Thursday, April 18, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 3 by Stan Lee, et al.

Featuring the Falcon
Picking up where Volume 2 left off, Essential Captain America, Volume 3 reproduces issues 127 to 156 of the Captain America comic book, which were originally published from July 1970 to December 1972. I really enjoyed this volume because it begins to get into some of the random issues I own and first read when I was a little kid. After all these years, I finally got to find out what happened with the Scorpion and Mr. Hyde! When I think of Marvel Comics, I remember fondly the visual style and storytelling of the 1970s to the early 1980s, and these issues exemplify that period very well.

At the start of the volume, Stan Lee is still penning the stories himself, but at about the halfway point he starts delegating the writing duties to others, beginning with Gary Friedrich and Gerry Conway, who each get a couple of issues before settling on Steve Englehart. Gene Colan continues as the lead artist for several issues, but his work here, in the hands of a succession of journeyman inkers, doesn’t look as good as it did in Volume 2. John Romita Sr. takes over for several issues, doing an excellent job, before the torch gets passed for an extended run by Sal Buscema, who, after Jack Kirby, might be considered the quintessential Captain America artist.

With issue number 134, the Captain America series underwent a title change to Captain America and the Falcon. Not only was this obviously an important change in the direction of the magazine but it also greatly improved the quality of the stories. The Falcon, though less physically powerful than Cap, is more than just a sidekick like Bucky Barnes. Cap and the Falcon are equal partners, with each getting equal time in the spotlight. Sometimes they fight side by side, sometimes alone pursuing different adversaries, and sometimes, in the Marvel tradition, they end up fighting each other. Black Panther may have been the first black superhero, but he lives in a fantasy land in the jungles of Africa. Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon, lives in Harlem, and he faces the real world problems that an urban black man faced in the 1970s. In his day job as social worker, Wilson is never at his desk, and we never see him with a client, but the stories cover the gamut of African American issues from race riots to slumlords to racial profiling. Since the writers are white, the stories often read like a mixture of well-intentioned liberalism and ‘70s blaxploitation. Conway does the best writing in this vein, but his tenure is short-lived. Then Englehart takes over, and many of the social issues are ditched in favor of immediately retconning Cap’s history.

When not dressed as Captain America, Steve Rogers has a job as a cop who rarely shows up for work, which is a rather silly and unbelievable premise. For bad guys, the Red Skull still shows up occasionally to bore the reader with another giant robot. A-list fascists like Baron Strucker and MODOK make appearances, as does the fan favorite Frenchman Batroc. Odd choices for villains are the Grey Gargoyle, who overstays his welcome, and the cosmic collector The Stranger. Spider-Man teams up with Cap and the Falcon for a couple issues, and SHIELD’s Femme Force makes their debut. Overall, there’s a lot to like in this collection. The stories take silly turns and get a bit kitschy at times, but that’s what makes ‘70s comics so lovable. For the most part, Essential Captain America, Volume 3 is vintage Marvel.
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