Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

12 October 2006

Essential Captain America, v. 1

Collects: Tales of Suspense #59-99 (covers and Captain America stories only), Captain America #100-2 (1964-8)

Released: 2000? (Marvel)

Format: pages / black and white / $16.99 ($14.95 when originally released) / ISBN: 0785107401

The Essential Captain America, v. 1, was not a book I was particularly looking for. Captain America’s never been one of my favorite characters, and in this volume, Cap is mainly relegated to the back-up stories (he rarely got the cover) of the magazine he shared with Iron Man, Tales of Suspense. But I got a good deal on the book, and well, Captain America is one of the foundations of the Marvel Universe, no matter what my feelings are. So …

Essential Captain America I cover There’s a lot of action here, with Captain America plowing through dozens of peons per page. But when it comes down to it, he always ends up defeating a Nazi with his mind rather than brawn; the Nazi, usually the Red Skull, always seems to die. Strangely, the Skull is awfully honorable for a genocidal maniac, and he doesn’t realize a bullet to Cap’s skull would solve all his problems. That would end the stories of course, and writer / editor / delegator Stan Lee knows how to keep things going, even if he can’t always get them to make sense.

(Of course, the Red Skull’s horribly convoluted plans suggest a man who is a complete stranger to linear thinking; at one point, he trades almost destroying New York for 24 hours of humiliating Captain America and an atomic submarine. Atomic submarines are neat and all, and heaven knows grinding the untermensch’s nose into the ground is rewarding. But given that he could have also gone on to destroy cities other than New York if he hadn’t made the deal, it seems like a bad trade.)

These tales of Captain America haven’t aged very well. Some of the early issues of Tales of Suspense feature Captain America and Bucky in World War II; although fans of Invaders wouldn’t agree, these just as entertaining as the more modern adventures. Of course, Cap goes through most of his career fighting Nazi plots, so even in the ‘60s, he was battling anachronisms. This doesn’t help his relevancy – isn’t it strange the living embodiment of America in the Marvel Universe doesn’t fight many Cold War villains during the Cold War? – but that’s more of a complaint about the character than Essential Captain America.

The best issues involve Captain American battling AIM, who man not have the best costumes but make for reat opponents. An orgainztion of super scientists, they create all kind of supergadgets – the Cosmic Cube, the Super Adaptoid, MODOK – and like most fictional scientists, they can control their creations no more than a baby can control its bowels. Captain America gets to act like a super spy fighting AIM, allowing him to team up with Agent 13.

Ah, Agent 13, the woman who passes for Cap’s personal life. Now, dealing with 10 page action shorts doesn’t allow much room to build on Cap’s alter ego, but it was done for some other characters (Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Human Torch). But Cap is limited to chastely longing for Agent 13, their obligations to “duty” keeping them from having a relationship.

Art is provided by Jack Kirby, which is a sore point for me. Kirby is an innovator, a trailblazer, a man with a superabundance of imagination, a man who is hailed as “King,” to whom obeisance must be given. However, I don’t hink his work has aged well. For instance, his characters are ugly. That’s all there is to it; they range from homely to hideous, but there’s not a good looker in the bunch. For some reason, his superheroes look like they’re wearing partially filled adult diapers beneath their uniforms. In Essential Captain America I, his much vaunted dynamic art usually translates into people flying through the air with their legs spread. On the other hand, Gil Kane’s art seems plain after Kirby’s. (On a side note, why does Stan nickname Gil “Sugar Lips” in some of the credits? A pun on the last name? Personal experience?)

My position on Kirby is considered heretical; if you enjoy Kirby, add a point or two to the rating. I don’t understand it, but there are probably a lot of artists I like that are awful.7 And I have to admit, any man who can create the visual for MODOK deserves some sort of honors.

I would like to say I was pleasantly surprised by this book, but I wasn’t — I wasn’t surprised at all. Essential Captain America, v. 1, is what it is: Captain America beating the crap out of flunkies and henchmen so he can fight some Nazis. There’s a place for that in comics, even today, I think; but it’s not a place I enjoy visiting. If you’re only here for the Kirby, though, you’ll enjoy this much more than I did.

Rating: Captain America’s shield Captain America’s shield (2 of 5)

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