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December 3, 2007

CR Review: Essential Captain America Volume One


Creators: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, John Romita, George Tuska, Various
Publishing Information: Marvel, soft cover, 528 pages, July 2000, $14.95
Ordering Numbers: 9780785107408 (ISBN13), 0785107401 (ISBN)

When your most experience with Captain America is the modern day, grim ass-kicking machine to whom all other heroes are deferential, it's odd to read a bunch of stories that count on him being perceived as something of a pussy. The first several pages in the Essential Captain America Volume One collection of old mid-1960s solo adventure tales is a short story where a bunch of minor-league bad guys decide to storm Avengers Mansion when Captain America is on duty because of all the Avengers, he lacks powers. Captain America eventually defeats the baddies with a combat style based on athletically tumbling around the room and applying judo as well as punching and shield-throwing. Unlike the present day, however, the result seems at least a little bit in doubt. Captain America's relative wimpy qualities would be an issue for a lot of his run up until the 1980s, most prominently in Avengers comics by Roy Thomas and Jim Shooter; I have no idea if this says more about American self-image now and then, or about superheroes, or both. It certainly provides the character an appealing underdog quality, and throws the spotlight on the various artists' gifts with action to move the audience from doubt to certainty about the physical outcome of what we're seeing. Since Marvel can play the Kirby card with about 60 percent of these stories, advantage Marvel, although John Romita and George Tuska provide decent turns as well.

imageI think more than any of these big, black and white cheap-o reprints, this volume of Essential Captain America reflects the chaotic nature of Marvel's mid- to late-'60s middle list titles. Sharing time with Iron Man in a book called Tales of Suspense for most of this volume, Captain America flips back and forth between the past and present day, and even floats between more standard superhero fare and international espionage-type missions of a kind that were very popular on movies and TV during that decade. It's amazing how satisfying most of these comics are in a direct, adventure comics way. Soap opera and overall plot progression gets moved to about four panels an installment to make room for more and more action, clearly and vigorously presented. There's an all-time fight scene with Batroc the Leaper, of all people, and some really clever sequences of movement and escape when Captain America fights various Nazi "sleeper" robots. There's an unfortunate tendency early on where Lee tries a bit too hard to get Captain America over Reed Richards-style via various people talking about how awesome he is, but it's balanced by a hilarious tendency I'd completely not remembered where Captain America shouts confident statements at his enemies. Comics' poorest excuse for smack talk ever, these square-jawed boasts nearly always made real across some sap's chin less than a half-page later make it look like Captain America is simply being mean, like a Nixon-era dad describing the spanking his soon-to-be-paddled kid will receive once he stops running around the dining room table. This is excused in almost every case as the trait shared by Captain America's rogues gallery is that they're all seething, psychotic dickheads, the kind of people you want to see kicked in the face by someone coming out of a double somersault over and over again.

The greatest appeal this book might have is that it's work that hasn't been reprinted several times or re-examined a whole lot, even for devotees of 1960s Marvel Comics, Stan Lee, and/or Jack Kirby. I'm a fan of all three, and I've read roughly one in five of the comics here. There's probably just as much that doesn't work here that also doesn't work in modern comics -- although granted the Captain America comics have a fine caretaker right now in Ed Brubaker -- but the problems in this book are in crude execution of dramatic elements, not the general queasiness which seems to emanate from a lot of such books today. In many ways that count, Captain American is less a symbol of American ideas or expression of certain political formulations or a set of fanboy fight-outcome expectations than he is a guy who sees someone fall off a building and jumps out the window after him, counting on his training and ability to save them both. The comics may have been simpler 40 years ago, but it's hard to argue that they weren't a better match to their subject matter.

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