New expanded review
By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby and various (Marvel Comics)
Over the last twenty years a minor phenomenon developed in the world of comic collecting. The success of DC’s Archive imprint – which produced luxury hardback reprints of rare, expensive and just plain old items out of their mammoth back-catalogue – gradually resulted in a shelf-buckling array of Golden and Silver Age volumes which paid worthy tribute to the company’s grand past and still serves a genuine need amongst fans of old comics who don’t own their own software company or Money Bin.
It should also be noted that many volumes, at least latterly, seemed to coincide with the release of a film or TV show.
From tentative beginnings in the 1990’s DC, Marvel and Dark Horse have pursued this (hopefully) lucrative avenue, perhaps as much a sop to their most faithful fans as an exercise in expansion marketing. DC’s electing to spotlight not simply their World Branded “Big Guns” but also those idiosyncratic yet well-beloved collector nuggets – such as Doom Patrol, Sugar and Spike or Kamandi – was originally at odds with Marvel’s policy of only releasing equally expensive editions of major characters from “the Marvel Age of Comics”, but in recent times their Dawn Age material has been progressively released.
A part of me understands the reluctance: sacrilegious as it may sound to my fellow fan-boys, the simple truth is that no matter how venerable and beloved those early stories are, no matter how their very existence may have lead to classics in a later age, in and of themselves, most early Marvel tales just aren’t that good.
This Marvel Masterworks Captain America volume reprints more or less the complete contents of the first four issues of his original title (from March to June 1941) and I stress this because all the leading man’s adventures have often been reprinted before, most notably in a shoddy, infamous yet expensive 2-volume anniversary boxed set issued in 1991.
However, the groundbreaking and exceptionally high quality material from Joe Simon & Jack Kirby is not really the lure here… the real gold nuggets for us old sods are the rare back-up features from the star duo and their small team of talented youngsters. Reed Crandall, Syd Shores, Alex Schomburg and all the rest worked on main course and filler features such as Hurricane, the God of Speed and Tuk, Caveboy; strips barely remembered yet still brimming with the first enthusiastic efforts of creative legends in waiting.
Captain America was created at the end of 1940 and boldly launched in his own monthly Timely title (the company’s original name) with none of the customary cautious shilly-shallying. Captain America Comics, #1 was cover-dated March 1941 and was an instant monster smash-hit. Cap was the absolute and undisputed star of Timely’s “Big Three” – the other two being the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner – and one of the very first to fall from popularity at the end of the Golden Age.
Today, the huge 1940s popularity of the other two just doesn’t translate into a good read for modern consumers – excluding, perhaps, those far-too-few Bill Everett crafted Sub-Mariner yarns. In comparison to their contemporaries at Quality, Fawcett, National/All American and Dell, or Will Eisner’s Spirit newspaper strip, the standard of most Timely periodicals was woefully lacklustre in both story and most tellingly, art. That they survived and prospered is a Marvel mystery, but a clue might lie in the sheer exuberant venom of their racial stereotypes and heady fervour of jingoism at a time when America was involved in the greatest war in world history…
However, the first ten Captain America Comics are the most high-quality comics in the fledgling company’s history and I can’t help but wonder what might have been had National (née DC) been wise enough to hire Simon & Kirby before they were famous, instead of after that pivotal first year?
Of course we’ll never know and though they did jump to the majors after a year, their visual dynamic became the aspirational style for super-hero comics at the company they left and their patriotic creation became a flagship icon for them and the industry.
This lavish and exceptional hardback volume opens with ‘Case No. 1: Meet Captain America’ by Simon & Kirby (with additional inks by Al Liederman) wherein we first see how scrawny, enfeebled young patriot Steven Rogers, continually rejected by the US Army, is recruited by the Secret Service. Desperate to counter a wave of Nazi-sympathizing espionage and sabotage, the passionate young man was invited to become part of a clandestine experiment intended to create physically perfect super-soldiers.
When a Nazi agent infiltrated the project and murdered its key scientist, Rogers became the only successful graduate and America’s not-so-secret weapon.
Sent undercover as a simple private he soon encountered James Buchanan Barnes: a headstrong, orphaned Army Brat who became his sidekick and costumed confidante “Bucky”. All of that was perfectly packaged into mere seven-and-a-half pages, and the untitled ‘Case No. 2’ took just as long to spectacularly defeat Nazi showbiz psychics Sando and Omar.
‘Captain America and the Soldier’s Soup’ was a rather mediocre and unattributed prose tale promptly followed by a sinister 16-page epic ‘Captain America and the Chess-board of Death’ and the groundbreaking introduction of the nation’s greatest foe whilst solving ‘The Riddle of the Red Skull’ – a thrill-packed, horror-drenched master-class in comics excitement.
The first of the B-features follows next as Hurricane, son of Thor and the last survivor of the Greek Gods (don’t blame me – that’s what it says) set his super-fast sights on ‘Murder Inc.’ – a rip-roaring but clearly rushed battle against fellow-immortal Pluto (so not quite the last god either; nor exclusively Norse or Greek…) who was once more using mortals to foment pain, terror and death.
Hurricane was a rapid reworking and sequel to Kirby’s ‘Mercury in the 20th Century’ from Red Raven Comics #1 (August 1940) but ‘Tuk, Caveboy: Stories from the Dark Ages’ is all-original excitement as a teenaged boy in 50,000 BC raised by a beast-man determines to regain the throne of his antediluvian kingdom Attilan from the usurpers who stole it: a barbarian spectacular that owes as much to Tarzan as The Land that Time Forgot…
Historians believe that Kirby pencilled this entire issue and although no records remain, inkers as diverse as Liederman, Crandall, Bernie Klein, Al Avison, Al Gabrielle, Syd Shores and others may have been involved in this and subsequent issues…
Captain America Comics #2 screamed onto the newsstands a month later and spectacularly opened with ‘The Ageless Orientals Who Wouldn’t Die’, blending elements of horror and jingoism into a terrifying thriller, with a ruthless American capitalist the true source of a rampage against the nation’s banks…
‘Trapped in the Nazi Stronghold’ saw Cap and youthful sidekick Bucky in drag and in Europe to rescue a pro-British financier kidnapped by the Nazis whilst ‘Captain America and the Wax Statue that Struck Death’ returned to movie-thriller themes in the tale of a macabre murderer with delusions of world domination, after which the Patriotic Pair dealt with saboteurs in the prose piece ‘Short Circuit’. Tuk then tackled monsters and mad priests in ‘The Valley of the Mist’ (by either the King and a very heavy inker or an unnamed artist doing a passable Kirby impression) and Hurricane speedily and spectacularly dealt with ‘The Devil and the Green Plague’ in the depths of the Amazon jungles.
17-page epic ‘The Return of the Red Skull’ led in #3 – knocking Adolf Hitler off the cover-spot he’d hogged in #1 and #2 – as Kirby opened up his layouts to utterly enhance the graphic action and a veritable production line of creators joined the art team (including Ed Herron, Martin A, Burnstein, Howard Ferguson, William Clayton King, and possibly George Roussos, Bob Oksner, Max Elkan and Jerry Robinson) whilst eye-shattering scale and spectacle joined non-stop action and eerie mood as key components of the Sentinel of Liberty’s exploits.
The horror element dominated in ‘The Hunchback of Hollywood and the Movie Murder’ as a patriotic film was plagued by sinister “accidents” after which Stan Lee debuted with the text tale ‘Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge’ before Simon & Kirby – and friends – recounted ‘The Queer Case of the Murdering Butterfly and the Ancient Mummies’; blending eerie Egyptian antiquities with a thoroughly modern costumed psychopath.
Tuk (drawn by either Mark Schneider – or perhaps Marcia Snyder) reached ‘Atlantis and the False King’ after which Kirby contributed a true tale in ‘Amazing Spy Adventures’ and Hurricane confronted ‘Satan and the Subway Disasters’ with devastating and final effect.
The last issue in this fabulous chronicle opens with ‘Captain America and the Unholy Legion’ as the heroes crushed a conspiracy of beggars terrorising the city, before taking on ‘Ivan the Terrible’ in a time-busting vignette and solving ‘The Case of the Fake Money Fiends’, culminating on a magnificent high by exposing the horrendous secret of ‘Horror Hospital’.
After the Lee-scripted prose-piece ‘Captain America and the Bomb Sight Thieves’ young Tuk defeated ‘The Ogre of the Cave-Dwellers’ and Hurricane brought down the final curtain on ‘The Pirate and the Missing Ships’.
An added and very welcome bonus for fans is the inclusion of all the absolutely beguiling house-ads for other titles, contents pages, Sentinels of Liberty club bulletins and assorted pin-ups…
Although lagging far behind DC and despite, in many ways having a much shallower Golden Age well to draw from, it’s great that Marvel has overcome an understandable reluctance about its earliest product continues to re-present these masterworks – even if they’re only potentially of interest to the likes of sad old folk like me – but with this particular tome at least the House of Ideas has a book that will always stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best that the Golden Age of Comics could offer.
© 1941 and 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.