So, I’ve been reading Captain America recently — not the new stuff (I hear Ed Brubaker has a good run going, but I haven’t looked at it myself), but the old, old stuff, back when Marvel was still called Timely. These are Cap’s first appearances, as the character was originally created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.
I should say right off the bat that I’m a Jack Kirby man all the way. The King has a huge rep, and he deserved every bit of it. He was a creative giant the likes of which the comics industry has rarely seen.
But in all honesty, looking at this stuff, you can’t see it, and no wonder: it was published in 1941, two decades before Fantastic Four #1 hit the stands — that’s two decades of practice Kirby got in. Sure, unlike most patriotic heroes of the time, Cap stuck and stuck hard, but just the same, the compositions aren’t particularly interesting, and the storylines are inane… except in comparison to most everything else that was published at the time.
Perhaps the most striking difference to Kirby’s later work is that whereas in his prime he always had amazing flow, here in his early work the pacing is clumsy and it’s often unobvious which panel you should be reading next. (Not that it’s clear which of the pair did what — Kirby himself later said “we both did everything” of their Captain America run. The way the book looks, that’s not hard to believe.)
I’m not saying that it’s ugly work. It has its moments. I know it made a notable impact at the time, but compared to, say, the beutiful serialized work Alex Raymond had already done over half a decade earlier in Flash Gordon (or in Secret Agent X-9, for that matter), Captain America was hardly cutting edge in the grand scheme of things. It’s undoubtedly the thing Simon is best remembered for, but for Kirby, it was really just a very small indication of what he would go on to accomplish in his creative prime.
Also, this shit is funny as hell. I mean, yeah, okay, it’s not particularly hard or useful, making fun of old comics, and I do have a great deal of love for them… but funny’s funny.
Take Bucky Barnes, surely one of the most classic sidekicks of all time. Listening to Cap speak of Bucky these days, he gives a consistent impression of a noble, brave, strong and able young man, brutally taken from us before his prime.
But Cap’s full of shit. In these first stories, he himself constantly refers to Bucky as a rascal. Three panels after their first encounter he considers handing the nosy little twit a beatdown, and subsequently Cap constantly tries to leave Bucky behind. And no wonder: the boy’s dumber than a sack of retarded hammers. Seriously, his primary mission in life is to sass Nazis and then get caught so he can be rescued by the Captain. For example, Bucky’s just hangin’ in the military camp, reading comic books, when a big bald guy shows up…
Yeah, that’s not suspicious or nothing, vhat mit der accent and all. In a shocking twist, this is actually a trap. Again, continuity is a joke: Bucky (who’s not even a soldier but an underage Army mascot) isn’t dressed up as Bucky, he’s just some kid in an army camp, and there’s no indication how the Ratzis know his secret identity (and, for that matter, why they don’t just take care of Cap right away if they do know the big secret, instead of luring Bucky into a trap in order to lure Captain America into a trap).
On the other hand, in Captain America Comics #1 we also meet Betty Ross, “a beautiful and familiar girl” who is also investigating a case involving evil fifth columnists. Familiar to who? Got me, this is the first time we meet her, and she introduces herself to the Captain, making clear that they haven’t met, either.
The next time we meet Betty is in the next issue, where she runs afoul of giant yellow guys who are monsters and strangle people. Yeah, it’s real subtle storytelling. (They’re not Japanese, though; as it turns out, they’re “Orientals” from Tibet, and they can only be killed with loud bangs, but not with anything else. Oh, except gunshots won’t do, because they’re not loud bangs. Or something.) She doesn’t really do anything except make fun of Steve Rogers and point out that if he was more like Captain America, he’d be a good soldier. Ha ha, joke’s on you, Betty!
Okay, but then it gets weird, because all of a sudden Hitler ain’t nothing — in Captain America #4 it’s the Russkies who’re a problem: the epic “Captain America and Ivan the Terrible” makes this much clear. It’s also fucking weird stuff, because this far Cap’s been mostly fighting fifth columnists in America, even if he took a little detour to Europe. In drag. Uh, more on that later, let’s get this Betty thing out of the way first.
So. Uh, Ivan the Terrible. They’re in Siberia, now, where Ivan has stolen “the kingdom” by force. He’s an evil guy who holds court in a fair and civilized manner, as you can see.
I love the look on his face when he yells, “THROW HIM TO THE WOLVES! Next case!” Ivan don’t shiv. Anyway, Betty Ross shows up, as you can see. Only now she’s, uh, a princess or something, because apparently Ivan stole the throne from her father. In Siberia. His name is King Peter Ross, a traditional Siberian name. Anyway, Ivan gives her the chance to become his bride, and Betty tells him that she don’t want no scrub. Ivan throws another hissy fit and throws her in the dungeons where “her beauty may rot forever”.
So, Captain American and Bucky show up. They’ve been arrested on suspicion of being spies. (“Their clothes are peculiar,” points out Ivan’s majordomo.) Bucky sasses Ivan. Cap points out that he may dress funny, but at least he’s a MAN. Ivan tries to shank him, but Cap beats him up. Then Cap and Bucky get thrown in the dungeon, where they meet Princess Betty, escape the their cell, and escape from the castle.
Look! A picture of a Siberian castle. It’s got a drawbridge. AND SHARKS. I love it.
So then, essentially, they go back to the castle, beat the shit out of Ivan, who surrenders and everyone loves them. And then Bucky wakes up and it was all a dream. No shit. That’s life back in WW2 for you.
Oh, and then there’s the Red Skull. There’s a classic bad guy if I ever saw one. (This is his first appearance, even if he isn’t the real deal — such is the way of the retcon, but never mind that now.) The Red Skull sends boxes with red skulls and warnings in them to various ranking military figures, who then ignore the warning and get killed by the Skull, who first strangles them and stares them to death — OR SO IT SEEMS.
The Skull gets interrupted during one such murder by the dead General’s wife, who charges in with a gun. Then, presumably because she’s a foolish female who’s about to give birth or whip up a roast or possibly suffer from some ailment the fairer sex is particular to, she tosses the gun away and goes to pieces over her dead husband. Okay, fair enough. But then she screams that the Skull will pay for this.
Yeah, good thing you got rid of that gun there, ma’am.
Anyway, Cap busts in and busts up the Skull, and then discovers that the Skull didn’t kill anyone with his evil stare; he, in fact, palmed a hypodermic syringe and injected some ill shit into his poor victims. Clever! MYSTERY SOLVED! Never mind that before this moment no one had actually witnessed one of these murders, so no one even knew about this supposed secret Nazi stare of death.
However, this is where we find out that Captain America’s a stone cold badass:
That’s pretty much it — except I promised I’d get back to that whole drag thing, didn’t I? Honestly, I could explain this whole thing in more detail, but, really, why bother? I’m just gonna let the pictures speak for themselves, here. There’s nothing I can add that wouldn’t detract from the absolute beauty of Captain America taking the battle to the enemies of freedom beyond the borders of his native land, for the first time ever:
Aw shucks indeed, Bucky.
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