As I mentioned in the past, I really do not buy too many new comic books nowadays. It’s a combination of lack of disposable income and less interest in most of the material currently being published. So, I thought to myself, what other comic book subjects could I write about on this blog? Then I came up with an idea for an occasional feature: Strange Comic Books. Over the years, there have been all number of comic book issues & stories that have seen print which are, for one reason or another, odd or unusual. Why not have some fun and spotlight some of my favorites?
The first entry in Strange Comic Books is Captain America #291, published by Marvel Comics with a cover date of March 1984. It’s a fill-in issue, perhaps to give regular writer J.M. DeMatteis some breathing room before he plowed ahead full steam on his epic Red Skull arc. The story in #291, “To Tame a Tumbler,” is written by Bill Mantlo, penciled by long-time Incredible Hulk artist Herb Trimpe, and inked by Jack Abel. Letters are by Diana Albers and colors by Andy Yanchus. Topping off the issue is a dramatic cover by John Byrne.
A little background info: the original Tumbler was a very minor foe of Cap’s who appeared in Tales of Suspense #83 and Captain America #169. At the end of his second story, he was murdered by another super-villain, Moonstone, and Cap was framed for the crime. (This, incidentally, kicked off the classic “Secret Empire” storyline by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema).
Well, it turns out that before his death the Tumbler took out a one million dollar life insurance policy through the Guardian Life Insurance Company. After the Tumbler was murdered, his brother, decorated army veteran Michael Keane, attempted to collect on the policy so that he could pay his mother’s enormous medical bills. However, Guardian Life, represented by a smarmy, balding, gold-toothed sleaze named Matthews, refused to pay out, stating that the claim was invalid because the Tumbler had died in the commission of a felony. Michael’s mother soon passed away due to inadequate medical care. Furious at having been robbed by Guardian Life, he decided to assume his brother’s costumed identity, becoming the second Tumbler.
The new Tumbler’s first act is to break into Guardian Life’s offices and steal his brother’s file so that he can expose the insurance company. However, the robbery is interrupted by Captain America. The two spar, and the Tumbler flees. Cap tracks him back to his apartment where, after another brief fight, the Tumbler is subdued. Defeated, Michael explains what happened with his brother’s insurance policy. Cap agrees to help Michael investigate Guardian Life, and the two return to the insurance company’s offices. There, searching through the file room, the pair discover that Guardian Life has in fact issued policies to a large number of costumed criminals, with the intention of not paying out on any of them.
Now you may be thinking to yourself, Captain America #291 does not sound all that strange. A bit unconventional, perhaps, having the villain turn out to be a life insurance company, but not especially odd. And I would agree, except for one fact: Guardian Life Insurance is a real life company.
Yes, writer Bill Mantlo decided not to create a fictional corporate entity, but to utilize a real world organization. And, it turns out, my father worked at Guardian for a couple of decades as an actuary. He was hired by them about a year before Captain America #291 came out. Guardian Life, that is to say, the real Guardian, not their evil fictitious counterpart, somehow quickly learned about the contents of “To Tame a Tumbler.” I believe that words were exchanged between Guardian and Marvel’s lawyers, with the later promising that they would never use Guardian’s name ever again.
Now, even back then, at the young age of seven, I was already getting into comic books. So of course my father had to explain this whole story to me, and he even let me read a copy of the issue that he had bought for his amusement. This actually became only the second issue of Captain America I ever read (the first was #278) and, who knows, credit for my becoming a huge fan of the character may be at least partially due to this whole affair.
Many years later, I ended up working for a time at another health insurance company that was closely affiliated with Guardian. I was in fairly regular correspondence with a number of people who worked over at Guardian. And between my experiences and what my father tells me, I can assure you that in real life Guardian does not and has never insured any super-villains with the intent of defrauding their beneficiaries. Swear to God!
But returning to the fictional Marvel Universe, this story has subsequently caused me to wonder exactly how life insurance would work in a world where people routinely come back from the dead. For instance, Doctor Octopus is one of those criminals named as having an insurance policy, and the character has died & returned to life at least once (resurrected by the mystical ninja cult The Hand, of all things). If you were a beneficiary on old Otto’s policy, once he came back from the grave, would you then have to give back the money?
Anyway, in addition to becoming a huge comic book fan, and reading the Captain America series for over two decades, I also began collecting original artwork. I obtained a number of pages of published art, including several from issues of Captain America. So of course I had to see if I could find any of the art by Herb Trimpe & Jack Abel from issue #291. I actually did locate a couple, and had them in my collection for a number of years before I had to eventually sell them to pay the bills.
I knew that the possibility of ever finding the original artwork to the cover of #291 was extremely remote. Even if I did come across it, I’m sure it would be VERY expensive, seeing as it is a vintage cover drawn by the super-popular John Byrne. I decided to commission Fred Hembeck, who does incredibly funny work, to draw one of his famous cover re-interpretations of the piece.
Hembeck is a fantastic artist, and a really nice guy. I recommend checking out his website (he’s also on Facebook) and contacting him about getting a commission.
But let’s get back to Captain America #291. Yeah, this is one of my favorite issues. It has an interesting story by Mantlo. Trimpe turns in some nice penciling, so much so that I really wish he had drawn Cap more often over the years. And, yeah, it has that unusual personal connection to my father and me.
Even though it was a fill-in issue, #291 was included in the Death of the Red Skull trade paperback, which collects Captain America #s 290 to 301. Yep, a benefit of it seeing print in-between chapters of that lengthy arc means that all these years later “To Tame a Tumbler” is back in print. So, if you want to read this rather unique issue from the pens of Mantlo, Trimpe & Abel, and you’re also in the mood to check out one of the all time classic Red Skull storylines, courtesy of J.M. DeMatteis, I suggest picking up a copy of the book.
By the way, I believe that this was the sole published appearance by the second Tumbler. Having brought to justice the people who swindled his family, Michael Keane quickly retired his costumed identity. Rumor has it he later found much greater success when he founded a popular social networking website 😊