Captain America and the Falcon: Nomad


By Steve Englehart, John Warner, Sal Buscema, Frank Robbins, Herb Trimpe & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2197-8 (TPB)

Created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby in an era of frantic patriotic fervour, Captain America was a dynamic and highly visible response to the horrors of Nazism and the threat of Liberty’s loss.

He faded away during the post-war reconstruction but briefly reappeared after the Korean War: a harder, darker sentinel ferreting out monsters, subversives and the “commies” who lurked under every brave American kid’s bed. Then he vanished once more until the burgeoning Marvel Age resurrected him just in time for the turbulent, culturally divisive 1960s. Perhaps it’s just coincidence but at the time the USA were just getting heavily involved in a conflict in Southeast Asia…

This startling paperback and eBook collection reprints issues #177-186 (spanning September 1974 – June 1975) of the monthly comicbook and shows the previously steadfast Sentinel of Liberty as a troubled and disillusioned man: unhappy, uncomfortable and unable to bear the weight of being a national symbol of a divided nation that had been betrayed and subverted by its highest elected officials.

At this time America was a nation reeling from mass culture shock caused by Vietnam, the Watergate scandal and the humiliating exposure of President Nixon’s crimes. The widespread loss of idealism and painful public revelations that politicians are generally unpleasant – and even possibly ruthlessly wicked exploiters – kicked the props out of most Americans who had an incomprehensibly rosy view of their leaders, so a conspiracy that reached into the halls and backrooms of government was extremely controversial yet oddly attractive in those distant, simpler days…

Sickened, shocked and stunned at the poisoned American Dream – and despite the arguments and advice of his Avenging allies – Steve Rogers searched his soul and realised he could not be the symbol of such a country. He threw off the costume and rank to wander the country bereft of ideals or direction…

Unable to convince him otherwise his crimefighting partner Sam Wilson carried on alone, as the high-flying Falcon tackles an invasion by a body-snatching alien X-Men foe – in conjunction with earthly villain Aries – in ‘Lucifer be thy Name’ (scripted by Steve Englehart and illustrated by Sal Buscema & Vince Colletta).

The double-dealing devils are promptly wrapped up in ‘If the Falcon Should Fall…!’ when Steve, unable to keep aloof, resorts to type and heroically piles in to the final showdown…

Whilst the dejected civilian settles into an uncomfortable self-inflicted retirement, in his costumed absence a few painfully unqualified civilians begin trying to fill the crimson boots of Captain America… with dire results…

Captain America and the Falcon #179 sees Rogers hunted by a mysterious Golden Archer whose ‘Slings and Arrows!’ soon convince the ex-hero that even if he can’t be the Star-Spangled Avenger, neither can he abandon the vocation of do-gooder. This moment of revelation leads to a life-changing decision and ‘The Coming of the Nomad!’ in #180, even as the Serpent Squad turn up again with morally ambivalent Princess Python in tow and maniac nihilist Madame Hydra assuming the suddenly-vacant role of the Viper.

When “the Man Without a Country” tackles the ophidian outlaws, he comes off second best but does stumble across a sinister scheme by the Squad and Sub-Mariner’s arch-nemesis Warlord Krang. The marine malcontent plans to raise a sunken continent and restore an ancient evil-drenched civilisation in ‘The Mark of Madness!’

At the same time Falcon is ignoring his better judgement: agreeing to train a determined young man to become the next Captain America…

An era ended when Sal Buscema surrendered Captain America and newspaper-strip creator Frank Robbins came aboard for a controversial run beginning with ‘Inferno!’ (inked by Joe Giella). Whilst Nomad successfully mops up the Serpent Squad – despite well-meaning police interference – Sam and Cap’s youthful substitute had encounter the Sentinel of Liberty’s greatest enemy with fatal consequences…

Inked by Frank Giacoia, ‘Nomad: No More!’ finds a grief-stricken, guilt-crushed Rogers once more take up his stars and stripes as the murderous Red Skull simultaneously attacks the hero’s loved ones and destabilising America’s economy by defiling banks and slaughtering the financial wizards who run them…

Beginning in the chillingly evocative ‘Cap’s Back!’ (with art by Herb Trimpe, Giacoia & Mike Esposito), rampaging through the utterly shocking ‘Scream of the Scarlet Skull!’ (Buscema, Robbins & Giacoia) and climaxing in ‘Mindcage!’ (with additional scripting from John Warner and art by Robbins & Esposito) the inimitable Sentinel of Liberty takes the fight to freedom’s greatest foe.

Tragically, despite driving the Skull off, Steve is stymied and frustrated when his greatest friend and ally is apparently revealed as the Skull’s stooge and sleeper-agent slave…

And on that staggering cliffhanger note this epic collection concludes…

To Be Continued…

Despite the odd cringe-worthy moment (for example, I specifically omitted the part where Nomad battles three chicken-themed crooks, and still wince at some from this era of “blacksploitation” and burgeoning ethnic awareness), these tales of matchless courage and indomitable heroism are fast-paced, action-packed, totally engrossing fights ‘n’ tights that no comics fan will care to miss: fabulously fun tales of a true American Dreamer…

Moreover, and all joking aside, the cultural significance of these tales were crucial in informing the consciences of the youngest members of the post-Watergate generation and could even stand as a warning from history in regard to the current polarising party-political shenanigans besetting the hotly-contested, gerrymandered Land of the Free and over-mortgaged Home of the Brave…
© 1972, 1973, 1984, 1975, 2006, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Golden Age Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby and various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2228-9 (HB)

Captain America was devised at the end of 1940 and boldly launched in his own monthly title from Timely – the company’s unofficial trading designation – with none of the customary cautious shilly-shallying. The first issue was cover-dated March 1941 and was an instant monster, blockbuster smash-hit. Cap was instantly the absolute and undisputed star of Timely’s “Big Three” – the other two being The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. He was also one of the very first to plummet from popularity at the end of the Golden Age.

These days, the huge 1940s popularity of the other two just doesn’t translate into a good read for modern consumers; excluding, perhaps, some far-too-few Bill Everett-crafted Sub-Mariner yarns. In comparison to their contemporary rivals and industry leaders at Quality, Fawcett, National/All American and Dell, or The Spirit newspaper strip by Will Eisner, the standard of most Timely periodicals was woefully lacklustre in both story and, most tellingly, art.

That they survived and prospered is a true 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 indisputably 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 although the team supreme did jump to the majors after a year, their visual dynamic became the mandated aspirational style for super-hero comics at the company they left. Moreover, their patriotic creation became a flagship icon for them and the industry.

Truth be told 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 and comics veterans are the rare back-up features overseen by the star duo and crafted by their small pool of talented up-&-comers.

Although unattributed the assistants included at various times Reed Crandall, Syd Shores, Alex Schomburg, Mort Meskin, Chu Hing, Gustav Schrotter, George Klein, C.A. Winter, Fred Bell and many more working on main course and filler features such as Hurricane, the God of Speed and Tuk, Caveboy; strips barely remembered today yet still brimming with the first enthusiastic efforts of creative legends in waiting.

This lavish and exceptional hardback volume (also available in various digital formats) reprints original Star-Spangled blockbusters Captain America Comics #5-8 (spanning August to November 1941) and also provides a fascinating insight into the fly-by-night nature of publishing during those get-rich-quick days in an Introduction from historian and comics scripter Gerard Jones, after which the astounding never-ending action resumes…

After scrawny, enfeebled young patriot Steve Rogers is continually rejected by the US Army, he is recruited by the Secret Service. In an effort 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.

However, when a Nazi agent infiltrated the project and murdered its key scientist, Rogers became the only successful graduate and transitioned into America’s not-so-secret weapon and very public patriotic symbol.

Despatched undercover as a simple army private, he soon encountered James Buchanan Barnes: a headstrong, orphaned Army Brat who became his sidekick and costumed confidante “Bucky”.

In the period when America was still officially non-combatant, Rogers and his sidekick were stationed at East Coast army base Camp Lehigh, but still manage to find plenty of crime to crush and evil to eradicate.

In Simon & Kirby’s ‘Captain America and the Ringmaster of Death’ the arrival in town of a circus leads to the deaths of General Blaine and Defense Commissioner Newsome in suspicious circumstances. It’s not long before both the masked heroes and government agent Betty Ross reach the same conclusion: all the acts and freaks are Nazi operatives sabotaging the nation’s security through murder… but not for much longer…

Japan was still a neutral nation too, so although visually their soldiers and spies were also unmistakeably ever-present, the eastern arm of the Axis alliance (the other two being Germany and Italy, history fans) were still being referred to as “sinister Orientals” and “Asiatic Aggressor nations”. Even so, when Steve and Bucky accompany new commanding General Haywood to the US pacific base of Kunoa, the readers knew who was really behind ‘The Gruesome Secret of the Dragon of Death!’, and revelled in seeing them scupper the most spectacular secret weapon yet aimed at the forces of freedom…

Back in the USA, the hard-hitting Star-Spangled Stalwarts then come to rescue of decent, law-abiding German Americans terrorised by the ‘Killers of the Bund’, who were determined to create a deadly Fifth Column inside America’s heartland.

Following a rousing ad for the newly minted Captain America’s Sentinels of Liberty society, a glorified infomercial for the club comes in the form of prose adventure ‘Captain America and the Ruby Robbers’ scripted by Stan Lee with spot art by S&K, after which the Patriotic Pair rescue a downed volunteer American flyer held prisoner on a former French Island now administered by the collaborating Vichy government.

‘Captain America and… The Terror That Was Devil’s Island’ is an action-drenched melodrama plucked from the contemporaneous Hollywood movie mill and referencing films such as 1937’s The Life of Emile Zola, 1939’s Devil’s Island and perhaps even 1941’s I Was a Prisoner on Devil’s Island. It served to show that infamy and cruelty could not long subdue any valiant American heart…

Joining the list of supporting features, the equally relevant if improbable adventures of ‘Headline Hunter, Foreign Correspondent’ began with this issue. Crafted by Stan Lee & Harry Fisk, these shorts find US journalist Jerry Hunter sent to Blitz-blighted London to report on the European war, only to become the story after he uncovers a traitor in the corridors of power…

Sporting only a title page by Simon & Kirby, primeval wonder ‘Tuk, Cave Boy’ bows out in a final example of “Weird Stories from the Dark Ages” as he saves his mentor Tanir from marauding beast-men and ends forever the depredations of brutal tyrant Bongo, before seasoned pro Charles Nicholas (née Wojtkowski) assumes the art chores on ‘Hurricane, Master of Speed’. Hurricane was the earthbound son of the thunder god Thor (no relation to the 1960s version): a brisk reworking and sequel to Kirby’s ‘Mercury in the 20th Century’ from Red Raven Comics #1 (August 1940), and here intercedes in a diabolical plot to destabilise the economy by flooding the banks with counterfeit currency…

Issue #6 carried a September 1941 cover-date and opens with a classic murder spree thriller as ‘Captain America Battles the Camera Fiend and his Darts of Doom’ in a frantic bid to prevent the theft of Britain’s Crown Jewels.

Timely were never subtle in terms of jingoistic (we’d say appallingly racist) depictions, and even the normally reserved Simon & Kirby let themselves go in ‘Meet the Fang, the Arch Fiend of the Orient’ as Cap and Bucky challenge the full insidious might of the Tongs of San Francisco’s China Town to save kidnapped Chinese dignitaries from a master torturer…

Another new feature debuted next. Scripted by Lee and illustrated by Al Avison & Al Gabriele ‘Father Time: The Grim Reaper Deals with Crime’ details how Larry Scott learned that his father had been framed for murder. Through heroic efforts Scott exposed the true culprits but was seconds too late to save his sire from the noose.

Determined that time should no longer be on the side of criminals and killers, Larry devised a ghastly costume and – wielding a scythe – brought his dad’s persecutors to justice. They would be only the first in Father Time’s crusade…

Simon & Kirby’s art and stories were becoming increasingly bold and innovative and ‘The Strange Case of Captain America and the Hangman Who Killed Doctor Vardoff’ reveals a diabolical game of Ten Little Indians as the suspects perish one by one whilst the superheroes attempt to catch a ruthless killer and retrieve a stolen experimental super-silk invention…

Lee and an unknown artist then offer another thinly-veiled prose plug for the Sentinels of Liberty club as Cap and Bucky lay a ‘Trap for a Traitor’, after which Headline Hunter, Foreign Correspondent ‘Battles the Engine of Destruction’ (by Lee & Fisk) and exposes an aristocratic English fascist building Nazi terror weapons in his British factories.

Following further Sentinels of Liberty club news and puzzle pages ‘Hurricane, Master of Speed’ closes the issue, crushing a murder plot in his own boarding house with art courtesy of Charles Nicholas.

CAC #7 is a stunning comic milestone and leads with the iconic clash ‘Captain America in the Case of the Red Skull and the Whistling Death’. With Steve and Bucky ordered to participate in a Vaudeville-themed troop show at Camp Lehigh, the Nazi super-assassin stalks the city slaughtering his old cronies and American military experts with a mysterious sound weapon. The monster’s big mistake is leaving the shadows and arrogantly turning his attention to Cap…

‘The Case of the Baseball Murders: Death Loads the Bases’ seemingly offers a change of pace but Steve’s sporting relaxation turns into more work when a masked maniac starts knocking off his team’s star players…

Lee’s regular prose novelette provides ‘A Message from Captain America’ introducing his fellow heroes Jerry Hunter, Hurricane and Father Time before S&K strip feature ‘Horror Plays the Scales’ pits the Red, White and Blue Bravos against a murdering musician knocking off anti-Nazi politicians.

Ken Bald & Bill Ward introduce a comedy foil for Hurricane, Master of Speed as ‘Justice Laughs Last’ sees the speedster adopt portly shopkeeper Speedy Scriggles after protection racketeers target the feisty fool.

Headline Hunter (by Lee & Fisk) then clears an Englishman accused of murdering an American film star and reveals a Nazi plot to disrupt Anglo-US relations whilst Father Time’s ‘Race Against Doom’ (Lee, Al Avison & Al Gabriele) saves another innocent patsy from taking the fall for a crooked DA and his mob boss paymaster. The issue then closes with more puzzles and patriotic pronouncements from Cap and Bucky to all their fee-paying Sentinels…

Captain America Comics #8 (cover-date November 1941) was released months before the Pearl Harbor atrocity catapulted the nation into official war so the contents might have compiled as early as June or July. Thus it opens with another gripping crime conundrum – ‘The Strange Mystery of the Ruby of the Nile and Its Heritage of Horror’ – which sees the heroes assisting Betty Ross in safeguarding a fabulous antique jewel but seemingly helpless to prevents its archaeologist excavators from being butchered by a marauding phantasm…

The impending conflagration does inform ‘Murder Stalks the Maneuvers’ when a Nazi infiltrator attends full-contact war games and uses the opportunity to trick American soldiers into destroying each other with live ammo whilst Headline Hunter, Foreign Correspondent remains in the thick of it facing ‘The Strange Riddle of the Plague of Death’ (Lee & Fisk).

This time he saves London (and the Home Counties) from a strange sickness spread by bread…

After more Sentinel propaganda and absorbing puzzles Simon & Kirby reveal the ‘Case of the Black Witch’ as Cap and Bucky protect a young woman’s inheritance and clash with a sinister sorceress and the worst horrors hell could conceive of.

Charles Nicholas returns to Hurricane as the Master of Speed and his new pal shut down a crooked ‘Carnival of Crime’, after which Lee & an unsung illustrator promote in prose a new Timely title when ‘The Young Allies Strike a Blow for Justice’. Please be warned: the treatment of Negro (heroic) character Whitewash here is every bit as dated, contentious and potentially offensive as the era’s representations of other races, so kudos to the editors for leaving the story untouched…

Closing on a bombastic high Father Time then deals harshly with robbers who use bank strong rooms to asphyxiate witnesses in ‘Vault of Doom!’

An added and very welcome bonus for fans is the inclusion of some absolutely beguiling house-ads for other titles, contents pages, Sentinels of Liberty club bulletins and assorted ephemera…

Although lagging far behind DC and despite, in many ways having a much shallower Golden Age well to draw from, it’s still commendable that Marvel has overcome an understandable initial reluctance about its earliest product and continues to re-present these masterworks – even if they’re only potentially of interest to the likes of sad old folk like me.

However, 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 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 6


By Stan Lee, Gary Friedrich, Gene Colan, John Romita, Gray Morrow, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5875-2 (HB)

Created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby in an era of frantic patriotic fervour, Captain America was a dynamic and highly visible response to the horrors of Nazism and the threat of Liberty’s loss.

He faded away during the post-war reconstruction but briefly reappeared after the Korean War: a harder, darker sentinel ferreting out monsters, subversives and the “commies” who lurked under every brave American kid’s bed. Then he vanished once more until the burgeoning Marvel Age resurrected him just in time for the turbulent, culturally divisive 1960s.

By the time of the tales gathered in this sixth Masterworks volume (available in luxurious hardback and accessible eBook formats) – comprising issues #137-148 of his monthly comicbook from May 1971 to April 1972 – the Star-Spangled Avenger had become an uncomfortable symbol of a troubled, divided society, split along age lines and with many of the hero’s fans apparently rooting for the wrong side.

Now into that turbulent mix crept issues of racial and gender inequality…

Following a fond and forthright reminiscence from illustrator John Romita in his Introduction, the action opens here with the Star-Spangled Avenger, still notionally working with – if not for – super-scientific government spy-agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (which back then stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division), returning to Earth after a blistering battle against the malign Mole Man. With him was his now full-time, fully-fledged partner the Falcon.

As scripted by Stan Lee and illustrated by Gene Colan & Bill Everett, the neophyte hero, seeking to impress his mentor, opts ‘To Stalk the Spider-Man’. This typical all-action Marvel misunderstanding led to plenty of unnecessary fighting until forestalled as mob boss Stone-Face returns to settle old scores in #138’s ‘It Happens in Harlem!’

John Romita the elder returned to the art chores to depict Spider-Man and Cap rescuing the Falcon and ending the gangster’s dream of monetising New York’s racial unrest before the Good Captain is whisked away for a top-secret mission heralding the beginning of a lengthy and direction-changing saga…

For years Captain America had been the only expression of Steve Rogers’ life, but with the next issue the man went undercover as a police officer to solve a series of disappearances and subsequently regained a personal life which would have long-term repercussions.

Once Spidey, Falcon and Cap trounced Stone-Face, the Red, White and Blue is subsumed by plain Rookie Blues in ‘The Badge and the Betrayal!’ and Steve finds himself on a Manhattan beat as the latest raw recruit to be bawled out by veteran cop Sergeant Muldoon

Meanwhile, as police officers continue to disappear in increasing numbers and Rogers is getting into more fights on the beat than in costume, social worker Sam (Falcon) Wilson is challenged by seductive black activist Leila Taylor and undergoes a far from voluntary and unwanted audition for S.H.I.E.L.D. …

Issue #140 reveals the plot’s perpetrator as ‘In the Grip of Gargoyle!’ takes events in a frankly bizarre direction, with moody urban mystery inexplicably becoming super-spy fantasy as the villainous Grey Gargoyle steals a mega-explosive from S.H.I.E.L.D. and turns the Falcon into his petrified minion.

With Joe Sinnott inking, Lee & Romita deliver ‘The Unholy Alliance!’ as the stony duo attack a secret base stockpiling ultimate explosive Element X, with Cap, renewed love interest Sharon Carter and Nick Fury attempting to save the world and the Falcon from the Gargoyle…

Spectacular but painfully confusing until now, the epic was dumped on new writer Gary Friedrich to wrap up with ‘And in the End…’ (Captain America and the Falcon #142) wherein the resurgent heroes race a countdown clock of doom to save the day…

All this time Sam had been trying to get friendly with “Black Power” activist Leila and, with the sci fi shenanigans over, a long-running subplot concerning racial tensions in Harlem boiled over…

‘Power to the People’ and ‘Burn, Whitey, Burn!’ (both from giant-sized #143 with Romita inking his own pencils) sees the riots finally erupt with Cap and Falcon caught in the middle, before copping out with the final chapter by taking a painfully parochial and patronising stance and revealing that the seething unrest amongst the ghetto underclass has been instigated by a rabble-rousing fascist super-villain in ‘Red Skull in the Morning… Cap Take Warning!’

Nevertheless, Friedrich made some telling and relevant points – and continued to do so in CA&F #144’s first story ‘Hydra Over All!’ (illustrated by Romita) with the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s all-woman attack squad Femme Force One (stop squirming – at least they were trying to be egalitarian and inclusive…). To facilitate their efficacy they were assigned to train with the Sentinel of Liberty himself…

The issue also offered a solo back-up tale ‘The Falcon Fights Alone!’ (by Friedrich and drawn by the great Gray Morrow) wherein the street vigilante designs a new uniform and rededicates himself to tackling the real problems on his turf: drug-dealers, thieves, racketeers and thugs endangering the weakest, poorest members of society…

Captain America and the Falcon #145 expanded the Hydra storyline with ‘Skyjacked’ (stunningly illustrated by Gil Kane & Romita) as the hooded terrorists kidnap Cap’s new team in mid-air…

Sal Buscema began his long tenure on the series with ‘Mission: Destroy the Femme Force!’ and ‘Holocaust in the Halls of Hydra!’ (#146 and inked by John Verpoorten) wherein devious dealings in the halls of power are uncovered before Falcon races to the rescue of the severely embattled and outgunned heroes, culminating in the unmasking of the hidden operator behind the villainous throne in #147’s ‘And Behind the Hordes of Hydra…’: a staggering battle royale in Las Vegas with a hierarchy of old villains exposed, wherein the ultimate power behind the power reveals himself in Friedrich’s swansong ‘The Big Sleep!’

Rounding out the riotous adventure, bonus extras include the cover to the all-reprint Captain America Annual #2, assorted house ads and a rare Romita colour rough for Captain America #139…

Any retrospective or historical re-reading is going to turn up a few cringe-worthy moments, but these tales of matchless courage and indomitable heroism are always fast-paced, action-packed and illustrated by some of the greatest artists and storytellers American comics has ever produced.

As the nation changed Captain America was finally discovering his proper place in a new era and would once more become unmissable, controversial comicbook reading, as we shall see when I get around to reviewing the next volume…
© 1971, 1972, 2012, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Marvel Masterworks volume 1


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dennis O’Neil, Roy Thomas, John Severin, Joe Sinnott, Don Heck, Howard Purcell, Ogden Whitney, John Buscema, Joe Sinnott, Jim Steranko & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2686-7 (HB)

Veteran war-hero and superspy Nick Fury debuted in Fantastic Four #21 (cover-dated December 1963): a grizzled, world-weary and cunning CIA Colonel at the periphery of the really big adventures in a fast-changing world.

What was odd about that? Well, the gruff, crudely capable combat everyman was already the star of the minor publisher’s only war comic, set twenty years earlier in (depending on whether you were American or European…) the beginning or middle of World War II.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos was an improbable, decidedly over-the-top and raucous combat comics series, similar in tone to later movies such as The Wild Bunch or The Dirty Dozen and had launched in May of that year.

Nevertheless, Fury’s latter-day self soon emerged as a big-name star once espionage yarns went global in the wake of popular TV sensations like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the elder iteration was given a second series beginning in Strange Tales #135 (cover-dated August 1965).

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions with sinister schemes of World Conquest by a subversive, all-encompassing, hidden enemy organisation. The unfolding saga came with captivating Kirby-designed super-science gadgetry and – eventually – iconic and game-changing imagineering from Jim Steranko, whose visually groundbreaking graphic narratives took the comics art form to a whole new level…

For those few brief years with Steranko in charge, the S.H.I.E.L.D. series was one of the best strips in America – if not the world – but when the writer/artist left just as the global spy-fad was fading, the whole concept faded into the background architecture of the Marvel Universe…

This astounding full-colour compendium (available in hardcover and digital editions) deals with the outrageous, groundbreaking, but still notionally wedded-to-mundane-reality iteration which set the scene.

Here Jack Kirby’s genius for graphic wizardry and gift for dramatic staging mixed with Stan Lee’s manic melodrama to create a tough and tense series which the new writers and veteran artists that followed turned into a non-stop riot of action and suspense, with Steranko’s late arrival only hinting at the magic to come…

These epic early days of spycraft encompass Strange Tales #135-153 and Tales of Suspense #78, collectively covering August 1965 to February 1967 and guaranteeing timeless thrills for lovers of adventure and intrigue.

Following a little history lesson from Kirby scholar John Morrow in his Introduction, the main event starts with ST #135 as the Human Torch solo feature is summarily replaced by Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. – which back then stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division

In the rocket-paced first episode, Fury is asked to volunteer for the most dangerous job in the world: leading a new counter-intelligence agency dedicated to stopping secretive subversive super-science organisation Hydra. With assassins dogging his every move, the Take-Charge Guy with the Can-Do Attitude quickly proves he is ‘The Man for the Job!’ in a potent twelve-page thriller from Lee, Kirby & Dick Ayers.

Even an artist and plotter of Kirby’s calibre couldn’t handle another strip at that busiest of times, so from the next issue “The King” cut back to laying out episodes, allowing a variety of superb draughtsmen to flesh out the adventures. Even so, there’s probably a stunning invention or cool concept on almost every page that follows…

‘Find Fury or Die!’ brought veteran draughtsman John Severin back to the company; pencilling and inking Kirby’s blueprints as the new Director becomes the target of incessant assassination attempts and we are introduced to masked maniac the Supreme Hydra

The tension ramps up for the next instalment as a number of contenders are introduced – any of whom might be the obscured overlord of evil – even as S.H.I.E.L.D. strives mightily but fails to stop Hydra launching its deadly Betatron Bomb in ‘The Prize is… Earth!’

Despite the restrictions of the Comics Code, these early S.H.I.E.L.D. stories were stark and grim and frequently carried a heavy body count. Four valiant agents died in quick succession in #137 and the next issue underscored the point in ‘Sometimes the Good Guys Lose!’ with further revelations of Hydra’s inner workings.

Fury and fellow Howling Commando war heroes Dum-Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones meanwhile played catch-up after Hydra assassins invade S.H.I.E.L.D.: almost eliminating Fury and munitions genius Tony Stark – the only man capable of destroying the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over the world. Although Nick saves the inventor, he is captured in the process…

Tortured by Hydra in #139’s ‘The Brave Die Hard!’ (with Joe Sinnott replacing Severin as finisher), Fury finds an unlikely ally in Laura Brown: Supreme Hydra’s daughter and a young woman bitterly opposed to her father’s megalomaniacal madness.

Even with only half a comicbook per month to tell a tale, creators didn’t hang around in those halcyon days and #140 promised ‘The End of Hydra!’ (by Don Heck & Sinnott over Kirby) as a S.H.I.E.L.D. squad invades the enemy’s inner sanctum to rescue the already-free-and-making-mayhem Fury. In the meantime, Stark travels into space to remove the Betratron Bomb with his robotic Braino-Saur system. The end result leaves Hydra temporarily headless…

Strange Tales #141 has Kirby return to full pencils (inked by Frank Giacoia pseudonymously moonlighting as Frank Ray) for the mop-up before ‘Operation: Brain Blast!’ introduces Mentallo – a renegade from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ESP division – who joins with technological savant the Fixer to attack the organisation as the first step in an ambitious scheme to rule the world.

The momentous raid begins in ‘Who Strikes at… S.H.I.E.L.D.?’ (illustrated by Kirby with Mike Demeo – AKA Esposito) with the deadly rogues hitting hard and fast: seizing and mind-controlling Fury before strapping him to a mini-H-bomb. With Howard Purcell & Esposito embellishing Kirby’s layouts, Dugan and the boys come blasting in ‘To Free a Brain Slave’ in #143…

A new and deadly threat emerges in #144 as ‘The Day of the Druid!’ as a mystic charlatan targets Fury and his agents with murderous flying techno-ovoids. Happily, new S.H.I.E.L.D. recruit Jasper Sitwell is on hand to augment the triumphant fightback in ‘Lo! The Eggs Shall Hatch!’ (finished by Heck & Esposito).

As Marvel continuity grew evermore interlinked, ‘Them!’ details a Captain America team-up for Fury in the first of the Star-Spangled Avenger’s many adventures as a (more-or-less) Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Taken from Tales of Suspense #78 (June 1966): scripted by Lee with Kirby full pencils and Giacoia inks, the story depicts the WWII wonders battling an artificial assassin with incredible chemical capabilities, after which Nick seeks the creature’s mysterious makers in Strange Tales #146, ‘When the Unliving Strike!’ (Kirby, Heck & Esposito).

Proclaiming themselves a technological Special Interests group, Advanced Idea Mechanics courts S.H.I.E.L.D.’s governmental and military masters, promising potent and incredible new weapons if only they sacked that barbaric slob Fury, but the surly supremo is getting close to exposing A.I.M.’s connection to “Them” and an old enemy thought long gone…

A concerted whispering campaign and “briefing-against” seemingly sees Fury ousted in ‘The Enemy Within!’ and put on trial in ‘Death Before Dishonor!’ (scripted by Kirby with Heck & Esposito finishing his layouts), but it’s all part of a cunning counter-plan which delivers a shattering conclusion and ‘The End of A.I.M.!’ in #149 (scripted by Denny O’Neil, with art by Kirby & Ogden Whitney).

Then, revealed by Lee, Kirby, John Buscema & Giacoia, a malign and devilishly subtle plan is finally exposed in Strange Tales #150 as Fury’s team puts together clues from all the year’s past clashes to come to one terrifying conclusion: ‘Hydra Lives!’

The shocking secret also hints at great events to come as newcomer Steranko assumes the finisher’s role over Lee & Kirby for ‘Overkill!’ with Fury targeted by the new Supreme Hydra who devises a cunning scheme to infiltrate America’s top security agency and use his enemy as the means of triggering global Armageddon…

Although the Good Guys seemingly thwart that scheme, ‘The Power of S.H.I.E.L.D.!’ is actually helpless to discern the villain’s real intent as this initial dossier of doom ends on a cliffhanger after ‘The Hiding Place!’ (ST #153 and scripted by Roy Thomas) closes with the arch villain comfortably ensconced in Fury’s inner circle and ready to destroy the organisation from within…

To Be Continued…

Although the S.H.I.E.L.D. saga stops here, there’s an added bonus still to enjoy: the aforementioned FF #21. This revealed Fury as a wily CIA agent seeking the team’s aid against a sinister demagogue called ‘The Hate-Monger’ (Lee & Kirby, inked by comics veteran George Roussos, under the protective nom-de-plume George Bell) just as the 1960s espionage vogue was taking off, inspired by James Bond films and TV shows like Danger Man.

Here Fury craftily manipulates Marvel’s First Family into invading a sovereign nation reeling in the throes of revolution in a yarn crackling with tension and action…

Fast, furious and fantastically entertaining, these high-octane vintage yarns are a superb snapshot of early Marvel Comics at their creative peak and should be part of every fanboy’s shelf of beloved favourites.

Don’t Yield! Back S.H.I.E.L.D.!
© 1965, 1966, 1967, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America/Black Panther: Flags of Our Fathers


By Reginald Hudlin, Denys Cowan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4401-4

Everybody loves a solid sensibly sensational team-up and, if you’re a comicbook fan, “discovering” a slice of previously unrevealed secret history about your preferred fictive universe is an indescribable thrill. So, what better than if you can combine both guilty pleasures with enjoying a rollicking four-fisted action rollercoaster ride, well written and superbly rendered?

Just one such concatenation of good things in one basket is Captain America/Black Panther: Flags of Our Fathers by Reginald Hudlin & Denys Cowan. Comic continuity is ultimately fluid and this yarn – originally released as a 4-issue miniseries between June and September 2010 – reveals the secret and tumultuous first meeting between the patriotic symbols of two embattled nations, but only nit-picking, devoted fans-boys need quibble over which (of at least three) “first contacts” this riotous romp describes.

The rest of us can simply hang on as a fabulous all-action clash unfolds before our very eyes…

The Black Panther rules over a fantastic African paradise which isolated itself from the rest of the world millennia ago. Blessed with unimaginable resources – both natural and not so much – the nation of Wakanda developed uninterrupted and unmolested by European imperialism into the most technologically advanced human nation on Earth.

The country has also never been conquered. The main reason for this is an unbroken line of divinely-sponsored warrior kings who safeguard the nation. The other is a certain miraculous super-mineral found nowhere else on Earth…

In contemporary times that chieftain is T’Challa: an unbeatable, feline-empowered, strategic genius who divides his time between ruling at home and serving abroad in superhero teams such as The Avengers, beside costumed champions such as Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Thor and Captain America

However, long ago as World War II engulfed the world, another Black Panther – the grandfather of the one we know best – met a far younger and more impulsive Sentinel of Liberty…

With the first two chapters inked by Klaus Janson the action kicks off in the middle of a furious as Gabe Jones – the black guy in Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos – is just as startled as his white buddies to find a masked maniac dressed like an American flag pounding the crap out of the Nazis they’re being swamped by…

Although they initially think he’s a clown, the Howlers soon take to the naïve Star-Spangled Captain America. They have to, as the Top Brass think they complement each other and have ordered soldiers and superhero to work together from now on.

Meanwhile in Germany, Adolf Hitler orders his most elite warriors to invade a barely known African kingdom to secure supplies of a vibration-absorbing mineral crucial to the development of the Wehrmacht’s V-weapons. Arch-supremacist Baron von Strucker and his cronies expect no trouble from the primitive, sub-human non-Aryans, but the malign Red Skull has reservations…

When the Allies get word of the expedition, they quickly send their top team to stop the Nazis, but they are too late. The fabled Wakandans have already despatched the German expeditionary force with the ruthless silent efficiency that has kept their homeland unconquered for thousands of years…

As a shocked Captain America surveys the bloody handiwork, he is challenged by a warrior in a sleek black outfit, looking like a human panther…

Soon his amazement increases exponentially. Although seemingly barbaric and uncivilised, the Wakandans are technologically more advanced than America, capable enough to capture the Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos without a fight, and with a spy network that encompasses the world and has even gleaned his top secret civilian identity. Worst of all, the Black Panther kicks his butt when they inevitably clash…

Soon, however, the Americans are “guests” of the Wakandans, forced to watch as the next wave of Nazi conquerors attempt to overwhelm the nation. However, what nobody realises is that the Red Skull is in command now and the sacrifice of an entire tank division is part of his overall strategy to conquer the upstart Africans defying the might of the Third Reich…

Soon, the Howlers are on tricky ground: acting as unschooled diplomats and emissaries of their country and ideology. But Black Panther King Azzuri knows what they really want is a sample of precious, sacred Vibranium…

Until now Gabe has felt that he’s allied with the only non-racists in the US armed forces, but now Fury orders to get close to the Africans and secure some of the miracle metal at all costs. Stunned by the casual, unthinking racism of his superior and his white comrades, Gabe is torn by conflicting emotions. Especially as Azzuri has shown him great favour and a black-only promised land any negro living in America would die to live in…

The Nazis’ intent is also plain and the Skull’s true attack is not long in coming. As well as troops and planes, the Germans employ their own secret weapons – robotic war-suits and metahuman super-soldiers Master Man, Krieger Frau (Warrior Woman) and merciless sadist Armless Tiger Man. They are assisted by a traitor from Wakanda’s own dissident region: the mercilessly savage, cruelly ambitious Man-Ape

With issues #3 and 4 inked by Tom Palmer & Sandu Florea, the action roars into high gear as the German offensive achieves its goal of penetrating Wakanda’s defences and even sees the king’s sons T’Chaka and S’Yan (both future Black Panthers) attacked in the palace by a murderous assassin before being saved by the deeply conflicted Gabe…

And then it’s nothing but all-out war, picking up the pieces and adjusting to a new normal in a world that doesn’t know the meaning of the word…

Confronting head-on historical and contemporary issues of racism whilst telling a stunning tale of action and adventure is no mean feat, but Hudlin and Cowan pull it off here with staggering success. Flags of Our Fathers brilliantly contrasts the result of two national symbols in conflict and united in mutual benefit with style and wit, and still manages to tell a tale of breathtaking power and fun. Read it now and see for yourself.
© 2010, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Golden Age All Winners Marvel Masterworks: Volume 1


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Carl Burgos, Bill Everett, Al Avison & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6635-1

Unlike their Distinguished Competition, Marvel Comics took quite a while to get into producing expensive archival tomes such as this one reprinting some of their earliest comic adventures. In the cold hard light of day, it’s often fairly clear why.

The sad truth is that much Golden Age Marvel material is not only pretty offensive by modern standards, but is also of rather poor writing and art quality. Something of a welcome exception, however, is this venerable collection of quarterly super-hero anthology All Winners Comics #1-4 – available in hardback, paperback and digital formats.

Over the course of the first year’s publication (from Summer 1941 to Spring 1942) the stories and art varied incredibly (thanks to poor pay rates and the constant call-up of creators to serve overseas), but at least in terms of sheer variety the tales and characters excelled in exploring every avenue of patriotic thrill that might enthral ten-year old boys of all ages.

As well as Simon & Kirby, Lee, Burgos and Everett, the early work of Mike Sekowsky, Jack Binder, George Klein, Paul Gustavson, Harry Sahle, Paul Reinman, Al Avison, Al Gabrielle and many others can be found as they dashed out the adventures of Captain America, Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, Black Marvel, The Angel, The Mighty Destroyer, and The Whizzer.

This spectacular deluxe full-colour compendium opens with a fulsome and informative introduction from Roy Thomas – architect of Marvel’s Golden Age revival – ably abetted by Greg Theakston, detailing the strife and exigencies of churning out fun-fodder under wartime restrictions, after which All Winners Comics #1 commences with Human Torch and flaming kid Toro hunting insidious Japanese agent Matsu as the spy terrorises the peaceful pro-American Orientals of New York’s Chinatown in ‘Carnival of Fiends’ (by Carl Burgos), whilst Stan Lee, Al Avison & Al Gabriele set Indian-reared perfect specimen Black Marvel on the trail of ‘The Order of the Hood’: a well-connected gang of West Coast bandits…

Joe Simon & Jack Kirby then contribute a magnificent Captain America thriller-chiller in ‘The Case of the Hollow Men’: battling a plague of beggars turned into marauding zombies by Nazi super-science.

Stripling Stan Lee & Ed Winiarski contribute a thinly disguised infomercial text tale of ‘All Winners’ after which an untitled Bill Everett Sub-Mariner yarn sees the errant Prince of Atlantis uncover and promptly scupper a nest of saboteurs on the Virginia coastline whilst the inexplicably ubiquitous Angel travels to the deep dark Central American jungle to solve ‘The Case of the Mad Gargoyle’ with typical ruthless efficiency in an engaging end-piece by Alan Mandel

All-Winners #2 was cover-dated Fall 1941 and began with Harry Sahle’s Human Torch thriller ‘Carnival of Death!’ wherein the incendiary android and his mutant sidekick tackle a madly murderous knife-thrower running amok in a winter playground for the wealthy, after which ‘The Strange Case of the Malay Idol’ (Simon & Kirby) finds the Sentinel of Liberty and his youthful aide on a tropical island battling a sinister native death-cult secretly sponsored by the Nazis…

Lee graduates to full comic strips in ‘Bombs of Doom!’ as Jack Binder illustrates the All Winners debut of charismatic, behind-enemy-lines hero The Mighty Destroyer; followed by text feature ‘Winners All’: another Lee puff-piece embellished with a Kirby group-shot of the anthology’s cast before second new guy The Whizzer kicks off a long run with a Lee/Paul Reinman tale of spies and society murderers on the home-front.

After a page of believe-it-or-not ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ a ghost artist illuminates ‘The Ghost Fleet’ to end the issue with another Sub-Mariner versus Nazi submariners all-action romp…

All Winners #3 pits the Torch against Japanese terrorists in ‘The Case of the Black Dragon Society’, a rather over-the-top slice of cartoon jingoism credited to Burgos but scripted by Sahle and drawn by another anonymous ghost squad.

Simon and Kirby had moved to National Comics by this issue and Al Avison was drawing Captain America now – with background inking from George Klein – and scripts by the mysterious S.T. Anley (geddit?), but ‘The Canvas of Doom!’ still rockets along with plenty of dynamite punch in a manic yarn about an artist who predicts murders in his paintings, before The Whizzer busts up corruption and slaughter at ‘Terror Prison’ in a rip-roarer from Lee, Mike Sekowsky & George Klein.

‘Jungle Drums’ is standard genre text filler-fare after which Everett triumphs once more with a spectacular maritime mystery as ‘Sub-Mariner visits the Ship of Horrors’ and The Destroyer turns the Fatherland upside down by wrecking ‘The Secret Tunnel of Death!’ in a blistering epic limned by Chad Grothkopf.

The final issue in this compendium was cover-dated Spring 1942 and – with enough lead time following the attack on Pearl Harbor – the patriotic frenzy mill was clearly in full swing.

A word of warning: though modern readers might well blanch at the racial and sexual stereotyping of the (presumably) well-intentioned propaganda machines which generated tales such as ‘Death to the Nazi Scourge’ and ‘The Terror of the Slimy Japs’, please try to remember the tone of those times and recall that these contents obviously need to be read in an historical rather than purely entertainment context.

The aforementioned ‘Terror of the Slimy Japs’ by Burgos & Sahle has Human Torch and Toro routing Moppino, High Priest of the Rising Sun Temple (and saboteur extraordinaire) from his lair beneath New York, whilst Cap and Bucky content themselves with solving ‘The Sorcerer’s Sinister Secret!’ (Avison & Klein) and foiling another Japanese sneak attack before The Whizzer stamps out ‘Crime on the Rampage’ in a breakneck campaign illustrated by Howard “Johns” nee James.

‘Miser’s Gold’ is just one more genre text tale followed by an Everett inspired-&-guided but ultimately unknown creative team’s take on the other war as ‘Sub-Mariner Combats the Sinister Horde!’ …of Nazis, this time… after which the Destroyer brings down the final curtain by hunting down sadistic Gestapo chief torturer Heinrich Bungler in and declaring ‘Death to the Nazi Scourge!’.

Augmented by covers by Alex Schomburg, Jack Binder & Avison, a string of rousing house ads and other original ephemera, this is a collection of patriotic populist publishing from the dawn of a new and cut-throat industry, working under war-time conditions in a much less enlightened time. That these nascent efforts grew into the legendary characters and brands of today attests to their intrinsic attraction and fundamental appeal, but this is a book of much more than simple historical interest. Make no mistake, there’s still much here that any modern fan can and will enjoy.
© 1941, 1942, 2013, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America Epic Collection volume 3: Bucky Reborn


By Stan Lee, Gene Colan, John Romita Sr., Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia, Wally Wood, Dick Ayers, Tom Palmer, Bill Everett & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0419-7

During the Marvel Renaissance of the early 1960’s Stan Lee & Jack Kirby tried the same tactic that had worked so tellingly for DC Comics, but with mixed results. After all, Julie Schwartz had scored incredible successes with his revised versions of National’s Golden Age greats, so it seemed natural to try and revive the characters that had dominated the Timely/Atlas stable in those halcyon days.

A new youthful Human Torch 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 feature in Strange Tales from issue #101 on and in #114 the flaming teen fought an acrobat pretending to be Captain America. With reader-reaction strong, the real deal returned in Avengers #4 and, after a captivating and centre-stage hogging run in that title, was granted his own series as half of the “split-book” Tales of Suspense with #59 (cover-dated November 1964). From there on, the only way was up…

This resoundingly resolute full-colour Epic Collection re-presents Captain America #120-#139 spanning December 1969 to June 1971 and opens after the Sentinel of Liberty thwarts the Red Skull’s greatest vengeance scheme: having just trained a future partner in the form of Sam Wilson AKA the Falcon

As 1970 dawned Marvel imposed a moratorium on continued stories for most of their titles, and Cap – having returned to his hectic twin lives as SHIELD Agent and mighty Avenger – here hops on the disaffected youth/teen revolt bandwagon for a series of slight but highly readable puff-pieces promising nothing but delivering much.

Kicking off is ‘Crack-up on Campus!’ by Stan Lee, Gene Colan & Joe Sinnott; an odd mélange of student radicalism and espionage that sees itinerant Steve Rogers become a Physical Education teacher to foil a scheme by the sinister Modok and his AIM cohorts.

A demented bio-chemist then rediscovers the Super Soldier serum that had originally created Captain America in ‘The Coming of the Man-Brute!’ Sadly, the demented boffin picks the wrong candidate to become his Blockbuster stooge…

Spider-Man’s old sparring partner mugs the wrong guy in #122’s ‘The Sting of the Scorpion!’ and falls before Cap’s bludgeoning fists before issue #123 taps into the seemingly eternal “battle of the sexes” zeitgeist with ‘Suprema, The Deadliest of the Species!’ turning her espionage-tinged attentions to the Star-Spangled Avenger…

AIM returns with their latest hi-tech human weapon in ‘Mission: Stop the Cyborg!’ before Captain America #125 dips into more sensational contemporary headline fare when the Sentinel of Liberty is ‘Captured… in Viet Nam!’… although the mystery villain du jour is anything but politically motivated…

Frank Giacoia returned to ink the Avenger’s long-anticipated reunion with his erstwhile associate and partner in #126’s ‘The Fate of… the Falcon!’: gleefully tapping into the blossoming “blaxsploitation” trend to recount an entertaining (although, sadly, not always intentionally) caper of gangsters and radicals in funky old Harlem that still has a kick to it. Just play the (original) theme from Shaft whilst reading it…

Still working off-the-books for super-scientific government spy-agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (which back then stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division) Cap demands ‘Who Calls Me Traitor?’ (#127, July 1970, by Lee, Colan & Wally Wood), which finds the veteran hero framed and manipulated by friend and foe alike in the search for a double agent in the ranks, after which the embittered Avenger drops out and decides to “discover America” – as so many kids were doing – on the back of a freewheeling motorcycle.

‘Mission: Stamp Out Satan’s Angels!’ (inked by Dick Ayers) finds the Red, White and Blue wanderer barely clear the city limits before encountering a nasty gang of bikers terrorising a small-town rock festival, before his oldest enemy resurfaces to exact ‘The Vengeance of… the Red Skull’ as a simple by-product of his plane to start a Middle East war…

Issue #130 finds Cap ‘Up Against the Wall!’ as old foe Batroc the Leaper leads the Porcupine and Whirlwind in a fully paid-for ambush by villain unknown just as the Sentinel of the establishment is attempting to defuse an imminent college riot. The mysterious contractor then resorts to a far subtler tactic: launching a psychological assault in ‘Bucky Reborn!’

With the mystery manipulator exposed, the tragic true story behind the resurrected sidekick comes out in ‘The Fearful Secret of Bucky Barnes!’– a powerful, complex drama involving ruthless science terrorists A.I.M., their murderous master Modok and even Doctor Doom

Back in New York, Advanced Idea Mechanics again feature prominently in #133 as Modok foments racial unrest by sending a killer cyborg to create ‘Madness in the Slums!’, allowing Cap to reunite with his protégé the Falcon – whose name even began appearing on the cover from the next issue.

Operating as full-fledged official partners, the dynamic duo battle ghetto gangsters in ‘They Call Him… Stone-Face!’ (Captain America and the Falcon #134, with Ayers inking), before the Avenger introduces his new main man to S.H.I.E.L.D. in the chilling ‘More Monster than Man!’ (inked by Tom Palmer). Here a love-struck scientist turns himself into an awesome anthropoid to steal riches, only to end up in ‘The World Below’ (with the legendary Bill Everett applying his brilliant inks to Colan’s moody pencils) as a collateral casualty of the Mole Man’s latest battle with Cap.

With the Falcon coming to the rescue, the Star-Spangled Avenger is back on the surface when his new partner vaingloriously opts ‘To Stalk the Spider-Man’ – a typical all-action Marvel misunderstanding that is forestalled just in time for Stone-Face to return in #138’s ‘It Happens in Harlem!’ as John Romita the elder resumed his illustrative association with Captain America for the beginning of a lengthy and direction-changing saga…

Which will have to wait for the next volume to continue…

Rounding out the riotous adventure, bonus extras include the cover to the all-reprint Captain America Annual #1, assorted house ads, a selection of Colan’s original art pages and covers, rejected covers and sketches by Marie Severin…

Any retrospective or historical re-reading is going to turn up a few cringe-worthy moments, but these tales of matchless courage and indomitable heroism are fast-paced, action-packed and illustrated by some of the greatest artists and storytellers American comics has ever produced.

As the nation changed Captain America was finally discovering his proper place in a new era and would once more become unmissable, controversial comicbook reading, as we shall see when I get around to reviewing the next volume…
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Jack Kirby’s Captain America: Bicentennial Battles


By Jack Kirby with Herb Trimpe, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Romita Sr., Bob Smith, Frank Giacoia, John Verpoorten & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1726-1)

These days Captain America is as much a global symbol of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave as Uncle Sam or Apple Pie ever were so I’m enjoying a lazy and rather obvious way to celebrate Independence Day by recommending this bombastic blockbuster featuring material first seen in 1976 as the nation commemorated its first 200 years.

The immortal Sentinel of Liberty was dreamed up by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby at a time of increasing national tension in an era of fervent patriotic fervour: Captain America was a dynamic and highly visible response to the horrors of Nazism and the threat of Liberty’s loss.

He quickly lost focus and popularity after hostilities ceased: fading during post-war reconstruction to briefly reappear after the Korean War: a harder, darker sentinel ferreting out monsters, subversives and the “commies” who lurked under every American bed. Then he vanished once more until the burgeoning Marvel Age resurrected him just in time to experience the Republic’s most turbulent and culturally divisive era.

He quickly became a mainstay of the Marvel Revolution during the Swinging Sixties but lost his way somewhat after that, except for a glittering period under scripter Steve Englehart. Eventually however he too moved on and out in the middle of the 1970s.

After nearly a decade drafting almost all of Marvel’s successes, Jack Kirby had become increasingly burdened by Marvel’s growing success and unwillingness to let him experiment, so he had jumped ship to arch-rival DC in 1971, creating a whole new mythology and dynamically inspiring pantheon.

Eventually he accepted that editors made the same promises everywhere, and that even he could never win against any short-sighted publishing company’s excessive pressure to produce and constant interfering g micro-managing.

Kirby exploded back into the Marvel Universe in 1976 with a promise of free rein, concocting a stunning wave of iconic creations (2001: A Space Odyssey, Machine Man, The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur). Simultaneously he was handed control of two of his previous co-creations – firmly established superhero characters Black Panther and Captain America – to do with as he wished…

His return was much hyped at the time but swiftly became controversial as his intensely personal visions paid little lip service to company continuity as Jack went explosively his own way.

Whilst his new works quickly found many friends, his tenure on those earlier inventions drastically divided the fan base. Kirby was never slavishly wedded to tight continuity and preferred, in many ways, to treat his stints on any strip as creative “Day Ones”. This was never more apparent than in the pages of the Star-Spangled Sentinel of Liberty…

This titanic trade paperback/eBook collection reprints Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles and Captain America #201-205 (September 1976 – January1977) with Kirby as writer, artist and editor, exploring his own notions of the American Dream as seen through the lens of the nation’s premiere comicbook patriotic symbol in the year of the nation’s 200th anniversary…

Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles was originally released as part of the nationwide celebration of the USA’s two hundredth year in Marvel’s tabloid-sized Treasury Format (80+ pages of 338 x 258mm dimensions) and took the Star-Spangled Avenger on an incredible excursion through the key eras and areas of American history.

A vast, expansive, panoramic and iconic celebration of the memory and the myth of the nation, this almost abstracted and heavily symbolic 84-page extravaganza perfectly survives the surrender of colour and reduction to standard comic dimensions, following Captain America when cosmic savant (and retrofitted Elder of the Universe The Contemplator) Mister Buda propelled the querulous hero into successively significant segments of history.

Enduring a blistering pace of constant change, Captain America encounters lost partner Bucky during WWII, meets Benjamin Franklin in Revolutionary Philadelphia and revisits the mobster-ridden depression era of Steve Roger’s childhood as ‘The Lost Super-Hero!’.

In ‘My Fellow Americans’ Cap confronts Geronimo during the Indian Wars and suffers the horrors of a mine cave-in, before ‘Stop Here for Glory!’ finds him surviving a dogfight with a German WWI fighter ace, battling bare-knuckle boxer John L. Sullivan, resisting slavers with abolitionist John Brown, and observing both the detonation of the first Atom Bomb and the Great Chicago Fire…

‘The Face of the Future!’ even sees him slipping into the space colonies of America’s inevitable tomorrows before segueing into pure emotional fantasy by experiencing the glory days of Hollywood, the simple joys of rural homesteading and the harshest modern ghetto, before drawing strength from the nation’s hopeful children…

Inked by such luminaries as Barry Windsor-Smith, John Romita Sr. and Herb Trimpe, the book-length bonanza is peppered with a glorious selection of pulsating pin-ups.

After thus exotically absorbing the worth of a nation, the Star-Spangled Avenger reunites with his partner for Captain America and the Falcon #201, set in the aftermath of their struggle to stop a deranged aristocrat rolling back the American Revolution…

The pace then shifts to malevolent moodiness and uncanny mystery with the introduction of ‘The Night People!’: a street-full of mutants and maniacs who periodically phase into and out of New York City, creating terror and chaos with every sunset. When Falcon Sam Wilson and girlfriend Leila are abducted by the eerie encroachers, they are quickly converted to their crazed cause by exposure to the ‘Mad, Mad Dimension!’ the vile visitors inhabit during daylight hours. This leaves Captain America and folksy new colleague Texas Jack Muldoon hopelessly outgunned when their last-ditch rescue attempt results in them all battling an invasion of brutally berserk beasts in ‘Alamo II!’

On bludgeoning, bombastic top-form, the Star-Spangled Avenger saves the day once more, but no sooner are the erstwhile inhabitants of Zero Street safely ensconced on Earth than ‘The Unburied One!’ has the indefatigable champions battling against a corpse who won’t play dead. The concluding chapter and last tale in this thrilling tome reveal the cadaver has become home to an energy-being from the far future as ‘Agron Walks the Earth!’ Thankfully, not even its pulsating power and rage can long baulk the indomitable spirit and ability of America’s Ultimate Fighting Man…

The King’s commitment to wholesome adventure, breakneck action and breathless wonderment, combined with his absolute mastery of the comic page and unceasing quest for the Next Big Thrill, always make for a captivating read and this stuff is as good as anything Jack crafted over his decades of creative brilliance.

Fast-paced, action-packed, totally engrossing Fights ‘n’ Tights masterpieces no fan should ignore and, above all else, fabulously fun tales of a true American Dream…
© 1976, 1977, 2005, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America and the Falcon: Madbomb


By Jack Kirby with Frank Giacoia, D. Bruce Berry & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1557-1

Created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby in an era of frantic patriotic fervour, Captain America was a dynamic and highly visible response to the horrors of Nazism and the threat of Liberty’s loss.

He quickly lost focus and popularity after hostilities ceased: fading during post-war reconstruction to briefly reappear after the Korean War: a harder, darker sentinel ferreting out monsters, subversives and the “commies” who lurked under every American bed. Then he vanished once more until the burgeoning Marvel Age resurrected him just in time to experience the Land of the Free’s most turbulent and culturally divisive era.

He quickly became a mainstay of the Marvel Revolution during the Swinging Sixties but lost his way somewhat after that, except for a glittering period under scripter Steve Englehart. Eventually however he too moved on and out in the middle of the 1970s.

Meanwhile, after nearly a decade drafting almost all of Marvel’s successes, Jack Kirby had jumped ship to arch-rival DC in 1971, creating a whole new mythology and dynamically inspiring pantheon. Eventually he accepted that even he could never win against any publishing company’s excessive pressure to produce whilst enduring micro-managing editorial interference.

Seeing which way the winds were blowing, Kirby exploded back into the Marvel Universe in 1976 with a promise of free rein, concocting a stunning wave of iconic creations (2001: a Space Odyssey, Machine Man, The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur). Simultaneously he was handed control of two of his previous co-creations – firmly established characters the Black Panther and Captain America – to do with as he wished…

His return was much hyped at the time but swiftly became controversial as his intensely personal visions paid little lip service to company continuity as Jack went explosively his own way.

Whilst those new works quickly found many friends, his tenure on those earlier inventions drastically divided the fan base.

Kirby was never slavishly wedded to tight continuity and preferred, in many ways, to treat his stints on Cap and the Panther as creative “Day Ones”. This was never more apparent than in the pages of the Star-Spangled Sentinel of Liberty…

This sterling collection reprints Captain America #193-200 (January-August 1976) and when Kirby came aboard as writer, artist and editor, he had big plans for the nation’s premiere comicbook patriotic symbol in the year of the nation’s 200th anniversary…

Some of them materialised in Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles (a companion volume to this trade paperback/eBook collection I’ll get around to in the fullness of time) but the regular title was reserved for the really Big Show…

After finally accepting the worth of a nation Captain America and the Falcon #193 concentrated on saving it with the opening salvo in an epic storyline leading up the immortal super-soldier’s own 200th issue. Gone now was all the soul-searching and breastbeating about what the country was or symbolised: America was in peril and its sentinel was ready to roar into action…

Inked by fellow veteran Frank Giacoia ‘The Madbomb’ opened by revealing a ‘Screamer in the Brain!’ as a miniscule new weapon is triggered by unknown terrorists, reducing an entire city block to rubble by driving the populace into a mass psychotic frenzy. Experiencing the madness at close hand Cap and the Falcon are swiftly seconded by the US government to ferret out the culprits and find a full-scale device hidden somewhere in the vast melting pot of America…

‘The Trojan Horde’ introduces plutocratic mastermind William Taurey who intends to correct history, unmake the American Revolution and restore an aristocracy. Using inestimable wealth, a cabal of similarly disgruntled millionaire elitists, an army of mercenaries, slaves cruelly transformed into genetic freaks and other cutting edge super-science atrocities, the maniac intends to forever eradicate the Republic.

Moreover, when he was finally ascended to what he considered his rightful place in charge, the first thing Taurey intends is to hunt down the last descendent of Colonial hero Steven Rogers, who rebel who had killed Taurey’s Monarchist ancestor and allowed Washington to win the War of Independence…

Little did he suspect the subject of his wrath had already infiltrated his secret army…

In ‘It’s 1984!’ (inked by D. Bruce Berry), Cap and Falcon get a first-hand look at the kind of world Taurey advocates, battling their way through monsters, mercenaries and a mob fuelled by modern mind-control and pacified by Bread and Circuses, before ultra-spoiled elitist Cheer Chadwick takes the undercover heroes under her bored, privileged and patronising wing…

Sadly, even she can’t keep her new pets from being sucked into the bloody, brutal Circus section of the New Society and American loyalists are forced to fight for their lives in ultra-modern gladiatorial mode in the ‘Kill-Derby’ even as the US army raids the secret base in ‘The Rocks are Burning!’ (with Giacoia inks).

Soon, Cap and Falcon realise it has all been for nought since the colossal full-sized Mad-Bomb is still active but hidden somewhere else in their vast Home of the Brave…

The offbeat ‘Captain America’s Love Story’ then takes a decidedly different and desperate track as the Bastion of Freedom must romance a sick woman to get to her father – the inventor of the deadly mind-shatter device – after which ‘The Man Who Sold the United States’ accelerates to full speed for all-out action as the hard-pressed heroes race a countdown to national disaster with the Bomb finally triggering by ‘Dawn’s Early Light!’ in a spectacular showdown climax which surpasses every expectation.

This supremely thrilling collection also has room for a selection of Kirby cover roughs and un-inked pencils that will delight art fans and aficionados. The King’s commitment to wholesome adventure, breakneck action and breathless wonderment, combined with his absolute mastery of the comic page and unceasing quest for the Next Big Thrill, always make for a captivating read and this stuff is amongst the most bombastic and captivating material he ever produced.

A fast-paced, action-packed, totally engrossing Fights ‘n’ Tights Masterpieces no fan should ignore and – above all else – a furiously fabulously fun fable of a true American Dream…
© 1975, 1976, 2004, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America and the Falcon: Secret Empire


By Steve Englehart, Mike Friedrich, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0422-7

Created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby in an era of frantic patriotic fervour, Captain America was a dynamic and highly visible response to the horrors of Nazism and the threat of Liberty’s loss. He faded away during the post-war reconstruction and briefly reappeared after the Korean War: a harder, darker sentinel, ferreting out monsters, subversives and the “commies” who lurked under every American bed.

Then he vanished once more until the burgeoning Marvel Age resurrected him just in time to experience the turbulent, culturally divisive 1960s. Perhaps it’s just coincidence but at the time the USA were just getting heavily involved in a conflict in Southeast Asia…

This sterling collection reprints issues #169-186 (January-August 1974) of his monthly comicbook and shows the once convinced and confirmed Sentinel of Liberty as the troubled man: unhappy and uncomfortable as a symbol of a divided nation, but looking to make the best of things and carve himself a new place in the Land of the Free. Real world events were about to put paid to that American dream…

In response to a subtle vengeance ploy by advertising exec and part-time supervillain Viper, one of the Star-Spangled Avenger’s most durable enemies sort-of resurfaced in the tense opening gambit of a certified Conspiracy thriller as ‘…When a Legend Dies!’ (written by Steve Englehart and Mike Friedrich with art by Sal Buscema & Frank McLaughlin).

Those long-laid plans began to finally bear bitter fruit as anti-Captain America TV spots made people doubt the honesty and sanity of the nation’s greatest hero. As Sam Wilson – AKA The Falcon – and his “Black Power” activist girlfriend Leila Taylor left for the super-scientific African nation of Wakanda in search of increased powers and enhanced effectiveness, Cap battled third-rate villain the Tumbler who very publicly ambushed the hero for no discernible reason.

In the heat of battle the Sentinel of Liberty seemed to go too far and the thug died…

‘J’Accuse!’ (with Englehart solo-scripting and Vince Colletta inking) saw Cap beaten and arrested by too-good-to-be-true neophyte crusader Moonstone, whilst in Africa Leila is kidnapped by former Harlem hoodlum Stone-Face: far from home and hungry for some familiar foxy friendship…

The enigma expanded in #171 as ‘Bust-Out!’ found Cap forcibly sprung from jail by a mysterious pack of “supporters” even as Black Panther and the newly-flying Falcon crushed Stone-Face preparatory to a quick dash back to America and a reunion with Cap.

‘Believe it or Not: The Banshee!’ began with Cap and the Falcon reuniting to be beaten by Moonstone. Narrowly escaping detention by his obscurely occluded masters, the hard-luck heroes follow a lead to Nashville, encounter the fugitive mutant Master of Sound, and stumble into a secret pogrom against Homo Superior citizens.

For long months mutants had been disappearing unnoticed, but now the last remaining X-Men – Cyclops, Marvel Girl and Professor Charles Xavier – had tracked them down only to realise that Captain America’s problems also stemmed from ‘The Sins of the Secret Empire!’ whose ultimate goal was the conquest of the USA.

Eluding capture by S.H.I.E.L.D., Steve and Sam infiltrate the clandestine Empire, only to be exposed and confined in ‘It’s Always Darkest!’ before turning the tables and saving the day in #175’s ‘…Before the Dawn!’ wherein a horrific grand plan is revealed, all mutants liberated and the true culprits captured.

In a shocking final scene, the ultimate instigator is unmasked and shockingly dispatched deep within the sacrosanct White House itself…

At this time, America was a nation reeling from a loss of idealism caused by the daily-televised horror of the Vietnam War, the ever-unfolding Watergate scandal and the partial exposure of President Nixon’s many crimes and misdemeanours.

The painful waking-up to smell some pretty rancid coffee and stomaching the nauseating public revelation that politicians are generally unpleasant – and even possibly ruthless, wicked exploiters – kicked the props out of most Americans who had an incomprehensibly rosy view of their leaders, so a conspiracy that reached into the halls and backrooms of government was extremely controversial yet oddly attractive in those distant, simpler days…

In the days that follow shocked, stunned Steve Rogers searches his soul and realises he cannot be the symbol of such a country. Despite arguments and advice from his Avenging allies he decides that ‘Captain America Must Die!’

Unable to convince him otherwise Sam Wilson carries on alone…

And on that staggering cliffhanger note this controversial collection concludes…

Despite the odd cringeworthy moment (if you’ve already lived through the dialogue of this era of “blaxsploitation” and painfully-growing ethnic awareness once, you’ll know what I mean, Ma-aan) this saga of matchless courage and indomitable heroism is a fast-paced, action-packed, totally engrossing fights ‘n’ tights yarn no comics fan will care to miss, and joking aside, the cultural significance of this story was crucial in informing the political consciences of the youngest members of the post-Watergate generation…

Above all else though, Secret Empire is a fabulously fun tale of a true American Dreamer, still painfully relevant for a new generation who may not be aware of the power and perils of electioneering and the people who beg us to trust them…
© 1974, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.