Thursday, March 25, 2021

This Power Denied!


At the close of 1969, Captain America's life was changed dramatically, about as dramatically as anyone could change it given the opportunity and the means. In this case, that person turned out to be the Red Skull, who recovered the Cosmic Cube after losing it during a pitched battle with his foe and used its power to switch their bodies--and to "cap" his revenge, the Skull moves in on Steve Rogers' love interest, Sharon Carter, as the real Cap realizes that his situation has become practically hopeless.

His plan in motion, the Skull amuses himself by milking his newfound status as Captain America while using the Cube to monitor the movements of the real Cap, who makes his way to Avengers Mansion in an attempt to convince his teammates of his bona fides and secure their help; but, distrusted and doubted from the beginning, the attempt fails, and the pseudo Skull is rendered unconscious as the Avengers leave to respond to a S.H.I.E.L.D. alert.

It's then that the Skull decides to add another level of peril to Cap's struggle, by transporting him to the island of the Exiles--former allies of the Skull who now wish vengeance on him, and will attack him on sight. But after Cap's initial clash with the group upon arrival, he later discards the Skull's mask so that he'll hopefully be unrecognizable to them, while further disguising his features as a precaution. In addition, this would turn out to be the moment when Cap meets Sam Wilson*, a former hireling of the Exiles, whom Cap begins to train in hand-to-hand fighting in order to become a symbol to the natives that Sam has begun to organize and band together to rebel against the Exiles.

*Both Sam and the reader have yet to learn of his identity as "Snap Wilson"--that his past as he remembers it is a sham, and that he's been manipulated by the Skull into being a sleeper agent for use at some future point against Cap.

Clearly the Skull, who holds the power to obliterate Cap with a thought, wishes to savor his revenge, with the goal of crushing Cap's indomitable spirit; but his patience becomes exhausted when both Cap and the Falcon are successful in motivating the natives to rise up against the Exiles, a development which infuriates the Skull and forces him to finally take a personal hand against his enemy. To that end, he abruptly changes the venue for himself and his foes--and the endgame of this drama finally begins.

(Of course the issue's cover might render the moment anticlimactic! Maybe the Skull just tripped?)

In light of the later development regarding Snap Wilson, the fact that the Skull chooses to transport the Falcon along with Cap is interesting in hindsight from an ace-in-the-hole perspective, since it provides the Skull with insurance against Cap somehow prevailing against the Cube's power as he did previously. But reading the story in '69, we're forced to assume that the Skull wants the Falcon there as the means to further demoralize Cap at the proper time--a risk, surely, since the Skull's actions have forced him to face two trained fighters rather than one.

Nor does the Skull do himself any favors by restoring Cap's true form, along with his shield, which can only serve to render moot the humiliation and setbacks the Skull has inflicted on Cap thus far and offset any feelings of hopelessness which the Skull sought to foster in him. It's almost as if the Skull is demonstrating a Thanos-like complex where he unconsciously feels compelled to set himself up to lose.

Yet while the Skull is still in possession of his faculties, we're reminded he's also still in possession of the Cosmic Cube--and artist Gene Colan (inked by Joe Sinnott--wotta deal at 15¢, eh?) adequately demonstrates why that's still a considerable problem for our heroes.

What is somewhat disappointing in the story's resolution is that writer Stan Lee chooses to resort once again to dislodging the Cube from the Skull's grip as the means to lead to his defeat; but instead of a similar pat ending here, Lee has made use of a building sub-plot in the form of M.O.D.O.K., who once more heads the criminal organization known as A.I.M. and has been monitoring the Skull's possession of the Cube. Unknown to the Skull, the decision has been made to destroy the Cube in order to prevent it from being used against AIM and MODOK--a decision which is unfortunately executed at a most crucial moment for the Skull.

Despite the mystery of what's occurred, Cap and Falc are only too happy to chalk this encounter up as a victory, with their budding partnership on its way to being formalized in a later story. As for MODOK, he returns to stir up trouble with Cap with the apparent return of Bucky Barnes to the land of the living--while the Skull later does a little stirring of his own by inflaming racial tension in Harlem as part of a manipulative trap.



Big Murr said...

In my youth, mu first ever exposure to the Cosmic Cube was Captain Marvel and allies striving against Thanos. When Thanos ordered the Cube to make him one with the universe, it rocked my mind.

Seeing these earlier stories with Red Skull using the Cube to swap faces with Cap is...kinda pathetic. Think big, you Nazi scum!

Comicsfan said...

To be fair to the Skull, Murray, it sounds like he was thinking on the grand scale just before he brought Cap and Falc to face him in Berchtesgaden, at least for a Nazi. Maybe he wasn't thinking of universal conquest (at least for the time being)--but for one so committed to the Third Reich, and being deprived of the movement's original intent of world domination, he might have indeed regarded the goal of using the Cube to impose Hitler's brand of tyranny on the globe as "the Nazi dream" which must be fulfilled, as he put it. And since Cap played a part in foiling the plans of Hitler--and particularly those of the Skull--it made sense that he would view as a priority not only to bring about his hated foe's end, but to also enjoy it to the fullest. (Though that's not to say he was especially adept at doing either, even when holding ultimate power in his hand!)