So, you like the Captain America movies but can’t wait two years or more in between installments? Or maybe you just want to get into the comics but are a little nervous about the sheer volume of material out there?
Well, you’re in luck. There are plenty of Captain America comics out there that are perfectly accessible to new readers and movie fans. I’ve compiled a list of stories that inspired the films and serve as Captain America 101 if that’s what you’re looking for. But the most important thing these all have in common is that they’re all wonderful reads, and well worth your time.
The Marvels Project
So, technically this isn’t a Captain America story, although his origin and early adventures do play a part in its second half. But The Marvels Project by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, and Dave Stewart reads like a kind of prequel to Captain America: The First Avenger, even though it’s strictly adherent to Cap’s comic book continuity, and it’s not a Marvel Studios tie-in.
But the Brubaker/Epting/Stewart combo delivers a story that looks and feels right at home in the big screen world of Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter. Want to know how Dr. Erskine defected from Nazi Germany, who the mysterious synthetic man in a red suit visible during the Stark Fair sequence of The First Avenger is, or which other mystery men were fighting the good fight in the Marvel Universe of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s? Then this is the book for you.
For movie fans, you’ll be able to wrap your head around the differences in Cap’s origin just fine, and you can imagine that much of this takes place in the margins around the events of The First Avenger. For readers just looking to get a broader look at Marvel history, this is a wonderful starting point.
Captain America and Bucky: The Life Story of Bucky Barnes
Here’s another easy window into Cap’s World War II era adventures, and it’s another one that if you squint a little, can kind of take place in between the scenes of The First Avenger. Anyway, it’s suitable for newbies and comics experts alike. Each issue is a standalone story, serving as a snapshot of Cap and Bucky’s years together. The focus is squarely on Bucky, though, and he narrates each issue.
Think of it as less of a pure Captain America story and more as something of a prequel to The Winter Soldier, and it works even better. The fourth chapter is even about some of Bucky’s Cold War exploits as The Winter Soldier.
What really makes this essential, though, is the Chris Samnee artwork. Seriously, Chris Samnee drawing Captain America, Bucky, Namor, and the original Human Torch fighting in World War II? Why would anybody pass this up?
There’s also a second Captain America and Bucky volume, called Old Wounds. That one is a little more out there, telling the story of the replacements for Cap and Bucky who finished out World War II after the originals were presumed dead, and a parallel story set in the present. It’s cool, and one of the more unique Captain America stories I’ve read in recent years, but it’s less essential than The Life Story of Bucky Barnes. On the other hand, Old Wounds does feature Francesco Francavilla on art, and that alone is probably worth the price of admission.
The Winter Soldier
So, if the title didn’t already clue you in, this is the basic inspiration for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as well as a number of story elements from Captain America: Civil War. I say “basic” inspiration because if you’ve seen the movie, it’s not the same as reading the comic. Visually and tonally, the films take a ton of inspiration from the Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting run on Captain America, but there’s plenty for movie fans to discover, as the actual stories themselves are quite different.
Of all the great things about this story (and really, if you enjoy this one, just pick up every volume in the series, because it’s one of the most impressive Captain America mega-stories ever told), the constant flashbacks to Cap and Bucky’s early days are particularly useful. If all you know about Cap is what you learned from the movies, this is familiar enough, but the flashbacks will fill in the blanks and give you plenty of context for the more comic book specific parts of the story.
When The Winter Soldier story was first being published, the idea of bringing Bucky back to life was virtually unthinkable. Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting not only made it work, they made it into the most compelling and definitive Captain America story of this generation.
Does this really need any explanation? I’ll be perfectly honest, I’m not the biggest fan of the comic book version of Civil War. In fact, I think the movie took the basic concepts of this and delivered something far more mature and believable. The inciting factors are different, the cast of characters is much, much larger on the page, and the whole thing is far less Bucky-centric than what we got on screen, and this one has the entirety of the Marvel Universe (including the X-Men and Fantastic Four) to play with.
But this list wouldn’t be complete unless I included it. I’m not certain that new readers will find it as accessible as some of the titles listed above, but you may want to check it out.
DIG A LITTLE DEEPER…
This next batch of titles is for those of you who want to get a little more of a taste of Captain America comics through the ages. These are just some personal favorites of mine that I think are essential to the character’s history. And they’re damn good comics.
Captain America Epic Collection: Captain America Lives Again
I cannot in good conscience have an article like this and not include something by Cap’s co-creator, Jack Kirby. And while there are certainly earlier stories (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had a seminal 13 issue stint that kicked everything off), these are by far my favorite of Kirby’s Cap work, some of my favorite Kirby work period, and by extension, some of my favorite comics of all time.
This volume reprints Cap’s earliest stories from when he was reintroduced into the Marvel Universe in 1964. The short stories taking place in the present detail a Captain America adjusting to the death of Bucky, a world that has moved on 20 years without him, and finding his place in the roster of Avengers. The ones in the past re-tell Cap’s origin and his early World War II adventures.
All of them are by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and each one is a delight. When I was a kid, far more than anything else, these were the stories that sold me on the character of Captain America, and they helped introduce to me the wonder that is the art of Jack Kirby. You’ll never see fight scenes leap off the page the way they do here, and Cap has never been as acrobatic. As far as I’m concerned, this is the definitive Captain America era.
The Bloodstone Hunt
Mark Gruenwald is one of the definitive Captain America writers of all time, and I think Kieron Dwyer is one of the most underrated comic book artists of his generation. Gruenwald was the steward of countless Captain America stories in the 1980s, and his run is marked by an incredible surplus of wild ideas, big adventures, and an attempt to give Captain America a colorful costumed rogues’ gallery that would be the equal of any of the best in comics.
The Bloodstone Hunt is the first appearance of Crossbones (y’know, from Captain America: Civil War), but it’s also the comics equivalent of those five-part GI Joe episodes where the team would have to run all over the world to assemble some bizarre device before Cobra got around to it. This is pure fun and a wonderful example of the larger than life craziness of the Cap comics of the era.
Man Without a Country
Back in the ’90s, you were either one of 8,000 X-Men titles, 4,000 terrible Spider-Man titles, or you were basically dead in the water at Marvel Comics. It was all about clones, chromium covers, endless iterations of mutants, and characters with the word “blood” in their name. Classic superheroics were out, the ’90s being, well, the ’90s were in.
So along came Mark Waid and Ron Garney telling a tale of classic superheroics. And while everyone else at Marvel was poorly aping Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, or Rob Liefeld, here was Ron Garney, offering a take on Cap that felt like the Marvel equivalent of the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini Batman: The Animated Series. This is a wonderful read and Garney’s art is just a joy to behold.
All-New Captain America: Hydra Ascendant
This one is a little trickier, but as one of my favorite recent Captain America stories, I can’t not recommend it. Hydra Ascendant came at the tail end of Rick Remender’s tenure as writer on Captain America, where he had done lots of bonkers stuff, including exiling Cap to another dimension ruled by Arnim Zola where he raises a synthetic son to adulthood who then becomes Nomad (breathes in) and then Cap loses the super soldier serum, reverts to his actual age, and Sam Wilson becomes Captain America (whew).
So, yeah, it’s a little weird getting your head around that. But once you do, this story is just so much damn fun. You like Sam Wilson in the big screen Marvel movies, right? Well, here’s your chance to see what happens when he becomes Captain America.
“Hydra Ascendant” is like a lightning fast tour of everything that makes Captain America fun. Hydra with insane subterranean/interdimensional/time traveling secret bases, the full range of colorful Captain America villains, including Baron Zemo, Crossbones, the Red Skull’s daughter, Batroc (ze leaper!), and Baron Blood, and some good old fashioned “make you want to be a better person” characterizations.
On the off chance none of that appeals to you (and for real, why did you bother reading this far if that’s the case?), then at least give this a look for the art team of Stuart Immonen and Wade Von Grawbadger. I can’t remember the last time a Captain America comic looked this fun, and the non-stop action just carries you from panel to panel like a bottle rocket. Also, Sam Wilson’s Captain America costume is the coolest major superhero redesign in recent memory.