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.

Captain America Epic Collection volume 2: The Coming of… the Falcon

By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, Gene Colan, John Romita Sr., John Buscema, Tom Sutton, Marie Severin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0007-6

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

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 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 thing promptly resurfaced 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).

This resoundingly resolute full-colour Epic Collection gather the last few issues of that run – ToS #97-99 – and the freshly re-titled Captain America #100-#119 spanning January 1968 to November 1968 and also includes a contemporaneous brace of Star-Spangled Spoofs from Not Brand Echh #3 and 12 to lighten the fervently patriotic load.

As this volume opens the Sentinel of Liberty has just retired from superhero service and revealed his secret identity to the world only to jump straight back into the saddle with S.H.I.E.L.D. for #97’s ‘And So It Begins…’: a four-part tale that spectacularly concludes in issue #100, with which number Tales of Suspense became simply Captain America. Guest starring the Black Panther, it tells of the return of long-dead Baron Zemo and an orbiting Death Ray. Scripted by Lee and bombastically drawn by King Kirby, ‘The Claws of the Panther!’ was inked by both Joe Sinnott and the great Syd Shores, who became regular embellisher with ‘The Man Who Lived Twice!’, whilst that premier hundredth first issue (how weird is that?) used the extra page length to retell Cap’s origin before climactically closing the superb thriller with ‘This Monster Unmasked!’

Marvel’s inexorable rise to dominance of the American comicbook industry really took hold in 1968 when a number of their characters finally got their own titles. Prior to that and due to a highly restrictive distribution deal the company was tied to a limit of 16 publications per month.

To circumvent this limitation, Marvel developed split-books with two series per publication, such as Tales of Suspense where original star Iron Man was joined by Cap. When the division came Shellhead started afresh with a First Issue, but Cap retained the numbering of the original title; thus premiering at #100.

Captain America#101-102 saw the return of fascist revenant Red Skull and another awesome Nazi revenge-weapon in ‘When Wakes the Sleeper!’ and ‘The Sleeper Strikes!’ as our hero and his support crew Agent 13 and Nick Fury hunt a murderous mechanoid capable of ghosting through solid Earth and blowing up the planet.

Although the immediate threat was quashed the instigator was still at large and #103 saw ‘The Weakest Link!’ as a budding romance with S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 13 (finally revealed after two years as Sharon Carter) interrupted by the nefarious Red Skull.

The über-fascist’s new scheme of nuclear blackmail extended to a second issue, wherein his band of war-criminal assassins, The Exiles, tested Cap nigh to destruction on the hidden isle where he became the ‘Slave of the Skull!’

That issue and the following super-villain team-up wherein Living Laser and the Swordsman united with another old Cap foe to attack ‘In the Name of Batroc!’ featured the loose flowing inking of Dan Adkins whilst Frank Giacoia embellished the spies-and-evil-doppelgangers romp ‘Cap goes Wild!’ in issue #106, before Shores returned in #107 for the sinister ‘If the Past Be Not Dead…’: an action-packed psycho-thriller introducing malevolent, mind-bending psychiatrist Doctor Faustus.

The Star-Spangled Avenger was rescuing Agent 13 again in breakneck thriller ‘The Snares of the Trapster!’ before Captain America #109 (January 1970) redefined his origin with ‘The Hero That Was!’: a spectacular wrap-up to Kirby’s run on the Sentinel of Liberty – at least for the moment…

Comics phenomenon and one-man sensation Jim Steranko then took over the art chores with #110, for a brief stint that became everybody’s favourite Cap epic for decades to come. After a swift and brutal skirmish with the Incredible Hulk, Rick Jones became the patriotic paladin’s new sidekick in ‘No Longer Alone!’, just in time for the pair to tackle the iconically lascivious Madame Hydra and her obedient hordes in #111’s ‘Tomorrow You Live, Tonight I Die!’ – both inked by Joe Sinnott in a landmark saga that galvanised a generation of would-be comics artists.

Seemingly killed at the issue’s close, the next month saw a bombastic account of Captain America’s career by fill-in superstars Kirby and George Tuska, before Lee, Steranko and Tom Palmer concluded the Hydra epic with ‘The Strange Death of Captain America’ in #113.

A period of artistic instability then kicked off with John Romita the Elder illustrating a tense spy-caper inked by Sal Buscema. ‘The Man Behind the Mask!‘ in CA #114 was merely prologue to an extended war against the Red Skull. Issue #115 – ‘Now Begins the Nightmare!’ – was drawn by John Buscema and inked by his brother Sal, wherein the arch-villain uses the reality-warping Cosmic Cube to switch bodies with the shield-slinger, whilst ‘Far Worse than Death!’ followed Cap’s frantic attempts to escape his own friends and allies. This issue saw the start of Gene Colan’s impressive run on the character, here accompanied by the smooth inks of Joe Sinnott.

The third instalment returned him to the Isle – and clutches – of the Exiles in a tale that introduced Marvel’s second black superhero. ‘The Coming of … the Falcon!’ was a terse, taut build-up to issue #118 with the neophyte hero taking centre-stage in ‘The Falcon Fights On!’ before all the ducks fall neatly into place for a spectacular finale in ‘Now Falls the Skull!’ in #119.

Supplementing and counterpointing the drama are two daft doses of period silliness from spoof comic Not Brand Echh. First up, Lee, Roy Thomas & Tom Sutton describe ‘The Honest-to-Irving, True-Blue Top Secret Original Origin of Charlie America!’ (#3, October 1967) before the irrepressible Marie Severin delves into ‘Charlie America’s Family Album!’ (#12 February 1969).

Also on offer are a selection of Kirby’s and Colan’s original art pages and covers, rejected covers, unseen pencil and colour roughs by Romita (from stories in this volume) and a gallery of classic Kirby and Steranko covers modified by painters Dean White and Richard Isanove, originally seen on assorted Marvel Masterworks editions…

These are tales of dauntless courage and unmatchable adventure, fast-paced and superbly illustrated, which rightly returned Captain America to the heights that his Golden Age compatriots the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner never regained. They are pure escapist magic. Glorious treats for the eternally young at heart, these are episodes of sheer visual dynamite that cannot be slighted and should not be missed.
© 1968, 1969, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America Masterworks volume 2

By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Jack Kirby, John Romita Sr., Gil Kane, Jack Sparling & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1785-8 (HB)        978-0-7851-5931-5(TPB)

After his resurrection in Avengers #4 (March 1964), Captain America grew in popularity and quickly won his own solo feature, sharing Tales of Suspense with former teammate Iron Man (beginning with #59, cover-dated November 1964).

Scripted by Stan Lee and with the astoundingly prolific Jack Kirby either pencilling or laying out each action-packed episode, the series grew in standing and stature until it became must-read entertainment for most comics fans.

This second Masterworks compilation re-presents ToS #82-99 (October 1966 to March 1969) and concludes with Captain America #100 as the Star-Spangled Stalwart took the next big step and returned to solo stardom in the April cover-dated first issue.

The dynamic dramas contained herein signalled closer links with parallel tales in other titles. Thus, with subversive science scoundrels Advanced Idea Mechanics defeated by S.H.I.E.L.D. in Strange Tales ‘The Maddening Mystery of the Inconceivable Adaptoid!’ pitted Cap against one last unsupervised experiment as A.I.M.’s artificial life-form – capable of becoming an exact duplicate of its victim – stalked Cap in a tale of vicious psychological warfare. Sadly, even masterfully manufactured mechanoids are apt to err and ‘Enter… The Tumbler!’ (inked by Dick Ayers) saw a presumptuous wannabe attack the robot after it assumed the identity of our hero before ‘The Super-Adaptoid!’ completed an epic of breathtaking suspense and drama as the real McCoy fought back and overcame everybody…

Such eccentric cross-continuity capers would carry the company to market dominance in a few short years and become not the exception but the norm…

‘The Blitzkrieg of Batroc!’ and ‘The Secret!’ returned to the early minimum-plot, all-action, overwhelming-odds yarns whilst ‘Wanted: Captain America’ (by Roy Thomas, Jack Sparling & Joe Sinnott) offered a lacklustre interval involving a frame-up before Gil Kane took his first run on the character with ‘If Bucky Lives…!’, ‘Back from the Dead!’, ‘…And Men Shall Call Him Traitor!’ and ‘The Last Defeat!’ (TOS #88-91, with the last two inked by Sinnott): a superb thriller of blackmail and betrayal starring the Red Skull. The fascist felon had baited a trap with a robotic facsimile of Cap’s dead partner, triggered it with super-hirelings Power Man and the Swordsman and then blackmailed the Star-Spangled Sentinel into betraying his country and stealing an atomic submarine…

Kirby & Sinnott were back for ‘Before My Eyes Nick Fury Died!’, ‘Into the Jaws of… AIM!’ and ‘If This Be… Modok!’ as the Champion of Liberty fought a giant brain-being manufactured purely for killing…

In rapid succession ‘A Time to Die… A Time to Live’ and ‘To Be Reborn!’ see the hero retire and reveal his secret identity, only to jump straight back into the saddle with S.H.I.E.L.D. for #97’s ‘And So It Begins…’ a four-part epic which concluded in the aforementioned issue #100, with which number Tales of Suspense became simply Captain America. Guest starring the Black Panther, it described the apparent return of long-dead Baron Zemo utilising an orbiting Death Ray to scourge Africa and threaten the world.

‘The Claws of the Panther!’ was inked by both Sinnott and the great Syd Shores – who would continue for the next year as regular inker – beginning with ‘The Man Who Lived Twice!’, whilst the hundredth issue used the extra page-length to retell the origin before concluding a superb thriller with ‘This Monster Unmasked!’

Rounding out this patriotic bonanza is a gallery of original art pages by Kirby and Kane plus uncorrected proofs showing last-minute editorial alterations to the priceless published pearls of wonder.
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

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.

Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age Captain America volume 1 – Revised Review

By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby and various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN: 0-7851-1619-2 (HC);  978-0785157939 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: An Evergreen Hit… 8/10

The success of DC’s Archive imprint – luxury hardback chronological collections 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. Even if production of the series seems to have been generally sidelined in recent months…

From DC’s tentative beginnings in the 1990’s Marvel, Dark Horse and other publishers have since pursued this (presumably) 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 eventually their Timely and Atlas era material joined the procession…

A part of me understands Marvel’s initial 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 true classics in a later age, in and of themselves, most early Marvel tales – and other “Golden Age Greats” – just aren’t that good by today’s standards.

This Marvel Masterworks Captain America – now also available as an ebook – volume  reprints more or less the complete contents of the first four issues of his original title (spanning 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 by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby seen here is not really the lure … the real gold nuggets for us old sods are those rare back-up features from the star duo and their small team of talented youngsters. Reed Crandall, Syd Shores, Alex Schomburg and 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 devised at the end of 1940 and boldly launched in his own monthly title from Timely – 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, 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 – 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 The 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…

I suspect given the current tone of the times politically, such sentiments might be less controversial now than they have been for quite a while…

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 superhero comics at the company they left and their patriotic creation became the flagship icon for them and the entire industry.

This compelling and exceptional 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, this passionate man is invited to become part of a clandestine experiment intended to create physically perfect super-soldiers. However, when a vile Nazi agent infiltrates the project and murders its key scientist, Rogers became the only successful graduate and America’s not-so-secret weapon.

Sent undercover as a simple private he soon encounters Bucky Barnes: a headstrong, orphaned Army Brat who becomes his sidekick and costumed confidante. All of that is perfectly packaged into mere seven-and-a-half pages, and the untitled ‘Case No. 2’ takes just as long to spectacularly defeat Nazi showbiz psychics Sando and Omar as they spread anxiety and fear amongst the Americans.

‘Captain America and the Soldier’s Soup’ is a rather mediocre and unattributed prose tale promptly followed by a sinister 16-page epic ‘Captain America and the Chess-board of Death’ with our heroes thrashing more macabre murdering Nazi malcontents before the groundbreaking introduction of the nation’s greatest foe…

Solving ‘The Riddle of the Red Skull’ proves to be 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 – sets his super-fast sights on ‘Murder Inc.’ in a rip-roaring but clearly rushed battle against fellow-immortal Pluto (so not quite the last god either; nor exclusively Norse or Greek…) who is 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) whereas ‘Tuk, Caveboy: Stories from the Dark Ages’ is all-original excitement as a teenaged boy in 50,000 BC and raised by a beast-man determines to regain the throne of his antediluvian kingdom Attilan from the usurpers who stole it.

This is an imaginative barbarian spectacular that owes as much to Tarzan as The Land that Time Forgot but it certainly delivers the thrills we all want…

Historians believe 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 monster mash-up ‘The Ageless Orientals Who Wouldn’t Die’, blending elements of horror and jingoism into a terrifying thriller with a ruthless American capitalist exposed as the true source of a rampage against the nation’s banks…

‘Trapped in the Nazi Stronghold’ sees Cap and 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.

The Patriotic Pair then deal with saboteurs in the prose piece ‘Short Circuit’ before Tuk tackles 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 – now “Master of Speed” swiftly and spectacularly expunges ‘The Devil and the Green Plague’ in the fetid heart 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 – with Kirby opening up his layouts to utterly enhance the graphic action with a veritable production line of creators (including Ed Herron, Martin A, Burnstein, Howard Ferguson, William Clayton King, and possibly George Roussos, Bob Oksner, Max Elkan and Jerry Robinson) joining the art team.

Whilst eye-shattering scale and spectacle unite with non-stop action and eerie mood as key components of the Sentinel of Liberty’s exploits horror elements dominated in ‘The Hunchback of Hollywood and the Movie Murder’ as a patriotic film is plagued by sinister “accidents”.

Stan Lee debuts with text tale ‘Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge’ before Simon & Kirby – and friends – recount ‘The Queer Case of the Murdering Butterfly and the Ancient Mummies’; blending eerie Egyptian antiquities with a thoroughly modern costumed psychopath.

Then Tuk (drawn by either Mark Schneider – or perhaps Marcia Snyder) reaches ‘Atlantis and the False King’ after which Kirby contributes a true tale in ‘Amazing Spy Adventures’ before Hurricane confronts ‘Satan and the Subway Disasters’ with devastating and final effect…

The final issue in this fabulous chronicle opens with ‘Captain America and the Unholy Legion’ as the star-spangled brothers-in-arms crush a conspiracy of beggars terrorising the city, before taking on ‘Ivan the Terrible’ in a time-bending vignette and thereafter solving ‘The Case of the Fake Money Fiends’. The all-action extravaganzas culminate in magnificent fashion when our heroes then expose the horrendous secret of ‘Horror Hospital’

After Lee-scripted prose-piece ‘Captain America and the Bomb Sight Thieves’ young Tuk defeats ‘The Ogre of the Cave-Dwellers’ and Hurricane brings down a 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 vintage well to draw from, 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 and should be on every fan’s “never-miss” bookshelf.
© 1941, 2005, 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

S.H.I.E.L.D. by Lee & Kirby: The Complete Collection

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Denny O’Neil, John Severin, Don Heck, John Buscema, Joe Sinnott, Howard Purcell, Ogden Whitney & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9901-4

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

What was odd about that? Well, the gruffly capable 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 middle or beginning 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. Although Fury’s later self became a big-name star when espionage yarns went global in the wake of popular sensations like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the elder iteration was given a second series beginning in Strange Tales #135 (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 saga came with captivating Kirby-designed super-science gadgetry and, later, iconic imagineering from Jim Steranko whose visually groundbreaking graphic narratives took the art form to a whole new level (but that’s a subject of another Complete Collection…).

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 paperback compendium, however, deals with the outrageous, groundbreaking, but still still carefully wedded-to-mundane-reality iteration which set the scene. Here Jack Kirby’s genius for gadgetry 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…

This stunning hardback omnibus gathers those early days of spycraft; comprising Fantastic Four #21, Tales of Suspense #78 and Strange Tales #135-150 – spanning December 1963 to November 1966 – and providing timeless thrills for lovers of adventure and intrigue.

Fantastic Four #21 introduced the latter-day Fury as a CIA agent seeking the team’s aid against a sinister demagogue called ‘The Hate-Monger’ (by Lee & Kirby with inks 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.

Fury craftily manipulated Marvel’s First Family into invading a sovereign nation in the throes of revolution in a yarn cracking with tension and action.

The main event starts next as Strange Tales #135 (August 1965) saw the Human Torch solo feature 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 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 the Kirby’s blueprints as Fury becomes the target of incessant assassination attempts and we are introduced to the masked Supreme Hydra

The tension ramps up in 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. and almost eradicate 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 comic book per month to tell a tale, creators didn’t hang around in those halcyon days and #140 promised ‘The End of Hydra!’ (Don Heck & Sinnott) as a S.H.I.E.L.D. squad invades the enemy’s inner sanctum to rescue the already-free-and-making-mayhem Fury, just as Stark travels into space to remove the Betratron Bomb with his robotic Braino-Saur system. The end result left Hydra temporarily headless…

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

The raid began 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. None too soon, however, Dugan and the boys come blasting in ‘To Free a Brain Slave’ in #143 with Howard Purcell & Esposito embellishing Kirby’s layouts.

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

As Marvel continuity grew evermore interlinked, ‘Them!’ saw Captain America team with 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 saw the WWII wonders battling an artificial assassin with incredible chemical capabilities after which Nick sought the creature’s mysterious makers in Strange Tales #146 ‘When the Unliving Strike!’ (Kirby, Heck & Esposito).

As technological Special Interests group Advanced Idea Mechanics courted Fury’s governmental and military masters, promising incredible weapons if only they sacked that barbaric slob Fury, the S.H.I.E.L.D. supremo was 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 results in a shattering conclusion and ‘The End of A.I.M.!’ in #149 (with script from Denny O’Neil, and art by Kirby & Ogden Whitney).

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

This sets the scene for the bombastic debut by Jim Steranko, but that’s to be seen in another collection at another time…

Here the epic espionage extravaganza wraps up with appetising Afterword ‘Against the Hordes of Hydra’ by Lee and a treasure trove of original art pages comprising covers, pencils and inked pages – and even try-out pages – by Kirby, Severin, Whitney and Buscema, plus a rousing 1965 House Ad plugging not just the Espionage elite but the simultaneously debuting Sub-Mariner strip in Tales to Astonish #70.

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.
© 2015 Marvel Characters. Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Adventures Avengers: Thor and Captain America

By Paul Tobin, Scott Gray, Todd Dezago, Ronan Cliquet, Ron Lim, Lou Kang & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5584-3

Since its earliest days Marvel has always courted young comicbook consumers. In 2003 the company instituted the Marvel Age imprint to update and reframe classic original tales by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others for a fresh-faced 21st century readership.

The experiment was tweaked in 2005, becoming Marvel Adventures. The tone was very much that of the company’s burgeoning TV cartoon franchises, in execution if not name. Titles bearing the Marvel Adventures brand included Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Super Heroes, The Avengers and Hulk. These iterations ran until 2010 when they were cancelled and replaced by new volumes of Marvel Adventures: Super Heroes and Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man.

Almost all of those yarns have been collected in digest-sized compilations such as this one which gathers a selection of fantastic feats starring the God of Thunder or Sentinel of Liberty and their friends, comprising four all-ages tales from the second volume of Marvel Adventures Super Heroes #13-16 (spanning June-September 2011).

The action opens with a mythological masterpiece by Paul Tobin, Ronan Cliquet & Amilton Santos wherein plucky novice hero Nova is invited by Avenging comrades Thor and Valkyrie to accompany them on an annual errand for Odin the All-Father.

In the distant past when Asgardians warred with Trolls, a godling messenger named Glane failed in his mission and was banished to the ghastly Fields of the Fallen to pay penance by continually battling the Golden Realm’s vilest enemies.

Periodically Thor has been sent to add new tasks to the sinning failure’s heavy burden, and this year as the Thunderer and Valkyrie ready themselves for the trip, they invite the starstruck Nova to tag along.

However, as the trio battle their way through horrific monsters and overwhelming odds, Nova finds himself increasingly uncomfortable with the sentence meted out to Glane and even begins to doubt the motives of his immortal mentors. All that changes once he meets and battles beside the convicted penitent…

Originating in MASH #14, ‘Out of Time!’ is by Todd Dezago, Ron Lim & Scott Koblish (inspired by Gerry Conway & Ross Andru’s tale from the original Marvel Team-Up #7) and sees the Lord of Storm intercepting Spider-Man after the wall-crawler is blasted high into the sky whilst battling raving maniac the Looter.

That happy coincidence occurs just a bizarre force freezes time around them. When the heroes discover that only they have escaped a devastating weapon deployed by Trollish tyrant Kryllk the Conqueror to paralyze and overwhelm both Asgard and the mortal plane, they must divide their strength to simultaneously smash the conqueror in both Manhattan and Asgard if they are to set time running free again…

Captain America takes the spotlight in #15 as ‘Back in Time’ (Tobin, Cliquet & Santos) finds the Star-Spangled Avenger battling Neanderthals with ray-guns in a National Forest after tracking down rogue geneticists who have stolen a huge amount of plutonium.

A mere mile away, Peter Parker’s girlfriend Sophia Sanduval is getting back to nature and chilling with her furry, scaly and feathered friends. As Chat, the mutant teen’s power to communicate with animals makes her a crucial component of the mystery-solving Blonde Phantom Detective Agency, but even she has never seen anything like the wave of extinct creatures which appear after Cap begins battling the tooled-up cavemen.

Soon she has been briefed on the deadly experiments of rogue technologist Jerrick Brogg – whose ambition is to build an army out of revived extinct creatures – and swears to help Cap put the maniac away and save all the beasts he has recreated from short painful lives of terror and brutal exploitation…

Wrapping up the action comes ‘Stars, Stripes and Spiders!’ by Dezago, Lou Kang & Pat Davidson (based on Len Wein & Gil Kane’s tale from Marvel Team-Up #13).

When a certain wall-crawling high-school student and occasional masked hero stumbles into Captain America tackling an AIM cadre stealing super-soldier serum, the nervous lad learns a few things about the hero game from the legendary guy who wrote the book. Sadly, not making that lesson any easier is petrifying super-villain Grey Gargoyle, whose deadly touch almost ends Spidey’s homework worries – and continued existence – forever…

Never the success the company hoped, the Marvel Adventures project was superseded in 2012 by specific comics tied to those Disney XD television shows designated as “Marvel Universe cartoons”, but these collected stories are still an intriguing, amazingly entertaining and superbly accessible means of introducing characters and concepts to kids born sometimes three generations or more away from the originating events.

Fast, furious, funny and enthralling, these riotous mini-epics are extremely enjoyable yarns, although parents should note that some of the themes and certainly the level of violence might not be what everybody considers “All-Ages Super Hero Action”…
© 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America and Black Widow

By Cullen Bunn, Francesco Francavilla & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6528-6

The Star-Spangled Avenger was created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby at the end of 1940, confidently launched straight into his own title. Captain America Comics #1 was cover-dated March 1941 and made the flag-draped hero an unstoppable, overwhelming overnight success.

The absolute and undisputed star of Timely Comics’ “Big Three” (the other two being Human Torch and Sub-Mariner), Cap was also amongst the very first to fade as the Golden Age ended.

With the Korean War and Communist aggression gripping the American psyche, freedom fighting Steve Rogers was revived in 1953 – along with Torch and Subby – for another brief tour of duty before quickly sinking back into obscurity…

A resurgent Timely – now calling itself Marvel Comics – drafted him again in Avengers #4. It was March 1964 and Vietnam was just beginning to pervade the minds of the American public. This time he stuck around. Whilst perpetually bemoaning the tragic, heroic death of his young sidekick (James Buchanan Barnes AKA Bucky) during the final days of World War II, the resurrected Sentinel of Liberty stole the show; promptly graduating to his own series and title as well.

He waxed and waned through the most turbulent period of social change in US history, struggling to find an ideological niche and stable footing in a precarious and rapidly changing modern world. After decades of vacillating and being subject to increasingly frantic attempts to keep the character relevant, in the last years of the 20th century a succession of stellar writers finally established his naturally niche: America’s physical, military and ethical guardian…

In continuity terms, Cap is a rough contemporary of Natasha Romanoff (sometimes Natalia Romanova): a Soviet Russian spy who came in from the cold and stuck around to become one of Marvel’s most successful female stars.

The Black Widow started life as a svelte, sultry honey-trap during Marvel’s early “Commie-busting” days, battling against Iron Man in her debut exploit (Tales of Suspense #52, April, 1964).

She was subsequently redesigned as a torrid tights-&-tech super-villain before defecting to the USA, falling for an assortment of Yankee superheroes – including Hawkeye and Daredevil – and finally becoming an agent of SHIELD, freelance do-gooder and occasional leader of the Avengers.

Throughout her career she has always been considered ultra efficient, coldly competent, deadly dangerous and yet somehow cursed to bring doom and disaster to her paramours. As her backstory evolved, it was revealed that Natasha had undergone experimental processes which enhanced her physical capabilities and lengthened her lifespan, as well as assorted psychological procedures which had messed up her mind and memories…

Despite always being a fan-favourite, the Widow only truly hit the big time after the release of the Iron Man, Captain America and Avengers movies, but for us unregenerate comics-addicts her printed-page escapades have always offered a cool yet sinister frisson of dark delight.

This particular all-action pairing collects Captain America (… and the Black Widow) #636-640 from November 2012 to February 2013, during which time Cap’s own title had become a team-up vehicle, with previous part-time partners including Bucky/Winter Soldier, Hawkeye, Iron Man and Namor.

A good deal of that period had been spent thwarting the schemes of a mysterious villain with incredible resources and astoundingly grandiose schemes. Her name was Kashmir Vennema and this book describes how she was finally brought low…

The tale opens in Central Park as the Black Widow meets a mole to secure crucial intel. Although she was apparently incarcerated by Cap weeks ago, Vennema is still murderously active and the files reveal her secret. “Kash” is a high-end broker: supplying arms, tech, information, people or whatever her elevated clientele desire. Her motto is “Infinite profit in infinite worlds” and her organisation plunders the entire multiverse for suitable wares, before selling them to the worst despots of an uncountable number of Earths.

Moreover, the reason for her success is that everyone who works for her is a Kashmir doppelganger recruited from every alternate world…

Even as the Widow absorbs the implications of these revelations, in some other place a Doctor Doom dies whilst conducting business with a Vennema: their meeting ending in bloody assassination at the hands of infallible sniper Natasha Romanoff. This implacable Black Widow is working for an unknown client who plans to end the Vennema scourge forever…

And on our Earth at maximum detention centre The Raft, Hawkeye and Captain America interview the captive Kashmir and realise she is not of this Earth…

Acting on information received the Sentinel of Liberty later interrupts another buy between a Vennema and a terrorist group. The Secret Empire are looking to buy enslaved metahumans from other Americas but are driven off by the fighting-mad super-soldier. Tragically Cap is totally unprepared for the Black Widow to show up and murder Kashmir. Only after she tries to kill him too does he realise that she’s not his Black Widow…

Things look pretty bleak until she is suddenly taken out by her own counterpart, but the ‘Superhero Horror’ only increases when Vennema Multiversal HQ realises the deal has gone sour and the supreme “Kash” orders all evidence dumped. That involves a dimensional transport trap which lands Cap, Natasha and the killer Widow in a dustbin dimension where all Vennema’s failures and embarrassments end up…

Forging an uneasy alliance with the other Natasha, Cap goes scouting and walks into a catastrophic war amidst the ruins…

‘Tripod Terror’ sees the heroes ferociously battling crazed survivors of other cover-ups, unaware that Kash has despatched her metahuman Hunt Squad – culled from numerous worlds – to ensure their destruction, but the tables are about to be turned thanks to the ‘Raging Reptiles’ of alternate Earth inmate Curt Connors.

This plane’s Lizard is also its Doctor Octopus and he has redemption in mind. He only thought to help his people after a great war but his meddling resulted in a planet of monsters…

Now as the Hunt Squad attacks, Connors buys time for Cap and the Widows to escape, plunging into uncontrolled inter-dimensional chaos and fetching up on a myriad of incredible alternates before finally finding the mystery client who ordered the hits on the assorted Kashmirs.

She has her own team of oddly familiar metahuman champions and wants to dismantle Vennema Multiversal. With Captain America and two Black Widows ‘Taking it to the House’, the hostile takeover is brief and very bloody…

But when the dust at last settles is the convoluted interconnected web of Realities actually a better, safer place?

A dazzling display of pure Fights ‘n’ Tights razzamatazz, this short, sharp and super-heroically sweet team-up tale from scripter Cullen Bunn and illustrator Francesco Francavilla captivatingly capitalises on the popularity of the filmic iterations of these particularly long-lived metahuman marvels whilst playing delicious games with the established comics continuity. The end result is a fast and furious treat all action addicts will be unable to resist.
© 2012, 2013 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Adventures Avengers: Captain America

By Scott Gray, Roger Langridge, Todd Dezago, Roger Stern, Craig Rousseau, Matteo Lolli, Lou Kang, John Byrne & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4562-3

Since its earliest days Marvel always courted the youngest comicbook consumers. Whether animated tie-ins such as Terrytoons Comics, Mighty Mouse, Super Rabbit Comics, Duckula, assorted Hanna-Barbera and Disney licenses and a myriad of others, or original creations such as Millie the Model, Homer the Happy Ghost, Li’l Kids and Calvin – or as in the 1980s Star Comics line – an entire imprint for originated or licensed comics targeting peewee punters, the House of Ideas has always understood the necessity of cultivating the next generation of readers.

These days, however, general kids’ interest titles are all but dead and, with Marvel characters all over screens large and small, the company usually prefers to create child-friendly versions of its own proprietary pantheon, making that eventual hoped-for transition to more mature comics as painless as possible.

In 2003 the company instituted a Marvel Age line which updated and retold classic original tales by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko, mixing it with the remnants of the manga-based Tsunami imprint, all intended for a younger readership.

The experiment was tweaked in 2005, evolving into Marvel Adventures with core titles transformed into Marvel Adventures: Fantastic Four and Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man. The tone was very much that of the company’s burgeoning TV cartoon franchises, in delivery if not name. Additional Marvel Adventures series included Super Heroes, The Avengers and Hulk. These iterations ran until 2010 when they were cancelled and replaced by new volumes of Marvel Adventures: Super Heroes and Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man.

Those tales have all been collected in welcoming digest-sized compilations such as this one which gathers a selection of yarns starring the Sentinel of Liberty. This particular patriotic play-list comprises three all-ages tales – taken from Marvel Adventures Super Heroes #8 and 12, plus an early outing from Marvel Age Spider-Man Team-Up #2 and rounded out with a mainstream continuity yarn from Captain America volume 1 #255 from March 1981.

The Sentinel of Liberty was created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby at the end of 1940 and launched straight into his own Timely Comics’ (Marvel’s earliest iteration) title. Captain America Comics #1 was cover-dated March 1941 and was a monster smash-hit. Cap was 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 very the first to fall from popularity at the end of the Golden Age.

When the Korean War and Communist aggression dominated the American psyche in the early 1950s Cap was briefly revived – as were his two fellow superstars – in 1953 before sinking once more into obscurity until a resurgent Marvel Comics once more needed them. When the Stars-&-Stripes Centurion finally reappeared he finally found a devoted following who stuck with him through thick and thin.

Soon after taking over the Avengers, he won his own series and, eventually, title. Cap waxed and waned through the most turbulent period of social change in American history but always struggled to find an ideological place and stable footing in the modern world, plagued by the trauma of his greatest failure: the death of his boy partner Bucky

If you’re of a slavish disposition continuity-wise, the first three Star-Spangled sagas all occur on Marvel’s Earth-20051 whilst the last is situated in the regulation Earth-616.

It opens with an updated origin – in keeping with the later filmic iteration – as ‘The Legend Reborn’ (by Scott Gray & Craig Rousseau as seen in MASH #8, April 2009) sees World War II’s greatest hero decanted from an arctic iceberg by agents of SHIELD.

Future-shocked and mistrusting, Steve Rogers breaks out of protective custody and explores the 21st century beside teen-rebel and street-performer Rick Jones, until secret society Hydra try to “recruit” him and Cap is finally forced to pick a side…

The introductory epic is augmented by an enticing war-time tale. ‘Spy for the Cameras!’ (Roger Langridge & Rousseau) finds Cap and annoyingly plucky reporter Rosalind Hepburn exposing an undercover plot in Hollywoodland…

Issue #12 (August 2009) saw Cap and Rick return in ‘Web of Deceit’ by Gray & Matteo Lolli. Here the time-lost hero is transported into Hydra’s digital domain to face unimaginable and lethally implausible peril, until Rick’s buddies in the Online Brigade log in to save the day…

This is followed by another deliciously wry WWII romp from Langridge & Rousseau, with news-hen Rosalind, Cap and Bucky battling a prototype mutant cyborg in ‘If This Be P.R.O.D.O.K.!’

‘Stars, Stripes and Spiders!’ is by Todd Dezago, Lou Kang & Pat Davidson (originally debuting in Marvel Age Spider-Man Team-Up #2, December 2004 and inspired by Len Wein and Gil Kane’s tale from the original Marvel Team-Up #13).

When a certain wall-crawling high-school student and part-time hero stumbles into Captain America tackling an AIM cadre stealing a super-soldier serum, the nervous lad learns a few things about the hero game from the guy who wrote the book. Not making that lesson any easier is petrifying super-villain the Grey Gargoyle

Closing out this fast-paced primer of patriotic action is a classic retelling of Cap’s early career by Roger Stern & John Byrne. The story was the finale in a superb run by the duo: a mini-renaissance of well-conceived and perfectly executed yarns epitomising all the fervour and pizzazz of Captain America in his glory days. ‘The Living Legend’ is a moody, rocket-paced origin saga which was the definitive version of the hero’s nativity for decades…

Never the success the company hoped, the Marvel Adventures project was superseded in 2012 by specific comics tied to those Disney XD television shows designated as “Marvel Universe cartoons”, but these collected stories are still an intriguing, amazingly entertaining and superbly accessible means of introducing characters and concepts to kids born sometimes three generations or more away from the originating events.

Beguiling, enthralling and impressive, these riotous super stories are extremely enjoyable yarns, although parents should note that some of the themes and certainly the violence might not be what everybody considers “All-Ages Super Hero Action” and might perhaps better suit older kids…

© 1981, 2000, 2009, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.