10 Essential Eras of Captain America Comic Books
You might have heard that there’s a new Captain America movie coming out on April 4. If Marvel’s marketing department has gotten its way, this news may very well be tattooed on the inside of your eyelids in phosphorescent ink. Let’s say, however, you’ve never read any Captain America comics before, but now that he’s been legitimized as a multi-million dollar film franchise, you’re suddenly very interested in that dude with little wings on his head carrying around one of Uncle Sam’s rims.
Since being created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon all the way back in 1941, the hero also known as the Sentinel of Liberty has passed through the hands of some eminently talented writers, artists and editors. Some of these creative teams depicted Cap’s adventures for a few months — some of them for a few years — before passing the torch to the next creators to keep the flame (or trademark) alive. In comic books, these tenures are called “runs,” “series” or “eras,” and they’re the readers’ way of distinguishing one era of a character’s saga from the next. Chances are you’re not sure where to dive into a a publishing legacy that’s spanned more than 70 years, so here is a list, in chronological order, of the Sentinel of Liberty’s 10 most interesting and influential comic book runs.
1) Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Issues: Captain America Comics #1-10
Collected in: Golden Age Captain America Omnibus
As a singing nanny once told me, the beginning is a very good place to start. Here it is, the first appearance of Cap, in all his Hitler-punching glory. While these stories might seem crude to modern readers who aren’t used to Golden Age comics, the fact is, these were eye-opening tales by one of the most prolific and ground-breaking creative teams of the 1940s and ’50s. Each of these issues was jam-packed with stories that introduced such characters as Captain America himself, Bucky, the Red Skull, and some dudes very unfortunately known as “the ageless Orientals that wouldn’t die.” It was the 1940s… there’s sadly some racism.
2) Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Issues: Tales of Suspense #59-99, Captain America #100-109, 112
Collected in: Captain America Omnibus Volume 1
After Captain America’s return to the Marvel universe in the pages of The Avengers, he had a split feature with Iron Man in Tales of Suspense for a few years before finally taking over that title with issue 100. These stories represent Lee and Kirby at the height of their collaborative period, and while these stories may not have the explosive creativity found in the best issues of Fantastic Four or Thor, nevertheless these pages feature battles with the Red Skull and Baron Zemo, as well as the debut stories of the cosmic cube, the Super-Adaptoid, MODOK, and Batroc the Leaper.
3) Stan Lee and Jim Steranko
Issues: Captain America #110, 111, 113
Collected in: Captain America Omnibus Volume 1
Yes, only three issues, but if you’ve read Steranko’s Twitter, you know he’s done more with less. He sleeps just 16 minutes a day, doesn’t eat, and sustains himself only by inhaling the breath of someone who has just eaten a porterhouse steak and raw eggs. In these three issues, Steranko refined Kirby’s raw, energetic action tales into sleek pop-art masterpieces that also happened to be energetic action tales. Also, if Steranko is to be believed, in the three months in which these issues came out, there were no reported cases of cancer in America. Something to think about.
4) Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema, et al
Englehart’s run is perhaps best remembered for the story of “The Secret Empire,” which features the first time in which Steve Rogers gives up the role of Captain America (and hardly the last time—not even the last time on this list). This was truly a Cap for the ’70s, fueled by post-Watergate disillusionment with the government and questions about the viability of the American dream. But don’t worry if that sounds too heavy for you; the Secret Empire were still guys in hoods flying around in a UFO powered by the brains of kidnapped mutants.
5) Jack Kirby
Issues: Captain America #193-214, Annual #3-4; Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles
Collected in: Captain America By Jack Kirby Omnibus
I’ll just be up front: this is my favorite run on the whole list. The stories within these pages are blow-your-mind exciting, in the way only Kirby comics can be. Some might say that these issues are not the best Cap stories nor are these Kirby’s best work, but these people were clearly not paying attention when they saw the Mad Bomb cause a friendly arm-wrestling match between Cap and Falcon turn into a fist-fight, Tinkerbell and the Kill-Derby, Mister Buda showing Cap the Real America, the introduction of Arnim Zola, or the tiny man who lives in Magneto’s watch. These are thrilling, heart-pumping, bold, big-fisted, forced-perspectived action stories. Plus, if you’re looking for comics with the Falcon, he gets lots of page time here. But you don’t have to take my word for it.
6) Roger Stern and John Byrne
Issues: Captain America #247-255
Collected in: Captain America Epic Collection: Dawn’s Early Light
This classic run was sadly cut short after only nine issues, but there is one hell of a lot going on in those nine issues. S.H.I.E.L.D., Dragon Man, evil robots, Batroc, Mister Hyde, vampires, and Cap’s will-he-won’t-he run for President all sizzle with life within these pages. These are amazing stories by two of the 1980s’ best creators at the height of their comic-making powers.
7) Mark Gruenwald and Kieron Dwyer, et al
Issues: Captain America #307-443
Collected in: A LOT of books
A beloved writer and editor, Mark Gruenwald is perhaps best remembered these days for his massive ten year run on Captain America, which introduced such characters as Scourge, Flag-Smasher, D-Man and Crossbones. Although the latter part of his run is notorious for stinkers like the Cap-Wolf story and the Captain America armor, the early years of this run are great reads, full of intrigue, action, and classic Marvel soap operatics. I don’t believe there are collections of the whole run currently in print, but if nothing else, you should definitely grab Captain America: The Captain and Captain America: Scourge of the Underworld to see Gruenwald at his best.
8) Mark Waid and Ron Garney, et al
Issues: Captain America #444-454, Captain America (vol 3) #1-22, et al
Collected in: Captain America: Operation Rebirth
It was rough being a Marvel fan in the mid-90s, man. The X-Men were a convoluted mess, Spider-Man was still reeling from clone nonsense, and a lot of other titles were at creative nadirs. As such, to a fan desperate for great comics starring classic Marvel characters (NB: it was possible at that time, as it is still possible today, to buy really good comics not made by Marvel [or DC]), Waid and Garney’s run on Captain America was a beautiful oasis. Exciting and beautifully drawn, this run had everything that makes Captain America great. The series lost a little momentum when it was interrupted by Heroes Reborn and the tenor changed somewhat when Garney left the main series to launch the short-lived Sentinel of Liberty sister series (and Andy Kubert took over on the main title), but the whole run is still worth a read if you love great action comics. Waid would return to the character in 2011 with the critically-acclaimed Captain America: Man Out of Time mini-series.
9) Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, et al.
Issues: Captain America (vol 5) #1-50, #600-619, Captain America (vol 6) #1-19, Captain America and Bucky #620-628, Captain America Reborn #1-6, et al
Collected in: a bunch of books, hold on
Let’s be honest: this is the run you’re here for. It’s the most prominent recent run on Captain America by a creative team who have since become synonymous with the character, and it’s the eponymous source material for the new movie. If you haven’t already read any Cap comics, you’re probably looking to get into them through this series and (foolishly) not via the Kill-Derby. Well, Brubaker wrote a lot of Cap stories (with a lot of artists; in addition to Epting, these stories feature art by such luminaries as Michael Lark, Chris Samnee, Alan Davis, Steve McNiven, Francesco Francavilla, Patrick Zircher and even more) over the course of about a decade, and trying to put them in order may have you staring cross-eyed at an Amazon search screen. Well, you’re welcome:
-Captain America: The Winter Soldier Ultimate Collection
-Captain America: Red Menace Ultimate Collection
-Captain America: The Death of Captain America: Complete Collection
-Captain America: The Man With No Face
-Captain America: Road to Reborn
-Captain America: Two Americas
-Captain America: No Escape
-Captain America: Steve Rogers: Super Soldier
-Captain America: The Trial of Captain America
-Captain America: Prison of War
-Captain America and Bucky: The Life Story of Bucky Barnes
-Captain America and Bucky: Old Wounds
-Captain America Vol. 1
-Captain America Vol. 2
-Captain America Vol. 3
-Captain America Vol. 4
-Winter Soldier Vol. 1
-Winter Soldier Vol. 2
-Winter Soldier Vol. 3
10) Rick Remender and John Romita Jr. et al
Issues: Captain America (vol 7) #1-present
Collected in: Captain America Vol. 1: Castaway in Dimension Z Book 1, Captain America Vol. 1: Castaway in Dimension Z Book 2
Yeah, it’s honestly too soon to call this essential, since it’s still ongoing, but it is off to a good start. Remender shrewdly avoids comparison to Brubaker’s just-finished epic run by doing a complete 180 in terms of tone, leaving behind the espionage and intrigue of the past ten years and kicking off with a Kirby-inspired jaunt through an alien dimension ruled by Arnim Zola. The follow-up arc featured art by Carlos Pacheco and the return of Nuke, a brain-washed super-soldier best remembered from the Daredevil story Born Again, and the current arc has taken a more psychedelic tack, with art by Nic Klein, and the debut of Dr Mindbubble, a super-soldier who, rather than having super punching abilities, can alter perception with, well, mind-bubbles. I’ll give Remender time to re-introduce Tinkerbell and the Kill-Derby before I’ll go all in on calling this one completely essential, though.