Pocket-Money Comics: Captain America

Captain America
Publisher: Marvel UK
Issues: 59
First issue: 25 February 1981
Last issue: 7 April 1982
Absorbed: Marvel Action, Marvel Super Adventure

captainamerica#01

By February 1981, Marvel UK had been running for nine years and had published over thirty different titles, to varying degrees of success (for example, the 1975 weekly edition of The Savage Sword of Conan lasted only eighteen issues, but the more grown-up monthly version of the same title, launched two years later, racked up 93 issues), and the company’s golden days had long since passed.

With the September 1973 launch of the company’s third title, The Avengers, came something new and exciting: glossy covers! Oh yes! No other weekly comics had glossy covers, as far as I recall (and can be bothered to check). Certainly, all that the DC Thomson and IPC titles could offer was boring old matt newsprint with washed-out colours and untrimmed edges. Pff! The DC Thomson titles didn’t even have staples!

So for a time the Marvel comics seemed more exciting, and more sophisticated, and thus were more attractive. Plus back when the average British comic would have a dozen different strips, if not more, those early-70s Marvel UK comics gave us nice long stories: an early issue of The Avengers, for example, would reprint an entire issue of the original US Avengers title, plus half of a Doctor Strange story!

But by the time this Captain America reprint title came around, the shine had gone, and not just because the glossy covers had been dropped. The original American comics had become a lot easier to obtain on this side of the Atlantic, plus they were in full colour and they contained ads for mysterious, exotic treasures like Hostess Twinkies and Spalding Basketballs! Practically irresistible, if you ask me.

Not that Marvel UK’s Captain America was a bad comic, not by any means, but the British comic market was on its last leg, singular, as evidenced by the number of new titles that were popping up and disappearing seemingly every week as the publishers scrabbled to hold on to a market that was fading as fast as Dracula when the hero pulls down the castle’s heavy curtains and lets in those shafts of deadly sunlight.

(For pedants and historians: This wasn’t the first British comic called Captain America: that was a two-issue series published by L. Miller And Son in 1954 which reprinted issues #77 and #78 of the US Marvel title published in that same year — but with the subtitle “Commie Smasher” replaced by “Spy Smasher” on the cover, and other Communist symbols removed.)

Anyway. Today we’re looking at issue #3 of Captain America, cover-dated March 11th 1981…

captainamerica#03

captainamerica#03-freegiftNote: an earlier version of this article declared that there were no free gifts in this issue, but my old pal Lee Grice has corrected that error: there was a free Iron Man sticker (right) — it’s just not mentioned on the cover, and I didn’t get one with my copy (most likely that was because I bought mine in April of this year).

No idea why the masthead gives Dazzler a definite article: except for a very few occasions, she’s always just been “Dazzler” and not “The Dazzler.” My theory: “The Dazzler” sounds a bit more masculine than “Dazzler,” thus it’s less likely to scare away male readers who might be afraid of encountering anything feminine. Backing up my theory: the Dazzler strip was included in the first thirty-six issues, but the character was only featured on the cover four times, and two of those appearances were very much cameos.

ironman#124The cover for #3 shows Iron Man conducting mighty battle with Blizzard, while Whiplash and Melter are already unconscious on the ground. It’s taken from the cover of Iron Man #124 (July 1979), drawn by John Romita Jr and Bob Layton. A great image, but it doesn’t stand out so well on this reprint version, mostly because of the oversized title and the splash box. Plus someone has added a background. Or perhaps the background had been part of the original artwork and it was removed before the US edition cover was created, but not removed for the UK version… Could be that we’ll never know the truth, and we’re all just going to have to try to find a way to keep going without that knowledge.

The colours on the UK version have been tweaked a little from the original, but they’re pretty close. Sadly, that’s all the colour we get until the back cover. (It’s worth noting that the comic was revamped a little from issue #37, with a return of the glossy covers and more colour pages, plus that issue came with a free Captain America mask.)

captainamericabynearyInside, page two gives us an editorial from someone called “Paul Neary” as if that’s a real name! No, I jest! In truth, Paul Neary is a rather awesome comic artist whose work we don’t see often enough these days. An ad for the next issue of Captain America shows the cover drawn by Mr Neary himself, which I’ve helpfully reprinted here on the right: look at that! How cool is that?

And then it’s on to the comic strips. We get four in this issue, which is certainly better than some Marvel UK comics of the era (fewer strips is better, especially considering that the originals were written to be told in 22-page chunks, not three or four pages at a time).

Captain America: “Death, Where is Thy Sting?” — 6 pages
Originally printed in Captain America #249, September 1980
Writers: Roger Stern & John Byrne
Penciller: John Byrne
Inker: Joe Rubinstein
Letterer: Jim Novak
Colourist: B. Sharen

captainamerica#03-aAs this episode opens, Cap’s been captured by Dragon Man, who’s being controlled by a mysterious metal sphere that’s buzzing around him.

If you’ve not heard of Dragon Man before, I urge you not to giggle or scoff. It’s a silly name, true, but he’s an awesome-looking character. A huge, winged, tailed, reptilian android with a thick crested brow that extends out past his temples into sharp points and makes him look only a tiny bit like he’s borrowed Dame Edna’s glasses.

Plus he wears underpants. Never quite understood that myself. He’s an android: what’s he covering up? Regardless, I guess they must be sort of reverse Y-fronts because there’s a hole in the back for his tail. Hmm. Let’s move on, shall we?

Even though Dragon Man is so large that he can close his entire fist around Captain America, our hero still manages to escape: he pulls off his glove and throws it into Dragon Man’s eye. (For those wondering: the correct sound-effect to use when drawing a leather glove hitting the eye of an oversized dragon-like android is “Zot” — no exclamation mark, of course: that would be needless sensationalism.)

Now free, Cap is able to grab his fallen shield and use it to destroy the flying metal sphere, an act that frees Dragon Man from its influence. The narrative captions tell us that Dragon Man now remembers that the person he should really be fighting is Machinesmith, so off he flies. Cap, keen to get to the bottom of whatever is going on, follows him, having lassoed Dragon Man’s foot with a handy clothes-line. Dragon Man lands on a farm and smashes open the barn, revealing a mysterious set of mysterious steps leading down into some mysterious place. Cap starts to follow him down, and that’s all we get from Cap this week. A fight and a follow.

This, of course, exemplifies the problem with that era of Marvel UK: six pages out of what was probably a twenty-two page story is not sufficient! Stories that are designed to be told in six-page chunks will have a much different pacing, with each episode given a proper cliff-hanger ending. Often, the Marvel UK reprints just seem to end in the middle of a scene.

(It’s interesting, to me, at least, to note that the colourist is still credited even though this reprint is in black and white. Such things were usually whited-out in the British reprints. A tiny oversight on the editor’s part, I think, and completely forgivable!)

Iron Man: “Pieces of Hate” — 10 pages
Originally printed in Iron Man #124, July 1979
Writer / Co-plotter: David Michelinie
Co-plotter: Bob Layton
Penciller: John Romita, Jr
Inkers: Layton & Friends
Letterer: Jim Novak

captainamerica#03-b(Keen-eyed observers might notice that this time the colourist is not credited: the credit-strip at the top of the page looks as though it’s been appropriately altered.)

This episode opens with Iron Man in the middle of a battle with Melter, Blizzard and Whiplash, as seen on the cover. There are zero bonus points available for the first reader who can correctly guess their powers from their names alone. Back when those characters were created Marvel villains’ names tended towards the blatant rather than the creative, but that’s cool: it’s good to have characters with very obvious names to make up for “Mr Fantastic” and “3-D Man.”

The battle is taking place in Atlantic City, before it sank beneath the waves and the mer-people moved in. Back in those days, it was primarily known as “The Place New Yorkers Can Go To Gamble.” The trio of baddies have been thwarted in their attempt to rob a casino, but tough as Iron Man is, they’re proving to be a bit of a handful: he’s given a dig-out by Bethany Cabe, professional bodyguard, who afterwards berates him for not body-guarding Tony Stark, with whom she’s having a relationship of sorts, unaware that Iron Man actually is Tony Stark, and not Tony Stark’s bodyguard as is widely believed.

Back in New York, Tony and Beth go their separate ways, then Tony does some admin work, has a drink, then does some inventing and decides he need to go out again as Iron Man. The end, pretty much.

Of particular interest, though, is that — as we see in the credits — there’s more than one inker on this issue. “Layton & Friends.” I don’t know who inked what, but I can tell you with certainty that there were two different inkers on pages 8 and 9…

ironman different inkers

Dazzler: “So Bright This Star” — 7 pages
Originally printed in Dazzler #1, March 1981
Writer: Tom DeFalco
Penciller: John Romita, Jr
Inker: Alfredo Alcala
Letterer: Joe Rosen

captainamerica#03-cUnlike this issue’s Captain America and Iron Man strips, this episode of Dazzler opens in the middle of a story, so it’s lacking the title-page that contains the creators’ credits. That meant tracking down my own copy of Dazzler #1 to glean the required info, a process that involved searching through the many, many boxes in The Auxiliary Comic Room, which first entailed getting past the partly-disassembled dining-room table, several chairs, lots of other boxes, and a bench, and another table, and two full and very heavy filing cabinets. A daunting task, you’ll agree, but I girded my loins with my special loin-girding kit, tied a rope around my waist, found my useful bag of breadcrumbs, and went for it. Good ol’ me, eh?

You might not be familiar with Dazzler, so here’s some background: Alison Blaire is a mutant with the power to transform sound into light. Not a great superhuman power to have, you might argue, and if you were to make that argument, well, you’d get no argument here. But she’s still an interesting character despite, or maybe because of, her fairly useless ability. She also has a silver jumpsuit, sparkly boots and cuffs, and roller-skates, all of which are +1 Cool Points in these days of rampant and unregulated cosplaying, but back in the early 80s they were a tad cheesy.

Interesting factoid: Dazzler came about because a record company was working with Marvel to create a character who could cross between comics, music — they’d supply the singer to play the part — and movies. That plan never came to fruition, so Marvel kept her as a comic-book character. Her original design was based on Grace Jones, but the record company wanted someone resembling Bo Derek instead.

So what we have here is Dazzler’s origin tale, or a chunk of it, to be more accurate. Remember what I said earlier about the problems with chopping up longer stories? Well, we’re mid-flashback as this story opens. Alison is in high-school, singing in a talent competition, and her powers have just manifested, giving the students a free and presumably awesome light-show. Some bat-wielding thugs try to crash the show but Alison saves the day by flooding everyone with so much light that they’re all temporarily blinded. Yep, that happened.

Then we get a montage panel showing Alison singing, studying and practising with her make-people-blind power, and we’re told that many years have passed, she graduated from high-school, then — because her father is very pushy — she attended and passed a prestigious pre-law programme. But now she wants to stop following Dad’s strict plan, and make a life for herself. Good for you, Ali! But don’t expect your father’s blessing… or his forgiveness! In fact, he says just about the same thing himself, only with three exclamation marks instead of one, because he’s in a comic.

Alison begins her career as a singer, but in the very next panel she’s despairing a bit because apparently it hasn’t gone as well as she’d hoped. Sadly, that’s the last we see of her for this issue, because it’s time to cut to the distant realm of Asgard where an unnamed warrior is battling his way to the lair of the Enchantress. You can always tell which female Marvel characters are evil: they lounge seductively on big cushiony thrones and wear elaborate constructs on their heads. Plus they’re prone to say “thee” and “thy” a lot. The Enchantress turns the warrior into a tree, because he wants to be immortal — yeah, I know — and then she consults the all-seeing Fountain of Forever that shows her an image of “a glittering palace of raucous sound and dazzling colour” on Earth… it’s a disco! Not too hard to guess what’s going to happen next.

The first page reprinted in this issue is page 14 of the original, but that page’s final two panels — the most violent ones — have been omitted…

dazzler page comparison

Not sure whether this is deliberate bowdlerisation or just a case of trying to find the best way to turn a mid-story page into an opening page. Either way, British readers were shielded from learning that the correct sound effect when depicting a baseball bat hitting an old man’s face is “Cwap Cwap Cwap.”

It’s unfortunate for Marvel superhero fans that we get this particular seven-page chunk of Alison’s story, because the rest of the tale guest-stars Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Avengers: Alison moves in powerful circles. Later, she’ll go on to join the X-Men, and a whole bunch of other teams.

(You might have noticed that the source material — the first issue of Dazzler — is dated March 1981, which is the same month this reprinted version was published. That doesn’t mean that Dazzler appeared here first: US comics’ cover-dates used to be several months ahead — the cover dates were originally used to let the vendor know how long to keep the title on the shelves.)

The Defenders: “Val in Valhalla Part One: War of the Dead!” — 5 pages
Originally printed in The Defenders #66, December 1978
Writer: David Kraft
Penciller: Ed Hannigan
Inker: Bruce Patterson
Letterers: Gaspar Saladino, Elaine Heinl

captainamerica#03-dThere are no credits given for this story, but some awesomely inventive and borderline genius detective work by yer Unky Rusty has located its source, and thus identified the creators and quite likely saved the world in the process. You’re welcome.

As this strip is only five pages long, we get only one scene from the original story, and given what we’ve seen happened with Dazzler, I’m not one hundred per cent convinced that it appears as originally intended. I don’t have a copy of The Defenders #66 — please feel free to buy me one, if you like, or several — so I’m unable to verify, but it looks to me like this first page might have been patched together from different scenes, possibly even with a panel or two freshly drawn for the purposes of maintaining or correcting the continuity. Maybe not. Hope I’m wrong.

Anyway. The essence of this story is that Valkyrie has returned to Asgard, lots of stuff happens in the previous parts, and now she’s in Valhalla preparing to fight against the forces of Ollerus the Unmerciful, an armoured dude who wears a helmet shaped like a shark’s head, and a long metal tail.

There’s also something about Valkyrie’s human host body Barbara Norris being in danger or something, and at the end it looks like Valkyrie transfers her essence to Barbara’s body, thus awakening the original Valkyrie, which came as a surprise to me because I thought they were the same person. OK, cards on the table: I used to be a big fan of The Defenders and I’ve always loved Valkyrie as a character, but I never got this far into the comics so I found this story a bit of a struggle to follow. More than any of the other strips in this issue, this one needed a proper recap. It also needed more Defenders!

Stan Lee once said that every issue of a comic is someone’s first comic. Which means that ideally a brand-new reader should be able to start reading a comic with little or no foreknowledge of the characters and situations and still be able to figure out what’s going on. (To that, I’d add that this should be possible without the need for an expository caption on every other panel: you don’t tell the story to the readers, you show them. But that’s digressing even further, so we’ll save that for another day.) It’s a point that I’ve always tried to keep that in mind with my own writing: if someone picks up your comic for the first time and are greeted with, say, episode five of a multi-part story, there should be enough on that first page to intrigue them enough to keep reading, and enough in the rest of the story to answer any basic questions they have.

This is another reason why it’s bad to chop up longer stories. See? And there you were thinking that this retrospective look back at an old comic didn’t have a theme!

So, recap aside, what would our hypothetical new reader encounter in this truncated episode of The Defenders? Ten named characters and dozens of unnamed ones, at least four separate locations, two armies of horse-mounted armoured cavalry, an earthquake that tears a battlefield apart mid-battle and might have been caused by magic, a man wearing metal shark-headed armour, a flying horse, two versions of Valkyrie, a moving mountain-top that cuts through the terrain like a shark’s fin through water, a magical portal created by the ahindmentioned wizard, and a wizard. All that in five pages. Who says this isn’t the Marvel Age of Frowning in Confusion? So, yeah, in this case it’s definitely a good idea to track down the originals or a proper reprint.

Addendum: Comics historian, confirmed genius and all-round good-egg Lee Grice has helpfully provided me with a scan of the original Defenders page. As you can see from the comparison below, the top row of panels has been cropped to make room for the title, with Ollerus’s second speech balloon in panel 3 being the only serious casualty. Thanks, Lee!

defenders page comparison


captainamerica#03-bcAnd that’s just about it for issue #3 of Captain America, except for the back cover, which features this ad for a Star Wars watch that’s suitable for boys and girls! Only £8.95, too, which isn’t bad. I wonder if they’re still available? It’s only been thirty-seven years. But the ad doesn’t mention exactly what makes it a Star Wars watch other than the depiction of R2D2 and C3PO on the front. Does it play a tune? Some watches back then used to play tunes, and you could set them as the alarm. If this one doesn’t go “Dooo-doo-doodoodoodooooo-doo, etc.” then I don’t think I’ll bother, thanks.

As this issue of Captain America is only #3, there’s not been enough time for letters to come in, which is a shame because often the letters are the most fun part of an old comic, even though 99.8% of letters to British Marvel comics were from readers wondering whether The Hulk is stronger than The Thing (he is, trust me), and the other .2 per cent were from readers gleefully pointing out mistakes.

But there’s also no Bullpen page, which is a tad disappointing. The Bullpen page appeared in many, if not most, British Marvel comics and listed items of news and what was happening in the other titles, and so forth, a great way to get a sense of the era in which the title was published.

Captain America absorbed Marvel Action with issue #21, and was retitled Marvel Action starring Captain America for the next couple of months, thus giving lie to this blog’s oft-mentioned theory that after a merger the comic whose title comes second is the one that’s being killed off. It absorbed Marvel Super Adventure with issue #37, though strangely that one wasn’t acknowledged on the cover, possibly because there was so much other stuff going on: a revamp, the return of glossy covers, extra colour pages, a free gift, a 33.3% price rise…

The title was cancelled with issue #59, but unusually it wasn’t absorbed by another. It just ended. I like to think that, like its title character, it’s not dead, merely frozen somewhere, waiting to be revived. One day, when the world needs it most, Captain America will live again!

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