Captain America will be 80 years old in 2021, and he looks good for an octogenarian. On July 4, Marvel’s Sentinel of Liberty is widely seen as the most patriotic American comic book hero.
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The definition of patriotism in the United States isn’t always clear, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
Because Steve Rogers and other superheroes who have worn his costume and carried his shield, like Sam Wilson (the MCU’s current Cap), Bucky Barnes, and even John Walker have all contributed to a rich history of some of the best Marvel Comics stories ever written.
1. The Hero That Was
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Captain America #109 is one of the best comic book examples of Cap’s true heroism, and everyone who has seen his movies knows this.
Lee’s melodramatic, heartfelt words go perfectly with Kirby’s loud, energetic art in this pretty good version of a well-known story.
2. No Longer Alone! / Tomorrow You Live, Tonight I Die / The Strange Death of Captain America
When Jim Steranko was chosen to follow Kirby on Captain America, he seemed like an odd choice. His work seemed more modern, less macho, than the King’s did.
But the three issues he made with Stan Lee are pop art classics that look as good today as they did when they first came out more than 30 years ago. They gave the Captain a new sense of cool and changed the character’s status quo by killing off Steve Rogers and making him a super spy as well as a superhero.
3. The Secret Empire
Many of the things that would become common Captain America tropes were introduced by writer Steve Englehart in his classic ’70s story, “Secret Empire.” These things include the idea of multiple Caps, the idea that Steve Rogers could and would give up his costume in order to find himself, and the idea that Captain America could be used as a way to look at where America is as a country and as a culture in general.
Incredible, always exciting, and underappreciated, Englehart’s Captain America may be up there with Ed Brubaker’s in terms of the best portrayal of the character ever.
4. Man Out of Time
[Captain America: Man Out of Time #3, by Mark Waid, Jorge Molina, Karl Kesel, Scott Hanna, Frank D’Armata; cover by Bryan Hitch, 2011]
When Mark Waid wrote Man Out of Time, he had Cap found and thawed out in the 21st century, not 1964. People who read this book today are likely to be persuaded by the contrast between the 1940s and the 1990s. The focus is on what this does to Cap’s mental state. You can see how Waid puts Steve through the five stages of grief. Even though this theory has been disproved, it still works here. After he’s shot by a teen girl, he’s giddy. Once Steve is convinced, he is both angry and hopeful that Reed Richards’ time travel technology can help him get out of the whole thing. But Stark and the President were able to get a better deal than him. In a rainy Arlington cemetery, Cap doesn’t find much comfort in Thor’s speech about the honor of death in battle. And Stark’s speech about American culture and history since World War II is later balanced, depressingly but truthfully, by stories about racial violence, corporate greed, and political corruption. This is how it works: So when he accidentally ends up back in New York City in 1945, he can no longer hide from the darker parts of that time.
Before the Avengers fight Kang, Cap came up with a clever way to get back to where he belongs: helping his new teammates in their fight. He returns in time to help the Avengers become “a tight-knit unit.” It’s hard for him to adapt to the modern world, but he makes time for himself by hiking in the desert, thinking about the past, and letting it go.
It can be hard to take Waid’s social commentary seriously at times, but this master of Marvel continuity seamlessly blends the exploration of Steve’s inner world with the backdrop of his early battles with the Avengers.
5. Hero or Hoax?
“Secret Empire” is the most well-known part of Steve Englehart’s run on Captain America, but I think his first four issues are more interesting and less crazy than the rest of the run. Cap’s best friend, Falcon, is shocked to see him beating up people in Harlem, even though Falcon knows that Cap is supposed to be away on vacation. This comes at a time when Sam isn’t sure about his role as Cap’s partner. Cap from the 1950s turns out to be the red, white, and blue pretender. This is the 1950s Cap, who Englehart says is the answer to Cap’s unexplained appearances in 1953 and 1954. It’s a sad story about a fan of Captain America who was heartbroken when he thought his hero had died and was angry at the people who took his place. He spent a lot of time researching Captain America’s life until he found the formula for the super-soldier serum and tried it on himself. During history class, Burnside persuaded a young student to get injected and become Bucky, so they could fight commies in the U.S. or those who didn’t have “pure blood.” In 1972, an America Firster thawed them out.
I can’t overstate how important this story is to Cap’s mythos in the future, because it will help seed future stories about Cap’s legacy and who he is. It was the first time someone else was seen behind the mantle, which is a way to show how mature and even-keeled someone needs to be to be a superhero (think Spidey!). Engelhart, Marvel’s most politically conscious writer at the time and one of its best, used the title to deconstruct the dark side of patriotism and other forms of chauvinism in a very dynamic way. This doesn’t mean that he fully addressed America’s most serious social problems. But modern readers will find a lot to think about. Nick Fury acts like a melodramatic 1950s teenager who is worried about “his girlloyalty “‘s in the first few pages of #153. This is because Englehart is wrapping up a previous author’s story. Ick.)
It took a while for Cap’s comic book series to get back on track after Englehart’s run. Roger Stern and John Byrne, who wrote and illustrated the book, made it even better. Starting with #247, they started building a private life for Steve. It’s surprising Marvel didn’t figure out how to do this sooner, given how popular Peter Parker had been for years. As a Jewish artist, Bernie Rosenthal is Steve’s new next-door neighbor. She becomes a love interest for him, which makes her a very different kind of person from the original MJ. Sharon had been thought to be dead since a plot with Dr. Faustus and Burnside in 1979. Stern and Byrne’s short time together felt almost aggressively normal after a long career in which Cap’s personality and inner world took a back seat to big, zany ideas and set-pieces, so it felt like a breath of fresh air. Stern/stories Byrne’s are mostly light and fluffy, but Byrne’s clean, bold pencils give the stories a visual cohesion and make Stern’s scripts even more self-conscious. This is a rare treat for the time.
“Cap for President!” is the best one they’ve done. A lot of people later write about the politics of Captain America’s legacy, but this isn’t nearly as in-depth as that. It was the character’s first time in the public eye during a campaign. Unsurprisingly, Cap makes the right choice and avoids party-based partisanship. He says that he represents and fights for “the American Dream,” which is a more grassroots approach, let’s say? I mean, that’s a big flaw of the Stern/Byrne run: They don’t even try to think about how hard it is to get this ideal, let alone its history and flaws, or even how hard it is to put “Captain America” on the ballot. But it’s all fun for the kids! It’s both a success and a flaw.
The first depictions of Steve’s pre-Cap background are found in issues #247, 250, and 255, while Cap’s time with the Invaders is shown in #253-254. This is interesting because while the readers knew about this period in detail, Cap hadn’t until recently. On the last page of #254, there’s a weird kind of love letter to the British Empire’s glory days. Ack!)
7. Monsters and Men
[Captain America #272 by J.M. DeMatteis, Mike Zeck, John Beatty, Bob Sharen, Rick Parker, 1982]
When J.M. DeMatteis took over the run of Captain America from 1981 to 1984, he was inspired by Steve’s personal life, but he did a lot of things that were very different. DeMatteis was interested in Cap’s recently remembered past, starting with Steve’s Brooklyn childhood. It was Arnie Roth, a gay Jewish man, who was the first person from this backstory that fans really got to know and care about. In “Someone Who Cares,” Steve’s friendship with Arnie is detailed. Vermin, too, is a supporting character for the whole run of JMD. He first appears in #272, which also deals with urban violence and decay. The subject is dealt with in a very direct way, but JMD is known in the industry as one of its most thoughtful creators, which makes him the perfect choice for Captain America. All in all, veterans are the most serious pacifists because they have been through a lot.
Mike Zeck, who draws the first half of JMD’s run, has a unique style that resembles Byrne’s in its bold, clean lines. Byrne doesn’t try to make urban hardship look good, but he also doesn’t try to hide its bleakness. Paul Neary took over after that, but he didn’t get his bearings until after the mess between JMD and editorial. A fill-in writer didn’t finish his last story well. It would have been the start of Cap’s epic deconstruction and celebration of pacifism, as well as the first try at the famous question of Brubaker’s era: Who Will Wield the Shield? It would have been between Falcon and a new Native American character who almost no one but JMD knows about. Still, the interesting introduction of the Skull’s daughter Sin and the new Baron Zemo, who were shown as weak-kneed in front of the senior Nazi’s nihilistic fascism, were what the readers saw.
He’s a good person, but JMD sometimes has a hard time dealing with social issues. It’s still one of the best parts of the show, though. Bernie’s discovery that he’s really Cap leads to a surprising but subtly shown moment of emotional weakness. In the movie, Sam’s brainwashing by the Red Skull and his Cosmic Cube years ago is the only thing that went wrong. Snap Wilson, the pimp in the movie, is a bad example of a cliched pimp. This early black superhero is going to fail spectacularly at his progressive, grassroots political campaign, even though I know JMD doesn’t think that way, but that’s what it feels like to me right now.