Monday, October 28, 2019

Partners In Peril!

OR: "Of Kicks and Kickbacks!"

The illusion of time spent in regard to the comics industry and one's enjoyment of all that comes from it is a curious thing from the reader's perspective, as entire months can go by almost unnoticed while you're enjoying the work of a creative team--one that may have only produced only a few issues of, say, three or four stories in that time before pulling up stakes and moving on. There are several examples that may come to mind for you, as they did for myself--the teaming of Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner on Doctor Strange... Roy Thomas and John Buscema on Fantastic Four... Roy Thomas and Neal Adams on X-Men... David Kraft and Keith Giffen on The Defenders... creative pairs whose work shone noticeably and then disappeared for good, just when it seemed critical acclaim of their work was spreading. One other such teaming which must be mentioned in this grouping took place during 1980-81, a period which brought us nine months of the work of writer Roger Stern and artist/co-plotter John Byrne on the Captain America title--nine months that translated to a mere nine issues and just seven stories from this team, yet nonetheless became remembered as a high point for the book.

You'll find several of those stories already covered in the PPC--but around midpoint into the Stern/Byrne run came a two-part story featuring two classic villains who some might consider also-rans, but whose scheme came close to threatening the lives of ten million people. Fortunately, both of these men were willing to deal with a special envoy of the district attorney, who at their request would deliver the ransom they'd demanded--though their interpretation of "deal with" carried more deadly implications for the man in question.

The ball gets rolling on this plot with the daring prison break of Calvin Zabo, who in his more deadly and ruthless guise as Mister Hyde resided in a drugged state in the Ryker's Island facility. Hyde had made it known that a reward of $5 million awaited anyone who could facilitate his freedom--which leads to the story's introduction of the French-born mercenary who was more than happy to claim it.

As we know, Batroc can be pragmatic when need be, and so he does indeed "throw in" with Hyde--for the time being.

Elsewhere, the hero of this book learns of the breakout at Ryker's--and as the reports begin to add up for him, he decides to pursue the matter with the District Attorney.

Byrne doesn't miss a perfect "This is a job for...!" moment for Cap--while Stern demonstrates a nice grasp of the character in terms of showing the reader why this man is able to part the waters wherever he shows up, whether it's as Cap or how he handles his affairs as Steve Rogers. Stern and later Captain America writer Mark Gruenwald essentially had the same modus operandi in how they treated the character's handling of his day-to-day affairs--but while Gruenwald often became bogged down in the tedium of putting on display Cap's every thought in relation to his observations and/or his course of action, Stern manages to make such diversions timely and interesting to the reader, rather than indulging in the constant exposition that became a hallmark of Gruenwald's handling of the character and made reading the book an exercise in the mundane.

As for Hyde and Batroc, the time-tested method of the newspaper providing super-villains with complete details of a possible heist bears fruit for them when Hyde eyes an article in the Daily Bugle--a headline story, no less--concerning a Roxxon super-tanker on the way and carrying a cargo of liquefied natural gas which could potentially make it a floating bomb. Such an opportunity has "ransom" written all over it for the men who now approach it under cover of an innocent-looking barge being pulled by a tugboat.

The threat clear and impending, Roxxon's rep Benedict gets in touch with D.A. Tower and relays the ransom demand, under terms which also make a point of including the man that Tower currently has in his office. Astonishingly, it appears that Tower and Cap plan to fully comply with Batroc and Hyde--though Cap's cooperation will only extend so far.

Aside from the obvious danger to Cap, Hyde's words imply an ominous change in plan that Hyde hasn't disclosed to his partner; regardless, the scene segues us to Part 2 of this story, where we learn that Batroc feels it necessary to take precautions as to Hyde carrying out their scheme as agreed on.

While Cap takes steps to win his freedom, Batroc's fears prove justified, as, on the bridge, Hyde begins to fume at the betrayal of his former partner, the Cobra, whom he believes is holed up somewhere in New York; and with the Cobra being the only one who knows of Hyde's identity as Zabo, Hyde decides to radically alter his plan and follow through with his threat to ram the tanker into the harbor, where the resulting explosion will become a firestorm that will destroy the entire city and thus eliminate both Cap and the Cobra at a stroke.

It's a decision that Batroc, with his peculiar code of honor, strongly objects to--and unlike his last brief clash with Hyde, this time he lashes out at him in earnest.

Meanwhile, another threat to Hyde even now makes his way stealthily back aboard--just in time to turn the tables for Batroc, and, in the process, gain an extra pair of hands (, feet) to hopefully take down the madman whose strength well exceeds their own.

It's a well-choreographed battle on the part of Byrne, whose panels of heroes in action always excel in grace but are often devoid of swiftness or carrying a sense of impact--a detriment for characters like Hyde, Spider-Man, Cap, the Beast, and even Batroc, who might otherwise offer scenes that would resonate right off the page (and some well-placed sound effects wouldn't hurt either, though John Costanza is regretfully no Artie Simek or Sam Rosen in that department); that said, it's all very eye-catching, regardless. But it's what catches Hyde's eye that will bring an end to the battle, albeit to his misfortune.

Unfortunately for Cap, Hyde's slippery form tumbles off deck and into the harbor, to be lost from sight despite Cap's attempts to retrieve him. We find in the meantime, however, that a mercenary never changes his stripes, as Batroc takes advantage of the diversion to quickly disembark and reboard the barge where the entirety of the ransom was relocated--appearing to make a clean escape, and a most profitable one. Fortunately, with Hyde's mini-sub within reach of Cap, Batroc hasn't quite covered all the bases.

Le fini, indeed.

Captain America #s 251-252

Script: Roger Stern
Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: Josef Rubinstein
Letterers: Jim Novak and John Costanza


Big Murr said...

This run of Captain America were the only issues I ever purchased (and still have) in my comic-collecting career. As a member of the Avengers, he's apple pie dandy. As a solo act, he could never hold my attention.

Anonymous said...

This was pretty good! I've always liked Hyde as a villain, by which I mean I enjoy seeing him get his comeuppance. He's so doggone nasty that it's a pleasure when he gets clobbered, usually in a very undignified manner.
Stern and Byrne's run on Cap wasn't the all-time best, which I think was Englehart and Sal Buscema (although I loved Kirby's run in the '70's. I thought it was wild!) But this was pretty solid. Great art and compelling stories.


Comicsfan said...

Gentlemen, your comments on Cap's solo book open the door to a question which frankly I'm surprised no one has posed before now (to my knowledge): Was Cap handled better in The Avengers, or in his own title? It's difficult for me to make a choice, since I'm fond of his appearances in both books. Ideally, you'd think that Cap's own title would allow for more attention for the character and thus provide more to point to which stands out for the reader, but that hasn't always been the case. For instance, I thought Ed Brubaker's handling of Captain America was perhaps the pinnacle of the series; obviously I enjoyed Stern; and Englehart can certainly be credited with a solid run. But as for Gruenwald, it was often hit and miss with his material (mostly the latter, in my opinion); Kirby essentially threw out the growth the character experienced under Englehart in favor of a more patriotic approach while restricting Cap's connection to the Marvel universe to the Falcon and SHIELD; Lee seem mired in trying to make Cap a viable character for the '70s; and other writers sprinkled into the mix (Roger McKenzie, Don Glut, Peter Gillis, Steve Gerber) never seemed vested in the character (though McKenzie had his moments). In The Avengers, when Gruenwald or Roy Thomas wasn't focused on having Cap call the shots, Cap had the advantage of being folded in with everyone else--and I must say Stern handled that nicely, as well.

Big Murr said...

I'm afraid my disinterest in Captain America as a solo act doesn't revolve around nuances of writing. The essential fact is that I am not a citizen of the US of A and Cap's plots too often went marching in a star-spangled, flag-waving parade. I'm certainly not complaining of "false advertising" or some such—the contents of the can are right there on the label.

In the Avengers , there was rarely room for Cap to be anything but a stalwart, dynamic leader of men (even if he wasn't the official leader) and he provided super action without singing the "Star Spangled Banner".

This isn't anti-American. This is more like me being at a party with my in-laws and they have a moment of going down memory lane, talking happily about people and events to which I have no connection.

Anonymous said...

Like M.P. I loved Kirby's solo run on Cap. Its obvious from reading comic blogs that it wasn't everyone's cup of awesome (!) but I'm not really sure why you consider it particularly patriotic Comicsfan, any more so than other versions (including Englehart's).

Sure, there was the Bicentennial Battles treasury - which actually had a more nuanced take on American history than Kirby is usually given credit for - but the monthly and annuals were full of stuff like the Night People, Agron, the thing from the Black Hole Star, and so on.