This article is part of The Reading List, a recurring column in which we encourage you to take your enthusiasm for a particularly groovy movie or TV series and direct it into a wide array of extracurricular studies. This entry plunges into Captain America canon, suggesting the ten best comic books to devour in anticipation of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
Steve Rogers’ pals are in trouble. Their buddy is not gone, but he might as well be. Witnessing Tony Stark’s sacrifice at the end of Avengers: Endgame inspired Captain America to seek the life he lost in the past. And in cashing in his raincheck with Peggy Carter, Rogers abandoned Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) to carve a new path toward an uncertain future.
On the surface, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and WandaVision appear to be very different beasts. Certainly, the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe endeavor for Disney+ will not upturn the television medium as playfully as WandaVision, but both series begin with their heroes suffering under grief’s weight. Like Wanda with Vision, Sam and Bucky are adrift without Steve, and to add an extra pound of self-doubt, their Captain America sired his shield to Sam.
To wield the shield is a helluva thing. What does that spangly outfit represent? The American government? The American people? The American dream? The stars and stripes are soaked in blood. The Captain who wears them must reckon with all that horror committed under its banner.
Marvel’s relationship with politics has always been a little iffy. In the 1960s, during the rare moments in which Generalissimo Stan Lee addressed the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, or drug culture, he did so with centralism. Democrat and Republican dollars spend equally. Let’s not offend. Let’s get along.
Yet, the best Captain America comics are the ones that challenge the individual who dares pick up the Vibranium frisbee. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier should consider the uncomfortable and awkward decision to dress in the American flag. With this headspace in mind, I picked the ten best comics that feature important characters already revealed to be a part of the series, or rumored to appear, as well as storylines that speak directly to Sam’s choice — or Bucky’s choice — to don Cap’s tights.
Truth: Red, White & Black
Acknowledging Marvel’s tepid political track record makes Truth: Red, White & Black all the more astonishing. Written by Robert Morales and illustrated by Kyle Baker, the comic roars with outrage by logically exploring the Super Soldier program within an American system that also perpetrated the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Steve Rogers’ sci-fi superhero body cost more than dollars and cents. While he was out there fighting the good fight and selling homefront headlines, a squad of African-American soldiers suffered under the needle and on the battlefield.
Morales and Baker don’t shatter the icon, but they do reignite a political fervor that should be driving all Captain America comics and stories. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Steve Rogers as an act of rebellion and capitalism. They needed a hit character, and they got one by having him throw a right hook across the jaw of Adolf Hitler nine months before the US entered World War II. When the war ended, Steve went into the ice and woke up an Avenger decades later. While he’s always been a mighty combatant against world conquering aliens, as a soldier his job is to defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign AND domestic.
These days, we’re consumed by domestic bastards and an ugly history we can no longer ignore. As we saw in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America can never be a government stooge, even if he was created by it. He serves the ideals, and he must confront the hypocrisy that arises around them. Truth: Red, White & Black puts it all out there, and hopefully, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier can do the same thing.
The Death of Captain America
In the aftermath of the Marvel Comics “Civil War” crossover event, Steve Rogers found himself on the losing side and in handcuffs. The Superhuman Registration Act felt like a human rights atrocity, and he took his disagreement with Tony Stark to catastrophic heights where lives were lost. The only resolution was to end the violence and turn himself in. That’s when the Red Skull struck and put a bullet in his gut (but don’t worry kids, his “death” didn’t last long, cuz that bullet was no ordinary bullet: SPOILERS — the round propelled Steve through time, forcing him to relive his most significant moments).
The Death of Captain America covers three trade paperbacks (The Death of the Dream, The Burden of Dreams, and The Man Who Bought America). It takes the reader through Rogers’ assassination, Bucky’s desire for revenge against Tony Stark, and the hunt to bring the Red Skull to justice. The comic is all hot emotion, with every player feeling crippled by the loss of Steve Rogers. Bucky must decide whether he should succumb to his rage or live up to the values so cherished by his dead friend.
In many ways, writer Ed Brubaker‘s mid-aughts run on Captain America asked the same questions as Truth: Red, White & Black. What does it mean to dress as Captain America? The shield is a burden, and it requires constant internal evaluation. Kicking Rogers off the book for a spell rejuvenated the concept, probed the characters’ beliefs, and necessarily exasperated the readers.
The Trial of Captain America
When Steve Rogers died, Bucky Barnes eventually adopted the Captain America mantle. He did it so others wouldn’t. Bucky could never be Steve, but he could honor the man and his mission. Of course, Bucky Barnes is forever tainted as the Winter Soldier. Stolen and brainwashed into a killing machine, Bucky slaughtered hundreds of innocent and not-so-innocent individuals. The American public is not very happy to learn that the new Cap used to be a murder ‘bot.
The Trials of Captain America exposes Bucky’s shame to the world, and it brings great delight to the Red Skull. Brubaker continues to pull the thread on the flag. Are Bucky’s sins worse than the man who came before or the men who put them into their suits? Is redemption possible? Are the villains of yesterday still the villains of today?
All-New Captain America
Years later, Steve Rogers is back underneath the mask and already in need of a new reason and method to get booted from his comic. Marvel didn’t want to kill him again, but squeezing his body free from the Super Soldier serum did the trick. Living as a feeble old man, Rogers could operate behind the scenes, but he could no longer play soldier in the field. Enter: Sam Wilson.
Sam’s time in the book is mostly marred by wonky storylines and lukewarm politics. However, when the All-New Captain America initially launched with Rick Remender as writer and Stuart Immonen as artist, there was an exhilarating energy to the action. This comic throws a cadre of classic Hydra killers against Sam, including Sin, Zemo, and Baron Blood. Sam’s first time at bat wearing the stars and stripes is joyous, silly, and adventurous.
Captain America and the Mighty Avengers
While Sam Wilson was mostly floundering in his solo title at the time, writer Al Ewing and artist Luke Ross delivered his best moments over in this team book. Total annihilation always hangs over Earth. The Avengers are usually there to save the day. However, what’s fantastic about The Mighty Avengers is that it keeps its heroes in their neighborhoods. Iron Man and Thor can deal with the global threats, but while they’re doing their thing, Captain America and his squad make sure the little people don’t get crushed under the falling rubble.
As a bonus, Captain America and the Mighty Avengers highlights a team of heroes that will only become more relevant the further the MCU expands. Alongside Sam, we have Monica Rambeau (the WandaVision scene-stealer), The Blue Marvel (the guy who did not show up as an engineer in WandaVision), White Tiger, She-Hulk, the new Power Man, Luke Cage, and Spider-Man.