Here’s another book that came to me out of a 3-Bag purchased at a toy store or a department store. It was the first issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA following the departure of the character’s co-creator Jack Kirby as writer, artist and editor, and it gives every indication of having been something of a rush job. Certainly the fact that the issue released next month, which contained a reprint, furthers that notion. But I haven’t ever heard that Kirby’d departure from the series caught anybody by surprise, so it could have been that everybody involved was just busy with their own stuff right then. All that being said, this issue bridged from Kirby’s last adventure, providing readers with an Album Issue recounting the history of the Star-Spangled Avenger.
The Album Issue is a conceit that’s today largely absent from super hero comic books, and was primarily an innovation of Marvel. Because all of the stories in a given character’s run were intended to represent a continuous saga, it was advantageous in those days before collected editions and trade paperbacks and so forth to recap the important events for newer readers every so often. These issues weren’t stories so much as history reports, citing earlier issues and recounting past adventures. As a collector who was interested in what had come before, these issues were like catnip to me, as they directed my attention to specific back issues for developments I was interested in. In the case of Captain America, writer Roy Thomas had been working for a while behind the scenes to straighten out the character’s chronology, since Cap was said to have been frozen in ice at the close of WWII but was still published to the end of the 1940s and briefly in the 1950s. This issue was the first place where Roy was able to line up all of the pieces he’d assembled into a single timeline.
From a story point of view, the conceit of this tale follows up on the fact that, in Kirby’s last story, Cap had been temporarily blinded during a fight with the Red Skull. So with his vision restored, he and the Falcon head out to the Empire State Building, where Cap will take in the sights of New York City and spin into reminiscences of his own career–as well as those of the other men who had worn the uniform of Captain America. An album issue was also advantageous for a creative team in a pinch in that it didn’t require much of a story, just reinterpreting sequences from other issues, and that’s what George Tuska is given to do here, though he doesn’t swipe anything straight up but rather reinterprets the events in his own idiom.
Roy also used this issue to cement the stories he had been writing over in INVADERS concretely into Captain America’s timeline, as a way to make certain that they weren’t discarded in years to come. I tended to love this sort of continuity-wrangling as a young reader–the insane gyrations that creators would go through in order to explain a discrepancy, a variance, in stories that weren’t ever created to exist in a unified canon. As an older reader, this sort of thing feels a bit more maturbatory to me–there isn’t a story to speak of in this comic book apart from the history of Captain America (and apart from the revelation at the very end that Roy intends to use to drive his storytelling for the next few months), so if that information is something that you already know, it’s a bit of an empty reading experience.
Getting back to stories specifically designed to straighten out Captain America’s publishing history, Roy had recently penned an issue of WHAT IF that revealed that, after Captain America had disappeared when he was frozen, two other heroes in sequence had taken up his mantle: the Spirit of ’76, whom Roy had invented during the INVADERS run, and after that, the Patriot, who had been a genuine 1940s hero. But that story was in WHAT IF, and so by definition, its conanity was suspect–so Roy recounts all of those events here, in order to make it clear that he (and by extension, Marvel) consider them genuine part of the character’s history.
Roy had earlier tasked then-new CAPTAIN AMERICA writer Steve Englehart with revealing the story of the replacement Cap, but Englehart focused his efforts solely on the 1950s version, whom he brought back (along with his version of Bucky) as villains for an arc. Roy clearly had intended for there to only have been one Captain America replacement, but Englehart’s choice eventually led him to fill in the other gaps with two more. Anyway, here again, Roy lines up all of the pieces of this disparate history into a single narrative.
And so it goes, until the end of the issue, where we segue back to the present and Cap makes a pronouncement to his partner, the Falcon: he has no recollection of his life before he became Captain America–he doesn’t know who Steve Rogers really is. This is really because, up to this point in the character’s history, nobody had bothered to explore Steve’s background, but it made for a good narrative hook for the next run of issues, as Steve attempted to dig up his own past and work out why he didn’t recall any of it. So I liked this issue and referred to it often, but more as reference, more like what you might have used the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe for in later years. As an actual issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA, it’s a bit flawed.