Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Captain America in 1941. Cap #1 debuted in March with that lovely and controversial cover of Cap punching the bejeezus out of Hitler. It was a wee bit controversial at the time because while Hitler was earning a reputation as a dictatorial despot, we had not yet declared war on Germany, nor they us, and diplomatic relations with Germany were a bit ... dicey. Cap was a wildly popular character for a while, then drifted out of the public consciousness some years after the war. Since Cap was one of the first projects young Stan Lee worked on as an assistant at Timely Comics (he was the nephew of Timely owner Martin Goodman’s wife), I think Stan had a soft spot for the old shield-slinger.
These stories are sublime, and readers can easily make out the soft spot Stan Lee has for Cap and his WWII sidekick Bucky. After we reintroduce the pseudo-Cap in the aforementioned ST #114, we move right to the modern day Cap’s resurrection in Avengers #4, both by Lee and Kirby. Cap’s story then moves solo to TOS #58. Cap is replaced by another double (a common occurrence in Cap stories for some reason). The familiar doppelganger is Spider-Man villain Chameleon, who picks a fight with Iron Man. This causes a lot of property damage to Stark International until the Avengers unmask him. In Issue #59, Kirby goes nuts with his layouts as Cap battles a group of acrobat mob thugs who invade Avengers mansion (yeah—acrobat mob thugs). Cap shuts them down easily, by leaping, jumping, throwing his shield and engaging in fisticuffs. The energy Kirby brings to depicting Cap battles is like no other artist. In issue #60, Baron Zemo goes after his old WWII nemesis and Cap easily wades through his thugs. Zemo just never tires of failure. How does he eat through that mask? The next few issues are one battle after another as Cap takes on evil Sumo wrestlers and stops a major jailbreak, always being vastly outgunned and outnumbered. There is such a joy to this storytelling. Nothing too deep, just a heroic American sacrificing himself for the greater good.
Tales of Suspense #63 offers a WWII flashback story of Cap and Bucky, which continues for the next few issues. Cap’s origin is retold, as is his training and teaming up with Bucky. In a present day scene, he meets SHIELD’s Agent 13 (Sharon Carter, although he doesn’t find out her name for some time). They hit it off right away. In issue #65, still set in WWII, the ultimate villain is revealed as ... the Red Skull! Big surprise. Cap and Bucky fight the Skull and the Nazi menace, with help of Stan and Jack (and George Tuska, who did the finishes on issues #70-74). Cap defeats the Skull in WWII, but now has to defeat his fail-safe machines in the modern day. Issue #75 is a classic, introducing Batroc zee Leaper, the French savate expert/supervillain. Kirby is still doing layouts, but now Dick Ayers takes over the penciling. In Batroc’s second appearance in issue #76, John Romita takes over the art chores and the result is beautiful, as is everything Romita ever did. Romita continues for a few issues, until Kirby returns, bringing the Red Skull back with him in #79. Kirby continues on layouts/pencils with different artists until Cap finally vanquishes the Red Skull and the Cosmic Cube forever (chuckle) in issue #81.
Tales of Suspense #82 is a fantastic read. The android known as the Adaptoid steals Cap’s likeness and powers for a few issues and goes on a rampage. Of course this is when the Tumbler tumbles into Avengers mansion looking for a fight. Thinking the Adaptoid is Cap, they battle it out. The story shows that even though the Adaptoid has Cap’s likeness, abilities and shield, he doesn’t have Cap’s heart and has a hard time overcoming the Tumbler. Defeated and disabled in issue #83, the android quickly returns in #84 as the Super-Adaptoid. The Adaptoid had secretly sucked up the powers of all the Avengers and is now nigh undefeatable. The Super-Adaptoid takes on Cap alone and nearly drowns him before retreating to safety. It’s a rare decisive defeat for Cap, and incredibly well written for what was intended to be throwaway children’s literature.
TOS #85 is another incredibly fun issue, there was real magic to Lee/Kirby in this time period. Hydra hires Batroc to kill Cap, then betrays him in the middle of the fight. This leads to Batroc teaming with Cap to trounce Hydra, and they part as not-quite enemies. In issue #86 Cap works with a sleeper agent to take down a communist dictatorship. This is all Lee/Kirby now and they are firing on all cylinders. #87 is Cap vs. The Planner, another villain masquerading as Cap. Cap should probably consider some type of trademark protection for his costume at this point. The plot is by Lee, but the script is credited to Roy Thomas, as far as I know his first Cap solo work. The art is by Jack Sparling.
In issue #88 and for the next few issues, the wonderful Gil Kane takes over the art chores. He is billed as Gil (Sugar Lips) Kane. I’m sure he loved that. He’s not as manic as Kirby, but already Kane’s characters have that balletic grace that distinguishes him from other artists. Here a mystery villain lures Cap to a desert island and tricks the Swordsman and Power Man (the bad one) into attacking him. Next issue we find out the mystery villain is ... you guessed it! The Red Skull! He’s back and monologuing, complete with a robot Bucky as a hostage. This torment’s Cap, who will always be plagued by guilt for Bucky’s death. To save Bucky, whom he thinks is a real boy, Cap makes a promise to serve the Skull for 24 hours—but Lee puts in a great twist to thwart the Skull’s plans. As expected, he doesn’t take it well.
Issues #92-94 are back to the Lee/Kirby team, and they’re great. Cap teams up with Agent 13, whom he’s now in love with, to take down A.I.M. Issue #94 introduces MODOK, in the form he stays in for the next 50 years. When Jack Kirby creates something, it stays created. In #95, Cap basically proposes to Sharon Carter, who turns the poor guy down because she’s dedicated to her career of being a spy and catching bad guys. He’s crushed, but understands. They agree to keep seeing each other—he is Captain America, after all. The final issue in the collection, #96, has more guys dressing up as Cap, this time to get publicity and impress their girlfriends! This fools the Sniper and his thuggish partner, who almost kill the impostors to fulfill their contract on Cap. Cap and Nick Fury (the real one) make mincemeat out of them.
These stories still hold up as bold adventure tales today, and were a total pleasure to read. I was not bored for one second, and it is clear that Stan loved Cap and his patriotic world with all his heart. So did Kirby! Cap does give some corny (but lovable) speeches about freedom and America, but this is not jingoistic, overtly flag-waving stuff. This is a patriotic veteran loving and defending his country. This leads to some of the challenges the Marvel of today has in telling Captain America stories. If Marvel editors like America, it’s sure hard to tell. Even if they do, it seems they don’t want their friends in the media to think they are in any way thankful or grateful to live in this country. Today, Cap can’t mention America or talk about how great we are. In the last few years, they have wrestled with this problem in many ways—Cap was banished to another dimension, aged to 90, given another identity, and turned the Cap mantle over to Sam Wilson (who uses it to support his partisan liberal causes, something Captain America was never meant to do for either side). It’s sad that Marvel is so caught up in Political Correctness, and that they perceive PC as not being able to recognize that America, with all its faults, is still a great country. Now they’ve even made Steve Rogers a Hydra sleeper agent, working for the enemy since day one! Is that a company who knows how to handle a patriotic character? Because Marvel is incapable of publishing good Cap stories, they should just cancel the book and give the concept a rest, until cooler heads prevail. Until then, we have these older stories to enjoy with no other agenda than to entertain and celebrate freedom and good over evil. Today’s Marvel has little understanding of those concepts.
Rating: ***** out of 5 stars