As readers of my post about Captain America #110 a few months back may remember, my eleven-year-old self read and enjoyed that comic book — the first in a classic trilogy of issues by Jim Steranko — when it came out in November, 1968, and I finished it ready and waiting to buy and read the next one. However, for one reason or another (either it never made it to any of the retail outlets in Jackson, MS, where I bought my comics, or I just didn’t manage to get to the store before it sold out), I never saw, and thus couldn’t buy, Captain America #111. Because, seriously — how could I have passed up a book with a cover that awesome, if I had seen it?
That issue continued the storyline created and developed by Steranko, who plotted as well as drew these issues (supported on the dialoguing end by writer-editor Stan Lee) in which Cap took on a new partner, Rick Jones, while also confronting the threat of the newly resurgent terrorist organization Hydra. Issue #111 had ended with the apparent death of Captain America, showing the Star-Spangled Avenger’s silhouetted body struck by a hail of bullets as he dove from the roof of a waterfront building into New York City’s East River.
This cliffhanger was intended to be resolved in the very next issue, but things went awry, somehow. Believing that Steranko was likely to miss his deadline, and thereby leave Marvel with nothing to print on the pages of Captain America #112. Lee had the series’ previous artist (and Cap’s co-creator) Jack Kirby draw a special fill-in issue which re-capped the “dead” hero’s life and career, without actually advancing Steranko’s plot. (According to later statements by Steranko, he would have finished his work on time — but he’s also admitted in various interviews that he tended to cut things close when turning in his pages to Marvel, figuring that Lee and the production staff would have less time to make alterations to his work that way. Maybe this time he cut things a little too close.) This one I did see, and buy — and since I don’t think I was paying that much attention to issue numbers yet, it’s quite possible that I didn’t even realize right away that I’d missed a chapter of the ongoing storyline. If such was the case, however, I must have realized the truth of things as soon as I turned to the first page:
Obviously, I’d missed quite a lot. Captain America was — dead! (Sure, he was.) But, interestingly enough, although Kirby’s opening splash picked up right where Steranko’s final panel of issue #1111 had left off, neither it nor the succeeding pages included what was perhaps the most shocking and, for regular readers, most confounding aspect of this grim scene — to wit:
“Steve Rogers was a false identity!” That couldn’t possibly be true… could it?
I’d be curious to know whether this bombshell revelation got left out of CA #112’s placeholder story simply because Kirby (who reputedly drew the issue over a weekend) wasn’t told about it before he started work, or whether he (or Lee) just figured that that particular Big Idea was Steranko’s to deal with, and they’d do best to leave it alone. At this late date, I doubt we’ll ever know.
Of course, I didn’t know about any of this in February, 1969, when I (thankfully) nabbed Captain America #113 out of the spinner rack, and got my first good look at yet another awesome Steranko cover (with perhaps the least “red, white, and blue” to ever appear on a Cap cover, either before or since). Kirby and Lee had informed me that Cap was “dead”, and that Hydra were the culprits — but I didn’t find out about this “false face” business until I read the new issue’s splash page:
Steranko’s first two issues had been inked by Joe Sinnott, but for this third and final installment, he was replaced by Tom Palmer. Palmer’s finishes were unquestionably less precise and “shiny” than Sinnott’s, but his more illustrative, textured style was just as effective over Steranko’s pencils — and especially well-suited to the generally somber mood of this particular chapter of the story, most of which takes place under the cover of darkness in settings that include a funeral parlor and a cemetery.
In Captain America #110, Steranko had introduced Madame Hydra as the new leader of the nefarious organization, a successor to the supposedly deceased Baron Strucker (who’d met his apparent demise fighting Nick Fury in Strange Tales #158’s “S.H.I.E.L.D.” feature, also by Steranko) — but he’d held off on the “who she is and how she came to be” background stuff until this issue:
In choosing to color his own work, Steranko was virtually unique among the comic book illustrators of this era; as demonstrated by his three-page sequence (and especially the page shown immediately above), he took this task as seriously as he did every other aspect of his work. By his example, the artist showed how effective great coloring could be in enhancing a comic’s visual impact — and also proved that great coloring was possible, even within the limitations of four-color printing at the time.
The cluster of small panels at center-right on page 4, depicting Madame Hydra looking into her mirror, represent one of several examples in Steranko’s Captain America issues of his presenting a sequence of images in simultaneous, rather than consecutive, time.
The next page includes one of Steranko’s own personal favorite panels from this story, which — as the artist himself put it in his 2006 afterword for Marvel Masterworks – Captain America, Vol. 3 — “shows Rick Jones psychologically ensnared within the eyehole of his discarded mask (you can take the mask away from the boy, but not the boy away from the mask)”.
At the bottom of the same page, the Avengers assemble. Appropriately, all three currently active members are on hand, as well as Thor and Iron Man — Cap’s old comrades from his earliest days with the team. (The absence of newlyweds Hank and Jan Pym from this solemn scene can readily be excused by their being away on their honeymoon at this time, over in the Avengers series.)
On the next page, Steranko twice uses one of his favorite narrative devices, breaking what’s essentially a single image into multiple panels; this draws the eye across the page, analogous to a panning camera in cinema, and also imposes a rhythm of sorts on the dialogue featured in the panels.
You’ll note that Hawkeye has referred to Captain America as “Steve” in that last panel. Presumably, all of the Avengers, as well as Rick Jones, Nick Fury, and Cap’s girlfriend Sharon Carter (who’ll show up on the next page) have seen or heard the reports of the bullet-riddled Steve Rogers face mask found in the river; so it seems odd that not one of them mentions it even once over the course of the story.
In his Marvel Masterworks afterword, Steranko referred to the following page’s “stained-glass-window page design” as another one of his favorite elements from this issue.
Something that didn’t faze me reading this as an eleven-year-old kid, but which strikes me now as a little “off”, is how quickly Cap’s friends rush to bury him (or, more accurately, a dummy standing in for him). Seems like they could have waited a day or so, y’know? And shouldn’t his funeral have been more of a public event — almost a state occasion? But, of course, if Steranko had played it that way, it would have made for a much different story, so…
Per the sixth panel above, there are a number of familiar faces in Fury’s audience, which is apparently composed primarily of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents — there’s “Dum-Dum” Dugan, of course, and Gabe Jones, and Jasper Sitwell… and I think that’s Clay Quartermain, and maybe Jimmy Woo? But hey, who’s that guy in the dark coat? Doesn’t he know it’s disrespectful to leave your hat on during a memorial service? (Even Dugan has doffed his omnipresent derby, for cryin’ out loud.)
Even as Fury completes his oration, back at Avengers Mansion, the grieving Rick Jones sits alone in the dark at Avengers Mansion, until he finally works up the resolve to go to the funeral home to say goodbye. Meanwhile,at the chapel, most of the mourners have departed, leaving only Fury and the Avengers to stand sentinel at Captain America’s casket. And then…
“No time to — hold breath –” Plenty of time to flap your jaws, though, eh, Nick? But you can’t really hold it against the S.H.I.E.L.D. director — after all, this sort of improbable expository dialogue is a standard convention of comic book storytelling (or, at least, it was back in 1969).
Their ruse having proved successful, the entire staff of the funeral parlor now reveal themselves to be Hydra agents:
You’ve really got to hand it to Hydra for efficiency, here — they’ve managed to pull this complicated scheme off later on the same night that they’ve killed Captain America.
Looking ahead to the next page… there, at the taxi stand in the third panel… could that be the same disrespectful hat-wearer from the chapel scene, earlier? Hmm…
And here, now, at the midpoint of the story — just as in Steranko’s two previous issues — the unsuspecting reader turns the page, and…
… has the breath knocked out of them by another spectacular double-page centerspread by Steranko. (According to Steranko’s Marvel Masterworks afterword, he not only pencilled and colored this particular piece, but even inked and lettered it.)
The last panel on page 14, as visually striking as it is, may represent a glaring error, as the unblemished profile Madame Hydra shows us here is her right side — which is supposed to be the scarred one. Or is Steranko cluing us in that her disfigurement is actually all in her mind?
The following page is another of Steranko’s own faves from the issue, “the A (for America) combat page”. Stan Lee’s breathless prose here may be over-the-top, especially by today’s standards, but it sure worked for me as a young reader in 1969. And besides, if you can’t go over the top when you’re writing Captain America, when can you?
Despite the above page’s assertion that Cap is “unconquerable”, the sheer number of armed Hydra agents stacks the odds against his and Rick’s winning the day. So, Cap orders Rick to grab up a fallen pistol — and then, once that’s done…
Whoah — did Rick (and Cap) just kill all those Hydra agents? It sure looks that way to me (and to CBR’s Brian Cronin). But I suppose you could assume that they’re all just non-fatally wounded, if that works better for your own personal head canon.
An “Indexer’s Note” on the Grand Comics Database page for this issue states: “The climax of this story in part pays tribute to “Spy Ambush” from Captain America Comics #10 (January 1942).” Here are the relevant panels from that story, which was written and drawn by Cap’s creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby:
As of this writing, I haven’t found any other source to verify that Steranko has acknowledged being directly inspired by this 1942 tale — but knowing that he’s an avowed Captain America fan going back to his childhood, when he experienced Cap’s Golden Age adventures firsthand, it seems a pretty safe bet.
One obvious difference between Steranko’s story and his source material is of course the survival of the story’s evil ebon-tressed spymistress (called Countess Mara, in the Simon and Kirby tale). Steranko’s Madame Hydra didn’t get off as easy as her Nazi predecessor — although, as longtime Marvel readers may remember, that wasn’t really her getting blown up on page 18 — rather, as would be revealed years later by writer Steve Englehart (in Avengers #107 [Jan., 1973]), it was the Space Phantom! (Yes, the Space Phantom. No, he didn’t really die, either.) The “real” Madame Hydra was alive and well, though (presumably) royally pissed off — so much so that when she next showed up (again courtesy of Englehart, in Captain America #180 [Dec., 1974]), she repudiated Hydra and took on a new codename, the Viper (though only after murdering the super-villain already using that alias). Comics, y’all! (But hey — if you never knew all this before and now you wish you didn’t, or you’d forgotten and are sorry that I’ve made you remember, feel free to forget all about it [again]. Headcanon trumps “official” continuity every time, folks.)
But now, let’s get back to February, 1969, and “The Strange Death of Captain America”, as Cap and Rick ride the shockwave of page 18’s explosion into the conclusion of Jim Steranko’s narrative — and one final, spectacular double-page spread:
The payoff of the “false face” plot twist — i.e., the restoration of Captain America’s secret identity — was probably one of the less effective aspects of this story, as far as my younger self was concerned. That’s likely because I had never read Marvel comics at a time when Cap had a secret identity. In the first issue of his series I bought, back in 1968, everyone knew that Steve Rogers and Captain America were one and the same; as far as I knew at the time, it had always been that way. I didn’t find out until much, much later that there had even been a 1967 story (published in Tales of Suspense #95) in which Cap had indeed revealed his identity to the world.
On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t have cared that much more even if I had read that story, and those that preceded it — because it seems to me that, from his thawing out of the Arctic ice in 1964 up through 1968, “Steve Rogers” was pretty much a cipher, anyway. In the World War II era, Steve Rogers had had a personal life (of sorts, at least) as an Army private; but in the Sixties, as best as I can tell (and I freely acknowledge that I didn’t experience the pre-’68 stories “live” when they were published), Cap was Cap basically 24/7; when he did have downtime, he seemed to spend most of it hanging around Avengers Mansion, or on the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. “Steve Rogers” may have been the name that Captain America was born with, and that he answered to when out of costume; but he didn’t really do anything as Steve Rogers.
But while I (and probably at least a few other fans) may not have cared about Captain America having a secret identity, Jim Steranko definitely did. This is how he described the state of things in Cap’s world circa late 1968, in his Marvel Masterworks afterword:
… for no apparent reason, Marvel had unmasked him [Captain America]… alerting the world that he was something less than the quintessential symbol of patriotism, that he was only a man. The universal mystique once surrounding him — providing a reason to wear the cowl — was corrupted, thrusting him into an ever shallower position.
Steranko considered the loss of a secret identity one of three serious problems with Cap’s status quo, as he found it in 1968, that he was determined to correct. The other two were what he called the “threadbare aspect of Bucky guilt“, which he intended to alleviate by establishing Rick Jones as the late Bucky Barnes’ replacement; and the constant revival of Nazis as Cap’s primary foes, which he’d fix by bringing in Hydra. And as far as he was concerned, in spite of his run lasting only three issues, in the end he completed the task he’d set for himself:
A new chapter in his saga was established. Cap’s identity was a secret again. He had a bona fide sidekick and a modern, non-Nazi cause to battle. My mission was accomplished.
Steranko may well have felt (and may still feel) that way; but it must be admitted that none of the changes he instituted during his brief tenure on Captain America have ultimately stood the test of time. Rick Jones didn’t last even half a year as Cap’s partner, and “Bucky guilt” soon returned in force, never to be put fully to rest until Bucky, himself, finally returned in 2005. Meanwhile, Steranko’s “modern, non-Nazi cause” — Hydra — has never really shaken off the Nazi associations that go back to its original conception by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; recent storylines have, if anything, only strengthened those associations. Perhaps surprisingly, the secret identity of Steve Rogers did have a reasonably long life, at least as these things go in comic book universes; allowing for some tinkering with the specifics over the years, it lasted all the way to 2002, when writer John Ney Rieber had Captain America unmask himself once again, on a worldwide TV news broadcast (see Captain America [2002 series] #3).
But I happen to think that all of this is really beside the point. In my view, Jim Steranko’s achievement on Captain America had little to do with any lasting changes he bought to the series; but rather, how brilliantly he expressed the essence of the character; how, through his compelling stories and superlative artwork, he realized the potential of Marvel Comics’ Sentinel of Liberty in a way very few other comics creators ever have.
And he did it all in sixty pages.
That’s an accomplishment that I think can rest securely in any fan’s headcanon.