Review by Win Wiacek
Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in an era of frantic patriotic fervour, Captain America was a bombastic, dynamic and highly visible response to the horrors of Nazism and the threat of Liberty’s loss.
By the time of these early 1970s tales gathered in this seventh Masterworks volume the Star-Spangled Avenger had become an uncomfortable symbol of a troubled, divided society, split along age lines and with many of the hero’s fans apparently rooting for the wrong side. Now into that turbulent mix crept issues of racial and gender inequality.
Following a fond, forthright and informative reminiscence from scripter Steve Englehart, the action opens here with Cap increasingly at odds with super-scientific government spy-agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and its Director Nick Fury. The troubled hero is also attempting to revive his secret identity as a New York beat cop.
Gerry Conway writes the opening stories, forming an uncharacteristically uninspired run, drawn, as is everything here, by Sal Buscema, his clarity ever-present, while his figures morph under a selection of inkers. Conway’s run reintroduces Gallic mercenary Batroc, kidnapping ghetto kids for an unidentified client, both defeated far too easily. Next up are enfeebled villains Mr. Hyde and the Scorpion as Conway sought to retroactively include Captain America in his ambitious Mr. Kline Saga. Android copies of the super-creeps had attacked Daredevil and the Black Widow, and here we discover what happened to the originals during that period. Assuming S.H.I.E.L.D. was responsible for their woes, the thugs target Steve Rogers and his secret agent girlfriend Sharon Carter with disastrous results.
Englehart’s writing heralds a renaissance and magical return to form for the Sentinel of Liberty as he hit the ground running with a landmark epic rewriting Marvel history and captivating die-hard fans simultaneously. He starts by having the heroes take a break from S.H.I.E.L.D.
Sam Wilson heads back to Harlem, splitting his time between social work, chasing sexy activist Leila and stamping his mark on the local gangs as the Falcon. Steve and girlfriend Sharon book a holiday in the Bahamas, but it isn’t long before Falcon catches Captain America committing racist attacks in New York. Enraged, Falcon tracks him down, but his supposed partner has somehow acquired super-strength and a resurrected Bucky Barnes. The maniac impostors claim to be “real” American heroes and reveal what they want: a confrontation with the lily-livered, pinko wannabe who has replaced and disgraced them.
Incorporating repurposed excepts from the 1950s comics by John Romita, Cap then learns that while he was frozen in ice after World War II there was another Captain America. Englehart’s plot is a brilliant piece of literary sleight-of-hand that ties up the 1940s, 1950s revival and 1960s iterations of the character in a clear, simple, devilishly clever manner, leading to an unbelievably affecting and fabulously gratifying conclusion.
After meeting and defeating a shade of the nation’s ugly past, Rogers hopes for less troublesome times, but instead ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici: Viper!’ (plotted by Englehart, scripted by Steve Gerber) begins an epic, engrossing storyline. It introduces a despicable advertising executive-turned snaky super-villain ostensibly working for an enigmatic boss named the Cowled Commander.
Any retrospective or historical re-reading will unearth some cringeworthy moments, but Englehart’s tales of matchless courage and indomitable heroism are fast-paced, action-packed and depicted by a top rank penciller and storyteller. Here Captain America was finally discovering his proper place in a new era and would once more become unmissable, controversial reading, as we shall see in Volume 8. Alternatively, the stories are split between Essential Captain America Vol. 3 and Vol. 4.