Friday, April 21, 2017

To Die Again!

One of the most intriguing classic Avengers stories mostly serves as a lead-in to the 1968 Avengers Annual, but its premise has an irresistible hook that allows it to be a compelling tale in its own right--the possibility that Bucky Barnes, the young partner of Captain America, somehow survived the blast that killed him and is still alive. Or so believes Cap, who summons the Avengers to the vacant (and presumably stateside) castle of Dr. Doom to investigate a recent gnawing suspicion* that's been tormenting the star-spangled Avenger.

*One of many seeds planted throughout the story which ties in with the subsequent Annual.

That darn time machine again! We've already seen writer Roy Thomas make it the focal point of three separate but linked-together stories involving the Thing (along with his three partners) and the heroes of World War II--and when all the dust had settled, he'd made such a convoluted jumble of the concepts of alternate realities and time continuums (which would become the basis for his upcoming What If series) that even Reed Richards had no interest in pursuing the matter. In this story, nearly a decade earlier, Thomas begins the process of using Doom's time machine to add dimension to past tales using the heroes of the present--and artist John Buscema provides him with one heck of a cover that was sure to turn a head or two at the comics racks.

In his use of logic that casts doubt on the presumption that Bucky perished in the explosion of the drone plane he was attempting to stop, what Cap seems to forget is that, at the moment the blast occurred, he was already falling away from the plane, having been unable to establish a grip on it--whereas Bucky was caught within point-blank range of the explosion. Granted, there was maybe a 1-in-500 chance that Bucky escaped fatal injury, but his odds of survival were not nearly as favorable as Cap's.

But to find the answers he's looking for and remove his doubts, Cap decides to engage Doom's time machine (which, astonishingly, has been left abandoned here, with no security around it to speak of, other than the mined entry to Doom's castle--there might as well be a WAITING TO FALL INTO THE WRONG HANDS sign greeting anyone waltzing in to use it), with the Avengers tagging along to lend their support--and off they go to 1945, where Cap understandably tenses up on arrival. What he's come to witness will no doubt be difficult for him.

As we can see (or, in this case, cannot see), Thomas adds a new twist to the time machine's operation, with the Avengers finding they have no more substance to their forms than wraiths. His reasoning for it is plausible enough, though the story would render it moot when the Avengers later materialize in full; and while that would be due to developments present in the Annual, it's more probable that Thomas is simply keeping the Avengers from disrupting Zemo's plans until the right time arrives for them to do so. In other words, the Avengers, being here as observers, have no reason to interfere in the past unless the circumstances of the story are so dire that they must--and when Cap and Bucky from 1945 crash through and take on Zemo and his android, circumstances will inexorably lead to their direct involvement.

Despite a confident entrance, our patriotic pair indeed fall to Zemo and his creation and are taken captive; and just as he did in the FF Annual, Thomas rewrites history a bit--apparently so that the Avengers can materialize in their own mag and have a few fighting pages for themselves. To do so, he has to tweak Stan Lee's reintroduction of Cap in Avengers #4 to account not only for the Avengers' role in "saving" Cap and his partner, but Zemo's odd detour involving his prisoners' uniforms. As will become evident, Thomas's efforts aren't entirely successful.

In Lee's original scene that shows Cap and Bucky racing to stop the drone plane's launch, the pair are already dressed in their combat fatigues, though for a different reason: acting as security guards at the base where the plane was stored. That discrepancy in itself doesn't complicate matters, since the basics of the scene detailing the launch play out the same way, with one notable exception.

In Thomas's version, as we've seen, a scene is added where Cap and Bucky mix it up with Zemo, followed by their capture--again, the additional scene fits reasonably well so far. Once the Avengers have gotten in their shots and dealt with not only Zemo's first android but a second one as well, the team inexplicably begins dematerializing--their role in this drama apparently done, with their fade-out rationalized by some moral sentiments from Cap about not being allowed to act as gods and affect history. (A far cry from an explanation, but we'll receive nothing more from Thomas, who's constricted by the circumstances of his story.) Yet there's an important loose end left dangling in the revised version: Cap and Bucky are still tied to the drone plane. And with no one to stop Zemo from launching it, that means there's also no one to abort the plane's flight. But the Avengers' Cap realizes the stakes, and has just enough time to see that history repeats itself--despite almost immediately regretting his decision.

And so just about everything lines up--yet the assumption we're forced to make here in order to reconcile this change with the original version is that, for whatever reason, Zemo felt compelled to include Cap's shield under his fatigues after being tied to the plane (and obviously at its often-reduced size for such occasions), whereas in Lee's version we could simply assume Cap did so himself. Such a step would be necessary to conform to the scene where Cap is discovered alive two decades later.

But why would Zemo bother with something so trivial? Arrogance? "Here, take your shield, too, ha ha!" He was more likely to keep the shield as a trophy (assuming what to do with the shield occurred to him at all), particularly to flaunt in front of the Red Skull given Zemo's contempt toward his rival for Hitler's favor. Otherwise, we might conclude that Zemo included the shield with Cap in order to help establish the prisoners' bona fides with Hitler when it landed in Berlin.

At any rate, following a last futile dive at Zemo, Cap is finally convinced of Bucky's death, his burdensome mission accomplished.

Strangely enough, Cap doesn't really obtain any more confirmation about Bucky's death than what he already knew from seeing the plane's explosion as he fell--nor does he take the opportunity to investigate further, even though it's the possibility of Bucky's survival that brought him here in the first place. Hawkeye likely saw the same explosion that Cap did, yet he seems to feel that there's a chance Bucky could have survived--in other words, what he's seen apparently gave no visual indication that Bucky was blown to bits. Why wouldn't Cap at least take the time (so to speak) to make sure of it?

It's also worth mentioning that Thomas's story offers Cap something of a fringe benefit from this experience, in regard to his recollection of events from this fateful day--the fact that he now knows what happened while he and Bucky were unconscious following their battle with Zemo's android. Mostly that knowledge consists of the involvement of the Avengers--and, most importantly, of himself, as he both made it possible for he and Bucky to complete their mission and took on the responsibility of setting in motion the chain of events which led to his partner's death. Whether that knowledge is met with a sense of grudging satisfaction or profound sorrow is something only Cap could say.

The Avengers #56

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: George Klein
Letterer: Sam Rosen


Steve Does Comics said...

I love it. One of my favourite stories from my favourite Avengers era. Buscema's work on it is near flawless from start to finish.

Comicsfan said...

And to think the introduction of the Vision is right around the corner. I agree, Steve, this was a marvelous period for Thomas and Buscema on this book.

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