The spotlight is on the Falcon in these last two issues of Steve Englehart’s run (with a co-write from his successor John Warner on issue #186), as the Red Skull reveals secrets about him that will shake both heroes (although we see more of the effects on Captain America, for reasons that will become clear).
After Cap has a dream about the Red Skull, and the actual Red Skull tells his cronies how he survived after his last “death” (in issue #148), Cap, Falcon, Peggy Carter, and Gabe Jones head to the home of Oscar Brenner, a member of the Federal Open Market Committee (the policymaking unit of the Federal Reserve), two of whose members the Red Skull killed with his lethal red dust (turning the victims’ faces into red skulls) in the last issue. When Mr. Brenner is incredulous, Cap loses his patience, and Sam is forced to calm him down, all the while suspecting the reason behind his friend’s behavior.
True to form, the Skull’s thugs arrive, and Cap and Sam fall into their old routines, their well-honed teamwork on display (along with snappy quips).
During the battle, the henchmen abduct Peggy and Gabe and leave a rigged pipe for Brenner, who inhales the red dust through it and dies. After the police arrive on the scene, Cap shows a new lack of regard for their concerns after his recent experience with the Secret Empire and corrupt government officials (notwithstanding the character of the Georgetown police themselves).
Sam surely notices Cap’s aggravation, impatience, and exhaustion, but also makes note of his resolve.
And he’ll make you into someone else, Sam… just give him a few decades!
Cap gets a surprise tip from an old acquaintance, who seems to know more than he should. (This will be resolved when the Serpent Crown/Roxxon Oil storyline from earlier issues continues in Avengers #141, which also heralds Cap’s return to that team’s hallowed ranks.)
Jones’ tip is right on the money, and Cap and Sam find the Red Skull, who has Peggy and Gabe tied up and tortured (“for seven hours you have resisted,” according to the Skull, “some of the most excruciating rigors of the Third Reich”). But just as Cap thinks he has his archfoe defeated, the Skull reveals his secret weapon.
As issue #186 opens, the Red Skull gets a chance to say it again, but staged more dramatically.
After humiliating Sam by making him act like a chicken in front of his friends, the Skull tells his tale, beginning with the story beginning in issue #114 in which he used the Cosmic Cube to trade bodies with Cap and eventually sent him to the Island of Exiles, where he would meet Sam in issue #117. But here the Skull reveals that he planned for the two to meet…
…and the man he found on the island was actually “Snap” Wilson, a criminal and mobster with a fondness for birds, who crashlanded on the island while returning from a “job” in Rio.
Needless to say, Cap doesn’t believe a word, but the Red Skull continues, explaining his role in Snap’s transformation into Sam Wilson, social worker (and his mental link with Redwing).
Cap remains incredulous while the Skull explains why it’s really the only way the original story makes sense (a tidy continuity fix, or maybe a playful jab from Englehart at Stan Lee, writer of the original tale… who knows?).
And the Skull rationalizes his defeat as “a confrontation I had now decided to lose”… riiiiight. (I really doubt his massive ego would allow him to feign defeat.)
Having broken Cap’s heart, the Skull then throws him in a vault with Sam, whom he orders to kill his partner (and not for the first time, as Cap notes).
Below, we see the rarely mentioned razor-sharp edge of Cap’s shield (which never seems to be mentioned every time he catches it while it spins through the air).
As with every time he fights an innocent, Cap is wary of doing too much damage (and he doesn’t even mention his super-strength that originated in issue #158 but hasn’t been brought up for quite a while).
Below we see Cap confront his worst fear: losing another partner, and at his own hands no less. He has to make a judgment call, although “kill or be killed” seems a bit harsh (as if he gave up on the possibility of incapacitating Sam and attacking the Skull). Giving him the benefit of the doubt on this, though, he makes one of the most difficult decisions possible among his “priorities,” ultimately choosing his own life over that of his friend…
…until Roxxon security forces storm the base, and the Skull shows his own men how much he values them.
There’s the super-strength (if we take the exposition literally), enhanced by his own legendary resolve.
To finish the issue: Cap catches up to the Skull who nonetheless escapes, but leaving Sam comatose and Cap very uncertain about their future.
(And because we won’t get to it for quite a while, let me tell you that Sam’s past as “Snap” Wilson is explained in Captain America #277 as multiple personal disorder stemming from childhood trauma, implying that the Sam we know and love was the original personality, which the Red Skull inadvertently restored with the Cosmic Cube.)
Captain America (vol. 1) #185, May 1975: Steve Englehart (writer), Frank Robbins and Sal Buscema (pencils), Frank Giacoia (inks), Stan Goldberg (colors), Tom Orzechowki (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Captain America (vol. 1) #186, June 1975: Steve Englehart and John Warner (writers), Frank Robbins (pencils), Frank Giacoia (inks), Michelle Wolfman (colors), Dave Hunt (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
PREVIOUS ISSUE: Captain America #184 (April 1975)
ALSO THESE MONTHS: Giant-Size Invaders #1 (June 1975)