Marvelous Reading: Captain America

Read on for the Captain America comics primer you never knew you needed.

It’s Marvel Week here at SB Nation, and to celebrate we asked the resident Marvel nerd on our staff to write about one of her favorite superheroes. You guessed it; that nerd is me. Surprise! Or, not so surprising if you’ve met me or visited my home — framed Iron Man and Winter soldier comics, boxes of vintage and rare comics, a Comixology library that literally occupies 90 percent of my iPad’s storage space, Iron Man and Captain America ornaments, and a Captain America-Winter Soldier tattoo on one wrist. All this by way of saying that if you’ve ever wanted to read comics about Captain America, but have been too overwhelmed by the sheer volume and didn’t know where to start, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s start with the basics.

Name: Steven Grant Rogers
Alias: Captain America
Birthplace: New York City
Birthdate: July 4, 1918
Created By: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
First Comic: March 1941

In The Beginning...

Rogers’ origin story in the comics mostly parallels that of his first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Captain America: The First Avenger). Two key points in the plot are different, however. The Vita-Rays serum that transforms him from a 98-pound frail body to 240 pounds of Nazi-punching sass is administered orally instead of infused in a tank as in the film. In the comics, Rogers meets Bucky Barnes — his best friend and sidekick — after donning the mantle of Captain America, and Barnes is seven years Rogers’ junior. Barnes is the local Army camp’s “mascot”, the son of an officer and only 16. By day, Steve Rogers is a bumbling private, a gentle giant. By night, he puts on the red, white, and blue outfit and picks up the shield (originally a triple-peak wedge shape) to become Captain America. In the comics, Captain America is the man responsible for busting spy rings, rooting out fifth columnists, and thwarting Nazi attacks at home and abroad. Barnes stumbles onto the secret one night when he walks into Rogers’ tent while Rogers is dressing as Captain America. Rogers swears him to secrecy, and after some convincing by Barnes, takes Barnes on as his sidekick.

But Who Is He?

The original Captain America comics are delightful to read. Rogers’ “gosh, shucks” attitude may strike us today as a bit corny, but back in 1941, it helped bring this larger-than-life defender of liberty down to earth and make him seem like any other normal American. Despite the shield and outfit, he was just like you and me (shh, don’t think too hard about that fancy serum that made him faster, stronger, and smarter than 10 men combined). Simon and Kirby made sure that Captain America took rising anti-Semitism head-on in their series. The first issue of the series, with Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw, was their statement from the beginning that he was the antithesis to everything Hitler and the Third Reich were expounding. That first issue still runs in the thousands today at auctions and conventions for professionally rated, if somewhat battered, copies. You can read the very first issue here at Comixology and here at Marvel Unlimited. (All further Comixology and Marvel Unlimited links from here on out will be denoted as “CX” and “MU” for brevity’s sake.)

One thing that hasn’t changed in the 79 years since his debut is Captain America’s dedication to protecting truth and freedom. His unwavering bravery against the rising tide of hate and prejudice still strikes a cord in the present day. Even in the more recent decades of comics, Captain America has remained true to his beliefs, and some of his more memorable fights have been against those motivated by xenophobia, racism, and anti-immigration sentiments. One of my favorite examples can be found in an issue from a few years ago, when Captain America takes on a villain purporting to defend America’s “true” values. Rogers’ response is prescient in a way that still gives me goosebumps every time I think about it.

That isn’t the only time Captain America has demonstrated the gift of gab. During the Civil War arc in 2006, he appeared in one of the tie-in issues of Amazing Spiderman. Much like in the films, Captain America is opposed to the registration of superheroes, and fights adamantly against the measures being enacted by the Superhuman Registration Act. At one point, when asked why he’s resisting, he responds:

When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — “No, you move.”
— Captain America, Amazing Spiderman Vol. 1, Issue No. 537

Pretty amazing, right? As much as the Civil War arc absolutely shattered my heart (in the best way possible), that quote is still my favorite to ever come out of comics. Period. You can buy that issue here at Comixology or access it here at Marvel Unlimited, though I highly recommend also reading the seven-issue Civil War arc as well for context (CX, MU).

How’d He Get From 1941 to Now?

One of the benefits of Captain America’s storyline is that it helps him avoid the once-a-decade (or sometimes more) retcon of the origin story that happens in comics. What do I mean by “retcon”? Retcon is short for retroactive continuity. To keep current, comic book authors will have to revise the origin story of their character. For example, Iron Man’s first issue was in the middle of the Vietnam War, and as a result, it’s a visit to a battlefield test of his technology that sees him injured, captured, and eventually reborn as Iron Man. In the 2008 Iron Man film, his origin story takes place in the high desert mountains of Afghanistan, not Vietnam. Captain America, however, because of a few quirks in his original comics and subsequent revival, has avoided any type of retcon. Ever. You can take Captain America out of the Second World War, but you can’t take the war out of the captain.

Rogers’ origin story has generally adhered to the details from the 1940s comics. A frail sketch artist desperate to serve his country is transformed into the Sentinel of Liberty. He spends most of the war fighting the bad guys, helping the good guys, and cracking corny jokes. At the end of the war, Rogers and Barnes rush to stop a Nazi plane loaded with bombs headed for Allied territory. There’s no way to land the plane and defuse the bombs, but Rogers does find a way to detonate them mid-flight instead of on target. He jumps clear of the aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean, but watches on in horror as Barnes, his sleeve caught on the plane, is engulfed in the explosion. Rogers lands in the icy water and his serum-enhanced body places itself in stasis.

Enter the Avengers. By 1963, Iron Man has formed the band of superheroes known as the Avengers and they operate out of his New York mansion. In the fourth issue (CX, MU), Rogers’ body is recovered, he’s revived and then joins the Avengers. From there, he spends most of the 1960s traveling the world while fighting crime with the Avengers. Rogers wasn’t just appearing in the Avengers comics; he had a series of his own (CX, MU). In 1969, Rogers meets a young man with a heart of gold who is desperate to be a hero in his own right. After providing help during a mission, Rogers agrees to train him and help him become a superhero. His name? Sam Wilson, better known by his superhero alias — Falcon. That’s right, the first mainstream African-American superhero was introduced in an issue of Captain America. Remember what I was saying earlier about Rogers standing up for truth and freedom? He’s not just some endearing guy in a costume; he’s also a brilliant ally. You can read Wilson’s introduction in Issue No. 117 (CX, MU), his debut as Falcon alongside Captain America in Issue No. 133 (CX, MU), when he received his wings from the Black Panther in Issue No. 170 (CX, MU), and his backstory in Issue No. 186 (CX, MU).

Captain America’s solo adventures continued throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. With each new series (essentially starting a new story arc), his origin story was changed just slightly. Instead of being revived in 1963, he was found and revived in the 1970s for that decade’s comics, in the 1980s for that decade, and so on. That’s one of the things I like the most about Rogers’ backstory. His origin is so reliant on international history and the scientific race begun in the 1940s that his story can’t be retconned to occur in a different location, let alone a different decade. Captain America being desperate to serve his country during the Vietnam War and being transformed then? It reeks of Western prejudice and supposed superiority, not to mention a blind eye to the social reaction around the war. Captain America is a byproduct of his time, while serving as a timeless example of what our country can be, as a whole and individually, if we put kindness, loyalty, bravery, and compassion first instead of fear, hate, and prejudice.

Wait, What Happened To Bucky?

You’re probably curious about what happened to Bucky Barnes, last seen being caught in a mid-air explosion of an aircraft packed with weapons. Well, according to the comics, he was declared killed in action and Rogers spent most of the 1960s carrying an overwhelming guilt that he had somehow been responsible for his best friend’s death. Seriously, so much guilt, like pining in dramatic Shakespearean asides and monologues about it.

“But it’s comics,” you protest, “they kill off and bring back pretty much everyone again and again!” While that’s true, there is one — and only one — rule in Marvel comics canon for their writers. Seriously. Ed Brubaker, author of the 2004-11 series of Captain America, said many times it’s the unwritten rule in Marvel that Uncle Ben from Spider-Man and Bucky Barnes stay dead. That’s it. No ifs, ands, or buts about it; both are long gone and are not coming back any time soon.

Well, not exactly.

Brubaker, when he was hired to pen the fifth volume about Captain America, pitched a wild idea to Marvel executives. What if Bucky came back? It’d be like asking to have your dog’s name engraved on the Stanley Cup. Yep, Brubaker, within five minutes of being handed one of the most storied characters in comics, wanted to do the impossible. But here’s the thing, it worked. And it garnered him an Eisner Award (the comics industry equivalent of the Academy Awards) in the process. Not too shabby for flouting the one rule for his character. You can read the Eisner Award-winning run in the collected volume titled Captain America: Winter Soldier Ultimate Collection (CX, MU).

“Wait, didn’t Bucky come back as that guy with the messy eyeliner and the shiny cybernetic arm?” you ask. If by messy eyeliner and shiny cybernetic arm you mean the Winter Soldier, then yes, he did come back that way. Captain America Vol. 5 Issue No. 1 kicks off a 14-issue series full of intrigue, suspense, drama, angst, and dramatic revelations and climaxes. If you thought Captain America’s showdown with the Winter Solider on the Helicarrier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was heart-pounding and heartbreaking, just wait until you read the equivalent in the comics. At the climax of the fight, there’s one panel that’s a full page; it’s so beautifully illustrated and laid out while showing the reader the full extent of the horrors of what Bucky Barnes has suffered while under Soviet control as the Winter Soldier. (You’ll have to read through to that page on your own. I won’t post a link to it here due to the massive spoilers.)

It turns out, Barnes did survive the explosion. He also landed in the icy waters, but was fished out by a Russian submarine. He’d lost his left arm in the explosion and they attached a state-of-the-art cybernetic one in its place. At the top of his arm they set a red star into the silver metal, branding him as property of the Soviet intelligence network. Barnes had amnesia, but could remember how to fight, how to handle multiple types of weapons, and how to speak four languages. In short, he was the perfect assassin, and with the amnesia, the Soviets capitalized on this. They brainwashed him to become the Winter Soldier, the “bogeyman of the West” who spent the next six decades assassinating political leaders and creating havoc around the globe. His programming was unstable however; the original Bucky Barnes kept attempting to resurface, so eventually the Russians struck on a workable routine. They placed him into cryogenic stasis between missions, only reviving him when needed. Then, they’d program his mind and once he’d returned, they’d wipe him again and place him back in stasis. Not only does this explain how he’s only aged a few years in the intervening decades, but it emphasizes the lack of control he had through it all.

The Winter Soldier arc in the comics differs heavily in plot from the film of the same name. The storyline in the comics is pretty involved with previous characters and villains that would have cluttered the film and slowed it down. However, there is one moment that was lifted, literally panel-for-shot, from the comic and into the film. There’s a scene close to halfway through the film where Rogers fights the Winter Soldier for the first time. During the fight, the Winter Soldier’s mask is ripped off and his face is revealed. Looking like he just got sucker-punched, Rogers asks, “Bucky, is that you?” And the Winter Soldier replies, “Who the hell is Bucky?” Were you in the theater on opening night for Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Did you hear an audible gasp or lots of pained noises from various audience members around you? Those were the fans in the audience who had read Brubaker’s series and recognized those same lines from the comic. To this day, I still think that exchange is one of the best moments in comics, and that Brubaker is a genius for delivering such an emotional sucker-punch with so few words.

Anyway, the point of all of this is that once Rogers has confronted the Winter Soldier and reversed the brainwashing, Barnes escapes into the night. He’s alive and he’s got all of his memories from before the explosion and after, all those horrible acts the Russians had programmed him to commit, all the blood on his hands. And that’s the last Rogers sees of him in his lifetime.

Wait, what?

Spoilers! So Many Spoilers!

If you don’t want to be spoiled for how the Civil War story arc (a seven-issue series with at least one tie-in issue on each character’s own series) ends, then definitely skip this next section of Captain America history and reading recommendations. Come back when you’re ready, and in the meantime, scroll down for non-spoiler content.

Yep, that’s the last Steve Rogers sees of Bucky Barnes before Rogers dies. It’s a very involved, very convoluted explanation of a plot that still has me raising a questioning eyebrow nearly a decade after first reading it. Suffice to say, Captain America is assassinated after the end of Civil War, after the truce had been reached and life is returning to normal for most superheroes. But, Marvel can’t not have Captain America, right?

Absolutely, and that’s why James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, still wrapping his head around his tortured existence, steps into Rogers’ shoes. In the world of comics, we call the second half of Brubaker’s fifth volume the “BuckyCap” comics, to differentiate from Rogers as Captain America throughout the first half. Barnes takes Rogers’ shield with Iron Man’s permission (long story, Civil War is convoluted like I said) and dons a modified version of Captain America’s outfit. His is mostly black, keeping in line with his stealth background, with the red, white, and blue motif on his chest. Through his time as Captain America, Barnes finds redemption for his past actions and peace with himself and the world around him. These comics feature lots of appearances by Black Widow (Barnes’ romantic partner) and Falcon (two unlikely best friends who love to sass each other). They’re a great read for a different Captain America with a heavier backstory and more emotional turbulence.

Don’t get me wrong, Barnes as Captain America is also hilarious. A running gag throughout the comics is Barnes’ penchant for leaping off of rooftops without a plan for landing. Falcon inevitably swoops in to save him, complete with a long-suffering sigh and asking his friend, “What would you do without me?” Turn into a Captain America pancake on the sidewalk most likely. Speaking of that, have you ever wondered if superheroes have a favorite food? Well, another running gag in the comics is Barnes’ unabashed love for pancakes. Post-mission? Perfect time for an all-night pancake house. Night full of bad dreams about Winter Soldier memories? Perfect time for early-morning pancakes. Coincidentally, Steve Rogers mentions in a comic that his favorite drink is Earl Grey Tea. Must be all that time he spent in London during the war.

Anyway, Barnes isn’t just some “stand-in” for Rogers when he wields the shield. He offers a fresh approach to the superhero alter-ego. He grapples with the costs of being a soldier and a hero — PTSD, guilt, giving himself permission to heal, and forgiving himself. There’s been a lot of discussion on Barnes as Captain America in the last 15 years, much of it analyzing why BuckyCap is such an identifiable character for women. His lack of agency, surviving trauma, and recovery has been seen as a literary touchpoint for survivors. And wrapped up in the trappings of Captain America, it gives the story of recovery and life after trauma a more heroic touch, an inspiration for daily life of those, like Barnes, focused on putting one foot in front of the other. His journey wearing the mantle of Captain America is a story of hope more than anything else. So if you want to read about Barnes’ journey as the Star-Spangled Hero, start with The Death of Captain America (CX, MU).

Life, Death, and Cheating Death in Marvel Comics

Eventually, Rogers does come back to the land of the living, but he’s hesitant to take up the mantle again. (Don’t ask how he came back. It involves an alternate dimension and is very convoluted.) Rogers is convinced that Barnes is more than capable of carrying on the legacy of Captain America. After all, he argues, Captain America isn’t any one man, like himself, it’s an ideal, a symbol made flesh and blood by those wearing it and believing in it. Besides, Rogers has spent a long, long time avenging and would like a little peace and quiet in retirement now, thank you very much.

As with all comics, when the relative sense of security enters, you just know everything is about to go pear-shaped. And it does so in a spectacular fashion for Barnes, Rogers, and the rest of the Avengers. At this point in the world of Marvel comics, society and the superheroes have healed and moved on from the Superhero Registration Act (it was eventually left by the roadside, where it belonged). Things are good, too good. Welcome to the Fear Itself storyline (CX, MU). I know this article is already long, so I’m going to gloss over the hair-raising exploits in the arc that was the direct follow-up to Civil War. Just know that through its events (and prior events in the fifth volume of Captain America), it becomes necessary for Barnes to fake his death publicly and for Rogers to again take up his duties as Captain America. Don’t worry; Barnes then gets his own solo series titled Winter Soldier also written by Brubaker and it’s fantastic (CX, MU).

From there, Rogers embarks on several missions with Iron Man (CX, MU), Hawkeye (CX, MU), and Black Widow (CX, MU) as the fifth volume continues (don’t worry about the numbering change on the issues; it’s still the same series). These issues in the series are generally more light-hearted than the preceding ones and give the reader a breather after the heart-pounding events of Fear Itself and Barnes’ end as Captain America. Brubaker, while the greater world of Marvel comics was still reverberating from the fallout of Fear Itself, penned two collections of comics about Captain America and Barnes that flashed back to World War II and tied into the present day. The first collection is titled Captain America and Bucky: The Life Story of Bucky Barnes (CX, MU) and I can’t recommend this one enough. Throughout the fifth volume of Captain America you get bits and pieces of Barnes’ backstory, but in these five issues, you get it from before the Second World War to the present day and with gorgeous artwork accompanying it. The second volume deals with the man who took up the mantle of Captain America in the 1950s when Rogers was still on ice, and it’s called Captain America and Bucky: Old Wounds (CX, MU).

Brubaker’s award-winning, gripping volume of Captain America ended in 2011, with the sixth volume, also penned by Brubaker, picking up with Rogers taking up his red, white, and blue costume once more (CX, MU). While this series isn’t as long or game-changing for the wider Marvel universe, it is still a fun, self-contained read that’s perfect for sunny evenings on the deck as we head into summer. Brubaker’s sixth volume of the First Avenger ended in 2012, and for the first time in eight years, a new writer took the full-time helm of Marvel’s flagship title.

While writing this article, I’ve tried to give an overview of the character and the most notable runs of his comics. I’ve written about the heartbreak in the Civil War arc, the jaw-dropping revelations in the Winter Soldier storyline, and frankly ridiculous amount of “feels” you’re going to develop for Rogers and Barnes if you read any of these series. But here is where I refuse to recommend a volume of Captain America and it is literally the only volume I refuse to read to this day.

Rick Remender assumed writing responsibilities for the seventh volume of Captain America (2012-14) and what he put Rogers through and what he had Rogers do is atrocious. When the series first started, I was eager to see how a new writer would work with such a storied character and what kind of adventures he would have in store for Rogers. To this day, I remember swearing a blue streak that would make a hockey player blush within the first two pages of Issue No. 1. Yeah, it’s that bad. Within the first four issues, Remender, retconned parts of Rogers’ backstory, inserted new parts that did not hold with the previous 71 years of comics, killed off two prominent females characters that are crucial allies of Rogers and the Avengers, and had Rogers acting completely out of character. Then again, maybe that’s what you get when you stick the world’s sweetest character in the Z Dimension for years. If you think I’m exaggerating how bad Remender’s series is, then hold onto your hats. Captain America, at the end of Brubaker’s reign, was one of Marvel’s top-bought series and monthly subscriptions numbering in the high tens of thousands. Within four issues over four months, Remender’s Captain America had dropped in subscription and purchasing to half of that. And yet, unfathomably to you and me, Marvel let him carry on with the series until 2014.

Never fear! Marvel salvaged the Defender of Liberty and the intervening years have seen some great series for the character. In a move that made a lot of trolls mad, the mantle shifted once more and Rogers handed the shield over to Sam Wilson, the Falcon. If you’ve seen the chatter about the upcoming Falcon & Winter Soldier television show by Disney, this is a great jumping-off point for possible plot ideas of the show to read ahead of its debut. Starting in 2014, Wilson first took over as Captain America in The All-New Captain America (CX, MU), and continued on in Captain America: Sam Wilson (CX, MU). Rogers picked up his shield again in 2017, penned and illustrated by the supremely talented duo of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee that also helped pen The Life Story of Bucky Barnes, and this series sees the legend of Captain America taken far into the future (CX, MU). After that, Ta-Nehisi Coates picked up the pen and since 2018 has been writing the ongoing series of Captain America (CX, MU). The First Avenger is in good hands — Coates is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, an acclaimed journalist, and is beloved in comics for his Black Panther series.

O...kay, What Now?

Congratulations if you’ve read the preceding 4,200 words, and welcome if you’ve simply scrolled to the bottom for the comprehensive recommendation list.

Now that you’ve had the crash course on the history of Captain America — probably with more details than you ever wanted to know — you’re probably wondering what’s next. “That’s a lot of recommendations and links,” you object. “Where do I even start?” The answer is easy. Start wherever you like. Comics are for everyone and it is entirely up to you to decide which ones to read, not read, or read again year after year. There isn’t a set “list” of must-read issues or series to be a “true” fan. Gatekeeping in fandom is for the snobs. The world of comics is meant to be fun and let me tell you, the community is pretty great. We’re generally a pretty chill bunch that just want to swap recommendations, read new issues together, and hotly debate the most hilarious comic panels out of context (hit me up on Twitter for some prime examples).

The following is by no means a comprehensive list of Captain America in comics, but it does include all the issues and series cited above, plus one or two others. You can purchase them through Comixology or Marvel Unlimited by the issue, the collection, or through a monthly subscription.

Notable Runs & Recommended Reading
Captain America Vol 1. 1941-50: The very first Captain America comics (CX, MU)
Avengers Vol. 1 Issue No. 4: Captain America Joins The Avengers (CX, MU)
Captain America Vol. 2 Issue No. 117: Rogers Meets Wilson (CX, MU)
Captain America Vol. 2 Issue No. 133: Falcon’s Debut (CX, MU)
Captain America Vol. 2 Issue No. 170: Falcon Gets His Wings (CX, MU)
Captain America Vol. 2 Issue No. 186: Falcon’s Backstory (CX, MU)
Captain America Vol. 5 Issues No. 1-14: The Winter Soldier (CX, MU)
Civil War Issues No. 1-7: Pain, like, so much pain (CX, MU)
Captain America Vol. 5 Issues No. 25-30: Rogers Dies, Barnes Becomes Cap (CX, MU)
Captain America Vol. 5 Issues No. 30-50, 600-619: BuckyCap (CX, MU)
Fear Itself Issues No. 1-7, 7.1, 7.2, 7.3: Rogers is worthy of Thor’s hammer! (CX, MU)
Winter Soldier Vol. 1: Barnes’ first solo series (CX, MU)
Captain America Vol. 5 Issues No. 620-624: Life Story of Bucky Barnes (CX, MU)
Captain America Vol. 5 Issues No. 625-628: Old Wounds (CX, MU)
Captain America Vol. 5 Issues No. 629-632: Captain America & Hawkeye (CX, MU)
Captain America Vol. 5 Issues No. 633-635: Captain America & Iron Man (CX, MU)
Captain America Vol. 5 Issues No. 636-640: Captain America & Black Widow (CX, MU)
Captain America Vol. 6 2011-12: Rogers Returns as Captain America (CX, MU)
Captain America: White 2015: Gorgeous Art, 1940s Missions (CX, MU)
All-New Captain America 2014-15: Falcon Takes Up The Shield (CX, MU)
Captain America: Sam Wilson 2015-17 (CX, MU)
Captain America by Waid and Samnee 2017-18 (CX, MU)
Captain America 2018-Present: Ta-Nehisi Coates Is A Gift (CX, MU)

All of these recommendations make great reading while you’re doing your part during the pandemic by staying home. Have you read most of these and want more recommendations? Have another Marvel character you love, but don’t know where to start reading? You can always fire questions at me on Twitter; I’m more than happy to talk comics. Happy reading!

Did this article get you full of nostalgia for some of the best Marvel movies — AKA the ones about Rogers and Barnes (hot take, I know)? Disney+ is offering a free trail of their streaming service, which comes complete with all Marvel movies, all Star Wars movies, National Geographic, and original Disney content. You can binge-watch the Marvel movies chronologically or just watch the ones about the Star-Spangled Duo (Captain America: The First Avenger, Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame). Click the link here to sign up for that free trial. Happy watching!