy, given that the real Mirage was mown down in it only hours before) is stashed in a safehouse in the woods, but Scourge’s right-hand man Domino witnesses the transfer. Cap passes the time by drawing (Steve Rogers’ day job at this point in time was, entertainingly, freelance artist on the adventures of Captain America for the in-universe version of Marvel Comics) before the Scourge arrives to say hello…
Another interesting moment arrives as Scourge realizes who his target really is. Murderer or no, Scourge still has principles, and doesn’t want to fight someone who he perceives to be on the same side. Even more amazingly, when the villain has Captain America dead in his sights, he can’t bring himself to shoot! Cap disarms and unmasks Scourge to find… nobody he recognizes. Each time we come near a cliche, Gruenwald shoots it in the foot, even having Scourge ask who Cap THOUGHT he was. Who is he, you ask?
Now, there’s a bit of controversy here and there regarding whether or not the Scourge was lying when he claimed to be the Enforcer’s brother, mostly predicated on the fact that The Enforcer was entertainingly given TWO separate identities in two separate stories. Either way, his backstory quickly becomes irrelevant…
It’s pretty fitting that the last original victim of Scourge was, seemingly, Scourge. The fun of this story is that it was created to try and clean up continuity, and ended up doing precisely the opposite, especially given the complexities of the continuity in this story. F’rinstance, the death of the Wraith is shown to take place AFTER the multiple execution in the Bar With No Name, while both stories refer to the other, both in the past tense.
Moreover, there’s no way to blame ALL the murders we’ve seen on one person. The Scourge who shot Titania was clearly female, and while Scourge was a master of disguise, he wasn’t a shape-shifter. Many of the Scourge murders seemed to imply an amazing foreknowledge, bordering on precognition, notably the death of The Fly, Basilisk and Blue Streak. All in all, this issue raises as many questions as it answers, and the open-ended nature of the climax was seemed to be designed to let the character return and off more villains as necessary. Still, it was a successful universe-building exercise, much more so than things like the Infinity Gauntlet or the endless buildup to Secret Invasion, at least in my eyes. Captain America is seldom more human and accessible than under the pen of Mark Gruenwald, making for interesting moments throughout. The art is a sticking point for me, as Paul Neary’s angular designs are made even stranger looking as breakdowns completed by Dennis Janke, giving Cap massive legs and boots and a tiny head throughout the issue. Having gotten this issue by subscription in the mail, I still remember the excitement of the reveal and the successful buildup of the mystery, leading Captain America #319 to make a strong showing for itself, earning 3 out of 5 stars overall. There’s really only one correct answer to the question, “Who Is Scourge?”: Scourge is a very successful and unexpectedly clever plot device.
Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day: Was bringing all these minor characters back just to off them a great idea or a stupid one? Would it have been better to have just denied that it ever happened, like Marvel does with ‘Trouble?’Notes:
*Basilisk, Bird-Man, Cheetah, Cyclone, Mirage, Ringer, Turner D. Century and The Vamp had their DNA spliced into proto-husks that later fought Deadpool.*
*The Ringer was even later resurrected again as a particularly stupid cyborg.*
*The Wraith was revealed to have transferred his mind into another body, and later fought Morbius.*
*Basilisk, Bird-Man, Black Abbott, Blue Streak, Cheetah, Cyclone, Death Adder, Firebrand, Fly, Hijacker, Letha, Megatak, Mind-Wave, Miracle Man, Mirage, Titania, Turner D. Century and the Wraith were even later than that resurrected by The Hood to fight the Punisher. There was no explanation how the Wraith’s first resurrection didn’t take.*
*Blue Streak, Cheetah, Cyclone, Firebrand, Mind-Wave, Mirage, and the Wraith were then almost immediately killed AGAIN by the Punisher. It was somewhat less awful than it might sound…*
*Later Scourge appearances reportedly claimed the lives of Black Abbott, Blowtorch Brand, Lionfang, Red Skull II, and The Wrench. That story wasn’t nearly as good, mostly because of starring John Walker.*
*The Phone Ranger may have survived his bullet to the head.*
*Scourge’s history has been “clarified” so many times as to be completely incomprehensible. Various accounts have had him as the Golden-Age Angel, an entire organization, and the U.S. Agent’s brother. For all we know, he may have been Batman, honestly…*