Out of the Vault – Captain America #117

The next few weeks from the Vault are going to be a little different. I have a very few Captain America comics from the 60’s and 70’s, and for the next month or so, I’ll be visiting them one by one. Why?

Well, for one, Captain America: The First Avenger is still on my mind (or maybe it’s all the stuff leaking from the set of The Avengers, now filming in Cleveland). For another, the comics show in a very visual way the things that went wrong with Marvel generally in the 70’s, as well as illustrating the many ways writers floundered with making the character interesting.

Plus I need to get worked ahead for some very special plans that I’ll be announcing soon (maybe tomorrow), and this is the easy way out.

First up, Captain America #117 from 1969, illustrated by Gene Colan and Joe Sinnott, scripted by Stan the Man himself. Gene Colan will always hold a special place in my heart, because he was the penciller on the very first comic I remember buying, Iron Man #1 from 1968. Colan had an impressionistic style that could make even the most banal storyline seem exotic and sophisticated. Characters in motion would dissolve into swirls and speed lines, seemingly random yet also carefully controlled, with undercurrents of dark mystery behind every face.

When I was a kid, Colan’s work just seemed more adult than the other artists. When Colan drew people smoking and drinking, you got the sense that he really knew what he was depicting.

BTW, I did not buy this book new. There was a second-hand shop near my grandmother’s house that always seemed to have a few comics. In the mid-70’s, when I was getting the first glimmerings of the collecting urge, I saw this and snapped it up, even though I had little love of Cap as a character. Between the Colan artwork and the origin of a semi-major Marvel character, I figured it would have to be worth something someday.

So, the splash page, and in the Marvel tradition, we’re right in the middle of an ongoing story. And if you’ve seen the Captain America film, you’ll see some familiar things here: Captain America, the Red Skull, and the Cosmic Cube.

But what’s this? It’s Cap holding the Cosmic Cube, gloating at the Red Skull’s predicament, while the dialogue tells us that Cap and the Red Skull have somehow switched bodies. Colan really captures the madness in the Cap Skull’s grin, while Joe Sinnott demonstrates why he was one of the premier inkers in the business. Sinnott could make anybody look good and could make a great artist look amazing.

So the Red Cap is transported to a distant island, where he runs into a group of evil former henchmen of the Red Skull, the Exiles. They hate the Skull, because he stole the Cosmic Cube from them and trapped them here on this island, so they attack on sight when they see the Red Cap. And here’s a vivid illustration of why my dad tried to talk me out of buying Iron Man #1 back in the day.

Seeing as how it was over 40 years ago,  I can’t quote Dad directly, but the gist was, the panels are all so big, you’re hardly getting any story for your 15 cents. But seriously, look at the action and the sophistication of the layout. Look at the way the whip in panel 3 leads your eyes down from panel 2, and the way the speed lines from Red Cap’s arm flow into the speed lines swirling around and leading to Iron Hand’s metal fist, not to mention the way the front and back views of the Red Cap flow into each other. This is good stuff.

The Red Cap manages to escape from the Exiles with the help of a strange red falcon. Once in the woods, he realizes that he can remove the Red Skull’s mask and pass for a normal guy. He uses some clay to change his features, because he learned that skill in World War II. Apparently, European clay can be used just like latex rubber prosthetic appliances. Who knew?

Meanwhile, Captain Skull has decided not to watch the Red Cap die, because that would be boring. He decides to enjoy life as a super-celebrity before conquering the world. He gets a room in the finest hotel in New York, allows women to feel his incredible super-biceps and poses for news photographers while inwardly gloating about how the world will soon be his, now that Red Cap is out of the way for good.

Yeah, about that. The Red Cap meets up with a mysterious black dude who belongs to the red falcon that helped him earlier. The unnamed black guy was “a big city brother” from Harlem who is trapped on the island and is trying to organize the natives into a resistance against the Exiles. So Red Cap offers to help.

Setting aside his military past to embrace his new role as civilian military advisor, Cap reaches deep into his bag of tricks to suggest…

Yeah, you saw it coming. “Put on a costume.” So now, the exciting sewing montage, and…

The Falcon is born. But we would have to wait till next month to see him in action, and since the thrift shop didn’t have the next issue, I never did see how it ended. But you’ll get a clue on the cover of next week’s issue. See you then.

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