by The Masked Bookwyrm


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Captain America is published by Marvel Comics

Captain America vs. The Red Skull 2011 (SC TPB) 264 pages

coverWritten and illustrated by various.

Reprinting: Captain America #143, 226-227, 261-263, 370, the lead story from Captain America Annual #13, and stories from Captain America Comics #1, Tales of Suspense #79-81, and Captain America: Red, White & Blue (1941-2002) - with covers

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: June, 2011

Just in time for the motion picture, Marvel released this sampling of tales of Cap battling his arch foe throughout the years. And it's a better than decent collection.

The stories selected range from as far back as the very first Captain America comic in 1941, to a tale from the 2002 graphic novel anthology Red, White and Blue. These aren't, of course, the entirety of the Red Skull's appearances, reflecting perhaps a selection of stories that haven't been reprinted too much elsewhere, and are short enough that they can be squeezed in -- yet even then, most are of a fair size, with some multi-part stories and a couple of double-length tales.

The stories also allow a glimpse of the evolving mythos of the two characters, if only through passing references to adventures not included here. Although the opening 1941 story both has the Red Skull die and be unmasked as an American industrialist-turned-Nazi spy, something which I'm not sure is explained away in the later stories here where the Skull is both alive, and clearly German (it might've been, I just don't remember if it was -- I read this collection off and on over a few weeks).

A problem with recurring foes is that one story can seem pretty much like another -- same villain, same motive, same modus operandi. Surprisingly, though, that isn't too much the case here. The Red Skull is not the most nuanced of villains -- he is a Nazi, after all, and if he had a mustache he'd be twiddling it malevolently. But the various plots and schemes can have some variety to them -- indeed, the Skull is often a manipulator, staying behind-the-scenes as his latest plan unfolds. Though that can make for an ironic problem as in a number of these stories the Red Skull's involvement is often treated as a mid-story surprise!

Among the best tales here are a Lee and Kirby storyline serialized in three 10 page chapters from Tales of Suspense. It's enjoyable and fast paced, and first introduces the Cosmic Cube -- a device later to recur in other comics (though none reprinted here). It even has the added appeal that the first chapter is slightly isolated from the next two, meaning it can actually feel like two Lee/Kirby stories, not just one. Roger McKenzie and Sal Buscema's story of Cap aboard the SHIELD heli-carrier populated by agents transformed into an army of Red Skull clones (#226-227) is suitably exciting and tense (one chapter is appropriately named "This Deadly Gauntlet!") with some nice character introspection (Cap temporarily loses his super soldier induced strength, reverting to "frail" Steve Rogers). The Roy Thomas-written Annual (#13) reflects Thomas' sometimes fetishistic obsession with continuity, but effectively so here. While Cap and the Skull are locked in a modern-day race to uncover a long lost Nazi doomsday weapon, the Skull reflects back on his previous attempts to acquire it, cuing flashbacks to World War II and the 1950s, incorporating more than one Skull and Captain America (the two characters' mythos having evolved to include temporary substitutes over the years). The result is a fast paced, highly enjoyable tale, mixing real life historical minutia and past comic book mythology, to seem effectively epic and grand...not muddled and incoherent (as it easily could). It's illustrated by Arvell Jones and inked by Dan and Dave Day competently enough.

In ways, J.M. DeMatteis can be one of the better mainstream comic book writers, often imbuing his superhero tales with themes and philosophical musings. With that said, his three parter from #261-263 isn't as impressive as I hoped he would be. His take on Cap here is a bit bland (as the character can easily be, writers too keen to write him as the unflappable embodiment of the American ego, as opposed to a flesh and blood man in a costume) and the dialogue and such merely okay. Yet it's a reasonably enjoyable effort involving Cap coming to Hollywood at the request of a movie studio making a movie about him (appropriate given this collection was released to coincide with the new movie) only to find L.A. plagued by an anarchist cult and with a new hero to defend the city, Nomad -- a hero that raises Cap's suspicions, since Nomad was actually an identity he had used a few years earlier. So there's a lot going on, from the action, to the obligatory satirical jabs at tinstletown, to character stuff, and references to past adventures (one of his foes is a giant-sized Captain America robot he'd fought before -- the Ameridroid) all orchestrated by a mysterious cowled villain -- hmmm, wonder who it could be? Adequately illustrated by Mike Zeck, the very length allows for a certain richness to the plotting.

Mark Gruenwald and Ron Lim's "House Calls" is a story that isn't really good, or bad, it just is. It's more an interlude type tale, but as a snapshot on a creative era, with plenty of references and recapping, it perhaps serves okay as a filler in such a collection, as it throws in a few secondary characters inspired by the Red Skull (including Crossbones). As a reflection, not so much of a creative era, but a socio-political one, Gary Friedrich and John Romita, Sr.'s "Power to the People!" could've been quite promising. A double-sized adventure (published during a month where Marvel expanded all its comics to 34 pages) it's rooted in its early 1970s period of social unrest in a way that I like in comics from that time -- but the results are problematic. Romita's art is a bit rough, lacking the clean finish another inker might bring to it, and Friedrich's dialogue is clunky and his Cap rather bland. And the whole thing borders on offensive as it involves Black Militants rioting at the behest of a masked agitator (guess who!). Friedrich does throw in a few token nods to moral complexity toward the end -- but it mainly comes across as a comic made by a bunch of white reactionaries nervous about the Black Power movement. It can come across as patronizing, almost racist -- though I'm not saying Friedrich or Romita are racist (it's unwise to assign too much import to a single story churned out to a deadline more than three decades ago!) It's the story I had actually looked forward to the most in this collection...and it turned out to be one of the more disappointing. Still, it does reflect both its historical period, and a time in the character's life (partnered with The Falcon, and working as a cop in his alter ego) so it serves a point in this decades spanning collection.

The opening story dates all the way back to Cap's very first comic, with a story by his creators Joe Simon & Jack Kirby. Obviously it reflects its time, with simple writing and art, and narrative logic tenuous. But it's neat seeing the Skull's first appearance, where Cap hasn't met him before (though, as mentioned at the start of this review, I'm not sure how it relates to overall continuity). While the final story, a 10 page short form Captain America: Red, White & Blue written and illustrated by Tony Salmons, is a suitable book-ends piece, once more taking us back to World War II -- but it's a forgettable piece, one of those comics common to the modern era of comics which seems oddly self-important...even as it is basically just mindless action.

Despite hit and miss quality of the stories selected, the decent-to-good reads outweigh the middling-to-poor ones, and even the lesser stories are forgivable sandwiched between the others, and themselves reflect different creative and political eras, which is surely the point -- the fun -- of a collection like this. The stories themselves -- even with continuity references -- are mostly self-contained, making for a perfectly good collection of Cap stories to be read when the mood strikes for some red, white & blue action. And the assemblage of talent is more than satisfactory, most of these writers and artists familiar names to long time comic book readers, and to Captain America fans specifically.

A good collection.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$24.99 USA.

Captain America: War & Remembrance 1990 (SC TPB) 194 pages

cover by ByrneWriten and co-plotted by Roger Stern. Drawn and co-plotted by John Byrne. Inked by Joe Rubinstein.
Colours: Bob Sharen, George Roussos. Letters: various. Editor: Jim Salicrup.

Reprinting: Captain America (1st series) #247-255 (1980)

Additional notes: intros by Stern and editor Salicrup; cover gallery; rarely seen six (wordless) pages from the aborted, never published "10th" issue by Stern-Byrne.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (some more)

War and Remembrance collects the complete run of Captain America comics by Roger Stern and John Byrne (and inker Joe Rubinstein). Their run being limited as they had creative differences with the then-editorial regime and left the comic *. It was first collected in 1990, in the days when TPB collections were meant to be noteworthy -- as opposed to now where, well, everything seems to end up in a TPB eventually.

Admittedly, there's little here that stands out as "classic" or "must have"...but it's an entertaining collection. And it's a relatively self-contained read, with little in the way of nagging sub-plots left dangling by the creative team's abrupt departure (the only thing that comes to mind is a letter Cap receives from the army, which maybe was supposed to lead into something).

Stern and Byrne seem heavily into Cap's history, resulting in recurring themes that act as unifying threads. The collection begins with a story in which Stern rewrites a bit of Cap's history (suggesting a previous story of his childhood was a false memory) in one of those retcons that are soooo common in comics...and ends with a re-telling of Cap's origin, creating a book-ends feel to this collection. Inbetween, there's a story wherein Cap reunites with some now-aged British members of The Invaders -- the WW II team he fought with. In this collected form, it actually feels like it's all part of a master plan.

Along the way, there are appearances by some regular allies (Nick Fury and SHIELD), familiar foes (Batroc, Mr. Hyde, and Baron Strucker -- sort of), and the non-super then-supporting cast (introducing love interest, Bernie Rosenthal). One of the best arcs in this collection is the opening one, in which the foe (seems to be) relatively original and it even builds to a pathos-tinged surprise ending. That story arc follows upon some earlier stories, but not in a way that it's really crucial to have read them. Which is why I say that this is kind of self-contained. Despite the recurring foes, the references to Cap's history, and the few asterix'd footnotes -- it's all explained, not demanding you bring an encyclopedia of Cap lore to the table.

I've complained before that Cap can be a problematic figure, depending on the writer's impulses -- and Stern and Byrne's Cap is decidedly of the more bland, unsubtle variety. That being said, he's not an unpersonable character. As a Canadian, I've never had the knee-jerk response to the character that, I suspect, American readers are supposed to. And some runs -- notably Stern's -- suffer from too many brazenly jingoistic captions reminding us how great Cap is, and how awe-inspiring he is (funny for a guy with no powers: in an early scene where Cap is running down the street, you realize just how truly ineffective he would be in reality -- on foot, it would take him most of the day just to cross part of the city).

But now that Cap/Steve Rogers has been killed off by the editorial "geniuses" at Marvel, I find I can regard these stories with more nostalgic affection (admittedly, Cap has been ressurected). As well, in a sense I was unfair -- Cap here was less supposed to be a propagandistic representation of American reality...and more a symbol of the nobler American ideals.

Part of the appeal of these issues is, of course, John Byrne's art. I used to be a huge Byrne fan (in his '70s/'80s X-Men days) but had kind of moved away from his camp, becoming a little too aware of the stylistic shortcomings (a kind of flatness to the figures) and as his style evolved into a looser, sketchier form (the cover to this collection demonstrates some of that). So even though I picked this up, partly thinking "Cool -- Byrne", another part of me thought "Oh, wait -- Byrne". But reading these, I'm reminded of the "Cool -- Byrne!" mentality. The art is good, and solid. There's a much solider line work and (in combination with inker Joe Rubinstein) a greater use of shadow -- making for some richly textured, atmospheric scenes, particularly useful in the Invaders-themed story as Cap takes on the vampire, Baron Blood (a solid two-parter mixing action, character, and some surprise twists and turns).

There's also a largely actionless story where Cap is wooed to run for president. It's an interesting idea, not badly handled...but not especially well handled. Cap's decision doesn't seem to derive from anything that occurred in the story itself. Ironically, Cap decides not to run because he feels that he must support the ideals of America...but a politician must be prepared to compromise. Isn't that Cap really denouncing his own ideals if even he is, essentially, saying they are impractical in a real world context?

The collection comes to an end with a retelling of Cap's origin. Before TPB reprints proliferated, the idea of retelling origins periodically made sense, for those who missed 'em the first time -- but, I'll admit, I've already read Cap's origin a few times...and it just ain't that complex or interesting. In an introduction, it is said they were "challenged" to tell Cap's origin in a single, cohesive issue...but it's not like there are really a lot of disparate threads and ideas that need to be tied together (heck, a few years later, there was whopping 200 page mini-series of it...and it still seemed lacking in embellishment and nuance). Perhaps they were inspired by The Untold Legend of the Batman, which came out around that time -- but Batman's origin had been added to so much over the years, putting it together in one story did make sense.

The Stern-Byrne take reads like a kind of Coles notes version, hitting all the necessary marks, but not really making it breathe. I rather liked Lee-Kirby's telling of it from Captain America #109 (collected in Essential Captain America 2 -- reviewed on the previous page), but though Stern and Byrne even repeat much of the same dialogue, it just doesn't seem to live and breathe. Ultimately, they reiterate the material, but bring nothing fresh.

Interestingly, in Marvel Super-Heroes #3 (a 1980s anthology comic) there was a story retelling Cap's inserting an"untold" story into the middle of it involving Steve Rogers (prior to becoming Cap) encountering Marvel's 1930's era adventurer, Dominc Fortune. It was a neat story because it added to the mythos, not just repeated it (if Marvel collected in a TPB Captain America #109, Marvel Super-Heroes #3, and maybe one or two other stories that might likewise add to the legend, they could craft a far more interesting "definitive" origin...than simply getting creative teams to re-stage the same scenes over and over again).

And, of course, viewed through modern eyes, there's just something so wrong about fighting a war gainst a regime that believed in a master creating a blonde, blue-eyed, "super" man.

Anyway, despite some ups and downs, this emerges as a solid collection -- nothing classic, but an agreeable page turner and a snap shot of a creative era. It's one of those books that I came upon in the store, unaware such a collection even existed, and picked it up on a whim...and am kind of glad I did. (The Cap-Baron Blood story, and the Cap-for-president story were earlier collected in a black and white pocket book format).

* The "why" Stern and Byrne left the series has had a few explanations. The most common one, and which is repeated in one of the introductions to this collection, is that editor-in-chief Jim Shooter started restricting the number of three part (or longer) stories in comics, and Stern having already plotted his next three-part story, quit rather than edit the tale. The restriction on longer tales might seem Draconian -- and, if true, proved a short lived policy -- but could've been Shooter's attempt to curb lazy writing, where meager plots are stretched out over many issues. It has also been suggested that in the days of irregular newstand distribution, multi-parters could prove impractical. HOWEVER...later, Stern himself suggested it was because he and Byrne were in danger of falling behind their deadlines, and a "fill in" issue was going to be substituted. Stern, feeling that fill ins lost the momentum -- and the readership -- a regular team was trying to build up, and -- somewhat more mercenarily -- a fill in would mean he wouldn't get the bonus given to creators who produced x-number of consecutive issues, decided to just quit. So those are at least two semi-official explanations (semi-official in that they were offered by the people involved).

Original cover price: $__ CDN./ $12.95 USA

Essential Captain America, vol. 1 2000 (SC TPB) 524 pages

Written by Stan Lee. Pencils by Jack Kirby, with George Tuska, Gil Kane, John Romita, and Jack Sparling, Joe Simon. Inked by Chic Stone, Frank Giacoia, Joe Sinnott, Syd Shores, others.
black & white. Letters: Sam Rosen, Artie Simek, others.

Reprinting: the Captain America stories from Tales of Suspense 59-99, Captain Ameruca #100-102 (1964-1968) plus a vintage tale from Captain America Comics #10 (1941) - with covers

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Nov. 2012

Captain America isn't one of those characters that would leap to my mind as a personal favourite. I have nothing against him, but he's not a guy who would top my lists. So I was surprised how much I enjoyed a couple of other Essential volumes (2 & 4) that I picked up earlier (reviewed on the next page). Which led me to try vol. one in the Essential series -- which, of course, reprints a massive run of consecutive comics in cheap black and white.

Vol. One reprints the very first of Cap's solo adventures from the 1960s. The character had, of course, been introduced in the 1940s, but had long since been discontinued. Then when Marvel was re-emerging as a power house of the 1960s, they revived Cap -- literally. Instead of simply re-starting (or re-inventing) the character, they went the unusual root of having it be that he was the same WW 2/1940s hero revived from suspended animation in the 1960s. He made his return in the pages of the team comic, The Avengers, and was soon given a solo series -- sharing page space with Iron Man in Tales of Suspense, Cap's adventures basically about ten pages per issue.

It's easy now to look back on these stories and shrug, but arguably there was something unusual about the concept -- given Cap himself is, otherwise, a fairly non-descript hero (no real powers or a quirky personality). When other old characters were dusted off, either the passage of time was ignored, or the characters were literally re-imagined as new personalities. But Marvel decided to acknowledge and embrace the character's history, essentially making him a bit different from his 1940s version by the very virtue of acknowledging his 1940s adventures. That is, an aspect of the character is that he's a time lost idealist from an earlier age (a character explored more thoroughly in later years). Perhaps equally unusual is that, at least at first, creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby clearly haven't settled on what to do with him, or the flavour to go for, so a number of early stories are flashbacks and retro stories set during WW II but told with 1960s verve. In the 1970s other such retro series would come along, but I don't think anyone had tried it in the 1960s (with super heroes, I mean: there were straight war comics).

It's also interesting seeing them try ideas and discard them, as you realize these really are the first Cap stories in years and they're trying to figure out what works and what doesn't for their modern audience -- like they try to explain the boomerang-like capabilities of Cap's shield with magnetic gizmos...but quickly drop that, deciding the appeal of Cap is his simplicity (later in these issues Cap even states he's uncomfortable with "built-in, tricky weapons")

With all that said: this run of stories is a mixed bag. I was surprised by how much I liked a couple of other Essential Cap volumes, but this isn't on the same level -- though that doesn't mean it doesn't have an enjoyment factor. There is an appeal to the short chapter format -- little bite-sized adventures, or multi-parters that boast a movie serial energy. But there's a definite simplicity to the plotting -- a lot of stories just a brief set up for some lengthy fight scene. I mean, those can still be fun, with Kirby's bombastic visuals and Lee's quippy dialogue. But one after another after another can get a bit...bland. The WW II-era stories offer a little change from other comics at the time, but even then, the milieu isn't explored much in favour of, well, more fighting. You could argue the reliance on flashback stories is because Lee & Kirby haven't really figured out what to do with Cap in modern times...yet even the WW II stories aren't exactly rich with supporting characters or anything. And, ironically, even when the series reverts to modern times -- a lot of the stories involve ex-Nazis so you can barely notice the change in eras.

And there's a loose logic to the multi-part sagas, as though they're just winging it month to month -- like one where it opens with a villain demonstrating a shrinking device he threatens to use on Cap and Cap's WW II sidekick, Bucky -- but by the end of the three-part story, that device is forgotten and never employed! It's still a fun romp...but doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Still, there are enjoyable stories and occasional quirky settings (shady goings on at a night club) and a multi-part tale involving giant robots as part of a post-war Nazi doomsday plan is suitably dramatic and apocalyptic. The fact that Cap has no powers might make him seem an odd fit for such adversaries...but maybe that's what lends them there drama, a sense that he's David battling Goliath. A later tale is interesting, less for its plot -- just the usual page consuming fights -- than a sub-plot involving a spy who's suffering from battle fatigue, lending the story an unusual bit of gravitas.

After a parade of Nazis, ex-Nazis, terrorists, gangsters and communists -- most megalomaniacs with the emotional depth of a wafer -- when Batroc The Leaper shows up for a few rounds, he's a breath of fresh air. He's an atypical adversary, in that he's actually supposed to be kind of, well, charming, and with his own code of ethics. A few more unusual foes like him would've gone a long way to enlivening some of these tales.

The creators still seem to have trouble figuring out what to do with Cap as a person, perhaps explaining the emphasis on fight scenes. He doesn't really have a secret identity, a day job, or by extension a supporting cast -- all staples of most super hero series. Eventually they start moving him in the direction of being a defacto agent of SHIELD, with Nick Fury a recurring supporting character. And a love interest is introduced in the guise of the SHIELD agent 13 (later given a name: Sharon Carter), giving Cap something to fixate on other than his battles. All of which perhaps goes some way to setting things up for the next volume which, as mentioned, I enjoyed even more.

Unlike some early runs of comics, where it can be fun to watch them slowly establish the foundations for stories to come, there's not too much of that here. Still, these issues begin his association with Fury and SHIELD, introduce Sharon Carter, and establish a few recurring foes. Cap's arch nemesis, The Red Skull, of course dates back to his 1940s comics, but it's almost a shock reading the early tales here and you realize he hadn't yet been returned to the modern Marvel Universe. His initial appearances here are in the flashback tales, or his legacy is felt in a post-war doomsday plot. It's actually a few issues before he makes his true 1960s debut -- though then he recurs quite a bit in this volume!

And there is a brief two-parter where Cap retires his costume and some civilians end up getting mistaken for him (because they were going to costume parties and such) that might almost have served as the kernel of inspiration for Steve Englehart's Nomad story arc.

Throughout this run, there are a few guest appearances (mainly cameos) by The Avengers since Cap's home is Avengers mansion. And toward the end he teams up with the Black Panther in an early appearance for that character (though fighting a Cap foe, so frankly it could've been any guest star hero).

Being Canadian, Captain America doesn't have quite the same resonance for me he might for an American reader. A problem with the character can be his jingoism, smacking of blind pro-American propaganda. Yet I find that Lee tends to write him in a slightly more universal way -- when he talks about freedom and democracy, you believe he's fighting for it as a concept, not as specifically something owned and copyrighted by America. There's a scene toward the end of this collection (CA #101) where he's battling the Red Skull and spouting on about ideals that is clumsy and awkward (given they are trading blows!) but oddly stirring 'cause you kind of believe that Lee believes it!

Kirby draws most of this run, with George Tuska, Gil Kane, John Romita and others dropping by occasionally (most drawing an arc of stories, so we're not switching artists in mid-plot -- though few are at their best). Kirby's style is dynamic and bombastic and certainly keeps things lively (though one suspects he has to take some of the responsibility for plots running toward extended fight scenes) but it actually seems to improve over this run, maybe a reflection of different inkers (Joe Sinnott and Syd Shores inking the latter issues, embellishing and softening his lines a bit) or maybe a reflection of him getting to play with bigger page counts (once the series switched to being a self-titled Captain America run with full 20 page chapters).

Ultimately -- this is an okay collection of slam-bam action, but not really a great collection. For the most part the stories lack the veneer of sophistication that some other comics from the time had, that could leaven the inherent childishness and corniness. Lacking much in the way of emotional undercurrents (until Agent 13 shows up) or even some of the soul searching angst that would define Cap at other times. And, as I say, there isn't even the novel fun of seeing the comic slowly establish and define itself in these early issues (heck, even today Cap comics aren't really big on a supporting cast or a private life milieu).

But there are fun stories and maybe it's a volume best put on the shelf, just to be delved into from time to time when looking for a little breezy escapism.

Cover price: $__ USA.

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