Thursday, July 21, 2011
On July 22th, 2011 the feature film, Captain America: The First Avenger, from Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures, will be released. In honor of the new live-action, feature length film, I'll be doing this list of my top ten favorite comics on the Sentinel of Liberty himself, Captain America ! If you haven't already, to learn more about Cap in my videos, check out Part 5 and Part 20 of the History of Comics on Film!
10. Captain America v1 #411-413
by Mark Gruenwald and Rik Levins
"Disguise The Limit"
This is just an all around fun story. Cap, along with his former sidekick, The Falcon, and current girlfriend, Diamondback, all plan to crash the A.I.M. weapons Expo. Diamondback wants to track down the woman who tried to drown her, Snapdragon, so the three plan to sneak onto the island where the Expo is held each year disguised as criminals they've recently apprehended.
Diamondback poses as Mother Night, The Falcon as the current Jack O' Lantern of the day, and Cap himself is disguised as one of my favorite villains, Crossbones.
The fun part starts when Cap realizes that Crossbones made an agreement to participate in a fighting tournament against 5 men hand picked by Batroc The Leaper. Of course Cap is a terrific fighter, but hearing Cap do an imitation of Crossbones is the real treat.
Eventually Batroc deduces this is actually Cap from his fighting style.
When Cap refuses to throw the fight for his benefit, he exposes Cap leading to an all-out brawl with an island of villains.
9. Captain America v1 #369
by Mark Gruenwald and Ron Lim
"The Skeleton Crew"
Mark Gruenwald has a lot of subplots coming to a head in this issue. The Skeleton Crew are out looking for their master, the Red Skull, who was recently kidnapped by Magneto. The Skeleton Crew is made up of Crossbones, Mother Night, The Voice and Machinesmith in the body of the 4th Sleeper. The Crew figures that since Magneto is currently the "Grey" King of the Hellfire Club, that their boss may be imprisoned at the Club's Headquarters. The Skeleton Crew tries to sneak their way into the HQ by infiltrating from the underground sewers, but Seline and her men are waiting for them. So, this lead of the Crew's sends them directly into confrontation with Seline, The Black Queen of the Hellfire Club.
This issue also marks the early beginnings of the Cap/Diamondback relationship. Being a fan of bad girl romances with straight-laced leads as I am, this is another reason why this tale is a favorite of mine. Diamondback is hot on their trail after getting some new throwing diamonds from the Tinkerer. Diamondback quickly involves Cap in the skirmish between the Hellfire Club and Skeleton Crew.
The art from Ron Lim is great and the blooming romance between Cap and Diamondback amidst a "gang war" between the Skeleton Crew and the Hellfire Club makes for some great comics.
8. Captain America v3 #2
by Mark Waid and Ron Lim
"To Serve and Protect"
As our hero faces off against HYDRA Terrorists attempting to hijack a United States submarine, Captain America's indestructible shield is the highlight of this story. Mark Waid makes a terrific case for why the shield is a essential extension of the man himself.
This makes the character's "between a rock and a hard place" choice to abandon the irreplaceable extension of himself all the more poignant. The hijacked submarine will surely explode, so Cap and another officer, Lieutenant Houston, escape the doomed vessel through the torpedo tubes.
Even though the wondrous shield absorbs the explosion's impact, the two are still far beneath the Alantic Ocean. Cap's not going to let Lieutenant Houston get crushed by the harsh pressures of the deep ocean, but at first he still thinks he has time to save both the navel officer as well as his shield. However, the look in his eyes tells you all you need to know in this terrific art sequence from Ron Garney.
That look on Cap's face has always been burned in the recesses of my memory and makes this stand out as one of the greats. Even as Cap comes to the surface, the realization of what a significant loss has befallen him doesn't even dawn on him until a few moments later.
7. Captain America v1 #273-274
by David Anthony Kraft and Mike Zeck
"Cap and the Howlers....Together Again!" and "Death of a Hero!"
In this issue, Cap meets up with fellow World War II veterans,The Howling Commandos. They are once again at one another's side thanks to a veteran's reunion party. The entire special unit is still alive and kicking and we are able to see what each of the various Howlers ended up doing after the war. As the story from David Anthony Kraft was only written in 1982, this is more plausible then than it would be today. "Dum Dum" Dugan, Nick Fury, Eric Koenig and Gabe Jones of course all went on to become members of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Izzy" Cohen went on to take over his father's mechanic shop in Brooklyn.
Robert "Rebel" Ralston is now serving in the US Senate, much to "Pinky" Pinkerton's delight as Ralston won't have time to frequent the man's casinos. "Pinky" must be a "bank-breaker".
Dino Manelli who was modeled after Dean Martin, is feeling his age catching up to him as Reb's date explains how her mother loves to watch his movies.
The last to arrive to the party is the Howler's Commanding Officer,
"Happy Sam" Sawyer, now a General. Hydra agents crash the party and abduct General Sawyer sending Cap and the remaining Howling Commandos on a rescue mission.
Even though it is eventually revealed that Cap and crew are fighting an L.M.D. and not the real Baron Von Strucker, it's still great to see Mike Zeck doing a bang up job penciling the face-off between the Star-Spangled Avenger and the Supreme Hydra Leader.
6. Captain America v1 #255
by Roger Stern and John Byrne
"The Living Legend"
The ultimate issue of the Stern/Byrne run on Captain America is a re-telling of the beginnings of Steve Rogers and how he would come to be the Sentinel of Liberty he is today. Byrne's art has always been a favorite for myself and others who grew up reading comics in the same era. The story first focuses on Cap's adventures at home fighting saboteurs and Nazi fifth columnists with his first heater shield.
Eventually President Roosevelt bestows Cap's traditional indestructible circular shield to Rogers and we are caught up to all of Cap's adventures throughout WWII up to the current age (at the time) of comics. A great send off to a terrific run of Captain America comics by the team of Roger Stern and John Byrne!
5.Tales of Suspense #79-81 Red Skull Cosmic Cube
by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
"The Red Skull Lives!"
"He Who Holds The Cosmic Cube!"
"The Red Skull Supreme!"
The Red Skull teams up with the organization A.I.M. to enable the Nazi-villain to gain access to the ultimate weapon, the Cosmic Cube. The Cube is like an Aladdin's Lamp with unlimited wishes that it can bestow unto the user.
Even in the face of an omnipotent opponent, Captain America shows true courage and never backs down or gives up the fight.
Much like the iconic moment of Spider-Man being trapped under a collapsing pillar, Captain America facing off against the Red Skull, enabled by the power of the Cosmic Cube, is a classic tale that has been revisited again and again. Of course, in this case, the original is still the measuring stick to judge all others that followed.
4. Adventures of Captain America, Sentinel Of Liberty #1-4
by Fabian Nicieza and Kevin Maguire
"First Flight of the Eagle"
"Betrayed By Agent X"
"Angels of Death, Angels of Hope"
This is a terrific mini-series that chronicles the origins of Captain America and his first face-off against his arch-nemesis Johann Schmidt, The Red Skull. I think I would place it higher on my list save for a few minor complaints. The mini-series seems to be a response or a conjoined effort to tie into the Albert Pyun directed Captain America movie, which was released on home video about a year before these comics came out.
My theory comes from the way Maguire portrays the Red Skull.
Maguire's interpretation sort of reminds me of how the Skull ended up looking in the Albert Pyun film. I jokingly call him the "Red Nose." Also I tend to associate Maguire with his humorous run on the Bwa-ha-ha era of the Justice League, so in some ways it's like watching a humorous actor like Ken Marino on a teen drama like Dawson's Creek. Half the time you expect him to bust out saying, "I wanna dip my balls in it!"" However there are plenty of hilarious moments that work within the context of the story and Maguire's skills at conveying facial expressions are certainly put to great use by Nicieza.
So I can look past the "Red Nose" to see the really great moments, like how Cap's young partner Bucky Barnes is such a likable card.
Also Cap's not quite as squeamish as the moral philosopher I like to call "Mister Cap" in these four issues.
It's a weird thing to me, in many Captain America comics, they'd have you believe the man went through all of World War II without killing a soul. In other interpretations, such as this, it's a bit more on the realistic side.
Finally the Red Skull or Röte Schadel faces off against the Star Spangled Avenger in a striking "reverse-homage" to the cover of Captain America Comics #1.
A truly great book for fans of Captain America, this one is not to be missed!
3. Captain America v1 #298-300
by J. M. DeMatteis and Paul Neary
"Sturm Und Drang: The Life and Times of the Red Skull!"
J. M. DeMatteis seems to be an author who has a habit of penning truly epic final confrontations between heroic characters and their arch-rivals.
The first time I would read DeMatteis do this was in the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man where Peter Parker and Harry Osborne had a grizzly final confrontation. In the same vein, this last fracas between Steve Rogers and Johann Schmidt or Captain America and the original Red Skull is no less harrowing or monumental.
The Red Skull's back story is revealed from the horse's mouth in its entirety. The gases that had halted the Skull's aging process were finally wearing off after all these years and so the immediacy of his final end leads the master manipulator to kidnap Cap's closest friends so that he may poison Cap with the same aging stigma.
When Cap thinks all his friends have perished in an explosion set by the Skull his rage is unbridled.
Of course in this run of the comics The Captain's moral code against killing stands strong, but it matters little at this point as the Skull's debilitating aging has already done the dirty work for him. Even in the Skull's last moments, the hate in him is so omnipresent that he spends his final moments clawing at his enemy's face. Lots of great back story, emotion and action in this grand finale!
2. Captain America v1 #445-448
by Mark Waid and Ron Garney
I have a great deal of unbridled passion for the four-part story by scribe Mark Waid. This came at a time during Captain America's history where the book was coming off of the final issues of Mark Gruenwald's run. The whole era of deconstruction of comics had long since passed into simple destruction of characters in order to make a quick buck. Superman died at the hands of Doomsday. Batman's back was broken. Hal Jordan went nuts and killed all his comrades. Iron Man did something similar. The grim and gritty comics of the 80's had made a segue into the grim and gimmicky.
Before this Cap's Super Soldier serum had given out on him which led to muscular atrophy. This gave an excuse for Cap to run around in a new suit of armor and is tantamount to all the "shock and awe" gimmicks that were huge in 90s comics. Luckily along came Mark Waid and Ron Garney to breathe some much needed fresh air into the life of the Captain America comics with "Operation: Rebirth."
Not only is Captain America brought back to greatness, but the great injustice that was the death of one of Cap's long-time girlfriends is undone.
Sometimes resurrection of characters who have died nobly can rub me the wrong way, but Sharon Carter's death always felt flimsy to me. She had a good start as a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who could hold her own with the best of them. However, when the poor girl decided she wanted to marry Cap, they turned her into a lovesick dope and then a raging hormonal bitch at the drop of a hat.
Since they weren't going to have her marry the Captain and had no idea what to do with her, she was said to have spontaneously combusted off-panel. In many ways this reminds me of WIR syndrome and the current day treatment of Mary Jane in the Spider-Man comics. So, with Carter getting much of the same poor treatment (along with an ignominious death to boot), it's no wonder I am pleased that Mark Waid decided to say, "to hell with that!", and bring the character back into the mythos. Sharon gets some much needed additional character as a former POW who is now the Dana Skully skeptic to the patriotic Captain America's Fox Mulder.
Also the Red Skull and the cosmic cube are once again on hand, but with a new and interesting twist. This time around the Skull needs the Captain's help to stop an alternate reality from coming to fruition by the current wielder of the cosmic cube, the Skull's former partner The Hate Monger, who is in fact a clone of Adolf Hitler!! My fellow Fanhole, Mike Priest, likes to refer to the trope of a hero and their arch nemesis teaming up against a significantly greater threat as "rival fusion." Here we have some truly awesome rival fusion going on as Cap and the Skull team-up to stop Hitler inside a Cosmic Cube!
All in all, a great book that undoes some poor choices of writer's past, while adding some clever twists and turns to some classic and familiar iconography of Captain America.
1. Captain America v1 #332-350
by Mark Gruenwald, Kieron Dwyer and Tom Morgan
"Baptism of Fire"
"The Search for Steve Rogers"
"The Long Road Back"
"America the Scorched!"
"The Snake Pit"
"Don't Tread On Me"
"Out of Commission"
This groundbreaking 18 issue storyline in Captain America is known today as "Captain America No More!" The events of this story involve Captain America being forced to turn over his costume and shield to a bureaucratic task force calling themselves The Commission.
The last thing the Commission expected Steve Rogers to do was not play ball with them. However, this doesn't impede them from finding a replacement for Captain America in the form of a current rival of Cap's who calls himself The Super Patriot. The Patriot is actually a enlisted man named John Walker from the fictional town of Custer's Grove, Georgia.
Soon the arduous process of trying to live up to the legend that Steve Rogers laid down begins. Walker already had enhanced augmentation of strength as the Super Patriot. In fact he was actually much stronger in terms of sheer physical power and had bested Rogers in a one-on-one fight not too long ago.
However, the skills Walker needed to be Captain America were far from honed. A clever and believable way to train Walker in the ways of Shield Slinging was to hire the criminal trainer who calls himself the Taskmaster. The Taskmaster's "photographic reflexes" as he calls them, enable him to perfectly replicate any movement he's scene even once!
In my opinion John Walker is a far better and more fleshed out character than other usurper characters that followed him, such as Jean Paul Valley in the Batman titles. In the early issues Walker tries his best to do what he feels is right, while attempting to live up to the high moral standards and skills that Steve Rogers put into place and implemented on a daily basis.
While the Commission would not let him take all of his buddies from the
Bold Urban Commandos along for the ride, Walker at least got one of them accepted. Lemar Hoskins, who would eventually go by the moniker Battlestar, was one of the friends allowed to join him as the new Captain America's partner.
Meanwhile Steve Rogers is located by his own good friends (Nomad, Falcon and D-Man) and adopts a new crime-fighting identity, calling himself The Captain. After Steve's relationship with Tony Stark is strained, The Black Panther makes him a shield from pure Vibranium so he does not have to use the Adamantium replacement Stark had crafted for him. Rogers tends to find fighting the good fight without all the automatic trust or security credentials of Captain America is just as big a struggle as Walker is having living up to his ideals.
Next, the disgruntled Bold Urban Commandos, now calling themselves Left-Winger and Right-Winger, reveal that the new Captain America's real identity is that of John Walker of Custer's Grove, Georgia. Because of their careless revelation, Walker's parents are kidnapped by the militant organization called the Watchdogs. They seek revenge against Walker for shutting down their official branch in Custer's Grove as Captain America.
The intended turning point for Walker comes after his parents are brutally gunned down by the Watchdogs. This single act informs all of Walker's decisions for the remainder of the piece. He is no longer interested in any ideals or standards after having his whole world taken away from him,
In terms of motivation, I'm sure that while I can totally relate to Walker's blind rage, the author also had in mind something that tarnished the original Captain America's ideals. But, if you've come to know me from my videos or writing, you can probably guess that I'm not shedding any tears for those that deserve it.
Though after his parent's death Walker starts to lose his marbles a bit and is portrayed as a drooling lunatic. He goes after his old buddies that betrayed his secret identity to the world next. Walker also blames them for his parents deaths.
"Vengeance!" has a pretty terrific fight and was actually one of the earliest issues of Captain America I ever read. Even though their deaths were later retconned as simply having third degree burns, Walker leaving the two bumbling nimrods behind can be both an awesome and chilling sight all at the same time.
At this point things were ripe for a confrontation between Steve Rogers and John Walker. The Captain and the new Captain America eventually come to blows due to the machinations of one John Smith. Smith in appearance looked exactly like Steve Rogers and was revealed to be behind the Watchdogs and even the Commission itself. Smith tells Rogers that he is the Red Skull in a clone body based on his own, but The Captain is not convinced. However, Walker is convinced by Smith that he is the actual Steve Rogers. This goads Walker into a confrontation with the real Rogers.
Ultimately The Captain wins the rematch with the former Super Patriot.
Just when it looks like Smith will activate his deadly red dust to disfigure Roger's face, Walker steps in at the last minute flinging his shield. This turns the dust cloud back on Smith, finally making his face physically disfigured to match the mask of the Red Skull. Where I might complain about something like the "Hulk-Goblin" in lieu of a mask, I think the Red Skull's visage being part of his physical makeup rather than a mask is an inspired change to the character.
What's really nice about this story is that it's a true deconstruction of the concept and character. It presents interesting ideas from a single writer who turns certain concepts on their heads, but it doesn't forget to rebuild the concept after it has been put through the wringer. Despite Rogers initial protestations, Walker even convinces him to take back the mantle of Captain America when all is said and done. Again, these were some of the earliest Captain America comics I ever read and I truly believe they still hold up after all these years.