STEVE ENGLEHART on CAPTAIN AMERICA: The Truth About RED SKULL, FALCON & The COSMIC CUBE

Captain America
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

In the 1970s, writer Steve Englehart codified the version of Captain America that still resonates to this day – a man beholden to American ideals even when reality doesn’t line up with them, who is always willing to fight the good fight even if it means making hard choices.

But it wasn’t just Captain America himself that Englehart redefined – he also brought the Falcon to the forefront as a hero, and reinvigorated the Red Skull as Cap’s ultimate arch-enemy. And, oh yeah, he used a Cosmic Cube, mind control, and reality warping to do it. (Sound familiar?)

In the first part of Newsarama’s conversation with Englehart, the writer revealed the real-world secrets behind the original “Secret Empire.” Now, in this second chapter, Englehart digs into the other villains of his Captain America run, his choice to bring back the Red Skull and the Cosmic Cube, and of course, the truth about whether Falcon is really Sam Wilson, or “Snap” Wilson.

Newsarama: The story that followed “Secret Empire,” in which Steve gave up his identity as Captain America, was largely the first of its kind in the title - though it’s become the definitive trope for Steve Rogers over the years. The “Captain America No More!” cover was even recently homaged with Sam Wilson. How did that idea come together? Did you intend it to redefine the character the way it has?

Steve Englehart: I had no idea when I came up with the reinvention concept that I was defining the character for the next half-century. As far as Nomad goes, it was a combination of everything I’d been doing in my run. After he watches this villain kill himself in the White House, I asked myself if he could just go back to being Captain America, and the answer I came up with is “No, not really. Not right away.” It was very much a situation where the characters are telling me where the story is gonna go.

So the only thing I could think of is that he’d give up being Captain America. When he became Cap, Steve signed up for something that is no longer true. Jumping back to when I first got the book, one of the big complaints at the time was that he was a guy draped in the flag, and audiences were not into that. So I thought “OK, here he is with this flag still on his chest, but the president killed himself.”

It became very clear to me that Steve Rogers would say “I can’t do this anymore.” But he didn’t quit being a hero, he just stopped being Captain America.. He could be a different hero – why not? So the idea of the Nomad came from him going on, but not as Captain America. At the same time, this is a book called “Captain America.” It was selling great at the time, and I knew it would be a challenge to do Captain America but with no Captain America in it. I like those kind of ideas.

Nrama: Tell me about the genesis of Nomad as a design and as a character. There’s a funny bit with his cape in one of his first adventures - how much of that was Sal Buscema and how much came from you?

Credit: Marvel Comics

Englehart: That was me, in that I had always thought that if a person had a cape on, they could get wrapped up or it could get in their way. I’m a huge Batman fan, and he’s got the greatest cape ever - I hadn’t yet written Batman at this point - but I had the thought that the cape would be problematic. So that was just a little joke on my part - the idea that Cap would reinvent himself with a cape because it’s cool, but then discover there’s a reason he never wore a cape before.

Nrama: Speaking of Sal Buscema, he drew the bulk of your Captain America run. You’ve said before that he was able to draw exactly what you envisioned on the page. What was your working relationship like?

Englehart: Sal lived in Washington D.C., I live in California – in those days the writer would mail stuff to the artist, who would then mail stuff to the inker and so on. This was all pre-FedEx, pre-email, so it was all done through the mail. People lived wherever they lived, and the work would wind up back in New York to be published. Sal and I would talk on the phone, but we didn’t sit down over a cup of coffee, being 3,000 miles apart.

When I took over Captain America and Defenders, Sal was the artist on both of those titles. I totally credit Sal with whatever I became as a writer, because he showed me I could do anything in a script. It’s one thing to have an editor like Roy Thomas say you can do whatever you want, but another to write something that requires a horse, only to have an artist say “Well I can’t draw horses.”

But Sal could draw anything, and do it with clear concise storytelling. Sal was a truly great comic book artist, so I quickly learned that I didn’t have to put any binders on myself to make sure Sal could handle it, cause Sal could handle anything.

We very rarely saw each other, but we worked really well together.

Nrama: Were you working in the 'Marvel method'?

Englehart: Yes. I’d come up with the story and send him a synopsis. My idea with those was to tell the artist everything they needed to know, and that was it. I didn’t want to micro-manage what he was drawing, but if it was important that, say, three guys were sitting in a green room, I’d say so. If I didn’t care how many guys, or the color of the room or whatever, I’d leave it to the artists.

The Marvel method is still my favorite way of making comic books. It allows the artist to have more input and more fun. And then I would get the art back to write the dialog for, which I’m then doing knowing exactly what you’re going to see in the story. I think that makes for better comic books, and you don’t wind up hoping the artist drew what you were expecting them to draw before seeing the finished product.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: One of the major hallmarks of your Captain America run was Steve’s relationship with Sam Wilson, the Falcon. That partnership was in place when you started writing the series, but you codified what most people think of as their golden years. What did you draw on when creating their dynamic?

Englehart: When I take over a book, I inherit the characters as they already are. I might wish they were something else, but that becomes the first story arc - how we get from what we know to the new status quo. But with Captain America and Falcon - I talked at great length about how I got to my version of Captain America, but the Falcon, he’s just a good guy. As written to that point, he was just a good, solid character. I didn’t feel the need to come up with a whole different approach to him. I’ll footnote that by saying the last thing I did on Captain America was come up with a whole different approach to him, but that’s because I was trying to set up the next writer, and give them something to do with Falcon.

I just thought, Falcon had a girlfriend, a neighborhood, a gang boss, and criminals he was going up against – he had a world, but it had only been touched on because Captain America was the guy driving the book. On the other hand, the cover said "Captain America and the Falcon," and it was the 70s – which was an idealistic time - and I was a young idealistic 70s guy. So I thought “Why does the black guy have to be the secondary character here?” I knew Captain America was the draw, but I also knew I could certainly do more with the Falcon than had been done.

Then, when we got to the Nomad story, I thought “Well, if there’s no Captain America, at least there’s still a Falcon.” So by making him a stronger character up to that point, I then had the tools to shift focus to Falcon while Nomad was doing his thing. And even though there was no Captain America, there was still plenty of superheroics going on.

Nrama: Was it your intent to turn Falcon from a somewhat put upon character into the guy who would one day become Captain America? Did you forsee him taking over for Steve at any point?

Englehart: No, not at all. I think he was well-trained by Steve to take that responsibility, but to me I wanted him to be a solid partner – a junior partner, in a sense, because Captain America takes the senior partner role – but as close to 50/50, 60/40 that I could get to. But I never foresaw him as anything but the Falcon.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: You also are responsible for giving Falcon his wings - which are now inseparable from his identity - and for increasing Captain America’s super-strength. What brought on these upgrades?

Englehart: The Falcon, that was me thinking a guy named after a bird should be able to fly, thinking that was the logical direction. On the other hand, the super-strength angle was all Roy Thomas.

As Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, Roy was looking through titles that weren’t doing well, trying to figure out how to boost their sales. The first thing he did was to turn Beast from having gray fur to making it blue, on the theory that the darker color would more dramatic. Then he put Namor in his jumpsuit on the theory that it too would be more dramatic. And he gave Captain America super-strength.

He did that because Captain America was a failing book, but six months down the line it was number one. So we put that in and then we let it fade away. He never lost that level of strength, per se, we just let it be forgotten. It wasn’t necessary. If Captain America without the super-strength was doing OK , then I thought there was no need to muddy the water. He gets it early on in my run, and then I just never address it again. I just let it go away.

It really was forgetting though – it’s not like I decided to ignore it and screw over Roy. I just came to a point where I stopped thinking about it because it didn’t seem necessary to the story.

Nrama: Tell me about some of your villains from this run. You created the original Moonstone, Lloyd Bloch. Was it your intent for that mantle to change hands when you created him?

Englehart: I had nothing to do with developing Karla Sofen into the second Moonstone. He was just a one-off villain concept for me. I mean, Nomad was kind of a one-off story to me, but now there have been what, four Nomads since?

I wasn’t quite conscious of the fact that whatever you create in comic books will undoubtedly be used again. I just thought he was a solid villain for the “Secret Empire” story, so when that story came to an end, in my mind so did he.

Nrama: What about the Serpent Squad? You’ve previously said Steve Gerber gave Viper, the squad’s leader, his “ad man” persona. How did they evolve?

Credit: Marvel Comics

Englehart: It came from the Symbionese Liberation Army, which was a revolutionary group in the San Francisco era in the 1970s. The SLA are the ones responsible for kidnapping and radicalizing Patty Hearst, eventually leading her to participate in a bank robbery before the group came to an end.

After getting Captain America involved in politics with “Secret Empire,” I thought I’d make the series a continuing commentary of everything going on in America at the time. I thought about the SLA, about people rebelling against the U.S., so I turned that idea into the Serpent Squad.

What I quickly realized is that, while something like Watergate goes on for months and months – the way comic books worked at the time was you’d write it, then three months later it would be on stands – what I learned is that the Symbionese Liberation Army story probably wasn’t going to last that long or have that staying power in the news. So by the time we got the Serpent Squad story going, the SLA was over with, so I decided to stay away from that, and for a while he did go back to fighting those more classic enemies.

With the Serpent Squad, I was basically trying to continue commenting on current events, but it was tough to do in a timely fashion with the way things worked back in those days.

Nrama: And I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t ask you about Solarr. The first issue with Solarr is so fun and weird, and a bit atypical of the rest of your run. How did you come up with his origin?

Englehart: The first time I wrote Solarr was with Alan Weiss as the artist, just on that one-off story. Weiss and I were good friends. When I lived in New York, Alan and Jim Starlin and I were like the three amigos. Weiss always had the weirdest ideas – to be honest, I don’t remember which one of us first thought of Solarr, but when you start talking about weird stuff, it was probably Al.

Al never wanted to do an ongoing run on a series – he just like to do a few issues here and there of a bunch of different stories, so we decided to do an issue of Captain America, and as they say, weirdness ensued.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: At the end of your run, you brought back the Red Skull, inciting Steve to return to the role of Captain America. Why was the Red Skull the way to end your run, and to bring Steve back as Cap?

Englehart: Red Skull is the Captain America villain. When I went over to DC and wanted to revamp Batman, I went back to the pulp feel of the Joker. The Red Skull was never as pulpy as the Joker, but in the old stories he’d play Chopin’s funeral march when he showed up, so he was still a pretty creepy guy and he was Cap’s top villain – maybe not necessarily in the 40s, but by the 70s he was Cap’s arch-enemy.

Wrapping up this overtly political run, bringing back a true supervillain – Cap’s supervillain in particular – made perfect sense. When I did that, I wasn’t thinking “this is gonna be the end of my run.” It wasn’t until after I finished that story that I realized, Cap’s getting back to fighting the Yellow Claw, the Red Skull, these more typical supervillains, and I decided I didn’t want to write that, so I moved on.

It wasn’t a conscious decision that that would be the end of my run, but I thought it was important to go big, and to bring back and redefine the Red Skull.

Nrama: That story hinged on Red Skull using a Cosmic Cube to alter Sam Wilson’s mind – something that probably sounds familiar to current readers. Only the twist was, Red Skull made Snap Wilson, a criminal, into a hero to get close to Steve. Falcon obviously got better, but tell me about that twist. How long was it planned? How did you decide to end the story that way?

Englehart: When I first came onto Captain America, I wasn’t thinking of him as anything but “the Falcon.” I upgraded his powers and gave him wings, and built up his world, but that was all done prior to that decision. When it came time to end my run and to hand the book off – it’s not always honored but it’s common courtesy that if you know you’re gonna pass the book off to someone else, you give them a good start and try to set up some ways for the story to go.

So I thought, “We just did all this stuff with Cap, so the hook has to be the Falcon.” And then I started thinking about what hadn’t been done with the character yet, and I realized that the biggest thing I could do would be to completely change him and reveal he’s not the guy we thought he was. I plotted the issue where that was revealed, and then John Warner – the writer that was supposed to take over Captain America after me – said, “Well you should probably script this issue too cause you’re the only one who really understands what’s going on,” and I wound up writing the first half of that issue where the whole thing is revealed.

And now people ask me “Well is he really Sam Wilson? Or ‘Snap’ Wilson?” And the answer is, I have no idea. If I had written the rest of that story, I would have found out. The characters would have told me as I was writing. But because I didn’t write that story, and because all I was doing was setting it up, I just said to Warner “This is an interesting thing, and now you can go play with it.”

As it turned out, the guy we handed it off to, who we all thought was gonna do great, couldn’t hand in the stories on time. He was too slow. So very quickly there were fill-ins, and then Jack Kirby wanted to come back, so that story died an ignominious death. And then Kirby came in and changed everything, so nobody knows which version of Sam Wilson is the “real” Falcon, because we just never went down that road.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: In 2017, what parts of your Captain America run are you surprised to see still defining integral parts of the title?

Engelhart: Well, to be honest, the character himself. I was on a panel at a comic convention in Mexico, and I was on a panel with J.M. DeMatteis and Nick Spencer, and for the first time, sitting their on stage listening to Nick Spencer talk about it, I thought “How weird is it that he’s writing this with something that was written 45 years ago right there in his face the whole time?”

The fact that it’s 45 years, and that it’s still the definitive Captain America story – the one people are still comparing him to – that just blows me away. When I took on the title, of course I knew that Jack Kirby and Joe Simon had created the character 30 years earlier, and then Jack and Stan Lee worked on him in the 60s, but there was nothing so monumental about any of that that I felt I had to keep it in mind at all times.

I and everybody else wrote comics because we wanted to write comics – that was it. The idea that 45 years later they’d be making movies out of these stories and that it would be something that current writers would have to pay attention to – nobody at the time could’ve predicted that. Maybe Stan, maybe he had that in the back of his mind all along, but the rest of us were doing what we wanted to do, making enough money at it to be happy, and that was kind of the end of our thinking.

It’s gratifying to look up on screen and see my Captain America up there, but it’s amazing at the same time.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: What do you think is the most essential element of Captain America that has to be on the page for him to truly be Cap?

Englehart: The idealism. The flipside of how amazing it is that the ideas I came up with have lasted this long is that the reason it’s lasted is because his book wasn’t going anywhere until the idea of him as the embodiment of American idealism took over. You couldn’t just do Captain America as a generic hero who fights crime because he wants to fight crime. There’s always that extra aspect – or should be in my opinion – of him as an idealist.

Because there’s always a dichotomy between idealism and reality, it’s a concept that doesn’t ever get old. I don’t think anybody would ever say, “That happened in the 70s – it could never happen today,” because it is happening today.

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