Thursday, 28 November 2013

Essential Captain America volume 1

It's Thanksgiving Day in the United States so it's time for a look at the most American of heroes...

Essential Captain America volume 1 contains the Captain America strips from Tales of Suspense (the anthology series which also featured Iron Man) #59-99 and then, following the 1968 expansion of the Marvel line, the series became a solo Captain America, with issues #100-102 included here. All but thirteen issues are drawn by Cap's co-creator Jack Kirby who provides layouts on another three, with finishes by George Tuska, Dick Ayers and John Romita. Tuska and Romita also draw a few issues as do Jack Sparling and Gil Kane. As a bonus is a story from the 1940s Captain America Comics drawn by Joe Simon, Cap's other co-creator. Everything is written by Stan Lee, bar one issue by Roy Thomas.

Looking back it's astonishing how long it took to revive Captain America in the Silver Age. A new version of the Human Torch was present from Fantastic Four #1 and the original Namor the Sub-Mariner was revived as early as Fantastic Four #4, but Captain America took longer to appear and was first given a try-out via an impostor in the Human Torch's strip in Strange Tales. Eventually he was resurrected in Avengers #4 but as a team member and it took several more months before he finally got a solo strip. By this point all the big name early Silver Age Marvel titles and characters had appeared, and so the Captain America strip comes from Marvel's second phase of the Age when the main burst of creation had now passed and the focus was upon consolidation and giving deserving existing characters their own strips. Captain America's came just a few months after the Hulk's strip had been restored, whilst some months later the Sub-Mariner would also swim forth in solo tales.

The early stories in this volume suggest part of the reason for this hesitation was down to Kirby and Lee simply not knowing what to do with the character. We get an initial four strips in which little is developed and instead there are three tales of Captain America simply fighting large numbers of foes and one where he goes to Vietnam (long before the US's presence there became controversial back home) and confronts an ex-Sumo wrestler turned general. The whole thing is still heavily tied into the Avengers with the first story starting at Avengers Mansion whilst the already established Jarvis and Rick Jones are the only supporting characters and Baron Zemo the only significant foe appearing.

Issue #63 sees a serious change of pace by retelling Captain America's origin, followed by further adventures from his war years. At the time war comics were still part of the landscape and as well as tapping into that vein this approach also allowed readers to see Cap's early years at a time when the originals would have been hard to access. Issue #65 even declares "we wrote it in the style of the 1940's because so many of you have wondered how these stories were written years ago". I'm not convinced the tale printed actually answers such curiosity and anyway at this point (early 1965) most of the glimpses of the Marvel Bullpen given in other comics had focused upon writers and artists brainstorming ideas rather than the nuts and bolts of whether the dialogue was written at the same time as the plot or after the pictures had been drawn. However it helps reinforce the nostalgic approach to this part of the series.

The sequence itself establishes some details, most obviously restating Cap's origin albeit in a condensed form, and then showing the importance of Bucky. Also revived in these strips is Sergeant Duffy, who routinely puts Private Steve Rogers through his paces at the army camp, little realising he's ordering Captain America around. There are a few other appearances of Golden Age characters, most notably both of the 1940s Red Skulls, with the precise relationship between the two restated, perhaps to see off any confusion if some of the original stories were to be reprinted. Issue #64 features an American female spy identified only as "Agent 13", but it's not clear if this was meant to be a deliberately unnamed Betsy Ross (to prevent confusion with the character in the Incredible Hulk strips), later the Golden Girl, from the Golden Age stories, or instead to be a new character, later expanded a little as Cap's wartime romance and the sister of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s modern day Agent 13, or if she's a completely one-off character and it's just a coincidence the code name was reused. I suspect she was most likely intended to be a new character to take the place of Betsy Ross in the modern telling of Captain America's war years - at this stage Marvel wasn't following exact continuity with its pre-1960s superhero titles (Captain America having been out of action since the end of the war being the most obvious example) and in as far as the point was actually considered this was a soft reboot of the character rather than retellings and new tales slotted around two decades-old comics that next to none of the 1960s readership were likely to have seen. However she isn't seen again in this run of war stories.

Otherwise the stories are broadly true to the spirit of the earlier tales, with Captain America and Bucky taking on a mixture of saboteurs at home, including a new take on the first ever appearance of the Red Skull, attempts to steal weapons and assassinate key officers, and taking on a scientist who has developed special weapons. This last one is probably the least likely to have appeared at the time as it focuses upon Nazi spies and traitors in the United Kingdom seeking to use rockets to destroy London, technology that came late in the war and probably wouldn't have been the focus of fiction at the time. The stories also give us the origin of the true Red Skull, setting him up for the future. Overall these tales are okay but beyond establishing some key points about Cap's past - something that later issues will do even better whilst staying in the present day - they don't really add much. It just reinforces the idea that Kirby and Lee just didn't know what to do with the hero. He served a strong role in the Avengers, to the point he was fast being recognised as the definitive member, but on his own he seemed an anachronism. Perhaps this is why in the strip itself in the present day we would often see Steve Rogers feeling the weight of the years and the curse of being a man out of his time. The gap between 1945 and the mid-1960s may not seem much from today's perspective, but a lot can change in twenty years. On the same scale, today is about the same distance from the end of the Cold War, the first Gulf War and major leaps in technology. There may have been a connected network of computers and portable telephones then, but nothing like the modern internet and the mass use of mobiles and smartphones of today. The number of channels available on the average television set has exploded. Global terrorism has soared as the great concern in world affairs. Fashions have changed a lot. Political ideas have risen and fallen. A person from the early 1990s who awakened today would find many things different and strange.

One thing that doesn't change so much is the concept of patriotism and loyalty to the flag. In many subsequent eras writers on Captain America would delve into the nature of this, at times exploring just what the flag and "America" actually symbolise, how Captain America could be loyal to the country yet opposed to the actions of the government of the day, just what his own vision of the American Dream is and how it squares with alternative visions, and the darker side of America. But here there's very little of that. One issue sees Captain America on a mission in Vietnam but it's the only time he goes there and there's not much overt propagandising in the story. Nor is there in another issue when Cap goes to a Far East Communist country to rescue an agent working under cover - it could be any hostile power for all the difference it makes. The retelling of the origin does state that Cap is "A new defender, born in an hour of need -- destined to be a living symbol of the glory that is America!" but that's about the fullest extent of it. Captain America may have a patriotic name and a costume based on the flag but here there's no actual development beyond this and he's just a big name superhero from the Second World War revived in the present day.

In the present day Cap frequently can't escape the shadow of the war. The return to the present kicks off with a multi-part story in which a giant robot built by the Red Skull and stored in three parts, called "Sleepers", emerges from hibernation after twenty years and tries to destroy the world. Later on the Red Skull is revived in the present day in issue #79 and over the next twenty-four issues he appears in no less than three multi-part stories. It's even more noticeable when bearing in mind that the half-length format of the strip until #99 means that this is the equivalent of just thirteen and a half full-length issues. Other foes include Batroc the Leaper, a French fighter with zees outrageous accent. Maybe he was a rare example of the influence of world politics at a time when the Americans (and many, many others) found de Gaulle to be a right pain. Cap also takes on a number of shadowy organisations, most of them already seen in the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. strip over in Strange Tales. Amongst them are new group "Them", the nucleus of the existing A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics), who develop the Super Adaptoid. Meanwhile the wider A.I.M. creates the Cosmic Cube, which the Red Skull steals to gain incredible power, though he doesn't use much of it before he is defeated and the Cube lost. Later on A.I.M. appear again, led by their own creation, the genetically advanced Modok. Then there's the terrorist group Hydra. A trip to Wakanda and team-up with the Black Panther sees Cap at first think he's up against a resurrected Baron Zemo, but it turns out to be Zemo's ex-pilot taking on the mantle. Other one-off foes include the Swordsman and Power Man, both from the Avengers, who are both briefly used by the Skull, plus various assorted thugs or the Sniper, a top marksman.

At times the series seems to forget that Cap has spent most of the time since the war trapped in an iceberg, as we find him looking over old items such as the Red Skull's list of locations of the Sleepers, or old photographs including the mysterious woman who worked with the French Resistance who he fell for during the war. He wonders why she never tracked him down afterwards, as though he was around all the time to be found. He eventually finds a woman who resembles her, but she's too young to be the same woman. In fact, although Cap doesn't discover this on panel, she is his wartime sweetheart's younger sister (a point that has had to be retconned in recent years as the war grows ever further distant in time). "Agent 13" is never actually given a name in the series even though she already knows Cap's real one. The two find themselves drawn to each other without realising it and at one point Steve actually proposes to her, but she declines because of her duty to S.H.I.E.L.D. This leads to Steve briefly retiring as Cap, and actually admitting his identity to the world in the process, but he comes back after a succession of copycats come to grief. He and Agent 13 continue together and it's clear her skills make her a good partner for him.

On two occasions Cap faces foes who want to steal his shield to make use of the transistors Iron Man installed in it back in the pages of Avengers. The first time is in issue #62, not long after Cap has realised what a mistake this is and removed them, but issue #87 sees a similar plot years later, albeit from a fill-in writer, Roy Thomas. Perhaps this is a early example of a fill-in story being held in reserve for so long that by the time it was needed it was out of date?

Overall I felt this volume shows a series that's really treading water more than anything else. There's very little attempt to develop much, whether a civilian life for Steve Rogers or a substantial Rogues' Gallery. At times his connections to either the Avengers or Nick Fury provide him with some support and directions towards adventures, but there's not much that really gives the series its unique flavour. Nearly a fifth of the volume is taken up with wartime adventures, and many other issues also draw on those days, most obviously the encounters with the Red Skull and both the real and fake Baron Zemo. This limits somewhat the effect of showing the effects upon Cap of being a man out of time and adapting to life in this strange new world. Instead we have the "Living Legend of World War II" all too often trapped by other legends of World War II. Only Agent 13 represents any real sign of development for the future. Other strips in the anthology titles had managed to develop a lot within the confines of just ten to twelve pages a month so it's not as if the available length is an excuse. There just seems to be a lack of bold imagination and too great a willingness to wallow in the memory of the Golden Age.

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