Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

“I became Secretary of Defense because of my fame as a luchador. No, seriously.”

By 1965, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the other Marvel creators are doing some amazing work. But nobody’s perfect; in “The Strength of the Sumo” (Tales of Suspense #61) Lee and Kirby gave us nothing but an amazing trainwreck.

We open with Cap parachuting into “war-torn Vietnam” where he lets a band of Vietcong take him captive. They are suspicious, but Cap’s challenge makes them feel they’d lose face if they listened to the “shoot him now” guy. Need I say that Shoot Him Now was the right response?

Cap’s there to rescue a black American pilot, Jim Baker, whose brother saved Cap’s life years ago in the Big One. Cap demands an audience with the local North Vietnamese leader, the General (not given a surname, Wo, until many years later), to arrange Baker’s release. The CO of the troops holding Cap agrees, provided Cap proves his mettle against the major’s best hand-to-hand fighters. Cap wins, thereby causing the major to lose face. But no big: the General will avenge the insult, for no Occidental ever leaves his presence alive!

When Cap arrives at the base he discovers it’s an ornate palace suitable to a pulp-fiction warlord — no mere military decor for General Wo! Nor as you can see, any military uniforms. A parade of colorfully clad dancers precedes the General’s entrance; Cap quips that it’s straight out of Cecil B. DeMille and only “a glory-mad, power-hungry potentate would employ such a retinue!” Wo himself is a ginormous Sumo wrestler who earned his rank through his awesome skills in that sport. Now that introductions are over, he orders his soldiers to take Cap and Baker out and shoot them.

I shall now pause to express how gobsmacking batshit I find all this.

Let me be clear, i don’t expect a discourse on Why We Fight in a Silver Age Vietnam War story. Comics’ analysis of geopolitics rarely went beyond “we’re good, they’re evil.” The other side are fiendish fiends who hate our freedoms, what else do readers need to know? My third movie-reference book discusses, in part, how movies likewise treat Nazis, Commies, Japanese and Muslim spies and fifth columnists as heads of one generic freedom-hating hydra.

Even so, it’s annoying Stan and Jack write Vietnam as such a Genericstan. The soldiers confronting Cap could as easily be Axis, Soviet or some Latin American dictator’s troops . We get no sense of anything about Vietnam other than that it has jungles and that the enemy are the Vietcong. Stan seems to think the Vietcong are the North Vietnamese military — that was the NVA — but he writes Wo as less a military figure than a warlord straight out of Yellow Peril pulp fiction stereotypes.

The Sumo thing makes this more ludicrous, if not a little racist. Vietnam doesn’t have a Sumo wrestling tradition; that’s a Japanese thing. As we’re only a couple of issues away from a string of WW II-set stories, I wonder if Stan took one of them and rewrote it for a Vietnam War setting. That would explain the Sumo, and also why Jim Baker has a brother at least 20 years older than he is (not impossible, but unusual). The idea the Japanese routinely appoint wrestlers to military leadership would still be way stupid but putting it in Vietnam makes it worse. As my title says, it’s as ridiculous as a United States general winning his rank because he’s Mexico’s greatest masked wrestler. Even if I’m wrong about the story’s genesis, it’s still stupid.

Getting back to the story, Cap’s angry response to his death sentence enrages Wo enough that the General vows to kill him personally. He has size and muscle; Cap has nothing but skill, his shield and raw American courage. The odds are on the side of freedom’s enemy!

The weird thing is, Cap doesn’t beat Wo, not really. Cap gets past his foe with Jim, races for the exit but finds the General blocking the way —— so he blinds the general with sunlight reflecting off his shield. That lets Cap and Baker make it past the Red giant … who becomes so mad he drops the statue on his own head, sealing off the entrance while the brave Americans escape. As clashes of titans go, that’s an underwhelming finish.

Of course, now that this all took place in Sian-Cong, it’s possible to retcon out some of the stupidity. The General was just one of the many Asian warlords seizing power during the war, so maybe he’s really Japanese? Or Japan occupied Sian-Cong at some prior time and introduced the tradition of Sumo wrestling? But a better solution would be to forget this one ever saw daylight.

#SFWApro. Art by Jack Kirby.


  1. Jeff Nettleton

    I think either Jack was repurposing some old WW2 adventure (not necessarily Cap) or Stan got the idea from one or a little from Column A and a little from Column B. The basic premise sounds like the average story from one of Martin Goodman’s “sweats” magazines. These were the men’s adventure pulp magazines, which lasted until the early-mid 70s, with lurid covers of GIs fighting Nazis and crazed killers, while rescuing scantily clad women; or, fighting scantily clad female Nazis and rescuing equally scantily clad women or other variations. You got a lot of breakouts from jungle prisons and such and I can see this as a repurposed story from one of those mags.

    Jack was known to go to the pulp well, meaning the classic pulps of the 20s and 30s (and he did some work on Goodman’s magazines, as documented in the Fantagraphics history of those things and the involvement of some of the Timely artists); but not so much the then-current men’s pulps. I could see Stan talking to Goodman and seeing the cover for a new magazine issue and proposing the same thing, here.

    Don’t get me started on Sian-Cong. Dumb idea; possibly worse than Stan’s fallback on Commie villains, in the absence of better plots from Kirby or Ditko. What’s next; Sgt Fury and His Howling Delta Force? Better yet, a new title called The Siang. Somebody call Doug Murray’s agent.

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