Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 8

By Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas, Tony Isabella, Mike Friedrich, Sal Buscema, Alan Weiss & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9929-8 (HB)

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

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

By the time of the tales gathered in this eighth Masterworks volume (available in luxurious hardback and accessible eBook formats and re-presenting issues #160-175 of Captain America and the Falcon from April 1973 to July 1974), the once convinced and confirmed Sentinel of Liberty had become an uncomfortable symbol of a divided nation, but was 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…

Into an already turbulent mix of racial and gender inequality played out against standard Fights ‘n’ Tights villainy came creeping overtones of corruption and betrayal of ideals that were fuelled by shocking real-world events…

Following an informative behind-the-scenes reminiscence from scripter Steve Englehart in his Introduction, the action opens here with ‘Enter: Solarr!’ (illustrated by Sal Buscema &Frank McLaughlin), offering an old-fashioned clash with a super-powered maniac as the main attraction.

However, the real meat is the start of twin sub-plots that would shape the next half-dozen adventures, as the Star-Spangled Avenger’s newfound super-strength increasingly makes partner-in-crimefighting Sam – the Falcon – Wilson feel like a junior and inferior hindrance, even as Steve Roger’s long-time romantic interest Sharon Carter leaves him without a word of explanation…

Inked by John Verpoorten, Captain America and the Falcon #161 ramps up the tension between Steve and Sam as the heroes search for Sharon in ‘…If he Loseth His Soul!’, and find a connection to the girl Cap loved and lost in World War II in a deadly psycho-drama overseen by criminal shrink Dr. Faustus. This culminates one month later in a singular lesson in extreme therapy which only proves ‘This Way Lies Madness!’

‘Beware of Serpents!’ heralded the return of super snakes Viper and Eel, who combine with the Cobra to form a vicious but ultimately unsuccessful Serpent Squad to attack the heroes. Defeated former ad-exec Viper then vengefully begins a media manipulation campaign to destroy the Sentinel of Liberty with the “Big Lie”, fake news weapons and the worst tactics of Madison Avenue. Although the instigator quickly falls, his scheme rumbles on with slow, inexorable and dire consequences…

Issue #164 offers a stunningly scary episode illustrated by Alan Lee Weiss, introducing faux-coquette mad scientist Deadly Nightshade: a ‘Queen of the Werewolves!’ who infects Falcon with her chemical lycanthropy as an audition to enlist in the fearsome forces of one of the planet’s greatest menaces…

The full horror of the situation is only revealed when ‘The Yellow Claw Strikes’ (Englehart, Buscema & McLaughlin); renewing a campaign of terror begun in the 1950s, but this time attacking his former Chinese Communist sponsors and the USA indiscriminately. Giant bugs, deadly slave assassins and reanimated mummies are bad enough, but when the Arcane Immortal’s formidable mind-control dupes Cap into almost beating S.H.I.E.L.D. supremo Nick Fury to death during the ‘Night of the Lurking Dead!’, the blistering final battle results in further tragedy when an old ally perishes in the Frank Giacoia inked ‘Ashes to Ashes’

One of the Star-Spangled Avengers most durable foes sort-of resurfaces in tense, action-heavy romp ‘…And a Phoenix Shall Arise!’ (scripted by Roy Thomas & Tony Isabella and inked by John Tartaglione & George Roussos) before Viper’s long-laid plans begin to finally bear bitter fruit in #169’s ‘When a Legend Dies!’ (with additional scripting from Mike Friedrich).

As anti-Captain America TV spots make people doubt the honesty and sanity of the nation’s greatest hero, the Falcon and his “Black Power” activist girlfriend Leila Taylor depart for the super-scientific African nation of Wakanda in search of increased powers, leaving Cap to battle third-rate villain the Tumbler.

In the heat of combat the Avenger seemingly goes too far and the thug dies…

‘J’Accuse!’ (Englehart, Friedrich, Buscema & Vince Colletta) sees Cap beaten and arrested by too-good-to-be-true neophyte crusader Moonstone, whilst in Africa Leila is kidnapped by exiled Harlem hood Stone-Face: far from home and hungry for some familiar foxy ghetto friendship…

‘Bust-Out!’ in #171 finds Cap forcibly sprung from jail by a mysterious pack of “supporters” as Black Panther and the newly-flying Falcon crush Stone-Face preparatory to a quick dash back to America and a reunion with the beleaguered and tarnished American icon.

‘Believe it or Not: The Banshee!’ opens with Captain America and the Falcon beaten by – but narrowly escaping – Moonstone and his obscurely occluded masters, after which the hard-luck heroes trace a lead to Nashville, encounter the fugitive mutant Master of Sound and stumble into a clandestine pogrom on American soil.

For long months mutants have been disappearing unnoticed, but now the last remaining X-MenCyclops, Marvel Girl and Professor Charles Xavier – have tracked them down, only to discover that Captain America’s problems also stem from ‘The Sins of the Secret Empire!’, whose ultimate goal is the conquest of the USA…

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

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

At this time America was a nation reeling from a loss of unity, solidarity and perspective as a result of a torrent of shattering blows such as losing the Vietnam war, political scandals like Watergate and the (partial) exposure of President Nixon’s lies and crimes.

The general loss of idealism and painful public revelations 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…

Unable to process the betrayal of all he has seen, the Star-Spangled Avenger cannot accept that this battle has any winner: a feeling that will change his life forever – in the next volume…

Any retrospective or historical re-reading is going to turn up a few cringe-worthy moments, but these tales of matchless courage and indomitable heroism are fast-paced, action-packed and still carry a knockout conceptual punch. Here Captain America was finally discovering his proper place in a new era and would once more become unmissable, controversial comicbook reading, as we shall see when I get around to reviewing the next volume…
© 1973, 1974, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 5


By Stan Lee, Gene Colan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4200-3 (HB)

During the Marvel Renaissance of the early 1960’s Stan Lee & Jack Kirby tried a tactic that had reaped huge dividends for DC Comics. Although initially generating mixed results their efforts eventually changed the nature of comicbooks. 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 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 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). An unmissable string of classics ensued and in 1968 the Star-Spangled Avenger won his own solo title… but not for long…

This groundbreaking full-colour compilation (available in hardback and digital editions) spans May 1970 to April 1971 and re-presents Captain America #125-#136, with the action and drama occurring at an unprecedented moment of social, political and generational upheaval in the Land of the Free, as evocatively contextualised by historian and archivist Bruce Canwell in his potent Introduction.

Captain America #125 dips into sensational contemporary headline fare as the Sentinel of Liberty seeks to rescue a kidnapped peacemaker only to become ‘Captured… in Viet Nam!’ The mystery villain du jour is anything but politically motivated and the hero’s brief visit – as recounted by Stan Lee, Gene Colan and Frank Giacoia – owes more to super-villainy than nationalistic interventionism…

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

Still working off-the-books for super-scientific government spy-agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (which back then stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division), Cap demands ‘Who Calls Me Traitor?’ (#127, July 1970, by Lee, Colan & the astounding Wally Wood).

This pacy romp finds the veteran hero framed and manipulated by friend and foe alike in the search for a double agent in the ranks, after which the embittered warhorse drops out and decides to “discover America” – as so many kids were doing in the era of Easy Rider – on a freewheeling motorcycle.

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

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

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

Back in New York, Advanced Idea Mechanics again feature prominently in #133 as Modok foments racial unrest by sending another killer cyborg to create ‘Madness in the Slums!’ The inner-city crisis allows Cap to reunite with his protégé the Falcon – whose name began appearing on the cover from the next issue…

Operating as full-fledged, official partners, the dynamic duo battle ghetto gangsters in ‘They Call Him… Stone-Face!’ (Captain America and the Falcon #134, with Ayers inking), before the Avenger introduces his new main man to S.H.I.E.L.D. in the chilling ‘More Monster than Man!’

Inked by Tom Palmer, this moody spin on the Jekyll and Hyde theme sees a love-struck scientist turn himself into an awesome anthropoid to steal riches, only to end up in ‘The World Below!’

With the Falcon coming to the rescue (and the legendary Bill Everett applying his brilliant inks to Colan’s eerily effective pencils) the battle of man against beast continues with the greedy technologist soon reduced to a collateral casualty of the Mole Man’s latest battle with the champions of the surface world….

With a cover gallery by Marie Severin, Jack Kirby, Herb Trimpe, John Romita and Colan plus the cover to all-reprint Captain America Annual #1 (January 1971) to round out the riotous adventure, this is a titanic tome no Fights & Tights fan could possibly do without…

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

As the nation changed Captain America was finally discovering his proper place in a new era and would once more become unmissable, controversial comicbook reading, as we shall see when I get around to reviewing the next volume…
© 1970, 1971, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 4


By Stan Lee, Gene Colan, John Romita Sr., John Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2936-3 (HB)

During the Marvel Renaissance of the early 1960’s Stan Lee & Jack Kirby tried a tactic that had reaped huge dividends for DC Comics. Although initially generating mixed results, their efforts eventually changed the nature of comicbooks. 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 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 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). An unmissable string of classics ensued and in 1968 the Star-Spangled Avenger won his own solo title… but not for long…

This groundbreaking full-colour compilation (available in hardback and digital editions) gathers Captain America #114-124 – spanning June 1969 to September 1970 – and opens with a captivating Introduction from illustrator Gene Colan revealing amongst other things how he created The Falcon

The comics portion of this treat opens as the Sentinel of Liberty has just acrimoniously retired from superhero service and reclaimed his anonymity after impetuously revealing his secret identity to the world mere months earlier.

The hiatus doesn’t last long as, again a man of mystery, Captain America bursts into action to save his lover Sharon Carter (SHIELD Agent 13) from a suicide mission against Advanced Idea Mechanics.

The tale coincided with an ongoing period of artistic instability as here John Romita the Elder (inked by Sal Buscema) illustrated Stan Lee’s tense spy-caper ‘The Man Behind the Mask!’.

The action and suspense were 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 fascist arch-villain uses the reality-warping Cosmic Cube to switch bodies with the shield-slinger and trash the hero’s reputation, after which ‘Far Worse than Death!’ in #116 follows Cap’s frantic attempts to escape his own friends and allies the Avengers, as well as the villain’s callous reality-warping torments.

This issue saw the start of Gene Colan’s impressive run on the character, here augmented by the smooth, slick inks of Joe Sinnott.

This next instalment returns him to the Isle – and clutches – of aging war criminals the Exiles in a tale that introduced Marvel’s second black superhero.

‘The Coming of … the Falcon!’ in issue #117 was a terse, taut build-up to a cataclysmic clash before the neophyte hero-in-training takes centre-stage in ‘The Falcon Fights On!’ after which all the ducks drop neatly into place for a spectacular finale in ‘Now Falls the Skull!’ in #119.

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

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

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

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

The blazing battle action then concludes here as AIM returns with a deadly new hi-tech human weapon. Despite all their efforts the Sentinel of Liberty triumphs yet again in ‘Mission: Stop the Cyborg!’

Supplementing the drama is Romita’s original art cover for #114s and its colour roughs.

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.
© 1969, 1970, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America: War & Remembrance


By Roger Stern & John Byrne, with Joe Rubinstein & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0785126935 (TPB)

Created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby in a previous era of frantic patriotic fervour, Captain America was a bombastic, 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 to briefly reappear during the Korean War: a harder, darker sentinel, ferreting out monsters, subversives and the “commies” who lurked under every brave American kid’s bed. He quickly vanished once more until the burgeoning Marvel Age resurrected him just in time for the turbulent, culturally divisive 1960s. He’s been with us – in one form or another – ever since…

Although not the USA’s original patriotic superhero, the Star-Spangled Avenger was the first to truly dominate public attention, and over the years a vast number of talented artists and writers have crafted his adventures. It is therefore quite odd to realise just how few of those exploits are truly memorable.

I’ll leave you to compile your own top ten, but I’ll wager that this all-too-brief run by Roger Stern, John Byrne & Joe Rubinstein will provide at least one of them.

This slim volume – available in all the usual physical and digital formats – collects Captain America #247-255 (cover-dated July 1980-March 1981) seamlessly blending epic adventure with spectacular superhero art: a fans’ delight that is also readily accessible to the newcomer or casual reader.

Following fond reminiscence ‘Remembering Cap’ from author Stern, the action explosively opens with ‘By the Dawn’s Early Light’, offering insight into the hero’s World War II career and uncovering a mystery apparently involving leftover Nazi mastermind and sworn foe Baron Wolfgang von Strucker.

The episode leads Cap to uncover secrets from his past whilst setting up a new threat from deadly robotic villain Machinesmith, leading directly into extended saga ‘Dragon Man’ and ‘Death, Where is Thy Sting?’.

This complex and convoluted yarn explains many seeming inconsistencies in Marvel continuity: combining all-out action with a genuine moral dilemma that perfectly illuminates the character of this American Dream. Cap is always at his best when overcoming overwhelming opposition and ethical enigmas…

These stories were first released in an election year and the truly uplifting ‘Cap for President!’ is still a wonderful antidote for sleaze and politicking whilst confirming the honesty and idealism of the decent person within us all. This tale of honour, duty and worthiness was developed from an abandoned idea conceived by Roger McKenzie & Don Perlin, and is all the more poignant in today’s febrile world of political expediency, Fake News and raw self-promotion…

It’s back to basics after that as Cap unexpectedly teams up with long-time foe Batroc the Leaper to save New York City from flaming Armageddon in ‘The Mercenary and the Madman’ and concluding chapter ‘Cold Fire’: a classic thriller that returned Mr. Hyde to the first rank of Marvel villains.

A short infomercial bonus feature follows, sharing ‘The Life and Times of Captain America’, and revealing ‘The Apartment of Steve Rogers, Esq.’ as well as ‘Steve Rogers’ Friends and Neighbors’ and highlighting ‘Captain America’s Partners Against Crime’ in a breezy, accessible manner before the drama resumes with ‘Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot’.

Captain America is called to England and the deathbed of WWII comrade Lord Montgomery Falsworth who battled Nazis as the legendary Union Jack, and finds brooding menace, family turmoil and a returned supernatural horror. The menace escalates in the concluding ‘Blood on the Moors’, which even now is still one of the best-handled Heroic Death/“Passing of the Torch” sagas in comics history…

The story portion of the book concludes with a brilliant new version of Captain America’s origin: a stripped down, rationalised retelling designed to celebrate the Sentinel of Liberty’s 40th Anniversary: drawn and inked by Byrne and which became the definitive history for decades to come.

It’s also where the creative team, for unspecified reasons, called it a day.

Supplementing the narrative wonderment is ‘Remembering “Remembrance”’: an illustrated interview and commentary with Stern & Byrne conducted by Dugan Trodglen, augmented by numerous illustrations. Following is the six pages of Byrne’s art from the never-completed tenth issue, a tantalising glimpse of missed magic. Their collaboration was inexplicably curtailed and the creators abruptly left the series for reasons still largely unknown…

The thrills conclude with a selection of Byrne’s covers from various earlier collected editions.

This tome is a sheer escapist thrill-ride, endlessly gratifying and tremendously satisfying. After Jack Kirby, these are probably the purest evocation of this American Icon that you could ever read, so you really should.
© 1980, 1990 Marvel Entertainment Group. © 2008, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 7


By Gerry Conway, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, Sal Buscema, John Romita & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8799-8 (HB)

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

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

By the time of the tales gathered in this seventh Masterworks volume (available in luxurious hardback and accessible eBook formats) – comprising issues #149-159 of Captain America and the Falcon from May 1972 to March 1973 – the Star-Spangled Avenger had become an uncomfortable symbol of a troubled, divided society, split along age lines and with many of the hero’s fans apparently rooting for the wrong side. Now into that turbulent mix crept issues of racial and gender inequality…

Following a fond, forthright and informative reminiscence from scripter Steve Englehart in his Introduction, the action opens here with the Star-Spangled Avenger – now increasingly at odds with super-scientific government spy-agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (which back then stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division) and its Director Nick Fury. The troubled hero is also attempting to revive his secret identity as a New York beat cop…

Gerry Conway assumed the writing chores for issues #149-152, an uncharacteristically uninspired run that began with ‘All the Colors… of Evil!’ (illustrated by Sal Buscema & Jim Mooney) wherein Gallic mercenary Batroc resurfaces, kidnapping ghetto kids for an unidentified client…

This turns out to be the alien Stranger (or at least his parallel universe incarnation Jakar) who intervenes personally in ‘Mirror, Mirror…!’ (inked by John Verpoorten) but is still defeated far too easily.

‘Panic on Park Avenue’ (Buscema & Vince Colletta) pits Cap against enfeebled villains Mr. Hyde and the Scorpion as Conway sought to retroactively include Captain America in his ambitious Mr. Kline Saga. Android copies of the super-creeps had attacked Daredevil and the Black Widow in their own comicbook and here we discover what happened to the originals during that period. Assuming S.H.I.E.L.D. was responsible for their woes, the thugs target Steve Rogers and his secret agent girlfriend Sharon Carter with disastrous results, climaxing with the Frank Giacoia inked ‘Terror in the Night!’ featuring all-out battles and new plot-complications for officer Rogers and his hard-boiled boss Sgt. Muldoon

Captain America and the Falcon #153 heralded a renaissance and magical return to form for the Sentinel of Liberty as Steve Englehart came aboard, hitting the ground running with a landmark epic rewriting Marvel history and captivating die-hard fans simultaneously.

The wonderment opens with ‘Captain America… Hero or Hoax?’ (inked by Mooney) as Falcon, Sharon and Cap endure an acrimonious confrontation with Nick Fury and decide to take a break from S.H.I.E.L.D.

While Sam Wilson goes back to Harlem – splitting his time between social work, chasing sexy activist Leila and stamps his mark on the local gangs as the Falcon – Steve and Sharon book a holiday in the Bahamas, but it isn’t long before Falcon catches Captain America committing racist attacks in New York. Enraged, Falcon tracks him down but was easily beaten since supposed partner has somehow acquired super-strength and a resurrected Bucky Barnes

In ‘The Falcon Fights Alone!’ (Verpoorten inks) the maniac impostors claim to be “real” American heroes and reveal what they want: a confrontation with the lily-livered, pinko wannabe who has replaced and disgraced them…

Even after torturing their captive they are frustrated in their plans until the faux Cap tricks the information out of the Avengers.

Battered and bruised, Falcon heads to the holiday refuge but is too late to prevent an ambush wherein Steve Rogers learns ‘The Incredible Origin of the Other Captain America!’ (Frank McLaughlin inks and including repurposed excepts from the 1950s comics by John Romita): a brilliant piece of literary sleight-of-hand that ties up the Golden Age, 1950s revival and Silver Age iterations of the character in a clear, simple, devilishly clever manner, leading to an unbelievably affecting fabulously gratifying conclusion in ‘Two into One Won’t Go!’

After meeting and defeating a shade of the nation’s ugly past, Rogers hopes for less troublesome times, but instead ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici: Viper!’ (plotted by Englehart, scripted by Steve Gerber, with Sal Buscema & John Verpoorten illustrating) begins an epic, engrossing storyline by introducing a despicable advertising executive-turned snaky super-villain ostensibly working for an enigmatic boss named the Cowled Commander.

It transpires that corrupt connections at the police precinct where Rogers serves have been stirred into murderous action by our hero’s presence, leading to good cops being framed, bombs in offices and the Viper taking out survivors with lethally experimental poisonous darts…

When Falcon follows news of Cap’s death he also succumbs to toxins until ‘The Crime Wave Breaks!’ (Englehart, Buscema & Verpoorten) sees last-second salvation, a ramping-up of criminal activity and Rogers’ abduction, leading to a ‘Turning Point!’ wherein super-scum-for-hire Porcupine, Scarecrow, Plantman and the Eel’s ill-conceived attack give the game away and expose a hidden criminal mastermind in the heroes’ midst…

Wrapping up the patriotic revival is a stirring short selection of original art.

Any retrospective or historical re-reading is going to turn up a few cringe-worthy moments, but these tales of matchless courage and indomitable heroism are fast-paced, action-packed and depicted by top rank artists and storytellers. Here Captain America was finally discovering his proper place in a new era and would once more become unmissable, controversial comicbook reading, as we shall see when I get around to reviewing the next volume…
© 1972, 1973, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 3

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2063-6 (HB)                    978-0-7851-8803-2 (TPB)

During the Marvel Renaissance of the early 1960’s Stan Lee & Jack Kirby tried the same tactic that had worked so tellingly for DC Comics, but with mixed results. 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 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 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 (from #59, cover-dated November 1964).

Marvel’s inexorable rise to dominance in 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, Marvel developed titles with two series per publication, such as Tales of Suspense where original star Iron Man shared honours with Cap. When the division came, Shellhead started afresh with a First Issue, and Cap retained the numbering of the original title; thereby premiering with #100.

This resoundingly resolute full-colour collection – available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions – gathers Captain America #101-#113, spanning May 1968 to May 1969, and also includes a fervent Introductory reminiscence from John Morrow plus a fascinating Afterword by Steranko wherein he meticulously deconstructs the landmark epic that fills the end of this titanic tome…

Crafted by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & 1940s Cap illustrator Syd Shores, Captain America #101-102 sees the return of fascist revenant the Red Skull and another appalling Nazi revenge-weapon in ‘When Wakes the Sleeper!’ and furious finale ‘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 is quashed, the instigator is still at large and #103 reveals ‘The Weakest Link!’ as a budding romance with S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 13 (finally revealed after two years as Sharon Carter) is interrupted by the nefarious Nazi.

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

That issue and following super-villain team-up – wherein Living Laser and the Swordsman ally with another old Cap foe to attack ‘In the Name of Batroc!’ – feature the loose, flowing inking of Dan Adkins, whilst Frank Giacoia embellished the all-action, spies-&-evil-doppelgangers romp ‘Cap goes Wild!’ in issue #106, before Shores returned in #107.

Sinister mystery ‘If the Past Be Not Dead…’ is an action-packed psycho-thriller introducing malevolent, mind-bending psychiatrist Doctor Faustus

The Star-Spangled Avenger is rescuing Agent 13 again – at least he thinks he is – in breakneck thriller ‘The Snares of the Trapster!’ before Captain America #109 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 direction with #110 for a too-brief stint that became everybody’s favourite Cap epic for decades to come.

After a swift and brutal skirmish with the Incredible Hulk, teen appendage Rick Jones becomes the patriotic paladin’s new sidekick in ‘No Longer Alone!’, just in time for the pair to tackle the memorably 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 inspired and galvanised a generation of would-be comics artists.

With the Avenger seemingly killed at the issue’s close, the next month saw a bombastic account of Captain America’s career by fill-in superstars Kirby & George Tuska, before Lee, Steranko & Tom Palmer concluded the Hydra epic with ‘The Strange Death of Captain America’ in #113. This yarn reset the hero’s character for years to come…

Also on offer are a selection of Kirby’s original art pages and covers, including rejected and unseen pencil versions prior to editing and the draconian interference of the Comics Code Authority…

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 Human Torch and Sub-Mariner never regained. They are pure escapist magic: glorious treats for the eternally young at heart, and 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 and the Falcon: Nomad


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on that staggering cliffhanger note this epic collection concludes…

To Be Continued…

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

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

Golden Age Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 2


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

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

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

That they survived and prospered is a true Marvel mystery, but a clue might lie in the sheer exuberant venom of their racial stereotypes and heady fervour of jingoism at a time when America was involved in the greatest war in world history…

However, the first ten Captain America Comics are indisputably the most high-quality comics in the fledgling company’s history and I can’t help but wonder what might have been had National (née DC) been wise enough to hire Simon & Kirby before they were famous, instead of after that pivotal first year?

Of course, we’ll never know and although the team supreme did jump to the majors after a year, their visual dynamic became the mandated aspirational style for super-hero comics at the company they left. Moreover, their patriotic creation became a flagship icon for them and the industry.

Truth be told however, the groundbreaking and exceptionally high-quality material from Joe Simon & Jack Kirby is not really the lure here… the real gold nuggets for us old sods and comics veterans are the rare back-up features overseen by the star duo and crafted by their small pool of talented up-&-comers.

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

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

After scrawny, enfeebled young patriot Steve Rogers is continually rejected by the US Army, he is recruited by the Secret Service. In an effort to counter a wave of Nazi-sympathizing espionage and sabotage, the passionate young man was invited to become part of a clandestine experiment intended to create physically perfect super-soldiers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, with this particular tome at least, the House of Ideas has a book that will always stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best that the Golden Age of Comics could offer.
© 1941 and 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 6


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued…

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

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

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

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