The King and I
Saluting Captain America
By Desmond Reddick
04 July 2009 — For 68 years, the Sentinel of Liberty has been fighting evil and injustice at home and abroad. He is the embodiment of heroism and the American Dream. From his very popular wartime Golden Age series to his rebirth in the Marvel Age as the company's figurehead character, Captain America is an unlikely but still extremely important character in modern comics.
I thought long and hard over what single issue in Captain America's storied history to cover this Fourth of July: the Simon and Kirby stories, while important, are far from their best collaboration; the Tales of Suspense stories post-rebirth are very up and down as far as quality and content; and his first modern appearance is not a solo story. But I thought that his first appearance in the Marvel Universe proper gave the right combination of reverence and glory to the character he deserves on this day.
My name is Desmond Reddick and I am a Kirbyphile. In this column I'll be breaking things down into three sections: the good, the bad, and the Kirby.
Avengers #4 has a cover date of March 1964, and was written by Stan Lee, with art by Jack Kirby, inks by George Roussos, and letters by Artie Simek.
The premise: Namor flees a battle with the Avengers and pouts until he meets some "Eskimos" on the ice floes of the North Sea (?!) who are praying to a figure frozen in the ice. He throws the frozen figure into the ocean where it drifts into the Gulf Stream. The thawed figure is found by the Avengers who demand he prove he's really Captain America. He does. All this in the first six pages. After his disappearance two decades earlier is retconned, the Avengers return to New York and are bombarded by paparazzi while getting off the submarine. One of the camera flashes turns them into stone. The reporters think they've been duped and leave to find the real Avengers as Cap emerges to try and figure out what happened. He discovers the alien responsible (with a little help from Rick Jones and the Teen Brigade) has been working with Namor, and then attempts to return the Avengers to their natural state before being invited to join the team. Not bad for 23 pages.
The good: Sit down, this may take a while. In many ways, Avengers #4 is the prototypical Silver Age Marvel comic. This story today would be difficult to tell in eight issues. Even then, no one would complain about decompression. There is provocative and dynamic story elements packed into every page. Beyond the return of Captain America, touted as "the great super hero which your wonderful avalanche of fan mail demanded," there is still a lot to like about this book.
The story was a little daring for the fourth issue of The Avengers: a non-team member saves them with the help of a teen mascot. The Avengers actually disappear for nine pages (an eternity in Silver Age time), and return to tussle with Namor — for the second issue in a row, mind you. Namor only leaves the battle thinking an earthquake will swallow up his opponents (when it is actually the alien ship taking off). Despite the niggling point of Namor not knowing the difference between an earthquake at sea and a ship taking off from the ocean floor, it keeps the character's strength without question as he was winning the fight.
There are some very interesting story bits that can easily be passed over as Silver Age lameness: Cap and Namor don't seem to remember each other in the slightest, Cap because he just came out of a decades-long coma and Namor because he doesn't give a shit. Cap marvels at the beauty of the strange building in New York with all the world's flags around, and his very appearance makes the UN security guard weep. Also, we see a lot of sexism in Lee's Fantastic Four scripts, but when the only way to stop Cap from beating the crap out of Earth's Mightiest Heroes is for the Wasp to stand in front of him, it isn't a cop out. Cap is already being treated as a man out of time who would never hit a woman. Classy touch. In fact, not once does the Wasp get a comment on her hairstyle or asked to vacuum the Avengers Mansion.
Story aside, this issue is one of the go-to examples of great art from the King. The storytelling is not truncated, the action is bombastic, and the facial expressions are alive. In particular, when Cap awakens from his suspended animation, the look of worry on his face as he yells for Bucky is genuine. It is all the more believable when, in the next panel, it takes Thor and Iron Man to hold Cap back after he trounces Giant-Man. Kirby also does a great job in keeping anatomical balance in the characters. Cap has never been a giant, muscle man, but he is the perfect specimen of a human being. Add that to the point that Kirby never over-exaggerated his human anatomy — look at the consistency of Cap's size in relation to Thor's — and you've got a really tight and error-free piece.
The very majesty of the team having just discovered that the tattered body is the legendary hero is beautifully captured in a page-wide panel that's still being aped. In many ways, it is one of his most iconic artistic pieces.
The real unsung hero of this book, and the Silver Age in general, is this issue's uncredited inker: George Roussos (aka George Bell). George's thick-lined proficiency with the brush and fearless inclusion of virtually every background makes him a star in my book — and this issue is no exception. Incidentally, George — whose first documented work in the industry is inking Bob Kane in Batman #2 — also inked many of those early Captain America comics of the Golden Age. He was also the uncredited colorist of much of Marvel's Silver Age books, along with Marie Severin, before becoming one of the first guys to be credited for the job in the 1970s. George also did a great chunk of Kirby's inks in the early days of Fantastic Four. And, the same month this Avengers book was released, George inked an issue of Sgt. Fury and the cover to X-Men #4. Additionally, he drew one story and inked two in DC's House of Mystery. Needless to say, George was as much of a workhorse as the man he regularly inked.
Add in Artie Simek's very noticeable letters and you understand why I called this the "prototypical Silver Age Marvel comic."
The bad: I'm having trouble deciding whether or not Namor waving the frozen block of Cap at Eskimos in the place of a weapon is offensive or the awesomest thing ever. I have come to terms with the very use of the word Eskimo — seeing as it was the 1960s — but I cannot come to terms with the fact that Eskimos reside on an ice floe in the sea between the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. There are clearly problems when the writer is the editor.
Other than those few little sticking points, I only have passing problems with an alien in the first modern appearance of Captain America. Had it been a regular supervillain who attacked the Avengers, it would have grounded the story a little more.
The Kirby: This issue is dripping with Kirby hallmarks. It has the wild up-in-the-air perspective depth and skewed level of the panels that makes pictures of people just standing around that much more exciting. This would become known as the Marvel Style, and the King is the originator.
There is also the prerequisite fluid body movements, the perfect zoom for the image, and the super-dramatic storytelling that is a constant in this era of Kirby. In fact, the only thing missing is the collage and the crackle.
But for me, the most impressive panel in this book is in the flashback to Bucky's demise; the panel has Cap falling off of the doomed drone plane while Bucky holds on. We drop diagonally to the bottom left where we would normally be greeted, in a common example of good storytelling, with a diagonal line continuing down through the panel in the bottom row. What Kirby does is give us the diagonal in the opposite direction, skewing our view of this panel in a jarring way. He then draws Cap upside down and abandons the smooth, Spartan style he's known for by drawing in as many lines of action as he can fit in the panel. We don't need the word balloon to know that Cap is screaming over his lost sidekick. Poetry.
Final thoughts: There is every indication that the team involved in this issue was proud and excited to bring back this legend. This issue brought a lot of their careers full circle, and it is an absolute joy to read. It is one of those examples where the enthusiasm put into the issue is shared equally with the reader as it is the creators. Many of the iconic issues of the Silver Age were basically just the creators collecting a check, but this is an issue that feels special from the start. European Eskimos aside, I would certainly offer this book up as definitive Fourth of July reading for my Yankee friends. For the rest of us, it's damn good fun.