Captain America is as much a legacy and an ideal as an individual. Having such a split identity inherently creates problem—the stuff of dramatic tension; Cap’s not wholly unlike Spider-Man in that way. Add to that, however, the inextricably political and societal dimensions of Cap as a national treasure. Writers on the title have, since 1972 at least, dealt directly with America’s social and political ills, some more successfully than others, but none had ever explicitly addressed the deep-rootedness of our society’s systemic flaws until Mark Waid’s brief 1998/99 run. Yet it would take over another decade before they’d really be looked at again but without the naivete mainstream society could still afford in the 1990s.
Unlike the take-it-for-granted introduction of Cap to moviegoing audiences in 2011, the comics creators working on the monthly book over the decades knew that the concept of Captain America had increasingly become a hard sell. A superhero wearing a national flag screams nationalism, and yet Cap’s enemies—including his worst pretenders—are nationalists and ethno-fascists. He fights for “the American Dream,” and yet the last great run to seriously tout that idea without explicitly critiquing its foundations was Mark Waid’s in the late ’90s (although he does criticize how inaccessible it was becoming, leaving out a more honest look at American history until his superb Man Out of Time mini over a decade later).
In the 21st century, both concepts must struggle mightily for relevance.
From 1940 to 1946 and then from 1964 to today, Captain America has been Steve Rogers—excepting several brief but notable gaps. Steve’s struggle as a time-displaced individual and symbol grappling with modernity is the raison d’être for the character, the heart of his quiddity. The inner drama was handled poorly by Silver Age creators—yes, including Jack Kirby, king of epics, not psyches. The symbolic tensions, however, are undeniably there from the start, even in the Golden Age if you take the time to look at it (like Michael Chabon did in the classic American novel The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, 2000).
So, before getting started on the 10 best Cap stories or runs of all time, it’s worth considering here that—excepting some alternate-reality versions—Captain America has always been a white man, except for Falcon’s brief tenure under the mantle—or in the shadow of it. And Nick Spencer’s depiction of Sam as Cap isn’t without serious problems; it was a watershed moment and only fitfully articulate on the serious subjects it sought to tackle. Moreover, the run was overshadowed by and dependent upon his failed two-year project on the Skull’s Cosmic Cube recreation of Steve Rogers as a fascist sleeper agent from early childhood.
The silver lining is that it ultimately landed Cap in the hands of not only the first African-American writer on the book but also a timely and vital novelist, essayist, and public intellectual—that rarest of phenomena throughout America’s history and a role largely filled in the US by minorities, when pursued with integrity.
Speaking of which: Honorable mention 1: Truth: Red, White & Black (which is out of print in trade, bizarrely). It chronicles the origins of the super-soldier serum, calling back to actual science experiments by white doctors on black men, beginning with the Golden Generation, many of whom fought and died far from home for the world’s freedom from fascists. (Story by Robert Morales.)
And still, the possibility of a female Cap, a queer Cap, an Asian Cap—all of these and more should feel inevitable.
[Captain America: Man Out of Time #3, by Mark Waid, Jorge Molina, Karl Kesel, Scott Hanna, Frank D’Armata; cover by Bryan Hitch, 2011]In Man Out of Time, longtime Cap writer Mark Waid has Cap discovered and thawed out at the turn of the 21st century, not 1964. The focus is on what this does to Cap’s mental state, persuading modern readers by the juxtaposition between the 1940s and the 1990s. Look closely, and you’ll see how Waid puts Steve through the five stages of grief (Although this theory has since been debunked, it’s no less effective here). His initial leery denial turns giddy—after he’s shot by a teen girl. Once Steve’s convinced, he’s quietly angry—but then hopeful of bargaining his way out of the entire situation—via Reed Richards’ time travel tech. But Stark and the President outbargain him, somewhat cruelly. In his depression, in a rainy Arlington cemetery, Cap finds little consolation in Thor’s speech about the honor of death in battle. And Stark’s rosy speech about American culture and history since WWII, is later balanced, depressingly but truthfully, by details on racial violence, corporate greed, and political corruption. So when he inadvertently ends up back in NYC 1945, he can no longer unsee the darker aspects of that earlier era.
After realizing an ingenious method to get back to where he really belongs now—helping his new teammates in their dire battle against Kang—Cap returns in time to help forge the Avengers into “a tight-knit unit.” Adjusting to the modern era, he makes time for himself, hiking in the desert, reflecting on and letting go of the past—as he soldiers on with stoic acceptance.
While Waid’s social commentary is by turns devastating and clumsy, this master of Marvel continuity impeccably interleaves the exploration of Steve’s interiority with the backdrop of his classic early battles alongside the Avengers.
Honorable mention 2: No Longer Alone by Jim Steranko, 1969.
Steve Englehart’s Cap run is most famous for his “Secret Empire” arc with Nixon as villainous mastermind, but it’s his opening four-issue arc that I find most compelling—and a less gonzo place to start! Falcon is bewildered to find his best friend Captain America indiscriminately beating up on folks in Harlem—while knowing that the real Cap’s supposed to be on vacation. And this comes at a time when Sam is conflicted about his own role as Cap’s partner. But the red, white, and blue pretender turns out to be the 1950s Cap, whom Englehart introduces here as the answer to Cap’s unexplained published appearances in 1953/54. It’s a pitiful story of a zealous Cap fan devastated by his hero’s apparent death and upset by those who dared pick up the mantle in his wake, prompting him to obsessively research Cap’s life until finding the formula for the super-soldier serum—and experimenting on himself. Creepier yet, as a history teacher, Burnside persuaded a young student to be injected as well and take on the identity of Bucky, just so they could fight commies in America, or those who lacked “pureblood.” These self-entitled warriors went off the deep end, but the government managed to put them on ice, until a 1972 America Firster thawed them out.
I can’t overstate how important this story is to Cap’s mythos moving forward, seeding future variations on the theme of Cap’s legacy and identity. It was the first time another person was identified behind the mantle, which becomes a device to show the kind of mature, even-keeled temperament required to take it on responsibly (think Spidey!). Englehart, Marvel’s most explicitly political writer at the time, used the title to dynamically deconstruct the dark side of patriotism and other forms of chauvinism—which isn’t to say that he fully addressed America’s worst social ills. But modern readers will find much to grapple with. (Caveat: #153’s opening pages involve Englehart wrapping up a previous author’s subplot, with Nick Fury acting like a melodramatic 1950s teenager paranoid over “his girl’s” loyalty. Ick.)
Honorable mention 3: Madbomb by Jack Kirby, 1976
After Englehart’s run, Cap’s title lost its way in mediocrity for a handful of years, making his revitalization courtesy writer Roger Stern and artist John Byrne that much more refreshing. Starting with #247, they started constructing a private life for Steve; it’s surprising Marvel hadn’t figured out that particular formula for success earlier, given how beloved Peter Parker had been for decades! Bernie Rosenthal, a Jewish artist and Steve’s new apartment neighbor, becomes his love interest, making her a compelling variation on MJ. (Sharon had been presumed dead since a 1979 plot involving Dr. Faustus and Burnside.) Overall, though, the brief Stern/Byrne era feels almost aggressively normal following a career of mostly zany stories in which Cap’s personality and interiority take a backseat to big, nutty ideas and set-pieces. Stern/Byrne’s tales are mostly fluffy light, with Byrne’s clean, bold pencils lending the episodic proceedings a visual cohesion and accentuating the self-conscious nostalgia of Stern’s scripting, delivering a rare treat for the time.
Their best issue is #250, “Cap for President!” It’s not nearly as substantive as later writing on the politics of Cap’s legacy, but it was the character’s first encounter in the spotlight of campaign politics. Unsurprisingly, Cap makes the wise decision and steers clear of party-centric partisanship, arguing that he represents and fights for “the American Dream”—a more grassroots approach, let’s say? Well, that’s the one major flaw of the Stern/Byrne run: They don’t even attempt to deal with the systemic inaccessibility of this ideal, to say nothing of its history and contradictions, much less the problem of simply entering “Captain America” on the ballot. But it’s all in good-natured fun for the kids! It’s success, and it’s shortcoming.
Early depictions of Steve’s pre-Cap background are found in issues #247, 250, and 255, while details on Cap’s time with the Invaders is backgrounded in #253-254, which is interesting because while readers knew about this period in detail Cap hadn’t until the recent return of his memories. (Caveat: On the last page of #254, there’s a weird sort of loving eulogy for the glory days of the British Empire. Ack!)
Inspired by the development of Steve’s personal life but otherwise vastly different, J.M. DeMatteis’ run, occasionally intermittent from 1981-1984, did take a few issues to find its footing, but DeMatteis soon proved intrigued and more than capable with exploring Cap’s recently remembered past—starting with Steve’s Brooklyn childhood. Arnie Roth, a gay Jewish man, was the first person from this backstory who fans really got to know and care about; his friendship with Steve is detailed in the single best issue of the era, #270, “Someone Who Cares.” He becomes a supporting player for the duration of JMD’s run, as does Vermin, first appearing in #272, which also takes on urban violence and decay. The subject is tackled bluntly, but JMD is noted throughout the industry as one of its most conscientious creators, kind of a misfit as an outspoken pacifist—which actually makes him perfect for Captain America. After all, the most serious pacifists are veterans.
The first half of JMD’s run is drawn by Mike Zeck, whose distinctive style does resonate somewhat with Byrne’s in its bold, clean lines—generally steering clear from aestheticizing urban hardship without avoiding its bleakness. The talented Paul Neary took over thereafter but didn’t find his footing until after the disaster of between JMD and editorial. His last arc was poorly wrapped up by a fill-in writer, but it would have been the springboard Cap’s epic deconstruction of superheroics and celebration of pacifism, as well as the first try at the famous question of Brubaker’s era: Who Will Wield the Shield? It would have been between Falcon and a new Native American character whose continued existence almost no one but JMD remembers. Still, what readers did see was the fascinating introduction of the Skull’s daughter Sin and the recently minted Baron Zemo depicted as weak-kneed before the senior Nazi’s nihilistic fascism.
The good-hearted JMD’s grappling with social issues is sometimes awkward, but it remains a real strength of the run, as does his further development of Steve’s private life. Bernie’s discovery that he’s really Cap results in a surprising but subtly portrayed moment of emotional vulnerability. The only regrettable error is the well-intended resolution to Sam’s brainwashing by the Red Skull and his Cosmic Cube years before; while Sam seems to free himself at last from the overexploited self-doubt over his true identity as good or bad (represented by the horribly cliched pimp Snap Wilson), the device that catalyzes this resolution is Sam’s campaign for Congress. I know JMD wouldn’t see it as setting up this early black superhero to fail spectacularly at his progressive, grassroots political campaign, but that’s what it feels like.
(Note: MCU Baron Zemo bears little resemblance to the Prussian son of the original Nazi Zemo responsible for Cap and Bucky’s end in fire and ice, 1945.)
Artist Paul Neary hit his peak with the first two years of Mark Gruenwald’s decade-plus run, beginning with issue #307, and his consistent visuals gave the title a rare narrative cohesion from the early issues detailing Jack Monroe going rogue and the formation of the fabulously freaky Serpent Society of amoral criminals through the famous Scourge Saga that wrapped up with #320 and was a kind of covert commentary on Punisher and the growing clamor among fans for Cap to be more like the Regan era’s pop culture hero, Rambo. This stretch of what’s really the purest fun the title’s ever seen is sort of like a first season. Already, Gruenwald was beginning to touch on themes he’d develop more fully over the next few years. Elsewhere, his Squadron Supreme maxiseries and his use of Scourge in Cap preceded Alan Moore’s Watchmen by about a year, but it seems both creator were tapping into the same burgeoning dissident zeitgeist. However, it might be easy to (dis)miss in the Gruenwald work because of its fun Saturday morning cartoon veneer.
On the other hand, Gruenwald’s first two years on the title also saw Cap at his most impossibly idealized, even portrayed as a Boy-Scout champion of white bread and milk.
Caught Between Super-Patriots & Anti-Patriots: Watchdogs vs. John Walker vs. OG Cap vs. Flag-Smasher!
The saga of the rise and fall of John Walker—from showboating as Super-Patriot to relinquishing the mantle of Captain America—is nicely bookended by the strangely one-dimensional anarcho-libertarian terrorism of Flag-Smasher and his ULTIMATUM. (The trades don’t quite reflect this “long season” as such, but it runs from #321-350.) This is the height of the Gruenwald run and its most forwardly political—which it also makes it a bit awkward. Gruenwald was an excellent and instinctive storyteller, but his messaging is often garbled, because it’s not fully worked out. As noted above, Gruenwald started out with an idealized Cap, which reaches its endpoint with him fatally shooting a maniacal terrorist. Bizarrely, he says it’s the first time he’s ever killed; this is a WWII vet who, pre-Comics Code, wielded machineguns in battle. But post-1964, Cap was intended to be the peacetime hero of an affluent society that still hasn’t managed to accept its status as history’s most secure and far-reaching empire. Still, Cap coping with the death and continuing his mission are really well-handled, almost cinematically immersive.
Since 1972, Cap had developed a rich psychology and ever-evolving set of beliefs. But Gruenwald regressed the terms of the debate with Flag-Smasher, whose antinationalism on its face should’ve felt as palatable during the Cold War as it does now. I think the appeal is supposed to be apparent, but the means are beyond silly; real-world critics of nationalism actually develop ideas for what could replace it. But at least Falcon & Winter Soldier is doing something more compelling with the source material!
What’s really great about these issues, though—also reflected in the current TV show—is the rise and fall of John Walker, who has quite a different origin and background than the MCU version. He’s a charismatic everyman, at first, very pompous and green-eared, foolishly presuming himself “old man” Cap’s superior. His hubris here carries the tale as Cap quits over the government attempting to “own” him and they turn to John, the showboating Super-Patriot, to pick up the mantle. So, for the second time in the modern comics an unworthy replacement steps in for a time to show us that only Steve, with his long-suffering experience and hard-won wisdom, is the man for the job. (That said, these early stories of John Walker, the future U.S.Agent, are fascinating. Unsurprisingly, Lemar Hoskins hasn’t seen anything like equal development.)
Waid’s Cap shares a good deal in common with Gruenwald’s, at least in terms of the focus on where present-day America might be headed. The future just kept coming faster. But Waid is far more eloquent on political and social matters, as well as a better crafter of narrative and story beats, especially when collaborating with Ron Garney and Andy Kubert. His run weaves a layered, thematic whole, bookended by conflict with the Red Skull—although the latter story does fall apart before the end (for time-travel reasons, too much of a go-to for Waid). Focusing on the themes, however, it most clearly articulates who Cap is and what he stands for, inspired by the interpretations of previous classic runs but seen through the late ’90s lens of well-meaning but naïve Democratic liberalism. Following the brief but egregious reboot Heroes Reborn, Waid returned to the title in 1998 with superior material cinematically portrayed by Garney’s mature style, no longer restrained by the mid-90s disaster of the gratuitous splash-page fetish. This soft reboot also saw Marvel’s strongest condemnation yet of American domestic terror and racism.
But the hopeful naivete of Waid’s Cap would soon become impossible, in the age of the War on Terror. It’s so glaring in part because there’s little focus on developing a supporting cast—except very superficially but savvily enough with the Ramirez family—so the run clearly hearkens back to making the title a vehicle of ideas and ideals. Complicating this idealism and most surprisingly never resolving it, #13 is the strongest single issue for its portrayal of Cap colliding with party politics corrupted by the usual special interests—and A.I.M. too!
Caveat: Revealed to be alive at the start of Waid’s run, Sharon hints at the sordid and degrading details of her years-long absence, but it’s never explored at all, not even the emotional toll it must’ve taken on her. This is the biggest unforced error of his time on the book (#444-454; vol.3 #1-19). She’s now hardened and cynical, most strongly depicted in her reaction to Cap’s defense of “the American dream.” It’s almost as if she represents the extreme ’90s antihero. But there’s an anxious undercurrent to this subtext that now feels like a prescient cultural moment.
(The trade collecting this middle part of Waid’s run includes 1998’s Iron Man & Captain America Annual, and it reads like that light as air but sophisticated Saturday morning cartoon, a subgenre vibe perfected by writers Kurt Busiek, Rogert Stern, and Mark Waid. And yet it manages to highlight the moral contrast between its titular heroes in illuminating ways, a harbinger of the next decade.)
America changed, and so did its myths. At Marvel, this was clearly reflected in Ed Brubaker’s legendary run on Captain America, 2004-2012. The grey cast of Cap’s WWII past fit this new era all too well, suggesting—alongside other products of our time—the 1950s are closer to the modern postwar era than we like to think. The revelation that Bucky never died but went on to be captured by the Soviets, reforged into a weapon with no will of his own, and then sold to the highest bidder with the collapse of the Soviet empire is the tale of the countless forgotten soldiers, literal and figural, that were ultimately pawns of the Great Game played by superpowers and powerbrokers.
Almost wholly penciled by the similar but distinct neo-noir stylings of Steve Epting and Scott Eaton, the run has an extraordinary cohesiveness considering it lasted the better part of a decade. Even Bryan Hitch’s work on the integral Captain America: Reborn mini fits perfectly—the symphonic crescendo of the Brubaker era.
This is my favorite Cap run, and it might be Ta-Nehisi Coates’ too, because he and Andy Kubert draw a lot from this era—in wholly original ways, and with much greater societal and political insight.
The long, opening “Winter Soldier” arc was never quite matched by the rest of Brubaker’s run, but you really should just read it straight through. I don’t like how much the word epic is tossed around, but that’s what this era of Cap ultimately is. It’ll be nigh-impossible to top!
Honorable mention 4: Marvels Project by Ed Brubaker—the Golden Age of comics never looked so grey and gritty. A hard-hitting piece of super-science WWII history that retells Marvel’s origins.
Would a black superhero really see 2015 as America at its most divided? Is it sensible to focus on privatized “Americops” at the expense of a real examination of America’s police state as it already exists? And what about having Sam take up the mantle while knowing he’d be sabotaged throughout by Hydra Cap and that it would be insultingly short-lived? After all, it’s never ended well for previous “pretenders” or “substitutes.” There was also a structural problem with Nick Spencer’s Sam Wilson: Captain America (2015-2017): Marvel was so saturated with company-wide events at this point that the two-year series embroiled itself deeply with the three of them, each one more dragged-out and enervating than the last. Steve’s ongoing title never had to deal with so much outside interference. Was even this a subtextual point from Spencer? Did he just want to show that Sam wouldn’t a fair chance—by not giving him one? Perhaps there’s a world where Marvel let the architect of Secret Empire fully carry through with the convictions that seemed to be roiling up through the euphemistic superhero tropes over the previous two years, but this is what happened instead: Sam gave up the shield to Marvel’s “true Cap” and then faded back to obscurity.
But for all its flaws, this brief run was a pivotal moment: There had finally been a Captain America of color. (A statement that encapsulates an unfortunately inevitable brevity.) The first eight issues were awkward: Following his announcement of a Cap hotline—echoing the start of Gruenwald’s run—Sam was inundated with political and racial hatred; and yet readers never actually saw what specific stances he took in public (beyond protecting immigrants after the furor had already started); then, he turned into a werewolf and ended up appeasing a villainous corporation “too big to fail.” Next, it was gonzo event time: the intriguing but poorly executed Pleasant Hill event, which saw Steve Rogers secretly and retroactively replaced with Hydra’s supreme sleeper agent, courtesy the Red Skull’s Cosmic Cube, which thought of itself as a little girl. It was a weird time. Though to be fair, not just in the comics.
Best of the series by far is issue #10: the funeral of Jim Rhodes, War Machine and before that Iron Man, two armored identities that offer up their own kind of racialized contrast. But the main event is Sam’s speech on Rhodey’s career, which so clearly echoed his, stepping into a white man’s shadow rather than being a spotlight unto himself. But then, that’s a critique of the standard notion of heroism generally: Why’s autonomy valorized when being heroic is about helping others? Sam doesn’t just represent abstract ideals—that was what Steve’s always done, even as Hydra Supreme. In his public identities, Sam potentially represents a community of communities across the nation. But that groundedness is consistently sabotaged by the author, and it’s not really a focus until the Falcon run by TV veteran Rodney Barnes, which was canceled. So, while Spencer offers up his signature continuity-made-fun storytelling, when it comes to addressing reality he weirdly falls on his face and “both-sides” every important issue into a nebulous mess. There are problems at the heart of Sam Wilson: Captain America that still haven’t found a clear and direct telling at Marvel Comics. Until that happens, what’s here—a tormented but ultimately milquetoast appeasement to the frail shrillness of white supremacy on Twitter—couldn’t be more relevant to how mainstream America, that fitfully evolving behemoth, continues to tell itself stories of truth and power.
For now, the master of that kind of telling within the general mythos of Marvel’s Mightiest Heroes remains Ta-Nehisi Coates, as seen throughout his Captain America vol.8 #1-30 (2018-2021). The inversion of Spencer’s disaster manages to be both more provocative and more subtle, and it’s also a stronger narrative; wholly unencumbered by outside Marvel events, the entire run unfolds with a darkly cinematic majesty helped along by highly consistent visual storytelling. It’s ultimately meant to be read as a single whole.
The conceit is obvious: Steve must rectify his reputation even as much of white America continues to believe in and regret the loss of Hydra Cap. It also begins with the widow of the Red Skull’s previous host, Ed Brubaker’s Aleksander Lukin, back to life and setting her up as the Ice Queen to his Macbeth. This couldn’t be more perfect for our own time: Old guard Russians getting in bed with their historic worst foes, the fascists, to usher along the inner rot of their shared geopolitical enemy, ultimately unleashing the Skull as a charismatic white men’s rights Internet troll. There’s also the refreshing development of an ensemble supporting cast that’s primarily female, under the nom de guerre The Daughters of Liberty. Initially, Steve is on the run, framed for the political murder of a representative of America’s most corrupt administration, and these heroines named for early American freedom fighters are crucial in rescuing Captain America from a supermax prison overseen by the execrable Social Darwinist Baron Strucker.
Early on, Ta-Nehisi frankly addresses one of the most uncomfortable truths about the appeal of Hydra Cap without making the obvious parallel that I will: Under Hydra, white working-class America benefited from housing, food, and jobs, Hydra’s way of justifying their coup against democracy. That’s exactly how organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State make inroads. But it’s also how white supremacy has always worked: Powerful interests give just enough to those whose skin is the same color so that they fight to hold on to what’s actually a pitifully meager portion of the pie by directing their rage and violence against poor folk of color, as if it’s the fault of minorities that they have so little—not the 1% toying with our lives as distraction from who really owns us.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has added an exciting, powerful, critical chapter to our mythography of superheroism, and it will be a tough but necessary act to follow.