All of those who oppose his shield must yield

Essential Captain America IV contains the best of Steve Englehart’s 1970s scripting on Captain America, which for my money means it’s some of the best Cap stories ever (much as I like Ed Brubaker’s current run).
The core of the book is a multi-issue arc in which a wave of anti-Cap propaganda (“He claims to represent America, so why does he wear a mask?”) and a murder frame-up turn Cap into Public Enemy Number One. The faux hero Moonstone then takes him down, becoming the new public icon (with the help of more propaganda) to advance his mystery employers’ cause. Ultimately Cap discovers a conspiracy that leads right to the White House itself (need I mention this series coincides with Watergate?); unable to keep faith with the American dream, he adopts a new secret identity (Nomad—the man without a country!) before finally coming to accept America’s flaws without rejecting its promise.
Media manipulation and corruption are old hat now, but the stories still work. Like Forever People and Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Englehart captures the zeitgeist of the era but it ages better.
Other assets include the villains. The Viper is a coldblooded, nihilist terrorist who no more cares for her own life than the dozens of people she kills. The Red Skull, who’d been portrayed in the Silver Age as a generic villain with a swastika on his shirt, is now written as a hard-core Nazi, someone who can be distracted from his big plan by the site of inter-racial dating among the supporting cast.
Englehart’s handling of Steve Rogers’ personality is also interesting. Steve actually enjoys the excitement and adventure of being Cap; that’s really foreign to the past 20 years, when Cap’s portrayed as almost entirely duty-bound (nobody looks at him today and thinks “fun guy.”).
That being said, even the best works have flaws …
•The Yellow Claw, a 1950s Chinese super-villain, is an embarrassing Yellow Peril stereotype a la the Mandarin (though I admit it’s an entertaining multi-part story) though I admit that wouldn’t have occurred to me at the time.
•Sharon Carter was one of Stan Lee’s few kick-ass heroines in the Silver Age, a SHIELD agent as willing to put her life on the line as Cap was. While Englehart wrote some excellent women in Avengers and Defenders, Sharon in this collection is a generic super-hero girlfriend: She loves Steve, she hates sharing him with his super-identity and that pretty much covers her personality.
•After Cap gains super-strength in another plotline, this led to a problem with his black partner the Falcon: Already the junior member of the team, he was now much weaker. While this crops up a lot in super-hero teams (Superman and Batman, Green Lantern and Green Arrow), the writing indicates Englehart and his editors were worried Falcon might come off too much the Faithful Ethnic Sidekick (comics have had many of them) and boosted his power by adding flight.
And then they came up with a plotline in which the Falcon’s secret identity, social worker Sam Wilson, turns out to be a petty hood mindwiped by the Red Skull as a perfect sleeper agent. This was a startling twist when I read the series in my teens, but I can see now why so many people hated turning a role model like Sam into a stereotypical street punk.
It may be Englehart (or whoever came up with the idea) just wanted to remake Sam as black images moved from respectable Sidney Poitier to streetsmart blacksploitation punks. Or it could be (given how the Skull gloats he created Sam as the perfect, goodhearted Negro sidekick for Cap) he was trying to break away from the kind of model-minority character Poitier played in so many films, someone no white non-bigot could object to, and make him more unsettling. If so, I think he blew it: A black activist, to name one option, would have worked a lot better.
Despite the flaws, the book is still well worth the reading.

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