Retro-Reviews: Captain America #266-300 By J.M. DeMatteis, Mike Zeck, Paul Neary & Other Marvel Comics Creators

Captain America #266-300 (February ‘82 – December ‘84)

Written by David Anthony Kraft (#266, 271, 273-274), JM DeMatteis (#267-270, 272, 275-290, 292-300), Bill Mantlo (#291), Michael Ellis (#300)

Penciled by Mike Zeck (#266-270, 272-283, 286-289), Alan Kupperberg (#271), Sal Buscema (#284-285), Ron Frenz (#290), Herb Trimpe (#291), Paul Neary (#292-300)

Inked by John Beatty (#266-283, 286-289), Joe Rubinstein (#277), Kim DeMulder (#284-285), Steve Leialoha (#290), Jack Abel (#291), Eduardo Baretto (#292-293), Joe Rubinstein (#294), Brett Breeding (#295), Sam DeLaRosa (#296), Roy Richardson (#297-299), Dennis Janke (#300), unnamed inkers (#270-271)

Spoilers (from thirty-one to thirty-three years ago)

Captain America has always been an interesting character to me.  As a Canadian, I’ve always found the character’s strict adherence to a firmly defined vision of his country’s national sense of identity to be interesting, and at times, appealing.  Of course, as I grew up, I came to realize just how much disparity there is between the America that Cap envisions, and the one that actually exists.  In his run, writer JM DeMatteis confronts some of that dissonance, albeit in some pretty 80s ways.  

As the long-time leader of the Avengers, and as one of the most prominent super-heroes in the Marvel Universe, Cap often finds himself both working with, and fighting against, an interesting cast of characters.  Here’s a list of the villains Cap had to take on during this run:

  • Sultan (Systemic Ultimate Lawless Takeover of All Nations; #266)
  • Everyman (#267)
  • August Masters (he runs some ex-spy agency that has henchmen dressed like Ancient Roman guards; #268)
  • The Mad Thinker (#269)
  • Big robot bio-thing (#270, 275-278)
  • King Arthur (a wrestler, not the mythological figure; #271)
  • Vermin (#272, 275-278)
  • Hydra (#273-274)
  • Baron Strucker (#273-274)
  • neo-Nazi jerks (#275)
  • Baron Zemo (#275-278, 290, 293-299)
  • Primus (originally posing as Arnim Zola #275-279)
  • Scarecrow (#280)
  • Viper (#281-283)
  • Constrictor (#281-283)
  • Porcupine (#285)
  • Hellinger (#288)
  • Brand Corporation Nth Commandos (#289)
  • Mother Superior (#290, 293-299)
  • Guardian Life Insurance Company (#291)
  • Black Crow (#292)
  • Red Skull (#293-300)
  • The Slayer (Dave Cox, pacifist and friend of Steve Roger’s; #293-294)
  • The Sisters of Sin (Sister Dream, Sister Pleasure, Sister Agony, and Sister Death; #294-299)

At different times, the following heroes helped Cap out in his missions:

  • Spider-Man (#266)
  • Tigra (#267)
  • Iron Man (#267, 279)
  • Nighthawk (#268)
  • Gargoyle (#268)
  • Hellcat (#268)
  • Valkyrie (#268)
  • Team America (Honcho, Reddy, Wolf, and the Black Marauder; #269)
  • Gabe Jones (#273-274)
  • The Howling Commandos (#273-274)
  • Spider-Woman (#281-282)
  • The Patriot (Jeff Mace, who was also Captain America for a while; cameo #284, dies #285)
  • Deathlok (Luthor Manning; #286-288)
  • Starfox (#289, 295-296, 299)
  • She-Hulk (#289)
  • Wasp (#289, 290, 295-296, 299)
  • Thor (#289)
  • The Tumbler (#291)
  • Black Crow (#299-300)
  • Vision (#299)
  • Scarlet Witch (#299)

Cap also has kept a pretty interesting supporting cast around him, at least during this time.  Here are characters who showed up often enough to be considered part of the cast, even if they weren’t in every issue of this run:

  • Nick Fury
  • Bernie Rosenthal (Cap’s girlfriend)
  • Josh Cooper (Cap’s neighbour)
  • Anna Kappelbaum (Cap’s friend and landlady)
  • Mike Farrell (Cap’s neighbour)
  • Dum Dum Dugan
  • Falcon (Sam Wilson; gets his own backup strip #276-278; rarely seen after that)
  • Arnie Roth (Cap’s childhood friend)
  • Gail Runciter (SHIELD agent)
  • Nomad (Jack Monroe first seen starting #281 as Bucky II)
  • Dave Cox (friend of Cap’s who is turned into the Slayer by the Red Skull for a bit)

Let’s look at the events of this series in detail, with some commentary as I go along:

  • The second part of this two-part story with a guest writer has Cap and Spidey fighting this cyborg guy Sultan, who is trying to take over the world by destroying Washington DC with his flying mountain base, while Nick Fury tries to stop a decoy missile he already fired.  Cap fights Sultan’s biotron robots while falling through the sky in a very cool sequence designed by Mike Zeck, and later, when he and Spidey think Sultan has died, he transfers himself into a biotron robot, which they also wreck, effectively killing him.  SHIELD destroys the flying mountain off panel, and the day is saved.
  • Cap gives a talk at a high school where a student tries to shoot him because he doesn’t really represent the current reality of the USA.  It turns out the student was a follower of Everyman, a poorly designed villain who wants to expose the inequality of 80s America.  Cap acts distant with his girlfriend, and then drives around Bed-Stuy thinking about his day.  He befriends some young kids, and then gets into an argument with their older brothers.  He decides to bring them all to Avengers Mansion as a treat.  There, they find out that Everyman, who has killed a pair of cops, has challenged Cap to a fight at the Statue of Liberty.  They do fight, and Cap beats him, and gives one of Everyman’s followers new hope.
  • In a two-part crossover with the Defenders, some telepathic friends Cap made during an earlier adventure get captured by August Masters, an ex-CIA guy who wants to wage psychic war on the USSR.  He’s also captured the Defenders, so Nighthawk can get his mentally ill telepathic ex-girlfriend to cooperate.  Cap tries to sneak into the base, and almost rescues everyone, but has to surrender so that the base is not destroyed.  Only Nighthawk remains free, and then the story shifts into Defenders #106, which I don’t own.
  • The Statement of Ownership in #268 shows the average print run of Captain America in 2981 as 319 000, with newstand returns of 154 000.  Still, those are insane sales from today’s perspective.
  • After a brunch with his neighbours, and a chat with Bernie about their relationship, Cap goes to Madison Square Gardens to participate in a motorcycle skills exhibition with Team America, a very short-lived comic concept by Jim Shooter.  They are attacked by a large android which kidnaps a Nobel Prize winner, and they all end up in a small town populated by robot versions of history’s greatest thinkers, built by the Mad Thinker.  They fight, and the Thinker is upset that his robot friends are destroyed by an angry Cap and the motorcycle guys.
  • Steve and Bernie have a heart-to-heart where she tries to be the ‘modern’ one in the relationship, but they are interrupted by the appearance of Arnie Roth, Steve’s childhood friend, who is now much older.  Arnie needs help because his roommate (there is a definite closeted gay vibe here) has been captured by some guys who want to use Arnie (a braggart with gambling debts) to lure Cap to them.  This plan doesn’t go well, and a giant robot-thing attacks Cap, and it is somehow Arnie’s friend, but then it is destroyed and the friend is okay.  While this is going on, Bernie helps an old woman home, and the woman, who is crazy, tries to kill her but is talked out of it.  Brooklyn in the 80s, I guess.
  • In a fill-in issue, Steve learns that Bernie loves watching wrestling, but they are all upset when they watch as Mr. X, a ‘bad wrestler’ kills Jumpin’ Jack Flash (a good wrestler) on TV.  Cap gets involved in the investigation, and ends up agreeing to wrestle Mr. X, who wants to use a trial by combat to prove his innocence.  As it turns out, the real killer was King Arthur, an ex-wrestler who was training Jack and had to kill him to keep a steroid scandal quiet. This issue was needlessly complicated and boring.
  • Sam Wilson, the Falcon’s, nephew’s friend was shot trying to stop a liquor store robbery in Harlem.  On his way to the hospital, Cap gets distracted by a cabbie whose neck has been slashed.  Later, Sam gets irritated with Cap’s moralising, and flies off.  He patrols Harlem, and saves a young teenager from getting killed.  Later, he discovers that this is the same kid who shot his nephew’s friend, and he has to confront his own anger.  At the same time, Cap is also driving around Harlem, and is attacked by the rat-like man Vermin, who angers Cap almost to the point where the hero kills him.  Cap also confronts his own anger.  Later, we learn that the boy will be okay, and Sam announces that he is going to run for Congress.
  • At a reunion party for the Howling Commandos, Hydra abducts General Sam Sawyer and uses him to infiltrate an Air Force base in North Dakota, so they can get ahold of a B-52 that controls America’s nuclear arsenal.  Cap and the still active Commandos (Fury, Duggan, and Jones) try to free the General, but are captured.  They are rescued by the retired Commandos, and in the fight, the Supreme Hydra is revealed as Baron Strucker, who was believed dead.  Strucker makes off with the General and the B-52.
  • Strucker takes the General to Hydra Island, where he tries to learn the launch codes in order to start a complicated plot involving nuking all oil fields, and then raising a new island in the Pacific that is resource-rich, making Hydra rule the world.  Cap and the Howling Commandos track the plane, and arrive to rescue the General.  The General ends up dying, and we learn that Strucker is a robot that thinks he’s a real person.
  • DeMatteis returns from a brief hiatus, and immediately returns Cap to his Brooklyn environs, and picks up on his various plotlines.  Cap goes to a SHIELD facility to check in on Vermin, Arnie Roth’s ‘friend’, and the blob of goo that he fought before.  Later, he’s walking with Bernie and his landlady, and they see that their local synagogue has been vandalized by neo-Nazis.  Falcon announces his run for congress, and a reporter gives him a hard time about his criminal past.  Steve joins his friends at a counter-protest to a neo-Nazi rally, where he meets Bernie’s ex-husband, who then incites a bit of a riot.  Baron Zemo launches a plan, which involves controlling the goo at SHIELD, turning it into a monster and using it to bust out Vernim.  Cap breaks up the fight at the rally, and Bernie figures out that he’s Steve Rogers.
  • Bernie later confronts Steve about her new knowledge, and surprises him by wanting to stay with him.  Agent Runciter takes Steve to SHIELD, where he learns that Arnie has been kidnapped again, and is being used as bait.  Cap heads out to rescue his friend, and Nick Fury sends Runciter to tail him.  Cap follows a weird android creature to an airship that takes him to Mexico, where in a huge medieval style castle, he finds a bunch of androids that are easily defeated, and then finds his friend, and learns that Arnim Zola and Baron Zemo are behind his recent problems.
  • The Falcon is upset that his Snap Wilson days are being used to discredit him as a candidate for congress, and we get a recap of just how weird Falcon’s origin really is.  It seems like the Snap personality that is buried within him is making a comeback, and he’s worried he’s losing his mind.
  • Zemo explains to Cap how he blames him for his father’s death, and how he blames Cap for his own disfigured state (apparently he tried to throw Cap’s shield at him before, and when it ricocheted back on him, it knocked him in a vat of powerful adhesive that melted his face, but that’s somehow Cap’s fault).  We also learn that Arnim Zola is actually Primus, a shape-changing creation of Zola’s, and that Zemo’s plan is to simply ruin Cap’s life.  Primus turns into Steve Rogers, and takes off to get to work while Zemo chains up Cap and Vermin, and tries to feed them to a couple of the mind-transference robot things, housing the spirits of Arnie and his boyfriend (I mean ‘roommate’).  Vernim rips up the brains of one of the things, and it looks like this kills Michael, and when Arnie wakes up, he blames Cap, just as Primus/Steve shows up at Bernie’s door.
  • The Falcon continues to get angry, as we learn a retconned story about how Snap Wilson was a guise Sam took on himself after his mother’s death.  He punches out a priest, who was a friend of his father’s, and refers to himself as Snap.
  • Zemo gets a bit desperate, and has a whole bunch of smaller mutates attack Cap.  Arnie stops him from hurting them all, as he thinks they are regular people who have been changed by Primus.  Cap gives a speech, they join him, and then SHIELD attacks the mutates, not knowing they are peaceful, which allows Zemo to escape, although Vermin escapes with him and it’s suggested that he is attacked.  Cap immediately heads back home to stop Primus, who is having a meal with Bernie.
  • Falcon has a soul-searching talk with the priest who was his father’s friend, and works out his emotional issues.  Later, he learns that the priest is out of the country, and decides that it was all in his head.
  • Cap fights Primus in the diner, and no one seems to notice when Bernie yells out Cap’s secret identity.  The mutate makes off with Bernie, and so Cap goes to Avengers Mansion to get some help tracking him down, where he learns that Arnie’s roommate has died.  Primus goes on a rant about how he wants Bernie to be his friend, when Cap shows up and fights him again.  Primus almost defeats Cap, but Bernie steps in to help, which confuses Primus, and so he flies away to think about the nature of man.  At Michael’s funeral, Steve gets self-pitying and Arnie blasts him for it.  I find it a little surprising how casually Steve, the man from the 40s, takes the obvious gay relationship between Arnie and Michael, since this is the early 80s.  DeMatteis was sneaking some progressive stuff into his run.  We see that the Scarecrow has returned and is killing people.
  • Cap confronts the Coalition for an Upstanding America over their use of his image, and learns that Scarecrow has been killing off members of this group the decries the changes in the moral fabric of modern America.  At the opening of the group’s new cable channel, Scarecrow impersonates the group’s leader, and after a fight Cap stops him.  We learn that the Scarecrow has gone nuts, believing that he and his brother were abused by their preacher father, but the brother says that’s not true.  It’s interesting that the leader of the Coalition is revealed as only pushing his beliefs for profit.  That could never happen today, could it?
  • People really smoked a lot in comics in the 80s.  I think Steve Rogers is the only person not smoking in #280.  It looks so strange now.
  • Steve and Bernie watch some old newsreels in a movie theatre, and Steve gets noticed by someone.  In San Francisco, Spider-Woman is looking for Viper and gets attacked by giant snakes in a trap she manages to escape.  Viper is upset now that she’s figured out that Spider-Woman is not her daughter and wants to punish the world.  Steve and Bernie are interrupted by the arrival of Jack Monroe to Steve’s place.  Steve thinks he’s someone posing as Bucky Barnes, and attacks him, until Jack tells him how he was the Bucky of the 50s, and the long story of his and the 1950s Captain America’s life.  They go patrolling together, where Cap is attacked by Viper’s goons and the Constrictor, who gets the drop on Cap and takes off with him.
  • Cap has been captured by Viper and unable to escape, although Agent Runciter is undercover in Viper’s operation and she signals Fury as to their whereabouts.  Bernie and Jack go to Falcon for help, but he sends them to SHIELD, since he promised to retire his superhero activities while he runs for Congress.  We learn that Viper wants to reintroduce a snake-carried version of bubonic plague into the world.  Jack Monroe is given the Nomad suit and named, and drops into the town where Viper is operating, and is immediately attacked by her goons.  Cap and Runciter help him, but it turns out that they are being mind-controlled by Viper.  Dum Dum, his backup, has a heart attack, and can’t help him.
  • Viper knows that SHIELD will be coming for her, so she moves her plan up, which involves staging a parade in a small town at midnight, so that people come out of their houses, so she can then drop plague-carrying snakes over them all from hot air balloons.  She has the mind-controlled Cap, Nomad, and Runciter in the parade, but because Constrictor is opposed to her plan, he limits Cap’s and Nomad’s drugs, allowing them to snap out of it, and put a stop to her plan.  Dugan, who has also been captured by this point, is saved by Cap as well.  
  • The incredible Mike Zeck and John Beatty took issues 284-85 off, giving us a very stiff pair of comics drawn by Sal Buscema and Kim DeMulder.  In their first, Dum Dum Dugan, still recovering from his injuries is promoted to Deputy Director of SHIELD, and Cap and Nomad discuss just what he should do with his life (Cap doesn’t really want a partner).  They intervene in a domestic situation where a man is holding his wife and children at gunpoint, but don’t involve the cops because they guy is drunk and his wife loves him (this does not read correctly in today’s age).  Later, the heroes go to Bernie’s party and have a good time.  After, Cap sees on the news that the same drunk guy now has his family on a roof, and has shot at passersby.  He goes to stop the man, keeps him from committing suicide, and then goes to tell Bernie that he loves her.
  • As Cap rushes to the deathbed of Jeff Mace, one of the men who replaced him as Cap while he was frozen, he is tracked by both Nomad and the Porcupine.  Nomad confronts Porcupine, who bests him.  Later, as Cap again rushes to be at his friend’s side when he dies, he learns that the prickly villain has his friend, and is goaded into fighting.  Nomad comes to and helps him, and they share a moment, before Cap rushes off to see Mace, just as he passes away.  Somewhere in here, we learn that the Secret Empire is operative again.
  • In the future of 1991 (take that in), New York is a ruined wasteland.  A guy in a tattered loincloth named Godwulf sends a clone of Luther Manning (who is white here, weirdly) to the present day of 1982 to look for Deathlok.  He has a run in with some cops, and then tracks his original body to Long Island.  Steve Rogers is also on the Island, on his way to meet Bernie’s parents for the first time, and he’s nervous.  Luckily, Manning crosses his path, so he goes to help him break into an abandoned Brand Corporation building.  They fight some goons, and then Manning is shot by Deathlok.
  • Cap and Deathlok fight, and the cyborg from the future knocks him out.  When Deathlok touches the dying clone, his memories and sense of self are immediately restored, and he attacks the Brand Corp guys.  Deathlok blows up the building as he and Cap escape with the now-dead clone body.  Bernie is upset with her family for being upset that Steve didn’t come for dinner while Nomad fights crime in New York.  Deathlok goes to return to the future, and is followed by Cap, who is surprised by how messed up the 90s are.
  • Cap, still in the ruined future of 1991 or 93 (it’s unclear) learns that all of the heroes were killed by Brand Corp’s Nth Commandos, who teleported them into other dimensions that couldn’t support life.  Godwulf takes Deathlok and Cap to meet his friends, and together they plan and carry out an attack on the base of Hellinger, the oversized cyborg who sort of runs things now, and who created Deathlok.  Bernie still misses Cap, and Nomad makes out with the girl he saved, but she uses her lipstick to knock him out.  In the future, Cap and Deathlok defeat Hellinger, after a tired sequence of losing all of their friends in a labyrinth.  Now Deathlok is going to work to fix the future, while Cap is going to go back to the past and negate it by stopping the Nth Commandos.
  • Back in the 80s, Cap wastes no time in his mission to stop the Nth Commandos from killing all the major heroes on Earth.  He can’t place a call on a payphone because he doesn’t have $0.20 (and apparently stores in New York don’t have phones), so he rushes off to the secret headquarters of Brand (a Metrobank), and makes his way to their lower levels, where he moves to destroy the generator which is somehow remotely powering the weapons the Nth Commandos are going to use.  He has to fight his doubts, in the shape of a gigantic robot that can read his mind, somehow.  No mention is given as to how Brand has developed interdimensional or mind-reading technology.  Cap smashes the generator, saving the day, and negating the future seen in the last few issues, making his fight against Hellinger pointless.
  • Bernie imagines herself a superhero, in the Bernie America back-up that serves as Cap’s contribution to Assistant Editors’ Month.  At least no one went on Letterman.
  • #290 is when I started buying this book regularly.  Everything I’ve written about up to this point are comics that I got out of back issue and quarter bins over the years.  What’s really cool is that when I opened this comic for the first time in probably thirty years, I saw that it was signed by DeMatteis, probably at one of the many comic shows I used to attend when I was a young teenager, before they became so expensive and pop-culture oriented.
  • This issue has Steve showing off his gymnastic skills to Bernie at Avengers Mansion, before going on patrol with Nomad.  He’s observed by Baron Zemo, who is approached and recruited by Mother Superior, a mysterious new villain.  Cap and Nomad hang out with Falcon for a bit, and they all head over to Arnie Roth’s, where they play poker all night and hang out (while all still wearing their masks, which is a weird look).  Arnie’s already been visited by Superior and Zemo, who are up to something, and that something involves the Red Skull.  Heading home, Cap and Nomad are attacked by a large black mystical bird which then flies away.
  • In an inventory-style issue, Cap is driving around when he sees The Tumbler, a new iteration of his former enemy, sneaking out of the Guardian Life Insurance Company offices.  They fight, and the Tumbler gets away.  Cap tracks him home in the same amount of time it takes the guy to get home, and Cap already knows that the new Tumbler is the younger brother of his dead foe, and that new Tumbler is trying to force the GLIC to honour their insurance policy, their lack of payment of which contributed to his mother’s early death.  They team-up to raid the company’s files, where they learn that the company is selling insurance to all manner of supervillains and has no intention of paying off their claims.  They fight security guards, and emerge victorious, at which point the Tumbler retires.  This was a dumb issue.
  • Cap has continued to be attacked by the large crow we saw two issues ago, but that doesn’t deter him from getting ready for the Christmas holidays with Bernie and Jack.  We learn that the Crow is a mental construct of Jesse Black Crow, a Native American with powers who wants to set about finding restitution for crimes against his people by attacking Captain America.  His first attack on Cap as Steve Rogers doesn’t go well, but while Steve and Bernie are hosting a Christmas party, he summons our hero to the Manhattan Bridge (he’s followed by Nomad and Bernie).  Black Crow looks like he will defeat Cap, when Steve decides to bow to him and submit.  Placated, Black Crow flies away. After the fight, Bernie proposes to Steve.  Later, Steve and the Avengers enter the Beyonder’s construct in Central Park and it disappears (leading to the first Secret Wars).  This was Paul Neary’s first issue, and while compared to Mike Zeck he’s pretty stiff, he did a good job.
  • Mother Superior continues to train Baron Zemo to help the Red Skull fight against Captain America.  Cap travels to Virigina to chat with Dave Cox, an old friend, about his feelings for the deceased Sharon Carter, and how the prospect of marrying Bernie is making him relive his feelings for her.  Mother Superior and Zemo kidnap Cox after Cap leaves.  Cap goes on patrol with Nomad, who is too rough on a robber, and Cap berates him in front of a crowd, so he tears off angrily.  When Cap goes to talk to him, he finds him knocked out, and is himself attacked by the Slayer, who is Dave Cox, but with a lot of anger and an infinite number of weapons in his cape.  He knocks out Cap, and is ready to fight Nomad.
  • Nomad continues to fight the Slayer.  Cap revives, but can’t intervene because he’s been trapped in a bubble by Mother Superior and Baron Zemo, who he sees watching from a distance.  Nomad is able to get through to Dave Cox, so he shakes off Superior’s control.  She knocks him out and her and Zemo flee.  Cap has a small crisis of consciousness worrying about how he is responsible for what happened to Cox, and how he can’t marry Bernie.  Back at Skullhouse, Superior introduces Zemo to the Sisters of Sin while the Red Skull acts all crotchety.  Steve goes to Bernie to tell her that he can’t marry her, but she talks him out of it.  They make out, but are interrupted when someone delivers a box to Bernie which contains a Red Skull mask.
  • Cap feels badly about what happened to Dave Cox, but his wife tries to make him feel better while Zemo and Mother Superior abduct Arnie Roth.  Cap begins to look a bit older (we’ve already seen him notice that his reaction times are a little slow).  He discovers that Arnie is missing (Zemo left an Arnie Robot in his apartment with hidden microfilm directing Cap to his location, which is not that hidden when he talks about it).  Cap and Nomad arrive at Skullhouse, declare their partnership, and then get into a fight with the Sisters of Sin.  They defeat them, but Cap acts weird, and attacks Zemo, who is actually Arnie in a Zemo costume.  He takes a beating, and our heroes become trapped.  Wasp and Starfox go to check in on Bernie, but Mother Superior gets there first.
  • The Sisters of Sin attack and make off with the Falcon (there is no sign of Redwing) while Wasp and Starfox get concerned about Bernie and decide to involve the rest of the Avengers.  In Skullhouse, Cap realizes that it was another robot of Arnie that he beat up, and he and Nomad realize that they are trapped in a bit of a maze.  They find the body of Horst, the Skull’s old aide, and Cap learns that he has been aging rapidly.  They find themselves in a Weimar Berlin style cabaret, where everyone is an Arnie robot.  Nomad recognizes the woman on stage as the girl he saved, who drugged him, and now he remembers that he’s been poisoning Cap to make him age.  Arnie comes on stage and delivers a self-loathing speech which Cap argues against, accepting Arnie’s hinted-at homosexuality, but his friend’s mind ‘snaps’.  Cap fights Mother Superior, and learns that she is the Skull’s daughter.  He appeals to her for help, but instead she shows him that his friends – Arnie, Falcon, Nomad, and Bernie – are her prisoners.  Cap collapses, and Zemo, now wearing his father’s outfit, starts ranting a little.
  • Zemo and the Red Skull don’t agree with Mother Superior’s methods, so they strap Cap and Nomad into a machine that puts them in a mindscape that leads them to believe they are back in the War, on the same day that Bucky died.  Nomad is dressed as Bucky, and together the two heroes try to stop the original Baron Zemo.  Falcon thinks he finds a way out of the dungeon where he, Bernie, and the insensate Arnie are being held.  Old Zemo is trying to send an experimental drone plane to Germany, with Cap and Bucky strapped to it.  They free themselves, but worry that the plane is booby trapped, and therefore need to bring it back.  I don’t get this at all – if the plane is going to blow up, why bother trying to stop it, especially since in this scenario, Cap knows that when it blows, it’s going to take Bucky with it.  Anyway, he manages to stop his friend this time, saving his life, which makes Zemo angry, but we learn this was the Skull’s plan all along.  He wants Cap free of guilt when he defeats him.
  • Feeling that he has Cap where he wants him, the Red Skull sits down and narrates his life story to his arch-enemy, who never says a word through the whole thing.  We learn about the Skull’s terrible childhood, his relationship with Adolf Hitler, and how disappointed he has been in Mother Superior, the daughter he raised to be completely evil.  Superior and Zemo listen in (he trashes Zemo too), while Falcon manages to find a potential escape route for he, Nomad, Bernie, and Artie.  What makes this issue stand out, besides from DeMatteis making the Skull a bit of a sympathetic character, is the fact that Steve never says a word through the whole issue.  That’s pretty cool.
  • Cap’s friends wander Skullhouse looking for an exit, while he wanders around looking for his friends.  Instead he finds the Skull, who locks him in a bunker and commands him to fight him to the death. The Skull tells Cap that he has injected them both with a poison, and that they are soon going to die.  He wants Cap to fight him, but Cap resists.  Meanwhile, Zemo is angry that Mother Superior manipulated him, and they begin to fight; Superior is bitter about her treatment at her father’s hands, but mostly blames Zemo for her problems.  The Avengers worry about Cap, while Black Crow has mysterious visions of him and the Skull.  Nomad, Falcon, and their friends make their way to the cathedral, but are attacked by the Sisters of Sin, although their fight is interrupted by the continued fighting between Superior and Zemo.  Irritated by the fact that Cap won’t fight him, the Red Skull blows up the rest of Skullhouse, killing everyone except him and Cap.  Now Cap is ready to fight.
  • We learn that Black Crow is aware of what’s happening to Captain America, and feels the need to intervene.  In the bunker, Cap is very angry with the Skull, and they are really wailing on each other.  Cap has the Skull on the ropes, but pulls back from killing him, just as the poison finishes his old enemy.  In a very cool scene, Cap cradles the dying man, who reaches up and scratches his cheek as his last act.  At the same time, Dave Cox, who was dying in the hospital, suddenly wakes up and is okay.  We see that Black Crow has been looking over him, but he flies away.  Cap carries the Skull’s body out into Skullhouse, discovering that it had not blown up afterall.  The poison knocks Cap down, and it looks like he’s about to die, when Black Crow appears, and uses magic on him to revive him.  There’s some stuff about how they are both the spirits of America.  Falcon and Cap’s other friends get out of the cathedral (there is no mention of Superior, Zemo, or the Sisters of Sin), and Nomad runs into Skullhouse to look for Cap.  He finds him just waking up (Black Crow is gone too), and Cap carries the Skull’s body towards the front door.

DeMatteis’s Cap was working to establish a life for himself separate from the Avengers and his public persona.  Steve Rogers is working as a freelance artist for advertising agencies, and has scored a beautiful living space on the top floor of a Brooklyn brownstone (complete with a skylight that is handy for superhero comings and goings) run by a kind woman who likes to make breakfast for her tenants.  Steve is dating Bernie Rosenthal, and his circle of friends are pretty diverse in terms of race, and with the return of his childhood friend Arnie, even in terms of sexuality (although not too much is made of that).  

There is a strong contrast between DeMatteis’s issues and the ones that are written by random fill-in writers.  In those issues, the story becomes very plot-driven, while it’s clear that DeMatteis was working on a more character-driven take on Cap.  His run starts off scattered, but after he introduces the second Baron Zemo, it becomes much more focused on Cap’s relationship with Bernie, even though this is not always in evidence, since she sometimes disappears from the book randomly (as do the landlord and other tenants, none of whom get invited to a Christmas party in Bernie’s apartment).

DeMatteis worked well with the expanded superhero world that Cap operates in as well.  Earlier in his run, we see a lot of SHIELD, especially Nick Fury (man, I miss that character), Dum Dum Dugan, and Agent Runciter.  All of these characters fade away though.  Falcon is brought back into a supporting role in the book, from time to time at least, and that makes me happy, as we are too often told how Steve and Sam are best friends, without ever seeing real proof of that.

DeMatteis brought the character of Jack Monroe, who becomes Nomad, into the series, and that’s kind of interesting, as he gives Steve the chance to be the person who is more knowledgeable and comfortable in the modern world (since Jack was put into suspended animation in the 50s).  There are problems with Nomad though, most notably his costume, which is terrible.  I don’t understand why, if he’s wearing an extreme v-neck costume, his mask covers his neck down to his throat.  This is a small thing, but it drove me nuts, as did his referring to the two little disks that attach his cape to his costume ‘stun disks’, like they have some sort of technology in them.

The highpoint of DeMatteis’s run (although an argument can be made for the first Zemo and the Deathlok stories to take this honor) is clearly the long-running Red Skull story.  Over a very long run of issues, DeMatteis worked to establish Mother Superior as a viable villain, letting readers think that she is the ‘big bad’ before revealing that the Skull is the main problem here.  I also liked that the Skull wasn’t out for anything beyond straight-up revenge and closure in what has been the most significant relationship in his life.  The last couple of pages of issue 300 are very strong in this regard.

In a lot of ways, I wish Marvel had left the Skull alone after this storyline.  DeMatteis said almost all that was needed about the character here.  I do wonder about the cube embedded with the personality of Adolf Hitler, though, and if that ever got used again.

I also would like to see a writer do something with Black Crow, because I saw that the character had a lot of potential.  There are not very many Native American characters bumping around the Marvel Universe, and while Black Crow hit a few too many cultural and racial stereotypes to be someone I’m completely comfortable with, I think there’s potential here.

Writing Captain America must be difficult, because the character’s sense of morality is so well-defined that I would think many writers would find him confining.  We’ve seen, over the years, examples of times when Cap has chosen a difficult path, because it’s the right thing to do.  Of course, as more than thirty years have passed since this comic was written, it’s sometimes amusing to see the way in which writers in the ‘80s portrayed the stern moral code of a man from the ‘40s.  Here are a few key examples of “Cap being Cap”:

 

  • In issue 266, while fighting robots and falling through the sky, he delivers a lengthy speech about how only mankind who sets and achieves goals for himself and would also sacrifice himself for others.  While fighting Sultan, he talks about Pearl Harbour, and how destruction unites Americans to fight back.
  • Cap speaks to teenagers in a NY high school about the value of dreaming.  He also does a gymnastics demonstration to impress a villain, who talks to everyone about the American Dream again.
  • In #268, Cap goes to see Raiders of the Lost Ark, and complains that Indiana Jones is “essentially amoral,” and he worries about how the film will influence the children that see it.
  • Cap gives Falcon a speech about how even if his social work only saves one person, it is worth doing, even though this speech only irritates his close friend.
  • In #275, when his girlfriend and landlady are upset that their synagogue has been spraypainted with swastikas, Steve launches into a diatribe about protecting free speech even when it’s toxic.  He gives a similar speech at the rally later.
  • Steve has finished a freelance art gig for an advertising firm, but when he hears his boss make an anti-semitic comment, he rips up his art and storms out.
  • While Cap agrees with a lot that the Coalition for an Upstanding America believes in, he launches into a long internal monologue about how he tries not to push his beliefs on others.  I’m not sure if DeMatteis is going for irony or not.
  • Cap decides that a drunken abusive creep who held a gun on his family doesn’t need police intervention, because he’s had a rough time getting a job, and because his family loves him.  Later, of course, the guy becomes a bigger problem, and Cap feels some guilt that he didn’t stop things sooner.  (I guess it’s a surprise because most drunken abusers don’t escalate in their behaviour?)
  • Cap is shown to be supportive of Arnie’s homosexuality and compares his love for the dead Michael to Cap’s love for Bernie.  This was probably very ground-breaking in 1984.
  • Cap, upon learning that Mother Superior is the Red Skull’s daughter, approaches her with empathy, worrying that she must have had an unhappy childhood.  She responds by threatening his closest friends and fiancée.

DeMatteis worked for most of his run with Mike Zeck.  These are, of course, the men behind the classic Kraven’s Last Hunt story, and it’s clear that they’ve always worked well together.  Zeck gives his action sequences a great sense of movement and grace.  His characters, Cap especially, are large, blockish men, but he has them move easily.  It’s very nice to see this early work from him, and when he left the book (to draw Secret Wars), it suffered a little until Paul Neary came onboard.

Neary’s work is nice, but very stiff.  The fact that he had a different inker on almost every issue didn’t help him establish his own approach to Cap at first; we’ll see how his work develops after that in our next two columns.

I feel like there might be some sort of story to DeMatteis’s departure from this comic.  Somewhere in the letters page in the months leading up to issue 300, I saw that it was mentioned as being extra-sized, but the actual issue was not, and the scripting was credited to Michael Ellis, who the Comic Book Database suggests is DeMatteis himself (his only other credit in the database is on a 1989 book called Marvel: The Year in Review).  There are plenty of subplots left dangling in this comic – we don’t even see what ended up happening to Zemo, Superior, or the Sisters of Sin, nor do we know what the Avengers were planning on doing about Cap’s disappearance, seeing as they spent multiple issues discussing it.  

Most importantly, DeMatteis left without definitively resolving up the whole issue around Steve and Bernie’s impending wedding.  He put a lot of time and space into building that relationship, and while I don’t remember how it ended, I do know that they never got married.

After DeMatteis left (or got pushed out), Mark Gruenwald started writing the book for a decade (he was DeMatteis’s editor).  Before that, though, Mike Carlin, who had been the assistant editor on the book for much of DeMatteis’s run, wrote six issues, bridging the two historic runs.  We’ll look at those next time around.

 

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