Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Shocking Story You (Never) Demanded!

OR: "Oh, Snap!"

It looks like Captain America has a major mystery to solve. Aiming to throw the U.S. economy into chaos, the infamous Red Skull is assassinating members of the Federal Open Market Committee, the group which formulates American economic policy, with the first use of his crimson (and, needless to say, fatal) "dust of death," which leaves its victim's face as a ghoulish facsimile of the Skull's own. He's even boldly announced his next victim's name to Cap and the Falcon, giving them adequate time to take precautions and see to the man's protection.

But as Cap recalls after the fact, they failed--and another man dies.

The question remains, as Cap points out: How did the Skull commit this murder?

The mystery is finally solved when Cap and the Falcon have at last closed in on the Skull, with escape appearing to be unattainable for the fiend this time. Cap is understandably exalted at the prospect of ending the threat of the Red Skull, once and for all; unfortunately, the rug is about to be pulled out from under him, as the murderer of the committee member is shockingly revealed to be not the Skull, but someone who would normally be completely above suspicion.

It appears the Falcon isn't who we think he is. And it looks like he never was.

To pull this story off, writer Steve Englehart puts a twist on the Falcon's origin story, where we'd seen Cap (his body switched with that of the Red Skull at the time, thanks to the Skull's possession of the Cosmic Cube) encounter Sam Wilson on the island of the Skull's former allies, the Exiles, and then helped him to mount a resistance to the group. The rest is history--or so Cap thought, until now.

In actuality, we learn that it was the Skull who first found Sam on the island of the Exiles, and used the Cosmic Cube to alter Sam's memories and personality in order to craft a plan of revenge against Cap, which would be revealed when the time was right. And in a way, Cap has his own tenacity to thank for driving the Skull to take another approach in dealing with his old enemy, as Cap continued to persevere while still trapped in the Skull's body.

And so begins the true history of Sam Wilson, f/k/a "Snap" Wilson, as his late teenage years take a far different turn than how he would come to remember them--a turn to, of all things, a life of crime.

In Englehart's version, it's the man who was "Snap" Wilson who Cap encounters on the island, though by that time the Skull has adjusted Sam's memories so that he believes himself to be just a vacationer caught up in a scam by the Exiles to conscript slave labor. Cap, of course, is incredulous at hearing what he believes to be a totally contrived story (which by this point is probably the same thing that the reader is thinking in regard to Englehart!); nevertheless, the Skull had essentially created a "sleeper" agent who could be made use of at any time, and even granting him a "power" that would provide Cap with further incentive for making Sam his partner.

(We should give the Red Skull a little credit here--after all, you'll have to admit that this sleeper worked out much more successfully than his others!)

Eventually, Cap and the others turn the tables on the Skull--but that still leaves the disoriented Sam Wilson with the memories of two different men, both of whom are real lives that he's lived. There's also the little problem of settling accounts with the judicial system for his criminal past--to say nothing of the fact that he more recently made use of the Skull's crimson dust to murder an innocent man.  Writers Tony Isabella and Bill Mantlo now step aboard the book to handle the Falcon's disposition through the system.

Yet Isabella and Mantlo never address the murder incident in the Falcon's struggle to exonerate himself, side-stepping it as if it never happened. As a result, the proceedings are limited to only the prosecution of the criminal activities of "Snap" Wilson from six years ago, a decision probably having more to do with Jack Kirby's imminent arrival on Captain America and the Falcon and wrapping things up with this storyline as expeditiously as possible.

And so the trial of the Falcon commences, with the Falcon offering to turn state's evidence--a decision which his old friends in the mob anticipated, sending the Stilt-Man to crash the proceedings and kill the Falcon before he can talk. The Falcon helps his case a great deal here by aggressively taking on the Stilt-Man and demonstrating the extent of his reform from the man he was--and before you know it, the case against him is wrapped up with (yes, I'm going to say it) a snap.

Steve Englehart, in an issue of Marvel Spotlight, explains his inspiration for the story.

Jack Kirby, who took the writing reins of the book after the departure of Englehart et al., appeared to prefer the more heroic and self-made Sam Wilson as Cap's partner, rather than bringing forward any parts of the storyline involving the man known as "Snap." Or, as Mr. Kirby himself might have put it after thumbing through those issues: "Nah."


George Chambers said...

Uhh, that Frank Robbins artwork is hard to take. The Red Skull looks too cartoony to take seriously, and most everyone else (Cap, Falcon, Gabe Jones, Peggy Carter) have the eyes of insanity.

david_b said...

I used to think it was the worst idea ever for Sam Wilson, but looking again at the art..?

It was Robbins, Robbins, Robbins.

He could probably make Shakespeare look insipid and whacked-out.

Imagining this with Sal as artist.., it would have been a weird idea, but much, much more palatable.

And seeing Steve's explanation now, after all these years..? Eh, it was a nice toss-off. Terribly drawn.., but it perhaps could have gone somewhere better.

Comicsfan said...

George and david, if the letters pages at the time were any indication, Marvel seemed to acknowledge (and be surprised by the fact) that there was consensus among readers that Robbins was a poor fit for Captain America and the Falcon, and I would have to nod my head in agreement at that. I generally don't mind a new artist stepping aboard and giving their interpretation of a character and the book's overall look; Sal Buscema had quite a good run on the title, being present during the excellent Englehart stories which helped bring Cap into his own, but I wouldn't be opposed to someone else trying their hand with the character. Perhaps Robbins seemed a good choice because his work offered a "golden age" feel that might suit Cap. The only problem with that assumption is that the comic was decades past the golden age, and Marvel had helped to cultivate a more sophisticated readership base that enjoyed artwork that went beyond the simple, easy-to-please panels of the 1940s. Robbins' style, as you both note, is heavy on exaggeration and warped, twisted form--a style that might be right at home in a comics strip, but not the type of books which Marvel was marketing.

B Smith said...

Well, can I put my hand up as someone who liked Robbins' work. It had a sort of raw, unpolished look to it which gave the stories a sort of manic energy, something a slicker artist might have missed. I understand Robbins did some of his own lettering too (the sound effects and more "blocky" text), which gave it a very distinct look of its own.

Just wondering how many people's first exposure to Robbins' work was via his Cap artwork, or had they seen previous art in various DC titles...?

david_b said...

I read some of Robbin's Batman work (prior to coming over to the Bullpen..). Still pretty out-of-place art.

I tend to agree with Comicsfan. It's good anachronistic 'comicstrip' art per se, but didn't fit Cap at all. 'The Invaders'..? perhaps, but I must say I enjoyed Big John doing the team far more in that FF Annual.

david_b said...

I do recall reading that Marvel editors **did** publish mostly praise mail for Robbin's sake in CA&F, in an overt attempt to both sway public opinion and to paint a more-charitable view from the readership.

Ehhh, I saw through it.