Marvel Comics writer Mark Gruenwald loved Captain America.
And he proved it in countless stories of the Star-Spangled Avenger during the ’80s and ’90s. His Cap was the strong, unwavering hero that serves as the template today for the big-budget blockbusters starring Chris Evans.
But not every story can be a masterpiece. Sometimes the pressure of the monthly deadline – or here, the biweekly deadline – can prove to be too much for even the most able of scripters.
Take, for example, “The Superia Stratagem,” a six-part saga running bi-weekly during the summer of 1991 in which Cap goes up against a secret society of female super-villains.
I’m just going to jump to the crazy part. Because you don’t have time for anything else.
In “Captain America” No. 390, August 1991, “When Women Wage War,” Cap and his pal Paladin board the S.S. Superia looking for Cap’s love interest Diamondback and are ultimately overwhelmed by the sheer number of femme fatales.
Just in time for the cliffhanger to the story, the dreaded evil mastermind steps out of the shadows – Superia!
Her minions immediately assume she will want the male intruders eliminated.
“No, not kill them, my dear. Make them one of us!
“I’m going to turn them into women!”
That’s one scary hook to get readers to come back.
Not even Batman has faced such villainy, and the Joker tried to turn him into a human surfboard on his TV show. Am I old enough to be reading this?
In “Captain America” No. 391, cover date September 1991, “No Man’s Land,” Cap and Paladin are unconscious, suspended in chemical tanks and hooked up to IVs.
“… Twelve hours from now, when the vaunted Captain America and his ally Paladin emerge from their chemical baths, they will have been transformed into perfect specimens of womanhood!”
OK. I have questions. Lots of questions.
Just what does Superia hope to accomplish?
Is this punishment or reward?
What exactly happens to Cap’s little Bucky? Does it shrink, dissolve or just fall off?
If Cap becomes the perfect specimen of womanhood, will he be able to bear wee Avengers?
Hey, don’t blame me. This comic book started this.
Superia continues to drop campy exposition:
This “feminization treatment” is just one of her glorious scientific breakthroughs as she builds her secret society of Femizonia. (Just think of it as a high tech version of Wonder Woman’s island paradise Themyscira, devoted to evil, with a name that sounds like a treatment for feminine itch.)
Her minion dares to ask the obvious: What if Captain America and Paladin resent being turned into women?
“If being the superior sex does not expand their particular horizons, then I will simply have to remind them that their one hope of regaining the gender they were born with resides in me, and if they were smart – they’d avoid invoking my legendary wrath!”
Hell hath no fury like Dr. Gender-Bender scorned.
But just when it seems all is lost for our hapless heroes – they’ve endured more than five hours of synthetic estrogen, and after the sixth, their physiques will change – Captain America breaks through his chemically-induced stupor and manages to free himself.
I have questions. You knew I would.
After five hours of this intense estrogen treatment, has there been, I don’t know, any shrinkage? I know I’d be worried.
Does Cap maybe want to run home, grab a pint of Rocky Road, put on some Lifetime and catch a rerun of “Bridget Jones’ Diary”?
Oh, but this story isn’t quite over. There’s still some more humiliation in store for Cap and Paladin.
To get any further in the secret enclave, they’ll have to disguise themselves as women.
Buff female super-villains, but still women. Check out the results.
Umm. Yeah. Still Cap and Paladin. They wouldn’t fool the Mole, and he’s blind and so desperate he’d date a plank if someone said it was a female plank.
If anyone is still interested, Superia admits her ultimate plan at the close of this chapter: She’s going to sterilize all the women on the planet.
“But why? I thought you liked women,” Cap protests.
Superia gloats that those women who remain in her secret club will be the only fertile women on the planet, so all the world’s nations will have to do exactly what she says if they want the human race to continue.
Suddenly this has become a bizarro version of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” with capes.
You can find these issues on the Marvel Comics app.
For some strange reason, Marvel has never released this story in a trade collection.
I admit it. There’s something about these Kryptonite-strength train wreck stories that just fascinates me, whether it’s Ms. Marvel falling in love with her rapist baby or Black Canary discovering she’s her own daughter.
These stories just don’t come out of the wind. Gruenwald had to have some communication with the Marvel Powers-That-Be. He had to pitch this story to somebody.
“So here’s the hook, see, it’s never been done before. Sure, the Joker dropped a Killing Joke and the Phoenix destroyed a planet of mushroom aliens, but Superia is so evil, so vile, she threatens to turn our hero into – wait for it – a chick!”
And somebody sat back and whistled. “Yes! That comic is going to fly off the shelves! Write that up!”
We so need a C-SPAN for comic book editorial meetings.
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“I must look ridiculous!” – understatement of the year!