Crazy, fascist Cap from the 50s versus the true, original Cap from the 40s back in the 1970s (did you follow all that?) is probably the greatest Captain America storyline ever and one of the greatest comic storylines overall, ever. Originally published a half-century ago, I can’t imagine a better (or more timely) story to look back upon in honor of Independence Day 2022.
I hadn’t realized just how early this came in the run of writer Steve Englehart on Captain America, but it was actually his first story, running from issue #153 (Sept. 1972) to #156 (Dec. 1972). And as long as we’re on the subject, might as well take a quick look on Mike’s Amazing World and see precisely when it was published… okay, issue #153 originally went on sale June 13, 1972, so we’re just a few weeks past exactly fifty years.
While this post is going to start with Cap, it’s probably going to become more about Steve Englehart before it’s through. Call it a hunch.
The Continuity Problem
The roots of this four-part tale go all the way back to Cap’s Silver Age debut in Avengers #4 (Mar. 1964), wherein the Avengers thaw Cap out of that block of ice. When Cap/Steve Rogers subsequently reveals that he was frozen before the end of World War II, it presents a continuity issue, because Captain America appeared in many comics for over four years after WWII. Of course, the simplest remedy to this would have been to ignore all these post-WWII stories (something that could have been easily done, given that none of these stories had any impact on modern Marvel), but they didn’t do this.
In addition to his own title, Cap appeared in All Winners Comics, Marvel Mystery Comics, USA Comics, and All Select Comics through 1946. Finally, his own series ended with Captain America #73 (July 1949). After this, two more re-titled issues of Captain America’s Weird Tales appeared, #74 (Oct. 1949) and #75 (Feb. 1950), with this last issue (#75) being a horror/suspense anthology with no Cap nor any other superheroes to be found in it. (I can hear some of you asking, “Why call it Captain America’s Weird Tales if Cap doesn’t even appear in the comic? I wish I could offer some kind of logical answer to this but I can’t. All I can tell you is that if you study up on your comics history, you’ll find a whole lot of similar situations like this that make zero sense. In other words, prepare to be frustrated if you want comic publishers to make sense all of the time.)
Almost another four years go by before Captain America returns in Young Men #24 (Dec. 1953), only this Cap might not be the same Cap as before. I say “might” because the whole thing is really unclear. The six-page story begins with the Red Skull making his usual nefarious plans when one of his underlings asks if he’s sure Captain America is dead. He responds, “Sure he’s dead! If he were alive, do you think I’d dare start on a scheme like the one I’m working on now? Captain America was the only one who stopped me in the old days!” So this is either the original Red Skull or someone who wants his minions (at least) to believe he is.
Then we are shown Professor Steve Rogers teaching a class of kids (around thirteen to fourteen years old, I’m guessing) at the “Lee School” about the history of Captain America. After class, some of the kids are skeptical about Captain America, calling Rogers’s lesson a “fairytale” and “bunk,” until a classmate conveniently nicknamed “Bucky” (who even more conveniently happens to look a lot like the original Bucky Barnes), starts a fight over the matter. Professor Rogers breaks it up and takes Bucky with him on an errand into the city, hoping to keep him out of trouble. Once they’re alone together, Bucky refers to the professor as “Steve,” telling him “they don’t believe about Captain America! Prove it! Prove that he’s still alive and as good as ever!”
“No, Bucky!” Rogers responds. “Captain America’s work is done! There’s no need for his return!”
Then a radio report comes over the car radio, telling of the Red Skull’s takeover of the UN Building. Bucky smiles and asks, “Time for Captain America to come back, Steve?” Rogers answers, “You bet it is!” The two get into costume and thwart the Red Skull in the story’s last two pages.
Note that the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner also make returns after similar hiatuses in this issue, which I take as further evidence that this Cap, Bucky, and Red Skull were all written to be the original characters. I realize this doesn’t make realistic sense, given that Bucky is somehow still a kid here, but in 1953 I don’t think anyone was concerned with comics being realistic. It was a silly comic book and no one cared how or why Bucky didn’t age. (That’s my two cents, anyway.)
Whatever the case, this Captain America and Bucky would appear in four more issues of Young Men, #’s 25-28 (Feb.-Apr. 1954), two issues of Men’s Adventures, #27-28 (May-Jul. 1954), and three issues of a revived Captain America, #76 (May 1954) through #78 (Sept. 1954). Ten appearances in less than a year and the Captain America revival was done. Once again, there was so little here that it all could have been easily ignored… but also once again, they didn’t do this.
The post-war appearances of Cap between 1945 and ’49 would eventually be explained as other guys wearing the costume and playing the role. The explanation for the 1953-54 Cap would come in this very storyline.
“Captain America–Hero or Hoax?”
The first story of Englehart’s run, “Captain America— Hero or Hoax?” from Captain America #153 (Sept. 1972), starts out wrapping up some old business, as the first eleven pages feature an extended fight between Cap and Nick Fury. The two had developed a beef involving Nick’s longtime love interest, Contessa Valentina Allegro De Fontaine, along with some other S.H.I.E.L.D.-related stuff over the course of the prior half-dozen issues or so, courtesy of previous writers Gary Friedrich and Gerry Conway.
Once this business is done, Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter decide to take a vacation to the Bahamas. A couple years later, Englehart’s Nomad storyline would write Captain America (as such) out of the book for a significant length of time, so I find it strangely appropriate that in his very first Cap storyline here, Englehart also sidelines the title character for a significant part of the action.
After Steve and Sharon have departed, the Falcon starts making the rounds up in Harlem and quickly discovers that “Captain America” is assaulting residents of the neighborhood, seemingly at random. Certain there’s been some mistake, Falc inevitably crosses paths with this phony in the Cap costume, rips his mask off, and is shocked to discover he has both the face and the voice of Steve Rogers. He is then even more shocked by the appearance of this guy’s partner, Bucky, in the issue’s cliffhanger. In the next-issue teaser, readers are assured that “this is not (a) a dream, (b) a hallucination, (c) an imaginary story, or (d) a pair of androids or robots! This is all REAL!”
“The Falcon Fights Alone”
Captain America #154 (Oct. 1972), “The Falcon Fights Alone,” opens with Cap and Bucky finishing off the Falcon and taking him to a warehouse where they can interrogate him. Some neighborhood kids witness this and go for help. A group of local men then raid the warehouse and, together with the freed Falcon, send Cap and Bucky running. The Falcon then tries to track them down.
Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter only appear for a page and two panels in this issue, as we see them on the beach enjoying their vacation. Also, throughout these four issues, there are some subplots involving the Falcon’s romance with Leila and Steve Rogers’s police career, but they’re not that important—certainly not as important as our main plot—so I won’t waste time recapping them.
Eventually, Falc realizes he should clue in the Avengers regarding what’s going on, but arrives at Avengers Mansion too late, as this “other” Captain America has already infiltrated the group and overhears Falc reveal the real Cap’s location in the Bahamas. Now the race is on, as the Falcon needs to catch up with the real Cap before the phony one does.
I should take the opportunity here to discuss the language used in this storyline. Suffice it to say, I don’t think the words used here would even see print today, as the phony Cap and Bucky freely toss around terms like “boy,” “colored,” and “darkie.” While painful to hear, if you’re going to write realistic dialogue for racists and bigots (which is what these characters are, unquestionably), then such words are not only appropriate but absolutely necessary. You don’t want to water down racism; you don’t want to show it as anything less than the vile scourge that it is. And honestly, in real life, I think we all know that the language would be much worse than what we see here.
“The Incredible Origin of the Other Captain America”
Part three of this four-parter, Captain America #155 (Nov. 1972), “The Incredible Origin of the Other Captain America,” was one of the earliest comics I ever encountered, as I discovered it around age four or five in a barbershop, sans cover and several story pages.
We start with Steve and Sharon having some fun in the sun until Steve gets led into a trap by the phony Bucky. After he’s waylaid, they try to lure in Sharon too, but she realizes something ain’t kosher—the fake Steve doesn’t have the real Steve’s sunburned skin, so she runs. Just as fake Steve is about to catch her, the Falcon arrives to save the day. This victory is brief, however, as both the Falcon and Sharon Carter are quickly overcome and captured. The scene/panel where the fake Cap addresses his bound captives is one of my earliest memories and will likely remain burned into my brain for all of my days.
Fake Cap then explains that he’s “the Captain America of the 1950’s”; the “other” Captain America. Englehart would go on to reveal that this was the Cap who starred in those ten stories published across 1953-54; a guy with a Captain America obsession that started in childhood that he never outgrew. He would even go as far as to get surgery to change his face and voice to match that of Steve Rogers, and even change his name to Steve Rogers. Just as he’s set to don the costume and take up the shield, however, the Korean War ends and the government abandons its plans to promote him as the new Cap.
So he goes on to the Lee School, meets Bucky, and then that fateful day comes when the Red Skull (seemingly) reappears. (It would later be revealed that this Red Skull was also an imposter.) At this point, the issue actually reprints a couple of pages directly from Young Men #24, with Englehart filling in fresh details around the edges, such as the Super-Soldier serum they take via syringe, without the accompanying “Vita-Ray” treatment the original Cap got, which eventually leads to this Cap and Bucky losing their grip on reality. They “began finding Reds [communists] where others saw nothing, like in Harlem and Watts. In fact, we found that most people who weren’t pure-blooded Americans were commies!”
Authorities eventually captured them and placed them in suspended animation until they could find a way to cure their madness. They were only freed a few months prior by a misguided patriot who was “incensed at recent political developments.” (Based on the newspaper headline he’s shown reading, Nixon normalizing relations with China was the tipping point for him.) Then we get to the other part of this issue that is forever burned into my brain—the part where the Falcon reveals the flaw in the fake Cap’s costume.
This may be the earliest evidence of Englehart’s obsession with continuity minutiae, as the 50s Cap was indeed drawn without the full wraparound stripes. I can’t tell you why this memory has stuck with me for so long, but for whatever reason it has.
Anyway, after fake Cap leaves them alone, our heroes break free of their bonds and the real Cap suits up. The big fight we’re all clamoring for is set to go down next issue!
The Grand Finale
The battle between the two Caps takes place in the fourth and final installment of this storyline, “Two Into One Won’t Go!” from Captain America #156 (Dec. 1972). Once our two phonies land their seaplane, our real heroes make their move and the brawl is on. A Coast Guard ship becomes collateral damage in the melee, which provides an opening for the fake Cap & Bucky to escape, as the real Cap, Falc, and Sharon stop to rescue the ship’s sailors. As he’s escaping, fake Cap challenges the real one to meet him at the Torch of Friendship to settle things for once and for all.
First our heroes rescue the sailors. Then they make a stop at the local police station to let the authorities know what’s going on before setting off to meet the fake Cap. On their way to the Torch of Friendship, fake Bucky cuts them off. Falcon tells the real Cap to go ahead and leave Bucky to he and Sharon. After fake Bucky refers to the Falcon and Sharon as a “colored creep and a tomato,” he thankfully eats a punch to the face from Falc and takes a long nap. This leaves us with just real Cap versus fake Cap for our final fight.
I haven’t even touched on the art yet, so allow me to remedy this right now: Sal Buscema was the artist on Cap for the vast bulk of Englehart’s tenure and his work was superb, as he was at the height of his powers in the 70s. Action was his forte, of course, and he certainly delivers here, but the dialogue is even more crucial than the action in this amazing showdown.
“Are you calling me a fascist?”
…Well, yeah, y’know, because you are.
Isn’t it astonishing how the proudest Americans can so easily become fascists? And somehow still think they’re patriotic Americans? Actually, I don’t think “astonishing” is the right word—“terrifying” and/or “horrifying” feel far more appropriate.
But getting back to the fight, some readers may not have picked up on this, but crazy 50s Cap thinks that the guy he’s fighting is just another replacement Cap; a 1970s version of himself, basically. As the fight/debate goes on however, 50s Cap realizes that the guy he’s fighting is the original and true Captain America—the same man he spent nearly all of his life worshipping. This truth is too much for him to face and he snaps. Ultimately, the real Cap has to put this mad dog down, and he does.
Another classic, Sal Buscema punch panel. Such a panel will never fail to turn me into a giddy child every time I see one. I also love the symbolism of the clothes and equipment on 50s Cap falling apart throughout not only this issue, but throughout this whole storyline—if you missed it the first time around, go back to issue #154 and you’ll see his shield started crumpling in his very first fight with the Falcon.
The issue (and storyline) ends with Cap reflecting on everything he’s been through and what it all means.
This is a fifty-year-old comic story, but it feels all-too relevant today. Once again, I find myself reminded of that classic Alan Moore line from “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”: “Why is it that the noblest people are the ones most troubled by conscience?” I think the answer is clear: Because their conscience is precisely the thing that makes them noble. This is captured perfectly on this final page of the story—the real Cap did the right thing here, he put an end to this monster, this fake Captain America, yet still he questions himself. It’s one of the key qualities that make him a hero.
Conversely, the villain will never question the right or wrong of his actions, nor does he even care about right or wrong. All he cares about is getting what he wants, no matter the cost to others; no matter whatever harm he might bring to others. Do you think Donald Trump cares about the people who were hurt or killed on January 6? Do thoughts of them keep him awake at night? Do you think that he recognizes, on any level, that he is a fascist and a wannabe dictator? Or does he think he’s the “real” hero, like crazy 50s Cap?
Again, this story may be more relevant today than ever. Brilliantly written and brilliantly executed. But was this brilliance by design or by accident?
The Englehart Approach
While Steve Englehart did have a college degree (in psychology) when he broke into comics, he had not formally studied writing and actually got his start as an artist. After briefly finding work with Neal Adams in his studio, Englehart eventually landed a staff job at Marvel and writing assignments began to fall into his lap. He did a few western, romance, and horror stories before getting the Beast assignment in Amazing Adventures. Regular assignments on Captain America, Avengers, and Defenders followed quickly afterward. But in the case of this particular Captain America story, its genesis can be traced back to Roy Thomas. As Steve Englehart told Comic Book Artist in 1998:
Steve: It was Roy [Thomas]’s idea. He said to me, “it would be cool to have a 50’s, right-wing guy—now you take it and run with it.” The actual story was mine, the idea was his.
CBA: Had the continuity problem bothered you?
Steve: I think that was a Roy thing, he was big on continuity. I was able to read a lot of those ‘50s Captain America stories. A lot of the stuff that I did came from saying, “Okay, all this is true, what can I use from it? How can I build a story out of these facts?” In any event, I tried to make all that ‘50s stuff fit into the Marvel Universe.
“Steve Englehart & Soul,” Comic Book Artist #2, Summer 1998; reprinted in Comic Book Artist Collection #1, TwoMorrows Publishing, June 2000, p. 167.
Roy Thomas may have been the “continuity guy” at the time, but Englehart clearly made continuity concerns a major part of his broader approach going forward. Just re-read his own words here: “All this [the 50s Cap comics] is true, what can I use from it? How can I build a story out of these facts?” In any event, I tried to make all that ‘50s stuff fit into the Marvel Universe.”
But why was it so necessary to make everything “fit” this way? While the idea to bring in the 50s Cap as a right-wing extremist was Roy’s, I don’t believe Thomas had issued any edict to Englehart to make those 50s stories “fit” into modern Marvel continuity—this idea appears to have come from Englehart himself. When we go over Englehart’s career, we’ll find that he always seems to circle back to similar continuity concerns. As recounted in a post of mine from about a year back, writers Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones once wrote of Englehart: “A persistent problem with Englehart, however, as with most continuity-minded writers of the 1970s, was that in focusing on subplots and personal development he seemed to bring far less care and imagination to bear on the actual adventures.” (Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones, The Comic Book Heroes: From the Silver Age to the Present, New York: Crown Publishers, 1985, p. 220.)
This flawed approach did not damage Englehart’s earliest efforts at writing, but it would become damaging to his work later on. Those earliest efforts included stuff like the Avengers-Defenders War, the Celestial Madonna saga, the aforementioned Nomad storyline, The Serpent Crown arc, the co-creation of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, and his run with Frank Brunner on Doctor Strange—all superb work.
Englehart at DC
In 1977, Englehart made the jump to DC, where he would take on Batman, the Justice League of America, and Mister Miracle. His Batman run with Marshall Rogers is the most famous of this work, and I think we can see his modus operandi here pretty clearly: he went back and read the earliest Batman stories (just as he had read those 50s Captain America stories) and found inspiration there. What makes this so clear (to me at least) is his revival of the villainous Hugo Strange, for starters. Strange had only made three prior appearances in Batman comics, all of them during the Golden Age, within the single year of 1940: Detective Comics #36 (Feb. 1940), Batman #1 (Spring 1940), and Detective Comics #46 (Dec. 1940). Then there’s that other villain, who happened to make his debut in that first issue of Batman, where Strange had also popped up—his name was the Joker.
When Englehart brought the Joker back for that magnificent “Laughing Fish” two-parter across Detective Comics #475-476 (Feb.-Mar. 1978), he restored him to being the terrifying, homicidal maniac of his earliest days. He even announced his murder victims in advance, just as he had done in Batman #1, only this time he announced them over the television instead of the radio. This was all great work, but Englehart didn’t always bat a thousand with this approach—which brings us to Justice League of America.
When Englehart started his research on the JLA after taking over as the book’s writer, he would quickly discover (assuming he didn’t already know) that they first appeared together in The Brave and the Bold #28 (Mar. 1960). The team of heroes would then appear again in the next two issues, #29 (May 1960) and #30 (Jul. 1960), before graduating to their own title, Justice League of America #1 (Nov. 1960). But no proper origin for the team was revealed until Justice League of America #9 (Feb. 1962). When Martian Manhunter recounts the team’s origin to Snapper Carr in this issue, he begins his tale with, “It was just three years ago today that the Justice League began.”
Well, Englehart interpreted that “three years” quite literally. He likewise interpreted the cover dates on the comics quite literally. Counting back exactly three years from the cover of JLA #9 brings you to February 1959… which would be prior to Hal Jordan making his debut as Green Lantern in Showcase #22 (Sept. 1959). Thus, by Englehart’s reckoning, the origin story offered in JLA #9 must have been a lie, since Hal Jordan was not yet Green Lantern when it supposedly happened. This then served as the premise for Englehart’s “The Origin of the Justice League… Minus One!” in Justice League of America #144 (Jul. 1977).
I won’t get into the details of JLA #144, as we’d be going way off topic, but it certainly served its purpose in giving the team a different origin that fit the given timeframe. It was not a terrible story (though I wouldn’t call it good, exactly, either), but I just can’t abide Englehart’s obsession with “fixing” things that were never broken. The JLA’s origin in issue #9 only becomes a continuity problem when you take Martian Manhunter’s one line of dialogue, along with the cover dates on the comics, absolutely literally. And I don’t think anyone outside of Steve Englehart is taking either of those things (let alone both) absolutely literally.
This makes it difficult to gauge Englehart’s talent as a writer. What made that crazy-Cap-of-the-50s story great was that it held up this dark mirror to Captain America, showing Cap (and us) what might happen to him if he took his patriotism too far. This made for a gripping tale and a great character study—but was this Englehart’s true goal in putting the story together? Or was his primary goal to simply make those 50s Cap stories “fit” into modern Marvel continuity? If it’s the latter, then the storyline was not great by design; it just ended up great by accident.
An Ill-Fated Return
Five years ago, I made a case for Len Wein being the best superhero writer of the Bronze Age. I might have gone with Englehart had he retired from comics after this DC run, but he didn’t—he returned a few years later, first with the indy comic Coyote; then on several more high-profile, mainstream titles.
I missed the original Coyote stuff he did with Marshall Rogers for Eclipse, but did get all of the Epic comics. I found the material entertaining, if rather weird. Working for Epic, outside the parameters of the comics code, there was also an abundance of nudity and sex, revealing a weakness that Englehart shared with many other male writers of his generation: he wasn’t very good at writing women, as every woman in the pages of Coyote seemed to be written as nothing more than a sex object.
Even when introducing Mantis in the pages of Avengers back in the 70s, Englehart’s original plans for the character were rather sexist. As he told Comic Book Artist in that 1998 interview cited earlier, “My original idea was that Mantis was going to come in and just be a femme fatale. She was going to seduce every male Avenger and cause problems among the group members…. Over time, she turned from being a cheap slut into the Celestial Madonna” (p. 168).
In hindsight, Englehart should have recognized that he dodged a bullet here, as his original idea for Mantis was clearly terrible; certainly far worse than what he ended up giving us. But any lessons he may have learned did not stick, as when he took over West Coast Avengers in the mid-80s, he turned Tigra into (you guessed it) a cheap slut who slept with several (though not all) of her male teammates. There were other awful things from this run too, like the Phantom Rider abducting and raping Mockingbird, which was the worst of the worst.
Englehart did do a good job with the Vision and Scarlet Witch maxi-series however, continuing the development of the two characters from a married couple into parents. The series still was not without its flaws though, as its depiction of the relationship between the Grim Reaper and Nekra, with its racist overtones, was beyond cringeworthy.
Concurrent with this Marvel work, Englehart was also working on Green Lantern (later Green Lantern Corps) for DC. Once again, there were a number of poor creative decisions here, and the obsession with continuity would grow worse. Much like Captain America #155, with its reprinted material from Young Men, Green Lantern #192 (Sept. 1985) reprinted panels from several earlier issues of GL. Again, it seemed like this story was all about continuity juggling and little else, as Englehart tried to make sense out of the very convoluted backstory of Carol Ferris/Star Sapphire and failed miserably. In fact, by the end of the issue, the whole thing just felt like a bigger mess than ever.
And so the downward spiral went. The nadir, at least for me, is probably his three-issue Hellcat miniseries from 2000, where Englehart turned Daimon Hellstrom from the son of Satan into the son of Dormammu. When I think about how this destroys all those great “Son of Satan” stories by Steve Gerber, I could literally weep.
When you factor in these later years of his career, it really drags down Englehart’s overall grade from an “A” to maybe a “B” or even a “C.” This phenomenon is not unique to Englehart, of course—almost all of the classic comic writers of my youth ended up doing some poor work later in their careers that compromised their legacy to some degree or other. (One of the exceptions is Gerry Conway, whose worst work came at the very beginning of his career, clearly.)
Still, despite all of this, nothing can detract from the glories of Englehart’s earliest work at Marvel. And his first storyline on Captain America was one of the best of the bunch, whether this was by design or not.
Enjoy the fireworks, everybody. And don’t forget to put out some milk and cookies tonight for Captain America.