Near Mint Memories: Silver Dawn – Part 4

As many of you may already know, I grew up reading DC Comics. What you probably don’t know is that I pretty much started reading Marvel monthly because of Rob Liefeld. Now, before you start sending me e-mails about how I am bereft of taste, let me explain. Rob did a fantastic on DC’s Hawk and Dove mini-series in the late 1980s. His heroes had feet and there were backgrounds in his panels, not just speed lines. I’m not sure what happened when he moved to Marvel, but I imagine his inker on H&D had much to do with how great his pre-Marvel work looked.

Anyhow, because I liked Rob Leifeld’s H&D work, I was able to get in on the ground floor of his New Mutants Marvel run. While I was somewhat disappointed with his NM work, I was able to broaden my Marvel tastes by picking up Jim Lee penciled Uncanny X-Men – it was at this time that to understand anything in the X-title that you picked up, you’d have to pick up a few of the others too. From there, since I really liked Lee’s work, I followed him to the adjective-less X-Men and stayed with UXM because Whilce Portacio was doing some amazing work on pencils. I still collected more DC books at the time, but my Marvel monthly reads had grown. Next came Image, but I’ll save that story for another column.

However, even before I collected comics with any regularity in the direct market, I used to just pick up the odd comic at the local convenience store and watch reruns of the old 1960s Spider-man cartoon on TV – man that intro tune is still catchy! (Although at the time I didn’t realize that the cartoon was that old – oh well, at least Thundercats and Silverhawks were on too.)

Ok, so you’re asking, “What’s the point of this story?”

Well, I’m glad you asked.

Today, I may still collect (and actually read) more DC titles monthly, but it was a Marvel hero that got me interested in comic book super-heroes in the first place – Spider-Man. From there I went to my local convenience store, before the direct market was vibrant in my community, and picked up Superman and Batman books because they didn’t carry Amazing Spider-Man (not that I knew any such title existed at the time).

My NMM co-contributor Chris Delloiacono did a great piece last week on Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four in his last column. I was reading it and thought back to how I first started reading Marvel Comics and remembered how fondly I still reminisce about that old Spider-Man cartoon.

In any event, this week’s finale to our Silver Dawn feature on select franchises that ushered in the Silver Age of Comics will look at Captain America and…… the X-Men.

It may also surprise some that two of my favorite comic arcs of all-time are from Marvel – Spider-Man’s Kraven’s Last Hunt and Captain America’s Captain America No More. Both were well drawn and written. They stand the test of time.

While DC revitalized many of its Golden Age franchises and was instrumental in ushering in the Silver Age of Comics (the late and great DC editor Julius Schwartz is often referred to as the architect of the Silver Age), Marvel’s contribution of many humanity-based heroes and titles changed the way many looked at comics within and outside the medium. Stan Lee, the creator synonymous with Marvel, is referred to as “The Man” after all.

Spider-Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and so many other SA-spawned Marvel titles continue to dominate comic books stands today.

However, like DC, Marvel would have its fair share of ups and downs. The Captain America franchise in particular has gone through so much. Its been started and ended numerous times.

Interestingly enough, Rob Liefeld, the chap I mentioned at the beginning of this rather long digression, would unsuccessfully tackle Captain America many years after the best work of his career, H&D, in addition to other X-properties he “touched”, but I’ll get to that shortly. (For the sake of symmetry, I just wanted to mention Rob again to end this meandering intro.)


A Timely Beginning

Interestingly, while Captain America (CA) was popularized in Marvel Comics’ Silver Age heyday, the character actually debuted in the Golden Age of Comics in 1941. He was the star of his own series called Captain America Comics from Timely Comics – it would later become the Marvel Comics that we all know and love.

CA was created by the yet-to-be-legendary Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. It’s difficult to nail who did what on the creative side of things – Jack Kirby had indicated that they both did everything in later interviews.

Captain America Comics #1 debuted CA, his side-kick Bucky, as well has his Nazi arch-nemsis the Red Skull. It was an origin story that focused on Steve Rogers, a wimpy U.S. private, who was the subject of scientific experimentation that would elevate him to the peak of human conditioning. Due to enemy sabotage Rogers was believed to be the only to have benefited from the “Super-Soldier Serum” that gave him his superior human powers.

Recently, in 2002, sixty-one years after CAC #1, Marvel Comics reinvented the CA mythology with Captain America – Truth: Red, White and Black and retroactively introduced a pre-Steve Rogers African-American CA. Marvel had hypothesized that due to the racial divide in the early part of the 20th century in the U.S., that it was more likely that the U.S. Military would have used black men as guinea pigs while they tried to get the Super Soldier Serum right. Once the serum was proven a success, it was than given to Private Steve Rogers. The rest was history.

“Truth” told a story which was loosely inspired by the real-life travails of the Tuskegee Airmen – a decorated group of Black World War II era fighter pilots that were part of a segregated “experimental” program to prove the abilities of black military men. Clearly, this sentence does not do full justice to the tremendous contribution of the Tuskegee Airmen to the fabric of U.S. Military history. I would encourage you to seek out literature on this amazing fighting unit or pick up the 1995 video or DVD called Tuskegee Airmen starring Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr.

In any event, the CAC series suffered a similar fate as many super-hero comics at the end of the Golden Age by ceasing for a time. The series stopped in 1950 with issue #75, but was reborn briefly with issue #76. It eventually ended for good two issues later with 1954’s issue #78 – the series appears to have been on a two month schedule between issues at the end. Interestingly, that first series was renamed Captain America’s Weird Tales for two issues – #74 and #75.

Also, in my research for this column, I learned of an interesting Canadian connection with that first CA series. A 132-page black and white reprint-compilation CA comic was released in Canada in the early 1940s that featured the content of Marvel Mystery #33 and Captain America #18. The book was adorned by a B&W cover reprint of the cover to Captain America #22 and is an extremely rare comic.

A Silver Lining

CA re-entered comic book lore in Avengers #4. The Avengers were Marvels’ premier super-group and debuted in 1963 under the stewardship of his co-creator Jack Kirby and by Marvel’s everyman Stan Lee. That original team consisted of the Norse thunder god Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Ant-Man, and the Wasp.

That series’ fourth issue, found a group of Eskimos worshipping a figure encased in a block of ice. Another Golden Age Timely hero/villain/who-really-knows, the Sub-Mariner (Marvel’s 1939 precursor to DC’s 1941 Aquaman), hurled the block of ice and into the sea. The Avengers recovered it and found a thawed Captain America who had been trapped in the ice for almost twenty years. He hadn’t aged a day in that time and looked as young as ever.

CA was so popular, that when the originating team disbanded, he took over as leader with Avengers #16.

He also got his in book in 1968. Like with many Marvel and even DC Silver Age titles, CA officially took-over Tales of Suspense, renamed Captain America with its 100th issue.

However, the future was a real roller-coaster for Marvel’s star-spangled hero.

This particular series lasted until the mid-1990s, ending with issue #448. A “Heroes Reborn” CA series debuted with Image co-founder Rob Liefeld at its helm, later replaced by Jim Lee, another Image co-founder, supposedly due to low sales. The “Heroes Reborn” event was an attempt by Marvel to reboot and re-popularize Captain America, Iron Man, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four under the stewardship of some mega-popular Image creators, well artists really. The exercise lasted one year.

A fourth CA series debuted in 1998 with the same creative that ended the pre-Liefeld/Lee series and with a fresh new #1 issue and lasting fifty issues.

A fifth CA series launched in 2002 with a grittier “real” edge under Marvel Comics edgy Marvel Knights line. In addition, just recently, the sixth CA-centric comic debuted called Captain America and the Falcon that will run concurrently with MK’s CA.

In addition, CA can also be found in the ongoing Avengers series as well as Marvel’s Ultimate Universe line’s Ultimates series (a grittier twenty-first century Avengers series)

Four doses of CA a month? Wow, CA fans must be in heaven. Only time will tell whether Marvel’s star-spangled hero can feed the demand for his adventures or becomes overexposed and under appreciated. With the ups and downs of CA’s past as benchmarks, its hard to tell what the future holds.


A Phenomena is Born

While CA can find its roots in the GA, with his popularization coming in the SA, the X-Men are squarely a SA-creation.

As I mentioned in Silver Dawn – Part 2 Marvel’s X-Men and DC’s Doom Patrol have been sister-franchises philosophically since their respective inceptions. In that column I articulated that: While the DP debuted in My Greatest Adventure #80….. [its] had its fair share of ups and downs, but it has, for the most part, been about accepting difference and tolerance. Even though the DP actually debuted a few months prior to the X-Men (although they were likely both in development at the same time), the X franchise has been a more popular comics vehicle that has gotten the acceptance message out.

The adjectiveless X-Men debuted in 1963 under the stewardship of (you guessed it) Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Like the Doom Patrol (DP), the X-Men revolved around a genius in a wheelchair named Professor Charles Xavier (hence the X-Men). He was a powerful mutant, a term popularized by Marvel, that referred to humans born with special “gifts” or “mutations” that were of a physical nature or power-based.

However, in typical Marvel fashion, the title had a humanity to it. These mutants were feared by a world that did not understand them, while the mutants themselves so desired acceptance. This was the appeal of the book – that would be popularized to the nth degree in later years after a lean period for the title.

In any event, Charles Xavier’s “gift” was incredible mental powers and, seeking a mentoring role, he pulled together mutant youth to train them on how use their powers at a School for Gifted Youngsters in New York State. One of his early recruits was Scott Summers, a boy who could emit powerful blasts from his eyes. His nom de guerre was Cyclops. He had to wear a ruby-quartz “visor” and glasses to keep his powers in check and allow him to see. Without these protections, he would be perpetually firing off his optic blasts, well unless his eyes were closed.

Another recruit was Scott’s future wife Jean Grey. She was known as Marvel Girl and was initially gifted with the power of telekinesis, the ability to move objects with her mind. Under Xavier’s tutelage she would evolve these powers as well as her telepathic powers. She, like many of the X-Men, would undergo a topsy-turvy future which would include a villainous turn, death, cloning, rebirth and a return to good (I think – Jean Grey is almost Marvel’s answer to DC’s Donna Troy, and that’s not a compliment).

Warren Worthington III was an upper crust kid from privilege whose gift was a set of giant white feathered wings, hence the name Angel. Like Jean, he would undergo massive change over the years. He was experimented on by a Darwinian villain, have his real wings amputated and replaced with metal razor sharp ones. He would have his own turn as a villain, but return to fight evil and even had his “real” wings return.

Bobby Drake was a boisterous young kid with the power to first create snow then ice. He would travel on ice ramps that he created. He was Marvel’s anti-Human Torch and chose the nom de guerre of Ice Man.

Finally, the originating X-Men were rounded out Hank McCoy who was a super-intelligent, ultra-strong and agile hunched Beast. While, in the early X-Men, the only team member with a real physical mutation was Angel, Hank would literally become a Beast with blue fur all over in later years.

And so, my friends, the X-Men is born! Their first adventure was to thwart the evil Magneto, a master of magnetism, and his evil mutants after they invaded a missile base.

The series met its “virtual” end years later with issue #66. What followed were reprints of earlier adventures that continued the X-Men’s issue numbering. DC’s DP series also underwent went these lean years, but X-Men had a continuous run, while DP was eventually cancelled. An X-team re-debuted in 1975 with new members in Giant Sized X-Men #1 and with new adventures with X-Men #94.

The book may not have been overly successful prior to the 1990s, even after its mid-70s relaunch and ‘80s sales boon, but it would eventually prove to be a mega-franchise.

The quest for acceptance would prove to have universal appeal.

An All-New, All-Different X-Men

Giant Sized X-Men #1 debuted a new cosmopolitan X-Men by writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum. X-writer extraordinaire Chris Claremont was not credited as a collaborator, but has said in interviews later on that he suggested the ending for this special which Len Wein accepted.

This “giant” book included the first appearances of a gaggle of X-stalwarts: a female African weather-controlling mutant called Storm, a Russian metal-plated strongman called Colossus, the blue-haired demonic German Nightcrawler, and a Native-Indian mutant called Thunderbird. The book also contained the second full appearance, after Incredible Hulk #181, of the feral Canadian laced with an ultra-tough metallic claws and a healing factor, Wolverine – arguably the post popular X-Man of all time.

X-Men #94 found these new heroes and Irish mutant Banshee, gifted with a sonic wail, join with Cyclops as veterans Marvel Girl, Angel and Ice Man resign. They would return in later adventures. Things were different this time around for the X-Men. Thunderbird perished on the new X-Men’s second adventure (issue #95) marking a change in comics. While the Doom Patrol set the bar with their team sacrifice in 1968’s DP #121, this mutant death in the pages of X-Men sent an important signal to Marvel fans. Expect the unexpected.

Chris Claremont scripted the X-Men with Len Wein plotting from issue #94. Claremont became the sole writer from issue #96 through to 1991’s #279 – a remarkable 16 year run on the title. He also worked on many other X-universe titles over these years and after garnering legend and X-Ironman infamy. He also helped launch a second ongoing X-Men titled (sans adjective) in 1991 with uber-artist Jim Lee. He didn’t last long. However, he returned to x-verse with X-Treme X-Men in 2001 and will once again take on the Uncanny X-Men title with issue #444 this May with Alan Davis on pencils, proving that you can come home again.

The X-franchise started growing in the mid-1980s and spawned so many different spin-offs whether ongoing team books, mini-series, maxi-series, one-shots or ongoing solo titles including, in no particular order, Wolverine, X-Factor, Excalibur, New Mutants, X-Force, Alpha Flight, X-Statix, Cable, Soldier-X, Deadpool, and many, many more.

The appeal of the franchise is the humanity at the heart of the series. The quest for acceptance in a world that fears difference. We all have felt awkward, particularly in our youth, and wanted to fit in. That desire is universal.

The X-franchise has also broken onto the Silver Screen with the 2000 X-Men feature which spawned X2 in 2003. X3 is rumoured to be in some stage of development and whispers of a solo Wolverine movie have around since 2000.

That’s a Wrap

Chris was right (write?) when he wrote in the last NMM column that writing about established characters is always hard. There has been so much written, particularly on the X-franchise, that’s its difficult to add anything new to the discussion.

I found it easier to write about Captain America than the X-Men piece, but I’ll leave how successful I was in capturing the essence of these two franchises up to you – the reader!

The Reading Rack

Like Chris, I’m going to keep this simple.

Essential Captain America: Volumes 1- 2 are available. Volume 1 reprints Tales of Suspense 59-99, Captain America 100-102, and Captain America Comics #5. Volume 2 covers Captain America 103-126.

Essential Uncanny X-Men : Volume 1 is in print and features X-Men 1-24 from the SA.

Essential X-Men : Volume 1-4 are available. Volume 1 reprints Giant Sized X-Men #1, and X-Men #94-119. Volume 2 covers Uncanny X-Men from 120-144, volume 2 reprints Uncanny X-Men #145-161 with annuals #3-5, and volume 4 covers Uncanny X-Men #162-179 and annual #6.

There are a lot of x-trade books out there and a smattering of Captain America ones. The Essential series provide the best bang for your buck.

Happy hunting!