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.)



  1. (1) That Ghost Rider cover is kind of awful. But in the best possible way -- and that's what was so great about the comics covers of those eras: even when they weren't great, they were wonderful. I can absoLUTEly see how that image would be burned into the brain of somebody who'd had a copy as a youngster. Same for the Cap cover, of course, although that one is much better (it's got simplicity and grace on its side).

    (2) It's fascinating to me to consider how much effort must go on behind the scenes -- as evinced by that Jim Shooter anecdote -- to keep a company's stable of characters from losing all integrity as an ever-changing lineup of writers and artists work on them. If you pull back mentally and think about it, it's an insane concept. Why would anybody ever think that would work? AND be of high quality?!? Unthinkable! And yet, it does manage to happen; probably slightly less often that it fails to happen, but still, it seems a bit miraculous.

    (3) I'm not crazy about some of that Secret Wars art. In one panel, Cap seems to have grown a pencil-thin mustache. I like how his shield is a bit like Narsil for a few moments there, though. Hmm. Cap looks a bit off to me, but I can't deny that those panels do have a lot of power. Maybe that's the secret to the power of superhero comics: the moments in which they truly shine are the ones in which they affirm what we already know (i.e., that Cap and his shield are awesome).

    (4) Who wouldn't love that cover to #242? Even if I'd never seen any of those characters before, I think I'd have to find out more.

    (5) "You will make our country strong again!" Oh, dear...

    (6) I like that "High Fidelity" anecdote. I remember when I saw that movie, I thought, "Well, that's not how I would arrange it, but I totally get the desire to arrange it the way it makes sense to you to arrange it." I'd say that's still how I look at it. There's a certain amount of philosophy inherent in the decision-making process with all this stuff, isn't there?

    (7) "...the unsullied America of his imagination." Oh, dear...

    (8) I found myself thinking of "The Man in the High Castle" when I read this, so I'm not surprised DeMatteis cited Dick. I don't think it's too on-the-nose; I feel like using comics to introduce concepts like that to people who might not otherwise encounter them is a very good use of comics.

    Another great read from Dog Star Omnibus! As always, much appreciated.

    1. Thank you, sir! And thanks for reading 'em.

      (1) I've been circling a series of posts on GHOST RIDER (v1) forever. The problem is, it just wasn't a great series, so I keep dragging my feet. But like you say, these things lodge themselves in the young and impressionable mind and over time become something else altogether.

      (6) Philosophy and a little mystic ritual as well!

      (7) In the interests of accuracy, I should probably note that it's not Hardy's wish to turn America "unsullied" via apartheid and Nazis, etc. His is more of a Next-Stop-Willoughby sort of deal, albeit one he has crossed several criminal and ethical lines to pursue. There are a few panels of origin story that I didn't put in there that would have cleared it up, but I thought maybe they were extraneous to the flow of things.

      (8) DeMatteis sees flaws in his early work that were in no way relevant to my experience as a reader of it, but I can respect that. Most writers / artists tend to outgrow or feel distance from their earlier stuff, or see things in like that (i.e. his own influences, etc.) I agree, didn't seem too-on-the-nose to me and it's because of stuff like this that I even got pointed in the right direction re: The Masters.

    2. (7.5) "it's not Hardy's wish to turn America "unsullied" via apartheid and Nazis, etc." Oh, I forgot to add the next sentence: Those dreams come about as the result of two of his subjects, and he's unable to control them.

    3. Oh! Well, that makes this even more interesting than it already seemed.

      Regarding DeMatteis -- I'd imagine that most creative types go through some version of this. My perception is that they are creative because they are self-reflective, and they are self-reflective because they have doubts about what they are doing and need to figure out why. I don't think any of that is a bad thing; it just means that while it's always a good idea to listen to their opinions about their own work, it's never a good idea to blindly accept those opinions.

      I'll have to read some of his stuff one of these days.