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Top 5 Captain America Graphic Novels You Can Actually Buy (Sometimes), Read, And Enjoy!

Longbox Graveyard #5

I love Captain America.

But I hate Captain America comic books.

“Hate” may be too strong a word, but I was going through the Captain America comics in The Accumulation … and God Bless America, what a pile of crap!

In the Bronze Age, at least, Captain America (or “Cap,” to his pals) was at his best in books other than his own. Bring Cap on stage just long enough to shout “Avengers Assemble!”, toss his shield into a pile of mooks, and make some patriotic allusion to Bunker Hill, and Captain America was great! Grind it out twenty-odd pages a month with Cap carping about how he couldn’t save Bucky and sweating over his freelance artist career and … eh, not so much.

Captain America — immortal symbol, vacuous character. American Dream or Ugly American? The answer is both or neither, depending on your decade. The 1970-1985 era that forms the bulk of the Longbox Graveyard collection were lean times for Captain America. If you want to read decent Cap stories, you have to adjust your Wayback Machine by plus or minus twenty years.

Circa 1974, though, I was stuck with the Captain America I could find at the newsstand, and because I loved the character I still have a pile of old Cap books. Few have made it from The Accumulation to the Collection. I am keeping Captain America #177, as it is the first comic I ever bought, but it’s part of a badly dated storyline where Cap has given up his identity in a fit of Watergate angst, and I’m not interested in the rest of the run.

get a grip, Winghead!

I’m keeping several issues from Jack Kirby‘s return to the book in 1976-1977 (and filling in blanks with moderately-priced back-issues), but that is a pure nostalgia play, and to be honest I didn’t much like that run when I read it at age fourteen — Kirby was corny and I hadn’t developed the eye or the ear to appreciate his idiosyncratic brand of four-color mayhem. I’ve also rescued a brief John Byrne run from #247-#255 that isn’t especially distinguished except when compared to the absolute dreck that plagued this book in the seventies and eighties.

For a normal review here at Longbox Graveyard, I’d read my rescued issues, assign them a letter grade, and meticulously obsess over some tangential issue in the form of a “review.” While I might do that in the future with these books, I haven’t had time to do it yet. But with the Captain America movie out this week, I have a rare chance to be topical with this blog, so in the interest of pointing my regular readers toward the “good stuff” (and as an unsolicited benefit for the degenerate audience I linkbaited with the promise of seeing CHRIS EVANS NAKED!), in reverse order I offer my …

Top 5 Captain America Graphic Novels You Can Actually Buy (Sometimes), Read, And Enjoy!

#5: Golden Age Captain America Masterworks Vol. 1 HC (Collects Captain America Comics 1940 #1-4)

Actually I don’t suggest you buy this at all. It’s expensive even when you can find it, and 1940s-era strips are strictly for completists and historians (and if you find an original Golden Age Captain America comic in a garage sale some place, it’s worthless — mail it to me and I will destroy it for you). But you have to start these lists someplace, so this one gets to lead off. Enjoy the cover image of Cap punching Hitler, then go read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay to understand why it was so important.

#4: Captain America by Jack Kirby Omnibus HC (Collects Captain America Vol. 1 #193-214)

This volume collects some of the Captain America comics I actually own, and it is a goofball run indeed, with Jack Kirby run amok during his return to Marvel, enjoying unfettered control of the character he helped to create in a series of stories that are totally out-of-step with the rest of the Marvel line in 1976-1977. It really is like these books come from a different planet — Madbombs, Kill-Derbys, Night People, monsters and Bio-Fanatics. It’s second-rate Kirby but that makes it first-rate fun if you don’t require a serious help of Seriousness to enjoy your funnybooks. Just go with it.

(Click HERE for an in-depth Longbox Graveyard look at this volume).

#3: Avengers: The Korvac Saga HC (Collects Avengers #167-168 and #170-177)

This is kind of a cheat, but if you want to see Captain America at his best in the 1970s, you have to read him in the Avengers. The Korvac story isn’t my favorite Avengers run, but it gets the nod for featuring at least a few issues of art from George Perez, who was the definitive Avengers artist of the 1970s (and he drew a good-looking Cap). For 1970s Avengers Cap I prefer Avengers #160-166 (where we get John Byrne in addition to George Perez) but those issues don’t appear to have been collected anywhere, so this Korvac story will have to serve.

#2: Captain America Omnibus Vol. 1 HC (Collects Tales of Suspense #59-99 and Captain America Vol. 1 #101-113)

These are the classic Silver Age Marvel stories — primarily by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby — that bring Cap into the Marvel Universe following the character’s reintroduction in the pages of the Avengers. As Lee and Kirby stories go, they are definitely inferior to Fantastic Four and probably not as good as Thor, but there’s still plenty of good reading here, and in this run you get all the classic bits of the Captain America mythos — Red Skull, S.H.I.E.L.D., Sleepers, The Cosmic Cube, the works. Don’t try to read more than three or four issues in a single sitting or you will lose your mind. You also get the brief-but-iconic Jim Steranko run here.

Keep in mind this Silver Age volume is distinct from the top entry on my list, despite having a near-identical title …

#1: Captain America Omnibus, Vol. 1 (Collects Captain America Vol. 5 #1-25)

Ed Brubaker’s Captain America stories are the definitive take on my favorite superhero. Full Stop.

It’s hard for a Bronze Age geezer like me to admit it, but these confounded modern comics are the ones to read if you want the best Captain America out there. After jerking around with the character through a series of reboots and restarts (you’ll notice I don’t recommend anything from volumes 2-4 of this series), Marvel gets it right by handing the reins to crime fiction comics writer Ed Brubaker and just getting out the way as Brubaker mines Cap’s rich past with a series of stories that are modern, fast-paced, and brilliantly told. There’s a bit of backstory to sort through here but it’s not as bad as most modern books and I’ll bet a first time reader can jump in with only a minimum of disorientation. This run is also available as a series of shorter and cheaper trade paperbacks, but you will want them all, so get this nice Omnibus edition … and prepare to keep paying for collections, too, as Mr. Brubaker’s tenure on Cap runs for fifty more issues past this volume.

(Click HERE for an in-depth Longbox Graveyard look at this volume).

NEXT WEEK: #6 Buy Crom!

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on July 20, 2011, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. Paul,

    For the most part, I’m forced to agree.

    My first Captain America comic – and one of my first comics – was #201 (“The Night People!”). The issues around this time are OK. No standouts. Nothing except the dynamic Kirby covers. Much of what followed was kinda “blah” as well.

    The exception is the Roger Stern/John Bryne collaboration (#247-#255) which you mention. I have an acute fondness for these issues. Cap for President! Baron Blood! The retold origin story taken straight from Byrne’s pencils (no inks)! Great stuff here! If I’m compiling a collection of Byrne’s greatest hits, this all too brief run gets represented.

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    • I filled in that 1976 Jack Kirby run on Cap with some back-issues at Comic-Con this year and plan to read and review them for a blog in October (when this summer’s Cap movie comes out on DVD). Not sure what to expect, really, been a long time since I looked at those books.

      Pretty much anything Byrne touched at Marvel in the seventies was golden. When I was sorting the Accumulation, I found my keep pile was thick with Byrne’s stuff, and not just X-Men — Avengers, Hulk, Cap, of course his long run on Fantastic Four (though that was from the 1980s). I have a bunch of his Alpha Flight and Power Man/Iron Fist stuff, too that I will probably keep. That Byrne/Terry Austin look in the 70s was just head-and-shoulders above anything else on offer in that era — when you opened a book and saw those two names on the masthead you had an instant sense of quality and knew you were in good hands. Byrne was the anti-Sal Buscema.

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  2. John Byrne, the anti-Sal Buscema? Holy crap, Paul! How do you really feel about, Sal? LOL! Sal has penciled a TON of books going back to the late Silver Age. How many? I don’t know. I’ve always seen him as a solid story teller. What are his standout issues? I actually love his pencils on Avengers #156, #158 and #159 when he subbed for George Perez. Granted, my views are colored by my nostalgia.

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    • I probably shouldn’t pick on Sal — he was a pro’s pro and a big part of that steady, reliable house style that Marvel milled out every month through the 70s and 80s. But his work really is a mayonnaise sandwich. I just finished reading the Steve Gerber run of Defenders, which is all-Sal, all the time, and he’s only as good as his inker (which means the Klaus Janson issues are pretty decent).

      Sal uses the same poses again and again, never does anything inventive with his page layouts, and everyone has the same damn face. Sal’s pencils are consistent and I doubt he ever missed a deadline but really, was anyone ever excited for one of his books by virtue of the art alone?

      Byrne also drew everyone with the same damn face — wide-jawed and dimpled — but his action was more dynamic, his anatomy more detailed, and he could be bothered to draw a background (which didn’t seem to hold much interest for either Buscema brother). In his way, Byrne was just as much of a factory as Sal, but seeing his name on the masthead always raised (rather than lowered) my expectations about the book, which makes him … the Anti-Sal!

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  3. The Sleeper stories slayed me, though I have to agree on your Brubaker take. Personally hated the Kirby run, but personally I loved the Stan/Jack team (“This Man, This Monster” – Yeah!)

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    • Kirby’s Tales of Suspense run for Cap is second-rate Kirby (but you can guess where I rank second-rate Kirby versus first-rate everyone-else).

      I recently filled in my missing numbers from Kirby’s deeply weird 1976 return to Cap. I had intended to review them in concert with the release of the Cap movie DVD this week but bumped it in favor of my Halloween-themed Tomb of Dracula review. I’ll get around to them sooner or later.

      And this will imperil my Kirby card … but … I re-read “This Man This Monster” last week as a candidate for my next Top Single Issue Stories column and came away a little disappointed. I would have liked it more if the genuine Ben Grimm (instead of the impostor) were more at the center of the story. It is a universally well-regarded tale, though, so what do I know? Plus I have a tin ear for the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, generally, among the Marvel icons — like ’em, but don’t love ’em.

      Still … if I ever do a shit-disturbing “Overrated Comics” list I expect I’ll throw that one on it. Flame bait!

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  4. I’m currently making my way through your archives…don’t worry, I won’t be commenting on every entry, just the ones where I think I have something to say 🙂

    So, you’re not a fan of Englehart’s “Secret Empire” run on Cap? I liked it overall (though when I first read it, I didn’t get that “Number One” was supposed to be Nixon…I guess being too young (and Canadian!) it didn’t really register.)

    I agree about the Brubaker run and the Korvac Saga…I got the final chapter of the Korvac story when I was a kid and loved it, but it was years before I read all the issues leading up to it.

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    • Don’t worry about commenting too frequently — I love it!

      I respect the Secret Empire story, but I don’t especially like it. Since writing that general post on Cap, I actually went on to review that very run (in fact it was my contribution to the first Super-Blog Team-Up). You can read my thoughts on Cap vs. Nixon here.

      Most of my problem with this era was the art. I’ve never thought Sal Buscema more than functional, and this run gives way to some truly dire Frank Springer art near the end. Not good.

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  5. So basically you don’t really like anything but the Brubaker. Why make a list at all? Read the Stern and Waid and THEN make a list. This is really stupid, dude.

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    • Fred, Fred, Fred … I’ve read comics since 1974. I’ve read Waid and Stern both (and Gruenwald, too!), but they didn’t rate my top five. (Sorry). Top Ten, for sure, but this was a Top Five.

      And I don’t know where you get the idea I don’t like anything but Brubaker. I characterize that Kirby run as “goofball,” but that’s a term of affection around here (you goofball!). Likewise I have a love/hate relationship with Silver Age comics that precludes reading more than a few of them in a sitting, but I still like and recommend that run. Which is why its on the list.

      Regardless, thanks for reading and commenting! Feel free to read and comment on the other 150+ articles on the site. You can even call them stupid, too! And tell your friends!

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