In Do You Remember The First Time? we take a nostalgic trip back in time to discuss a seminal purchase that introduced us to a character, title, creator, or even a hobby.
Simon M: I can’t tell you how many comics I've read over the last 40 years, but it is many tens of thousands. The number of covers I vividly recall however would be a ridiculously small percentage. There are obviously the iconic covers that everyone remembers (Crisis On Infinite Earths #7, The Dark Knight Returns #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15 just to name a few), but outside of those there are very few I can recall that were associated with what was essentially a throwaway story. Captain America #260, released in 1981, was one of the few.
I remember first setting eyes on this issue as a 9 year-old at the local store with about two bucks of chore money burning a hole in my pocket. After buying the weekly supply of candy I would have enough left to buy two comics. As I perused the racks, I saw the cover you see here. I thought, Captain America in prison? That can’t be right! Although I was aware of Captain America, I had never bought or read an issue prior to that day. It didn’t take long to make the decision to pick this one up.
The first page doesn’t let on to why Cap is going behind bars either. It shows two prison guards escorting Cap to a cell as instructed by the warden. Straight away Cap is in conflict with his cellmate, 'Thumper' Morgan, who Cap had first encountered way back in Tales Of Suspense #62. Also sharing the cell is a young guy called Tony Zack, who after a bit of encouragement tells his tale of woe as a kid who ran with the wrong crowd and was too slow leaving the scene of a robbery.
It is following Tony’s story that we get the first inkling as to why Cap's inside. He is there on the advice of the warden to help the young man that is being turned into a hardened criminal by the uncompromising prison system. Cap is also there to escape!
It turns out that Cap and the warden had served together during WWII and Cap was asked, following some bad press under the previous warden, to prove that the modifications made to the prison were up to the task. All of this information was given at a press conference but unfortunately a con that had been working as a trustee overheard the plan.
The news that Captain America is going to attempt an escape gets back to Thumper Morgan. Following an altercation in the prison yard, in which Tony tries to stop the attack on Cap, the plan of Thumper and the trustee, 'Deacon', becomes clear. They aim to stay on the down-low and wait for the escape attempt to then follow Cap out.
During a stint in the metal shop, Cap fashions a makeshift shield. Just as he completes it, cons in the shop see another opportunity to take a shot at the Star-Spangled hero. To everyone’s surprise, Thumper steps in and protects Cap. It quickly becomes apparent that the only reason he did so is to ensure Cap is in a fit state to attempt the escape. Tony talks to Thumper, asking why he helped. Tony quickly realises that Thumper is up to no good and maybe the life of a criminal is not for him.
It’s not long before Cap decides to make his break for it, with Thumper silently following behind. On the way he stops by Deacon’s cell to inform him that the plan is on. Deacon lets himself out of his cramped accommodation with one of the keys he had access to while working as a trustee. But he is not satisfied with just freeing himself; he also lets all the cons around him out as well to act as a diversion.
Unbeknownst to everyone, Tony had been following Cap to warn him of the plans put in place by Thumper and Deacon. Cap appreciates the warning, but throws Tony back into his cell for his own protection.
Captain America carries on with his task at hand and continues his escape plan. As he completes the last phase of his escape with a Herculean effort swinging over the prison wall, the chasing convicts quickly realise they are out of their depth. With the cons standing in amazement, the guards quickly catch up and quell the last remnants of the unplanned bid for freedom.
It’s not long before Cap confidently strolls back through the prison gates to face a disappointed warden. Cap asks for leniency for the attempted escapees, saying it was his presence that riled them up and was the reason for their actions. He also put in a good word for Tony, saying he wasn’t a harden criminal and that the warden’s new progressive plans would be able to make him a productive member of society.
The reporters, who were there to cover Cap’s escape attempt, were all under the assumption that the warden's new system had failed and that men had escaped. Little Hildy tells them all to calm down and that the person who escaped was “no ordinary man” and to try and hold him was “like trying to cage the very spirit of freedom itself”.
I had a fondness for this story and cover to the point that I had to buy this issue again some 30 years after I originally purchased it back in '81. This was one of the key issues for me that started my love of Marvel and swung me away from DC. It will always hold a special place in my comic book collection.