Captain America #155 (1974)

At first glance Captain America seems to be an ideal comics character to include in stories with a political viewpoint. After all, a man who literally wraps himself in the stars and stripes should have a lot of resonance as a symbol of America, its swagger and symbols and sense of itself.

In actuality most of the attempts to make him political have been either dull, pointless or plain awful. The first storyline of the current Captain America series is an example of a dull series – it had nice art and the basic story, Cap going after terrorists, was compelling, but it ended up being slow and dull.

Much worse was Marvel’s recent Truth: Red, White and Black mini-series. The idea of exploring racism in the Marvel universe of the 1940s was potentially interesting, as was the main idea of scientists beta-testing the super soldier formula on a group of African-American soldiers. But the story was so ineptly written by Robert Morales and so poorly realized that the whole thing fell flat on its face. Of course, the comic’s quality wasn’t helped by Kyle Baker’s ugly and rushed art, which seemed to be churned out merely to draw a paycheck instead of to add an extra element to the story.

Still, Captain America can be used well as part of a political storyline. It just takes an extraordinarily skilled writer to pull it off.

Perhaps the most interesting political takes on Captain America came at a point when America’s self-esteem was at its lowest ebb, in the mid-’70s. When writer Steve Englehart assumed the reins of the title in mid-1972, the United States was trapped in a seemingly endless war in Vietnam that divided the American people. On top of that, the ’72 election was extraordinary divisive and served to split the American populace further. The ’72 election also was the one in which Richard Nixon’s "plumbers" engaged in the Watergate break-in, resulting in the worst American scandal of the post-World War II era.

In those times, Captain America seemed more and more irrelevant. When teenagers were burning their draft cards, when the movie Easy Rider ironically nicknamed Peter Fonda’s rebel motorcycle-riding character Captain America, when the idea of pride in one’s country seemed like a quaintly dated idea, Captain America felt like a relic of the World War II era, something to be tossed aside next to Liberty Bonds and Rosie the Riveter.

Against all odds, Englehart’s run on Captain America was a blockbuster.

Instead of backing away from the politics of the title, Englehart embraced them. Instead of having Cap be a living paragon of American hegemony, Englehart depicted a man of his times, full of questions about America’s future, a man who saw it as his patriotic duty to question his role in the deep splits that defined America in the early ’70s.

And he was not just creatively successful, but also financially: as Englehart relates in a 1980 interview in The Comic Times, "The book had been at the bottom of the Marvel line and in danger of cancellation until I took it over. It went to the top of the line within six months and stayed there as long as I had it. It immediately went back into the toilet as soon as I left."

The first story Englehart wrote for the series is one of his finest: the Cap of the 1950s saga. Running from issues 153 to 156, this story was created to answer a simple question: if Captain America was frozen in ice at the end of World War II and unfrozen in the 1960s, who was the Cap of the 1950s? Englehart answers this question with great intelligence and insight, insight not just into costumed characters but also into the changes in American society between the 1950s and ’70s. The Cap and Bucky of the ’50s were violent, racist anti-Communist crusaders who saw the world as a simple struggle between good and evil. That contrasted nicely with the ’70s Captain America, who then was teamed with the Falcon, a black character, and who seemed to be struggling to find his place in a turbulent time in America.

The perversity of the ’50s Cap and Bucky can be seen in this speech by the ’50s Cap in CA #155: "Oh, it was glorious! To be a living legend – and fight the Red Skull – who turned out to be a real Red who had stolen the name from the Nazi villain! To battle the clutching hand of all Communism all across he globe – in such other forms as the Russian killer Elektro and the Chinese assassin, the Man With No Face. We were the champions of democracy, the inspirations to millions – Captain America and Bucky, the sentinels of liberty! But somehow we seemed to outgrow the world. We began finding Reds where others saw nothing, like in Harlem and Watts. In fact, we found that most people who weren’t pure-blooded Americans were Commies!"

The ’50s Cap and Bucky were paranoid funhouse-mirror versions of Cap and the Falcon. When the ’70s Captain America confronts his distorted ’50s counterpart at the end of CA 156, Cap realizes he’s battling his doppelganger: "I’ve never fought the evil side of my own nature. And that’s what he is, after all – a man who began with the same dreams I did – and ended as an insane, bigoted superpatriot. He is what he is because he admired me – wanted to copy me. In a very real way, I’m responsible for all the evil he’s done."

The ’70s Cap is finally able to defeat the ’50s Cap, but the battle shakes the ’70s Cap down to his bones. He’s confronting an evil version of himself, but more than that, he’s confronting an evil version of the American dream that he stands for and believes in. The modern Cap’s defeat of his counterpart is symbolic: not only is the ’70s Cap ending an injustice, but he’s defeating an example of America’s distorted past. He’s defeating a man who represents the myopic vision of anti-Communism, proven wrong by the lessons of Vietnam.

This is heady stuff for a comic from that era. Englehart would later explore the Watergate scandal in a fictionalized form when President Nixon is revealed to be the ringleader of an evil organization called The Order. That sequence led to Cap removing the costume and calling himself the Nomad for several months. Ironically, the ’50s Bucky would become the Nomad himself in the 1980s and travel America in the costume that Cap once wore.

Englehart’s run on Captain America, which ran from issue 153 through 186, is woefully under-represented in Marvel’s reprints. It’s a shame, because they are some of the finest comics of the 1970s.

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One Response to “Captain America #155 (1974)”

  1. Unknown Says:

    Your blog keeps getting better and better… Brilliant review…

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