RETRO REVIEW: Captain America Annual #6 (Summer 1982)

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Or – “Back When Marvel Used To Number Their Heroes For Clarity…”

If you read the Marvel Universe handbooks (something that I always recommend, by the way), you may have noticed that Marvel has an an ongoing series of endless retcons and stories that tell the real truth about the truth about the stories we’ve already seen.  Because of that, not only is Steve Rogers not the first Captain America (that would be his revolutionary war ancestor, also named Steve Rogers) but he wasn’t even the first Captain America of the second World War.  Still, no matter how many people take up the relatively hideous costume and indestructible shield, Captain America will be more symbol than he is a man.  For some he’s a symbol of freedom, to some a symbol of a time long past, but for Jeffrey Mace, Captain America is a symbol of lost opportunities and possibly redemption.  You Major Spoilers (retro) review awaits!

CaptainAmericaAnnual6CoverCAPTAIN AMERICA ANNUAL #6
Writer: J. M. DeMatteis
Penciler: Ron Wilson
Inker: Vince Colletta
Colorist: Don Warfield
Letterer: Diana Albers
Editor: Mark Gruenwald
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: $1.00
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $6.00

Previously, in Captain America:  Steve Rogers was the first man chosen to be Captain America.  As we all know, he was lost during a battle with Baron Zemo halfway through World War II, leaving the world short one star-spangled sentinel of liberty.  President Truman recruited one William Naslund (already active as hero called the Spirit of ’76.) to fill the role, but Naslund sacrificed himself to save the world from a villain called Adam-II, with Jeffrey Mace (also already active as a hero called the Patriot) picking up the indestructible shield.  Mace retired at some point before the early 1950s, with another man (now known to be one William Burnside) participating in another government-sponsored experiment to provide a Captain America for the Korean conflict.  The super-soldier process used was incomplete in this case, leaving Burnside paranoid and disbalanced, leading the government to place him and his Bucky (Jack Monroe, later Nomad) in suspended animation.  The original Captain America returned at the dawn of the age of Marvels, taking up his post again after a long stretch in suspended animation, leaving Jeff Mace the only Captain America to survive and age naturally.  This issue opens in the European theatre, circa 1945, with Captain America once again leading the Invaders into action.  But WHICH Captain America is it?

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It’s the Spirit of ’76, referred to for our purposes as Captain America II, leading his new Bucky (a lad named Fred Davis) along with Namor, the Human Torch, Toro, The Whizzer and Miss America into battle.  Cap II’s wool-gathering about being the replacement for a hero he considers superior leaves him open to attack from the Nazi battle-tank, which has an odd method of attack…

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Several years later, in the waning days of 1954, busting up a ring of what may or may not be communists, engaging in some very unpleasant racial slurs and profiling, as well as brutality unbecoming of a Captain America.  After his attack, the far-too-confident Fifties Cap (heretofore referred to as Captain America IV) has his own attack of not-as-good-as-Steve-Rogers-itis, leaving him to a fate similar to his earlier counterpart…

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Is it just me, or was he just eaten by a Steranko panel?  With Cap II and Cap IV in the bag, we time-shift forward once again to the present day, 1982 version, as Captain America Steve Rogers (heretofore referred to as Captain America I) goes into action against one of his lamest foes, The Scarecrow.  (This is a decade before ol’ Scaresy got his mystical upgrade, so he’s just a jerk in a straw suit at this point.)  As the Captain leaps into action, something familiar occurs…

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Cap I loses consciousness in his transport (Remember when the core Avengers were allowed to have weaknesses?  It’s been a while, hasn’t it?  Even longer for Batman…) and awakens in the lair of Mister Buda, also known as the Elder Of The Universe known as the Contemplator.  Captain America is puzzled, especially when he sees two men dressed like him, held in stasis, but Buda provides only riddles.  A voice from the next room, however, provides the answers he seeks…

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Those of you keeping track will note that we have yet to see Captain America III in this issue, but it seems that it has been for good reason.  Cap III has his own version of the Wish-I-Was-As-Good-As-The-Originals, made worse by the state of his life AFTER the red, white and blue…

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Worse than that existential quandary, however, is Cap III’s medical status:  Inoperable terminal cancer.  His dying wish is that he can finally find live up to the legend of Captain America, a wish that The Contemplator is willing to grant him, for reasons unknown.  Cap I tries to fight him, but finds his resistance dwarfed by the cosmic power of the Elder, and agrees to play along with whatever madness Mace and Mister Buda have concocted.  With a wave of his portly hand, the Captains America are zapped away to a world of the Contemplator’s creation to live out Jeff Mace’s final fantasy…

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When I read this issue as a kid, I remember loving it a LOT.  That page, however, is an example of why my adult self is a much harsher critic:  The Caps all look alike, and worse, they all look bulbous and doughy.  The writing has aged a little bit better, but it’s still not the epic tale that I recall through my nostalgia goggles, as Cap II and Cap IV arrive planet-side together, and immediately butt heads…

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As much as I understand the theory behind it (after all, as my daughter tells all the guest stars who try to steal their powers back from the Gokaigers, “it ain’t your story anymore!”), I’m a little wearied by all the Captain America I worship from men who did important things in their own Cap careers.  The impulsive/borderline insane Cap IV quickly finds a fight, and goes medieval on a batch of Adam-II’s android servants, and both Caps are defeated by their weaknesses (Cap II’s compassion and Cap IV’s arrogance, respectively.)  Elsewhere, the odd-numbered Captain Americas find their way to their nation’s capital.  Well, not literally THEIR nation, but this version of it, anyway…

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This horrified me back in the day, with the electronicized and lobotomized Invaders transformed into android slaves, forced to serve the man they fought against.  I found the appearance of teenage Bucky and Toro even more terrifying, something that I just now realized was because they haven’t even aged in the ensuing 40 years.  Why?  BECAUSE THEY ARE WALKING CORPSES, powered by transistors and hatred.  If that doesn’t shake you up, little probably will.  Cap I fights a valiant fight, but ends up trying to save Cap III from a frontal assault by the human torch, leaving his own flank open…

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Captured by Adam II, Caps I and III find that their counterparts have likewise been transformed by the evil android’s dehumanizing process, making two Captain Americas into mindless slaves like the Invaders.  Faced with a computerized conqueror, Captain America I channels another great American hero:  one James Tiberius Kirk!

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Cap I dares to attack, and is stricken down to the ground, leaving Cap III to take the offensive.  As he attacks, he feels a strange new vitality coursing through his body, an energy whose source quickly becomes apparent…

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As Cap III falls, Cap II tries to overcome his newfound programming, forcing himself to move, only to be banjaxed by Captain America IV, whose will is not yet strong enough to break free.  Adam-II ignores all the other Captains, realizing through the power of awkward writing that Captain America I is the real deal, and challenging him to one-on-one combat.  You can almost hear the Star Trek theme as they battle, but the raw power of the android is too much even for the original Sentinel of Liberty!

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Of course, where one Cap (or should I say, Cap I?) fails, three more Caps can succeed, as even the mad Cap IV breaks free of his control, leaving a shattered Adam-II in their wake, with his face frozen in utter shock that a mere human bested him.

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The Contemplator’s machinations are undone, as the alternate world fades away into nothingness, while Caps II and IV return to their own time periods to meet their fates.  (Oddly enough, Cap II has remained dead, Cap IV’s seeming demise as the Grand Director was false, and, as of this writing, he only recently died for real in the pages of Captain America.)  Cap III, on the other hand, has finally realized his own worth, and is able to accept his own mortality for the first time…

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It’s a pretty decent ending for a book that wasn’t quite as awe-inspiring as I recall it being.  Of course, the memory of it before this review also included bits of What If? #4, the story where Cap II meets his maker, and for some reason included art by John Byrne.  Ron Wilson’s work isn’t well-remembered by fans, though he had a long tenure at Marvel, and the inking of Vinnie Colletta is more lauded for its speed (he was the go-to guy for a rush job to get a book in on time) than it ever was for its quality.  Still, all in all, this story isn’t a bad annual, featuring some clever bits of manipulation to get all four Caps in play at the same time, while doing some decent work to knit all the variant Captains America histories together.  Captain America Annual #6 is mostly a footnote these days, but it stands as the first (and possibly only) time that the first four official Captain Americas stood side-by-side, which is enough to earn it 2.5 out of 5 stars overall.  I kind of want to see this story retold with all the additional Caps added in the last 30 years, preferably featuring the awesome team-up of Isaiah Bradley and James Buchanan Barnes.  Isn’t Cap’s 75th anniversary coming up in a couple of years?

Rating: ★★½☆☆

DID YOU READ THIS ISSUE? RATE IT!

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