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.

Essential Captain America volume 6

By Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Steve Gerber, Don Glut, Sal Buscema, Frank Giacoia & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5091-6

Created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby in an era of ferocious patriotic fervour, Captain America was a dynamic and exceedingly bombastic 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 dynamics pantheon before accepting 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 blew, 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). At the same time he was handed control of two of his previous co-creations – firmly established characters Captain America and Black Panther – 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 and went explosively his own way. Whilst his new works quickly found many friends, his tenures 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 Captain America

This sixth Essential monochrome collection features the last contentious stories by “The King”, before Kirby quit writing, drawing and editing the Sentinel of Liberty; abruptly returning the patriotic paragon fully to Marvel’s restrictively overarching interlinked continuity.

Gathered within are Captain America #206-229 (cover-dated February 1977 to February 1978) and Captain America Annual #4 plus a bonus crossover tale from Incredible Hulk #232.

At the end of the previous volume the Fighting American had saved the nation from a conclave of aristocratic oligarchs attempting to undo two hundred years of freedom and progress with their “Madbomb”, visited another dimension and liberated its human abductee-inhabitants and spectacularly turned back an invader from the far future.

The non-stop nightmares resume here with Captain America and the Falcon #206 as ‘Face to Face with the Swine!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) sees the Star-Spangled Sensation mistakenly renditioned to deepest Central America and toppling the private kingdom and hunting ground of psychotic sadist Comandante Hector Santiago, unchallenged monarch of the prison of Rio del Muerte

Never one to go anywhere meekly, Cap escapes and begins engineering the brute’s downfall in ‘The Tiger and the Swine!!’ but soon finds the jungles conceal genuine monsters. When they exact primal justice on the tormentors, Cap’s escape with the Swine’s cousin Donna Maria down ‘The River of Death!’ is interrupted by the advent of another astounding “Kirby Kreation”… ‘Arnim Zola… the Bio-Fanatic!!’

The former Nazi geneticist was absolute master of radical biology, dragging Cap and Donna Maria to his living castle and inflicting upon them a horde of diabolical homunculi at the behest of a mysterious sponsor even as the Avenger’s partner Falcon was closing in on his long-missing pal.

Indomitable against every kind of shapeshifting horror, Captain America battles on, enduring a terrible ‘Showdown Day!’ (with Mike W. Royer taking over the inking) whilst back home his girlfriend Sharon Carter uses her resources as SHIELD’s Agent 13 to trace wealthy Cyrus Fenton and expose ‘Nazi “X”!’ as the Sentinel of Liberty’s greatest nemesis…

With his time on the title counting down, Kirby ramped up the tension in #212 as ‘The Face of a Hero! Yours!!’ finds Zola preparing to surgically give the Red Skull Cap’s form, resulting in a cataclysmic clash which leaves the hero bloodied and blind, but ultimately victorious…

With the hero recuperating in hospital, Dan Green steps in to ink #213 as ultimate assassin ‘The Night Flyer!’ targets the ailing Captain America at the behest of unfettered capitalist villain Kligger from the insidious Corporation, but inadvertently triggers the return of the victim’s vision in blockbusting – if abrupt – conclusion ‘The Power’ (Royer inks)…

Reading slightly out of sequence here, Captain America Annual #4 ‘The Great Mutant Massacre!’ ends the Kirby contribution to the career of the Star-Spangled Avenger: a feature- length super-shocker which again eschewed convoluted back-story and the cultural soul-searching which typified the character before and after Kirby’s tenure.

It saw America’s Ultimate Fighting Man strive against humanity’s nemesis Magneto and his latest mutant recruits Burner, Smasher, Lifter, Shocker, Slither and Peeper. This riot of rampaging action and end-of-the-world wonderment pitted the Sentinel of Liberty against a Homo Superior hit-squad aiming to take possession of a super-powered being whose origins were far stranger than anybody could conceive…

When Kirby moved on it left a desperate gap in the schedules. Captain America #215 saw Roy Thomas, George Tuska & Pablo Marcos remix the hero’s origin story for the latest generation with ‘The Way it Really Was!’: reiterating also the history of the heroes who also wore the red, white & blue uniform whilst Steve Rogers was entombed in ice and ending with our hero desperately wondering who the man beneath the mask might be…

For all that, #216 was mostly a reprint. With a framing sequence by Thomas, Dave Cockrum & Giacoia ‘The Human Torch meets…Captain America!’ was written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Kirby & Dick Ayers, rerunning November 1963’s Strange Tales #114. It featured the return of the third of Timely Comics’ Golden Age Big Three – or at least an impersonation of him by the insidious Acrobat – in a bombastic battle romp.

Here’s a quote from the last panel…

“You guessed it! This story was really a test! To see if you too would like Captain America to Return! As usual, your letters will give us the answer!” I wonder how that turned out?

‘The Search for Steve Rogers!’ by Thomas, Don Glut, John Buscema & Marcos began in #217 and with SHIELD’s record division, but the Falcon was soon distracted by a surprising job offer as Nick Fury, busy with the hunt for the Corporation, asked Cap’s partner to train the agency’s newest project: the SHIELD Super-Agents

These neophyte wonders consisted of Texas Twister, Blue Streak, Vamp and a rather mature Marvel Boy, but the team was already flawed and deeply compromised…

Issue #218 saw Cap targeted by a Corporation agent and fed data which turned his legendarily-fragmented memory to his thawing from the ice. Heading north to retrace his original journey, Cap spent ‘One Day in Newfoundland!’ (Glut, Sal Buscema & John Tartaglione) and uncovered a secret army, an old foe and a colossal robotic facsimile of himself…

In #219 ‘The Adventures of Captain America’ (Glut, Sal B & Joe Sinnott) reveals how, during WWII, the hero and junior partner Bucky were ordered to investigate skulduggery on the set of a movie serial about them and exposed special effects wizard Lyle Dekker as a highly-placed Nazi spy.

Now in modern-day Newfoundland that warped genius has built a clandestine organisation with an incredible purpose; revealed in ‘The Ameridroid Lives!’ (inked by Tartaglione & Mike Esposito) as the captive crusader is mind-probed and dredges up shocking submerged memories.

When he and Bucky were chasing a swiftly launched secret weapon at the end of the war, the boy died and Steve Rogers fell into the North Atlantic and was frozen in a block of ice until found and thawed by the Avengers. At least, he always thought that’s how it happened.

Now as the probe does its devilish work, Captain America remembers that he was in fact picked up by Dekker after the spy was punished by the Red Skull and exiled for his failures. Deciding to work only for his own interests, Dekker then attempted to transfer Cap’s power to himself and it was only in escaping the original Newfoundland base that Rogers crashed into the sea and froze…

Now decades later, the vile scheme is finally accomplished: Cap’s energies are replicated in a fifteen foot tall super-android with the aging Dekker’s consciousness permanently embedded in its metal and plastic brain.

…And only then does the fanatic realise he’s made himself into a monster at once unique, solitary and utterly apart from humanity…

The deadline problems still hadn’t eased and this episode is chopped in half with the remainder of the issue giving Falcon a short solo outing as ‘…On a Wing and a Prayer!’ by Scott Edelman, Bob Budiansky & Al Gordon finds the Pinioned Paladin hunting a mad archer who has kidnapped his avian ally Redwing…

The remainder of the Ameridroid saga appears in Captain America #221 as Steve Gerber and David Kraft co-script ‘Cul-De-Sac!’, wherein the marauding mechanoid is finally foiled by reason not force of arms whilst ‘The Coming of Captain Avenger!’ (Edelman, Steve Leialoha & Gordon) provides another space-filling vignette with former sidekick Rick Jones being given a tantalising glimpse of his most cherished dreams…

Issue #222 sees Gerber fully in the writer’s seat as ‘Monumental Menace!’ (by Sal B, Tartaglione & Esposito) as “The Search for Steve Rogers” storyline moves to Washington DC.

As our hero examines army records at the Pentagon, the Corporation’s attempts to destroy him become more pronounced and bizarre. After escaping an animated, homicidal Volkswagen Steven Grant Rogers learns at last that he was once the son of a diplomat and lost a brother at Pearl Harbor (all these revelations were later rather ingeniously retconned out so don’t worry about spoilers). Soon however events spiral and Liberty’s Sentinel is attacked by the Lincoln Memorial, sacrilegiously brought to lethal life…

The madness continues as the hulking, monstrous horror responsible screams ‘Call Me Animus’ before unleashing a succession of blistering assaults which result in hundreds of collateral casualties before being finally repulsed…

The epic is again interrupted as Peter Gillis, Mike Zeck, Esposito & Tartaglione contrive a thrilling mystery with a battered Cap awakening in a river with partial amnesia and a new face. Forced to find out what happened to him, the sinister trail leads to guest-villains Senor Suerte and Tarantula in ‘Saturday Night Furor!’

The Search Saga resumes in #225 as ‘Devastation!’ (Gerber, Sal Buscema, Esposito & Tartaglione) as Fury gives Captain America access to incarcerated mind-master Mason Harding (inventor of the “Madbomb”,as seen in Essential Captain America volume 5) who uses his embargoed technology to unseal the Avenger’s closed memories at long last…

Sadly the cathartic shock has terrifying repercussions: although Rogers regains many memories, the mind machines somehow denature the Super-Soldier serum in his blood and he is forced to ask ‘Am I Still Captain America?’ when his perfect warrior’s frame reverts to the frail, sickly mess it used to be.

New scripter Roger McKenzie begins his superb run of tales – with Sal B, Esposito & Tartaglione still illustrating – as SHIELD puts all its resources into restoring the One Man Army but is suddenly brought low by an invasion of body-snatching Red Skulls.

Back in fighting trim, the incursion is repelled by the resurgent Patriotic Paragon in ‘This Deadly Gauntlet!’ but the aftermath sees the too-often compromised Peacekeeping agency mothball many of its facilities. During the closure and destruction of the Manhattan branch, Cap is ambushed by the Constrictor in #228’s ‘A Serpent Lurks Below’ and subsequently gets his first real lead on the Corporation…

The trail leads back to Falcon and the Super Agents, and with ‘Traitors All About Me!’ the Cap exposes the rotten apples working for Kligger – and another enemy force – leading to a spectacular ‘Assault on Alcatraz!’ (McKenzie, Roger Stern, Sal Buscema & Don Perlin) to rescue hostage friends and end the Corporation’s depredations in Captain America #230…

While this solely unfolding epic was entertaining readers here, fans of the Hulk were reading of equally shady shenanigans in his title (and Kirby’s Machine Man) where the Corporation’s West Coast Chief Curtiss Jackson was ruthlessly enacting his own perfidious plans. This volume concludes as parallel plotlines converge into a bombastic action-extravaganza as the crossover conclusion from Incredible Hulk #232. ‘The Battle Below’ by Stern, David Michelinie, Sal Buscema & Esposito…

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 any of his post Fourth World stuff. However, it does make the collection a bit of a double-edged treat. Engaging and impressive as the last two thirds of this volume is, the stories are worlds away in style, form and content from the perfect imaginative maelstrom of Kirby at his creative peak.

Not better but very, very different.

You can hate one and love the other, but perhaps it’s better to try to appreciate each era on its own merits…

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…
© 1977, 1978, 1979, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America: The Chosen

By David Morrell & Mitch Breitweiser with Brian Reber & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2016-2

The Sentinel of Liberty was created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby at the end of 1940 and confidently launched in his own title Captain America Comics #1, cover-dated March 1941. He was an unstoppable, overwhelming overnight success.

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

When the Korean War and Communist aggression gripped the American psyche Steve Rogers was briefly revived in 1953 – along with Torch and Subby – before sinking once more into obscurity…

A resurgent 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 agonising over the tragic, heroic death of his young sidekick (James Buchanan Barnes AKA Bucky) during the final days of World War II, the resurrected Rogers stole the show, then promptly graduated to his own series and title as well.

He waxed and waned through the most turbulent period of social change in US history, constantly 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…

That view was superbly taken to its most impressive extreme in an evocative 6-issue miniseries under the adult-attuned Marvel Knights imprint. As explained in David Morrell’s fascinating Afterword to Captain America: The Chosen, the author of First Blood (the original Rambo novel, and many others such as The Brotherhood of the Rose and Fireflies) jumped at the chance to play with America’s other abiding patriotic symbol…

Running November 2007 to March 2008, Captain America: The Chosen takes a simultaneously down-to-Earth and metaphorically fanciful look at the nation’s saviour which begins in ‘Now You See Me, Now You Don’t’ as Marine Corporal James Newman takes heavy fire after his patrol enters a seemingly quiet village in Afghanistan.

He’d rather be home in San Francisco with wife Lori and baby boy Brad, or at the very least just certain who the bad guys are and who the victims American like him are here to help, but a furious assault by Al Qaeda insurgents soon drives all thoughts other than survival out of his head.

Pinned down in a house he thinks his time has come until Captain America suddenly appears. The hero’s mere presence drives doubts away and steadies his fear. With the mighty crusader’s inspirational assistance – always repeating a mantra of “Courage. Honour. Loyalty. Sacrifice” – Newman breaks out of the trap and rescues his endangered men from certain death.

In the aftermath the weary Corporal ducks the thanks and praise of his grateful comrades, attributing the lion’s share of credit to the Star Spangled Avenger. He cannot understand where Captain America vanished to, nor why nobody else saw him…

And thousands of miles away in a secret laboratory a Super Soldier lies dying…

The mystery deepens in ‘The Shape of Nightmares’ as a bevy of scientists assess the Sentinel of Liberty’s rapidly declining state in the very building where he was created, whilst in Afghanistan Newman ruminates on the apparent hallucination which saved his life one day ago. As his squad investigate a cave his mind goes back to his own childhood, a time when an innocent game trapped him in a car boot and almost killed him. The event left its mark and he’s terrified of entering the hole in the ground which might hold all manner or peril…

The threat comes from enemy combatants with grenades and a brief fierce firefight results in a rock-fall which buries the squad under tons of rock. As Newman radios for help with mounting panic, Captain America is there again calmly repeating “Courage. Honour. Loyalty. Sacrifice.” None of his fellow survivors can see him as the superhero explains what’s really going on…

In a secret US citadel a paralysed Captain America is linked to radical technology. His perfect body is dying as the serum which created him fails, but has linked his still valiant mentality to experimental Remote Viewing equipment to provide strategic intel for the American forces in combat.

It’s fortuitously also allowed him to contact kindred spirits like Newman but being ‘Out of Body… Out of Mind’ is only the start. Despite being also able to terrify many particularly receptive insurgents, his time on Earth is ending…

As the entombed soldiers slowly expire in the collapsed caves, Cap’s calm discourse again inspires Newman and the claustrophobic Corporal begins digging deeper into the mountain looking for a way out.

‘Fear in a Handful of Dust’ follows as he strives, accompanied by an ever-more skeletal patriotic phantasm. Perhaps to keep him steadied, Captain America tells James how it all started: how a skinny physical specimen, rejected by the army, was transformed into the perfect soldier during World War II, of the friends he made, the family he formed and the losses he endured for the sake of his country and the world…

As Newman burrows through the mountain Captain America shares the most intimate details of his life in ‘The Crucible’ of service, but as the Corporal stubbornly overcomes every obstacle, on an operating table the Spirit of a Nation is dying…

The saga ends as the President rushes to the side of America’s greatest resource. The hero’s mind is elsewhere, imparting details of his return after decades frozen in ice and the new world he found himself lost in, further triumph and sacrifice and his recent decline into frailty and powerlessness.

And how he knows one thing above all else: Captain America is not unique and a ‘Multitude’ of good people like him can be united to carry on his work. He has been patiently seeking them all out whilst his life was leaking away…

As Newman inches his way to sunlight and freedom the communication suddenly ends. He has no idea that a world away the Star Spangled Avenger has seen one final crisis and overcome the body that has betrayed him to save America one last time…

Scrabbling into the open air, the Corporal is ambushed by insurgents but somehow seems imbued with the energy of a superhero triumphing over impossible odds to save his men. He isn’t tired and knows this is only the beginning…

Moving, mythological, elegant and illustrated with sublime understatement by then-newcomer Mitch Breitweiser (ably augmented by colourist Brian Reber), this powerful paean to symbolism also offers Morrell’s complete script for the first chapter and a superb gallery of a dozen covers-&-variants from Breitweiser, Travis Charest & Julian Ponsor.

© 2007, 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.