Let's Rap About Cap, Pt. 5: The Rise and Fall of Fifties Cap


We looked at William Burnside aka "Fifties Cap" in pt. 3 of this Let's Rap About Cap series, but today let's look more closely at his first (and second) appearance. For most intents and purposes, Steve Englehart created the character in Captain America 153. Here's how Steve explains things at his site:

"Cap was being considered for cancellation when I got it, because it had no reason for existence. Stan Lee had written it for years, and it was clearly his least favorite book; the stories had become not only lackluster but repetitive. Gary Friedrich had picked it up a year before and done some interesting stuff, but he hadn't stayed long; then Gerry Conway did two issues as a stopgap; and then I got it. The problem across the board at Marvel was that this was the 70s - prime anti-war years - and here was a guy with a flag on his chest who was supposed to represent what most people distrusted. No one knew what to do with him.

Me, I had been honorably discharged from the Army two years earlier as a conscientious objector - but I was supposed to also be a writer. So I did something for the first time that marked everything I've written since. I said, 'Okay, if this guy existed, who would he be?' Not 'Who am I?', but 'Who is Captain America?' *

Six months later, the wayward book slouching toward cancellation was Marvel's Number One title, and I seemed to have found my career. Roy Thomas (EIC at the time) had been thinking about the Captain America who appeared in Timely books in the 1950s. Marvel's Cap was supposed to have been frozen in ice during that time, so who was that man in the flag suit? He asked me that question as he handed me the book, and I ran with it for my four-issue initial story." 

* A commendable approach.

So he rebooted, essentially, a character who first appeared in Young Men, published by Timely (Marvel's predecessor) in 1953. And that character was himself a reboot of the Cap/ Steve Rogers who appeared in the Captain America Comics of the 1940s.

Stan Lee is the guy who revived Cap in Young Men and then again in The Avengers in 1964. With the latter, Lee established him as the same guy who was in WW2, who fell into a heretofore unknown state of suspended animation in 1945, thus pushing his own 50s-Cap stories out of official canon. Such was the state of affairs when Englehart took over in 1972. He reconciled the two characters by making one (Steve Rogers) the original and the other (William Burnside) a government-created replacement-Cap (working off Lee's suspended-animation angle) who (along with his sidekick, Jack Monroe) assumed both the public and private identities of the original Cap and Bucky. 

Here's an abridged origin sequence, as re-assembled from both Captain America #155 ("The Incredible Origin of the Other Captain America") and the Young Men issues and captioned by the usual gang of idiots in the Dog Star Bullpen:

"Welcome, scum. Welcome back to awareness." 50s Cap shares Steve Rogers' natural gifts for oration.
However innocent, all adult/ young boy interaction seem creepy in old comics.
Particularly when they involve shooting up together.
The U.N.??! That cabal of commies?? Oh, it's on.
We'll save the Red Skull's rebooting/ origin story for another post.

Right, so. Fifties Cap and Bucky start heading into Harlem and cracking heads. This attracts the attention of the Falcon.

The Falc takes quite a bit of abuse for the first part of the story, but he wins in the end. There's probably a metaphor in there.
"You're against me, like all commie scum!" Someone's been reading the minutes from the last Dog Star Omnibus Budget and Planning Committee...!

Where's the real Cap during all of this? Here's a little section I like to call


Okay, not really. I'm actually opposed to this whole way of thinking - not to the idea of keeping in mind how you might have unfair advantages or disadvantages based on your race, gender, or economic position, (though I suspect the last of those is 90% of any actual privilege going on) but to the mental shortcut/default of walking into a room and counting the white people and yelling "Check Your Privilege!" etc. Call me crazy - that's a viewpoint so racist yet so essential to the media-academe religion that they had to invent a way to protect it from being identified, obviously, as racist. 

But hey! I'm happy to appropriate such things for comedic purposes, though, as I hope is the case here. Where's Cap, you ask, while his nonwhite sidekick is getting beaten up by white supremacists?

Oh, I dig it.

I love that Cap's white skin in the Caribbean sun is the key to unraveling the whole Nazi Cap mess. Anyway, it all comes to a mano-y-mano at the Torch of Friendship plaza in Miami, FL, where Cap helpfully spells out the American New Wave subtext for us:

Amen. I've mentioned elsewhere that this idea of every hero needing a shadowy-reflection-of-himself archenemy is important. Sometimes it seems every Cap villain is some distorted reflection of his ideal, I grant you. But I like the idea of his having a rogue's gallery of Caps who, by taking one step to the right or left, go from ideal to fascist. 

William Burnside takes several steps away from right and left when he returns like a repressed trauma pushed way down into the muck of Cap's unconscious as The Grand Director. (Cap 232-236 by Roger McKenzie and the ubiquitous Sal Buscema.)

"And all that stuff!" indeed.

This time around, the Grand Director is under the thrall of Dr. Faustus, "Master of Men's Minds," an Austrian psychotherapist who moonlights as a supervillain. With his own zeppelin. The good Doctor has perfected a method for enslaving groups to his will through the power of rhetoric, drugs, and fire - three tried and true methods for the supervillain narcissist! - as Cap and Agent 13 (aka Sharon Carter aka his girlfriend, lest ye forget) learn the hard way.

Uh-oh, again.

The storyline is notable not just for the pulp KKK-hypnosis-and-repressed-psychosis storyline but for a few different things. First off, there's Nazi Cap, when Steve Rogers, too, falls under Faustus' thrall, and requires a few haymakers from Daredevil to come back to his senses.

Second, there's the death of Sharon Carter -

who stayed dead (if memory serves) at least until they started rebooting things around 1990 or so but probably came back after. 

Ditto for William Burnside. As for 50s Bucky -
Despite appearances here, we'll see him again in a few more posts.

To be honest, this second appearance of the character, despite the death of Sharon Carter, isn't really the greatest story. The most visually and conceptually dramatic villain - the Grand Director - isn't really necessary to the story. Cap is brainwashed into burning a swastika on his shield, but this gets kind of lost in the other details. Compare, for example, to Indy briefly becoming a servant of Kali in Temple of Doom and you can clearly see the lost dramatic opportunities here; it could have been better. 

Or maybe it's that I just never really took to Dr. Faustus. If Scientology ever gets around to publishing its own comics, though, he'd be perfect villain fodder for the Knights of Xenu.

The rest of Burnside's post-mk-1-era can be read here. There was a rumor that he was to be the villain in Cap: Civil War, but that didn't materialize. I'm sure they will find room for him somewhere. The idea of a rogue and mentally deranged Cap leading the country into angry tribalism and herd instinct bigotry is too good not to use. Like I said to a friend the other day, whatever the circumstances in America, certain villains - and the opposition to them that Steve Rogers represents - are always in style. 

Or at least they should be. Woe to us all when an era of American history fails to produce a shadowy reflection of Cap and instead turns Cap into that distorted image.



Let's Rap About Cap, pt. 4: My First Captain America Stories


I can trace my ongoing love of Captain America to four things. First:

I remember my older brother walking through the front door of our house on Thurber Street in Pawtucket, RI and laying this and an issue of Ghost Rider on the coffee table. Given the cover date (August 1981), this must have been late spring/ early summer of that year. (The Ghost Rider was this one, and looking at the Water Wizard on that cover pulls me back across time and space just as much as the Cap's-behind-bars image above does.) 

"Whoah!" said 6-year-old-Bryan. "Cap's in jail? But he's the hero - they can do that?" This was my first interaction with this trope of adventure-fiction-storytelling. Each time I've seen it since (right up to the first preview I saw for the show Prison Break some 20-odd years later) this cover flashes across my mind.

Reading Cap 260 again in 2016 I have to say, it's okay, but not something I'd point to as prototypical of the character. (It's more or less just an homage/ side-swipe of Brubaker, which had come out not too long before it.) That cover, though! Perfect. My brother bought the series for awhile after that, so once I got into Cap properly three years later, I was able to piggyback off his collecting the title (as I often did) to get to know the character better. But more on that when we get to the fourth of my I-Grok-Cap moments.

The second of these occurred in the summer of 1984. At this time, Cap wasn't a series I collected, but my Marvel fandom had progressed to exploring as many other roads of the Marvel Universe as my meager resources allowed. One of those roads was the original Secret Wars by Jim Shooter, Mike Zeck and Bob Layton

"Marvel's writers were very possessive of the characters in their care. In Shooter's own assessment, 'allowing any one of the writers to handle pretty much everyone else's characters in Secret Wars would have led to bloodshed.' To avoid this, Shooter had to select a writer who (1) was experienced at writing stories with a large cast of characters, (2) was up to date on the goings-on of all Marvel titles, and (3) could withstand being hated by the rest of Marvel's writers. Given that criteria, Shooter felt only one person was qualified to write it: Jim Shooter."

I didn't know any of that (as excerpted from The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s) at the time, of course. I was home from Germany on a three week summer vacation and was gorging on comic books, multiplex movies, and Wheel of Fortune. For what it's worth, though, I believe Shooter's take on every character that appears in Secret Wars at that point in the company's history is the correct one. (Even though Thor says "through the gates of Hades" and not "over the GjallarbrĂș."

Cap comes off particularly well. I won't get into everything that happens in Secret Wars - opinions are divided on it, I guess, but I'll always love it - but during one of the big battles, Cap's shield, for the first time in Marvel-mk-1 continuity, is shattered. Unprecedented. After the heroes win the battle, the Beyonder grants them the original prize (i.e. "anything you desire") via a sympathetic-magic-alien-gadget-of-some-kind. 

These panels really affected me back then. And continue to affect me - this idea of Cap, the hard tasks all accomplished, everyone's safety seen to and the last man to cash in his prize for winning the war, sifting every last shard of his shattered shield from the dust and debris and reverently placing it upon the altar of this alien world, and then willing it back into existence - it's all very poetic. And a case where old-school captions are utilized perfectly. These days you'd probably just see the panels, and that's cool and all, but it wouldn't have hit me the same way when I was ten.

On to Cap Moment Number Three: Captain America #242 by Steven Grant, Don Perlin and Joe Sinnott

I've elsewhere described the one comics-trade I made in the fourth grade that tripled my comics collection. ("The Louisiana Purchase of my young life.") Within that trade were a bunch of Captain America issues. What got me to start buying the series on a monthly basis were the ones written by J.M. DeMatteis (I think I got Cap 275 -288 in that swap, but the first "new" issue I was able to get at the Rhein Main AFB PX was 294), but there were also a handful of older issues, such as this one, which came out a year-and-a-half before the first Cap I ever saw, the aforementioned #260. The cover appealed to me (still does) so I read that one first.

Cap receives a cryptic phone call from an old friend (Peggy Carter) asking him to come to an unknown location where he's immediately bewitched by illusions and attacked by robots who resemble his loved ones and colleagues.     

Cap figures out it's some kind of trap and fights his way to the mastermind: The Manipulator.

The Manipulator has been hired by a petty thug, Muldoon, who wants him to kill Cap for revenge for sending him up the river. The twist is that the Manipulator has no intention of killing Cap; he's only interested in manipulating (supervillain chuckle) Muldoon for his own scientific gratification. Then, double-twist:

Repeat exposure to Star Trek (particularly "What Are Little Girls Made Of?") basically made it impossible for ten year old Bryan to resist this. This was deep, man. And while the story maybe isn't as impactful to me at forty-two as it was to me then, it's still fun, and it opened me up to the character as a delivery mechanism for all of these Trek-ian (and beyond) themes. 

Especially when I got to Cap 264, the fourth of my four Come-to-Cap moments:

You know that scene in High Fidelity where John Cusack's character tells the Moby-looking dude he's reorganized his record collection "autobiographically" vs. chronologically? ("If I want to find the song "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 pile, but didn't give it to them for personal reasons.") That's always how I feel when getting these comics posts together. Were I to arrange my Caps that way, they'd shake out how I've listed them here, bouncing back and forth between creative times and out of chronology.  

It's funny - well, to me anyway: I read Cap 260, then sort of skimmed my brother's copies of the next few issues and stopped before I got to 264, which I went back and read only after reading 275-288 in the aforementioned Great Comics Acquisition of 1984, which I might not even have gotten to had I not read 242 first and it piquing my interest. Adding to the zigzag - I quit reading the book for a little while when we got back to the States in '86 because my local drugstore never got it consistently (as a result, I had no idea what happened with the Scourge of the Underworld for years) and only picked it up again once the Commission storyline started up and I had reliable transportation to the comics shop.

Anyway! Cap 264, written by J.M. DeMatteis and illustrated by Mike Zeck, "The American Dreamers" opens with the panels above: four individuals hooked up to some kind of device in seclusion. From there it goes to Cap, "America's most celebrated diplomat," returning from a trip to Latin America to discuss the planned merger of North and South America. Wait, what? Is this some kind of alternate reality?

Looks that way.
Bucky, alive? I like how this isn't pointed out explicitly, but it's alluded to by this moment with the Vision. (Who was created - at least once upon a time - from the android Jim Hammond (aka Cap and Bucky's former colleague)'s body. 
As Cap tries to shake off this feeling of something being off, he begins receiving strange and impossible messages.
Is he losing his mind?

As he tries to focus, he begins to flip through several different realities: 

In one, he is a child and he and Sam (Wilson) and other friends ride an endless carousel.
In another, America has reverted to its apartheid past.
And in another, an apartheid future-present where the Nazis won the war, albeit with a Marvel Universe twist.
As the realities merge, Cap begins to trust the intermittent voice beckoning him to the Walheim Hotel.

What's going on here is that a man named Morgan MacNeil Hardy is trying to recreate the unsullied America of his imagination. He'd previously used Turner D. Century (last seen in these pages in my post on Spidey '83) for this purpose, (Spider-Woman 33) but was thwarted. He's tried again by recruiting four low-level telepaths and using them to restructure reality. 

The only problem is, they're influencing things with their own biases and karma.
Cap decides to end the experiment, but not before reality comes perilously close to blinking out.
All that's left is for Cap to give the captain of the Enterprise speech.

This was the type of horror-sci-fi-adventure-Relevance mash-up my young self craved. (As was, I discovered when checking the credits, one of the author's previous stories, the Defenders Go to Hell storyline; I added the DeMatteis name to my authors-to-watch pile. (Still there in 2016). If Cap 242 showed me Captain America was a venue for Trekian themes, this one showed me just hard-hitting the character's adventures could get. And should get - Cap is in a unique spot, conceptually, for his adventures to comment both obliquely and explicitly on so many aspects of Americana.

This issue was not only very frightening and surreal for me as a boy, but (as I mentioned about What If... #44) it also gave me a clear and dramatic idea of what an American is, what he or she stands for, and what he or she stands against. I consider myself very fortunate - as both an American and as a Cap fan - for this. (I mean, Rambo could have been my template. And it probably was. I'm a Moon in Pisces; we swim round and round up there in the brains.) "American dreamers," indeed. We are the dreamers dreaming this world, my friends, as the author of this tale often says.

Speaking of the author, I reached out to J.M. DeMatteis on his blog a few years back to tell him how much this story's meant to me over the years and to ask him a few little things about it. He replied "(That one) was heavily influenced by Philip K. Dick... with a little Ursula LeGuin thrown in for good measure. (I think, in those days, I wore my influences a little too obviously.) Maybe I'll pull it off the shelf and reread it."

I'll take a closer look at the DeMatteis era of Cap in a future post, but given the long shadow this issue casts over my Cap fandom, I wanted to isolate it and give it its due as the biggest of the Four faces on my own personal Mt. Capmore. (Mt. Rushcap? You get me.)