This second Essential Captain America book collects Captain America issues 103 to 126, by (according to the cover) Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko & Friends. One of those ‘friends’ is John Romita, who draws one issue, another of those friends is John Buscema, who also draws one issue, and another is Gene Colan, who draws more than half the book and was probably more deserving of a cover credit than Jim Steranko, who only drew four issues. Still, while those Gene Colan issues are the highlight of the book for me – like most people I know, I didn’t like Colan’s art at all as a kid but love it now that I’m older – those Steranko issues look great, as do the Kirby issues, and the great art throughout this book almost makes up for the quality of the stories.
Honestly, the stories in this book were not Stan Lee’s finest work. They seem hopelessly dated now and are almost entirely humourless, with Cap spending most of his time moping about his relationship with Sharon Carter, who won’t give up her job at SHIELD to marry him, and way too much time fighting the Red Skull, who wastes numerous opportunities to destroy Captain America once and for all. Story wise, the highlights of this book for me are the Kirby-drawn issues where Cap takes on the Red Skull’s ‘Exiles’, the crappiest group of villains ever created – the Exiles include Cadavus, Monarch of the Murder Chair, who is basically an old man in a wheelchair that fires laser blasts, and Baldini, who uses his scarf as a weapon (yes, his scarf – I’m not making this crap up) – and the first few appearances of Cap’s future sidekick, the Falcon. At this point, the Falcon could not fly, and was just an athletic black man with a predilection for birds of prey, but he was an immediately endearing character. And while Stan’s attempts to inject some social awareness into these comics, which were originally published between 1968 and 1970, seem incredibly corny and heavy-handed now (Falcon to Cap: ‘Go in peace, my friend! Your skin may be a different colour... but there’s no man alive I’m prouder to call... brother!’), at least he was trying.
This book has a recommended retail price of £9.99 / $14.95 but it’s usually available a bit cheaper online. I got my copy (along with copies of Essential Captain America Volumes 1, 3 and 4) as part of a collection of 28 graphic novels I bought on eBay a couple of years ago for £80. I sold off all the stuff I didn’t want for a little over £80, so this effectively cost me nothing. While I didn’t particularly enjoy this volume, or the previous volume, I am looking forward to reading subsequent volumes, as Vol.3 finally moves on to Cap stories written by writers other than Stan Lee and contains a whole bunch of issues drawn by Bronze Age legend Sal Buscema. Yay!