This fill-in issue calls back to one of Captain America’s first solo stories after coming out of the ice, and like the last issue it has a strong theme: prison reform and the rehabilitation of convicted criminals. (Note the striking cover by writer Al Milgrom, which was curiously similar to Frank Miller’s cover to Amazing Spider-Man #219, released the same month, but by completely different creative teams and editors.)
The issue begins with Cap being led down a cellblock in the prison on Rykers Island, where he is mocked and challenged by the inmates until, to their surprise and ours, the officers accompanying him throw him in a cell. And one of his cellmates is none other than “Thumper” Morgan, whom Cap met in a previous visit to the prison in Tales of Suspense #62 (February 1965), just his fifth solo story in the Silver Age. And well, Thumpers gonna thump.
Cap seems more interested in his other cellmate, Tony Zack, who had a hard life growing up…
…and ended up in prison, which Cap seems less than sympathetic for, having grown up in tough times himself.
Although he holds Tony responsible for his mistakes, Cap also recognizes that prison is not the best place for him—especially with people like Thumper there to “guide” him.
Cap’s thoughts above reflect a concern with rehabilitation, considered to be an alternative to the traditional motivations for punishment, deterrence and retributivism, although it is not, strictly speaking, incompatible with either. Like Cap, advocates for prison reform often cite the negative lasting effects of imprisonment on the imprisoned, which can lead to increased rate of recidivism, when arguing for increased attention on rehabilitation. (For more, see chapter 3 in Thom Brooks’ book Punishment, as well as throughout the entry on punishment at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)
But reform is not the main reason Cap returned to Rykers, as we learn in a press conference with the new prison warden. As he explains (in earlier panels), the gag at the end of Tales of Suspense #82—to have the magnetic door to the prison open with the voice command “Captain America”—backfires after one prisoner told another the name of the hero who put him away. (Who could’ve seen that coming?)
So that’s why Cap was “tossed” in a cell—a favor for an old war buddy—which naturally leads one of the gathered reporters to… um… question his integrity.
As it should be for anybody! It says a lot about a person when they can’t understand why someone would have integrity. (And funny, she doesn’t look like Rosalind Russell.)
After Cap leaves, the new warden reveals he has his own philosophical ideas about punishment, being a fan of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon…
…although he also shares Cap’s concern about rehabilitation.
Meanwhile, the other prisoners suspect Cap’s a spy in their midst, so they decide to challenge him, leading to an extended fight scene reminiscent of his early Tales of Suspense stories (including #82).
The prison guards are not only entertained, they’re also impressed—and Cap looks amused himself, just like the early days.
(If you’re too young to remember, Lou Ferrigno played the Incredible Hulk on the 1977-1982 TV show, alongside Bill Bixby as “puny Banner.” It seems that, in the Marvel Universe, Ferrigno had expert coaching for the part!)
When the fight is over, one of the guards notes the regard with which the rest of prisoners hold Cap. (Of course, they did just see him wallop at least a half dozen of their fellow convicts, so it may have been simple prudence on their parts!)
Afterwards, Deacon (also from Tales of Suspense #82), who was present at the press conference, fills Thumper in on Cap’s mission, and they agree to help Cap escape so they can escape with him. This also means protecting Cap from sneak attacks from other prisoners in the metal shop while he was making a shiv… I mean, shield. Afterwards, Cap finds himself with a new partner (kind of), and thanks him by taking responsibility for the fracas.
Tony discovers soon what Thumper’s up to, which likely makes Cap seem like a chump to him, and possibly to the reader. But it is in Cap’s nature to give others the benefit of the doubt, even if they sometimes let him down, and we can easily imagine that Cap was skeptical of Thumper’s sudden change of heart the entire time.
Cue the record… “tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak, somewhere in this town“…
…and Cap shows how well the warden hid his surveillance efforts.
While Cap soars over the prison floor, he overhears the guards mention the other inmates riding on his coattails, and considers sacrificing his own mission for the sake of helping with the large prison break.
As we learn below, Cap did manage to put things together (eventually)…
…and he takes one more step to protect Tony’s future (in the spirit of rehabilitation as well as gratitude).
We learn why Cap made a shield… and seems to have a good job of it too!
Below, Cap executes the weirdest pole vault ever (without a pole).
The prisoners who wanted to follow Cap out realize they have no hope of duplicating his feat and are escorted back to their cells, with Thumper giving the warden the “good news,” and Cap once again speaking up for his new pals (and his old pal’s reform program).
Finally, Hildy points out the flaw in her colleague’s argument, makes her own pitch for the warden’s proposals, and gives Cap a proper send-off at the end of the story. (Maybe we were too hard on her before!)
Captain America (vol. 1) #260, August 1981: Al Milgrom (writer and inks), Alan Kupperberg (pencils), Frank McLaughlin and Quickdraw Studios (inks), Doc Martin, George Roussos, and Don Warfield (colors), Jim Novak (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Collected in Captain America Epic Collection: Dawn’s Early Light.
PREVIOUS ISSUES: Captain America #259 and Iron Man #148 (July 1981)
ALSO THIS MONTH: Avengers #210 and Defenders #98 (August 1981)
NEXT ISSUE: Captain America #261 (September 1981)