Of the works that I am considering in this series of articles, Steve Gerber’s run on Captain America is by far the shortest. Weighing in at a scant 3 and three quarter issues, this truncated story offers something similar to the aforementioned Mister Miracle run: a glimpse at what might have been. In contrast to Gerber’s take on the New God, however, the Captain America story is cut short not by the cancellation of the title, but by the acrimonious split between Gerber and Marvel Comics in the late nineteen-seventies, a result of the vitriol that arose between the two parties over the ownership of Howard the Duck. While not as publically noteworthy as the varied lawsuits the creators of Superman have levelled against DC Comics over the years, the rallying of the comics industry around Gerber at the time of the lawsuit certainly set the stage for a re-envisioning of the profession as less work-for-hire and more artistic and intellectual production. It’s not likely that the creators in the field today would be receiving the kind of treatment they do (whether it is fair or not is beyond my purview) without Gerber’s efforts to secure some rights to Howard.
But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. There’s a strange thing that happens in comics in the seventies where a writer’s tenure on a title very often doesn’t seem to come to any conclusive moment. Rather, many stories are handed, partway through, to new writers. I’ve noticed this a few times in my investigations into comics from this era, most specifically in the horror titles Marvel produced to great effect from about ’74 to ’78. Whether this was an editorial decision, or due to writers leaving a title mid-run, I’ve no idea, but this is where we pick up Steve Gerber’s Captain America.
Issue #221 concludes a story by Don Glut in which Cap faces a former Nazi scientist who has transferred his consciousness into giant robotic version of Captain America. (Side note: craziness like that is one of the reasons I love superhero comics as much as I do) Gerber and co-plotter David Kraft finish off this strange little gem in a rather atypical way, in that the antagonist, having become a two storey tall “Ameridroid,” realizes that he has turned himself into a monster and snaps out of his madness. Captain America, in a fashion that is truly in keeping with what I would argue is the spirit not only of the character but also the nation he emblematizes, tells his lumbering duplicate that he has been given a second chance, a chance to recreate who and what he is. Rather than beating the villain to a pulp and putting him in jail, Cap lets him go to become something else, something new. If anyone can give me a better definition of the ideal of America that the Puritans brought with them, I’m open to suggestions. The ability to redefine oneself, to become one’s better self, is fundamental to the nation whose colours the good Captain wears.
It’s ironic, then, that Gerber’s story proper picks up at a time when Captain America/Steve Rogers has no memory of who he was prior to donning his colourful costume, prior to becoming an emblem of redefinition. Issues 222, 223, and 225 (224 was a fill-in issue that took place between two earlier issues) find Captain America directionless. He is unsure not only of his identity, but of those who surround him (the mysterious Veda), those who antagonize him (the mysterious “Corporation”), and even those who purport to support him (the slightly-less-mysterious Nick Fury). I suggested at the end of m y last piece that Gerber’s Captain America moves into the surreality that the writer is best known for, but it’s not quite the overt surreality of Howard or Man-Thing. This is a more desperate surreality, that of a man whose foundations have fallen away. Cap’s acceptance of the ridiculous over these three issues demonstrates a character who has had the rational undermined to such a point that the irrational seemingly offers a more concrete foundation. Let’s start with the car chase.
This is the first page of issue #221, Gerber’s first solo story. That is a Volkswagen Beetle crashing through the window of Captain America’s apartment. At the end of the last issue, Cap had fallen asleep in the chair just behind him, fully-garbed, hence his preparedness to be awoken by….a car crashing through his wall. Did I mention that Cap lives on the fourth or fifth floor? What follows this scene is a chase around Cap’s apartment between the animated automobile and its patriotic prey. Two things become apparent in this chase. First, Captain America lives in a gargantuan apartment. The car appears in most of the subsequent scenes to be dwarfed by the rooms it crashes through. While part of this can be attributed to the need for artists Sal Buscema, John Tartag, and Mike Esposito to somehow depict a car chase in an apartment, there’s also an element here of reality and the rational breaking down, one that is reflected in the visual elements of the story. The reality of a car driving around an apartment would be far less dramatic, so it is incumbent on the artists to allow the rational structures within the panels to break down in service of the irrational action that is taking place. Later into this issue, having escaped the motorized menace, Cap spends some down time at the Lincoln Memorial, meditating on his place in the country and on his missing pre-superheroic life. His reverie is interrupted by a cracking noise as the giant statue of the 16th President of the United States rises from its giant stone chair and attacks Captain America. Imagine, if you will, this battle between two emblems of the American nation, one a forlorn superhero, the other an enormous statue of one of the most beloved Presidents. Now, though, if we set out the conflict in plain words, a battle between Captain America and an animated giant statue of Abraham Lincoln, that inherent Gerberian ridiculousness and surreality is front and center.
I’ve long maintained that Gerber’s Howard the Duck and Man-Thing are two of the great critical looks at the state of America in the late nineteen-seventies. His Captain America work picks up on this critique, presenting a view of the nation as seen through the lens of one of its great fictional heroes. The second issue of Gerber’s run sees Cap fighting “Animus,” a being that embodies both the early human and the hyper-evolved human, thus jumping from eloquent speech and mental powers to a carved club and guttural screams in the space of a single speech bubble. This antagonist’s unfixed nature, the movement from one extreme to another offers yet another view of the instability of reality with which Gerber is playing in these comics. Let’s look at it a bit more closely. Thus far the antagonists have been a giant version of Captain America, a car, the Lincoln Memorial, and an indeterminate evolved savage, who’s voice, as it pleads with Cap to cease beating it, “comes in the voice of a woman,” though Captain America has been calling it a “he” for the entire comic. Where HTD’s surreality plays to the ridiculousness of the genre he inhabits, as does the Man-Thing’s, the surreal strain in Captain America is grounded, if we can use that term, in the groundlessness that is felt not only by the focal character, but also by the nation itself. This is an America still reeling from the failed war in Vietnam, from an almost catastrophic fuel crisis, from a President who was impeached, a betrayal of the fundaments upon which the nation was founded. Is it any wonder that this fictional representation and embodiment of said nation suffers the slings and arrows that he does? The antagonists are, put plainly, very silly. But it’s a silliness born of a vacuum at the heart of the American nation as Gerber envisions it. Cap is attacked by a version of himself that is the reputation he has built up over the years, by a representation of the fuel crisis, by a statue that is supposed to commemorate equity but that practices brutality, and by a creature of indeterminate gender and intellect. He is betrayed by ideas that were once foundational.
How, then, does the red, white, and blue Avenger bounce back? He uncovers his memories and relives a version of his life from before his transformation. Though the memories don’t jibe with either what Rogers himself has uncovered or what we, as readers, know to be his origin, the effect of the process has unexpected physical consequences, and Gerber’s brief run on the title ends with Nick Fury looking on in horror at a Captain America whose body has been returned to its pre-Super Soldier Serum state. In thinking through Gerber’s run, this is really no surprise. The character, as metaphor for the nation, has to return to its roots, to its original state, in order to determine how best to progress. For Cap, this means a return, a remembrance, of what he once was, of the heroic individual who existed prior to Captain America. For the nation itself, who knows? Perhaps it means a return to the notion of a place of fresh starts, or reinventions of the self, be it individual or cultural. Steve Gerber’s dissatisfaction with the United States is plain to see in his comics work in the seventies. In this short run of Captain America, we see him beginning to work out what’s gone wrong, what’s going wrong, and get an all-too-brief suggestion of how things might be set right. As with all of his unfinished works, however, Gerber took the secret of the rebirth of the nation and its hero with him to the grave.
Next time, then, we’ll have a look at perhaps the only other superhero to surpass Captain America as symbol of the United States, though that’s a contention fraught with problems. Gerber takes us into a very odd little corner of Superman’s universe in The Phantom Zone, a four-issue pre-Crisis series that extends not only the displaced surreality of his Captain America work, but also the overt surreality of his Howard the Duck into the DC Universe. How Superman deals with this strangeness might give us an idea of how Cap would have dealt with his own troubles, had Gerber had the opportunity to finish his Great American tale.