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Saturday, May 7, 2016

Cover Story - Top 10 Silver Age Captain America Covers

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This Friday marks the premiere of Captain America: Civil War.  It’s a major event, the first Marvel film of 2016 and the launch of their 3rd phase that will climax in the epic Infinity War two-parter.  What’s more, this is the first big, multi-hero Marvel film after Avengers: Age of Ultron, which was good but received a less than stellar reception from fans and at the box office, losing out to Jurassic World and Star Wars: Force Awakens in the year end wrap up.  There’s a lot riding on this but at the same time, Captain America has emerged to be the superhero of the 2010s, embodying the ideal of the superhero within the cultural zeitgeist in a way few others have. 

Chris Evans’ Captain America is right up there with Christopher Reeve’s Superman, Michael Keaton Batman, and Toby McGuire’s Spider-Man as the living symbol and ambassador of this whole genre.  Given that wait and circumstance, let’s celebrate this turn of events with another dive into the shallow end to get the Cover Story on the top 10 Silver Age Captain America covers.

We open with a tie, always a good sign that.  If you’re wondering why Captain America’s big premiere is coming at issue #100 it’s because prior to this the comic Cap appeared in was titled Tales of Suspense.  That goes with the territory of these covers being from the Silver Age, meaning a time in the ‘60s when superheroes were returning to prominence.  As the concept wasn’t fully re-cemented yet, Marvel was still putting out weird science and adventure anthology comics up to the mid-‘60s, so when Cap took over Tales of Suspense his name went on the top but the numbering stayed the same. 

Both of these covers are take-offs of the same basic “running at the reader” concept but put together in radically different ways.  The one on the left speaks to Cap as he was known at the time these were published, the star spangled leader of the Avengers, flanked by his superhero compatriots.  Meanwhile, the cover on the right features Cap bursting out of an old newspaper strip with Jack Kirby’s design on his physicality and proportions.  The right hand cover is meant overall as a throwback to the classic Cap comics from the ‘40s when the character first debuted, hence why it’s promising his “secret origin.”  Remember, by this point in comics history most of the readership hadn’t even been born when Captain America first debuted. 

While the visual design of a hero running at the reader is old hat now, covers like this are what popularized that image in the first place.  They both dig into unique identities Captain America has had as a character, from his time as a ‘40s mystery man out of the headlines to his leadership of the Avengers.  Overall, a good first step in our look at Cap covers of the Silver Age.

This is a bizarre cover as it features from Frank Giacola and Jack Kirby.  The art around Cap is clearly drawn from Kirby’s style, emphasizing bold inks and stance along with a unique blend of craggily and firm lines.  However, Cap himself is a little bit more mixed, with his lower half coming straight from the Kirby school but his upper body looking a lot less define in Kirby’s style.  

As for the actual content this is a great example of how Marvel was working to push the envelope on how covers worked in the ‘60s.  The idea of a cover presenting us with a vast montage of images conveying a single story was thoroughly unheard of at the time.  This cover has more in common with a movie poster than the whimsical covers endemic to the Silver Age.  I especially like the design of Red Skull’s blaster, the way it cuts across the stage and helps obscure Bucky standing over his own grave.

In addition to the unique content, the color work on this cover is really experimental.  Again, at the time coloring was all very literal and often washed out owing to the process of inking.  This color work, much like the cover overall, is much more impressionistic, trying to capture the mood and horror of this situation rather than the literal character colors.  I especially like the freaky sallow yellow light dabbing across the icey, anemic blue of the cover, all backed up by that deep midnight indigo of the top background. 

Here’s a cover that’s a lot more I line with what you’d expect to see out of Silver Age covers, especially from Marvel.  Firstly, the design of this image, the double layer of the well detailed and medium scale action in the foreground complimented by a fairly simple background surrounding, is core to Marvel’s groundbreaking approach to cover art in the ‘60s.  

What’s more, this is actually a pretty reserved situation for a comic of the day, given that all Cap is doing is punching out Nazis on motorcycles.  For comparison, this is the same era where Superman would routinely turn into an animal man or shoot rainbows from his fingers to make tiny versions of himself. 

What really sets this cover apart from the time though is the situation, in that Cap is fighting an obvious stand-in for the Hell’s Angels.  That’s part of what that little green inter-title in the upper right hand corner is about when it says “the time is now!”  See, part of Marvel’s appeal to older readers is that it was set in a superhero version of the real world.  Time would pass for the characters and we’d also see them interact with real people and real events.  

The Avengers once met Letterman, Spider-Man teamed up with Jon Belusci, that kind of thing.  For Cap, most of his stories dealt with parallels but he would usually end up facing down an obvious stand-in for real world events, like the time it turned out Nixon was part of an evil organization known as the Secret Empire.  No good covers from that particular story I'm afraid but Cap putting the hurting on a transparent riff on the Hell’s Angels is still pretty great. 

One of the weird things about the Captain America mythos is how important werewolves are to it.  Seriously, after all the big stuff like the Winter Soldier or World War 2 one of the most quintessential Captain America stories involves wolfed out heroes and it all starts here, with this.  

In case you couldn’t tell, that’s Cap’s best friend the Falcon turned into a deadly werewolf monster on the cover, though I like that becoming a werewolf in no way robbed him of his afro, just like in real life.  I’m also pretty sure that Nightshade, the assumed queen of the werewolves, is the first example of really skimpy costumes in comics. 

Overall, this cover is shockingly emblematic of this era in Captain America comics.  You’ve got the focus on more black character like Nightshade, the first woman of color superhero, much like how Falcon was the first black superhero.  The werewolf set-up is spot on for the weird blend of sci-fi and mysticism that informed a lot of Cap stories in this era.  

And the basic design of the cover is all about segmenting the central image, creating a vague sense of depth through the vertical split between Cap and Nightshdae and werewolf Falcon.  Incidentally, Falcon-Wolf would later return just this year because, as I said, you’re not really Captain America if you’re not fighting werewolves.

This is another major segment of Cap’s mythos, the idea of him moving through several identities beyond that of Captain America.  It happened most famously when Cap learned that Nixon was part of a secret criminal empire and so chose to retire and become Nomad.  This issue didn’t lead to any continuous change, despite the big, showy caption box at the bottom of the page, but it sums up the question of identity that’s always plagued Cap very well.  

What’s more, this is one of the most modern comic designs to come out of this particular era.  A lot of this is indicated through scale; most comic covers of the era tend to be zoomed out to showcase detail  but as things progressed they got more and more zoomed in to emphasize detail.  In this case, we’re so close in that you can’t even see the full uniforms or all of Cap’s body. 

The cop vs. Cap dilemma at hand is also one of the better moral questions for the Captain to address.  Other times he gave up his identity it was a matter of responsibility, him feeling unable to represent America due to moral corruption or being caught up in the job of running SHIELD or the like.  However, Cap wanting to give up the life of a costume avenger to just live as Steve Rogers is a much more personal choice and the option of becoming a cop even robs the decision of any moral question as he’d still be helping people. 

Now this cover is a pitch perfect rendition of the style of the time, with maybe just a hint of that Marvel modernization.  The design is all about emphasizing insanity through the fantastical imagery and surrealist nature of the basic set-up.  The big difference is that the image on hand isn’t literal so much as it’s an impression of what’s happening inside Cap’s mind.  You’ve got the faces of his many enemies like Red Skull and Baron Zemo, along with the looming face of Bucky representing his one major failure.  

You’ve also got the face of MODOK and some random gillman down between Cap’s legs, I don’t know what that’s about but it’s cool and freaky.  Al of this is enhanced by the weird black and yellow spiral well formed behind him.  It’s all meant to symbolize Cap losing his mind to something called the mad bomb, a device that rips you through your worst fears and memories and the other standard super villain stuff.  I also really like that the inter-title describing this as the “most soul-searing saga of all” which is some good hyperbole.  Another great example of the cover making stylistic concessions to the times is the speech balloons. 

He’s a cover so core and quintessential to the art of cover design it’s still employed today.  Like a lot of the more groundbreaking covers on hand a big part of what sets this cover apart is the segmentation it creates for the central image.  You can tell it’s still being drawn from a standpoint of classical cover design as the characters are presented in their entirety but the fact that they take up so much of the cover and are so heavily detailed (look at the chainmail design on Cap’s costume) is a good example of how things were progressing. 

What’s more, this is just a great example of the metaphorical cover being used to great impact.  Obviously, this comic isn’t literally about someone ripping a photo of Cap and Falcon in two but that’s a great central image to build the story out of.  It’s a perfect visual metaphor for the hero’s friendship being torn apart by whatever situation they’re going into.  I do like that the caption felt the need to double down on this message with “Cap  and Falcon Split Up,” which, incidentally, makes it sound a lot more like they’re a couple than they actually are. 

If you’re only familiar with the Falcon through the movies you can see how different his uniform here is from what it would become down the line.  The movie Falcon costume is drawn heavily from the Ultimate universe but the new one we’ve seen in Civil War is at least moderately based on this original costume.  The whole idea of Sam as a bird dude was way more emphasized in the classic designs, to the point his gloves and boots were talons and his mask featured an actual beak.  Also, this is the only time we’ve gotten a look at his pet Falcon Red Wing, whom he can speak with for unaccountable reasons. 

This is about as classic a cover as you can possibly get.  In case you’re only familiar with the films, Captain America isn’t actually tiny in this cover (although that could easily be the case and is a good guess on your part) instead this is another metaphorical cover.  See, that cube Red Skull is holding is called the Cosmic Cube, a weapon of unimaginable power in the Marvel comics universe.  

A lot of folks thought the Tesseract from the various Marvel films was the Cosmic Cube before it was revealed to be one of the Infinity Stones.  The Cosmic Cube was created by Red Skull and his science minions AIM and has the power to reshape reality to fit the user’s every thought.  It’s a supremely deadly and destructive weapon and one of the cooler McGuffins knocking about the MCU. 

Red Skull creating and using the Cosmic Cube is one of the fundamental classic Captain America stories just on the basis of all the imagination it took to keep him from just wiping Captain America out of existence.  I suspect that’s part of why we never saw the cube in the films, it’s monumentally overpowered and most stories involving it rely heavily on the villain being too prideful or stupid to use it effectively.  Still, this is a great image, spawning the villainous power pose and helping cement the iconography of the cosmic cube and the Red Skull as key components of the Cap mythos for decades to come. 

See now, this is the kind of stuff superhero movies just never manage to get around to adapting.  Captain America, throwing down with his exact duplicate in the midst of some kind of jungle/memorial setting, that’s good stuff right there.  In all honesty this is a pretty brilliant and evocative image that unquestionably wormed its way into the core concepts of Cap’s overall history and identity.  The idea of their being more than one Captain America is something that’s still with us even now and this is where it got its start.  

I think the reason it works so well is that it just makes sense.  Even if the Cap serum was lost there’s no reason we wouldn’t try and get someone else to throw on the suit and fight for truth, justice, and the American way so I’m sure there’d be plenty of additional Captain Americas floating around the place.  What’s more, the idea of multiple Caps allows the writers to have their cake and eat it too, exploring elements of Captain America’s identity that you couldn’t do with the main version. 

In this case, Cap is throwing down with a hero who came in to replace him after he disappeared near the end of World War 2.  Like I said, the US government knew Cap was a damn useful PR asset and a powerful hero so they decided to get some other guy to fill out the costume and even run missions for them through the end of the war and into the ‘50s.  ‘50s Cap was a weird concept but a nice way to create a morally compromised government service version of Cap for the real one to smack down.  Plus it made for great visuals like this one so here’s hoping he gets worked into the films eventually.

If you want a single point where comic covers transitioned from weird, jokey, fantastical nonsense to more emotionally and character driven visuals it’s right here.  A memorial to Captain America framed against a sickly green sky and the mournful billowing of a dead tree, with his sidekick Bucky weeping at the grave of the fallen hero.  It’s an amazing cover that’s every bit as out there as the classics of the Silver Age while drawing its shocking nature from ideas steeped in the emotion of the situation and the characters. 

I’ve covered many covers of the Silver Age were built around the idea of being so bizarre and shocking that someone looking through them at a news rack would be compelled to stop and buy the book.  The idea was to present the customer with a crazy shocking image that you had to read the comic to understand.  That’s exactly what this cover is doing, the only difference is that rather than working off body transformations, cruel jokes, or comedy turns it’s a dark and sobering vision of a world gone wrong. 

Captain America dead is about as effective a gut punch as one can theoretically render but having him not only dead but his grave surrounded by Hyrda agents hunting down his emotionally broken sidekick takes things to a whole new level.  This is about as dark as comics were allowed to get at the time while promising a chilling story that may not have a happy ending.  From the very beginning Marvel had pitched itself as the place where comics grew up, this is where that promise paid off.      
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