by Robert Greenberger
The Cosmic Cube, M.O.D.O.K., Agent 13, the Sleepers, Doctor Faustus, Batroc, Lady Viper, the Super-Adaptoid. Today, these are all very familiar names and concepts, but when they first appeared in Captain America’s life they arrived during one of the star-spangled avenger’s most fertile and creative periods. Now, Marvel is collecting Tales of Suspense #59-99, Captain America #100-113 and Not Brand Ecch #3 in the mammoth 856-page Captain America Omnibus.
In 1963, Stan Lee tried out the notion of reviving Captain America by having the Acrobat masquerade as the hero, battling the Human Torch in Strange Tales #114. The issue ended with a request for fans to write in and indicate if they wanted the real soldier back on duty. I suspect Stan was ready to revive the World War II legend regardless of the mail response and Cap exploded on the classic cover to The Avengers #4 in 1964. Within six months, he was given a berth in Tales of Suspense and never looked back.
Of course, his co-creator, Jack Kirby, was going to draw the stories but it was also clear from the outset that Stan wasn’t sure what to do with the adventurer. He solved the dilemma by retelling his origins in TOS #63 and then devoted the next nine chapters to telling stories set in World War II. Not only did this allow some judicious recycling from Captain America Comics, but it also allowed him to have some fun without worrying about supporting characters, building up a rogues gallery, or fitting the stories around Cap’s work in The Avengers.
Something finally clicked, it seems, because as one adventure ends, the following month we see Cap sitting and finishing its retelling to his teammates. It was this sequence that was my introduction to the hero during the limited animation Marvel Super Heroes television series and will remain an indelible image. This was the seminal tale that not only brought the Red Skull into the modern Marvel Universe but gave us the mechanical threat known as the Sleepers. Suddenly, Stan and Jack were clicking. At the same time, though, Jack’s time was getting limited so he cut back to laying out the stories for others, which was still fine. This allowed George Tuska to make his return to the company and he stayed around for a while only to be replaced for a few issues by another vet named John Romita. It wasn’t long after that we met Batroc the Leaper and Sharon Carter, the enigmatic Agent 13 whose older sister Peggy was Cap’s lover during the war (she has been retconned into her elderly Aunt). No sooner does Jack come back to fulltime pencils than he gains co-plot credit and things get amped up as AIM arrives to construct the first Cosmic Cube and then create M.O.D.O.K.
By this time, Marvel was watching their sales grow exponentially and as the end of the distribution agreement with Independent News that both saved and hampered them, publisher Martin Goodman violated the agreement with abandon. He broke the limitations once and for all in 1968 by awarding his tiered heroes their own monthly titles. In Cap’s case, he remained where he was as TOS morphed into Captain America with issue #100. Stan and Jack also stuck around and the storyline was concluded here along with a recap origin.
Once again, though, Stan seemed stumped as to what to do with the pages so vamped for a bit, although he did give us Doctor Faustus with issue #107. Two months later, Kirby withdrew from the series but not before giving us a book-length powerful origin tale.
A new era started with issue #109 as Jim Steranko arrived and seemed to reinvigorate Stan. First came a clash with the Hulk, as they fought over Rick Jones, now dressed as Bucky, Cap’s former sidekick. Then came Lady Viper and Hydra, killing Cap, allowing her to gas Nick Fury and the Avengers at his funeral. Readers were left with breathless anticipation as the slow artist forced Kirby back for a place-keeping fill-in before the dramatic conclusion which closes out the volume.
Some of Kirby’s finest action art is found in these pages along with dramatic tales from Gil Kane, Tuska, and Romita before we get to Steranko. Stan wrote all but one of the stories here, with Roy Thomas handling the sole fill-in TOS tale. The stories, concepts, and characters here are well worth revisiting.