Friday, May 3, 2013

What's So Golden About... Captain America Comics 5?

Captain America Comics #5 (August 1941)
"Captain America and the Ringmaster of Death!"
Joe Simon & Jack Kirby (ink assist from Al Avison)

Doug:  What have we here?  A Golden Age story, on the Bronze Age Babies?  Why not?  We all know that our collections are littered (I say that affectionately) with GA material, whether in books like Fantasy Masterpieces, in the various Giant-Size issues, or in hardcovers such as The Greatest Batman Stories Ever ToldI asked Karen back in February if she had a problem in my branching out; certainly we've covered the Silver Age and even beyond the Bronze Age.  Today we complete the cycle of comics history.

Doug:  Back in 1990 when I thought I had to have everything that might be worth something someday, I purchased the slipcased, two volume hardcover Captain America: The Classic Years.  I read through all of it at the time.  It was OK -- but I was like, "what's the big deal?"  Now that I'm infinitely more cultured as an almost-47 year old than I was at 24, I want to take a second look.  I chose this story because the baddie will be familiar to our Silver- and Bronze Age readers.  It's none other than C-lister The Ringmaster - we'll see if he's brought his Circus of Crime.

Doug:  We open at the circus, where Private Steve Rogers and his companion Bucky Barnes stroll the midway.  Who should they meet up with but General Blaine, who Bucky refers to in a whisper to Steve as "the old man".  As Bucky plays the carnival games, we go behind the scenes in an adjacent tent and find one Ringmaster of Crime spinning his own wheel of misfortune -- and tonight's target is going to be General Blaine himself!  Putting his machinations in order, the Ringmaster summons Tommy Thumb, the "circus midget" (hey, it was the politically incorrect 1940's!) and orders him to do a dirty deed.  When Tommy balks, the Ringmaster takes after him with his whip!  While this is only silhouetted, I was still taken aback at the brutality of the act.  We then see Tommy slide up next to the tiger pen and undo the latch.  This ain't good...

Doug: The tiger, now loosed, attacks the first passerby -- and as bad luck would have it, it's General Blaine.  In one of those panels that can only be appreciated at blogs like, Steve orders Bucky, "off with your clothes, kid!"  They slip into the shadows, basically costing the general his life while they shed their G.I. uniforms and emerge as Captain America and Bucky.  In a scene reminiscent of Tarzan, Cap gets the big cat in a choke hold and snaps its neck (the Lord of the Jungle always preferred the full nelson, by the way).  Bucky spies the midget (I feel bad just writing that...) and even calls after him, "A midget -- hey, are you the one who opened the cage?", because you know that midgets just do that sort of thing.  Bucky's knocked out by a hammer handle-wielding goon as Cap arrives from pronouncing the general dead.  Cap lays out Bucky's assailants, punching one guy clean through the side of a canvas tent (man....) and punching the other fellow into the vacated tiger cage.  A previously-unseen thug watches from a hiding place, and goes to tell the Ringmaster.

Doug:  Back at base, Sergeant Duffy is in no way happy that Rogers missed curfew the night before.  Of course the penalty for that is peeling potatoes, so Steve and Bucky commence with this monotonous job.  Up walks Betty Ross, "special government agent", and the boys relate the goings-on of the night before.  Convinced that the general was set up, Betty decides she'd better clue in Defense Commissioner Newsome.  But, the Ringmaster is back at the circus spinning his wheel and -- you guessed it: Commissioner Newsome is next in line!  It's worth mentioning that the Ringmaster does not employ the hypnotic circle on the band of his hat as would the Silver Age version -- the only circular image employed by this guy is his "wheel of death".  The Ringmaster muses to himself that once he kills all of the swine chosen to be his victims, he will rule this leaderless land as Hitler rules Europe, with the mob as his Gestapo!  I thought these panels were interesting, as on the cover of the mag there is clearly the Nazi vibe, but while there are these and other references to the War in the story no one is pictured with swastikas, etc.  The Ringmaster assembles his circus performers (not referred to as the "Circus of Crime" at this point) and lays out his plans to kill Newsome.  He threatens them with his whip should they fail, and then sends them into action.

Doug:  As Newsome works in the armory, the acrobats form a human chain across the chasm between rooftops.  Omir the snake charmer (no Princess Python, he) moves across and sets up just outside some duct work.  Playing, the snake begins to rise form its basket and slithers into the ventilation system.  As Newsome hears the notes playing, he's suddenly beset upon by the snake and killed.  Outside, Betty Ross is walking briskly toward the armory to warn Newsome that he might be on a hit list.  A gang of thugs leaps from the shadows and attempts to drag her away.  Cap and Bucky, keeping her in their sights for safety, leap to action and pummel the baddies.  As they round up the five goons, Zandow the Strong Man emerges from the shadows and wallops Cap.  Down and out, Cap is unable to prevent the gang from spiriting Betty away, Bucky helping his mentor rather than giving chase.  But when Cap awakens, he's fighting mad and tells Bucky they are going to the circus.

Doug:  The Ringmaster addresses Betty with all the bravado we'd expect from a creep like him, and tells her that if Captain America comes for her, it will be the end of him.  And sure enough, outside we see Cap and Bucky now on the circus grounds.  As they move about, attempting to conceal their presence, they round a corner and fall right into the Ringmaster's trap -- all of his goons, the circus performers, and the elephants!  Cap pays ol' Zandow back for the knock on his noggin, and Bucky takes out "the missing link".  But an elephant grabs Cap in its trunk and hurls him -- headlong into the bad guys!  Yeah, that shield will leave a mark!  Inside the big top, the Ringmaster has suspended the now-unconscious Betty from a rope high above the center ring.  As our heroes enter, the Ringmaster slices the rope -- and their isn't any net for this trick!  Cap commandeers a trapeze, with Bucky holding onto his boots.  They swing to the middle and Bucky is able to grab Betty and spirit her to safety while Cap goes after the Ringmaster.

Doug:  Cap easily catches the Ringmaster in the tent that serves as his headquarters.  The beating he takes is pretty severe, and Simon & Kirby do a fun job of showing that with just a series of sound effects.  In the next panel we see the slumped over, would-be crime lord with his wheel of fortune bashed over his head.  Bucky comes in and reports that he was able to collapse the big top on the rest of the gang -- it's a victory for the good guys.  And as the cops arrive, Cap and Bucky make tracks.  Betty thinks to herself, as most comic book girlfriends do, that maybe some day she'll figure out who those guys are?!

Doug:  So, what's so Golden about this story?  Well, first of all it was only 12 pages long, as most Golden Age comics had several stories crammed between the covers.  Secondly, while the art was dynamic and full of action, it was somewhat crude by Silver and Bronze Age standards.  But for its time, it's really hard to knock Simon & Kirby.  Third, there were several Wertham-worthy moments, such as the comment about Bucky getting his clothes off, the beating of the "midget", the mutilation of the general by the tiger, Cap's dispensing of justice to the Ringmaster (even though off-camera), Betty in bondage, Bucky being put into countless incidents of danger as a child, and probably some other minutiae that I've missed.  Lastly, it was a self-contained story, common for the era.  But, was this good stuff?  I'd say I had a fair enough time reading it.  I took it for what it is (was) and wasn't disappointed.  Whereas I tend to look at Silver Age books as the ground floor for the Bronze Age, Golden Age stories have a bit of heritage to them that places them on a pedestal as formative to the industry as a whole.  We cannot overlook their significance.


MattComix said...

I think commenting on Golden Age stuff is fair on a Bronze Age blog. The BA is when you had guys like Roy Thomas bringing some of that stuff back into play.

Matt Celis said...

I enjoy the straightforward, fast-paced action of Golden Age comics. Granted, many of then are poorly drawn and badly written, but there are many gems. The sheer output of the industry at the time necessitated printing almost any old crap, but when you get some Simon-Kirby, Eisner, and so on, you're usually in for fun. Even a 2nd-tier character like Sandman became great in the hands of Simon & Kirby. Nowadays this 12-page story would probably last 6 leaden issues.

Thank goodness for Archives and Masterworks keepingthis stuff alive. And I never thought I'd see the original Daredevil collected!

Doug said...

Sounds like we have a fan -- in both Matts!

As a kid I generally turned up my nose at the Golden Age reprints for many of the same reasons you cite, Mr. Celis. But as I said in the post, I think with maturity and a broader appreciation of the history this bears another look on my part.

So I'd like some feedback from our readers -- what do you think? Would you mind fare like today's every so often (I'm talking 3-4 times a year maybe)? I have some Archie from the very early 1950's, a hardcover of Simon & Kirby's Newsboy Legion, some DC hero stuff, and a facsimile of Marvel Comics #1. Plus, as stated a smattering of reprints found in Silver and Bronze Age comics.

Please let me know. Like a lot of things around here, if it doesn't stick, we'll move on!



Matt Celis said...

Archie would be GREAT!

Inkstained Wretch said...

I have to say I really like the art here! The layouts are clever, the images are quite dynamic and the way Cap is constantly breaking through the borders of the panels is neat. It really looks years ahead of its time. Frankly it is better than some Silver Age stuff.

But is this Simon or Kirby? Didn't Simon draw as well? Is it both? The style is much different from the blockier style Kirby used later that I'm familiar with. Then again, this is 20 years before the Silver Age too. A lot can change.

Can anybody provide some insight on who in Simon & Kirby was doing what regarding the art?

Garett said...

This is great timing! I just picked up Marvel Visionaries, Jack Kirby Vol. 2-- inside is Captain America #1 where Cap fights the Red Skull. I really enjoyed the story and art--it has energy and spunkiness and character. Thanks for the review, and I'd love to see more of all the ones you mentioned, including Archie.

There's another Golden Age story in that volume: The Vision, from 1941. His look is somewhat like the more familiar Avengers Vision, with a bald head, long yellow cape with the big collar, glowing eyes, and mostly green outfit. He's a dark, mysterious character who appears and disappears in a puff of smoke. The Kirby dynamism is there in these old stories, but with more curvy, less blocky look.

J.A. Morris said...

Blogging about Golden Age tales on a Bronze Age blog? Sacrilege!

Just kidding, I picked up a tpb of some of these Cap stories a while back. They're interesting, if more than a bit racist at times against the Japanese. A product of their times to be sure, but still worth a read. My college degree was in history, so these stories work for me on multiple levels.

Bruce said...

I had no idea the Ringmaster had been around that long!

Normally, while I can appreciate Golden Age stories for their historical significance, I'm not a huge fan. They're often too crude and simplistic for my liking. However, this Captain America story looks pretty good. Even at this stage, Kirby is clearly a notch above.

Edo Bosnar said...

Doug, I wouldn't mind some discussions of Golden Age stuff occasionally. There's actually quite a bit of good material there: I only have to mention Eisner's Spirit to stress that point. I know it's subject to what you and Karen have in your collections, but I'd wouldn't mind also seeing some coverage of Jack Cole's Plastic Man, or anything drawn by Reed Crandall or Lou Fine.

By the way, it's interesting that the quality of Kirby's art in this story was mentioned by several commenters above. I think it's important to note Simon's influence here - he and Kirby collaborated on both the writing and art chores as far as I know, and I always thought Kirby's art looked best when he was working with Simon (I remember really enjyoing their GA Newsboy Legion, Sandman and Manhunter stories that DC reprinted in the '70s).

William Preston said...

I never minded Golden Age reprints in the comics. Before I became a Marvel Zombie (tm), I read DC, often buying the big issues with the multiple reprints. I actually thought that stuff was cool, just as I enjoyed watching The Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers and old horror movies on TV.

Anonymous said...

Well considering Cap was created in the Golden Age, I guess he's an appropriate topic in a Bronze Age blog (or any Age for that matter!).

Even though some elements of this story are too politically incorrect for modern readers, this still looks like a good issue. Like Bruce said, I never knew the Ringmaster was around that long. I noticed that some elements of the Golden Age made it to the Bronze Age such as the Ringmaster and the Human Torch; even though the characters were different, the superhero element was the same. Seems like authors are never above resurrecting their creations.

- Mike 'don't get me started on Mandrake and Lothar' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Fred W. Hill said...

It should be noted that at some point, likely in the Bronze Age, it was revealed that the Golden Age Ringmaster was the father of the later Ringmaster who made his debut in an early issue of the Hulk (issue 3, I think). Gotta admit, my favorite Ringmaster story was in Howard the Duck -- not only amusing but perhaps the only one, at least up to that point, to treat the Ringmaster with a bit of sympathy, albeit while exposing what a pathetic wretch he is.

Rip Jagger said...

Those ruggedly reprinted Cap stories in Fantasy Masterpieces were totally awesome at the time! There was vigor and violence and recklessness to the action that was just not part of the slightly more cerebral Marvel stories of the Silver Age. When Golden Age Cap punched you, you stayed punched!

Rip Off

Unknown said...

I've been a little MIA lately, due to a puzzlingly busy period.

Count me in for the Pro-Golden Age group. Golden and silver age reprints were just as much a part of the bronze age to me as the bronze stuff. This was mainly due to DC's 100 Page Super Spectaculars. They really were spectacular. Thanks to them, I was developing a keen sense of history in the fourth grade.

I always thought Marvel was amazingly stingy with their golden age material in the 70's, compared to DC.

The reprints inspired me to hunt down silver age back issues whenever we hit a town with a comics shop (golden agers were too expensive, and rare to boot. IT used to be a special thrill just to see one).

S & K were great at Timely, but really hit their stride at DC. THe dynamism in Manhunter, Boy Commandos, Newsboy Legion, and Sandman & Sandy was miles beyond anyone else back then (especially at DC).

Nice review today Doug. I really enjoyed this one.

James Chatterton

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