A very happy Fourth of July to all of my fellow Americans. Today I am going to take a look at a comic book story that I feel exemplifies the principles upon which this country was founded. Yes, too often we have all fallen short of those lofty ideals, but they still remain as goals for us to continually strive towards. And so, I am going to write about Captain America #130, published by Marvel Comics in 1970.
Right now those comic book fans out there with a more than passing knowledge of the Captain America series are probably saying to themselves “WTF?!?” Yeah, it’s not really an obvious choice, but bear with me.
The issue is topped off by a cover which according to both the Grand Comics Database and the Unofficial Handbook of Marvel Comics Creators was drawn by Marie Severin & Joe Sinnott. I will have to take their word for it. That drawing of the Hulk’s face does look very much like Severin’s work, so the credits are probably accurate.
Opening up the book, we find ourselves in the midst of a ferocious battle between Cap and the Hulk, on a splash page that offers the following declaration via Artie Simek’s exciting engraving:
“This one has to be seen to be believed! Based on an original theme by Stan the Man, Genial Gene got so wound up in the artwork that he tossed in everything but the kitchen sink! Hence, what follows is like a wild and wacky build-up to the startling surprise that awaits you next ish! It may not make much sense – but we guarantee you won’t be bored! So, settle back, relax, and enjoy it, culture-lover – (and if you can figure it out – explain it to us!)”
After three pages of Cap versus Hulk action, it is revealed that this is actually a movie playing in a theater, with none other than Steve Rogers himself sitting in the audience. It’s never made clear if this is supposed to be a documentary with actual newsreel footage of the two super-humans slugging it out, or a fictional production (perhaps starring Chris Evans and Mark Ruffalo?) but whatever the case Steve isn’t too thrilled when a fellow cinemagoer declares “Who cares about that clown? He’s just not relevant in today’s world!”
This issue falls right in the middle of a period when the Captain America series was struggling somewhat with its identity. It’s important to keep in mind the context of when this was published. In 1970 the Vietnam War was raging, and the controversy over it was tearing America apart. The Civil Rights movement was still being fought. Distrust of the government was beginning to become widespread. In this environment, the character of Cap, a super patriot who originated during World War II, must have been an awkward figure to write. Stan Lee was trying to touch upon this with an Easy Rider-inspired arc, as Steve Rogers travels about the country on a motorcycle, attempting to figure out his place in modern American society.
Departing the movie theater, Steve rides his chopper into a “sleepy little college town” which is anything but. The students are rioting, attempting to reach the Dean, who has barricaded himself in his office, and the police are attempting to quell the disturbance. Steve changes into his uniform and, as Cap, swings into action, hoping to bring a halt to the violence before anyone is hurt. The students, though, think that Cap is “in league with the fuzz” and attack him. Cap leaps away from the crowd and climbs up the side of the administrative building to the Dean’s office, rescuing him before the students can batter down the door.
I’m curious about the timeline to the production of this issue. With a cover-date of October 1970, the issue would actually have been on sale sometime around July, which meant that it must have been written & drawn a few months before. The Kent State Shootings took place on May 4th. I wonder if “Up Against The Wall” was in production during that time, and if that tragic event might have been on Stan Lee & Gene Colan’s minds. Even if it wasn’t, there was certainly was a great deal of unrest on college campuses throughout this time period.
A figure observes Cap’s rescue of the Dean and approaches him, stating “It’s a pleasure finding someone who still stands for law and order!” The man, a television producer, asks Cap to make an appearance. However, it turns out that this producer is actually in the employ of a mysterious hooded figure known as, um, The Hood. In any case, the masked mastermind gives his servant explicit instructions:
“Write his speech most carefully! In standing for law and order, he must make Americans distrust their own younger generation! The more we can divide this country, and the more we stifle dissent – the better it will be – for The Hood!”
It’s interesting that Lee scripts the villain in this manner. It brings to mind Sinclair Lewis’ warning “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Lee is addressing the idea that agents of oppression and injustice will assume the trappings of patriotism, throw about terms such as “law and order” to disguise their subversive efforts to undermine liberty & freedom. What Lee was observing in this scene is undoubtedly just as true today as it was four decades ago, if not more so.
Cap later arrives at the television station. Addressing the camera, he makes the following speech:
“I’ve been asked to speak to you today – to warn America about those who try to change our institutions – but, in a pig’s eye I’ll warn you! This nation was founded by dissidents – by people who wanted something better! There’s nothing sacred about the status quo – and there never will be! I don’t believe in using force – or violence – because they can be the weapons of those who would enslave us – but, nor do I believe in an establishment that remains so aloof – so distant – that the people are driven to desperate measures – as in the case of a college dean who isolates himself from his student body!”
This is obviously not what The Hood had planned, and he orders his lackey to silence Cap. The producer telephones the mercenary Batroc the Leaper, who declares “Just give us sixty seconds!” Batroc and his comrades, Whirlwind and The Porcupine, hop into a fancy roadster and literally one minute later arrive at the TV studio to attack Cap. I guess that Batroc’s Brigade just conveniently happen to have their headquarters right down the block. They probably could have saved on gas by just walking from there.
Cap fights Batroc, Whirlwind, and The Porcupine to a standstill. Once the police arrive, the three costumed criminals flee, leaving Cap to wonder who hired them. But that is a story for another time… okay, okay, I’ll tell you! Next issue Cap unmasks The Hood, who turns out to be Baron Strucker, who attempts to kill Cap with the long-lost Bucky, who ends up being revealed as a robot duplicate. And then a decade or so later we would find out that The Hood / Strucker himself was also a robot. Yeah, it’s really weird, so don’t think too closely about it. Aren’t you sorry you asked?
The somewhat choppy feel of this and other issues of Captain America from around this time is due to the working relationship between Lee and Colan. Lee was phoning it in… and I mean that literally! This is one of the subjects discussed in an excellent interview of Colan conducted by Roy Thomas published in Alter Ego #6:
Colan: Actually, the fun of working on comics with Stan was that, although he put in all the dialogue, he allowed the artists to take a very small plot he’d give them and build it into a 20-page story. There was nothing to the plot — it was maybe just a few sentences — but the beginning was there, and you could do anything you wanted.
Thomas: Did Stan write out plots then, or was it mostly just over the phone?
Colan: I recorded our phone conversations, and then I would go by the recording. Other times, he’d send me a letter of a few paragraphs.
So Colan would pencil an entire 20 page story from that brief description, in effect serving as a co-plotter, and Lee would write his script from the artwork.
Colan admitted that at times this method would have unintended results. Sometimes his pacing of the story would be off, and he would then realize that he had very little space left to wrap the issue up, leading him to cram as much as possible into the final three or four pages. On one particular occasion Lee had included a car chase in his plot, expecting that Colan would devote a page to it. Lee was subsequently surprised to find that in Colan’s penciled art the car chase took up almost half of the issue!
Even under these circumstances we see that Lee, who is undoubtedly a great scripter, crafted some superb dialogue. True, I’ve never been overly enamored with aspects of Lee’s approach to Cap, as he repeatedly showed him agonizing about Bucky’s death, moping over his relationship with Sharon Carter, and wringing his hands at his role as a man out of time. But when Lee wasn’t busy having Steve Rogers doing his pity pot routine, he wrote the character very well. The speech he gives Cap in this issue is, in my opinion, one of the quintessential moments in the character’s existence. It sums up everything that Steve Rogers is about. He is not an unquestioning patriot or a militant hawk who seeks out conflict. Cap believes in the American Dream, the potential for greatness that this country and its people can be capable of if they are willing to embrace equality & diversity and attempt to strive for a better future.
The artwork by Colan on this issue is quite good. It is a bit odd that many people have cited Colan as one of their favorite Captain America artists. If you actually look at his run on the title from 1969 to 1971 on issue #s 116 to 137, the stories he drew are a mixed bag, uneven in quality, undoubtedly due to Lee’s minimal role in the plotting stages. Nevertheless, Colan’s work during that two year run is of a high quality. That said, I do think that he did rather better work on other titles where the writers gave him slightly more comprehensive plots to work from, which resulted in him doing a better job pacing out his art. On a few occasions in later years Colan would return to draw stand-alone issues of Captain America. I feel that those are stronger efforts by Colan, quite simply because he was given better stories to illustrate.
Dick Ayers inked Colan’s pencils on Captain America #s 128 to 134. I’ve observed in the past that Colan was a difficult artist to ink, and that only a handful of embellishers did extremely well at finishing his art. Ayers was definitely was a talented artist, but he was probably not the best fit to ink Colan. But it certainly wasn’t a disaster, either. Most of the issues that Ayers inked fell during the “Cap on the road” arc. The combination of Colan and Ayers’ styles was actually appropriate, as the plots were slightly less of the conventional superhero type. Colan’s pencils helped to put that mood across some, whereas a more Kirby-esque art style could have been too traditional. Likewise Ayers’ style of inking, which was well suited to the many war and Western stories he illustrated over the years, was also a good match to these stories.
While at first glance Captain America #130 is an offbeat issue, it certainly has its strong points, and an important message. As we all celebrate July 4th, let’s try to remember Cap’s words to the American people in this story.