Monday, March 4, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 2 by Stan Lee, et al.

More 1960s fun with Cap (and introducing the Falcon!)
This second volume of classic Captain America comics from the Marvel Essentials series picks up where Volume 1 left off. Essential Captain America, Volume 2 reprints issues 103 to 126, which were originally published from 1968 to 1970. All the stories were written by Stan Lee, and initially the art is provided by Jack “King” Kirby, but he departs after the first several issues included here. The middle of the book features brief stints by artists John Romita, John Buscema, and Jim Steranko. The latter was highly regarded back in the day for his innovative page layouts and psychedelic imagery, but in hindsight his art seems overrated and takes too many liberties with the human figure. With issue #116, Gene Colan settles in for an extended stay as artist, and his work is superb. This unsung master’s artistic style, combining the thunderous bombast of Kirby’s work with the anatomical fidelity of Neal Adams, is the perfect graphic complement to Stan Lee’s rollicking adventure stories.

Speaking of which, Lee’s storytelling has improved since the last volume, but it’s still pretty bizarre. The Red Skull continues to make frequent appearances, but thankfully he’s not as ubiquitous as before. MODOK and AIM show up more often, Batroc makes a couple reappearances, Dr. Faustus is introduced, and bad guys from other Marvel titles, like the Trapster and the Scorpion, each stop by for an issue. These villains usually have no plan or objective beyond the assassination of Captain America. Rick Jones (the Hulk’s best friend) decides he wants to be Cap’s sidekick and dons the old costume previously worn by Bucky Barnes. The ease with which he falls into the role defies belief, and his presence is usually more of a burden than a help. In Volume 1, Cap’s secret identity was revealed, and the whole world came to know him as Steve Rogers. In this volume, Lee comes up with a cockamamie plot to fake Steve Rogers’s death, thus negating the identity reveal, but then Cap goes back to being Steve Rogers anyway, as if nothing ever happened. The biggest development within these issues, however, is the debut of the Falcon, one of Marvel’s pioneering black superheroes. He won’t become Cap’s official partner until Volume 3, but he appears in four or five of the issues included here. Although his origin story is a little weird, towards the end of Volume 2 the Captain America title starts to display inklings of an increase in urban realism that would characterize the Falcon’s tenure as co-headliner. 

The tone and subject matter of these issues vacillates between scenes of artfully violent hand-to-hand combat and more pensive moments in which Cap broods over thoughts of loneliness and love. He is still chasing Sharon Carter, but their relationship is not working out because he wants her to give up her career as a SHIELD superspy. (Cap may be a liberal, but he’s not yet a feminist). These moments of heartache and tribulation often seem lifted from a sappy romance comic, but when drawn by Kirby or Colan they at least have the appearance of film noir.

In summation, there’s nothing here that will really go down in history as a Marvel masterpiece, but for the most part it’s just good solid storytelling and art. At times the plot points come across as kitschy or ridiculous, but that’s part of the nostalgic fun. Like it’s predecessor, Volume 2 is an enjoyable trip down memory lane, and I am looking forward to reading the further exploits of Captain America and the Falcon in Volume 3.
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