(Captain America #114-119 - 1969)
Written by Stan Lee. Pencils by Gene Colan, with John Romita, Sr., and John Buscema. Inks by Joe Sinnott, Sal Buscema.
What makes a "great" story arc? Some stories can excel as well plotted epics, others as insightful character explorations, others as just fun, fast-paced romps. In the case of this Captain America saga, let's start with the art.
Coming at the heels of Jack Kirby's seminal run on the series, and a well regarded brief stint by Jim Steranko, the first issue is drawn by John Romita (Sr) -- an old pro in top form here, delivering clean, realist pencils, with a nice story telling eye. The second chapter is dawn by stalwart John Buscema, of whom much the same could be said -- except even more so! (Both men inked by John's brother, Sal). Then the reins are handed over to Gene Colan for what would be a defining run on the series. Colan brought a whole new, visually distinctive style to comics. His art being a strange mix of stylized and caricature, with bodies sometimes twisted and flowing in ways the human body doesn't twist and flow, yet capturing an eerie realism nonetheless, much as the Impressionists discovered you could capture the "impression" of realism by not adhering to it too closely. Yet Colan marries it with an almost astonishing realism, too, particularly with faces, and using light and shadow in a way that seems surely photo-referenced. Needless to say: I'm a fan of all three artists. (I should also mention that since I read this story as it was reprinted in a black & white Essential omnibus, the visuals may actually have taken on a greater moodiness than they might in their proper colour format).
At the the saga's core is arch foe, the Red Skull, utilizing the Cosmic Cube (only its second appearance), to switch bodies with Cap -- forcing Cap to flee with everyone assuming he's the evil Red Skull. This hero-villain switch was a plot that Lee recycled for a bunch of different series around the same time. Yet it's such a solid hook, despite the repetition, all those sagas are better-than-decent adventures.
And that's because here, in a sense, it's only a part of the saga.
I asked what makes a great story arc? And sometimes it's that it's not just a single story, but a bunch of plot threads that interweave and segue back and forth.
The opening issue (though with some action) is basically a brooding character piece, as Cap forlornly ponders his place in the world, feeling like a stranger in a strange land. Wondering whether he, as Steve Rogers, was ever more than just a disguise for the larger-than-life identity of Captain America. After years of drawing hardluck Spider-Man, Romita is well suited to scenes of Steve Rogers wandering through the rain, head bowed in melancholy ruminations. The Red Skull doesn't even make his appearance till that issues' end, and they don't switch bodies until the end of the next chapter. So various issues have their own distinct, core aspect -- the brooding refections of the first issue, the head trippiness of the second as the Skull attacks Cap with the Cosmic Cube. The third issues has a neat, pivotal action scene involving a car chase as Cap, now looking like the Skull, attempts to escape police -- a sequence of swerving cars you wouldn't think would work in a comic book format, but Colan pulls it off well. Then Cap finds himself marooned on an island where the Skull's betrayed allies, the would-be dictator club, the Exiles, hide out -- all gunning for the Skull whom Cap now looks like. By this point, Lee kind of tosses aside the switched identity idea by having it be that the Red Skull's face is just a mask (something I'm not sure later writers assumed was the case) so Cap is able to remove it -- of course, we still cut away to the Red Skull masquerading as Captain America. This story arc also introduces The Falcon to comicdom, as Cap takes a young man under his wing and helps shape him into an ally against the Exiles. Eventually the story takes us back to a final confrontation between the Red Skull and Cap (back in costume) with the Falcon in tow.
On one hand, one could complain the saga seems a bit free flowing and directionless -- heck, after the initial suspenseful scenes of Cap being mistaken for the Skull, that part actually is largely dropped from the saga. There are still scenes of the Red Skull disguised as Cap...he smirks and plots to himself about all the things he could do in such a disguise -- but mainly he just makes Cap seem obnoxious in the eyes of those around him. Yet that very low-keyness is part of the appeal, filtering many of the scenes through Cap and the Skull's introspections and personalities -- all atmospherically rendered by the artists (particularly Colan). Cap himself was well portrayed in this era, convincing as the veteran of a thousand battles, yet equally convincing as a flesh and blood man, with doubts and insecurities, yet ones that don't stop him from doing his job. The sequence mentoring the fledgling Falcon is perhaps a perfect example, as Cap is not in costume, doesn't even look like Steve Rogers, yet is still a compelling, likeable hero -- making the point that the man he is is more than just the costume. And he is a man without ego. He is not training the Falcon to be his sidekick -- he is training him to be a hero. This isn't the unflappable, jingoistic Cap some writers give us -- but a decent man, whose heroism is so ingrained, it doesn't need to primp and strut.
Indeed, there seems a deliberate, if non-explicit, theme to the saga -- it begins with Cap wondering who he is under the mask and, in a sense, he proves the masks are not important to his true character, whether he is dressed in Red, White & Blue, or as The Red Skull.
Back then the introduction of the Falcon was no doubt seen as a milestone (without coming out and saying that) -- a black hero in an industry with, at that point, next to no black heroes. The Falcon pre-dating everyone, save the Black Panther -- even pre-dating the Teen Titans' Mal Duncan if only by a few months. Funnily enough, for some reason as depicted here by Lee and Colan, The Falcon actually seems like a more promising protagonist than he would ever fully evolve into, never later successfully making the leap from sidekick status.
The dialogue is, of course, a reflection both of the time, and of Lee inparticular. It can be obvious and hokey. Yet strangely...it works quite well. There's a style to it, a rhythm, that means it becomes its own vernacular. I sometimes liken it to the way Shakespeare's dialogue was never realistic, but that didn't stop it from being effective in the context of a Shakespeare play. Likewise, Lee's dialogue here works because it suits the reality that is being created, convincing you these people really would emote this way, brood this way. I've seen later writers try and "homage" such dialogue -- Alan Moore and others -- and it usually comes across as just parody, as if even they have lost sight of the fact that Lee really was trying to explore heady concepts of human emotion and deep themes of identity and heroism. Even Lee's more recent scripts lack the edge that allowed these old comics to cut through your cynicism.
It's partly because of the constant shifts in direction and themes that the story arc is a fun read -- you can enjoy it as a memorable arc because it isn't just one mood or aspect. It's realist action of fist fights and car chases...and fantasy/sci-fi of robots and Cosmic Cubes; it's introspective and brooding...and action and adventure; it shows us Cap the man, Cap the hero, Cap the mentor, Cap the lover; Cap the victim and Cap the triumphant. Along the way there are appearances by the Avengers, sidekick Rick Jons, and romantic friction with Sharon Carter. In a way, that's another criterea for a great arc -- there's enough going on that it can withstand subsequent readings. And it's beautifully rendered to boot -- especially by Colan.
Does that mean aspects end up under-utilized? -- sure! The whole switching bodies thing never builds to any climactic scene where the false Captain America is publicly unmasked. But conversely one could argue that's because Lee and the gang milk the scenes they wanted to milk from it...and then move on before it has a chance to grow dry.