Wednesday, April 17, 2024


The latest volume of Marvel Masterworks—collecting more of my Captain America run with the great team of Mike Zeck and John Beatty—is on sale today.  I wrote an introduction for the collection and you can read it below.

I have a lot to say about the stories collected in this volume, and about the many people, both real and fictional, who helped shape them.  And I have to start with…


Mike Zeck and John Beatty

I don’t care how good a comic book story is, if a writer doesn’t have a superb art team to bring it to life, it’s simply not going to work.  I’ve had great stories of mine collapse under the weight of the wrong artist and I’ve had mediocre stories lifted to undreamed of heights by brilliant visual storytelling.  And if you’re looking for brilliant visual storytelling, Mike Zeck is your guy. 

It took a few issues for Zeck and I to find each other, for our creative voices to blend, but, when they did, our creative collaboration became, and remains, one of the finest of my long career.  There are a handful of superhero artists as good as Mike, but there are none better.  (An added bonus:  Mike is an extraordinarily nice guy.  Over time we became friends as well as collaborators.)

But just as a writer and artist need to find that magical balance, so do a penciler and inker.  John Beatty’s beautiful linework, his ability to add mood and mystery, power and grace, to Mike’s work made for one of the great penciler-inker teams of the 1980s.


Mark Gruenwald

When editor Jim Salicrup handed the Captain America reins over to Mark, I couldn’t have been happier.  (Zeck and I reunited with Jim—another candidate for The Nicest Guy In Comics—a few years later for Kraven’s Last Hunt, but that’s another introduction for another time.)  Mark was one of the first editors I worked with at Marvel—back when he was Denny O’Neil’s assistant on Marvel Team-Up—and, from the start, he was warm and welcoming, smart and immensely creative.  More than that:  he loved comics.  So do you, I’m sure.  So do I.  But Mark loved them with an almost transcendent passion, an unbounded enthusiasm, that spilled over into everything he did.  He was an exuberant, supportive editor—always there to cheer me on when the stories were clicking or guide me back to safety if they were careening off the track—who made working on Captain America even more of a dream gig. 

I treasure my memories of working with Mark—who left us, far too soon, when he was only 43 (it seemed young then, it seems so much younger now)—and feel his loss to this day.  


Arnie Roth

Arnie Roth—Steve Rogers’ childhood best friend—made his debut in Captain America #270.  Arnie was one of the first gay characters in mainstream comics but, in bringing him into the story, I wasn’t trying to break new ground or Make A Major Statement About The Burning Issues Of The Day.  In fact, to my mind, bringing Arnie in wasn’t breaking new ground.  Captain America represented all of America.  His partner, The Falcon, was a Black man, his girlfriend, Bernie Rosenthal, was Jewish.  Why wouldn’t Steve have a dear friend who was gay?  And why wouldn’t he accept Arnie—and his relationship with his “roommate” Michael (it was the early 1980s, we had to tread carefully; thank God no such treading is necessary today)—with open arms.  It felt natural, absolutely true to our main character’s all-embracing world view.  So I guess you could say it was Steve who brought Arnie into the story, not me.  I just followed his lead.


Over the years, many people have told me just how much Arnie meant to them; how important it was to see themselves reflected, with respect and compassion, on the printed page.  Words can’t express how grateful I am that Arnie Roth touched their hearts and, in whatever small way, gave them hope and encouragement.


Arnie was also Jewish.  As we established in his introductory story, when Steve Rogers was a boy he spent as much time with the Roths as he did with his own family.  And perhaps that helped prepare him for the next hugely important member of our cast:


Bernie Rosenthal

Bernie was created by Roger Stern and John Byrne (more about them later), and, from the very start, there was something real, something relatable, about Bernie that drew me to her.  I knew Bernie, immediately understood and liked her.  (If the characters don’t become as real to a writer as his closest friends, he’s not doing his job.)  Despite the superhero trappings, the Steve-Bernie love affair felt genuine.  How could Steve not fall for this intelligent, kind, strong, and beautiful woman?  


Even today, Jewish characters in the media are often portrayed in a heavy-handed way, leaning into sometimes harmful cliches.  One of the things I appreciated about Bernie was that she wasn’t some “New Yawk” Jewish trope, she was a real, three-dimensional woman who also happened to be Jewish.  (The same, of course, can be said for Arnie.  He was a man first:  gay and Jewish second.)


Not that we shied away from dealing with Jewish issues:  Neo-Nazis and antisemitism are at the heart of several of the stories in this collection and the war between free speech and hate speech, between the American ideal and the America reality, proved challenging for both Steve Rogers and Captain America.  And that, of course, is what makes for powerful stories.  (How heartbreaking, how sickening, that these issues are even more prevalent today than they were in 80s.)


Baron Zemo

In Captain America #168, Roy Thomas, Tony Isabella, and Sal Buscema presented a one-off story about a vengeance-driven mystery villain called The Phoenix.  The very end of the story revealed that the Phoenix was none other than the son of Cap’s WW II-era enemy Baron Heinrich Zemo.  But the unnamed son died—falling into a vat of Adhesive X—never to be seen again.  Well, not for a good ten years, anyway.  Always on the lookout for a good villain, Zeck and I resurrected Henrich’s son, now named Helmut, and unleashed him on Cap.  It didn’t take long for Helmut to become one of the most formidable antagonists in Cap’s rogues gallery.


Themes of fathers and sons, of family dysfunction passed down from generation to generation, run through much of my work, and our new Baron Zemo—whose childhood was tortured, who projected his conflicted feelings about his abusive father onto Captain America—was a perfect vehicle to explore those themes.  He became an integral part of my run on the book, causing Steve Rogers pain right through to my final issue. 

I’m delighted that  our version of Zemo has gone on to a long, healthy life in the Marvel Universe, remaining one of the company’s most formidable, and memorable, villains.


The Falcon

In 1969, a few months after Sam Wilson made his debut in Captain America #117 (by Stan Lee and Gene Colan), a missive appeared on the Cap letters page from some kid from Brooklyn named DeMatteis.  It read, in part:  


Dear Stan and Gene, The Falcon is fabulous. He is by far the best thing you’ve come up with since the Silver Surfer…  Sam Wilson is destined for greatness.


A little fannish hyperbole there?  Perhaps.  But Sam Wilson was real breakthrough for Marvel— the first Black superhero to appear on the stands each and every month—and it made total sense that he would be co-starring in a book with Captain America.  Cap, as I’ve said time and again, represents the American dream, the best in of all of us, Black and white, male and female, Jewish, Christian, straight, gay:  all of us.  But Sam wasn’t just some token representation:  He was an interesting, dynamic character—a social worker, a man of conscience and compassion—who fourteen-year-old JMD instantly connected with (imagine the impact he had on young Black readers of the time) and, years after devouring those early  Falcon stories, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to add to Sam’s legend.


There was one major problem:  a story, done in the 1970s (one I hadn’t read till I was doing research when I took over the title), that said Sam Wilson wasn’t the kind, compassionate man we’d come to love.  He was a cheap hood, a street stereotype straight out of central casting, who had a personality overlay courtesy of the Red Skull and the cosmic cube .  Really? I thought.  This is how you treat a character of such weight and significance?  (To be fair, the writer who originated the storyline threw this plate in the air with the intention of giving future writers a powerful, if controversial, story point to develop however they chose.  There’s a good chance that, had he remained on the book, the “personality overlay” would have ultimately been revealed as a misdirection, a mind game being played by the Skull.)  I wanted to find some way to rectify that, all while staying true to continuity and adding some psychological depth and shading to The Falcon’s character.  The result was a three-part back-up story called “Snapping.”  I’ll leave it to you to decide if I succeeded, but I tried my very best to do right by Sam.


Stern, Byrne, and Shooter

Wait.  Roger Stern, John Byrne, and Jim Shooter didn’t work on any of these stories.  Well, they didn’t…and they did.  Which leads to the subtitle for this section:


The Dumbest Thing I’ve Ever Done In My Comics Career


Let me explain:  While I was still learning my craft at DC Comics, Jim Shooter (Marvel’s extraordinarily talented editor-in-chief at the time) read some of my samples and took an interest in my career.  He generously assigned me fill-in issues and also threw odd, interesting assignments my way.  My favorite was the two weeks I spent happily ensconced in Stan Lee’s office, helping with a Marvel legal suit against an animation company.  My assignment?  Watch cartoons and take notes.  Let me repeat that:  I was paid to sit in Stan Lee’s office and watch cartoons

Another of those assignments found me in then-editor Roger Stern’s office, where I was writing biographies of various Marvel icons (the reason why has long since escaped me).  Roger was a great guy and I was a huge fan of his writing.  His work on Spider-Man, Avengers, Doctor Strange, and, of course, Captain America remains some of the finest in the history of the MU.  During one of our conversations Roger talked about a Cap tale he and the incomparable John Byrne were working on—this was during their short-but-classic run—that featured Arnim Zola and his mutates.  Roger and John had plotted themselves into a corner:  Cap was trapped by Zola and the mutates and they couldn’t come up with a way to get him out of it.  Jim Shooter rode to the rescue by suggesting Cap give one of his famous speeches, inspiring the mutates to throw off their shackles and turn against their overlord.  The story never appeared because Roger and John left the book.  And that (I assumed.  And we’ll soon learn about the dangers of assuming) was the end of their involvement with Captain America.


A couple of years passed and I was working on Captain America #278—part of a massive story that involved our new Baron Zemo, Arnie, Bernie, Vermin (a character Zeck and I introduced in Cap #272 who would be vitally important to Kraven’s Last Hunt and other Spider-Man stories), two wonderfully weird Jack Kirby creations (Primus and Doughboy), and a gang of frenzied mutates.  Writing the plot, I found myself in a situation that echoed the one Roger had told me that day in his office:  Cap and Arnie were trapped by the mutates with no way out.  But, of course, there was a way out:  Jim Shooter’s way.  Since Stern and Byrne had moved on from the series, I assumed—there’s that word again—there was no problem using the “Cap inspires the mutates” idea, so I had Cap give a rousing speech that turned the tide of the battle.


Please know I had no intention of ripping my Cap predecessors off:  I wrote a lengthy text piece for the book’s letters page, explaining where the idea had come from and offering heartfelt thanks to Roger and Jim for their input.  But here’s what I didn’t know:


1)  By the time the book reached print, someone—I’m not sure who—cut my lengthy “thank you” down to a few rewritten lines at the bottom of the page.


2)  Roger and John were working on a Captain America graphic novel based on their Arnim Zola idea.  And my story?  It had completely torpedoed it.


Roger was understandably upset.  (I would have been apoplectic if I’d been in his shoes.)  I called him, groveled and apologized, and I hope, as the years have passed, that he’s forgiven and forgotten.  I certainly haven’t.  Four decades later and I still feel guilty about screwing up what I’m sure would have been an exceptional piece of work.


The lesson I learned?  In writing and in life, never assume.  If I’d just picked up the phone and called Roger, he would have told me about the in-process graphic novel, I would have come up with a different ending for that issue, and the entire mess would have been avoided.  


As I said:  The Dumbest Thing I’ve Ever Done In My Comics Career.


Odds and Ends

There are a few other stories in this volume that bear mentioning:  One is a Cap annual I wrote that was illustrated, with Kirbyesque dynamism, by Ron Wilson.  It featured every man who’d ever worn the Captain America uniform.  More important (to me, anyway), it brought back one of my favorite Kirby characters, the enigmatic cosmic entity known as Mr. Buda.

The late, great Dave Kraft offers up a couple of star-spangled tales—one a wrestling saga illustrated by Alan Kupperberg, the other a memorable two-parter (illustrated by Zeck and Beatty) that reunites Cap with Nick Fury and his Howling Commandoes.  And, as a bonus, we get a Roger McKenzie-Luke McDonnell “Cap vs. Nazis” tale that first appeared in Marvel Fanfare. 


I’d love to talk about our rebooting of the early Marvel villain, The Scarecrow (Mike Z’s opening pages for Cap #280 still thrill and delight me), Steve Rogers’ burgeoning career as a freelance artist, Bernie’s discovery of Cap’s true identity, the book’s wonderful supporting cast, a wide-eyed newcomer named Mike Carlin who became Mark G’s assistant, so much more—but I’ll save some of that for our next Masterworks.  For now, I’ll just say that—embarrassing tales of professional missteps aside—it was a joy reacquainting myself with these stories, remembering the magic of 1980s Marvel and the joy of working with exceptional creative partners like Mike Zeck, John Beatty, and Mark Gruenwald. 


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