11 Apr 2016

From The Vaults: TALES OF SUSPENSE #79-81

While we spend a great deal of time engrossed in the current crop of comic books, let us not forget those fantastic tales from the past that still sit in amongst our collections and are always worth revisiting...

Writer: Stan Lee
Art: Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Frank Giacoia & Stan Goldberg

Andrew B: During World War II, it was often complained of the GIs stationed in England prior to D-Day that they were “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. I used to feel much the same way about Captain America.

When I started reading comics lo, those many years ago, the characters that I thrilled to the most were those with whom I seemed to have something in common, teenagers like Spider-Man or the Human Torch. In fact, particularly with Peter Parker, it was the scenes from the hero’s private life, all those personal problems and girlfriend issues, that proved the read-again highlights of many issues. Back in the '60s, Cap didn’t seem to have a private life at all, except a worryingly wallowing fixation with a dead teenage sidekick which these days would no doubt get his shield felt by Operation Yewtree.

Cap didn’t seem much like a person to me, more a symbol, and a symbol of American cultural imperialism at that. It didn’t seem surprising that Tales Of Suspense, the book in which Cap’s solo '60s adventures first appeared, should also feature that triumph of American industrial capitalism, Iron Man. Tony gave a kicking to the Commies; Steve settled scores with ageing Nazis everywhere. Eisenhower might still have been in the White House.

Then came Tales of Suspense #79–81 in 1966. The Red Skull. The Cosmic Cube. Ultimate power in the hands of the ultimate villain. ‘The Red Skull Supreme’ as the title screams from the page. “The universe itself must bend to my wishes so long as I hold the cosmic cube,” proclaims the Skull in typically understated Stan Lee dialogue. “My every wish – my every command – must be instantly obeyed.” And what can Cap bring to the battlefield to stop him? A few Judo moves and a big A on his forehead.

Oh, yeah. And a fighting heart. Courage. Resilience. An indomitable spirit. An inexhaustible faith in the ultimate triumph of good: “No matter how awesome the odds – I’ll fight as I’ve lived – I’ll never abandon hope!” The Cube allows the Skull to conjure material things out of thin air, but it has no power over those abstract, intangible values and ideals that inspire Captain America.

And that, of course, is the point of the story – and the point of Cap himself. Ideals matter. Visions of the world in the end shape and fashion the world as surely as the Cosmic Cube. Cap’s vision – or Stan’s, it seems to me the same thing – may well be rooted in a specifically American culture and in America’s view of itself, but it’s not confined to the fifty states – or it doesn’t have to be. Cap is a universal figure as, of course, is the Skull. Good and evil locked in an eternal combat extending far beyond the pages of Tales Of Suspense.

‘The Red Skull Supreme’ ends when the Skull sinks to a watery grave (or so we suppose) beneath the ocean, dragged down by the very gold armour that he himself had the Cube create, a fine example of the negative impact on the human soul of materialism, selfishness and greed. Cap is left standing alone on a dark pedestal of rock amidst the swirling seas, a proud, poised figure, unbeaten, unbowed, the star on his back towards us. It’s a memorable image, and reminds us that those who would defend the right need always to be vigilant, prepared, or the Skulls of the world might one day win. It’s an image that made me change my mind about Captain America, that made me realise that Steve Rogers is worth rooting for after all, whatever nation his alter-ego is named after.

Because while Captain America lives, the Good Guys have got a chance.

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