Welcome back to The Dollar Box, a monthly look at comics with an original cover price of a dollar or less. This month I break format to review not one but three comics … and unlike my previous topics, these aren’t exactly classic comics. In fact, they’re more like something you’d read about in a StashMyComics Say What?! column.
But these are still fun comics — if for all the wrong reasons — with superior art, an A-list villain, and the first appearance of a mid-major Marvel character, so without further apology, I present Captain America #117-119 — “The Coming of … The Falcon!”
There’s a whole goofy backstory to this particular tale, but have no fear, True Believer — it’s all summed up on the splash page to Captain America #117, which is nakedly expository even by Stan Lee standards.
OK, so the Red Skull has used the power of the Cosmic Cube to swap bodies with Captain America, and has teleported our hero to the “Isle of the Exiles,” which is inhabited by foes of the Red Skull, who will take a dim view of “Cap Skull” appearing in their midst. Got it? Good! Because if that goes down hard, break out the bourbon! There’s a lot more to swallow …
… starting with the Exiles, the aforementioned villains of this issue. Among Jack Kirby’s lesser creations, the Exiles were introduced in Tales of Suspense #41. They’re a group of would-be world conquerors and former allies of the Red Skull, and boy, do these guys like to carry a grudge. They have names, and powers after a fashion, but I won’t burden you with them. Suffice to say that their leader is a guy in a wheelchair who gets pushed around on a beach (which must really make everyone cranky).
The Exiles fight with fearsome weapons, like a really nasty scarf.
I kid you not.
The Red Skull is particularly amused to see his Cap-self waltz around with these tools, but then makes a mistake they covered on the first day of class in Supervillain 101, tuning out on Cap’s struggles before his opponent’s inevitable demise.
Yep, that’s right up there with leaving Batman alone in a death trap, or leaving the self-destruct lever to your secret base in the “up” position right next to the coat hook. I might charitably allow that the limitless power afforded by the Cosmic Cube has made the Red Skull careless, but it’s probably more accurate to say that writing this story in fifteen minutes or less made Stan Lee careless.
But maybe we can forgive the Red Skull his indulgence. This is a man with a plan!
Hitting the streets of Manhattan in the body of Captain America, the Skull laughs behind-hand at the unreserved affection afforded Captain America.
(Or maybe this is the way Cap really feels about his fans. Wouldn’t THAT make for a story!)
Yes, the Red Skull is on the loose in Captain America’s body, performing unspeakable acts of evil, like stiffing a cabbie on his fare!
Is there no bottom to the Red Skull’s villainy??
After checking into a hotel under Cap’s name, we leave the skull to run up a big room service tab — which I’m sure the scoundrel has no intention of paying — and return to Exile Island, where Cap/Skull has been rescued from scarf welts on his bum by the timely intercession of a mysterious falcon.
And this, my friends, is the first handshake between Steve Rogers and his soon-to-be-partner, Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon. You can be forgiven for not recognizing our heroes, given that Cap is in the body of the Red Skull, and that he’s removed his Red Skull mask and given himself a disguise with mud “just like he used to do in World War II.”
I swear to you, friends, I am not making this up.
Not missing a beat, Cap does what any brain-swapped superhero would do when meeting a big city brother and his pet bird on a remote island — he tells Sam that he needs to don a costume, call himself the Falcon, and fight crime! (“Don’t knock it, fella! It’s been known to work!”)
It all seems rather sudden, and Stan and Gene must have realized as much, because they’ve reached the end of the issue without actually introducing the character promised on the cover! To redress the oversight, the final panel of issue #117 is a kind of suit-up montage, giving us a look at the Falcon and warning us not to miss the next issue!
The month between issues does nothing to dissuade Cap from his crazy plan, and so confident is the body-swapped Sentinel of Liberty that Sam decides to go along with it.
“Stranger things have happened, Sam!”
(No, they haven’t).
If it’s training time, then there’s only one solution — montage! In the space of a page or two, Sam Wilson is … The Falcon!
Yes, it’s a cheesy origin, and the first African-American superhero in comics deserved better than meeting his date with destiny after answering a want ad for a falconer on a remote tropical island (which happens all the time, of course). In the scheme of things, though, maybe we should have been satisfied … Steve Englehart would later reveal that Sam was a mobbed-up pimp who had his memories manipulated by the Cosmic Cube. Later still, the Falcon would become a mutant (during those halcyon days when Marvel made everyone into mutants) before going back to … I dunno.
I really can’t tell you what the Falcon’s origin is supposed to be.
Let’s never speak of this again.
With his training montage complete, the Falcon and Cap/Skull win their return engagement with the still hopelessly-lame Exiles. Stan trance-channels his Sgt. Fury days by busting out an “Ach Du Lieber!” so you know it is ON!
With issue #119, our fortunes improve — a little — as the Red Skull tires of this body-swapping nonsense. Resuming his true form, the Skull constructs a Bavarian stronghold through the power of the Cosmic Cube, then summons Cap/Skull and the Falcon to meet their final doom.
And the Skull is not messing around this time. Even Redwing — the Falcon’s “accursed bird” — isn’t safe from the Red Skull’s vengeance!
Thus begins a rather silly fight between the Skull, Falcon, and Cap, which sees the Red Skull restore Cap to his correct form (just because he wants to), before using the unlimited power of converting wishes-into-reality to trap poor Redwing in a birdcage.
Still, the addition of an A-list villain like the Red Skull can’t help but raise the rent of this wobbly tale.
Unfortunately, no sooner does the story start to groove along to fist city with our colorfully costumed characters than it is over, and right out of left field. A subplot running through these issues is finally resolved, as Modok — entirely off-stage, mind you — creates a MacGuffin that nullifies the Cosmic Cube, which he just happens to activate when the Skull was about to blast our heroes into atoms.
Sorry, Cap, it wasn’t “fate” that punched the Red Skull’s ticket, but rather the most heavy-handed of story conceits, a genuine deus ex machina. (Modok Ex Machina?) Either way, it’s an unsatisfying end to an uneven tale. Maybe Stan wrote himself into a corner and didn’t know how to conclude his story, or maybe he was just exhausted after three issues of body-swapping silliness. I know I’m exhausted just from reading it!
Which seems like as good a reason as any to bring this month’s Dollar Box to a close. I’ve probably been a little too hard on Captain America #117-119. Goofy as it is, the first appearance of the Falcon drives the price of #117 — despite that .15 cover price — up past the $20.00 mark, and the later two issues will set you back five or ten dollars, as well. After all, these issues feature fine Gene Colan art, and some good scenery-chewing from the Red Skull. You also get the Cosmic Cube and a cameo from Modok. It’s probably not that much sillier than the usual Silver Age story … but even so, I doubt even Ed Brubaker could make this tale seem reasonable in a modern context.
And maybe that’s OK. Maybe it’s kind of a wonderful thing that the Falcon traces his origin to answering an ad for a falconer wanted on a remote island inhabited by costumed Nazi war criminals, and that he received his superhero training from a body-swapped Captain America inhabiting the disguised body of an unmasked Red Skull.
Yeah, sure it is …
Thanks for reading The Dollar Box! I’ll be back next month with another comic book treasure from the past. Thanks, as always, to StashMyComics for hosting this column, and please come and visit me at my home blog — Longbox Graveyard — where there’s a new comic book column every Wednesday!