Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Essential Captain America, Vol. 1

And after a brief delay, here we go...

First up is Essential Captain America, vol. 1.

A little background before we begin...

Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941, published by Marvel's predecessor Timely Comics.

With the dawn of WW II Cap was not alone in the patriotic style heroes who graced the pages of various comics from various publishers and, like most of those heroes, he didn't survive much past the end of the war -- disappearing by the early 1950's.  There was a brief revival of the character in 1953, refashioned into a patriotic Commie Basher to try to appeal to the 'Red Scare' days but this not only didn't work it provided a hiccup in the character's history which Marvel eventually had to deal with... but that is for another day.

In 1964 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby dusted the character off and gave him a prominent place with Marvel's still-rather-young superteam The Avengers.  With Cap seemingly catching on with readers it was time to give him his own title... sort of... which is also where we come in with this volume.

Cap actually began appearing in a title called Tales of Suspense which was a kind of two-in-one comic at that time.  Half of the comic was devoted to stories featuring Iron Man and the other half to Captain America stories.  The two heroes traded off monthly on getting the cover image and lead position in the comic.  Eventually, both Cap and Iron Man proved popular enough to be launched into their own series'.  The stories in this volume cover the years 1964-1968 and cover the transition from Tales of  Suspense to Cap's solo title with all of them being written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby.

So how is it actually?

Not bad.  There are a lot of Silver Age conventions here -- villains who give big monologuing speeches and insist on keeping the hero alive and around in order to 'gloat over their victory', clunky dialogue, and really, really, seriously bad pseudo-science (really).  At the same time, the stories are action-packed and move along at breakneck speed without any padding or long, drawn out, story arcs. 

On the flip side, that breakneck speed doesn't really allow for too much character development -- particularly for the villains.  The villains are villainous and we may get an origin story for them but they don't really become fully rounded characters here.

The other thing that sets these stories apart is a clear view of what was called "the Marvel style" at that time.  Marvel is credited with giving it's heroes faults, failings, and foibles and also with giving them soap opera style stories in the Silver Age.  With Cap this is manifest by him brooding about being a "man out of time", and feeling responsible for the death of his partner, Bucky, and also losing the love of his life in WW II and then in the modern era being drawn to a woman who resembled his lost love only for them to be kept apart due to him being a superhero and her being a S.H.E.I.L.D. Agent.

The problem is that, to a modern reader, these elements are a bit overdone.  Cap remarks on his "age" and how he should be an "old man" like other WW II vets are but at the time this comic was written WW II was only about 20 years in the rear view mirror!  The "old men" who were his fellow vets were likely only in their early 40's through their early 50's!  About half the cast of the recent Avengers movie were over 40 and I doubt any of those actors would have thought of themselves as "old men"!  Modern, changed attitudes about age have made a lot of Cap's meditations on the subject seem whiny.

And speaking of whiny... Cap's brooding about his past probably seemed novel and invoked sympathy in readers of the time but here the dialogue comes across as kind of emo.  This is exacerbated by the fact that, in the 1960's, comic books were almost exclusively sold at newspaper stands and on drugstore spinner racks.  As such, comic book fandom was seen as a bit more casual thing and writers felt like they couldn't take it for granted that a reader picking up a comic book may be that familiar with Cap's backstory.  As such, the issue of Cap's lost partner, Bucky, had to be brought up again, and again, and again.  This makes Cap seem as though he's wallowing in the tragedy... particularly if one reads a big block of these stories in one sitting. 

I will say this, though -- when Lee and Kirby began writing Captain America stories in the Silver Age they set those stories during WW II -- allowing them to write all-new tales of Cap and Bucky as a team for readers who were probably not old enough to have read the original stories in the 1940's.  This had the benefit of allowing readers to get to know the character of Bucky and thereby possibly feel the tragedy of his death a bit more.

Interestingly, in reading through this Essential volume you see Lee and Kirby dropping the WW II era stories suddenly in favor of writing stories of Cap's adventures set in the 'modern era'.  In fact, they drop this right in the middle of a story arc and simply hand wave away the end of the arc.  Apparently the WW II era stories were not striking a chord with readers and Marvel was receiving requests that they write stories about Cap in the then current time.  To a modern reader this change is kind of jarring and not extremely well done.

And any discussion of this thick tome would not be complete without a discussion of the artwork.  Jack Kirby was not nicknamed "the King" for nothing.  His artistic style would become justifiably famous and would go on to influence any number of other artists.  With the color stripped out of the Essential line it allows us to see and appreciate Kirby's line work.  Unfortunately, this volume features Kirby's work before he had quite reached the apex of his style.  You can see an evolution throughout the four years of comics backed into this volume but by the end he's still not quite where he would be.  Also, the more prosaic, superhero-style stories do not give him much chance to cut loose with some of his more imaginative designs.

As you can see in the panel above, taken from towards the end of the volume, Kirby is starting to branch out and the dynamism of his figural work is growing as well, but he's not quite there yet.  Wait till we get to the Thor stories... Kirby's work is gonna blow your socks off...

So, after this long, rambling post what's the final verdict?

If you want to see the roots of Captain America this is a pretty good place to start.  Since Marvel has never really had a company-wide reboot as DC Comics has most of these stories are all still in continuity with only a few little changes over the years. 

The WW II era stories are interesting but I have to admit that the modern era stories have a bit more weight as they start moving Cap forward in character development.  The tales, however, tend to be kind of bog-standard superhero fare with nothing terribly groundbreaking... yet.  The 'soap-opera' elements are also a bit clunky and corny by modern standards.  One can also use the volume to trace the evolution of Jack Kirby's influential art style.

On the whole, if you can tolerate some old-fashioned comic book writing styles and some ludicrous pseudo-science there are some good things to be gained from Essential Captain America, vol. 1.  Although I would, perhaps, recommend that you read it in bite-sized chunks rather than in marathon reading sessions.  I think some of the problems of plotting and writing do not become as annoying that way.  And hey, if nothing else, it's over 300 pages of comics for $20.  That's a pretty good bargain for several weeks' worth or more of reading entertainment.

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