Friday, January 9, 2015

Captain America, Reporting For Duty!

The brief nine-issue run of Roger Stern and John Byrne on Captain America came to an end in 1981 with #255, a 40th anniversary issue which tried to be more than just another origin story, as Stern explains in the book's letters page:

This issue marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of the first issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA. And so, to celebrate said occasion, we've devised this somewhat special story.

At the risk of using an extremely overused word, we hope that what we've created here is the definitive life story of Captain America. We've endeavored to clear up a few discrepancies which have creeped into past retellings of the origin, we've consolidated bits and pieces of Cap's past into a (fingers crossed here) cohesive whole, and we've filled in a few of the considerable blank spaces in Cap's background.

And, to make this an extra-special celebration, we're printing the art for this issue directly from John Byrne's pencils...with the exception of the last page's present-day sequence, which is inked by our regular master-of-the-indelible-arts, Josef Rubinstein.

Oh, one last word before we go on to your letters...this is a very special issue, and it was planned as such. (Longtime Marvel buffs may wonder where it fits into the overall continuity of the Marvel Universe. Well, the answer is...anywhere you want it to!) This is not an inventory is not a fill-in is a celebration.


It seemed like Stern and Byrne had only just arrived on the title, and they're already departing--as well as closing out their run with an origin story, which almost anyone who's familiar with Captain America could tell you by heart. Steve Rogers' poor upbringing. Rated unfit for military service. Dr. Erskine. The super-soldier experiment. The attack after the experiment which left Rogers as the only man to benefit from it. Captain America as a symbol of liberty. The new shield. Bucky. The incident at Baron Zemo's lab which led to Rogers being put into suspended animation. Is there something new to add to the mix? We've seen untold elements of Cap's origin in other stories, yet they seemed to prompt more questions than they answered.

But as Stern says, this issue is meant to be the mold, the guide, the one issue we should turn to for the truth.  And as such, it attempts to frame an origin tale in a different way than just a visual flashback of the facts.

There are a few things this story leaves out (or, rather, chooses to omit), since it primarily focuses on Cap's earliest days as a field agent stateside, ferreting out Nazi spies on the domestic front. Yet the story does make for a fine anniversary issue, and is put together in such a way that, by the time you reach its end, you're half expecting to be approached to buy war bonds. You have only to look at the issue's cover to get a sense of the patriotic flair which both writer and artist imbue the story with. It seeks to define not only Cap's beginnings, but Cap's spirit and sense of pride in the dream he fights for.

And to get to know Cap is to first get to know young Steve Rogers, the boy who rose through adversity to become him--a boy who spent his childhood in the lower east side of New York City, until forced to survive on his own:

Eventually, Steve saw newsreel footage of the Nazi war machine moving through Europe--and, with a mixture of anger and resolve, became desperate to enlist in the army. But while his frailty ruled him out for service, it qualified him to take part in a classified procedure known as Operation: Rebirth. And soon, Steve is brought to Washington, and an under-the-radar shop which was a front for a most daring experiment:

Stern then takes the opportunity to clear up an inconsistency concerning the name of the scientist who is head of the project:

By the experiment's end, we would see the first punches this new (and only) super-soldier would throw, as he brings fatal retribution to the spy who assassinated Erskine, though in a way to presumably keep Steve's character unblemished:

The story stays very true to Cap's origin tale first published in a 1965 issue of Tales Of Suspense; in fact, this "celebration" of Stern's all but pays homage to it, if not directly coming out and saying so, though providing enough filler in other scenes to avoid following the original page-by-page. For instance, the new story is framed by President Roosevelt reviewing Steve's dossier, part of which includes a meeting with General Phillips who first approaches Steve with his life's mission:

And so "Captain America" takes on his first assignment, on his way to becoming the scourge of Nazis on the homefront.

Stern is laying it on a little thick here, to be sure; yet it's part of the story's charm that most of it reads as if it's being presented in a newsreel, as if taking us back to the first Captain America Comics where this new hero burst onto the scene and led the fight for us against the enemies of freedom.

About two-thirds of the way into the story, Roosevelt pauses in his review to take an important meeting in his office with the man himself, as well as to make an important presentation:

Off to boot camp Steve goes, where he of course meets up with his future partner. Have a look at an original scene with Steve's ill-tempered C.O., Sgt. Duffy, alongside the Stern/Byrne recreation:

With only a few pages left in this issue, Stern's story then condenses Cap's wartime exploits as well as the events which led to him being found by the Avengers:

Afterward, there really is little left to say, since the story has brought us up to date with the Cap we know today. But while you could say this issue has indeed been a celebration of the creation of Captain America, Cap himself celebrates his life with characteristic humility and pride in a scene which brings a quiet and poignant close to this tale:

The story is titled "The Living Legend."  It's easy to see why, eh?

Captain America #255

Script: Roger Stern
Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: John Byrne w/Joe Rubinstein
Letterer: Joe Rosen

1 comment:

Graham said...

I remember this run and being so excited about what Stern/Byrne were going to do next with Cap. I was really disappointed when I found out that this was the end of the line for both on the character. I wish they had gotten to do their take on the Red Skull.

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