After the blockbuster story in the last four issues (starting here), the pace slows a bit for this three-parter, as the loose ends of Steve Rogers’ time on the police force are tied up, and he goes through a surprising physical transformation. (No, not Cap-Wolf, not yet.)
The police commissioner summons Cap to an out-of-the-way location, and after fighting some thugs, sent by the mysterious Cowled Commander to keep him away, Cap gets the skinny, including suspicions about Sgt. Muldoon, one of the men he worked under as a patrolman.
In effect, he did give up his police identity in issue #152, but not formally. (Who wants to go through the exit interview with Human Resources?) Below he wonders why, which I take to be part of his ongoing quest to find meaning and purpose in a life that doesn’t seem to be under his control.
An instant later, though, the building explodes, and soon the Falcon is on the scene, followed closely by Sharon Carter, both of whom who have heard the tune “Cap’s Dead” before, but still tap their feet like it’s the first time.
Before he can look for Cap, Sam is caught up fighting the Viper, a former advertising executive—I kid you not, my friends—who speaks in iconic ad slogans (iconic in 1973, at least). Writer Steve Englehart explains in his text piece in Marvel Masterworks: Captain America Volume Seven that fellow writer Steve Gerber pitched in on the second half of this issue, and Gerber was an “ad man” before becoming a comics writer, so… you can figure out the rest.
After fighting Sam and Redwing for a couple pages, Viper finally hits the Falcon with a poison dart…
…but unfortunately for him, someone makes his miraculous return, just in time. (Note the emphasis on the “invulnerable shield,” which is emphasized more and more of late, with no explanation yet.)
It may be the easiest trick in the villain’s book, but it still sets up a classic moral dilemma for Cap—”let me go or your friend dies”—albeit an easily resolvable one. (The only question is Cap’s surprise that a villain would “bargain this way for a man’s life.” Is he new here?)
It does seem Cap trusted the Viper too much, though—and he pays for it.
As issue #158 opens, Cap struggles to reach the antidote, and Redwing seems to come to the rescue once again, but with his true companion unconscious on the ground, it’s up to Cap and his legendary resolve and determination…
…which are described at length in the exposition below.
As if we had any doubt!
And after securing his own oxygen mask, he helps the passenger beside him with his…
…and he and Sam exhibit what we now call toxic masculinity, afraid to show any affection and gratitude “for they are men.” (Get over it, fellas.)
When Cap visits Muldoon to ask how he can help with the investigation, the older man (physically, at least), reveals who he thinks is the real conspirator on the force, and without good reason!
Cap admirably keeps his cool and sets out to help Muldoon while protecting his identity—which the Space Phantom restored to him, behind the scenes of Captain America #113, as revealed in Avengers #107, to make him comfortable with his life (ha) so he could… well, just read the Avengers post and you’ll find out. (Or maybe not… I’m not sure I’ve figured it out yet.)
But here comes the more interesting part: while breaking up a bank robbery, Cap realizes that he feels really good, but has no idea why.
Yes, Urkel, you did that.
But the strength boost doesn’t last.
The “oh no!” was in response to seeing that his room had been ransacked by the police. All of this leads him to reconsider continuing as a police officer, before Muldoon and Patrolman Courtney jump him and capture him (enabled by Cap’s current weakened state).
As issue #159 begins, the unconscious Cap’s dream reflects his current identity crisis/existential malaise.
He wakes to find that Muldoon and Courtney have him tied up to try to get information out of him. They leave him alone for a minute to clear his head, which was definitely a mistake, because the switch flipped again on his energy.
Gee, what does this remind me of…
Soon, our two title heroes reunite to fight some C-list villains, and Cap gets a chance to show off his literary knowledge (as he has done before)…
…as well as his love of nursery rhymes.
The scene below is impressive, even if it is Extra-Strength Cap… and the exposition nails the extent of his heroism.
And just in case there is in any doubt, this is Extra-Strength Cap.
And Cap thinks he’s figured out why. (He has, by all accounts, but I think it’s reasonable to be skeptical about his self-diagnosis.)
Cap’s newfound super-strength was one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” things that was gradually mentioned less and less until it is forgotten altogether (and is not revealed officially to have “worn off” until five years later in Captain America #218).
In the end, Cap and the Falcon capture the Cowled Commander, who in true Scooby-Doo fashion turns out to be Sergeant Muldoon, in an attempt to toughen up the police force, recently overrun with “weak sisters” (?), by creating a greater evil from them to rally against. (I did not see that coming.)
Captain America (vol. 1) #157, January 1973: Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber (writers), Sal Buscema (pencils), John Verpoorten (inks), Petra Goldberg (colors), Artie Simek (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Captain America (vol. 1) #158, February 1973: Steve Englehart (writer), Sal Buscema (pencils), John Verpoorten (inks), Petra Goldberg (colors), Artie Simek (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Captain America (vol. 1) #159, March 1973: Steve Englehart (writer), Sal Buscema (pencils), John Verpoorten (inks), Petra Goldberg (colors), Ann Scotto (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
All collected in: Captain America Epic Collection: Hero or Hoax?, Marvel Masterworks: Captain America Volume Seven
PREVIOUS ISSUE: Captain America #156 (December 1972)
ALSO THESE MONTHS: Avengers #107-108 (January-February 1972)
NEXT ISSUES: Captain America #160-162 (April-June 1973)
What caused Cap to gain super strength?
I always assumed it was either the Viper’s venom, the antidote, or both, probably interacting with the super-soldier serum — I don’t think it was ever clarified.