Sunday, May 1, 2016

Legendary comics writer Steve Englehart talks Captain America, Falcon stories (flashback exclusive interview)

It's hard to believe we Capheads are that much closer to the release "Captain America: Civil War."

Cary's Comics Craze continues its celebration of Captain America's 75th anniversary and the Star-Spangled Avenger's five years onscreen. (CCC plans to post reviews of "The First Avenger" and "The Winter Soldier" once the Internet and the original online home of CCC play nice together.)

Captain America always has shined the brightest and is the most interesting in stories when he faces a moral dilemma. Steve Rogers is nothing less than the moral compass for the Marvel Comics Universe, so having him face tough, morally challenging situations makes for intriguing stories.

Since Cap/Rogers is determined to follow the path of righteousness and is dedicated to his lifelong friend "Bucky" Barnes — despite the consequences and even if it's not the popular choice — there's little doubt why Tony Stark (actor Robert Downey Jr.) and Rogers (Chris Evans) will butt heads in "Civil War."

One might assume that a superhero created by the U.S. government — via the Super Soldier Serum — who is the best representation of what the United States of America should be would stand on the side of the government. That's not the case; the Star-Spangled Avenger always has stood on the side of individuals' rights and what democracy should be.

There's been no comic book writer who put Cap in the middle of that tension better than Steve Englehart. He started his amazing run on the original CAPTAIN AMERICA series in September 1972 (with issue 153) and over the next 33 issues, Englehart put Rogers through the emotional ringer in ways he hadn't faced since he'd become the man out of time, coming out of suspended animation decades after World War II ended to lead the Avengers. (To see why it's appropriate to call the cinematic Cap "The First Avenger," read this CCC op-ed.)

The master writer didn't just save CAPTAIN AMERICA from being canceled; he threw Cap/Rogers right in the middle of the fictional version of Watergate, a situation that shook the hero to his very core.

By making Captain America extremely relevant in the 1970s, Englehart unknowingly set a standard for other writers: Putting Cap in the worst of circumstances and showing what makes him the most interesting superhero of Marvel's collection of intriguing characters.

What follows is a Cary's Comics Craze exclusive email interview (first posted an online exclusive on the NORWALK REFLECTOR website) with Englehart from about 2009. Here, the legendary writer shares his thoughts on his unforgettable and must-read run, including how he made Cap's partner and faithful friend, The Falcon, more relevant and a more "viable member of the team."

NORWALK, Ohio — Writer Steve Englehart shook things up by introducing the Committee to Regain America's Principles, a group headed by advertising executive Quentin Harderman, who uses a smear campaign to get rid of Cap and introduce his own hero, the villain Moonstone.

Image and collage courtesy of the Albuquerque Comic Con
At the same time, Cap's partner, The Falcon, is dealing with feelings of inadequacy (much like the adult Bucky as the new Captain America) and being a fifth wheel. Indeed, Harderman frames Cap so it appears he kills the Tumbler, dressed as a civilian at an exhibit hall.

Cap is jailed, reluctantly agrees to be broken out of custody by a group (hired by Harderman, but unknown to Cap at the time) and becomes a fugitive of justice. The coincidences to the 2006-2007 "Civil War" crossover storyline are too eerie not to mention.

By the end of the "Secret Empire" storyline (CAPTAIN AMERICA & THE FALCON vol. 1 Nos. 169-176), Cap witnesses a suicide so disturbing and is so distraught by fighting for an America in which he no longer believes, Rogers makes the tough decision to give up being Captain America and names himself The Nomad, the man without a country. (All this is in the "Nomad" trade paperback, which collects CAPTAIN AMERICA & THE FALCON vol. 1 Nos. 177-186).

A long six issues later, Nomad sees a person who took on the Cap name brutally murdered and the original Captain America returns. And of course, all roads lead to the Red Skull, someone behind Cap's 2007 assassination.

Last week, Englehart e-mailed me back about the "Secret Empire" and "Nomad" storylines. The refreshingly honest, and sometimes brash, writer shares his thoughts:

CARY'S COMICS CRAZE: How challenging was it to write stories with Captain America having a partner? In general, do you think of Cap as a solo hero or one who naturally is paired with partners like Bucky and the Falcon? 

STEVE ENGLEHART: "When I took him over, he had Falc as a partner, so I never thought about his not having one. I suppose one could argue in the abstract that he's a one-of-a-kind kind of guy, so Bucky or Falc is not needed, but as I say, in my case, he had the partner — AND I took it as a challenge to make that partner relevant, since he was there.

"Falc had been a sort of appendage to that point, but I set out to make him, if not an equal member, at least a viable member of the team. Thus — my challenge was making Falc cool, not having Falc at all."

In issue 170, The Falcon gets slightly new duds and glider wings, thanks to Black Panther. The Falcon gets a chance to literally stretch his wings in the next issue, which proves to be empowering.

By the time Rogers is Nomad, Sam Wilson is so confident he stands up to his one-time partner.

In issues 174 and 175, Cap and The Falcon team up with the X-Men to track down the mysterious Secret Empire. At this point, Professor Xavier alludes to Sam Wilson being a possible mutant since he has "an uncommon rapport" with his hawk, which Englehart explores in subsequent issues.

CCC: Where did the idea come from to give the Falcon his gliding abilities or explore his unusual connection with Redwing? 

ENGLEHART: "I really don't remember. :-)

"I'm pretty sure the Redwing thing started before me, so it was probably Stan (Lee), but the gliding, I dunno."

CCC: On your website, you mention that Cap witnessing the President's suicide brings about Steve Rogers calling it quits as Cap. In subsequent issues, there is no allusion to the public knowing about the President's death, which obviously would have dominated the news and I would think should have been a subplot element. Was this an oversight or an editorial decision? Please explain. 

ENGLEHART: "There was no allusion but that just meant no one brought it up on camera.

"As far as my story went, I was done with the Watergate stuff, so I was following Steve Rogers' odyssey, but sure, everyone was talking about it just like real people were talking about Watergate. It just happened off to the side."

In issue 180, Englehart brings some levity to the mental angst Rogers is having. He and artist Sal Buscema, whose vibrant artwork jumps off the pages through No. 181, take two pages of Rogers pondering a costume that should be "dark, mysterious."

The writer lets readers in on Rogers' inner monologue about what to name himself. At one point, Englehart takes a playful job at Bruce Wayne coming up with the name Batman when he sees a bat (an omen!) by having Rogers say: "I hope a bat doesn't fly in my window — or I'll be in BIG trouble."

CCC: It's hard to take Steve Rogers' inner monologue seriously in the present day as I read his struggles with coming up with a new name. Were you having fun with Steve coming up with seemingly funny names such as the Swashbuckler, Freebooter and Captain Blood? 

ENGLEHART: "Yes."

CCC: The "Secret Empire" and "Nomad" storylines were published 35 years ago. Looking back on it, what works well? What falls short or needs to be tweaked?

ENGLEHART: "Quite frankly, I wouldn't change a thing. As a story for its time, I thought it was pretty damn good."

Most of writer Steve Englehart's CAPTAIN AMERICA run
is available in ESSENTIAL CAPTAIN AMERICA Vol. 4.
The collection contains black-and-white reprints of the issues,
but is much cheaper than the trade paperbacks featuring colored pages.
CCC: When I interviewed you before (back in August 2008), you declined to provide any ideas for a Captain America live-action film. How about now? How would you pitch it? 

ENGLEHART: "Still no. :-"

The Cary's Comics Craze review and grades: "Secret Empire": A; "Nomad": C+

Frank Robbins' scratchy art takes away from Englehart's story. The action sequences give every page a frantic feel. It's a jarring change from Buscema's dynamic work that virtually defines Cap and The Falcon of the 1970s.

While "Nomad" doesn't keep up the momentum Englehart creates in "Secret Empire" (and frankly, Nomad is a flat character with little appeal, despite it still being Rogers), these storylines are important to Cap's history. Your comics collection would be missing something without these historic tales that aren't afraid to address character angst and shake up the norm.

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