This issue is a fill-in story, written by Roy Thomas and Tony Isabella before regular writer Steve Englehart’s epic “Secret Empire” storyline begins, and it both recaps Captain America’s current status and introduces a villain who will become a major player once he truly embraces the family business. (And before you ask, the Phoenix in this issue has absolutely nothing to do with Jean Grey from the X-Men, a development of that character that is still several years away at this point.)
Whatever this Phoenix is, though… it SHALL ARISE!
As we see, Cap is once again in a mood, and his explanation gives some insight into why, focusing on his “man out of time” status (especially given the recent battle with his 1950s analogue, starting in issue #153) as well as the current situation with the Carters Peggy and Sharon.
Cap and Sam are attacked by the aforementioned Phoenix, an apparently generic villain with a raygun who aims at Cap while ignoring Sam, who takes advantage of this to seek up on Phoenix, only to get walloped (as well as insulted racially, providing a clue to the villain’s identity, even if it sadly doesn’t narrow it down very much).
After the villain flees, Sam feels like a chump, and Cap tries to make him feel better (as much as he can).
After trying and failing to think of who the Phoenix really is, Cap decides to draw him out—but by himself, and he chooses the worst way possible to do it, especially given how Sam feels after their first encounter with the villain.
Below, Cap makes clear why he drove Sam away, and revives his long-held concern with endangering his sidekicks (stemming from losing Bucky in World War II), but none of this justifies his harshness with his friend.
(“Subconsciously,” sure… I thought it was fairly clear from his thoughts and actions ever since being defrosted, but whatever.) More important, he seems to realize at the end of the last panel that he’s acted badly, but it’s hard to tell exactly about what: being overprotective (and a jerk) to Sam and the rest, or taking on partners at all.
Anyway… Cap does lure the Phoenix, who manages to subdue our hero and tie him up over a boiling cauldron of…
And there we go: meet Helmut Zemo, son of Baron Heinrich Zemo, the man who “killed” Cap and Bucky in World War II (see Avengers #4), fought Cap and the Avengers early in Cap’s adventures in the modern day, and died soon thereafter (in Avengers #15).
Below, Cap admirably tries to appeal to the younger Zemo’s better nature, emphasizing the cycle of violence and death that Zemo can put an end to…
…but apparently he’s not interested.
Oh, remember the partner who Cap tried to get rid of? That didn’t work either, and he’s far too understanding about it.
Sam tries to shore up his self-esteem by taking care of Zemo, but consistent with what he said to the young man, Cap tries to get Sam to lay off, to put an end to the violence and death.
Unfortunately, Zemo hasn’t given up the fight: he picks up Cap’s shield and tries to throw it at him, but it only boomerangs and knocks Zemo in the Adhesive X, apparently killing him.
As is his wont, Cap feels responsible for what he shouldn’t, given that the younger Zemo had a twisted understanding of what happened to his father. Cap’s tried to reason with Zemo, and even saved him from the Falcon, and even though Zemo’s death is regrettable, there is no reason for Cap to feel personally responsible—other than the fact that he’s Cap, of course.
As for young Zemo, surprise—he’s not dead, and returns in issue #275, taking his father’s name, Baron Zemo, and becoming a very influential villain in the Marvel Universe, and starring in the film Captain America: Civil War. (Wouldn’t Daddy be proud?)
Captain America (vol. 1) #168, December 1973: Roy Thomas and Tony Isabella (writers), Sal Buscema (pencils), John Tartag and George Roussos (inks), Linda Lessmann (colors), Charlotte Jetter (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Collected in: Marvel Masterworks: Captain America Volume Eight
PREVIOUS ISSUES: Captain America #165-167 (September-November 1973)
ALSO THIS MONTH: Avengers #118 and Defenders #11 (December 1973)
NEXT ISSUES: Captain America #169 (January 1974)