Reading Room: Captain America
There are some characters that comic book creators feel the need to “try out,” to put in a backup story or a guest appearance somewhere to see if they garner any reader interest.
That wasn’t the case with Captain America. Joe Simon knew he had a hit on his hands when he and Jack Kirby created the shining, patriotic knight complete with a shield in 1941, and he debuted on the cover of his own self-titled book, punching Hitler right in his ugly face.
The audacity of that image, how it so directly captured growing anti-Nazi sentiment in a country that had not yet entered World War II, set Captain America on a path that set him apart from other mystery men of the time. Yes, there were other comic book heroes like The Shield that wrapped themselves in the flag before and after him, but only one so captured the minds of the public that he became a kind of stand-in for the country itself.
Over the 70 years since his creation, Captain America has represented whatever America dreams itself to be, as much as that’s possible in a country that’s often split right down the middle in its opinions. American spunk, American pride, American determination, American Commie Smashing for a brief period in the 1950s, American distrust of authority, even American directionlessness and doubt in tough times and American shock after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Except for the brief indignities of being a spooky mysteries host when his title became Captain America’s Weird Tales, a short period of cancellation, and that time when Marvel gave him to Rob Liefeld, Cap’s ability to reflect his times even while technically being a man frozen in the World War II era has kept him more relevant and interesting than his other flag-draped brothers ever were.
So I thought it best to break this reading room down by era and suggest some of the best books from those eras. I’m going to start with the 1960s because that material is more accessible and because it gives us a neat top five, but if you’re really interested in the Golden Age Cap it is available in expensive Marvel Masterworks volumes.
When Marvel Editor Stan Lee decided to revive Cap as a new member of the Avengers, it helped that he had Cap’s co-creator Jack Kirby along. Pretty soon the guy who Kirby had put such power behind as he smashed his way through Axis powers was integrating back into the Marvel universe. Okay, he was a little out of touch and he did whine about how he missed Bucky a little bit much, but he’d been frozen in a block of ice so he deserved a break.
Lee and Kirby worked together on a Captain America strip in the book he shared with Iron Man, Tales of Suspense, which you can find in Essential Captain America No. 1. But for my money the action was in the Avengers. Shortly after Cap was thawed out the rest of the Avengers quit, leaving the man who had been frozen since World War II holding the bag. Cap assembled a team of former villains including Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, and with Cap’s Kooky Quartet (it was the 60s) proved himself the leader that the Marvel Universe needed. Those early stories are reprinted in Essential Avengers 1 and 2, but the first volume is a bit more essential.
Later Captain America stories from the 1960s can be found in Essential Captain America 2. There’s some early artwork by comics innovator Jim Steranko, a Red Skull Cosmic Cube saga, and the introduction of the Falcon, a black sidekick brought on as a reaction to the civil rights movement.
If Captain America is a shining American knight, his armor started to get a bit tarnished in the 1970s. JFK’s Camelot was long dead, after all, and in its place we had an unpopular war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon in the Whitehouse and shocking abuses of public trust in the Watergate scandal.
So the comics reacted. Steve Englehart wrote a classic Captain America arc, reprinted in Captain America: Secret Empire, in which Captain America is bedeviled by a conspiracy that seeks to smear his name and control the American people. The kicker was that the leader of the Secret Empire was hinted to be Richard Nixon, giving you an idea of just how far from blind trust in the government the country had come. Cap himself was so disillusioned that for a while gave up his identity and wandered the country as “Nomad” trying to find himself in a very 1970s way, reprinted in Captain America: Nomad, although he was back to the red and blues and punching supervilliains in the face in rather short order when Kirby took over the title again.
This is the era in which I started reading Captain America and the era that I’m most fond of. It was dominated by Writer/Editor Mark Gruenwald, whose Cap could be alternately silly and corny and really, really deep. Sometimes he’d be both, like an issue I vividly remember from my childhood where Cap fights Ronald Reagan transformed into a snakeman. Not exactly the most subtle political commentary, but a lot of fun.
Gruenwald is mostly remembered now for very silly stories in which Captain America turns into a werewolf and such, but early in his run he had some memorable serious stories. He even had Captain America kill someone with a gun in Captain America #321, a terrorist who was on the verge of killing hostages. Cap also came into conflict with a murderous vigilante called the Scourge, who memorably blows up a whole bar full of supervillains during his storyline. These dark times take a toll on Cap and lead to what’s probably Gruenwald’s best storyline, reprinted in Captain America: The Captain. Cap is forced to give up the red and blues, again, when the government claims the Captain America name is their property and tries to make him to become a government operative. He takes on a black costume and calls himself The Captain. The government will have their stooge, though, and finds him in a right-wing nutcase named John Walker. Clothes definitely don’t make the man in this case and Walker’s out of control actions lead to a confrontation in which Cap regains his confidence and his name.
Also, if you like dumb adventure, you may also want to check out The Bloodstone Hunt, where Cap literally carries his girlfriend Diamondback most of the way through a race against the Red Skull to recover a powerful mystic artifact.
And then we get to the 1990s, where unfortunately Gruenwald stayed on a little bit too long and his Cap stories got sillier and sillier. This is the era with the werewolf, or Capwolf story, and it was more reliant on guest appearances from hot characters like Wolverine. This is not the best era for Cap. He’s still the leader of the superheroes, but they’re all stretching their grim and gritty wings and a large contingent of Avengers betray him to kill an alien in Avengers: Galactic Storm. In the grim and gritty chromium era, it seemed for a while that the role Cap would serve would be as an anachronism. At the end of Gruenwald’s run his health has deteriorated to the point he has to wear an Iron Man-like suit, and he apparently dies.
But Cap got a second chance with the help of writer Mark Waid. Waid literally reinvigorated Cap and made him relevant again in a storyline starting with the Operation Rebirth trade, which puts Cap back up against a scary Red Skull and gets him back in fighting shape. The first part of Waid’s run was unfortunately cut short by some 1990s gimmickry, a period where Cap was given over to Rob Liefeld for the terrible “Heroes Reborn” universe, and when the break was over he didn’t seem to recapture the early magic. But Waid’s run does contain my favorite Captain America scene ever, a sequence where Cap is in China with Sharon Carter and some enslaved Chinese dissidents. Sharon is trying to work out a way she and Cap can quickly escape to save their own skins, but she turns around to see Cap breaking the chains of the enslaved dissidents with his shield. That’s the kind of guy Cap is, you turn your back on him and he’s freeing oppressed people from tyranny.
The 2000s and Today
Captain America had mostly gone back to silly superhero adventures by the start of the 21st century, but the 9/11 attacks were too big for the most visible American icon in comics to ignore. Marvel responded by relaunching the Captain America book with a controversial storyline by John Ney Rieber in which Cap fights terrorists, reprinted in Captain America: The New Deal. Cap drew a bit of outrage from the right by showing a little too much guilt an understanding for these terrorists when the national mood ran more toward righteous anger. It also drew anger from the left for seeming to endorse Bush administration aggression, which shows you just how fine a line a comic book has to walk when it tackles political subjects.
We also got to see a very different Cap in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. Ultimate Cap isn’t a man whose attitudes have changed with the times. He’s a man who was frozen in the 40s and was thawed out today and acts like it. Well, maybe more like a broad parody of 1940s attitudes. In contrast to the nice, nearly pacifist Cap we’ve seen over the years, Ultimate Cap is a butt-kicking nationalist who makes it clear that the A on his head doesn’t stand for France. Ultimates 1 and 2 are really the only trades featuring the character that I’ve found worth checking out. The last arc of Ultimates 2 is especially good; when America comes under attack from a new Axis of Evil, we get a more nuanced view on the terrorism issue than I’ve seen in any other Marvel Comic.
This era is mainly dominated, however, by writer Ed Brubaker, who has produced what many regard as some of the best Captain America stories ever. Brubaker has even been able to succeed with what should have been gimmicky story concepts, like bringing Bucky back from the dead as the Winter Soldier, killing off Captain America and temporarily replacing Cap with the darker, gun-toting Winter Soldier. I would suggest the Winter Soldier trade as a good place to start so you can better understand the events that follow in the Death of Captain America and subsequent trades.
As always, I haven’t read every Captain America comic ever and these are just my opinions. If you have any suggestions for things I’ve overlooked, please post them in the comments.