by The Masked Bookwyrm


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Captain America is published by Marvel Comics

Essential Captain America, vol. 2 2002 (SC TPB) 524 pages

cover by SterankoWritten by Stan Lee, with Jim Steranko. Pencils by Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, Jim Steranko, with John Romita, John Buscema. Inks by Joe Sinnott, Syd Shores, Sal Buscema, others.
Black & white. Letter: Artie Simek, San Rosen, others.

Reprinting: Captain America (1960s series) #103-126 (1968-1970)

Rating: * * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Although I have nothing against Captain America (as evidenced by the fact that I've read a few Cap comics over the years) I'm not really a huge fan of him, either. Cap has always been a bit of a bland figure -- bland powers (that is to say, no powerss, really, save the cool shield) and often written to be blandly iconic, the living, unflappable embodiment of America. Some writers have succeeded in investing the character with endearing doubts and insecurities (such as J. M. DeMatteis in Deathlok Lives! and other writers have explored the character's sense of alienation as a bi-product of a bygone era -- a 1940s hero who spent decades in suspended animation -- attempting to make his way through the modern world).

I picked up this collection -- one of Marvel's massive, delightfully economical "Essential" books -- largely for the Gene Colan art. As well as for some vintage Kirby. I'm not a huge Kirby fan, but I like his stuff from time to time. As well, this collection includes a multipart story drawn by Jim Steranko, a talent who dabbled in comics only briefly, but became something of a legend. I wasn't necessarily getting it for the stories. After all, one review I read of Captain America in general summarily dismissed this entire period as eminently forgettable.

Imagine my surprise to find that these early Stan Lee scripted stories not only were thoroughly enjoyable...but actually made me dig the character.

Lee, who at the time was writing the angst-riddled exploits of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, brings the same pre-occupations to Captain America. I don't think Cap has ever seemed more human. Passionate and courageous, sometimes bitter and flinty, lonely, confused by the world and his place in it, and, in true Lee fashion, almost wholly pre-occupied with his star-crossed romance with SHIELD secret agent, Sharon Carter. Cap's had subsequent love interests but Lee, ever the romantic, actually makes it paramount in the character's thoughts. I actually found myself caring about Captain America as a person, not just as a super hero.

Interestingly enough, some of Lee's early 1960s heroines, like the Invisible Girl, were passive second stringers, but Sharon Carter really is as capable as the boys. It's Cap's attitudes that are old fashioned and sexist, not the portrayal of Sharon herself.

Most of the stories are single issue affairs, and the plotting is pretty simple, with Cap a de facto agent of SHIELD, receiving assignments, culminating in a fight. I won't say it's sophisticated, but it is fast paced and entertaining and colourful (euphemistically speaking as the stories are reprinted in moody black and white) with just enough atypical stories, human drama, or quirky milieus (a Hollywood sound stage; a tropical island jungle) to keep things fresh. Familiar foes crop up, from the Red Skull and The Exiles (his goon squad of grotesque multi-ethnic dictators) who appear more than once, plus Batroc, The Trapster, AIM, Hydra, Modok, and more, with appearances by the Avengers, plus some flashback stories recalling Cap's origin and W.W. II days. In addition to the single issue exploits, there's a nice, off beat multi-part epic (begun by John Romita, Sr., then John Buscema, but mainly drawn by Colan) in which the Red Skull manages to switch bodies with Cap, trapping him in the guise of his mortal enemy. It's a clever saga that also introduces the Falcon, later to be Cap's regular co-star/sidekick.

The art on the series is highly effective. I'm used to seeing Kirby on bombastic series, with lots of techno-gadgets and monsters and battles that level city blocks. Here, he brings a definite dynamism to things, but also a surprising sensitivity and restraint, needed for a story about a guy without powers, and where people spend as much time sitting around, talking (or brooding) as having knockdown drag out fights. And the fight scenes boast an effective brutality. You really can feel that when Cap tackles, say, Batroc, these really are two guys slamming into each other. Romita and Buscema do nice work on their sole issues -- Romita, whom I had never seen draw Cap before, delivers particularly striking work. And Colan, who draws almost half the issues, is, of course, wonderful, even inked by sturdy Joe Sinnott, a combination I wasn't sure would work, but does. Colan was playing in a whole other sand box than many of his contemporaries, with his moody use of shadow, his weirdly organic, strangely realistic style and innovative angles.

Curiously, the weaker issues are Steranko's. Steranko became a legend for his experimental way of breaking down scenes, bringing an almost cinematic eye to a sequence, utilizing close ups of hands or eyes, or breaking down an action almost in slow motion across a series of panels. It's certainly striking. But Steranko's actual drawing skill, I'd argue, is weaker than the other gentlemen represented here. As well, the very way he likes to break down a scene can be indulgent and actually slow up the action. Sometimes less can be more -- or at least more effective. Still, it's nifty work -- but I'd take Kirby and Colan over it.

(Recently re-reading the Steranko issues by themselves -- and so not contrasting them with the other issues -- I actually enjoyed them more, appreciating Steranko's visual experiments better. The crux of the story -- the adopting Rick Jones as his sidekick -- also works better taken in isolation, given that in the overall continuity of the surrounding issues it seems kind of awkward)

There is a certain haphazardness to the plotting at times -- inevitably made more glaring when comiccs published months apart are read back-to-back. Cap spends the first few issues alone (well, working as an agent for SHIELD and with Sharon at his side), then he hooks up with Rick Jones -- Marvel's perennial sidekick, who was hanging with the Hulk (jade jaws makes a cameo). Cap takes Rick as his new sidekick, with Rick even adopting the garb of Cap's 1940s sidekick, the late Bucky Barnes. Fine. Except, barely have we spent a few issues integrating Rick into Cap's world -- than he is summarily written out again (a move that makes more sense when you realize that it was in the Steranko issues that Rick is introduced, as if he wanted to insert the kid sidekick...but Lee had less interest in continuing the idea). At first this seems to be to make way for the Falcon -- a black, inner city hero who Lee might have felt better suited the times than just another white, boy sidekick. However it's not clear the Falcon was originally intended as a regular (after being introduced in the Red Skull epic, he only appears in one other adventure in this TPB). So Cap is right back to being alone. Likewise, Cap's decision to fake his alter ego's death (because, apparently, everyone knew Steve Rogers was Cap) doesn't seem to lead to any new directions in the series. Towards the end of this collection, Cap breaks up with Sharon over a misunderstanding, but you can't tell if that was the end of the relationship or not (I guess you'd have to get Essential Captain America, vol. 3). And there's a kind of odd issue where SHIELD head, Nick Fury, essentially brainwashes Cap into taking an assignment...and yet that doesn't seem as though that's supposed to be a bad thing!

Lee's writing is often heavy handed, his moralizing a tad naive (like a story where Cap goes to Vietnam, which basically advocates both sides trying to find a peaceful solution...while managing to pretty much ignore American involvement in the escalating conflict!), but what Lee had going for him in the 1960s was a (seeming) genuiness. You believe in his passion, and the passion of his characters. When Cap speaks of freedom and liberty, you don't groan, thinking of American propaganda believe he, and Lee, mean every word of it. In fact, it takes on an oddly poignant resonance. This was before Richard Nixon's impeachment, before George W. Bush. You really do believe Cap as an idealist who believes in the rights of all people to be free (Lee gets extra points for not couching Cap's speeches in parochial, strictly American contexts).

These stories are at once rooted in their time of Cold War politics, campus protests, black militants, and Vietnam. Yet oddly, and sadly, they're also timeless, as Cap battles an array of terrorists and spies that could be intended to reflect today's headlines -- the almost religious fervor of the, ostensibly secular, Hydra is particularly prescient given the current fanaticism of terrorism.

I picked this up, more on a whim, and for the art. And found it a truly enjoyable ride, perhaps as much for its blend of childish simplicity, and heartfelt humanity...and a lot of knockdown drag out fights, too. Beautifully drawn (in its different styles), fun, passionate...definitely one of my favourite reads over the last few months.

Cover price: $21.95 CDN./ $14.95 USA.

Essential Captain America, vol. 4 2008 (SC TPB) 600 pages

coverWritten by Steve Englehart, Mike Friedrich, others. Pencils by Sal Buscema, with Frank Robbins and Alan Weiss, Herb Trimpe. Inks by Vinnie Colletta, John Verpoorten, Frank McLaughlin, Frank Giacoia, others.
black & white. Letters: various. Editor: Roy Thomas, Len Wein.

Reprinting: Captain America (1st series) #157-186 (1973-1975)

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Some of this material I review elsewhere in more depth because, in this age of proliferating collections, often it's not so much whether some comics have been collected...but in what format you prefer to read it! "Essential" volumes collect huge consecutive runs of old comics -- albeit in black & white. As such, some inevitably overlap with other, smaller TPB collections. In this case, CA #169-176 and #177-186 have also been collected as two full colour TPBs, Captain America & The Falcon: Secret Empire and Captain America & The Falcon: Nomad -- which I've reviewed more fully under those titles.

The plus to those other TPBs is the comics are reprinted in colour. The plus to this Essential volume is not only do you get the contents of both TPBs (for less than the price of just one of them!) but you get more than a dozen other issues as well!

The advantage/problem with these Essential books is they can be hard to review because they aren't meant to tell a story -- they're just a run of sequential issues. But in this volume, which begins shortly into Steve Englehart's tenure on the series (he writes or co-writes almost all the issues here), and ends with his final issues, there is much more a sense of simmering sub-plots, threads that are teased along, seeds planted that then blossom -- an epic novel that is unfolding. The final two thirds of this collection feature comics that were, themselves, deemed worthy of a two-volume colour TPBs -- issues that genuinely and with fair success attempted to grapple with the turmoil and political uncertainty of its era, America, circa the early 1970s. As Captain American (and the Falcon) investigate a secret conspiracy with deliberate echoes of (and references) to the Watergate scandal (albeit pulp-ified into a story involving masked villains and underground lairs) which then led to a disillusioned Cap giving up his Captain America persona and becoming the "Nomad".

Though those volumes are readable on their own, by beginning a dozen issues earlier, this Essential collection provides greater context as those seminal epics had their seeds first planted in earlier issues. In Secret Empire, Cap is being targeted by a negative ad campaign...a campaign that begins in the earlier issues here. In Nomad, Cap faces a re-formed Serpent the earlier issues here, we see the first incarnation of that villainous group. In the issues here we are introduced to Peggy Carter, older sister of Cap's girlfriend Sharon, who loved Cap during WW II and, having just woken from a decades-spanning coma, doesn't realize he no longer loves here (that Sharon could have a sister who was an adult 35 years before seems a bit...odd!). Peggy is threaded through the Secret Empire and Nomad arcs. Etc. Heck, even minor characters like a guy named Dave Cox crops up in a few scenes in the Nomad arc...but first makes his appearance in an earlier issue reprinted in this Essential volume.

Of course, this volume itself begins dragging story threads forward from earlier issues, but it's generally explained as you go. In fact, the first issue begins with Cap arriving back in New York after having, apparently, been away, acting as a suitable intro into the narrative stream.

The sheer variety of material in an Essential book means it's almost hard not to find something worthwhile. And when so many of the comics are part of multi-issue arcs, having them all neatly packaged together between a single cover makes it all very convenient. Even before the epic arcs that are Secret Empire and Nomad, we get an opener with Cap and The Falcon taking on a crime spree in the big city tied to police corruption. Plus Englehart brings back an old Marvel villain for a multi-issue arc, an Asian super criminal The (unfortunately named) Yellow Claw. He's not much more than a second rate Fu Manchu rip-off, not really justifying the importance the heroes attribute to him ("The Yellow Claw has returned!" Cap exclaims). The Yellow Claw has a niece who is ill-served by a bad end here. That's the problem with bringing back characters that maybe weren't too successful -- the writer doesn't feel he must treat them with respect.

There are also some one-off stories. In fact, a filler issue by Roy Thomas & Tony Isabella (#168) is particularly good, perhaps saying as much about Cap's character in one issue as Englehart does in his scores of comics!

The tone of the stories is a wild mix of high brow and low, of attempts to tackle social and political ideas, ranging from Watergate, to Black Pride, to advertisers' control of the media (one villain is an ex-adman and in a clever mix of super hero adventure with satirical whimsy, speaks in commercial slogans!). The Yellow Claw arc is particularly heavy on the fantasy, perhaps as an homage to the pulp roots of the character, with Cap battling everything from werewolves to giant rats. Sometimes the mix works, sometimes it doesn't. Likewise, the dialogue can veer from smart, effective clunky and corny. I think there's a general improvement as it progresses, the final issues more sure footed than the earliest. Englehart also boosts Cap's strength in an odd story idea. Maybe Englehart just thought the "normal" Cap made a poor lead, or maybe it was a story ploy, as it leads to the Falcon seeking to boost his own abilities by acquiring his wings for the first time.

There are some who would ague a comic about super heroes is not the place to explore real social issues -- I'd disagree. However sometimes it's not handled well, or is an ill fit with the character. But not here -- these run of comics seem among the most organically rooted in their era as any I can recall, with maybe only the 1960s Spider-Man comics doing them better. Even with things like DC's Green Lantern/Green Arrow run, or their Teen Titans, sometimes the evocation of the period's social issues can seem heavy handed. But there's a naturalism to these Cap stories, maybe because Englehart (and company) didn't decide to tackle things in a "very special" issue, but as the basis of an entire epic, and they explore the repercussions on Cap's psyche. Oft times when comics writers tackle issues, it can seen self conscious and self-aggrandizing -- "look at me, aren't I clever for dealing with this issue?" But with this run of Cap, you don't feel they were expecting to win awards or to be reprinted decades down the feel they did it because they were doing what artists do: channeling the world around them into their art.

Sal Buscema draws the vast majority of these issues, with Frank Robbins coming in toward the end, and a few occasional pinch hitters. Sal Buscema was a work horse at Marvel, always capable of delivering an efficient page, even as he maybe lacked the flare and panache of a lot of others. I tend to think of him as a workmanlike artist, but his work here is generally pretty strong -- among his best. Though the occasional guest artist can make for some incongruity. Alan Weiss draws an issue and has SHIELD's Nick Fury out-fitted like Kraven the Hunter for some reason!

And all this includes guest appearances by the Black Panther, the X-Men, Nick Fury and the Sub-Mariner, cameos from the Avengers, and villains ranging from the Eel to Dr. Faustus and, most notably, arch foe the Red Skull. And the first appearance by Nightshade (who has probably slipped into obscurity but cropped up a few times in the 1970s).

Alternately corny and profound, tackling provocative themes while still being a high octane mix of swashbuckling adventure and soap opera-y human drama, this stands as an impressive tome where, by the very breadth of issues reprinted, allows long simmering sub-plots to develop and play out before your eyes. Of course, because it's an on going series the final issue ends with some things dangling, though it was Englehart's final issue and brought enough of a conclusion that it also served as the final to the Nomad TPB.

For a character I don't feel any arch passion for...this is the second Essential collection that really left me impressed!

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $16.99 USA.

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