Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Death And Life Of Steve Rogers!

In the waning days of Tales of Suspense Cap decided for whatever reason that he'd go public with his Steve Rogers identity. That seemed okay at the time but when Jim Steranko took the reins of the series for three whopping and memorable issues it became a problem and the focus of a sprawling tale, a tale scripted by Stan Lee and inked by reliable and smooth Joe Sinnott.

In Captain America #110 in a story titled no longer alone we meet Steve musing about life and such as Marvel heroes were wont to do when he suddenly encounters the Hulk rampaging through town. He dons his Cap togs and goes into battle, though against the Hulk he's little more effective than the troops who are trying to corral the jade giant. Rick Jones shows up and is accidentally hurt when the Hulk leaps away. Cap takes him to the Avengers mansion and gives him care. There he muses more and Rick for his part seems intent still to become Cap's partner, an idea he'd had since the two had first met many moons before.

Dressed in Bucky's uniform, Rick finally talks Cap into taking him under his wing when an alert sends the freshly minted duo to the underground sewers of NYC just in time to find a squad of Hydra agents trying to contaminate the water supply. The battle is ferocious but the heroes have a limited success, ending the immedate threat but not being able to capture the leader Madame Hydra.

The story picks up in Captain America #111 in a story titled enigmatically titled "Tomorrow You Live, Tonight I Die!".  This one begins in an arcade where Cap has been lured by Hydra and is attacked but fends off the enemy.

Madame Hydra gives the failing agents their just reward in typically cruel Hydra style while Cap and Rick Jones spend some time training and Rick begins to get a sense that he might not be up to the task he's set for himself.

Rick falls victim to a ruse to capture Cap and is hauled to the hideout of Madame Hydra when Cap is unable to save him, and is put on ice to await the inevitable appearance of our hero. Sure enough Cap returns to the arcade and finds a vintage Hydra robot named "Mankiller" who gives our hero a tussle before Cap wins the day. But then Cap realizes he's trapped and to save Rick he appears to leap into a hail of Hydra bullets and falls into the waters of NYC seemingly dead.

And that's where the third and final Steranko  Cap story picks up. Captain America #113 (issue #112 was a delightful memory-lane extravaganza punched out by the great Jack Kirby in about no time when Steranko fell behind on the deadline) begins with Cap's funeral. The news media report the death of Steve Rogers and comment on the fact a rubber mask looking like Rogers was found. It throws Cap's real identity into question, though with his death that's largely moot. We also get a little of Madame Hydra's history and learn she's a poor orphan who scratched and killed her way to the top of the deadly organization. The Avengers are remorseful and are planning his funeral which will feature an eulogy by Nick Fury. But it's all a ruse and they regret using a funeral home run by Hydra and the Assemblers and friends are captured.

Rick Jones escapes capture and follows Hydra to a graveyard and is planning to save the Avengers when Captain America suddenly appears roaring into the scene on a motorcycle. The two kick some Hydra butt and eventually escape deadly missiles which end up seemingly ending the threat of Madame Hydra. The Avengers are safe and the story ends as Cap walks away and indicates it was a ruse to reestablish his secret identity to make Rick and others safer.

This powerhouse trilogy has been hailed for decades and I'm a fan. Steranko was a mighty talent and it's just a shame that he never was able to do more than these occasional epics in his early career. Aside from his SHIELD run in Strange Tales and beyond, he fashioned these tales, a few X-Men yarns and some beautiful short stories for Marvel's horror and romance books, but that's about it. It's always fascinated me that his reputation was established on so little actual work and speaks to how totally different it was at the time. There's no doubt that Steranko's material was fresh and exciting, though at times offering up bewildering storytelling. He is an artist who is able to deliver an overall impact with the whole being much more impressive than the sum of the parts might be.

Steranko really seems to have had an affinity for Cap and he has returned to the character a few times over the decades. But we have to remember, he only ever did these three issues. Amazing.

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  1. Someone once commented that a Captain America run with Steve Englehart's scripts drawn by Steranko's pencils would have been mind-blowing. I mean, Sal Buscema did some fantastic work, but... what could have been...

    1. What we get from Steranko is sterling but rare. What you get from a Sal Buscema is less sterling in some respects but produced with such grace and skill and volume that it's value is hard to reckon. Sal's storytelling chops are better than Steranko's in the small things, though Steranko does produce some fantastic pages, or did.

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