The first time I ever laid eyes on Captain America was on the cover of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #13. It’s a tribute to the character, and the man who drew that cover, Jack Kirby, that the image has remained lodged in my memory and imagination ever since. The Marvel covers of the era were—in contrast to their streamlined and sedate DC counterparts—gaudy and garish, crammed full of copy: simultaneously cheap, raw and incredibly vital. Cap’s costume—the stars and stripes, the fat A on his forehead—was equally garish, even by super hero standards; and the look in his eyes...well, the guy seemed a little crazy.
I had no idea who Captain America was. Despite the fact that the cover copy proclaimed Cap and his young partner, Bucky, “the overwhelming stars of the Golden Age of Comics,” I’d never heard of them. Even the phrase “Golden Age” was new to me. To my ten year old mind, any comics that existed before I was born were as ancient and unfathomable as an Egyptian tomb. Which, of course, made the character seem bizarre and appealing. Add in that dynamic Kirby artwork, with Cap—in an impossible, but somehow believable, pose—dominating the scene, and I just had to read that story. Read it? I devoured it.
I was a pretty loyal Captain America reader from then on, with a special fondness for anything Jack Kirby—who co-created Cap with Joe Simon back in the 1940s—touched, from his collaborations with Stan Lee to his solo return to the title in the latter 70s. Jack brought energy, emotion, power, and grace to the character. (You can say that about anything Jack did. He was one of a kind.) One Kirby book in particular stood out: a Marvel Treasury Edition—these were over-sized, extra-length monsters that have since vanished like the dinosaurs—celebrating America’s bicentennial that, among other things, introduced one of the King’s most wonderfully weird creations, and a character I have an inordinate amount of love for, Mr. Buda.
But perhaps my favorite Captain America run was by Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema. Steve brought relevance (in a way that didn’t feel heavy-handed and obvious) and a new depth of character to the book and Sal—who, for my money, is just behind Kirby in the Cap artists sweepstakes—did some of his finest work on those stories. The Roger Stern-John Byrne run, however brief, is right up there with Steve and Sal. They got just about everything right.
Flash forward to 1979 (if my chronology is off, forgive me. It’s been a while). I’m new to the comics business, selling stories to DC for their various horror and superhero anthologies, and just sticking my toes in the door at Marvel. Jim Shooter—Marvel’s extremely tall, extremely talented editor-in-chief at the time—had taken an interest in my work (I look at those early days as my Comic Book College and, along with DC’s Len Wein and Paul Levitz, Jim was one of my most erudite professors) and would toss fill-in issues and other odd, interesting assignments my way. I wrote plots for short Spider-Man stories that would only see print in France, spent several days up at the Marvel offices writing biographies of all their main characters (for what purpose I don’t recall), and passed a surreal few weeks ensconced in Stan Lee’s office—Stan was in California—watching an animated television series and writing up notes on the lead character, a Spider-Man rip-off, to aid Marvel in a lawsuit. Yes, that’s right: I was paid to hang out in Stan Lee’s office and watch cartoons. If that sounds like Superhero Heaven, you’re correct.
One day Shooter called me in and told me that Marvel was planning a Captain America Treasury Edition—yes, the same brobdingnagian format that classic Mr. Buda story was in—that would tie in to an upcoming Cap TV movie. There had already been one—starring Reb Brown as a helmeted, motorcycle-riding version of Cap that didn’t have all that much to do with the character we knew and loved—and a sequel was on the way. The Treasury Edition story, Shooter informed me, would feature the Cap of the Marvel Universe going to Hollywood and interacting with the creators of the movie. Would I, he asked, be interested in writing it? I was, as noted, new to the business and any Marvel assignment—even one as weird as this one—was coveted, so I immediately said yes. (“Yes” is always the answer when you’re a young, hungry freelancer. You want to learn your craft, you want to work with editors who know theirs, and every assignment—even the ones that team up comic book characters with television actors—offers an opportunity to creatively grow.)
After much wrestling with the concept, I finally came up with an idea that worked. Shooter—who I’m sure had input into the story—approved it and I wrote up a detailed plot for a sprawling saga that featured Cap and Reb teaming up to fight the Red Skull and— Well, it was probably as lame as it sounds, but I worked extremely hard to make it the best Captain America meets Reb Brown story ever told. (It helped that it was the only Captain America meets Reb Brown story ever told.)
So why isn’t my first Captain America epic in this collection? For a good reason: Someone at Marvel, probably Shooter, woke up one day and realized that this awkward team-up wasn’t a good idea and the Treasury Edition was shelved. I was disappointed—sure, it would’ve been an oddball story, but it was Captain America and my name would’ve been on it—but I’d been paid for my work, and developing the project in tandem with Jim allowed me to slip a few more toes, maybe even an entire foot, in the Marvel door.
A year or so later—by this point, I’d jumped ship from DC and was full-time at Marvel, writing Defenders and Marvel Team-Up—Jim Salicrup, one of the the company’s most genial and creative editors, called me up and asked about that defunct Treasury Edition I’d written. He needed some fill-ins on the the Cap monthly and thought we could toss out the direct references to the TV movie, but keep the “Captain America goes to Hollywood” elements. Again, my answer was an immediate yes, and I set about excising Reb Brown and company (sorry, Reb) and rebuilding the story with a new cast of characters. Whether I succeeded or not I’ll leave to you, but Salicrup must have thought so, because—following a terrific two-parter written by the late, great Dave Kraft, which you’ll find in this edition—I was handed the book on a regular basis.
Looking back on the stories in this volume, I see a writer still finding his way, trying to understand Captain America and his world and discover the right tone, the right themes, the right voice for Marvel’s first superstar. I learned early on that reading about a character and writing that character are very different things: You see them in a very different light. Sometimes a character you’ve loved as a fan doesn’t resonate with you as a creator—you don’t have anything new to add, you can’t find new corners of their psyche to explore—other times you uncover levels and layers in a character that you never saw as a reader. That’s what happened with Cap.
As noted, I’d been a loyal Captain America reader, but I can’t say that Steve Rogers was a major god in my comic book pantheon: I enjoyed the stories immensely, but, to my mind, Cap was no Silver Surfer, Spider-Man, or Doctor Strange. But the deeper I submerged myself in Steve Rogers’ world—and hats off to Stern and Byrne for developing Steve’s private life so expertly—the more I appreciated Captain America: not so much the icon as the man. In costume, Rogers was larger-than-life: “the whole country—squeezed into one pair of pants.” (That line, spoken about theater legend George M. Cohan, is from Yankee Doodle Dandy—one of the great movie musicals—and it describes Cap The Icon better than I ever could.) I was more intrigued by the person behind the mask. Rogers—to dip into movie lore once more—was the George Bailey of super heroes: a simple, honest man who always struggled to do the right thing, no matter how difficult it was. He wasn’t concerned with ideologies or the politics of the moment. He was concerned with the American Dream. He believed, to the core of his being, in what America could be. Rogers was certainly well aware of the many times the United States had failed to live up to its own ideals—and those failures disheartened him—but he never gave up believing, because his faith and hope weren’t invested in any elected official or political party. They were invested in the spiritual core of America: something deep and true and unchanging that lay beneath world affairs and shifting political currents. The more I got to know Steve, the more I understood that Captain America’s greatest power wasn’t the strength he gained from the super-soldier formula: it was the depth of his compassion, his caring. His belief in the revolutionary power of human decency.
Of course it’s one thing to say that, another to translate it into compelling stories. I certainly had my stumbles along the way—I wasn’t just finding Cap’s voice, I was finding my own—but I was helped immeasurably by Mike Zeck, one of the most brilliant visual storytellers it’s ever been my honor to work with. I look back at our collaboration—on these Cap stories as well as Kraven’s Last Hunt, which we created, under Jim Salicrup’s watchful eye, six years later—with incredible fondness. The beauty of Zeck’s art lies in the fluidity, the power, the absolute clarity of his storytelling.
We worked in the so-called Marvel-style, starting with my detailed plot, which Mike then brought to visual life, leaving me to write the finished script with the art in front of me—and I never had to scratch my head trying to figure out what was happening in a panel, never had to over explain the art so the readers could follow the story. The action and emotions were all there, clear as a bell, in front of me, which meant I could dive deeper with the narrative, with the characters, than I could have had someone less-skilled drawn these stories. John Beatty soon joined the team and his stellar inks only added to the creative combustion: John always brought out the best in Mike’s pencils and his sharp, dynamic line work was perfect for Cap’s world.
And what a world it was. In that first story alone, I had a chance to write Cap’s ultimate antagonist, the Red Skull—I’d get to explore him in deeper and darker ways much later in my run—bring back the concept of Nomad (which would also return later in the run), and revisit one of Cap’s odder antagonists—not surprising, since he was created by the brilliant and iconoclastic Steve Gerber—the Ameridroid.
My second story, “American Dreamers,” was an attempt to pay tribute to two of my favorite writers, Philip K. Dick and Ursula LeGuin, and the kind of reality-bending stories they told so well, while also digging into that primal theme of American Reality vs. American Dream. That theme continued, perhaps a bit too heavy-handedly, with the Everyman story that followed. (A story that also featured the only Marvel Comics appearance of DC editor—and creator of the Vertigo line—Karen Berger, one of my oldest and dearest friends.)
The collection—which also features a terrific Captain America Annual written by superstar Spider-Man scribe David Michilinie and drawn by one of the all-time Marvel masters Gene Colan—wraps up with a story that, in its own way, is as odd as the movie crossover that kick-started my run. Marvel had licensed Team America, a toy line about a group of motorcycle-riding adventurers, and they were slated to launch in their own series. In order to give that series a strong send-off, Shooter, who helped develop the Team America concept for comics, decided that these super-bikers would appear in an issue of Captain America—perhaps because Cap rode a motorcycle, too?—and my job was to figure out a way to include them that didn’t seem forced or fake; a job that was made doubly difficult because, if I’m remembering correctly, the characters were just broad sketches at that point and there was no emotional or psychological hook to hang them on. Still, I did my best and I remain fond of the story I cooked up (this may be the only time you’ll ever encounter Friedrich Nieztsche as a character in a comic book), even if I would have preferred telling it without Team America.
I had a long, healthy run on the title—a little over three years—and I think the writing and art improved dramatically every month, as Zeck, Beatty, and I found our footing and developed a creative chemistry that resulted in stories that, to my eternal gratitude, fans still talk about and enjoy.
And it’s all because of Reb Brown!
©copyright 2023 J.M. DeMatteis