The new Mighty Marvel Masterworks line has given me easy access to historic runs on Marvel books like Spider-Man and The Avengers. Now, I get to do the same with a character I have a newfound fondness for: Captain America.
Like any character from comics’ early history, there is little hope in synthesizing every part of Captain America into any sensible whole. So many Captain America stories have been told, and so many creators have touched “his history” that, at this point, it’s basically impossible to say what a Captain America comic is supposed to look like, or even how the character should act. This is further complicated by alternate takes on the character like the MCU or the Ultimate Universe, both of which may be more popular interpretations than the main 616 version of the character (and both of which were my introduction to the character, for what it’s worth).
That aside, Captain America comics represent something that other surviving characters from that era don’t (or don’t as much): propaganda. I’m absolutely a fan of the character, but to say that he isn’t, at times, a tool of propaganda is pretty silly. He’s a character emblazoned with the American flag, who goes to war wearing it, in stories that aren’t at all critical of the warmongering nature of the USA. However, despite those problems I have with the character (and the larger Captain America franchise), I’m still generally interested in the character. In many ways, it’s because so many individuals criticize these propagandistic aspects of the character that I wanted to get deeper into the character, follow whatever through-lines I could find, and maybe find some morsels of characterization and thematic goodness to latch onto.
So, I signed up for this volume—after reading modern runs, along with finishing Mark Gruenwald’s long and historic tenure as the writer—in order to get a better sense of Steve’s character from his first appearances. This was, of course, without realizing that this volume isn’t from Captain America’s WWII era comics (though it does contain stories about Captain America during WWII), but from “the Marvel age,” which seems to largely be defined as “Stan Lee wrote this.”
Good news? These comics are enjoyable! They’re generally a lot of fun, feature some of my favorite Kirby I’ve read, and the ten-page stories are a format I’m really fond of. The politics are, expectedly, both dated and limited in a lot of ways, but that gives more room to Steve’s inner character than modern runs tend to. I think it’s a fair trade off, because as much as I do want a Captain America that is critical of American Ideals, a precursor to that is a Steve Rogers who wants to be good, and who questions who he really is.
This is just a tiny fragment of the comic, but it does a lot to flesh Steve out as a character. Throughout the comic, Steve goes from courageous war hero, to pretend stooge of his division, to love-crazed heartthrob, to superhero adventurer. There’s not much of a through-line, really – the book is almost like an anthology of random Captain America stories, even jumping to different eras. Even with being somewhat inconsistent, though, that kernel is there, that demonstration of Steve trying to be self-aware about his identity, thinking about what it means to be Captain America, and it’s influence on his life.
That aside, a lot of this comic is just really good. It does take a bit to really get going, and the first few stories are pretty boring if I’m being honest. But once the team (read: probably Jack Kirby) brought the book back to WWII, the energy shifted, and it started to feel like Classic Captain America. Once they found their groove, I think the book improves again by doing Giant Robot Sleeper Agents, which works for a bunch of reasons.
The chapters about this guy are mostly just extremely fun superhero comics. The action is big and a little dumb, which is pretty much perfect when it comes to Captain America comics, honestly. One of the highlights, though, is just how much this comic hates Nazis, but is still able to make them a threat. My favorite moment, probably in the whole volume, is when The Sleeper kills a Nazi.
The panels themselves are already pretty funny just looking at the art, but the context elevated them so much, and helps to show that the creators were actually saying so,e thing about the evils that Nazis represented, even while also turning them into a joke. Like, the robot is ostensibly a Nazi, and he almost destroys the world. There’s just also these guys running around so obsessed with their hateful worldview that they don’t think the death robot will zap them to death.
Maybe the best story, and the one that felt the most novel to me as a reader, was the origin of Red Skull, which also focused on the horrors of the Nazis and the way that joining them was an easy—almost reasonable—option for those on the outskirts of society. The fact that Red Skull was a petty criminal before being made into a monster isn’t just a great mirror to Steve, but also serves to illustrate the way fascism takes root in a populous. Prescient isn’t the right word for it, since it’s literally just history: it’s more like a depressing, infuriating reminder of how selfish and hateful people are. In that way, the anti-communist stories, and the yellow peril in the early stories fit in today as well, they just have different aesthetics.
The fact that we haven’t moved beyond these patterns of thinking in 60 years is disappointing, to say the least, but I don’t think it reflects poorly on the comic, or even on the character in general. This is a volume steeped in the past, and in history, and I’m happy to have read it. Excited to read the next one!
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