By Scott Tipton
By 1964, The Marvel Age of Comics was just getting into gear, and Marvel editor Stan Lee was looking for a way to punch up his newest superhero team book, THE AVENGERS. Having already revived Timely’s other Golden Age success, the Sub-Mariner, in the pages of FANTASTIC FOUR, it was time for lightning to strike twice, which it did, in AVENGERS #4, “Captain America Joins the Avengers!”
The story opens with a bitter, disgruntled Sub-Mariner, still nursing his wounds from the previous issue’s battle with the Hulk and the Avengers (namely Iron Man, Thor, Giant-Man and the Wasp, all previously discussed herein), coming across a band of Eskimos worshipping a mysterious figure frozen in a block of ice. As was his tendency in those days, the belligerent Sub-Mariner busts up the party, rousting the Eskimos and hurling the chunk of ice far out to sea. The floating chunk hits the gulf stream, where the warmer waters begin to melt away the ice, revealing a human figure.
The figure is spotted by the undersea craft of the Avengers, returning to New York from the aforementioned battle with the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk. Giant-Man’s oversized mitt reaches through the hatch and pulls the now-defrosted figure inside. The Avengers recognize his costume beneath the tattered shreds of his army fatigues, just before Captain America awakes, screaming his partner’s name.
After a brief skirmish with the Avengers to establish his bona fides (always a good idea inside a cramped submarine), Cap tells the tragic story of what became his final mission. While operating in Europe during WW II, Cap and Bucky were assigned to guard a new explosive-filled drone aircraft. The pilotless plane takes off, with Cap and Bucky in hot pursuit. Bucky leaps on the plane, but Cap can’t hang on, and before Bucky can reach the fuse, the plane explodes, and a horrified Cap drops into the frigid ocean below.
Eventually being frozen in an ice flow, Cap had remained in suspended animation for decades until his discovery by the Avengers. (It was later revealed that the Super-Soldier Serum kept his blood from crystallizing in his veins, allowing him to survive being frozen.)
The rest of Cap’s return issue is fairly routine stuff involving misunderstood aliens looking for a way home, but along with it comes the basis for Cap’s characterization for the next 40 years, and one that still holds up when used properly. Captain America is a man out of time, lost in a new world. In this issue we see a bewildered Cap wandering around modern New York marveling at the technology and the fashions (hopefully someone was good enough to tell him that we won the war), and wondering how he could find a place to belong.
His membership in the Avengers filled that void, and while Cap eventually adjusted to the modern world, the best Captain America writers managed to keep Cap from coming across like a fossil while still reinforcing his 1940s origins and values.
There have been several exceptionally good runs of Captain America since his return in ’64. First off, naturally, are the Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby stories in TALES OF SUSPENSE. Initially, the series focused on Cap and Bucky’s exploits in World War II, and featured frequent appearances by the Red Skull (including at long last a look at his origin: believe it or not, the Red Skull was originally Hitler’s bellboy). Later, the series shifted to the present day, and injected Cap’s adventures with a good dose of science-fiction and high-octane espionage, enlisting Cap as a freelance agent of SHIELD, and introducing the high-tech terrorists known as A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics). Not only was A.I.M. responsible for the creation of the Cosmic Cube, which could convert the holder’s very thoughts into reality, but they also revived Cap’s greatest foe, the Red Skull, who had also fallen into suspended animation due to exposure to mysterious chemical gases. Served the A.I.M. boneheads right when the Skull turned on them and swiped the Cube for himself, leading to a titanic battle with Captain America in a remote island locale. Unfortunately, for all the Skull’s grand dreams of conquest, he winds up to have some problems with short-term planning, as his command to destroy the very island beneath them in an attempt to kill Cap backfired, and he plunged into the ocean, weighted down by the heavy gold armor he had created out of pride, seemingly consigning both he and the Cosmic Cube to oblivion.
Writer Roger Stern and artist John Byrne came through with a very solid 9-issue run in 1980, in CAPTAIN AMERICA #247-255. While Stern provided some of the most consistent and historically accurate characterization for a man who grew up in the 1930s, it didn’t overwhelm the character, so Steve Rogers still seemed like a youthful, outgoing type. Byrne’s art is clear and appealing, if a little simple compared to his later work, and his storytelling is just about as good as it gets. The Stern/Byrne run introduced future Cap love interest Bernadette Rosenthal and placed an emphasis on Steve Rogers attempting to build a personal life for himself with his new career as a commercial artist. In a story that seems even more relevant than ever these days, CAPTAIN AMERICA #250 features Cap finding himself suddenly a candidate for President, and struggles with the issue of whether an unqualified man best known for beating up bad guys is really qualified to hold executive office.
Also, the Stern/Byrne run is significant as being one of the few times when we see Captain America kill an enemy, when he’s forced to put an end to the Nazi vampire Baron Blood, in a moody tale that sees a still young Cap reunited with some of his now-elderly friends from World War II.
The Stern/Byrne run was collected in CAPTAIN AMERICA: WAR AND REMEMBRANCE, and is now available again in one of Marvel’s new Epic Collections.
In 1985, Marvel editor and writer Mark Gruenwald took over the scripting on CAPTAIN AMERICA and remained for an astounding 136 issues, over 10 years on a single book; an impressive achievement by anyone’s standards. The highlight of Gruenwald’s run came with issue #332, entitled “The Choice.”
In “The Choice,” Captain America is summoned by a secret presidential commission, and informed that, since the federal government created the uniform and identity of Captain America, therefore they own the concept of Captain America, and if he wanted to continue in the role of Captain America, he had to put an end to his operations with the Avengers and SHIELD, as well as his solo operations, and report directly to them. After much deliberation, Steve Rogers refuses, citing his loyalty to the American dream and not one particular administration, and turns in his uniform and shield, giving up his life’s work as Captain America. Over the next year and a half, the commission attempts to replace Captain America, with disastrous results, while Steve Rogers searches for a way to adjust to his loss and find a new way of serving the American dream. While the “Replace the superhero with a crazy, dark version” storyline was a popular one at Marvel and DC in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Gruenwald did it first on CAP, and did the best job of it as well.
Gruenwald seriously downplayed the emphasis on Steve Rogers’ civilian life, preferring instead to emphasize his duties as Captain America as the primary motivator in Rogers’ existence. The relationship with Bernie Rosenthal, which had progressed to an engagement, was quickly dispensed with, and instead Cap entered into a flirtation, and then an uncertain relationship, with Diamondback, a reformed super-villainess whom Cap had first encountered in his battles with the Serpent Society, a team of snake-themed supervillains that was featured heavily in Gruenwald’s run.
The latter half of Gruenwald’s run was uneven, with a tendency toward hokey transformations in lieu of plotlines (“Cap becomes a werewolf/Cap becomes a teenager/Cap becomes a woman”), but the first 80 issues or so are rock-solid.
Steve Englehart’s Watergate inspired “Serpent Society” run from the mid-seventies was pretty damn inspired…especially for the time!