Now’s as good a time as any to look back on a triumphant Captain America story
By Don Alsafi. One of the strangest things about Secret Empire and the (still going!) HydraCap story is how shocked Marvel seemingly was by the adverse reaction from the readership at large. Somehow they completely failed to remember that Captain America is a hero to many, and one of almost mythic quality. Like DC’s Superman, he, more than any other Marvel character, represents hope and strength and the belief in a better world, and the idea that every one of us can – and should – stand up and make a difference. Taking away one of comics’ most potent symbols, and replacing him with a version where those ideals have been perverted, was a terribly wrongheaded idea. (Especially in a story that, when all is said and done, will have taken a year and a half to play out.)
So it was with great cheer that we greeted the news out of San Diego Comic Con this past weekend that the new Captain America comic will be helmed by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee! Waid is one of the best writers Cap has ever had, with two separate celebrated runs on the character, and Samnee’s visuals should make him a perfect choice to illustrate those stories.
But, for the moment, Secret Empire and its various tie-ins still dominate the Marvel landscape. And since we have zero interest in looking back in on that disaster since its appalling launch, why don’t we do something different? Let’s have a retro-review instead, and check out when Marvel most famously brought Captain America back to the fold, way back in 1964…
Written by Stan Lee.
Art by Jack Kirby.
Letters by Art Simek.
A character with history. As a caption informs readers on the very first page, Lee and Kirby both had a rich history with Captain America dating back to their earliest years in comics. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created the character in 1940, and quickly sold the concept to Marvel’s Golden Age precursor, Timely Comics. Stan Lee, similarly, made his comic writing debut in a two-page text story in Captain America Comics #3 just a few months later — so for them to bring this character back to comics really did complete the circle.
Interestingly enough, this was not the first time they had tried to bring the character back! Cap’s popularity had waned after World War II, but Atlas Comics (as Marvel was then known in the 1950s) exhumed the character in 1953 as “Captain America… Commie Smasher!” (It didn’t last.) In 1963, Fantastic Four hothead Johnny Storm was shocked to encounter Captain America in Strange Tales #114 – although, in the end, it turned out to be no more than a disguise for Torch baddie The Acrobat. A closing caption in that story asked readers to write in if they wanted Cap back for real – and respond they did!
No longer on ice. So The Avengers #4 opens in the direct aftermath of the previous issue, when this still-new team fought the combined might of the Hulk (founding Avenger in issue #1, left the team in issue #2) and Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Namor is still in a foul mood from the emotional whiplash of having been reunited with the rest of his long-lost Atlantean race in Fantastic Four Annual #1, only to just as quickly have lost them again. So when he, in his wanderings, comes across a group of Eskimos worshipping a frozen figure in a block of ice, he does what’s typical for him at this time in his life: He throws a tantrum, yells a lot, and hurls the block of ice into the sea. Before long, the ice reaches warmer climes and begins to melt – whereupon the now-thawed figure of Captain America is picked up by the Avengers, who instantly recognize the wartime legend!
A complicated Cap for a complicated era. The idea of bringing back Cap must have been on Stan Lee’s mind for a while. After all, the three biggest heroes of the Timely age were Captain America, the (android) Human Torch, and the Sub-Mariner. Stan & Jack had repurposed the idea of a Human Torch when launching The Fantastic Four in August of 1961, and had brought back the Sub-Mariner in FF #4, just a few months later. But he wasn’t so sure about Cap.
In a radio interview on WBAI, Stan noted that in 1964 “the country wasn’t in the mood for that kind of patriotism,” that “there was a lot of disenchantment with the government and with the establishment.” Instead, he had the genius to return Steve Rogers as a complex and nuanced character, much like the other 1960s Marvel characters who had already proven such a hit. By having him Rip Van Winkle his way from the end of World War II to the then-modern age, Stan could cast Rogers as both a beloved war hero and a fish-out-of-water, lost and confused by the modern 1960s world he saw around him. And if that weren’t enough, by revealing that Cap’s teenage sidekick Bucky Barnes had been killed during their final WWII adventure, Stan gifted Cap with a bit of pathos and tragedy to haunt him from the past.
Violent vegetables and heroes returned. Strangely, for being such a key issue in comics history, the bits that aren’t directly involved with the return of Cap are slightly off-note. When the Avengers return to New York from their ocean voyage, they’re immediately turned to stone. The culprit turns out to be a space alien – disguised, of course, with a ludicrously implausible rubber mask, and whose Kirby-designed features are so bizarre that fans have sometimes referred to the one-off character as Broccoli Head, or one of the Asparagus People. Once the Avengers have been returned to flesh, they’re immediately drawn into a six-page fight with the Sub-Mariner. Which might not have been so bad, if they hadn’t just fought him in the previous issue!
Where this comic excels, though, is with everything involving Cap’s return to the modern world. With the Avengers temporarily incapacitated, Cap is left to wander New York City, lost and alone. He passes the United Nations building, with its flags of the world flying, and wonders what it might be. He marvels at the smaller cars and the wonder of television. And a policeman, recognizing Captain America from when he was a boy, weeps openly upon meeting a legend.
An undeniable classic. The Avengers #4 may be the second most important comic book of the Marvel Silver Age, deferring only to The Fantastic Four #1. The Avengers had been around for three issues thus far, but only with the introduction of Captain America to their ranks did they finally gel, having gained the iconic leader they’d previously lacked. In fact, he instantly became so vital to the team that he’s been retroactively considered a founding member ever since! Countless Avengers have come and gone over the decades since, but precious few lineups haven’t included Cap – and for good reason.
This November, the Captain America we know and love will be coming back to comics, courtesy of what sounds like the absolute pitch-perfect creative pairing. Hopefully, by then, we can all pretend this Secret Empire nonsense was just a bad dream…
9 out of 10
How well do you remember ‘The Avengers’ #4? Sound off in the comments section below.