Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Essays on Comic Book Characters #2: Captain America

captam_kirby-adkins.JPGI'm guessing that some of you probably thought I'd follow up the first essay in this series with Batman, but I thought that'd be an obvious choice. Besides, I figure why not change comic publishers each time? So here goes...

The idea of a super-soldier was not a new one to comics. One only has to look back to Greek mythology to characters like Achilles to find the concept of a super-soldier, someone who is seemingly undefeatable in battle, nearly invulnerable.

In Captain America Comics #1, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby redefined the super-soldier for comics readers – and Americans – like no one has before or since. Right away he was controversial, smacking Hitler in the jaw before the US had officially entered World War II. Oh, comics heroes had been battling Hitler-like characters, usually with names somewhat punning on Hitler, but this was the first time that a superhero had taken the step to directly battle the Nazis and the associated Axis.
bcaptamer100.jpgSure, Cap wasn't the first star-spangled superhero – MLJ (aka Archie Comics) had beat Timely (as Marvel was called then) to the punch with the Shield, a character who was similar to Cap in several ways (both used science to hone their bodies to perfection instantly). Cap's original shield, in fact, caused MLJ's lawyers to contact Timely right away, saying that Cap's shield was too similar to the Shield's costume. Fortunately, the change to a round shield worked even better.

Cap also was far from the first super-hero to have a sidekick (as we all know, Batman was the first, with Robin), although he may well have been the first to get his sidekick in his origin story, as well as the only sidekick who basically blackmailed his way into being a sidekick.

I missed seeing the Marvel Super-Heroes animated cartoons of the 1960s when they were first being aired, so my introduction to Cap definitely wasn't via television. No, the first Marvel characters I saw on the boob tube were Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. So obviously, I was introduced to Cap through the comics... but which ones?

I've narrowed it down to either Marvel Triple Action or Captain America, which was cover-billed Captain America and the Falcon at the time. No, Avengers wasn't a possibility, because for some reason I got into the reprints in MTA before reading the original title. It was probably Cap's own book. The earliest Cap story I can specifically recall involved the Grey Gargoyle invading the SHIELD Heli-Carrier in order to get some substance, although these days I don't remember what it was called (and I don't have the Essentials volume reprinting that story, and have never found a copy of this book as an adult. It's issue 142, by the way.). For some reason, I have memories of reading this around kindergarten age, so I would've been 5 or 6... which doesn't really make sense because that would've been about 1967... and the book would've hit the stands in the summer of 1971, when I was nine! Yet, I had to have been aware of the Falcon before then, and he was introduced in issue #117, which would've come out in spring of 1969. So my memories don't make sense (sadly, this isn't the only time that my memories don't match up with time, but I'll have to talk about that some other time).

So why does this seem to tie in to kindergarten days for me? Well, my best friend in kindergarten was a boy by the name of Curt Phar (I think that's how his last name was spelled, I haven't been in touch with him since grade school). Curt was black, but that didn't matter to me. I'm not sure why the issue of race (or as I prefer to call it, ethnicity, because as far as I'm concerned, my race is human) didn't matter to me. I seem to recall some vague racism in my grandmothers, although that may be accounted for by the areas they lived in having nobody who wasn't white. I don't remember my parents saying anything about ethnicity one way or another, and it wasn't until the 70s that I saw Star Trek for the first time, so it wasn't that, either. Maybe it was just the comics speaking to me.

Anyway, I have distinctive memories of Curt and I playing Captain America and the Falcon in the woods nearby his house, with a round piece of cardboard serving as my shield (not that it was decorated or had a handle or anything, we had imagination, man!). So that had to happen between 1969 and 1971, but I think Curt had moved some distance away by the time I was in second or third grade, so it's a paradox, I guess!

So as I said, that's the earliest issue of Captain America I recall reading. I'd imagine that I was exposed to some Kirby-drawn Cap stories when Marvel Double Feature started up, but it had to have been other people's copies if I read them (by that time, I was mostly into Marvel Super-Heroes for my Marvel reprints). It's entirely possible that my first exposure to Kirby drawing Cap was the Marvel Tabloid Captain America's Bicentennial Battles, with the odd Mister Buda. Now, I'd seen Kirby's stuff before, make no mistake about that! I remember reading Marvel's Greatest Comics, and not realizing that those stories were reprints, and recognizing some of the stories from the Hanna-Barbera animated show, and that was Kirby through and through! I appreciated the King even back then, I guess. The Kirby written and drawn issues of Captain America were probably too wild for me to handle, as his Fourth World stuff at DC would've probably been. Thanks to The Great Comic-Book Heroes, I was able to read his origin, and All in Color for a Dime filled me in on his history.

Captain America is probably my favorite Marvel character, although that wasn't always the case. It's probably been since the 1980s or so that he rose to the forefront so far as Marvel characters go. I used to identify more with Reed Richards, and even more so with Nova (one of the few Marvel heroes I got on the ground floor with). I think part of it is that Captain America has such a great history behind him. Cap, the original Human Torch, and Namor were the triumvirate, the cornerstone of Timely (and later Marvel) Comics, and yet Cap was the only one who was able to be revived successfully. Namor had his comeback (even before Cap!), but his solo series never managed to stay, while the Torch had to be reincarnated as the junior member of the Fantastic Four, and even his solo tales in Strange Tales had to be backed up by the Thing before that series ended.

But the biggest part of it, I think, is that Captain America represents the strongest belief system of any of Marvel's super-heroes. Certainly, this is a facet of Cap's personality that was developed more in the 1960s by Stan Lee and others; the World War II era Cap stories were more about beating the Axis, and I don't recall reading any stories from that era that had Cap speechifying like he's better known for these days. For me, half the fun of reading a good Captain America story is how he verbalizes his belief system, that no man is another man's master, good will triumph over evil because it must, no matter what the odds, a man must fight for what he believes in, etc. etc. etc. Certainly, there's no way Cap could really be making those speeches in the middle of battle between blows unless he's speaking so fast that it would make Speedy Gonzales say, “Excuse me senor, what did you say?” But it's comics, it works.

bcaptamer250.jpgAnother aspect is that Cap never gives up! I don't care who you put up against him, Captain America will find a way to win – or at least he'll inspire his teammates to win through his efforts. He's an inspiration to both his fellow heroes as well as his fellow American (and even non-Americans). He's a human fighting machine who has sacrificed much of a chance to have a private, personal life for his mission.

He's also the very first Marvel legacy hero, at least as established during Steve Englehart's issues of Cap... when he disappeared trying to stop Zemo's missile, others stepped in to take his place, such as the Patriot and the Spirit of '76 (those replacements' back stories being told in an issue of What If--?) and in the 1950s, the anti-Communist Cap who had plastic surgery on himself and a teenager done so that they'd look like Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, and who were given a variation on the super-soldier serum that eventually made them paranoid and insane (although that Bucky, of course, ended up being cured, taking over Cap's abandoned identity of Nomad). So in some ways, he's continuing his own legacy.

Cap's also had to deal with his share of tragedies in his life. Certainly he fought alongside soldiers in the battlefield who died, and naturally there's Bucky himself (I know, he got brought back to life, which I think makes Uncle Ben Parker the only person in Marvel Comics who's going to stay dead, unless they've brought him back, too). He even lost Sharon Carter (although she was brought back, too... somehow I missed the issue that explained how she was still alive after all this time), his true love. Plus there's the whole man-out-of-time thing that he had to deal with after the Avengers found him frozen in suspended animation, and trying to deal with a world that advanced beyond him. But yet he's always persevered, even when the ghosts of the past seem to haunt him. Action has always been Cap's cure when depression starts to set in. He doesn't let it defeat him any more than he'd let the Red Skull defeat him!

The last Captain America comic I bought brand-new was written by Mark Waid, one of the few writers in comics today who I think really “gets” these classic characters. I have read some of the more recent stuff, like the Winter Soldier storyline, through trade paperbacks at my local library, but they don't feel like Captain America stories to me. And then there's the whole Civil War/death of Cap storyline, but of course he's been brought back to life again already, and I guess these days Bucky is the current Captain America?

I don't know, I can't really buy into the current stuff at all.

msh_captamericaNow, having said all that, I have to say that I did enjoy the first Captain America movie and his subsequent appearance in Marvel's The Avengers (to use the official title), other than not really being happy about their mocking his classic uniform. I'm not sure why Hollywood's so afraid to present superheroes in their classic looks. And I really liked Cap in Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. I've only seen the first episode of the current Avengers animated series, so I can't really judge that. I think A:EMH probably captured Cap better than any comic I've read since Mark Waid's run.

I've always felt that an interesting storyline would've been Captain America finding and training potential replacements for him, should he die, become permanently injured, or just plain need to retire. Perhaps these trainees could come from the ranks of SHIELD, or maybe they'd be other people the Cap felt would do a good job of replacing him. Cap could even get a brain trust together that could work at re-creating the super-soldier serum for use with these trainees (although I'd imagine that they wouldn't get the treatment until they were completely vetted). We'd have to learn that the only way to create the stable serum would be to use certain elements that were extremely rare and impossible to synthesize, so that there'd be no concern about someone creating an army of super-soldiers (which, while it was the goal of Operation: Rebirth back in WWII, could be disastrous today given the political climate of the past decade or two). Even while training these future Caps, Cap would still be working with the Avengers, training them in hand-to-hand combat and acrobatics, as he's done in the past.

Another opportunity that I think has been lost is that Cap and Namor are really the only two supers around from WWII (I know that the original Torch was revived, but have no idea what his status is, but if he's still around, he should be included with this). This was touched on very briefly during the Avengers/Defenders war, and more so when Namor was inducted into the Avengers in the 1980s or so, but I really hoped someone would really run with this. If the founding members of the Invaders are still around, shouldn't they be getting together on a regular basis, and providing assistance and advice to other heroes who haven't been around as long? Sure, Namor has his temper, but Cap could help him hold it in check.

Anyway... as I said, I can't read the current stuff. As with Superman, I'm very glad that there are reprints of the good Cap stories around. The Marvel Essentials are the only Marvel items I'm buying these days, and even then, my purchases tend to be sporadic (and usually happen at comic shows when they're on sale). I really need to finish my Essential Captain America collection, and then read them all, one after the other, appreciating all the work that's been done by creators who, I think, really understand Cap.

As always, your comments are welcome.

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