This is one of those comics where I’m not 100% certain where I got it from, or when. But I think it turned up in a 3-Bag at around the same period as IRON MAN #100 and AVENGERS #161–it’s of the same relative vintage anyway. So let’s go with that. During the 1970s, as a way of increasing their rack presence and bringing in some relatively easy additional revenue, Marvel boasted an ongoing line of reprints, showcasing stories that in many cases were less than ten years old. But to me they were new, and it made for an easy way of getting caught up a bit with the intricate history of the Marvel Universe, then only 16 years old in 1978 (which felt like an eternity to my 11 year old self.) As with a number of these reprint books, the cover here is taken from the source material, CAPTAIN AMERICA #101. But in this instance, as would occasionally happen, a stat of the uncorrected cover was used rather than the final version.
Putting aside the portions of the background that were eliminated so as to better silhouette the characters (something that publisher Martin Goodman was a fiend about), the big change was in the visage of the ominous Red Skull. The Comics Code of 1968 thought that Kirby’s initial rendition of the Skull was too horrifying, and so they mandated that it be toned down. This wasn’t a new thing, it had been happening since the character was revived, and even when earlier stories featuring the Skull had been reprinted, his dome was redrawn to make it less scary and, well, skull-like. But by 1977 when this reprint issue came out, the Code had been revised and nobody was particularly concerned about the Skull’s original appearance–which was a lot more dramatic and interesting as rendered by Jack Kirby. The art corrected Skull often looked to me like he was wearing a big meatball on his head.
The story was the first full-length CAP issue to be produced once the Star-Spangled Avenger had been spun off into his own title (the very first issue, #100, had been cobbled together from chapters and bits and pieces initially intended to run as a half-length strip in TALES OF SUSPENSE.) The divisive element of these early CAP issues was the inking by veteran Syd Shores. Shores had been a mainstay in the Marvel bullpen of the 1940s and 1950s, and he had been the principle Captain America artist in the Golden Age after Joe Simon and Jack Kirby parted ways with Martin Goodman and Timely. In bringing him back into the fold, editor Stan Lee was hoping to be able to indoctrinate him into the Marvel approach of doing things (primarily the plot-art-script methodology that saw the artist contributing the lion’s share of the plotting) with the intention of him taking over CAPTAIN AMERICA from Kirby. But things didn’t work out that way. Shores proved to be an uncomfortable fit over Kirby’s pencils–not entirely his fault, as he had been given the impression that what was desired was for him to make the look of the strip his own, and so he used a heavy hand, one whose approach was fundamentally different than Kirby’s. So it wasn’t a great match, and Shores never did wind up inheriting the book.
By 1968 as well, Kirby had hit a wall in terms of his own relationship with Marvel, and he’d privately decided as much as possible to stop creating new characters for the company, after having lost control of both the Silver Surfer and Him in rapid succession. This led to his ongoing titles regurgitating villains and situations from the past a bunch–and here, that takes the form of the Red Skull disentombing the Fourth Sleeper. Years earlier, there’d ben a story in which the Nazi villain had set up a trio of killer robots who would destroy the world twenty years later if the Nazis lost the war. Well, it turns out now that they actually had four of the things (and in a couple of years, we’d learn about the fifth.) Which really does raise the question: if you’ve got five unstoppable robots so powerful and sophisticated that they’re still a global threat twenty years later, wouldn’t it be better to put them into battle against your enemies rather than burying them for two decades while your regime crumbles and falls? Nazis are dumb. But hey, that’s the stuff that comic book stories are made of.
So after a preamble with Cap accosting a man he recognizes as an escaped Nazi war criminal–a target that SHIELD’s Nick Fury proceeds to let go, admonishing Cap for his actions. Fury reveals that he only did so in order to plant a tracking device on the guy in the hopes that he would lead SHIELD, and Cap, to bigger game. So even while the Red Skull digs up his fourth Sleeper robot (and reminisces about how he survived certain death in his last encounter with the WWII Living Legend, Cap is in mid-flight to the Skull’s secret island H.Q. His plane is shot down, but fortunately he’s equipped with Tony Stark’s Inflato-Suit, which breaks his fall. I must admit, I can’t read the phrase “Inflato-Suit” without being put in the mind of the Inflato-Coat from the pilot episode of GET SMART, in which Maxwell Smart wears a jacket that conceals twin inflated arms, so as to avoid capture.
So Cap is down and safe, but not for long, as he’s swarmed by stormtroopers in the Red Skull’s service. In typical Kirby fashion, Cap battles his way through a dozen of them–but ultimately, there are too many for him to overcome, and he’s overwhelmed. Meanwhile, the Nazi from the opening has brought the Red Skull what he had asked for: the crystal sonic key that can activate the Fourth Sleeper. And even as Cap is dragged into the room, the Skull begins to do just that. Cap is horrified to learn both that his regular foe the Skull is still alive and that he’s got yet another Sleeper robot to command. But the new Sleeper is far more powerful and uncontrollable than the Skull anticipated, and so he causes chaos and damage as he bursts from his cocoonlike crypt. Cap takes advantage of the situation to wrest himself free of the stormtroopers, but now he’s got to face both the Skull and the Sleeper on his own.
The scene is pandemonium, and the Skull’s henchmen decide that retreat is the better part of valor and begin scrambling for the exits. Never one to miss a beat, the Skull does likewise, closely pursued by Captain America. As they traverse an escape shaft on a cushion of pressurized air, the Skull confides in Cap that the fourth Sleeper was designed with the power and the mandate to destroy the world, just as the first three were. The Skull, though, hopes to yet establish control over the Sleeper and then use him for conquest. But Cap now realizes that either way, he needs to shut the Sleeper down permanently. But it won’t be easy. Because back at the base, the Sleeper unleashes its awesome power, annihilating the complex and indeed most of teh island on which it was built in a single horrifying blast.
Down in the escape shaft, the Skull and Cap wrestle over possession of the Sonic Key, when suddenly the whole place goes up and the two men are separated by the buffeting waters. The Sleeper, meanwhile, has revealed that it is capable of changing its molecular density and so it is unaffected by the detonation, having become phantomlike and slipped into the ground below. Back at SHIELD Base, both Sharon Carter and Nick Fury are horrified by the satellite pictures that they’re seeing, and they fear that Cap is dead. But of course he isn’t–a few seconds later he bobs to the surface, exhausted and out of breath, but in possession of the fateful Sonic Key which he wrested from the Red Skull at the last minute. But can he and SHIELD figure out how to use it to stop the Sleeper in time? To Be Continued!