Europe and Asia are at war, and although the United States hasn't entered yet, we are already targeted by Nazi saboteurs. America needs a defender, a super soldier. And so, a physical weakling, young Steve Rogers, undergoes an experiment, transforming his puny frame into the peak of physical perfection. When a Nazi spy kills the formula's inventor, Rogers is left as one a kind. He becomes Captain America, sentinel of liberty. As Steve Rogers, Cap hides his identity as a clumsy army private. Whenever Axis forces threaten the safety of the United States, Rogers and his young sidekick, Bucky, are there to defeat the threat.
So begins the earliest adventures of Marvel Comics oldest A-list character, reprinted in a very nice "Marvel Masterworks" hardcover edition. I own plenty of DC's Archive editions, but this is my first sampling of the corresponding Masterworks. Claims of poor reprint quality in golden age material are exaggerated. "Captain America" looks great. The artwork, much of it done by the great Jack Kirby, has been reproduced almost flawlessly.
The format of each issue was four self-contained Cap stories, a single prose Cap story, and two back-up features, unrelated to Cap: "Tuk, Caveboy", featuring the ongoing adventures of an orphaned caveboy in some mythical prehistoric period of human history, and; "Hurricane", the super-fast son of Thor, who constantly battles his evil cousin, Pluto. (The inclusion of back-up features is something DC hasn't done in their archives, not that there were many back-up features in Superman.)
For the Cap stories themselves, the quality is consistently high, with Kirby's art, starting out somewhat hurried when he did everything in the first issue, improving dramatically over the course of the remaining three issues., after Kirby started sharing the art chores. Likewise, Joe Simon (no slouch in art department himself) produced many very strong and entertaining scripts, pitting Cap and Bucky against both fairly conventional and memorably unconventional enemies. Chief among these was the Red Skull, the masked Nazi agent who spread terror in the United States and the world. They also battled counterfeiters and racketeers, evil scientists, and deformed murderers. Indeed, Simon and Kirby made the most of relatively new status of super-heroes, telling pulpy horror/mystery stories, high adventure and espionage tales, and two-fisted crime stories. While there is a certain absurdity to this mix-and-match approach, each Cap story is a solid entertainment. Some are creepy, some are stirring, all are classic.
The back-up stories are interesting. The Tuk feature was a continuing series of tales, unusual for this period in comic books. It was a hybrid feature, reminiscent of Tarzan, and incorporating elements of science fiction and fantasy not unlike the writings of Robert E. Howard. Hurricane was more straightforward, as the speedster hero usually thwarted the machinations of his cousin Pluto (depicted as the devil). Usually these plans included Pluto making use of racketeers and the like. While Hurricane has been retconned into the character Makkari from Kirby's own Eternals, neither of these strips are important in comic book history. Indeed, while artifacts like these should always be enjoyed, I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps simply leaving these out and squeezing in a couple of more issues of Cap stories would have been a better plan.
Cap vanished with most super-heroes by the end of the 1940s, briefly surfaced in the early 1950s, and vanished again until the classic "Avengers"#4. From then on, Captain American remained a pivotal figure in the Marvel Universe. Read here those formative stories which made Captain America one of the true classic comic book characters.