Captain America made his first appearance, for Timely Comics – later to become Marvel – in the March 1941-dated “Captain America #1”: though this actually hit stores the previous December, as those versed in comic books will know the date on the cover and the date of publication are usually two very different things. Close enough, however, that we can treat 2021 as Cap’s 80th birthday, which is exactly what Titan Comics have done with Marvel’s Captain America: The First 80 Years.
At the outset, it must be noted that such retrospectives can be a mixed bag, with Titan themselves responsible for the occasional, throwaway, unfocused effort. Often these works are aimed at the very casual fan, and people looking to dip their toe into a property for the first time, with the end result lacking any real meat and feeling like something of a cash-in. Thankfully, this work comes as the result of great deal of effort, and evidently some thought given to pleasing all levels of fandom.
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Coming in at a little under 200 pages, the book is a sequential gallop through the decades, showcasing the artwork of each era, and talking the reader through the entire storyline of not only Steve Rogers, but the alternate Captains, such as Bucky Barnes, Sam Wilson, William Burnside, and John Walker. We are taken through the early-2000s’ Ultimate line, and all retcons to the timeline explained in detail, with plenty of example of the comic book panels of the time shared with us.
The book is smart enough, also, to parallel what was going on in the real world as many of these arcs unfold. So the stories are contextualised to the various eras: World War II, The Cold War and McCarthyism, 70s counter-culture, Reagan, and later 9/11, as well as examining race relations in the most recent decade, with Sam Wilson taking the mantle on, as he did in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Rather that fixating just on Cap, his role in the wider Marvel storylines is examined: so, we are taken through Secret Wars, Civil War, and his role in The Avengers. It is no surprise, with the context of Watergate and the collapse in respect for public figures, that the 70s is the decade where Steve Rogers gives up the Cap moniker and becomes Nomad – also depicted in Avengers: Infinity War.
This is primarily a celebration of the comic book, however. The Marvel Cinematic Universe gets no mention, and, apart from a brief mention of the little-remembered 1940s serial, the focus remains on the written word. This is a smart decision, as it avoids the potential for alienating the more hard-core fan, who would see the film fans as latecomers to their beloved property; but there is still plenty to enjoy for the cinemagoer, who will be able to plot the genesis of so many of the plots used in the big screen outings. It is enjoyable to see how close Sebastian Stan’s take is to both the visual style of the comic book Winter Soldier, and in the portrayal given. There are also clues to potential future storylines, as we read about runs of X-Men vs. The Avengers, stories that are now possible, with Marvel Studios regaining rights to the popular mutant characters.
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The book takes the time to pay tribute to the people responsible for the character and the stories, with profiles of Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee (who got his start writing for this character, at the age of 17), Gene Colan, Steve Englehart, Mark Gruenwald, as well as profiles of characters such as Sharon Carter and The Falcon. Far from a puff piece, it takes the opportunity to discuss the work of Fredric Werthem and his destructive ideas about the negative effects of comic books on young men. All of which is presented with a cohesive visual style and an excellent mix of words and images.
Captain America: The First 80 Years is a well-judged, balanced work, that is unafraid to discuss times where Cap was at odds with his country, without ever taking a tone that will alienate the audience. It is inclusive, without ever becoming bland, and it manages to take a relatively slight celebration format, and make it a key work for new fans, as well as a good reference guide for the more seasoned reader. This is recommended to any fan of the character, as well as anyone looking to branch out from the MCU.
Captain America: The First 80 Years is out now from Titan Comics.