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Top Ten Captain America Villains

Longbox Graveyard #97

A superhero is only so great as the costumed crazies he gets to battle. The rich rogues galleries of heroes like Batman and Spider-Man undoubtably contribute to those characters’ enduring appeal. I’d even argue that someone like the Flash would unambiguously be a second-tier hero (instead of a quasi-A-lister) if he didn’t command a roster of memorable villains to call his own.

Captain America, by Jack Kirby

Captain America is definitely an A-list hero, but is this due more to his iconic costume and role in comics history, or to his collection of super-powered rivals? Read on for my list of the Top Ten Captain America Villains, and then let me know how you think Cap’s most dastardly enemies stack up!

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You Might Also Like: Top 10 Marvel Comics Characters

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10) The Grand Director

He has a complicated history, and owes his origin to a publication quirk, but the concept behind the Grand Director lets him squeak onto my list at #10.

Grand Director

Captain America has had two major publication periods — the wartime books published from 1941-1949, and the modern reintroduction of the character commencing with Avengers #4 in 1964. But in-between, Cap experienced a brief revival in the 1950s, which was not considered part of Marvel history until Steve Englehart resurrected the character for an early-1970s story, depicting him as a paranoid, ultra-patriotic double of our star-spangled hero. Driven mad by the cut-rate Super Soldier serum that gave him his powers, this forgotten Captain America became a vessel for all of America’s worst excesses in the McCarthy era of the 1950s.

Later, the character would be given a white spook suit and become the Grand Director, who is less interesting than a Red-baiting Captain America impersonator (who would be less interesting than a legitimately Red-baiting Captain America, but we can’t have everything). It’s all a bit of a muddle and serves to suppress that first awesome concept.

Continuity aside, the Grand Director is ultimately a tragic figure — a fallen hero manipulated into betraying everything he held dear by the next entry in my Top Ten List …

9) Doctor Faustus

A master of mind-control, mastermind of the neo-Nazi National Force, and the evil agent who twisted and manipulated the Grand Director for his own foul purposes, Doctor Faustus still may not have made this list but for a singular act of villainy. He does have deep roots in Cap’s history (having first appeared in Captain America #107), but with this subtle psychological powers, Dr. Faustus is little more than a second-rate Mysterio (without the groovy Steve Ditko costume).

Doctor Faustus

I don’t care if he has a monocle and an Austrian accent … Doctor Faustus is pretty lame. But he did turn Sharon Carter into an unwitting pawn in Ed Brubaker’s Death of Captain America saga, and if you can punch the ticket of your arch-nemesis, then you get on the list!

The Death of Captain America

(But he’s still a second-rate Mysterio!)

8) Baron Strucker

The first of several Nazis on this list, Baron Strucker might have been whistled up out of central casting — he has a monocle AND a Heidelberg fencing scar!

First appearing in 1964’s Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos #5, and eventually coming to lead HYDRA, Baron Strucker might more properly be considered a foe of Nick Fury and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but he’s battled Cap a time or two, and he also provides an excuse to show a bit of Steranko art, from that era when Strucker was undoubtably at his coolest.

Baron Strucker by Jim Steranko

Will Baron Strucker figure in Joss Whedon’s pending S.H.I.E.L.D. television series? The movie side of the Marvel Universe isn’t so deeply connected with World War II as the comics upon which is it based, so it seems unlikely that Strucker will appear in anything like his original form … but in a world where the Guardians of the Galaxy are getting their own movie, anything is possible! Hail HYDRA!

7) M.O.D.O.K.

This is kind of a cheat, as I don’t really think of M.O.D.O.K. as a Captain America villain. But there is no denying that the “Mental Organism Designed Only For Killing” made his debut in the pages of a Captain America story in Tales of Suspense #93-94.

M.O.D.O.K., Jack Kirby

Any list is made better by M.O.D.O.K., and so everyone’s favorite hyper-encephalotic floating acronym gets the nod (though at a lower seeding than he might otherwise command!)

6) Batroc

Batroc is definitely Captain America’s most ridiculous recurring foe (and that’s saying a lot, considering some of the names on this list), but no survey of Cap’s arch-enemies would be complete without him.

First appearing in Tales of Suspense #75, Batroc is a mercenary and a master of savate, the art of French foot fighting! That’s right, French foot fighting! Portrayed as something of a swashbuckler with his own code of honor, Batroc is more light-hearted than the Nazi psychopaths that make up most of Cap’s opposition … and no matter what his crimes, it is hard to hold a grudge against anyone with such an out-rageous Franch acc-cent, non?

Batroc the Leaper!

Maybe Marvel will sober-up the character for his pending appearance in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier film, given that UFC fighter Georges St-Pierre has been cast to play him, but to me, Batroc will always be that goofy bearded guy bouncing around in purple tights …

5) Winter Soldier

And since we’re talking about pending Captain America films, it’s time to take a look at the Winter Soldier, who checks in at #5 on my list.

For decades, the death of Captain America’s wartime partner, Bucky Barnes, was one of the third rails of comic book storytelling. Other heroes might take on the identity of Bucky, or Bucky might seemingly come back from the dead (before being unmasked as an impostor or a robot or whatever), but the original version of Bucky was dead as Caesar, and permanently so.

At least, he was until Ed Brubaker came along.

Brubaker’s Winter Soldier arc stands out among the finest in Captain America history. In the best kind of revisionist storytelling, Brubaker reveals that Bucky wasn’t killed outright in the final days of World War II when he plunged into the English Channel from an exploding rocket, but that instead his body was recovered by Soviet agents, and that Bucky became a dreaded sleeper agent assassin during the Cold War — the Winter Soldier!

The Winter Soldier

Though he would go on to become a hero commanding his own series (but not before his appearance in Winter Kills earned a spot in my list of Top Single Issue Stories), the Winter Soldier is initially a bad guy, a pawn in the Red Skull’s plan to destroy Captain America. As such, the Winter Soldier proves one of Captain America’s greatest foes, a murderously dangerous opponent who turns our hero’s heart against him. He’s a great character, and would rank higher on this list if he’d remained a villain. I’m curious to see how this character transitions to film in new summer’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier!

4) Arnim Zola

I’ve enthused about Arnim Zola in a recent Longbox Graveyard column, so I won’t go into great depth about him here. Jack Kirby’s last great contribution to the Captain America mythos is one of Cap’s weirdest foes, obsessed as he is with creating and manipulating life, and his freaky appearance is among the most bizarre in all of comics.

Arnim Zola

Like many of Cap’s great villains, this character lives on through the Marvel Captain America movie franchise, though in a substantially more conventional form. We can only hope actor Toby Jones will soon elect to transform himself into the Arnim Zola we all know and loathe …

Captain America #209, origin of Arnim Zola, Jack Kirby

3) Baron Zemo

For reasons too tedious to list (though Wikipedia is undaunted), Baron Zemo is actually two different bad guys … a Captain America foe introduced in the early days of The Avengers and Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos, and then that same character’s son, re-introduced in The Avengers decades later. To be honest, up until now I thought they were the same guy!

Baron Zemo

But maybe false memories are integral to this character. After all, he wasn’t created until 1964, but thanks to Marvel’s mania for continuity and its continual reinvention of history, Baron Zemo is responsible for one of the most heinous acts in Captain America history. No, it wasn’t that Baron Zemo was a Nazi who wore a purple bathrobe. It wasn’t even that he founded the Masters of Evil!

No … it was Baron Zemo who killed Bucky Barnes back in World War Two!

Baron Zemo, evil retroactive mastermind!

(Plus, his mask is glued to his face. Don’t ask).

Now I must note that the order of appearance of Baron Zemo and Arnim Zola created some controversy before this list we even published! In fact, this entire column was inspired by a particularly spirited exchange on my Twitter stream:

secret origin of Arnim Zemo!

Ever the gentleman, John Gholson delivered with this illustration of … Arnim Zemo!

Arnim Zemo by John Gholson

Thanks, John! And for more of John’s work, please visit his Gutters & Panels blog.

2) Red Skull

The Red Skull is more than just a top Captain America villain — he’s one of the premiere villains in the Marvel Universe. He first appeared in Captain America Comics #1 back in 1941, and he’s been Cap’s arch-nemesis ever since, battling our hero throughout World War II and returning from seeming death to bedevil Cap in the present era. He even wielded the Cosmic Cube before Thanos was a glimmer in his mother’s eye! The Red Skull co-headlined Super-Villain Team-Up for awhile, and he was memorably portrayed on the big screen by Hugo Weaving in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger.

The Red Skull!

As Captain America’s polar opposite, the Red Skull is clearly one of Cap’s greatest foes — a Fascist thug and murderous mastermind to oppose our freedom-loving hero. He’s also a badass, with no real superpowers — the Red Skull holds his own with fear gas and an endless string of minions that he holds in a grip of terror. Plus, the Red Skull brings along a whole host of lesser villains that might very well have made this list on their own, like Crossbones, Sin, Mother Night, and the enigmatic Sleepers.

Where Walks The Sleeper!

With a resume like that, you’d expect the Red Skull to top this list!

Who could possibly be worse than the Red Skull?

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1) Adolph Hitler!

That’s right … the only bad guy who could possibly be worse than the Red Skull is the Red Skull’s creator — Adolph Hitler!

Red Skull & Hitler

I don’t mean to trivialize a real mass murderer by including him in a comic book top ten list, but Hitler is so interwoven into the Marvel Universe that he might as well be a supervillain at this point. Plus, if a couple of crazy kids named Kirby and Simon hadn’t decided to introduce a certain new red, white, and blue comic hero by having him sock Hitler on the chin, I probably wouldn’t be writing this list today.

CaptainAmerica #1, by Jack Kirby & Joe Simon

Keep those colors flying, Cap!

What do you think of my top ten list of Captain America’s most fearsome foes? Did I snub anyone? Overrate someone? How do Cap’s villains rate against the greatest bad guys in comics history? Sound off in comments, below!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #98 Iron Fan

LONGBOX GRAVEYARD TOP TEN LISTS

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Top Single Issue Stories

Longbox Graveyard #18

One of the pleasures of publishing Longbox Graveyard has been meeting other fans in the online comics community. One of the first to comment on this blog was the enigmatic Mars Will Send No More, who has proven a kindred soul with his love of Marvel’s “Cosmics” and his admiration of classic Bronze Age comics runs, such as Walt Simonson’s Thor. Mars further endeared himself by giving me good-natured grief over my Top Ten DC Comics Characters list (and responded with a wobbly list of his own), so when he threw down the gauntlet on Twitter about doing a Top Single Issues list, I was eager to pick it up.

Mars has already led off with a thoughtful Top Issues list at his own blog, with a far-ranging collection of deeply personal choices well outside the mainstream focusing on dinosaurs, dragonflies, and monoliths, and with little reliance on “dorks in tights punching each other.” Lacking Mars’ eclectic tastes, my list is almost entirely about costumes in Fist City, but that’s a good thing — it means we can provide lists with minimal overlap, and together recommend a full twenty single issue stories worth reading. (Well, fifteen, actually, but more about that later).

Like my Marvel and DC Top Characters lists, this list of Top Single Issues isn’t comprehensive. These aren’t the best stories ever told, or the best-selling, or the best-known, or the most significant. They’re just my favorites, to the degree that I can remember them after reading comics for better than thirty years. My list is idiosyncratic and deliberately so, and presented in no particular order. They’re just superior stories I feel are worthy of note.

my blog, my rules … any objections?

A staple of the Golden Age, the single issue story is a dying form. Even in the Bronze Age which is the focus of Longbox Graveyard, the emphasis was generally on two-part stories, with the single-issue form usually reserved for the dreaded fill-in story. In recent years the single-issue story has all but vanished from DC and Marvel books, as storytelling has “decompressed” into six or twelve issue arcs intended for republication as trade paperbacks.

It’s a shame the form is going away, because the single-issue format forces creators to focus on a small and polished slice of action, with only minimal reference to greater events. Single-issue stories strip away many of the things I most dislike about comics — languid storytelling, dense continuity, and long and confusing fight scenes — in favor of economical storytelling. A single-issue story is harder to write than a multi-part arc, but when done well, a single-issue book is about as good as comics get.

For this list I tried to pick stories that genuinely stand alone, without directly extending into the previous or following issues. I looked for stories with minimal dependence on continuity (though some continuity is impossible to avoid in comics), and I wasn’t especially concerned about page-count — if the tale was published as a single story, then it was eligible for the list, whether it was a 48-page original graphic novel or a Will Eisner seven-page masterpiece.

Speaking of which …

Ten Minutes

While I appreciate and respect Golden Age comics, I don’t much like reading them, preferring the reinvented sensibility and sophistication of Silver Age and later stories, but for Will Eisner’s Spirit, I make an exception. Partly this is down to Eisner’s work being so modern — or at least seeming modern, given than Eisner practically invented modern comics storytelling whenever he put pencil to paper. Eisner is a comfortable destination for modern comics fans wishing to sample books from a distant era — I guarantee you will flip to the copyright page and shake your head in wonder that these stories were published decades before the 1961 birth of the Fantastic Four.

My knowledge of Eisner is far from comprehensive, and that I have so much of his work still to discover is a happy problem to have. I am working my way through the hardback Spirit Archives, which collect the Spirit in publication order, but I also jumped the line and picked up The Best of The Spirit, spotlighting twenty-two Spirit tales from the 1940s and 1950s. Any of those stories would be worthy members of this list (and Eisner could take every slot on my top ten!), but for today I’m restricting myself to a single story — “Ten Minutes,” originally published in September of 1949.

You don’t need to know a lot about the Spirit to enjoy this slice-of-life story — the Spirit is basically a guest star in this particular strip, which tells the tale of the last ten minutes of the life of Freddy, a neighborhood nobody who crosses the line to capital crime and pays the price in this short-but-sweet seven page story. Delivering a complete story in just seven pages is difficult, but Eisner embraces the time limit of the story, telling us in the first caption that the story will take ten minutes to read, then counts down the time by putting a stopwatch in the first panel of every page that follows.

What would seem a gimmick for any other creator is just another day at the office for Eisner — in those seven pages he tells possibly the first “real time” story in comics history; introduces us to luckless Freddy; shows us how his shiftless frustration boils over into a heartbreaking murder; follows Freddy to his own foredoomed end; and shows how a heedless world goes on ticking, oblivious to Freddy’s little rise and fall. Like all of Eisner’s work, it’s a tight, soulful story told with masterfully illustrated emotion, humor, action, and pathos.

You can read “Ten Minutes” (in just ten minutes!) and other classic Eisner tales in The Best of The Spirit.

Winter Soldier: Winter Kills

This book almost doesn’t make the list, because it’s deeply enmeshed in Marvel continuity, drawing on the Civil War cross-over event, and two years’ worth of Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America (to say nothing of the seventy-five years history of Cap himself). But the book is so sharply-written that I cannot leave it off my list, and Brubaker, as always, uses continuity with restraint, deepening the entertainment for readers who understand the references, while at the same time imposing few barriers to new readers.

The story is simpler than it sounds — a lonely Christmas Eve in New York for the Winter Soldier (Captain America’s resurrected World War II sidekick, Bucky Barnes), the first such holiday “back in the world” for Barnes, who was thought lost during the war, and is trying to shake off the effects of being a brainwashed Soviet sleeper agent for the last half-century. Christmas Eve isn’t silent night, of course, as Barnes gets pulled into a raid on a Hydra base, and the book does have a nice bit of action, but where the story shines is in it’s characterization. Barnes, Nick Fury, and the Sub-Mariner all have richly nuanced dialogue in this tale, and Captain America, appearing entirely in flashback, tells the only joke of his life when he reminiscences about punching Hitler.

The story concludes with a poignant graveyard scene that I referenced in my Top Marvel Characters list two weeks ago, which again displays the right way to use continuity, as Barnes struggles with guilt from his murderous past, and receives friendship and emotional support from the least likely source — the remote and imperious Sub-Mariner. A beautifully-written and pitch-perfect story.

You can read this story (along with the best Captain America stories ever written) in the highly-recommended Captain America Omnibus Vol. 1.

The Song of Red Sonja

In my review of the Barry Windsor-Smith era of Conan the Barbarian I remarked that Conan stories follow a certain formula — but it’s a good formula. The formula is front-and-center in issue #24 of Conan the Barbarian, which marked the second time we’d meet Red Sonja, and the last time Windsor-Smith would pencil the book.

The plot is something you’ve seen a hundred times before — Conan and Sonja are off to steal some treasure, and along the way there’s a tavern brawl, a tower to climb, and a giant snake to kill. By-the-numbers stuff, for all that it is brilliantly drawn by Windsor-Smith, who’s insane attention to detail could not be appreciated in the original printings, but which is marvelously on display in the Dark Horse Conan reprints.

What makes this issue stand out from others of its era is Roy Thomas’ script. The plot may be off-the-shelf, but Thomas provides sharp dialogue that shows Conan at his headstrong and lusty best. Conan knows that Sonja is taking advantage of him, but he figures it’s worth it for a chance at some treasure and (even more promising) the hope of getting inside Sonja’s pants. For her part, Sonja seems unusually tempted by Conan, musing that breaking her vow of celibacy for Conan wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, and seeming at least slightly guilty when she steals the treasure, hops a horse, and tramples over Conan at the end. This is one of the very few Conan stories where the Barbarian doesn’t get the girl … and the story is better for it.

John Buscema would take over the book with issue #25, and overnight Conan would seem to age about ten years. The youthful, narrow-waisted Windsor-Smith barbarian would be replaced with Buscema’s powerful, thick-shouldered brute. That pending change makes the scene where Conan and Sonja frolic in the pond unexpectedly sweet and innocent. Conan’s youthful joy in that scene — and his childish punching of a wall out of frustration on the final page of the story — would feel inauthentic with Buscema’s version of the Cimmerian, but Windsor-Smith’s more subtle pencils unintentionally capture the end of Conan’s adolescence.

The Song of Red Sonja is reprinted in Dark Horse’s The Chronicles of Conan, Volume 4.

The Anatomy Lesson

Swamp Thing #21 is not just a great comic — it might be the single most important book published by DC Comics in the 1980s. This is where Alan Moore made his mark in American comic books, proving that he could magnificently re-invent one of DC’s most cliched characters — in one stroke changing the way we looked at superheroes, and opening the door for Watchmen, which DC would publish two years later.

The Anatomy Lesson is vintage Moore, coloring inside the lines of Swamp Thing’s past history while simultaneously turning the book inside-out. The Anatomy Lesson tells the tale of Swamp Thing’s autopsy, conducted by the sinister Jason Woodrue, who makes the startling discovery that Swamp Thing isn’t what we thought he was at all. Rather than a man who because a swamp monster, he’s a swamp monster who dreams of being a man — the ghostly aftershock of a dead scientist, who created a body for itself (including non-functioning internal vegetable organs) in imitation of the human form it once wore.

Not content to tell us one of the most unexpected and brilliant origin stories of all time, The Anatomy Lesson also winds in a horror story where narrator Woodrue hatches an elaborate revenge scheme using Swamp Thing’s not-so-dead-after-all corpse, told with creepy mood, atmosphere, and blood.

(Swamp Thing scans courtesy of the ubiquitous Mars Will Send No More)

The Anatomy Lesson kicks off one of the all-time great runs in comics, but it also stands alone as a superior single-issue story. Not that it matters — read this tale and you’ll be hooked for the duration.

You can read The Anatomy Lesson in Saga of the Swamp Thing Volume 1, or check it out online over at Mars Will Send No More!

In Dreams

Sometimes the best way to write about icons like Batman and Superman is to not write about them at all. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is inhabited by iconic heroes who are clearly supposed to be those more famous characters, but possessing their own names and costumes, Busiek has the freedom to approach these well-known heroes in new ways, without regard for the continuity or publishing agendas that encumber the “real” characters.

In the very first issue of Astro City, Busiek tells one of the finest Superman stories of all time — except it isn’t about Superman! Our hero is Samaritan, strange visitor from another world, who is faster than a speeding bullet, and in his alter ego is a mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper.

OK, it’s Superman. But don’t call him that, OK? We don’t want DC’s lawyers showing up and ruining the fun over in Astro City.

In Dreams tells the story of a day in the life up Super– eh, Samaritan, from the morning when he dreams of flying free through the skies without a care in the world; to his commute to work where he stops a tsunami before arriving at his newspaper office; then sneaks away to knock out a giant robot and contain an exo-biological outbreak. And that’s just before lunch! On his break, Samaritan meets with the not-Justice League, and through the rest of his long day gets on with the full-time business of being (call it what it is!) a superman, fighting bad guys, accepting awards, and rescuing a cat from a tree. Samaritan even pauses to lament there is no time in his life to have a relationship, before streaking into orbit to dispatch a monstrous supervillain, then flying home to sleep, and dream (again) of soaring through the clouds without the weight of the world on his shoulders.

It’s a great story, and that’s exactly what a day in the life of Superman must be like … but it’s not the kind of story you could tell in Superman, demanding as it does a new story every month that can’t be more of the same-old same-old superpowered routine. But the anthology format of Astro City allows Busiek to tell just this kind of story without regard for topping himself the month after, and the result is a fun, breezy, and insightful romp that ranks among the finest Superman stories you will ever read. (Except that it’s not Supermanwink wink).

In Dreams is reprinted in Astro City, Volume 1.

And that brings me to the end of this week’s list.

But wait! That’s only five issues! A proper Top List must have ten entries!

You’re right … but I’ve blithered on long enough for a single blog, and if I’ve learned nothing else from writing a weekly column it’s to never do in one blog what you can divide into two! So I’m going to cut this list off at five, and return in a couple weeks* with a second column to complete my list. That will give you time to sample some of these stories, and (more importantly) it will give me time to unearth five more worthy single-issue tales from my vast Accumulation. Thanks for reading!

*Editor’s note: Rather than publish another Top Single Issues list here at Longbox Graveyard, the feature morphed into my Dollar Box feature category, where I look at single issues and short runs of comics where the original cover price was a dollar or more. Check it out!

NEXT WEEK: #19 Tomb It May Concern

LONGBOX GRAVEYARD TOP TEN LISTS

American Dream

Longbox Graveyard #7

The founding ethos of Longbox Graveyard is to examine the Bronze Age comics of my youth, and my feelings upon looking back at them thirty-odd years after the fact. But this blog project has reawakened an interest in comics as a whole, and even as I sort through my Accumulation, I’ve been casting a cautious eye toward a few more modern series. One book, in particular, is so well-crafted and been such a part of recent events in my life that it deserves a column all it’s own.

A couple weeks ago I did a list of top Captain America graphic novels, and had to admit that the best take on my favorite character was — gasp! — a comic collection published in 2007. Captain America Omnibus Volume 1 collects the first twenty-five issues of Ed Brubaker’s run on Volume 5 of Captain America. That we’ve gotten to five volumes on this series is a kind of mute indictment of how much Marvel and this character have lost their way in recent years, as each one of those new volumes represents a “this time we’re getting it RIGHT!” reboot.

But this time they did get it right.

I backed into this book, having given up reading comics regularly decades before. I checked in every now and then — I recall reading a couple issues of Ultimate Avengers, where Cap was a crusty, old-school badass, and I think I read some Mark Waid books doing an ill-advised mid-nineties reboot — but Cap was entirely off my radar when I discovered this big omnibus in 2007. It was out of character for me to buy it, full price, off the rack at a Virgin store in Arizona, but I was on vacation with my family, and enjoying a peak year thanks to the sale of High Moon Studios to Vivendi, so I tumbled.

Plus as I noted in that column a couple weeks ago, I loved Cap even if I hated his comics. And the tremendous cover didn’t hurt.

My expectations were low. I had a generally poor opinion of post-Bronze Age comics, especially comics I’d read in the 1990s, which struck me as “brand withdrawals” at the expense of the earnest if inconsistent brilliance of the original work from the 1960s. To me, modern books were all reboots, grim heroes, crappy costumes, and issue re-numbering gimmicks pandering to a dwindling audience of greying fanboys.

No, thanks.

This modern superhero book, though … it was a different breed. Far from being a brand withdrawal, it reinvigorated the seventy-year-old character of Captain America with what I’ve come to regard as the finest stories ever told about my favorite superhero.

It also helped get me back into comics, though it would take years for me to realize it.

I read the book, loved it, and wanted more, but discovered there were no additional collected volumes yet available, and my only option was to transition over to the regular comic book. That meant reading the story in monthly chunks (when the book could manage to stay on schedule), and being even more at the whim of Marvel’s marketing-driven editorial cross-over events, like the Civil War and House of M stories that intruded on the conclusion of the Omnibus. I’d have to trek to a comic shop to buy books in an inferior “floppy” form … and as much as I cherish Southern California Comics, I’m not interested in visiting there more than two or three times a year. I loved this new take on Cap from Brubaker and Steve Epting, but I had zero desire to become a monthly comic reader again, and so set this volume on the shelf and promptly forgot about it.

Flash forward to the summer of 2011, and my son Jack’s innocent question about whether I had any Thor comics for him to read (and my own realization that I couldn’t find those books for him) has given birth to this blog. Originally intended just to keep me on track while sorting my old books, Longbox Graveyard was beginning to take on a little life of its own. It was Chris Ulm — ever my editor — who said I should do a column on Cap graphic novels to tie in with release of the movie, and that sounded like a good idea, both to get me back in touch with my favorite comics character, and as a means of getting new readers for the blog.

I re-read about half of the Brubaker Omnibus, to confirm that it was as good as I remembered and deserved to be #1 on my list (and it was), but then got distracted by a more recent arrival on my shelf.

As I’ve written before, Cap’s best years were over well before I started collecting his book in 1974, and the events of Cap’s run in Tales of Suspense — with it’s Cosmic Cube, Sleepers, A.I.M., and the Red Skull — formed the rich and mysterious back-story to the inferior era of the books I had actually read. This new Captain America Omnibus Vol. 1 HC collected all the Silver Age stuff that I’d missed, and with this blog project making me all nostalgic for the good old days, this seemed a good time to go back to the era where men wore hats, Steve Rogers smoked a pipe, and Jack Kirby never drew Cap with his feet less than four feet apart from each other.

I read those issues the way I read pulp fiction like John Carter of Mars, Doc Savage, or the Shadow — for the concepts, the characters, and the ideas — but with diminished expectations for execution, plot, and dialogue. Cap’s Silver Age run still has a lot to offer. There’s Kirby, of course, who delivers the goods from month to month, and Stan Lee’s scripting is decent (if overwrought), but the series is second rate, really a collection of crazy ideas that fall apart under close inspection. I mean, the Sleepers are … well, a headless robot that stomps around, that joins up with a flying wing, that is completed by a big flying steel skull, that all connects together to fly to the North Pole to destroy the world.

It’s horrible.

yes, that’s really the Third Sleeper … sorry to disappoint

But the concept of Nazi terror weapons lying dormant in the earth until “Der Tag” is awesome, as are so many other elements in this run, and I heartily recommend it to comics fans that know what they’re getting into. I came away from it with my head dizzy from all the crazy details and events, glad to have read it, gladder still to have enjoyed the art, and feeling that I’d filled in holes in my goofy comic book knowledge.

I was especially thankful that I didn’t have to hold all those details in my head or try to address them in a modern series.

Then I realized that’s exactly what Ed Brubaker had done.

Something I will look at in this blog, time and again, is reinvention of characters and core concepts. Comics are possibly unique in that the characters and books continue, while creative teams come and go, and the ideas of the books get worn out and need to be periodically reinvented to remain fresh. Some of my favorite creators — Alan Moore and Jim Starlin, for example — made a specialty out of this kind of reinvention. While I think there’s something admirable about a solid run on a book that doesn’t turn everything inside out in the process (like Doug Moench’s run on Batman and Detective in the 1980s, which I will get around to reviewing someday), there’s no doubt that when it works, a comic book reinvention is about the most spectacular and exciting thing that can happen in this form.

(And when it doesn’t work, you have Heroes Reborn).

yuck!

In my shorthand appraisal of comics reinvention, I’ve got Alan Moore on one side, who reinvented characters by probing deep into their psyches and revealing things we never new about them … and along the way, as I once read it summarized, made it seem like every book he wrote was the last comic book ever written. Moore took no prisoners and left no room for any creator to follow him. Really, who wanted to read Swamp Thing after Moore was done with that series?

Jim Starlin exemplifies a different approach to reinvention, redefining universes around his characters, going outward to find a piece of turf he could call his own. Starlin’s work lacked Moore’s impact because changes to a universe feel more ephemeral than changes to a character, but for awhile, at least, Starlin’s work on books like Warlock and Captain Marvel was a breath of fresh cosmic air. (I will review both these series in coming weeks.)

With Brubaker’s work on Cap, I see a third means of character reinvention. It might be the most difficult means of all — reinvention by embracing the past. The really wonderful thing about Brubaker’s work, and the reason it is such a high wire act in a wind storm, is that he doesn’t run from anything in Cap’s past. All that Tales of Suspense stuff is in this series — Agent 13, Bucky, Red Skull, the Cosmic Cube, the Sleepers, Cap in the war — and Brubaker makes it all work.

(He gets extra points for degree of difficulty by making his obligatory cross-over issues of Civil War not suck, too. That man can write.)

Civil War … Lord save me from editorial cross-overs!

Like Walt Simonson’s run on Thor, Brubaker embraces the best part of what works about a classic character, then makes the rest his own. He’s so convincing as a writer that you just nod and go, well, sure, of COURSE it was the Red Skull’s plan all along to use the Cosmic Cube to cause his own death but to also take over the soul of a Russian industrialist so that he can manipulate Cap’s old girlfriend into killing him by poisoning her mind through the cat’s paw of Dr. Faustus (Dr. Faustus?!?). It’s as ridiculous as anything out of Tales of Suspense, but Brubaker makes it feel plausible, modern, and completely, authentically “Cap” because of the way he has deeply embraces the past of the character without being enslaved by the ridiculous minutia and continuity of the older books.

Finally, an even more personal connection between me and this work.

My oldest son, Miles — who hates to read and wouldn’t pull his head out of Grand Theft Auto if the house was burning down — has gotten hooked on this series. So thanks to the efforts of Mr. Brubaker, Mr. Epting, and the other artists on this run, I can talk with Miles about Captain America and the Red Skull and Bucky, and the comics I read as a kid. We’ve connected as father and son because these ageless archetypes, so frequently abused by past creators, have been brought brilliantly to life by a creative team that just gets it.

easier to find a photo of Bigfoot on a unicycle than one of Miles reading something

(I know Mr. Brubaker is out there on the internet, and maybe he’ll read this sometime … so thanks, pal, I owe you one.)

Completing my re-read of Brubaker’s first volume with such enthusiasm, I now need to decide if I will push my luck and read the additional collections that are now available, covering (I gather) the death and rebirth of Captain America. They’re on my shelf, still in their shrinkwrap. I don’t want to see a great series go into decline, but seeing as I’ve waited all this time for Cap to get good — waited, in effect, since I bought my first Captain America comic in 1974 — I guess I’ll be tearing the shrinkwrap off those volumes sometime soon. Given enough time, even a cranky guy like me eventually comes around.

NEXT WEEK: #8 Ellis Island

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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