09th Jul2021

‘Captain America: The First 80 Years’ Review (Titan Comics)

by Dean Fuller

Written by Various | Art by Various | Published by Titan Comics

I’ve said it many times in various reviews, but I’ve been a huge Captain America fan for over 40 years. Superman has always been my favourite character, but Captain America is a close second. I think it was growing up as a fan of American pop culture in general. You don’t get more American than Superman and Captain America, right? I’ve always had a love as well of comics history, of characters that connect the present to the past, and Cap is comic book royalty. Created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon back in 1941,he’s been a Timely and Marvel Comics mainstay ever since, albeit with a brief rest in the 1950’s when unless you were a western, true crime, or romance character, you were surplus to requirements. So, what makes Cap tick? What’s made him who he is? Let’s take a look.

With these Titan collections, the first thing you always notice is the quality of the book. It’s always superbly designed and laid out, with well chosen high quality illustrations and well written text throughout. This is no exception. Beautiful to look at. In terms of content, they kept it simple. Seven main chapters, all divided into each decade of Cap’s publishing history, from his start at the beginning of the 1940’s, to his 80th birthday at the end of the late 2010’s. Each chapter then subdivides into the main themes or events in those decades. It’s a smart way to approach Cap’s history, as he has a lot to get through. With the recent upsurge in Cap’s popularity, after Brubaker’s superb run in the comics and Chris Evans pitch perfect portrayal on screen, Cap’s clearly go even more chapters ready to come. For now, we go back to where it all started.

So, it won’t surprise many that Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby because, with the Second World War raging away, patriotic heroes were hugely popular and selling big numbers in 1941. The 1940’s chapter does a nice job of digging into Timely at the time, quick bios of the creators, and the thinking behind what Captain America was and what he represented. There’s lovely original art from the time as well. A very rich, though a little dated to modern eyes, time in Cap’s history. By contrast the following chapter, the 1950’s, details a low point, as patriotism and superheroes fell away, replaced by consumerism, westerns, romance, and true crime. Stan Lee did try to revive Cap as a communist fighting government stooge but it never really worked and Cap was quietly retired again.

Cue the swinging Sixties, and Marvel Comics are the new big thing. 1964 saw the classic The Avengers #4, as The Avengers find Steve Rogers frozen in ice, seemingly having been there from the end of the war. The Commie fighting Cap is later retconned as someone else entirely. The 1960’s was overall a high creative point for Captain America, paired as he was initially in Tales of Suspense with Iron Man, and blessed with some fine writers and artists. New villains appeared, old ones were dusted off, and Cap became a fully integrated Marvel hero of the day, taking over as leader of The Avengers and essentially Marvel’s Superman in terms of respect and senior status. Interestingly, though, as we slip into the early 1970’s, Cap becomes more and more caught up, story wise, in the politics of the time. He gains a black partner, The Falcon, and has to try and find his place in this new society. Who is he now? What does he represent?

The 1970’s saw a lot of developments for Cap, from Stan handing over the writing to Jack Kirby returning to his creation with a breathtakingly nuts run that was every bit as visually incredible as you would expect. The new, younger writers didn’t hide Cap’s patriotism, they had him embrace it, they redefined Cap by showing us he stood for the American dream, not the American government. At a time of Vietnam, civil unrest, race riots, Nixon and Watergate, this was an important distinction to make. Steve Englehart’s run especially is superb, one of my favourites in comics, which ends with Steve Rogers giving up his identity as Cap to try and find himself. You don’t get more 70’s than that. Kirby pulled back from the politics with his run, his writing very much second fiddle to the art. It’s a Cap era that was never dull.

Ah, the 1980’s, my favourite era in comics bar none. Cap was never better, with the almost legendary Roger Stern and John Byrne run kicking off the decade. J.M DeMatteis followed, producing an incredible run, much of it with Mike Zeck and Paul Neary, handing on to Mark Gruenwald who wrote the book for over ten years. It was a character he loved, and it showed. It didn’t always work, and Gruenwald did recycle some older themes from Englehart’s run especially, but it pure superheroics and a lot of fun. It also saw the introduction of John Walker, U.S Agent and initial Cap replacement. Gruenwald’s run ended in the mid 1990’s, ending a storyline that had seen Cap’s super soldier serum fail and him reduced to wearing an exo-skeleton. Gruenwald’s later issues weren’t the strongest, and Cap was starting to drift back to B character status, especially with the challenge from Image Comics and the rise of the violent anti-hero.

The shield was picked up by Mark Waid and Ron Garney, who again managed to deliver an outstanding run, staying true to the spirit of the character. The 1990’s though were a period of upheaval for Marvel, and so it was for Cap. He was a part of the ill fated Heroes Reborn, with a badly received reboot from Jeph Loeb and Rob Liefeld, before sanity was restored with a return by Waid and Garney. The 2000’s saw a drift into darker, more mature storytelling, the world seeming a darker place after 9/11. Cap’s Marvel Knights book was very good, with John Cassaday redefining a classic costume. Then we saw Cap at the centre of all the things that have shown up on the big screen. Civil War. The return of Bucky as The Winter Soldier. The death of Captain America. The passing of the shield to first Bucky, then Sam Wilson. The more gung-ho Ultimates version of Captain America. Coherent? Rarely. Entertaining? Always.

This anniversary special was a wonderful walk down memory lane. A pleasure to read, gorgeous to look at, and worthy of a place on any serious collectors bookshelf. I had genuinely forgotten just how much creative juice has been used on the character. A patriotic darling in the 1940’s but disliked by the counter-culture generation in the early 1970’s, representative of solid American values one minute yet old fashioned and hokey the next. Steve Rogers has seen and been it all.

Life begins at 80 it seems, if you are an evergreen super-soldier. May there be many more decades to come.

***** 5/5

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