BHOC: CAPTAIN AMERICA #225 and Stan Lee at Cartoonerville

I picked up this issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA on my usual weekly Thursday sweep of the spinner rack at my regular 7-11. But before that, I’d gotten to have a noteworthy though frustrating experience. The weekend before, my father had learned that Stan Lee was going to be making a personal appearance at the Cartoonerville Gallery in Huntington. There isn’t a ton of information available about Cartoonerville, but it was an art gallery dedicated to comic strip art founded by Richard Commer, who was a big time collector of original art. From what I can tell, it didn’t last all that long, and I can understand why. Not only was it located out on Long Island, but from what I can tell, it didn’t have much of a way to bring in revenue–it wasn’t a comic shop and didn’t sell back issues or anything of that nature. Anyway, my family dutifully made the trip out that Saturday and hung around for an hour or so. The event took place largely in the back yard of the place, which meant that I never got to set foot within the building itself–the source of my frustration. Stan was there promoting both the Simon & Shuster ORIGINS series of books as well as the Spider-Man newspaper strip. Most of the attendees were older than I was, and I had scant idea what anybody was expected to do at such an event. Plus, I was still painfully shy and tentative around adults I didn’t know. Nonetheless, I got Stan to sign a random piece of paper that I had on me. I also got it signed by the other attendees, John Romita and Bob Larkin. There was a fourth artist there also, I want to say it was George Tuska, but I don’t recall for certain so many years later. And as you can guess, while I kept that piece of paper tacked up to a bulletin board for many years, eventually it disappeared.

This issue provided the culmination of the storyline that had been begun by Roy Thomas before being inherited by new writer Steve Gerber, in which Captain America realized that he had no memory of his life before becoming Captain America and so went on a quest for Steve Rogers. It was a good story, but one that was disputed by fans almost immediately for a key chronological reason. In the story, Steve is inspired to sign up for the war effort due to the death of his older brother in the attack on Pearl Harbor. But as contemporaneous issues of INVADERS made clear, Captain America had been active before the United States’ entry into the war. So something was fishy here. New editor Roger Stern explained away this backstory alongside John Byrne a year or two later when they began their run on the title.

Anyway, the story picks up where it had left off two issues earlier (#224 had been an emergency fill-in. CAPTAIN AMERICA was suffering from chronic shipping problems at this time.) where Cap meets up with Nick Fury at the site of the train wreck caused by his last battle. Fury ferries Cap back to Manhattan, and along the way, Cap tells Fury that he’s got a new approach that he wants to try. He intends to visit Mason Harding, the man who had earlier constructed the Madbomb in prison. Cap figures that with Harding’s knowledge of the mind, he may be able to break past whatever mental block might be inhibiting Cap’s memories. And Harding is repentant for his work on the Madbomb and agrees to help. Unfortunately, as part of his training, Cap has been conditioned to resist hypnosis, so Hardin’s efforts are useless.

Harding had been developing a device to probe the unconscious mind before his imprisonment, though. Cap figures this is just what he needs, and he arranges through Fury to see to Harding’s release from jail. Now, this doesn’t seem like the wisest of all plans on the face of it, given that Harding attempted to kill Cap and the Falcon in the past. But needs must, after all, and Fury will be keeping his one eye on Harding while he operates the device. Elsewhere, Vera, the spy for the criminal Corporation, reports in to section chief Kligger about the fact that Captain America survived the attack on the train. Vera, Kligger and the Corporation are all elements that were first introduced by Jack Kirby in his final issues on the title a year earlier. But here, Kligger has had enough of Vera’s failures and he incinerates her on the spot.

Meanwhile, Harding has fetched his device, and under Nick Fury’s careful watch Captain America’s mind turns inwards. He sees his early life in Virginia, with an athletic older brother, Mike, who is the pride of the family. Steve’s dad Walter thinks he’s too bookish, too wrapped up in his painting and his own thoughts, that he needs to be more physical, more of a man. There’s a closeted queer subtext here that I missed back in the day, but which comes across undeniably rereading the story today. Steve is supported in his artistic endeavors by his mother Elizabeth, but it’s the 1940s and Walter is the head of the household and not to be argued with. Steve’s dad works for the State Department, and he’s profoundly disappointed that his second son isn’t going to follow in his brother’s footsteps and join the military, but rather plans to go to college to study art–and “cuddle up to his socialist, pacifist, scum-of-the-Earth friends!”

But Steve goes anyway, and broadens his mind by engaging in political debate with his classmates. But then comes December 7, 1941. Upon hearing of the attack on pearl harbor where his brother Mike is stationed, Steve worriedly calls home–and his mother confirms that his brother was indeed killed in the bombing. Driven by these events, Steve attends a newsreel showing the rise and advancement of Hitler’s Third Reich, and comes to the conclusion that as much as he is against fighting and the use of physical force, there are some situations that can be met and combatted no other way. So he attempts to enlist–and when he’s rejected, he takes up a military officer’s offer of entry into a secret government program, the one that will turn him into America’s first Super-Soldier.

Back in teh real world, Harding and Fury are astonished by the transformation that overtakes Steve’s body as he has his mental breakthrough. Despite the fact that it should be impossible, that Hardin’s mental device shouldn’t have been able to have this effect on him, Captain America has shrunken to his old pre-Super-Soldier physique. It’s a pretty good cliffhanger, all things told, and so that’s where the story is To Be Continued. As I mentioned earlier, Stern and Byrne later revealed that these memories were all implants placed there by the U.S. military in case Captain America was ever captured and mind probed. I don’t know that there was a lot of that going on in the World War II era, but better safe than sorry, I guess. They even threw out the middle name Grant.

3 thoughts on “BHOC: CAPTAIN AMERICA #225 and Stan Lee at Cartoonerville

  1. It’s odd that Thomas, who usually sticks closely to Golden Age canon (and his own Invaders) would have made an unsuccessful retcon like that. I remember this period as something of a mess, with no direction and changing creators.

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  2. I was 12 when I first read this and I was totally into it. Stern and Byrne’s retcon works better in a mythic sense (and making all the parts fit), but this was the first time we had any kind of hint of what Steve Rogers was like before being Cap?! … and he seemed like a person. I don’t think I ever sought out Gerber’s books, but I do fondly remember a number of comics he wrote that I bought on the stands. The conclusion by Mckenzie isn’t as great plot-wise, but I dug his caption description of the serum reactivating: it’s a cool power riff. Sal was also the perfect artist for this period. Also, even though that Robbins/Austin cover is just a pinup it’s a pretty good combo. Whodathought?

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