(Image courtesy of Wikipedia-I've got the book right next to me, but scanning it would be too much rigamarole right now. Maybe later [the image could be bigger, then].)
Note that Cap (and of course this is the Steve Rogers Cap) is carrying a gun. He does actually use a gun in the book, although it's probably a semi-automatic instead of the submachine gun on the cover (it's someone else's, of course).
(Note also that he's got the word CAPTAIN floating above his right ear and AMERICA above his left. From the fact that the back cover has the same painting of Cap with the same words floating above the same ears, some people might assume that the words were part of his character design, floating surreally behind his head everywhere he went-if they'd never read comic books before. No wonder people have trouble getting into comics from outside.)
Anyway, remember I said that this book was the second ever prose novel covering a Marvel character? (The first, an Avengers novel, was written by a guy who wrote nonfiction about UFOs, by the way.) It was written by Ted White (whose Wikipedia article was linked earlier), and was perhaps the first ever attempt at revamping supercharacters in a way that made them more realistic. (I don't know about the Avengers book.) Within the novel, Cap's origin is revisited in a way that is marginally more realistic-the time over which he is transformed from puny Steve Rogers to the massive Captain America changes from about thirty seconds to around a month-still incredibly fast, but more realistic nonetheless.
It maintains that Cap is "in no way superhuman" (although this is from Cap's mouth, and he's a modest fella), but in this novel he has steel-enhanced bones, temporarily had total conscious control over his bodily functions (during his transformation), is virtually immune to weather-based extremes of heat and cold, has an extremely powerful healing factor (he burned seven pounds in order to recover from a concussion and several other injuries), the kind of strength and reflexes that only action heroes possess (which might not be at car-flipping and bullet-dodging levels, but is superhuman nonetheless), and wasn't even slowed down by two bullets punching through his thigh. Not superhuman? Right. (Incidentally, obviously this was well before a certain character was introduced.)
The differences are sufficient enough that the Appendix to the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe website created an alternate universe page for it. For instance, the Red Skull reappears, but it seems to be completely independent of the similar event in the comics. When the Avengers are mentioned (complete with Marvel-style footnotes from "Smilin' Stan Lee"), it ignores the Hulk and exclusively calls Henry Pym Giant Man. (It does mention that he had shrinking powers, and I suppose Cap never really met Pym in his Ant-Man identity back then, but whatever.) There are numerous other tiny differences, and we also, in flashback form, get a huge load of stuff about his origin-in fact, I'd say that the origin story and his life before Captain America, etc., took up nearly a third of this 118-page story.
Another interesting facet of the novel is that it explores the effect of a superhero wearing a mask. I remember reading the novelization of the "death and rebirth of Batman" novel, Knightfall (I re-read it quite recently, in fact), and the parallels between the mask-wearing there and the mask-wearing in The Great Gold Steal are strong, even though a good twenty-some years separate them.
But to illustrate the real significance and relevance of this book relative to the comic book present, it's interesting to just look at the chapter titles:
- Death by Laser
- Who Is Captain America?
- Nazi Treachery
- With the Avengers
- Into the Vault
- Captain America Is Dead!
- The Eagle Screams
- Robin's Song
- The Screaming Machines
- The Great Gold Steal
- Birds of a Feather
It's highly disappointing that the first chapter lacks an exclaimation point. (Also, if anyone can think of appropriate junk to link to for the other titles, go ahead and bring it up.)
Anyway, the plot is that a number of villains with bird-themed names (all plainclothes, however) are going to try to steal $13 billion in gold from the federal repository in Manhattan (in 1968 dollars at 1968 gold prices).
Death by Laser was not, in fact, a ridiculous usage of lasers in James Bond fashion, but a drive-by shooting with a small, portable unit (and it was highly effective-some people mistook the wounded man for a drunk, as there was no gunshot and he wasn't bleeding). And yes, the guy died.
Who Is Captain America? to about halfway through With the Avengers are origin/flashback material. Into the Vault is where Cap gets on the trail of the villains, entering the vault from which the gold was being slowly stolen. (Go figure.)
Captain America Is Dead! is mostly from the POV of the villains, who believe that they have managed to kill him, by blowing him up. He escapes through his powers.
The Eagle Screams is so-called because the leader of the bird-villain ring, Eagle, decides to step up the operation.
Robin's Song is about Robin, the attractive female slightly inconsistently described (her hair apparently changed color) agent who baited a trap for Cap (and her trap, natch). Predictably, Robin later frees Cap (it's thankfully not romantic, although there's a bit where Cap momentarily wonders if perhaps she's the mysterious agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. that reminds him of someone). Why? Because Cap points out that a billion dollars in gold is a monumentally difficult thing to cash in. Also, later on the Red Skull (how does he figure into the plot? Keep reading to find out!) talks about Robin as if she's a piece of meat.
Unmasked! features Sparrow, another of the birdbaddies, insisting on unmasking him (hm, mysterious), and unmasking him. This is connected to the exploration of the power of the mask. It also brings up the possibility that perhaps there were other Captain Americas, interestingly from the mouth of Sparrow (hm...).
The Screaming Machines were the electrical generators that Sparrow and his thugs wrecked to cause the blackout that let them attempt to pull the operation off. (Kinda disappointing, really. It's interesting to note that Ultron [previously linked] debuted the same year this novel did, though.) It also sounds like the name of a rock band.
Hm, The Great Gold Steal. This title looks familiar. Oh, yeah, it's the title of the book. Weird. They only manage to grab between $3 billion (Sparrow's estimate) and $1 billion (Cap's high-end estimate).
Birds of a Feather is a predictable title, but it is revealed that Sparrow is actually Eagle! Gasp! Then, Cap tells him to take it a step further and reveal his other double identity-Eagle is actually James Gaughan! Gasp! Wait, that doesn't mean anything to you? Oh, Gaughan was the bank executive that Cap met earlier. And then it was revealed that James Gaughan was actually SPOILER ALERT the Red Skull! GASP! Then, it is revealed that one of the thugs is actually a communist agent! Gasp!
Anyway, this story is a fun little superhero romp that reads more like a spy drama, all things considered, and my quite honest assessment is that it's a pretty decent piece of pulp fiction. (Of course, I've read books like The Star Kings, The Solar Invasion, and The Cometeers without flinching, so my standards just might be a little bit different from yours. Also, I think I will review all three of those books at some point.) If you can find one for less than $10 and you like superheroes (and you don't mind reading a novel-and let's face it, it's pretty short), I would strongly recommend it. (My mother probably bought mine for a dollar or less-my family goes to lots of yard and garage sales.) Even if you don't think it sounds exciting as a comic book fan, I think that you should look into it-it has historical value. Really.