Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Captain America: A Man Out of Time

CAPTAIN AMERICA was one of the first Marvel Comics heroes I discovered back in the hazy days of 1965. I'm not sure what it was that fascinated me about the character - his star-spangled costume, his embodiment of the American Dream, the fact that he was not Super but just an ordinary man.

Even in the mid-Sixties, we were exposed to a great deal of American culture here in the UK, through movies, television and our reading matter. My feeling was that home-grown comic papers like Beano and Beezer were for small children, but the brash and colourful US imports were for older kids like myself. And of course, they were more expensive which, like designer goods today, made them more aspirational.

These early Marvels would have first been on sale in the UK in mid-1965, around the time of my eleventh birthday. Compared to the straight-arrow Justice League of America the Marvel characters seemed wilder and just a little more dangerous.
I've covered my earliest encounters with the fledgling Marvel comics in earlier blog entries, but it's worth mentioning again that the character that first caught my eye in those formative years was Captain America. And in the summer of 1965, I resolved that I was going to save (we didn't call it "collecting" back then) all the Captain America comics I could get my hands on. But as it was quite a while back now, I can't really remember now what order I found these issues in, so as with my recent Spider-Man coverage, I'll just examine each issue of Tales of Suspense in order.


After the Battle issue of Tales of Suspense 58 (Oct 1964), the first issue of Suspense to feature Captain America in his own strip was issue 59 (Nov 1964). This was one of the Marvels caught up in the great Thorpe & Porter import snafu of late-1964 that I reported on in an earlier blog. So the issue didn't make it into UK newsagents, at least not so as you'd notice. So I wouldn't get my hands on a copy of this comic until sometime in the 1970s.

Marvel used the idea of a Battle Issue to introduce the incoming superhero strip in the anthology titles - so Iron Man battled Captain America in Tales of Suspense 58, though Don Heck's Cap was only adequate. A couple of months earlier, Giant Man had battled The Incredible Hulk in preparation for ol' Greenskin's solo series which would begin in Astonish 60.
Looking back on ToS59 now, the Captain America story feels very much like it was was plotted and drawn by Jack Kirby, then handed to Stan for dialoguing. The reason I think this is that there's no characterisation going on and next to no motivation for the bad guys to invade the Avengers Mansion. The closest we get to seeing Cap depicted as a real person is when he has a flick through an old scrapbook of his wartime exploits with Bucky - though trying to imagine Captain America sitting down with a pot of paste and a stack of newspaper clippings is pretty difficult. When did he make the scrapbook? Was it frozen in the ice-block with him? Or did he put in a safe-deposit box against the time he was thawed out? This kind of detail wouldn't have been neglected if Stan had been plotting the story, so that's why I'm blaming this on Kirby's storytelling carelessness.

When the Captain America solo strip kicked off in Tales of Suspense 59, the artwork by Kirby was outstanding, but the story felt very thin on the ground. Some gangsters invade the Avengers mansion and have a big fight with Cap. That's it.
The following issue wasn't a massive improvement. The Captain America story, again pencilled by Kirby with great inks by Chic Stone, featured essentially the same plot. This time the antagonists are a group of assassins despatched to kill Cap while he's giving a demonstration of his fighting skill to an invited audience, but once again - in a great Kirby action sequence - the "weakest" Avenger mops them up with ease. Rick Jones also gets a little ass-whupping action, as a sort of substitute Bucky, but without the wisecracks. It's worth mentioning here that Cap is still using the magnetically-powered shield given to him by Iron Man in Avengers 6 (July 1964).

In Tales of Suspense 60, the Captain America strip was more of an incident than a story. A group of thugs sent by Baron Zemo takes the place of Cap's sparring partners during a public demonstration and get their asses kicked. That's it.
Tales of Suspense 61 was a bit of a change of pace. Captain America shows up in Vietnam to rescue a POW, Jim Baker, the younger brother of a soldier who'd once saved Cap's life in Europe during WW2. The Viet-Cong are led by The General, a huge sumo wrestler. Aside from the fact that sumos are Japanese, it's a better story for Cap than what we've seen so far in this title. But it still lacks a bit of substance.

Even though the Captain America section of Suspense 61 featured a change of locale - Vietnam, in this case - it was still just an incident, where Cap shows up, kicks some commie butt and departs.
The same month that ToS61 came out, Captain America guest-starred in Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos 13 (Dec 1964), one of my favourite comics of the Silver Age. Looking back on it now, it's not hard to see why. Behind a great Kirby/Stone cover, there's a neat little scene at the beginning of the story where Nick Fury and Pamela Hawley are enjoying tea in a pub (yes, it seems unlikely, and even less likely that a pub would have uniformed waitresses, but Stan's still an American, despite professing to being an Anglo-phile and actually being married to a Brit). One of Fury's fellow tea-sippers is Pvt Steve Rogers. When platoon bully Sgt Bull McGiveney shows up, he picks on Rogers and pushes him around a little, before Fury intervenes.

As soon as I saw this comic advertised in the Marvel house ads, I just knew I had to track it down. Captain America. Bucky. Fighting alongside Sgt Fury. In World War II. How could it not be brilliant?
Later on in the story, Fury and Rogers meet again on a Nazi train transporting slave workers to help dig a tunnel to Britain (so, probably in France, then). When Fury and the Howlers start to bust up the Nazis' project, Captain America and Bucky show up and pitch in. There's a couple of great pages of Kirby/Ayers action (the first Kirby Fury since issue 7) before the heroes make their escape and we're treated to a fun epilogue with Fury recuperating in one hospital room while unknown to him Steve Rogers/Captain America recovers in the very next room.

Sgt Fury 13 certainly felt a lot more substantial than the 10-pagers that were running in Suspense at the same time. With a whopping 23 pages to play with here Lee and Kirby were able to craft a much more satisfying tale, despite Cap having to share the stage with Fury and his Howling Wotsits.

Kirby's art is superb here. The big frame with Captain America being held by the convicts at the top of a page 4 perfectly captures the controlled power of Cap ... only Kirby could have pulled this off so effectively.
But after the widescreen spectacle of Sgt Fury 13, the return to 10-page incidents in Tales of Suspense 62 felt like a bit of a let-down. In this episode, Cap is giving (yet) another demonstration of his fighting prowess, this time inside a prison. What he doesn't realise is that the "warden" is actually the leader of a bunch of escaped convicts that have taken over the penitentiary - and they want to use the electronics in Cap's shield to open the complex outer doors. Of course, a big fight breaks out and Cap gives the convict horde a severe slapping. By the time reinforcements show up, Captain America has the situation safely in hand. The epilogue has Cap revealing that he's taken the electronics out of the shield because they upset its delicate balance, and the real warden telling Cap that the outer doors can be opened by simply speaking the words, "Captain America".

Looking back on it now, this seems about the lamest tale of the bunch so far. It's like neither Stan nor Jack actually knew what to do with the character. But then Stan must have realised that too, because at the very tail end of the letters page, we're told that Captain America strip is taking a new direction ... "It's gonna be a new type of tale, the first of a new series". It was, as well.

The origin of Captain America has been retrofitted a few times in the years since 1965, but this version is the most straightforward telling of the tale, if a little wordy, and as a bonus, we get the origin of Bucky, as well.
I remember seeing Tales of Suspense 63 for the first time - a fairly tatty copy in a second-hand shop - sometime in early 1966, I think. My first thought was that I would finally find out how Captain America could be a young man both in the 1940s and in the 1960s. (Remember, I'd seen ToS64 a year or more earlier and I was already aware of Cap's adventures as an Avenger). Part of me was a little disappointed when all I got was a ten-page origin story set in the forties with art by Jack Kirby and quite a lot of scripting from Stan. No explanation of how Cap had weathered the twenty years from 1944-1964 without ageing. That was annoying.

As far as the plot points are concerned, the origin of Captain America in Tales of Suspense 63 is identical to the original origin, way back in Captain America Comics 1.
That said, it's a rattling good read and actually two-and-a-half pages longer than the original story from Captain America Comics 1 (Mar 1941), though that's mostly because it tacks on an incident at the end showing Cap and Bucky busting up a bunch of Nazi saboteurs landing from a submarine, then destroying the sub (and presumably the crew inside it) with the saboteurs' own explosives. The final caption pledges that "each following issue of Suspense will feature a new adventures of Cap and Bucky based on their World War Two exploits." But that wouldn't be quite true ...

I mentioned Tales of Suspense 64 in the very first entry of this blog ... it was one of the first Marvel Comics I ever saw. It's hard to describe how I looked upon Iron Man versus Hawkeye and the Black Widow and the rather eerie tale of Captain America and Bucky battling clairvoyant Nazis at the time. I'd been used to the clean-cut adventures of the DC super-heroes up till that point and this new approach was an entirely different experience. As Nick Caputo pointed out in one of his first blog posts, the Marvel tales felt altogether grimier, and closer to real life than the artificial and squeaky-clean landscapes that Flash and Green Lantern inhabited. For me this made the Marvel landscape seem all the more familiar to me, despite New York being three thousand miles away from the south-east London district I was living in at the time. DC's suburban backdrops, all manicured and neat, seemed a long way away from where I lived.

The Captain America story from Tales of Suspense 64 was a straight re-telling of a story from the very first issue of the 1941 Captain America comic ... Stan added the explanation of Sando's crystal ball which was missing from the original version.
But about those promised all-new stories of Captain America set during WWII ... they may have been new to me at the time, but as The Kid reminded me in response to an earlier post, the Sando and Omar story was a re-telling of the second tale, by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, in the now legendary Captain America Comics 1. So similar are the two that Stan probably shouldn't have taken a "writer" credit on the re-telling.

The plot has a couple of variety performers, Sando and his mute "psychic" assistant Omar, predicting disasters from a theatre stage to bewildered audiences. Each of their predictions comes true ... hardly surprising as they are simply part of a nest of Nazi saboteurs. Presumably, the theatrical performances are intended to demoralise the American public. Captain America and Bucky investigate, discover the secret behind the plot and break up the gang with the help of government operative, identified as Betty Ross in the 1941 version, but Agent Thirteen in the 1964 story. Confusingly, there would be an Agent Thirteen in Cap's 1960s life, but that's a story for another time.

The original version of the tale, which appeared in Captain America Comics 1, was scripted and drawn by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, one of their first jobs as the in-house creative team of Timely comics, as Marty Goodman tried to wean himself off depending on Funnies Inc for his supply on new comics material.
The Special Announcements Section at the end of the Tales of Suspense 64 letter page told us next issue we could expect "the most famous villain Captain America ever fought - a villain whom the older readers will remember, and who is just a legendary name to our younger fans." Not to me, he wasn't. I'd never heard of The Red Skull.

When I did eventually find a copy of Tales of Suspense 65, I was more excited about the prospect of the old golden-armoured Iron Man fighting the newer red-and-yellow version ... but once I got to the Red Skull story, it turned out to be a lot better than I expected. It all begins when a high-ranking army officer is murdered by a weird Nazi agent in a red skull mask. Police are baffled about the cause of death and Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes decide to take a hand as Captain America and Bucky. Cap rescues Bucky and demolishes the Skull's henchmen, but the Skull himself escapes. Next day, Rogers and Barnes are on guard detail during a demonstration of a new plane designed by the head of the Maxon Aircraft Corp. Right under the noses of the military, the plane is sabotaged. That evening the General Curtis is murdered by the Red Skull. But the fracas attracts the attention of Captain America and he manages to defeat the Skull. Pulling the mask from the Nazi agent he's shocked to see the face of aircraft designer Maxon. Taking advantage of Cap's surprise, Maxon makes his escape.

The re-introduction of The Red Skull in ToS65 was a pretty big deal, thought I didn't know it at the time. The character would go on to eclipse Baron Zemo, who'd started out as Cap's main nemesis during the 1960s.
The storytelling here is a bit confused. Is the fake "Maxon" actually The Red Skull? Doesn't seem likely, because Cap says that "Maxon was eliminated by the Nazis and replaced with a lookalike, which indicates that this was the Maxon lookalike, disguised as The Skull. Yet, as he escapes, "Maxon" shouts, "The Red Skull is never without a waiting escape route.

The likeliest explanation is that Kirby plotted and drew the tale, using the original comic as a reference, then handed it over to Stan for scripting, who in turn, struggled to make sense of Jack's ramshackle plot. Not even Chic Stone's smooth inking helped. And when we look at the Red Skull story from Captain America Comics 1, it turns out that The Red Skull - who dies at the end of the tale - actually is Maxon, a man turned traitor for the promise of the post of Minister of Industry when Hitler conquers the USA. Yet, Simon and Kirby would revive the character in issue 7, indicating that Maxon was only an impersonator, though that plot point really isn't made clear in Suspense 65.

The earlier telling of the story seemed to work a bit better, probably because Simon & Kirby hadn't originally intended using the character again and were happy to have him revealed as Maxon, then killed off at the end of the tale. The popularity of the character must have caught them by surprise.
Tales of Suspense 66 strayed from the re-telling of old stories from Captain America Comics 1. Stan and Jack gave us the all-new Origin of the Red Skull. I might be wrong, but I'm fairly sure that the character's beginnings were never portrayed in the original 1940s Captain America comics. It's not a bad tale, either. The story begins with Captain America bound and at the mercy of The Red Skull. As the Skull gloats over his helpless foe, we learn how an un-named nebbish chances to be in the same room with Adolph Hitler one day at the beginning of WWII. Hitler capriciously decides that he can make the perfect Nazi out of this nobody and gives him the mask and costume. The Red Skull quickly takes to his new role as Hitler's Head of Terror and pretty soon starts getting ambitions of his own. The story ends with Captain America, in a drug-induced trance, under the full control of his arch-enemy.

With Cap captured and Bucky missing, The Red Skull reveals the secret of how he rose to prominence in Hitler's Nazi Party. The story ended with a brainwashed Captain America prepared to assassinate, the leader of the Allied Forces in Europe.
The ten-page story seems to hang together better than the adaptations from Captain America Comics 1 in Suspense 63-65 do. Perhaps that's because it's not an adaptation. Further, perhaps it's because with ToS66, Stan was actually plotting the stories instead of (I'm guessing) leaving Jack to revise the plots from the older stories by himself, then just adding the dialogue afterwards. The next issue would continue in this direction.

Tales of Suspense 67 has The Red Skull gloatingly deliver the mind-controlled Captain America to the Fuehrer. Hitler orders The Red Skull to have Cap carry out his "mission" then kill him. So, leading a squad of Nazi commandos, Cap parachutes into London and breaks into the home of the highest ranking US general in the European Theatre of Operations ... and apparently pulls the trigger.

The Red Skull introduces Adolph Hitler to his new BFF - Captain America. The Nazis then have Cap assassinate the highest ranking US Commander in Europe. We can only watch, horrified, as Cap pulls the trigger of his borrowed Luger.
As with the previous episode, the storytelling here is a lot smoother that the Golden Age adaptation had been. Lee's script and Kirby's art seem to mesh more fully, and the inking of Frank Giacoia (under the fake name "Frankie Ray" - he was still working for DC at the time) is almost as perfect as Chic Stone's.

Just like the old cliffhanger serials, Tales of Suspense 68 began with a resolution to the dreadful situation at the end of the previous episode. It was a bit of a cop-out, to be honest. A kind of, "with one bound, Cap was free." Stan and Jack ask us to believe that the brainwashing of Captain America was complete - but not complete enough. At the crucial final reckoning, Cap is unable to pull the trigger on the general. Then the story veers off in a different direction, with Cap chasing down a Nazi agent who manages to get his hands on an allied secret weapon, "Project Vanish", and the plotline becomes a little conventional again in the process.

Oh, wait a minute ... seems like Captain America had second thoughts about shooting the general at the behest of his Nazi controllers and switches back to the side of the good guys at the last moment. Not Stan and Jack's finest moment in their long partnership.
The final WWII era story, that began in Tales of Suspense 69, was never one of my favourites. A drawn-out three parter, the first episode was drawn by Kirby/Ayers and the final two by George Tuska over Jack Kirby layouts. I know Tuska is highly regarded in some quarters and certainly his long track record is worthy of respect, but then, as now, his artwork never really rose above the "slightly cartoony" and for that reason, never appealed to me. So this is the point that I lost a bit of my enthusiasm, at least for Cap's solo stories.

George Tuska continued on the Captain America strip until Tales of Suspense 74, and as a result my interest in the title waned in direct proportion. The Iron Man stories benefited from the introduction of a new penciller, "Adam Austin", who brought a modern, metallic sheen to the character. There were a couple of fill-in stories in ToS 77-78, drawn by John Romita just before he picked up the reins on The Amazing Spider-Man, then Kirby was back and kicking some serious butt in Tales of Suspense 79, and Captain America began his long association with Nick Fury and SHIELD ... but that's a story for another time.

Next: Leading the Avengers