Captain America Epic Collection 1963-1967: Captain America Lives Again

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, George Tuska, John Romita, Gil Kane, Jack Sparling & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8836-0 (TPB)

During the natal years of Marvel Comics in the early 1960s Stan Lee & Jack Kirby opted to mimic the game-plan which had paid off so successfully for National/DC Comics, albeit with mixed results. Beginning cautiously in 1956, 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 20-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) where, eventually, the flaming teen fought a larcenous villain impersonating the nation’s greatest lost hero…

Strange Tales #114 changed the face of the Marvel Firmament forever. Written by Lee and illustrated by Kirby & Dick Ayers, it featured the return of the third of Timely Comics’ Golden Age Big Three – or at least a devious simulation of him by the insidious Acrobat – in a blockbusting battle entitled ‘The Human Torch meets…Captain America!

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 guess we all know how that turned out?

With reader-reaction strong, the real McCoy was promptly decanted in Avengers #4 and, after a captivating, 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.

This premiere Epic Collection – available as a blockbusting trade paperback and in assorted digital formats – assembles all those early appearances (Strange Tales #114, The Avengers #4 and Tales of Suspense #58-96, spanning November 1963 to December 1967) in chronological order and following the action-packed try-out reenergises the one and only original as the World’s Greatest Heroes return in their subsea vessel from a catastrophic clash with the Hulk and Sub-Mariner in abandoned World War II tunnels beneath the Rock of Gibraltar…

Inked by George Roussos, Avengers #4 was an epic landmark as Marvel’s greatest Golden Age sensation was revived for another increasingly war-torn era. ‘Captain America joins the Avengers!’ has everything that made the company’s early tales so fresh and vital. The majesty of a legendary warrior reborn in our time of greatest need: stark tragedy in the loss of his boon companion Bucky, aliens, gangsters, antiheroes, subtle social commentary and – naturally – vast amounts of staggering Kirby Action.

After his real resurrection in March 1964, Cap grew in popularity and was quickly awarded his own solo feature, sharingTales of Suspense with former teammate Iron Man (beginning with #59, cover-dated November 1964).

Iron Man had monopolised the title since his own debut in #39, but ‘In Mortal Combat with Captain America’ (Lee, Don Heck & Ayers) featured an all-out scrap between the two heroes resulting from a clever impersonation by the evil Chameleon. It was a taster for the next issue when Cap began his own solo adventures, dividing the monthly comic into an anthology featuring Marvel’s top patriotic paragons.

Scripted by Lee and with the astoundingly prolific 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.

It began with eponymously initial outing ‘Captain America’, illustrated by the staggeringly perfect team of Kirby & Chic Stone. The plot is non-existent, but what you do get is a phenomenal fight 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 Frank Giacoia) recounts how patriotic, 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 regarded as forever unique, he is given the task of becoming the fighting symbol and guardian of America, all while based as a regular soldier in a US boot camp. 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 Kirby and Joe Simon’s Golden Age classics with the heroes defeating Nazi spies Sando and Omar in ‘Among Us, Wreckers Dwell!’before Chic Stone returned – as did Cap’s greatest foe for landmark saga ‘The Red Skull Strikes!’

‘The Fantastic Origin of the Red Skull!’ sends the series swinging into high gear – and original material – as sub-plots and characterisation are added to the all-out action and spectacle with the backstory of the most evil man on Earth revealed to a captive Sentinel of Liberty, after which ‘Lest Tyranny Triumph!’ and ‘The Sentinel and the Spy!’ (both inked by Giacoia) combine espionage and mad science with a plot to murder the head of Allied Command…

The All-American heroes stay in England for moody gothic suspense shocker ‘Midnight in Greymoor Castle!’ (illustrated by Ayers over Kirby’s layouts) before second chapter ‘If This be Treason!’ sees Golden Age and Buck Rogers newspaper strip artist George Tuska perform the same function. The final part – and last wartime operation – then reveals what happens ‘When You Lie Down with Dogs…!’ with Joe Sinnott inking a rousing conclusion to this frantic tale of traitors, madmen and terror-weapons.

We return to the present for ToS #72 where Lee, Kirby & Tuska reveal that Cap has been telling war stories to his fellow Avengers for the last nine months. The reverie triggers a long dormant memory as ‘The Sleeper Shall Awake!’ kicks off a classic catastrophe romp as a Nazi super-robot activates 20 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 returns with John Tartaglione inking ‘30 Minutes to Live!’: introducing 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 with no artistic input from Kirby, although he did lay out the next issue (TOS #77) for Romita & Giacoia. ‘If a Hostage Should Die!’ again focuses on WWII, hinting at both a lost romance and tragedy to come.

‘Them!’ sees Kirby take back the pencilling role and Giacoia assume a regular inking spot as the Star-Spangled Avenger teams with Nick Fury in the first of many missions as a (more-or-less) Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s followed by ‘The Red Skull Lives!’ wherein the arch nemesis escapes from the grave to menace the Free World again. Initially aided by subversive technology group AIM, he promptly steals their ultimate weapon in ‘He Who Holds the Cosmic Cube!’ (inked by Heck), setting himself up as Emperor of Earth before his grip on omnipotence finally falters in ‘The Red Skull Supreme!’ (Giacoia inks).

The dynamic dramas contained herein signalled increasingly closer links with parallel tales in other titles. Thus, with subversive science scoundrels AIM defeated by S.H.I.E.L.D. in Strange Tales ‘The Maddening Mystery of the Inconceivable Adaptoid!’ pits Cap against one last unsupervised experiment as their artificial warrior life-form – capable of becoming an exact duplicate of its victim – stalks Cap in a tale of vicious psychological warfare.

Sadly, even masterfully manufactured mechanoids are apt to err and ‘Enter… The Tumbler!’ (inked by Ayers) sees a presumptuous wannabe attack the robot after it assumes the identity of our hero before ‘The Super-Adaptoid!’ completes an epic of breathtaking suspense and drama with the real McCoy fighting back to defeat all comers.

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!’ return to the early, minimum-plot, all-action, overwhelming-odds yarns whilst ‘Wanted: Captain America’ (by Roy Thomas, Jack Sparling & Sinnott) offer a lacklustre interval involving a frame-up before Gil Kane takes 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 a new atomic submarine…

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

A portentous change of pace proceeds with the last two episodes in this volume as – in rapid succession – ‘A Time to Die… A Time to Live’ and ‘To Be Reborn!’ see the eternal 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…’ when a rash of would-be replacements provoke a campaign of opportunistic assassination attempts from the underworld

Rounding out this patriotic bonanza is a brief gallery of original art pages by Kirby Ayers, Giacoia and Kane, taken from these 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 and constantly thrill-seeking.
© 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 2019 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.