Karl Marx, writing on the Anglo-French wars, observed that history repeats itself, first in tragedy then in farce. His example was Napoleon, a man defeated by the combined armies of the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Hanover, Nassau, Brunswick, and Prussia. Of the 180,000 men who fought at Waterloo, 64,000 died. Tragic indeed. Thirty-five years later, Napoleon’s nephew staged a coup d’etat and crowned himself Napoleon III. His empire was extensive and included Mexico, Algeria, Gabon, Senegal, Cambodia, parts of India and Vietnam. But in the main, this new Napoleon was a poor cousin (or in this case, nephew) to the warlike original. He is today remembered not for his warmongering but for his patronage of painters, musicians, and architects. Think Andy Warhol playing Risk!
The point here is that stories recycle themselves, and once you identify the pattern, the suspense is drained, the terror gives way, if not to farce then at least to an intuition of the seriocomic.
So when I read All-New Captain America #2, in which Cap fights alongside Nomad, I naturally reflect on this story’s relationship to the original Nomad run.
In 1975, Steve Englehart had Captain America uncovering a secret society comprised of the highest officials in the land. Disillusioned, Steve Rogers gave up being Captain America and took up the moniker “Nomad.” In the throes of Watergate, the story-arc was seminal. It remains today a must-read.
But if Steve was no longer Cap, just who was Cap in a comic named Captain America and the Falcon? The conjunction in the title itself precluded the possibility that Cap and the Falcon could be one-and-the-same. Instead, Englehart explored the possibility that ordinary people could become heroes. The first to audition for the part was a professional baseball player, Bob Russo, who in the pages of #178 announced to the media that he was retiring from baseball to become the new Captain America. Russo lacked the super-soldier serum (this story was penned well before the steroid era), and his tenure was predictably short. We see him swinging down from a rooftop, but Russo misjudges the descent, crashes into a wall, and breaks his arm. In the same issue, we meet Roscoe, an illiterate Brooklyn teenager, who declares “I’m da new Captain America!” The Falcon agrees to train the kid. By issue #180, Roscoe seems to have the moves, if not the brawn, for the job. When Steve, now dressed as Nomad, tries to help Roscoe defeat Hydra’s Serpent Squad, the Falcon stops him: “Stay back, Nomad! You had your chance to be Captain America. It’s his turn now!”
But by the end of #183, the Red Skull captures Roscoe, and when he realizes that Steve has been replaced by a teenager, he tortures and kills him, then strings him up with barbed wire—a reminder, perhaps of concentration camps, and the “Final Solution.” Steve, finding Roscoe’s body, blames himself: “There has to be somebody who’ll fight for the dream, against any foe … Somebody who’ll do the job I started — Right! And God knows I can’t let anyone else run the risks that job entails for me!”
Despite the obvious tragedy—the cover of Cap #183 is arguably the most serious and tragic in the series’ seventy-five-year history— the final panel of the book itself, in which Steve again becomes Nomad is, well… farcical.
Steve has clearly stripped off the Nomad outfit, but where did he get the Cap costume? Was he carrying it around as a spare (including, by the way, his shield), or, still worse (and creepy), did he strip the costume from Roscoe’s corpse? Or did he run home to change but then elected to do so on a rooftop, and, if so, did he just leave Roscoe’s body to be pecked at by Redwing and other birds of prey?
Fast-forward to the present day, and we can see obvious echoes of Englehart’s Nomad-arc: Steve has again given up being Cap, and while the “All-New” Cap is not Roscoe, we have essentially the same players: Steve (the former Cap), Nomad (really, Steve’s adopted son, Ian), and Sam (the former Falcon and now the new Cap). Instead of Roscoe’s Cap fighting Hydra, we have Sam’s Cap fighting Hydra; instead of Roscoe wrapped in barbed wire, we have Ian Rogers strung-up and hog-tied. Instead of the Skull torturing an imitation-Cap, we have the Skull’s henchman, Zemo, brutalizing an imitation-Nomad. And while we can “never say never” in the comics, it certainly appears as if Ian’s short run as Nomad follows Roscoe’s short run as Cap: Zemo tortures him and then slits his throat. Ian then bleeds out, his final utterances are: “Grrg–! Gakk–!” Zemo is emphatic that Ian is dead: “This is how one should deal with their enemies… No cages, no mousetraps—just cold efficiency.” He then takes out his cell phone, snaps a pic and sends it to Steve. (How did he get that number?)
Which is more important: the death of Roscoe or of Ian Rogers? In terms of motivation, either will serve: We know how Steve Rogers feels about killing, about Nazis, and, most of all, about his son. Steve has no choice, nor does he want one. He must come out of retirement.
These sorts of stories are as old as the hills, or at least the walls of Troy: In Homer’s Iliad, the godlike Achilles retires from fighting but allows his best friend Patroclus to wear his bronze armor in battle. Patroclus is killed by Troy’s great hero, Prince Hector. Achilles’s sidekick is invested with enough humanity that readers mourn him, but, in terms of narrative, he’s no more than a plot device, the motivation to bring Achilles out of retirement for his showdown with the warlike Hector– a grieving Achilles, now armed with Hephaestus’s magical armor and weaponry, versus Hector, armed with only the certainty that if he falls then all of Troy falls with him.
Steve’s return was more straightforward: He just changed costumes and picked up his trusty vibranium shield.
That was back in the 1970s. The present-day Steve is 70, maybe older, and before he can become Cap again, he will have to reverse the toxins in his blood that have robbed him of his youth and strength. But since Remender helpfully includes reference to a hush-hush Hydra virus and vaccine, we can assume that Steve Rogers’ return is only a tetanus shot away. Then, avenging his son, the Achilles-like Steve Rogers can become Captain America (again).
But what about Sam? Well, so far Sam has been Cap for two issues and been beaten up in both. In the last issue, Batroc defeated him; here, it is Crossbones. Even Sam’s interior monologue smacks of defeat: Pinned and seemingly finished, the new Cap assesses his foe: “too strong—hand to hand [fighting]—no good.” Sam then describes himself as a “middleweight” and Crossbones as a “heavyweight.” The only reason he’s not killed is that Misty Knight saves the day. How lame is that?
Worse, the villains continue to treat Sam as just another Roscoe, a weak substitute, a fill-in. Note Zemo’s disdain, signaled by the use of inverted commas: “There is no way out ‘Captain America.’ But we do appreciate your blundering.” The All-New Cap is a blunderer—i.e. a character of farce. Literally speaking, Sam’s not just a punching bag; he’s a punchline.
What I miss about Remender’s latest story is the Falcon, who has such a rich history, perhaps even more compelling than Cap’s, it seems an injustice to serve him up as Steve’s replacement. Englehart and Brubaker both wrote stories detailing how Steve felt about those trying to replace him. Cap is truly the man out of time, while the Falcon remains a study in Black power and poverty, and the disenfranchisement of the African American. What is so astounding about the early Lee and Colan stories is how Steve embraces Sam as an equal, and supports his growth. Literally 1945 meets 1965. It was a great move by Stan to make Cap relevant, but little did he know how rich a character Sam would become.
Agree with you completely; it was brave and brilliant in concept– though I have to say, and did say in my book, that Marvel’s execution of Stan’s well-meaning idea often had (and has) me shaking my head.