Captain America is the boy scout we all wish we could be. Since his arrival on the comic book scene, he’s become one of the most iconic superheroes to ever grace the national stage. And it’s easy to see why – the guy literally has America in his name. Draped in reds, whites, and blues, while sporting the coolest shield this side of Sparta, Cap was originally conceived as “Super American,’’ though the flux of ‘supers’ at the time convinced creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby to try something more homegrown. The results? A glorious 1941 debut that had the super soldier planting a nice fat one on Adolf Hitler’s anti-semitic mug.
But the former weakling proved far more than a propaganda wet dream in the decades to come. Played out as a wartime remnant by the early 50s, Cap was thawed out of retirement in 1963 and dropped into a modern world of corruption and moral compromise. Heading up the legendary Avengers squad while adjusting to contemporary life, he has since become a pillar of old fashioned ideals and the American Way. Naturally, with a character this subject to reinvention, there have been many a comic book and mini-series that have maximized his potential. And, with the release of Captain America: Civil War right around the corner, now’s the perfect time to crash course Cap’s greatest comics.
Here are Screen Rant’s 12 Captain America Stories To Read Before Civil War.
12. Captain America # 1
This first issue is essential reading on any Captain America list. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created their paean of patriotism as a response to DC studs like Batman and Superman, and the timing behind it’s release couldn’t have been better. Landing in newsstands mere months before Pearl Harbor, Cap became the banner of American ideals at a time when the country needed it most. Socking Hitler definitely helped, but equally important was the Steve Rogers backstory that had the scrawny youngster fighting rejection with undying optimism.
Quaint and romantic, Cap was the kind of hero Norman Rockwell could’ve drawn up – in other words, perfect for The Greatest Generation. The story is predictably corny by modern standards, and some of the character development can be thin, but the charm that pushes this thing forward is as rock solid as Cap’s shield. A must for anyone who calls them self a comic book fan, Captain America #1 is an old school classic.
11. The Secret Empire (Captain America & The Falcon #169-176)
Steve Englehart came through and shook up the star spangled shield circa the Summer of Love. Lush with creativity and thriving off a profound kinship with Cap’s character, his comics dove into topics previously untouched in the series. Subtitled The Secret Empire, and co-starring partner-in-crime Falcon, Englehart’s thinly veiled allusions to Watergate lead a politically charged tale of corruption, coverups, and presidential suicide. And by dropping our hero right into the thick of such moral muck, the 1974 comic brilliantly underplays Cap’s origins as a hollowed propaganda piece.
As a result, Rogers retires the American mantle by issue’s end, forcing readers to face the effects of societal breakdown. The average citizen was struggling to find him an identity at the time, so it only seem fair that their heroes tackle the same relatable concerns. Englehart made the superhuman a tad more human than super in this case, but the results would be felt in nearly every subsequent iteration.
10. Avengers #4
Technically, Captain America was first reintroduced in Strange Tales #114, going up against Fantastic Four’s Human Torch. The supposed Cap turned out to be an imposter, but feedback proved so positive that Stan Lee shoehorned the WWII icon in his 4th Avengers issues. The rest, quite literally, is history. Aided by the flawless composition of Jack Kirby, Steve Rogers is discovered in a block of ice and thawed out just in time to ward off alien antagonists. Paired opposite superstars like Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, and The Hulk, Cap proved a refreshing change who was neither a God nor a smart-alec genius.
Instead, Lee hunkered down on the wholesomeness of his hero, establishing the backstory that left Bucky dead and Cap suspended in time for nearly two decades. In the matter of a single issue, the seemingly forgotten icon became a Silver Age favorite, a fish-out-of-water who would always ensnare the hearts of his readers. Another landmark release in the Cap chronology, and a pristine example of how Marvel separated itself from the comic competition.
9. Captain America No More (Captain America #332)
Captain America shoots a terrorist to open issue #332, a searing effort from writer Mark Gruenwald. Dabbling in the same content that distinguished Steve Englehart’s heyday, No More follows a forlorn Cap as he’s found out by the government and strong-armed into serving as an agent. Given twenty-four hours to accept these terms, Steve Rogers sticks to his guns and drops his heroic mantle indefinitely. Angered by this insolence, the feds fire back by calling in former Super-Patriot John Walker to take up the shield – an arrangement that proves pretty detrimental for all involved.
Walker is no Cap when it comes to reliability, and his character’s mental demise sparks a murderous rampage, forcing Rogers back into action. Captain America vs. Captain America: the meta-mack daddy battle of them all. Gruenwald’s storytelling is terse and to the action-packed point, but the real strength of No More is in showing the moral fiber required to be the Captain. Walker is unfit to carry the mantle, leaving Rogers as the one-and-only guy fully capable of embodying America’s moral fiber.
8. Tomorrow You Live, Tonight I Die (Captain America #111-113)
As a stylist, Jim Steranko was unparalleled. The chic artist could take the most surface level content and infuse enough bite to suggest underlying meaning – a trick he pulls off wonderfully with this three issue arc. Using Madame Hydra’s discovery of Cap’s identity as an instigator, Steranko conjures up a tight trio of comics heightened in allegory and metaphorical action. His Captain America isn’t a man, but rather a symbol, and as such, he can never truly die in the hearts of those he protects – an idea cleverly deconstructed when Rogers has to fake his own death.
Naturally, Cap comes back and kicks some Hydra tail, most iconically through a Steranko splash page that has the hero waxing prophetic while hoisting a goon over his head. In a single image, he captures everything fans have come to know and love about Captain America: loyal, unwavering, here to protect the American way. And with Steranko penning, he did it with more style than usual.
7. The Winter Soldier (Captain America #1-9, 11-14)
Excluding Joe Simon, Ed Brubaker goes down as the quintessential Captain America writer. Picking the series up in 2005, as the hero was experiencing a sizable lull in sales, Brubaker bumped Cap up to being Marvel’s most acclaimed hero the following year. A lot of this excitement dealt directly with bold new ideas like The Winter Soldier, who just so happened to be Steve’s old sidekick Bucky Barnes. Drawing equal parts flack and praise, the comic writer flipped the hero’s fallen friend into a brainwashed contract killer – in the process, infusing a grim, espionage flavor that hadn’t been seen since the days of Jim Steranko.
Pulling heavily from spy flicks like Three Days of The Condor (1975) and The Bourne Identity (2002), Brubaker launched Captain America into the new millennium with vitality to spare. Appropriately, this acclaimed arc would be the source material behind Marvel’s 2014 smash of the same name, regularly sighted as one of the greatest superhero movies ever made.
6. Under Siege (Avengers #277)
Rightly considered one of the greatest Avengers stories of all time, 1987’s Under Siege plays the heartstrings like a world renown champ. Arriving as the culmination to an almighty story arc, the team is forced to tussle with the sinister Baron Helmut Zemo; an offspring of the man who killed Cap sidekick Bucky Barnes (or so we thought). Zemo calls in the Masters of Evil to ambush Avengers Mansion, a move that quickly turns sadistic when he forces the tied-up heroes to watch as he destroys their most cherished belongings. It’s heartbreaking to read, and the throw-down that results is well worth it’s weight in hammers (or shields).
Iron Man and company naturally wind up the winners, but Captain’s far less tangible foe remains time. Left to gaze upon the charred remains of his mother’s only photograph, a rarely spotted tear trickles down the hero’s blue exterior. Writer Roger Stern masterfully orchestrates this closing sequence, catapulting an ambush into a meditation of loneliness that a character like Cap constantly lives with. A classic comic book tale.
5. Civil War (Civil War #1-7)
What happens when you pit the world’s mightiest heroes against one another? That’s what Marvel intended to find out in 2006, as Avengers were forced to choose sides in the wake of The Superhuman Registration Act. Such a bill enforced every hero into revealing their secret identities – a deal that didn’t gel too well with Captain America and company. Despite a history of patriotic action, the strapping New Yorker refused to give up his freedom, and forged a rogue outfit that stood in the way of former alley Iron Man.
Hard-hitting as it was socially relevant, the Civil War miniseries was the rare comic book event that actually delivered. By flipping Cap into a radical and Tony Stark into a government pawn, writer Mark Millar forces readers to analyze the opposing perspectives of superheroes – in the process, deciding for themselves the path most righteous. Aided by some awesomely brutal bashes, Civil War is going to make one hell of a movie this May.
4. The Death of Captain America (Captain America #25-42)
Dealing in the aftermath of Civil War, this lengthy 2007-08 story pulled a predictable plot device and flipped it into a masterful stroke of art. Truth be told, most superheroes has died at one time or another, resulting in little more than a few downtrodden issues (both numeric and emotional) to sift through until they return. So when it came time to send Cap to the great big Memorial Day Parade in the sky, writer Ed Brubaker confounded everyone with a tale both bombastic and ernest in scope. The bombast came courtesy of battles with Iron Man, Red Skull’s daughter, and various corrupt agencies, ripping through a pace that seemed downright cinematic in scope.
Earnestly speaking, Brubaker canvases Death with the soul of Steve Rogers. As a mere mortal before his transformation, Rogers’ righteous demeanor is at the core of the series, pulling every bit of empathy from the reader before planting replacement Bucky Barnes in his place. Naturally, he didn’t stay dead for long, but that doesn’t cheapen this beautiful culmination in the slightest.
3. The Hero That Was (Captain America #109)
A Silver Age retelling of Cap’s origin story, this 1968 collab between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby is the strongest source point for 2011’s The First Avenger. Taking the core of Joe Simon’s very first issue and integrating elements of Avengers #4, Lee and Kirby place an official seal of resurrection on Steve Rogers; and the results are nearly too fun to put into words. The duo works in such sharp unison that the story practically bounds off the page, and old chestnuts about Steve’s strength serum feels brand new with twenty years of separation.
Also worth noting is the nonlinear element that Lee chooses to employ, as Cap’s narration reveals itself to be a recount of events for S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury. In the midst of Bucky’s death, Red Skull’s demise, and Rogers’ suspended animation, the skewered perspective adds yet another layer of poignancy to the proceedings. The Hero That Was ends on an ambiguous note, teasing the fact that Cap’s greatest challenge would be adjusting to modern society. Echoed by the film version six decades later, it proved both an old ending and a new beginning.
2. War & Remembrance (Captain America #247-255)
Admittedly, some of Captain America’s most memorable villains were on the sillier side of evil. Bozos like Batroc the Leaper, Baron Blood, and Mister Hyde are among the top offenders that come to mind, but all mocking bets were off once Roger Stern and John Byrne got their hands on Cap’s character catalogue. Lasting a measly nine issues between 1980-81, the duo spun a wondrous web of fantasy and potent political satire that still holds up as preemo comic book prose. Whether it be The Captain taking on Mister Hyde or, most famously, beheading Baron Blood with his shield, there was a bustling crackle to Stern & Byrne’s pages. Taking the heads off of Nazi vampires was just icing on the cake.
All gore aside, the arc’s grandest achievement actually arrived when Steve Rogers contemplated running for president, echoing the intent of a certain celebrity-turned-senator circa 1980. And just like Ronald Reagan, Cap’s brief flirtation with the idea consisted of pop culture basking and media manipulation – scarily accurate given how little the country has changed. By today’s standards, Captain America seems like a pretty spectacular candidate.
1. Man Out of Time
Man Out of Time is another origin story rehash, but writer Mark Waid bestows fans with what can only be referred to as the defining Captain America experience. Taking things back to the early days of Steve Rogers, from hundred pound weakling to Avengers thaw out, Waid spins old hat into new magic, delving further into the man behind the shield than ever before. Jorge Molina’s artwork bristles with beauty and lends yet another refined element to Time’s pensive approach, much of which is spent serving up grade A drama.
Not to imply that’s a bad thing by any means. In fact, by doing so, Waid exemplifies the power of the comic book format when a great story and great character come together as one. The isolation, the bravery, the acceptance of humanity even when everyone else demands more. Such are the conditions that Captain America must live under, and 2010’s Man Out of Time captures this better than most. A modern classic.
Does Cap have any other stories that fans should read? Let us know in the comments!