Captain America Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, George Tuska, John Romita Sr. & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1176-X (HB)                   978-0-7851-4298-0 (TBP)

During the natal years of Marvel Comics in the early 1960’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby opted to mimic the game-plan which had paid off so successfully for National/DC Comics, albeit with mixed results.

From 1956 to 1960, Julie Schwartz had scored incredible, industry-altering hits by re-inventing the company’s Golden Age greats, so it seemed sensible to try and revive the characters that had dominated Timely/Atlas in those halcyon days two decades previously.

A new Human Torch had premiered as part of the revolutionary Fantastic Four, and in the fourth issue of that title the Sub-Mariner resurfaced after a twenty-year amnesiac hiatus (everyone concerned had apparently forgotten the first abortive attempt to revive an “Atlas” superhero line in the mid-1950s).

The Torch was promptly given his own solo lead-feature in Strange Tales (from issue #101 on) and in #114 the flaming teen fought a larcenous acrobat pretending to be Captain America.

With reader-reaction strong, the real McCoy was promptly decanted in Avengers #4 and, after a captivating and centre-stage hogging run in that title, won his own series as half of a “split-book” with fellow Avenger and patriotic barnstormer Iron Man.

Gathered in this star-spangled celebration – available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions – are the stunning all-action adventures from Tales of Suspense #59-81 (cover-dates November 1964 to September 1966), which following the customary retrospective Introduction by author/Editor Stan Lee beginning with the eponymously initial outing ‘Captain America’.

Illustrated by the staggeringly perfect team of Jack Kirby & Chic Stone, the plot is non-existent, but what you do get is a phenomenal fight tale as an army of thugs invades Avengers Mansion because “only the one without superpowers” is at home. They soon learn the folly of that misapprehension…

The next issue held more of the same, as ‘The Army of Assassins Strikes!’ on behalf of evil arch enemy Zemo before ‘The Strength of the Sumo!’ proves insufficient after Cap invades Viet Nam to rescue a lost US airman. The Star-Spangled Swashbuckler then took on an entire prison to thwart a ‘Break-out in Cell Block 10!’

After these gloriously simplistic romps the series took an abrupt turn and began telling tales set in World War II. ‘The Origin of Captain America’, by Lee, Kirby & Frank Ray (AKA Giacoia) recounts how frail physical wreck Steve Rogers is selected to be the guinea pig for an experimental super-soldier serum, only to have the scientist responsible die in his arms, cut down by a Nazi bullet.

Now forever unique, he is given the task of becoming the fighting symbol and guardian of America, based as a regular soldier in a boot camp. It was there he is accidentally unmasked by Camp Mascot Bucky Barnes, who then blackmails the hero into making the kid his sidekick.

The next issue (Tales of Suspense #64) kicked off a string of spectacular episodic thrillers adapted from Golden Age classics as the heroes defeat Nazi spies Sando and Omar in ‘Among Us, Wreckers Dwell!’ and Chic Stone returned – as did Cap’s greatest foe – for the next tale ‘The Red Skull Strikes!’

‘The Fantastic Origin of the Red Skull!’ found the series swinging into high gear – and original material – as sub-plots and characterisation were added to the all-out action and spectacle.

‘Lest Tyranny Triumph!’ and ‘The Sentinel and the Spy!’ (both inked by Giacoia) combined espionage and mad science with a plot to murder the head of Allied Command, and the heroic American duo stayed in England for moody gothic suspense shocker ‘Midnight in Greymoor Castle!’ (with art by Dick Ayers over Kirby’s layouts – which in case you ever wondered are very simple pencils that break down the story elements on a page).

The second chapter ‘If This be Treason!’ had Golden Age and Buck Rogers newspaper strip artist George Tuska perform the same function before the final part (and last wartime adventure) revealed ‘When You Lie Down with Dogs…!’ – the result is fantastic entertainment. Joe Sinnott inked that rousing conclusion to this frantic tale of traitors, madmen and terror-weapons.

It was back to the present for ToS #72 where Lee, Kirby & Tuska revealed that Cap had been telling war stories to his fellow Avengers for the last nine months. The reverie then triggered a long dormant memory as ‘The Sleeper Shall Awake!’ began a classic catastrophe romp with a Nazi super-robot activating twenty years after Germany’s defeat to exact a world-shattering vengeance.

Continuing in ‘Where Walks the Sleeper!’ and concluding in ‘The Final Sleep!’, this masterpiece of tense suspense perfectly demonstrates the indomitable nature of the perfect American hero.

Dick Ayers returned with John Tartaglione inking ‘30 Minutes to Live!’ which introduced both Gallic mercenary Batroc the Leaper and a mysterious girl who would eventually become Cap’s long-term girl-friend: S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter.

The taut 2-part countdown to disaster ends with ‘The Gladiator, The Girl and the Glory’, illustrated by John Romita: the first tale which had no artistic input from Kirby, although he did lay out the next issue (TOS #77) for Romita & Giacoia. ‘If a Hostage Should Die!’ again returned to WWII and hinted at both a lost romance and tragedy to come.

‘Them!’ saw Kirby return to full pencils and Giacoia to a regular inking spot as the Sentinel of liberty teamed with Nick Fury in the first of many missions as a (more-or-less) Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. It was followed by ‘The Red Skull Lives!’ as his arch nemesis escapes from the grave to menace the Free World again. He is initially aided by the subversive technology group AIM, but promptly steals their ultimate weapon in ‘He Who Holds the Cosmic Cube!’ (inked by Don Heck) and sets himself up as Emperor of Earth before his grip on omnipotence finally falters in ‘The Red Skull Supreme!’ (Giacoia inks).

This volume then concludes with mouth-watering extras in the form of original Kirby cover art and creator biographies.

These are tales of dauntless courage and unmatchable adventure, fast paced and superbly illustrated, which rightly returned Captain America to the heights his Golden Age compatriots the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner never regained. They are pure escapist magic. Unmissable reading for the eternally young at heart.
© 1964, 1965, 1966, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.