It is July 4th, and I wanted to do a patriotic-themed post. Now, I could go off on some sort of rant about how our country’s cherished freedoms are being eroded by a dysfunctional, partisan political system into which corporations pump obscene amounts of money to manipulate the legislative process, and so forth. But where’s the fun in that? Let’s go with a comic book related piece, instead!
*Ahem!* I actually do not recall what was the very first comic book was that I read. It is possible that it was Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #32. But I certainly remember very well indeed my first Captain America comic: it was issue #278. The cover date on that issue is February 1983, meaning it actually came out in November 1982. I was six-and-a-half years old when I read it. That issue played a significant role in my becoming a huge fan of the Sentinel of Liberty.
“Oh, Thus Be It Ever” is written by J.M. DeMatteis, with pencils by Mike Zeck and inks by John Beatty. DeMatteis drops the reader right in the middle of the action of the ongoing story arc, but quickly brings us up to speed on page two via a handy recap expertly illustrated by Zeck & Beatty.
Cap’s old foe Baron Zemo has kidnapped Steve Rogers’ childhood pal Arnie Roth and his roommate Michael, as part of a scheme of revenge against the super-soldier. Michael’s mind was transferred into a mutant creature that was subsequently killed by the man-rat Vermin. A distraught Arnie lashes out at Cap, and Zemo is thrilled to think he has turned one of his enemy’s oldest friends against him.
A gloating Zemo flees, leaving Cap and Arnie to the mercies of an army of mutates created by the Baron using the twisted science of mad geneticist Arnim Zola. At first, Cap fights the mutates, but Arnie, coming to his senses, realizes that these creatures are actually innocent human beings who have been transformed against their will. This leads Cap to launch into a stirring speech wherein he appeals to the mutates’ buried humanity, urging them to throw off Zemo’s yoke. The creatures rally to Cap and Arnie’s side. The group confronts the Baron, and a furious Arnie punches him out.
Unfortunately, at this point a group of SHIELD agents who had been tracking Cap arrive at the castle. Watching the mutates smashing Zemo’s equipment, SHIELD mistakes them for “monstrosities” and attack, killing most of them before a fuming-mad Cap hollers at them to stop. During the confusion, Zemo slips away to an escape craft. As he is fleeing, though, Zemo realizes that a savage, vengeful Vermin has snuck aboard the ship, furious at having been abandoned.
The last six pages of Captain America #278 are devoted to “Snapping, Part III” featuring Cap’s long-time ally Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon. With the help of old friend Reverend Garcia, a distraught Wilson is struggling to hold on to his sanity. Is he truly Sam Wilson? Or is he actually “Snap” Wilson, a racketeer who years before was brainwashed by the Red Skull to become a sleeper agent, a pawn to use against Cap at a later date? Garcia helps Sam to reconcile the painful memories of his past, reintegrating the strands of his personality for the first time since the death of his parents.
Captain America #278 left a huge impression on my young self. The scene where DeMatteis has Cap rally the mutates to his side stayed with me all these years. Cap was not just someone who attempted to solve all his problems with his fists, but who, if possible, would try to reason or empathize with his opponents. And he was someone for whom the terms “liberty” and “justice” were not just buzzwords to throw around in order to sound patriotic; he genuinely believed in the freedom and dignity of all human beings.
(By the way, as noted on the letters page of #278, and DeMatteis himself pointed out on his blog when I e-mailed him a link to this post, the initial idea for Cap’s speech to the mutates was conceived by Jim Shooter and Roger Stern. To quote DeMatteis, “So credit to ALL involved.”)
It would be several more years before I would be able to follow the Captain America series on a monthly basis, but my fondness for the character began here. This issue also led to my interest in a number of other corners of the Marvel universe. Baron Zemo would eventually form a deadly incarnation of the Masters of Evil in the epic Avengers story arc “Under Siege” written by Roger Stern. Later, in Kurt Busiek’s Thunderbolts, Zemo and the Masters of Evil would disguise themselves as superheroes in order to gain the trust of an unsuspecting world. DeMatteis and Zeck would re-team on the classic Spider-Man storyline “Kraven’s Last Hunt” bringing with them the rat mutate Vermin. DeMatteis would further explore Vermin’s tragic story with artist Sal Buscema in the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man, and during that time both the other surviving mutates and Zemo himself would appear. (I highly recommend tracking down DeMatteis & Buscema’s superb run on Spectacular Spider-Man #178-200).
In hindsight, there are a couple of aspects of Captain America #278 which I understandably did not pick up on way back then. First off, there is Steve Rogers’ childhood friend Arnie Roth and his “roommate” Michael. Looking back on the entire story arc, and reading between the lines, it is now obvious that DeMatteis was writing Arnie and Michael as a gay couple, making it subtle enough that it would not be objectionable to the more conservative editorial standards of the early 1980s. DeMatteis clearly shows two gay men in a committed relationship, and indeed the death of Michael in this story is a blow from which Arnie would take a long time to recover.
The other point is regarding the back-up featuring the Falcon. I now recognize that DeMatteis wrote “Snapping” to clear up the muddled history of Sam Wilson that was caused by Steve Englehart’s retcon of the Falcon’s origin several years previously. Now, when I later tracked down the back issues of Englehart’s Captain America run, I became a huge fan of his work on the series. That said, I have always felt his “Snap” Wilson subplot was a misstep. I think that DeMatteis does a fine job in this story of reconciling the problems it caused with the Falcon.
Oh, yes, how can I forget Mike Zeck?!? He has been one of my all time favorite comic book artists ever since I saw his amazing work on Captain America #278 as a kid. His subsequent work on “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” Punisher, Damned, Deathstroke, and Legends of the DC Universe, among others, was stunning. Years later, I had the opportunity to visit Mike at his then-home in Connecticut. Of course I had to bring Captain America #278 with me to get autographed. Well, actually, it was a replacement copy I’d bought a few years earlier, because I had read the original comic so many times that it had literally fallen to pieces.
In the last several years most of what Zeck has done is licensing art and style guides. No doubt this pays very well. But I really do wish we could once again see his artwork on actual comic books, at least drawing a miniseries or some covers. Come back, Mike, we miss you!
As for John Beatty, he is certainly a talented inker / embellisher. In addition to his collaborations with Zeck, he’s also done nice work over Kelley Jones’ pencils. Like Zeck, I believe nowadays Beatty also has focused on licensing artwork.
So there you have it, a look back at one of the most memorable comic books of my childhood, featuring my introduction to Marvel’s red, white & blue Avenger. And after all these years it is still an amazing story with superb artwork.
Updated June 19, 2015: After all these years I finally had the opportunity to meet J.M. DeMatteis. He was doing a signing earlier this week at JHU Comic Books in Manhattan to promote the release of his Mercy: Shake the World graphic novel. I brought along my copy of Captain America #278 to get autographed. It was an honor to meet him.