Out of the Vault – Captain America and the Falcon #176, 178

Last week,we looked at Captain America #117, in which we saw the introduction of a new superhero, The Falcon. Lest you think this was merely a minor blip in the history of Cap, let’s jump forward five years, to 1974. Here’s the cover to Captain America #178, the first new issue of Captain America I ever purchased.

The title of the book is now Captain America and the Falcon, and if you notice the billboard, Captain America is missing. So this issue is likely to be all Falcon. Also, that robot really hates light bulbs for some reason; see how he’s shooting that one with pinpoint accuracy.

The issue is written by Steve Englehart and pencilled by Sal Buscema, with inks by Vince Colletta. Englehart was the writer behind Scorpio Rose, while Sal Buscema was Marvel’s go to guy in the 70’s, maintaining long runs on Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk while also filling in or doing short runs on virtually every other book in the Marvel line (such as his year-long run on Nova). Vince Coletta was a long-time Marvel inker who had worked a lot with Kirby in the early days, inking Fantastic Four and Thor. He had a weirdly fussy style, with lots of skritchy linework substituting for the kind of lovely brushwork you saw from guys like Murphy Anderson or Joe Sinnott. He sometimes achieved some good effects, but usually reading a Colletta-inked story was like reading a Klaus Janson-inked story: you spent most of your time imagining how great the story would have been if it had had a real inker.

So the unsuspecting Falcon is ambushed by twin Lucifers ( the extradimensional villain Lucifer enters our realm by possessing humans–in this case, he has possessed two: one a normal guy and the other one, a supervillain formerly known as Aries). Falcon fights back and we get a standard Sal Buscema action sequence.

Not awful–some nice dynamics going on there. But notice how sparse the backgrounds are, which was one secret to how Sal Buscema could grind out so many pages a month. He was all about figures and action, action, action. Which could end up really boring if he had to draw an issue without much action. But what are the chances of that (wait for it)?

Also notice that Buscema is no Gene Colan. With very few exceptions, he never draws a page with fewer than six panels.

Falcon manages to drive the Lucifers away, but he is hurt and has to figure out a way to beat them on his own next time they attack, because Captain America has quit. What?

For the backstory on that, let’s jump backwards a couple of issues to one I picked up at (I think) that same thrift store where I got last week’s comic. Speech balloons defaced with red marker=your guarantee of authenticity!

And suddenly, the year the comic was published becomes vital. Captain America #176 carries a cover date of August 1974, which means it was published sometime in May or June, probably, and planned maybe a year before that. And what was  going on at that time?

Watergate. The scandal was all over the news for more than a year before the issue came out; about a year before the issue was published, the public learned about Nixon’s secret tape machine recording all conversations in his office. In October 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace over allegations of bribery and tax evasion. A couple of months after this issue was published (in cover-dated August), President Nixon would himself resign over the Watergate scandal.

So Englehart’s story has Cap, always a red-white-and-blue patriot, feeling disillusioned after discovering the corruption in the U.S. government. Over the course of the issue, he takes counsel with different members of the Avengers, including Thor, Iron Man and the Falcon (who now has a name–Sam Wilson).  They all tell him he can’t quit. He’s too important as a symbol, an inspiration, and most importantly, a guy who fights to protect others. The story contains a few action-packed flashbacks, including one of Cap’s origin which is way less dynamic and interesting than the original Simon & Kirby story which introduced Cap…

Also by this time, Vita-Rays (which figure prominently in the movie’s origin sequence, but Cap’s first story, not at all) have been introduced into the mythology. There is also a flashback to the only previous issue of Captain America I own, the one in which the Falcon is introduced…

Such is the nature of monthly comics. Sometimes you get a clip show. Unlike in television, however, this isn’t done to save money (because the repeated scenes are always redrawn by that month’s artist), but more to give the writer a breather while he’s developing a new storyline. Also to help new readers get up to speed.

So anyway, after the parade of interlocutors is over, Cap announces his decision. He quits.

But of course, I didn’t know any of this political subtext when I was 12 and hadn’t yet read the previous issue. I only knew that Captain America had retired for some reason. So while Sam Wilson is chilling and licking his wounds at his girlfriend’s crib (or letting his girlfriend lick them for him),  Steve Rogers is trying to figure out what to do with his life. And his problem is, he’s a super-soldier who has traveled through time to the modern era. He really doesn’t have any other skills beyond being a super-dude who beats up other super-dudes.

And while he’s having his existential crisis, the Lucifers are setting a trap for Falcon, using their killer Ultra-Rob robots. The Ultra-Robs kick Falcon’s ass, but just at that moment, who should happen along but Steve Rogers? So he decides he can’t leave Sam to be destroyed. He buys a cheap ski mask and leaps into action, and luckily, the Ultra-Robs are fucking idiots.

So Steve wins with his improvised garbage can lid shield (just like the movie!), Lucifer is banished back to Limbo, and Falcon is an ungrateful ass. And though the issue had some interesting moments, they weren’t enough to get me to keep buying every month. But I did buy another issue of Captain America and the Falcon about a year later, when it would have a completely different storyline and a completely different creative team.

Next week…

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