The Coming Of … The Falcon!
Welcome back to The Dollar Box, a where I look at comics with an original cover price of a dollar or less. This month I break format to review not one but three comics … and these aren’t exactly classic comics. But these are still fun comics — if for all the wrong reasons — with superior art, an A-list villain, and the first appearance of a mid-major Marvel character … who might not be so “mid” anymore, following news that Sam Wilson — the Falcon — is the new Captain America!
So without further apology, I present Captain America #117-119 — “The Coming of … The Falcon!”
There’s a whole goofy backstory to this particular tale, but have no fear, True Believer — it’s all summed up on the splash page to Captain America #117, which is nakedly expository even by Stan Lee standards.
OK, so the Red Skull has used the power of the Cosmic Cube to swap bodies with Captain America, and has teleported our hero to the “Isle of the Exiles,” which is inhabited by foes of the Red Skull, who will take a dim view of “Cap Skull” appearing in their midst. Got it? Good! Because if that goes down hard, break out the bourbon! There’s a lot more to swallow …
… starting with the Exiles, the aforementioned villains of this issue. Among Jack Kirby’s lesser creations, the Exiles were introduced in Tales of Suspense #41. They’re a group of would-be world conquerors and former allies of the Red Skull, and boy, do these guys like to carry a grudge. They have names, and powers after a fashion, but I won’t burden you with them. Suffice to say that their leader is a guy in a wheelchair who gets pushed around on a beach (which must really make everyone cranky).
The Exiles fight with fearsome weapons, like a really nasty scarf.
I kid you not.
The Red Skull is particularly amused to see his Cap-self waltz around with these tools, but then makes a mistake they covered on the first day of class in Supervillain 101, tuning out on Cap’s struggles before his opponent’s inevitable demise.
Yep, that’s right up there with leaving Batman alone in a death trap, or leaving the self-destruct lever to your secret base in the “up” position right next to the coat hook. I might charitably allow that the limitless power afforded by the Cosmic Cube has made the Red Skull careless, but it’s probably more accurate to say that writing this story in fifteen minutes or less made Stan Lee careless.
But maybe we can forgive the Red Skull his indulgence. This is a man with a plan!
Hitting the streets of Manhattan in the body of Captain America, the Skull laughs behind-hand at the unreserved affection afforded Captain America.
(Or maybe this is the way Cap really feels about his fans. Wouldn’t THAT make for a story!)
Yes, the Red Skull is on the loose in Captain America’s body, performing unspeakable acts of evil, like stiffing a cabbie on his fare!
Is there no bottom to the Red Skull’s villainy??
After checking into a hotel under Cap’s name, we leave the skull to run up a big room service tab — which I’m sure the scoundrel has no intention of paying — and return to Exile Island, where Cap/Skull has been rescued from scarf welts on his bum by the timely intercession of a mysterious falcon.
And this, my friends, is the first handshake between Steve Rogers and his soon-to-be-partner, Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon. You can be forgiven for not recognizing our heroes, given that Cap is in the body of the Red Skull, and that he’s removed his Red Skull mask and given himself a disguise with mud “just like he used to do in World War II.”
I swear to you, friends, I am not making this up.
Not missing a beat, Cap does what any brain-swapped superhero would do when meeting a big city brother and his pet bird on a remote island — he tells Sam that he needs to don a costume, call himself the Falcon, and fight crime! (“Don’t knock it, fella! It’s been known to work!”)
It all seems rather sudden, and Stan and Gene must have realized as much, because they’ve reached the end of the issue without actually introducing the character promised on the cover! To redress the oversight, the final panel of issue #117 is a kind of suit-up montage, giving us a look at the Falcon and warning us not to miss the next issue!
The month between issues does nothing to dissuade Cap from his crazy plan, and so confident is the body-swapped Sentinel of Liberty that Sam decides to go along with it.
“Stranger things have happened, Sam!”
(No, they haven’t).
If it’s training time, then there’s only one solution — montage! In the space of a page or two, Sam Wilson is … The Falcon!
Yes, it’s a cheesy origin, and the first African-American superhero in comics deserved better than meeting his date with destiny after answering a want ad for a falconer on a remote tropical island (which happens all the time, of course). In the scheme of things, though, maybe we should have been satisfied … Steve Englehart would later reveal that Sam was a mobbed-up pimp who had his memories manipulated by the Cosmic Cube. Later still, the Falcon would become a mutant (during those halcyon days when Marvel made everyone into mutants) before going back to … I dunno.
I really can’t tell you what the Falcon’s origin is supposed to be.
Let’s never speak of this again.
With his training montage complete, the Falcon and Cap/Skull win their return engagement with the still hopelessly-lame Exiles. Stan channels his Sgt. Fury days by busting out an “Ach Du Lieber!” so you know it is ON!
With issue #119, our fortunes improve — a little — as the Red Skull tires of this body-swapping nonsense. Resuming his true form, the Skull constructs a Bavarian stronghold through the power of the Cosmic Cube, then summons Cap/Skull and the Falcon to meet their final doom.
And the Skull is not messing around this time. Even Redwing — the Falcon’s “accursed bird” — isn’t safe from the Red Skull’s vengeance!
Thus begins a rather silly fight between the Skull, Falcon, and Cap, which sees the Red Skull restore Cap to his correct form (just because he wants to), before using the unlimited power of converting wishes-into-reality to trap poor Redwing in a birdcage.
Still, the addition of an A-list villain like the Red Skull can’t help but raise the rent of this wobbly tale.
Unfortunately, no sooner does the story start to groove along to fist city with our colorfully costumed characters than it is over, and right out of left field. A subplot running through these issues is finally resolved, as Modok — entirely off-stage, mind you — creates a MacGuffin that nullifies the Cosmic Cube, which he just happens to activate when the Skull was about to blast our heroes into atoms.
Sorry, Cap, it wasn’t “fate” that punched the Red Skull’s ticket, but rather the most heavy-handed of story conceits, a genuine deus ex machina. (Modok Ex Machina?) Either way, it’s an unsatisfying end to an uneven tale. Maybe Stan wrote himself into a corner and didn’t know how to conclude his story, or maybe he was just exhausted after three issues of body-swapping silliness. I know I’m exhausted just from reading it!
Which seems like as good a reason as any to bring this month’s Dollar Box to a close. I’ve probably been a little too hard on Captain America #117-119. Goofy as it is, the first appearance of the Falcon drives the price of #117 — despite that .15 cover price — up past the $20.00 mark, and the later two issues will set you back five or ten dollars, as well. After all, these issues feature fine Gene Colan art, and some good scenery-chewing from the Red Skull. You also get the Cosmic Cube and a cameo from Modok. It’s probably not that much sillier than the usual Silver Age story … but even so, I doubt even Ed Brubaker could make this tale seem reasonable in a modern context.
And maybe that’s OK. Maybe it’s kind of a wonderful thing that the Falcon traces his origin to answering an ad for a falconer wanted on a remote island inhabited by costumed Nazi war criminals, and that he received his superhero training from a body-swapped Captain America inhabiting the disguised body of an unmasked Red Skull.
Yeah, sure it is …
(This article originally appeared at Stash My Comics).
NEXT WEEK: #133 Longbox Soapbox (Summer 2014)
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Top Ten Captain America Villains
A superhero is only so great as the costumed crazies he gets to battle. The rich rogues galleries of heroes like Batman and Spider-Man undoubtably contribute to those characters’ enduring appeal. I’d even argue that someone like the Flash would unambiguously be a second-tier hero (instead of a quasi-A-lister) if he didn’t command a roster of memorable villains to call his own.
Captain America is definitely an A-list hero, but is this due more to his iconic costume and role in comics history, or to his collection of super-powered rivals? Read on for my list of the Top Ten Captain America Villains, and then let me know how you think Cap’s most dastardly enemies stack up!
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10) The Grand Director
He has a complicated history, and owes his origin to a publication quirk, but the concept behind the Grand Director lets him squeak onto my list at #10.
Captain America has had two major publication periods — the wartime books published from 1941-1949, and the modern reintroduction of the character commencing with Avengers #4 in 1964. But in-between, Cap experienced a brief revival in the 1950s, which was not considered part of Marvel history until Steve Englehart resurrected the character for an early-1970s story, depicting him as a paranoid, ultra-patriotic double of our star-spangled hero. Driven mad by the cut-rate Super Soldier serum that gave him his powers, this forgotten Captain America became a vessel for all of America’s worst excesses in the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
Later, the character would be given a white spook suit and become the Grand Director, who is less interesting than a Red-baiting Captain America impersonator (who would be less interesting than a legitimately Red-baiting Captain America, but we can’t have everything). It’s all a bit of a muddle and serves to suppress that first awesome concept.
Continuity aside, the Grand Director is ultimately a tragic figure — a fallen hero manipulated into betraying everything he held dear by the next entry in my Top Ten List …
9) Doctor Faustus
A master of mind-control, mastermind of the neo-Nazi National Force, and the evil agent who twisted and manipulated the Grand Director for his own foul purposes, Doctor Faustus still may not have made this list but for a singular act of villainy. He does have deep roots in Cap’s history (having first appeared in Captain America #107), but with this subtle psychological powers, Dr. Faustus is little more than a second-rate Mysterio (without the groovy Steve Ditko costume).
I don’t care if he has a monocle and an Austrian accent … Doctor Faustus is pretty lame. But he did turn Sharon Carter into an unwitting pawn in Ed Brubaker’s Death of Captain America saga, and if you can punch the ticket of your arch-nemesis, then you get on the list!
(But he’s still a second-rate Mysterio!)
8) Baron Strucker
The first of several Nazis on this list, Baron Strucker might have been whistled up out of central casting — he has a monocle AND a Heidelberg fencing scar!
First appearing in 1964’s Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos #5, and eventually coming to lead HYDRA, Baron Strucker might more properly be considered a foe of Nick Fury and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but he’s battled Cap a time or two, and he also provides an excuse to show a bit of Steranko art, from that era when Strucker was undoubtably at his coolest.
Will Baron Strucker figure in Joss Whedon’s pending S.H.I.E.L.D. television series? The movie side of the Marvel Universe isn’t so deeply connected with World War II as the comics upon which is it based, so it seems unlikely that Strucker will appear in anything like his original form … but in a world where the Guardians of the Galaxy are getting their own movie, anything is possible! Hail HYDRA!
This is kind of a cheat, as I don’t really think of M.O.D.O.K. as a Captain America villain. But there is no denying that the “Mental Organism Designed Only For Killing” made his debut in the pages of a Captain America story in Tales of Suspense #93-94.
Any list is made better by M.O.D.O.K., and so everyone’s favorite hyper-encephalotic floating acronym gets the nod (though at a lower seeding than he might otherwise command!)
Batroc is definitely Captain America’s most ridiculous recurring foe (and that’s saying a lot, considering some of the names on this list), but no survey of Cap’s arch-enemies would be complete without him.
First appearing in Tales of Suspense #75, Batroc is a mercenary and a master of savate, the art of French foot fighting! That’s right, French foot fighting! Portrayed as something of a swashbuckler with his own code of honor, Batroc is more light-hearted than the Nazi psychopaths that make up most of Cap’s opposition … and no matter what his crimes, it is hard to hold a grudge against anyone with such an out-rageous Franch acc-cent, non?
Maybe Marvel will sober-up the character for his pending appearance in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier film, given that UFC fighter Georges St-Pierre has been cast to play him, but to me, Batroc will always be that goofy bearded guy bouncing around in purple tights …
5) Winter Soldier
And since we’re talking about pending Captain America films, it’s time to take a look at the Winter Soldier, who checks in at #5 on my list.
For decades, the death of Captain America’s wartime partner, Bucky Barnes, was one of the third rails of comic book storytelling. Other heroes might take on the identity of Bucky, or Bucky might seemingly come back from the dead (before being unmasked as an impostor or a robot or whatever), but the original version of Bucky was dead as Caesar, and permanently so.
At least, he was until Ed Brubaker came along.
Brubaker’s Winter Soldier arc stands out among the finest in Captain America history. In the best kind of revisionist storytelling, Brubaker reveals that Bucky wasn’t killed outright in the final days of World War II when he plunged into the English Channel from an exploding rocket, but that instead his body was recovered by Soviet agents, and that Bucky became a dreaded sleeper agent assassin during the Cold War — the Winter Soldier!
Though he would go on to become a hero commanding his own series (but not before his appearance in Winter Kills earned a spot in my list of Top Single Issue Stories), the Winter Soldier is initially a bad guy, a pawn in the Red Skull’s plan to destroy Captain America. As such, the Winter Soldier proves one of Captain America’s greatest foes, a murderously dangerous opponent who turns our hero’s heart against him. He’s a great character, and would rank higher on this list if he’d remained a villain. I’m curious to see how this character transitions to film in new summer’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier!
4) Arnim Zola
I’ve enthused about Arnim Zola in a recent Longbox Graveyard column, so I won’t go into great depth about him here. Jack Kirby’s last great contribution to the Captain America mythos is one of Cap’s weirdest foes, obsessed as he is with creating and manipulating life, and his freaky appearance is among the most bizarre in all of comics.
Like many of Cap’s great villains, this character lives on through the Marvel Captain America movie franchise, though in a substantially more conventional form. We can only hope actor Toby Jones will soon elect to transform himself into the Arnim Zola we all know and loathe …
3) Baron Zemo
For reasons too tedious to list (though Wikipedia is undaunted), Baron Zemo is actually two different bad guys … a Captain America foe introduced in the early days of The Avengers and Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos, and then that same character’s son, re-introduced in The Avengers decades later. To be honest, up until now I thought they were the same guy!
But maybe false memories are integral to this character. After all, he wasn’t created until 1964, but thanks to Marvel’s mania for continuity and its continual reinvention of history, Baron Zemo is responsible for one of the most heinous acts in Captain America history. No, it wasn’t that Baron Zemo was a Nazi who wore a purple bathrobe. It wasn’t even that he founded the Masters of Evil!
No … it was Baron Zemo who killed Bucky Barnes back in World War Two!
(Plus, his mask is glued to his face. Don’t ask).
Now I must note that the order of appearance of Baron Zemo and Arnim Zola created some controversy before this list we even published! In fact, this entire column was inspired by a particularly spirited exchange on my Twitter stream:
Ever the gentleman, John Gholson delivered with this illustration of … Arnim Zemo!
Thanks, John! And for more of John’s work, please visit his Gutters & Panels blog.
2) Red Skull
The Red Skull is more than just a top Captain America villain — he’s one of the premiere villains in the Marvel Universe. He first appeared in Captain America Comics #1 back in 1941, and he’s been Cap’s arch-nemesis ever since, battling our hero throughout World War II and returning from seeming death to bedevil Cap in the present era. He even wielded the Cosmic Cube before Thanos was a glimmer in his mother’s eye! The Red Skull co-headlined Super-Villain Team-Up for awhile, and he was memorably portrayed on the big screen by Hugo Weaving in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger.
As Captain America’s polar opposite, the Red Skull is clearly one of Cap’s greatest foes — a Fascist thug and murderous mastermind to oppose our freedom-loving hero. He’s also a badass, with no real superpowers — the Red Skull holds his own with fear gas and an endless string of minions that he holds in a grip of terror. Plus, the Red Skull brings along a whole host of lesser villains that might very well have made this list on their own, like Crossbones, Sin, Mother Night, and the enigmatic Sleepers.
With a resume like that, you’d expect the Red Skull to top this list!
Who could possibly be worse than the Red Skull?
1) Adolph Hitler!
That’s right … the only bad guy who could possibly be worse than the Red Skull is the Red Skull’s creator — Adolph Hitler!
I don’t mean to trivialize a real mass murderer by including him in a comic book top ten list, but Hitler is so interwoven into the Marvel Universe that he might as well be a supervillain at this point. Plus, if a couple of crazy kids named Kirby and Simon hadn’t decided to introduce a certain new red, white, and blue comic hero by having him sock Hitler on the chin, I probably wouldn’t be writing this list today.
Keep those colors flying, Cap!
What do you think of my top ten list of Captain America’s most fearsome foes? Did I snub anyone? Overrate someone? How do Cap’s villains rate against the greatest bad guys in comics history? Sound off in comments, below!
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #98 Iron Fan
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