This issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA turned up at the 7-11 the next time I visited there. The series had been somewhat shaky for months, ever since the departure of Jack Kirby. it was plagued with back-ups and fill-ins, and so its running storyline concerning Steve Rogers attempting to learn more about his past prior to becoming Captain America had been dragging out for longer than was probably advisable. Oncoming writer Steve Gerber had started with the book in a scheduling hole, and he simply wasn’t quick enough to dig himself out of it. He was also somewhat stymied in these efforts by the Marvel editorial offices, reorganized under new EIC Jim Shooter. It was a messy period.
This issue is credited to writer Roger McKenzie, but I’m relatively certain that it was plotted by Steve Gerber. Well, Steve Gerber and friends. There’s a story bout a CAPTAIN AMERICA issue from this time, and I believe it’s this one, that was running so late that Gerber was having to call up artist Sal Buscema and dictate the plot to him a page at a time. Gerber was simultaneously working his animation job, so he was working out the story between other assignments, and drafting in help from buddies such as Mark Evanier in the plotting. If this was Gerber’s plot, it goes uncredited here., but it certainly has the feel of a story that was crafted a page or two at a time.
This is very much an action story, with McKenzie adding in whatever additional substance he’s able to muster in the scripting of it. Last time, the Red Skull had taken over the SHIELD Helicarrier, turning all of its personnel into red-skulled duplicates of himself. As the issue opens, Cap is having to fight his way past all of these mesmerized SHIELD operatives without seriously hurting any of them, making his way to where the Skull himself is holding Nick Fury. If nothing else, this was a good opportunity for artist Sal Buscema to show off his action chops, though he wasn’t well served in the inking/finishing by Mike Esposito and John Tartaglione.
We get a flashback at this point to how Cap wound up in this situation. The Red Skull has all of the cards, having turned the SHIELD crew into his minions and taken down Nick Fury. But for reasons of his own, he offers Cap a chance to stop him. He’s got a device that controls the satellite that is beaming his control into the SHIELD agents’ minds. All Cap has to do is get to the real Red Skull and take it away from him, and he’ll achieve victory. This seems like a startlingly bad idea on the part of the Red Skull, but Cap’s going to act on any chance he can get. And so, he gets back to running the gauntlet of Red Skulls through the Helicarrier.
There’s a patently absurd moment in this story where Cap charges one of the Red Skull duplicates bare-handed, the enemy’s shots bouncing off of his chest. And that’s because Cap somehow concealed his shield beneath his shirt. This despite the fact that it’s far too large to have done so. Buscema cheats like crazy trying to make this moment plausible, but he simply cannot do it. It’s incredibly dumb.
Finally, Cap makes it to the Skull’s stronghold, where the evil mastermind is eating dinner while he’s got Nick Fury strapped up under a magnifying rig that will burn him to a crisp once the sun comes up. He’s also got that necessary control gizmo. Cap attempts a sudden attack, but the Skull is prepared and traps Cap’s shield in a tractor beam, leaving the Avenger weaponless. The Skull intends to keep Cap at bay by threatening to activate his killer satellite across the world long enough for Fury to die horribly. And as the seconds count down, Cap gets flashbacks to the death of Bucky, a sure sign that he’s feeling the emotional toll as Fury begs for his life.
And then, Nick Fury is dead. Cap is swept over with cold rage, but as much as the Red Skull taunts him, he won’t deliver a killing blow. And that’s because he’s worked out what’s really going on here. As an incredibly copy-heavy final page tells us, the Skull’s satellite never had enough power or range to dominate the entire world. But the Skull could turn Fury into another copy of himself. So the Fury that was cooked was of course a Life-Model Decoy–and Cap noticed that, despite the enormous heat, the dying Fury never broke a sweat. This gave him the clue that the man he was facing was actually Fury transformed into a Skull, and that what the madman wanted him to really do was to kill Fury in his attempt to avenge him. Didn’t happen, though, so the day is saved–though the real Skull himself is still out there somewhere, ready to strike again.
8 thoughts on “BHOC: CAPTAIN AMERICA #227”
Tom, what’s your final verdict: great Cap issue or not? I get the feeling that you really loved yet, despite some of the errors or inconsistencies? By the way, who did this amazing cover? I just loved it back and still love it today. Looks like Klaus Janson had a hand in it?
The Grand Comics Database credits the cover to Jerry Bingham.
I don’t believe Steve Gerber was involved with this at all. The timeline doesn’t fit. The book has a November 1978 cover date, and copyright records say it shipped from the printer on July 11. Given the lead times of the period, the book would have been plotted in March or April. Stan Lee fired Gerber from Marvel on May 2, and Gerber wasn’t getting much work done in the months leading up to it. He couldn’t even maintain the monthly schedule for the Howard the Duck comic-book series, and it forced that series to be moved to a bimonthly schedule before he was let go. At the time he was fired, Shooter was not allowing Gerber to work on anything but Howard until Howard was back on schedule. The evidence points to Gerber being taken off Captain America at least two months prior to this. By the way, this would not have impacted Gerber’s income. He was being paid a set bi-weekly salary.
To the best of my knowledge, there was no tension between Steve Gerber and Jim Shooter at this time. Shooter liked Gerber’s work despite his deadline problems. Gerber’s attitude towards Shooter in contemporaneous interviews and statements is not hostile. You’ve insinuated before that there were problems between them before he was let go. I’ve researched all of this voluminously, and I have no idea where you’re getting that. Would you please give your source?
When I wrote my business history of Gerber, I made a point of not discussing his personal life. The main reason was respect for the privacy of connected parties who are still alive. But I can say this much without stepping on toes. Gerber had a big, profoundly upsetting upheaval in his personal life in the spring of 1977. It led him (disastrously, in my opinion) to leave New York. He eventually ended up in Los Angeles. That largely cut him off from his family and most of his friends, and left him terribly demoralized. Combined with the effects of what I believe was undiagnosed bipolar disorder, his mental health was circling the drain. His erratic professional behavior was not because of anything related to Jim Shooter or anyone else at Marvel. He had a lot of personal problems, and they were overwhelming him.
Finally, Gerber was not working in animation before Stan Lee fired him. His employment contract forbade it. He was not to “engage directly or indirectly […] in any activity […] which may conflict with Employee’s duties hereunder.” He didn’t begin working in animation until late 1978 or early 1979.
A couple of other things. Gerber had sent a bridge-burner of a letter to Marvel president James Galton a month before he was fired.
After Galton received that letter I would expect that an order went out that no one in the office was to be dealing with Gerber unless the communication had been approved by company counsel. And I would think Gerber knew that letter meant his being fired was imminent. He wasn’t going to turn in any work after sending it.
The second thing is that Gerber’s last issue of Howard the Duck before the inventory stories started was #27. It shipped from the printer on June 13. He didn’t work on anything after it, and certainly not a late issue of Captain America that was published a month later.
“There’s a story bout a CAPTAIN AMERICA issue from this time, and I believe it’s this one, that was running so late that Gerber was having to call up artist Sal Buscema and dictate the plot to him a page at a time.”
This doesn’t make sense to me for a couple of reasons. First, as you say, it’s largely an action story, which wouldn’t need to be described to Sal a page at a time. Second, Sal was so fast that if a writer was doing that, Sal would be calling them for the next page every couple of hours. I’ve worked with Sal under “this book is really late” conditions, and seen how many pages of breakdown he could deliver a day — describing a plot to him one page at a time would be nonsensical.
Describing a plot to him 6 or 7 pages at a time, maybe. But even so, it’d make more sense to give Sal a rough description of the entire story, and let him fill in the action.
I head a different story that makes more sense to me — that an issue was running so late that there was no time to get Xeroxes of the pages to Steve in time to be dialogued, and Steve didn’t want to hand off the issue to a different dialogue writer. So the art was described to Steve panel by panel, and he wrote the dialogue without the benefit of seeing the actual art, just working from descriptions.
This jibes with my experience — by the time I was working with Sal on the “Corona” two-parter in SPECTACULAR, to keep Sal working but buy some time for J.M. deMatteis to start his run on a saner schedule, fax machines existed, and I’d been given one (for Christmas, I think). So every morning I’d wake up to a new batch of blurry thermal faxes, of Sal’s non-repro blue pencils copies throughout yellow acetate (to turn the blue green and thus copyable), and I had to dialogue them by 2pm my time (5pm Marvel’s) in order for he book to come out on time. There were times I had to guess what was in the panel, because it was so hard to tell from those faxes, and when I got actual Xerox copies a day later by FedEx, I had to call the office and arrange for lettering corrections.
In a time before fax machines were common, I can believe the “scripting based on verbal descriptions” better than “describing a plot to Sal Buscema a page at a time.”
I don’t remember whether someone told me this or if I’ve just imagined it over the years, but for some reason I think the issue may have been the one where Cap fights the Volkswagen in his apartment.
And that “shield under the uniform tunic” bit feels much more like McKenzie plotting to me than it does Gerber plotting.
I like the previous issue that set up this story quite a bit, this one not so much. Sal B. keeps it from sinking though. Other than a few cool covers here and there Captain America wouldn’t have any interesting stories for another dozen issues or so and then after a few more alright fill-ins it got suddenly close to perfect with Stern and Byrne.
I bet if Rob Liefeld penciled this issue Cap’s shield would’ve fit under his shirt.