An attempt at being topical means that there are spoilers ahead for some recent episodes of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier and…
“He–he’s gone wild! Like a mad beast!! I’d better get out of here!!”
I’ve often mentioned that when I was a kid I didn’t have particularly reliable access to new comics, which meant that it was a challenge to read any given series with any real consistency. Despite my best efforts, I’d always end up missing some issues of any series I tried to follow, so for a lot of books I didn’t even put in the effort. I might pick up an issue of a series if it looked interesting, and then not pick up another issue of it again for months. I had to really like a book to put forth the effort to buy it regularly and to deal with the inevitable disappointment of missing pivotal issues.
One of the reasons I’ve been really enjoying The Falcon and The Winter Soldier on Disney+ is that the series is incorporating several elements from a period when Captain America was one of those books for which I put in the effort and dealt with the disappointment.
Obviously, the show’s take on the story beats differs wildly from the comics, given how much the Marvel Cinematic Universe differs from the Marvel Comics Universe, but it’s still fun to hear some familiar names and to watch similar ground being covered.
The biggest difference between what’s happening on the show and what happened in the comics is that in the comics Steve Rogers is still around and is not – outwardly, at least – an elderly man, and Bucky is not around, as the Winter Soldier’s introduction would not occur until many years later. Of course, when I say “Bucky” I specifically mean James Buchanan Barnes, because during that run of the comics – and in the specific comic that I will eventually start talking about – there were two people around who had gone by the name “Bucky,” though by this time neither of them still did.
The biggest similarity between show and comic is that Steve Rogers is no longer Captain America, and a man named John Walker has, with the government’s sanction, taken on the name and picked up the shield, but that again brings us into areas in which they differ.
Steve Rogers, who, since being revived from suspended animation in a chunk of ice, had largely operated as a free agent, is informed by the Commission on Superhuman Activities that the Captain America name, costume, and shield belong to the government, and that if he wants to continue being the star-spangled sentinel of liberty, he must work directly for the government. He refuses and is forced to give up being Captain America.
The replacement selected by the government, John Walker, had already established himself as a patriotically-themed superhero known as Super-Patriot, and in that role had been a vocal critic of Captain America, and had even physically clashed with Cap.
Walker was something of a funhouse mirror version of Steve, coming from a rural, Southern background, as opposed to Steve’s urban, Northern upbringing, and he was generally more jingoistic and conservative, and more inclined towards violent action. He was also largely in it for the fame, glory, and wealth.
And he needed the wealth; Walker was in debt to a man known as the Power Broker, a person who, for a fee, could endow people with superhuman abilities. Most of the Power Broker’s clients – the ones who survived the process, at least – opted to repay their debt by becoming professional wrestlers in the Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation, but Walker was convinced to try going the hero route.
Once Walker picks up the shield and takes on the legacy of Captain America, he starts to become a little less brash and considerably more heroic, though he struggles with the burden of the expectations placed upon him by the government and the American people, and with the conflict between his own brand of patriotism and the kind of patriotism for which Captain America had so long been a symbol.
For his part, after being forced out, Steve Rogers puts on a new costume and gets himself a new shield and keeps on being Captain America in all but name, which puts him on the shitlist of the Commission on Superhuman Activities, particularly after he breaks into the White House and assaults the President.
In reality, of course, Steve was attempting to save the President, who, as the result of an evil scheme by the villain known as the VIper had turned into a kind of snake man.
Regardless of the truth of the matter, the new Cap is tasked with finding and bringing in the old Cap.
Walker, however, soon finds out that he’s got a bigger problem to deal with. Unlike in the MCU, in the comics, the true identity of Captain America had long been kept secret from the general public. Steve had never been overly-cautious about maintaining a secret identity, but the number of people who knew he was Cap was relatively small, and the tradition was supposed to continue once Walker took over, but Walker had been doxxed.
The Watchdogs were a sort of version of the “Moral Majority” who engaged in direct, violent action – during one skirmish with them, they had attempted to lynch Walker’s friend and partner Battlestar – and while Walker himself had sympathy for their antipathy towards the loose morals of modern society, his job put him into conflict with them, and they were eager for revenge against the new Cap. Towards that end, they abduct his parents.
The government won’t allow Walker to take time to rescue his parents, but he opts to do so anyway.
Steve, meanwhile, is busy trying to track down some of his friends who had been nabbed by the Commission and tossed into a federal holding facility. Said friends being Jack Monroe, AKA Nomad, a man with a complicated history who had once filled the role of Bucky, and Dennis Dunphy, AKA Demolition Man/D-Man, another client of the Power Broker who had gone the professional wrestler route but then went on to become a costumed hero after being inspired by Steve. One of the others locked up wasn’t a friend – though she would eventually go on to become Steve’s love interest – but a member of the villainous group the Serpent Society who went by the name Diamondback.
We check in on the three of them just as Sidewinder, the leader of the Serpent Society who has teleportation tech, with Jack’s girlfriend, Priscilla Lyons, AKA Vagabond, shows up to rescue Diamondback. Despite being a villain, Diamondback asks her boss to help the others escape. He agrees, but Demolition Man decides that escaping isn’t what Steve would want them to do. Nomad decides that D-Man is a chump, but Vagabond – who is sick of Nomad’s shit and wants, as Nomad himself notes, the D(-Man) – decides that she’s staying, too.
Once free, Nomad contacts Steve to let him know where the others are, and then gets drunk.
From there we get some parallels, as Steve surrenders himself to the Commission, and Walker surrenders himself to the Watchdogs. It doesn’t work out very well for either of them, though Steve, who is informed that he’s being charged with conspiracy to commit sedition, breaking and entering the White House, assaulting the President, aiding and abetting known felons, and failure to pay back taxes, actually gets off a bit easy in comparison to Walker. It does start to become clear to Steve, however, that, given their unreasonable hostility towards him, there may be something more sinister going on with the Commission than he realized, though that is a story for a later issue.
As for Walker, the Watchdogs plan to do the same thing to him that they attempted to do to Battlestar. While he could easily escape, he’s held back by concern for his parents.
Counting on his augmented muscles protecting him the way that Battlestar’s had, Walker leaps forward, breaks his hands free from his cuffs, and swings, managing to snap the beam the rope is tied to, and laying into the Watchdogs.
However, while his hope is that he can draw their fire way from his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Walker pay the price for their son’s miscalculation, and seeing his parents gunned down, quite understandably, causes Walker to snap.
He deals with the remaining Watchdogs in a similarly lethal fashion, and in the end, we see that the impact of it all on his mental state goes beyond a temporary loss of control and restraint.
The delusional belief that his parents were still alive was one that would carry on for quite some time, and while this was the beginning of the end of his career as Captain America, the character stuck around, eventually taking over the costume and shield that Steve was using at this time and taking on the codename U.S. Agent.
This story was rough. I didn’t like Walker as a character, and I especially didn’t like him as Captain America, but man, he really went through it in this, and it was impossible to not sympathize with him, and the same holds true for the episode of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier that draws inspiration from this story.
Given the sheer number of deaths and the amount of brutality – which is so viscerally illustrated here by Dwyer – there is an extent to which this feels more impactful to me than what we saw on TV, but the TV version has a greater symbolic impact, given the symbolism of the bloody shield and that it was done in public, in broad daylight while, as the title of the episode states, the whole world is watching. Of course, this comic also has the advantage of having come first for me.
The inciting event on the show involves the fridging of Battlestar – Lemar Hoskins – who unlike his comic book counterpart does not have the same superhuman abilities as Walker, though the same is true of the Walkers in the comics, given that they played much less of a role and got considerably less development in the comics than Hoskins did on the show. While the result is the same – Walker snaps and engages in an act of extreme lethality – the context differs considerably, as Hoskins, unlike the Walkers, knows what he signed up for, and dying in the heat of battle with super soldiers seemed like it was in the cards right from the start.
The late Mark Gruenwald introduced Walker as Super-Patriot to serve as a foil and antagonist to Steve, and to represent a different kind of patriotism, exploring the contrast between the values exemplified by Steve with the then-current sensibilities of many American comic book readers who found Steve old-fashioned and too timid. While actually having Walker take over as Cap was largely an arguably cynical attempt at boosting sales, it also served as an opportunity to explore and defend the value of what Steve-as-Cap represented. In giving the readers the “Rambo as Captain America” that many of the readers wanted, Gruenwald stood firm in deciding that take on Captain America would not be done with Steve Rogers.
In responses to the episode 4 of the Disney+ show I’ve seen many people put forth some variation of the idea that Steve Rogers is a vision of the USA as it aspires to be while John Walker is the USA as it actually is, and that’s largely true now as it was then, and now as then there are some who believe that Walker is the superior vision.
I don’t agree, and that’s largely due to the work that Gruenwald did in this issue and throughout his run on the series. As much as I can sympathize with either version of John Walker, I did not and do not see him as a worthy or superior successor to Steve Rogers.
There is a lot more I could say, not just about this issue or that episode, but about Cap in general and the themes explored in the comics and on the show. I could honestly write an extremely lengthy discussion of Jack “Nomad” Monroe explaining his convoluted history and his parallels with both John Walker and Bucky Barnes, but I’ve already rambled on long enough and I mostly wanted to simply share the story of the comic that inspired an episode of the show that got a lot of people talking and to geek out a little about the show’s deep-cut references to one of my favorite comic book runs.
Before I go, given that his name appears first in the title of series that inspired me to write this post, it seems worth mentioning that the high-flying Falcon does make a brief appearance in this issue: