Friday, February 8, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Cap’s freshly thawed adventures of the 1960s
When I was growing up and reading comics in the 1970s and ‘80s, Captain America was my favorite character. He was never as powerful as most of the other heroes in the Marvel Universe, but he triumphed through sheer bravery, tenacity, and nobility of spirit. Captain America was created in 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for Timely Comics. In 1964, after Timely became Marvel, the character was revived by Kirby and Stan Lee. When Lee and Kirby created the Avengers, Captain America was found frozen in a block of ice and brought back to life to fight evil anew. Shortly thereafter, Cap received his own adventures in the pages of Tales of Suspense, beginning with issue number 59. At issue number 100, Marvel changed the title from Tales of Suspense to Captain AmericaEssential Captain America, Volume 1 reprints these adventures of the resurrected hero through issue number 102.

Tales of Suspense was a series shared between Captain America and Iron Man, therefore each character only got 10 pages in each issue. Even so, it’s pretty amazing what Lee and Kirby could do with Cap in just 10 pages, especially when you consider most of those 10 pages were devoted to fight scenes, with the creative duo constantly finding new ways to write and draw hand-to-hand combat. Even though Cap was an active member of the 1960s Avengers, a large portion of the stories here take place during World War II. That’s a bit disappointing, because the war stories get somewhat monotonous, and the only villain who’s in any way remarkable is the Red Skull. These WWII adventures of Cap and Bucky are not nearly as interesting as those created for the Invaders series that Marvel would publish beginning in 1975. 

The latter half of the book more satisfyingly focuses on Cap’s present-day (1960s) adventures, but still the Red Skull dominates almost every story. Although he may be Cap’s arch-enemy, he is not one of Marvel’s more creatively evil supervillains, just a sort of Lex Luthor-type mastermind who once served Hitler. He comes up with master plans, but somehow never manages to kill Cap when he has the chance. The number of times the Red Skull is presumed dead is just ridiculous. Some welcome variety is provided by the first appearances of Batroc the Leaper, MODOK, and the Super-Adaptoid. The scientific mafia A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics) is also featured in several of the later issues. There aren’t many guest stars in these stories but for the occasional Avengers cameo, until issues 98 to 100, in which Cap teams up with the Black Panther. 

Cap has a love interest who makes several appearances in this volume, but although he just about proposes marriage to her at one point, issue after issue goes by without him ever asking her name. Known only as Agent 13, she will eventually be revealed as Sharon Carter, though that doesn’t happen in this book. Cap also remembers a love he lost in World War II, which likely will eventually turn out to be Peggy Carter.

Even when the stories get tiresome, Kirby’s art is phenomenal. In the glory days of the Silver Age, no other artist could touch him. He only draws about two-thirds of this book, with various other artists filling in here and there. Personally, I think the Captain America stories of the ‘70s, when he teamed up with the Falcon, were better than these rather simplistic ‘60s tales. Still, it’s a lot of fun to read these newly-thawed adventures of my favorite childhood hero and to marvel at Kirby’s spectacular art.
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