Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"Guide my hand, my father--as I avenge your death!"

It was the most awesome accomplishment in the history of mankind!

I'm talking about Power Records, of course. If anyone ever uses the phrase "most awesome accomplishment in the history of mankind," the thoughts of any thinking person naturally goes to Power Records.

Power Records was a sub-label of Peter Pan Records, which specialized in children's music. Power Records branched off into comic books and TV shows. What you did was buy the P.R. adaptation of a Marvel or DC comic book, which came with the comic AND a 7" record dramatizing the sound effects and dialogue. Then you could read along as the story was acted out for you.

When I was a kid, I leaned more towards Marvel than towards DC (my preferences balanced out as I got older), so either I didn't pick up the DC adaptations, couldn't afford them or simply didn't see them at the store. But I (or my younger brother--don't remember which of us it was) ended up owning at least four of the Marvel Comics records--Dracula, Spider Man, Hulk and Captain America.

The Cap record was from Captain America and Falcon #168 (December 1973), a great story written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Sal Buscema. I'm pretty sure I'd already read it when it first came out, but getting it with a soundtrack was a singularly amazing way to re-visit the story.

It starts out with Cap feeling a little down--he is, after all, a man out of time and its understandable that this would make him feel out-of-place from time to time.

But this time, the feeling is precognitive, since a threat from the past is about to explode into the present. A new villain called the Phoenix, who wields a death ray, attacks Cap. He claims to be looking for vengeance, but as far as Cap knows, he's never met the guy before.

The first encounter ends when the Phoenix's ray gun runs out of juice and he runs for it. But on his next try, he captures the shield slinger and slaps him into a death trap.

It turns out the Phoenix is Helmut Zemo, the son of the original Baron Zemo, out for revenge. His death trap involves lowering Cap into a boiling vat of Adhesive X, his dad's greatest invention. But Falcon shows up in the nick of time. During the ensuing fight, Helmut falls into the vat himself.

There's a few contrived elements to the story--Falcon survives the first fight through dumb luck when Helmut's gun runs out of power (after just a few shots). Cap's plan to track his new adversary down involves just jumping around the rooftops until he gets attacked, which doesn't seem particularly clever.

But those are minor points. The plot is otherwise well-constructed. It's the emotions behind it that give the story real backbone. Cap's depression is realistic, but its not over-played; nor does he allow it to interfere with his fighting abilities or sense of duty. 

Helmut's monologue, in which he reveals his identity and gives us his background, is exceptionally well-done. It actually allows us to feel a level of pity for someone who had a horrible childhood and lost both his parents, but does this without excusing his actions as an adult in the slightest. 

Which makes Cap's reaction to Helmut all the more awesome. Helmut is obviously insane and trying to kill the hero, but Cap simply wants to stop him without hurting him. He sees Helmut as yet another victim of the war. He has to be stopped, of course, and certainly needs to be jailed or institutionalized, but Cap's first reaction is one of compassion and a desire to help. And all this directed towards a man who was actively trying to kill him.

This is why Captain America, when he's written by someone who gets the character, is one of the best superheroes ever. He does not fight for revenge or love of adventure, but he fights to protect the innocent. His entire character is driven by doing what is right, while his sense of right and wrong is centered on helping those in need. 

You can argue, as Falcon briefly does during the story, that Cap's timing is a little off. Let's capture Helmut and make sure he can't murder anyone--THEN see about getting him help. But Cap's motivation is sound. 

So it's a good story. And the Power Records adaptation highlights this. It does the story straight--without changing anything or editing anything out. And, with the magic of YouTube, it's now possible to re-visit it:

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