In Do You Remember The First Time? we take a nostalgic trip back in time to discuss a seminal purchase that introduced us to a character, title, creator, or even a hobby.
Matt C: I’d come across Captain America a few times in various UK reprints of Marvel comics in my formative years, but this issue, released in 1986, was the first bona fide US Cap comic I'd ever picked up. Up to that point I’d never seen a genuine US comic book on the shelves of a British newsagent, so I guess there’s a fair amount of nostalgia tied up in recalling this purchase, and while rose-tinted spectacles may be involved I think it still holds up pretty well 30 years later. Why this particular issue and not any of the others on the shelf at that time? As is often the case with this medium, it’s the cover that gets you first, and the cover of #317 was bursting with energy, excitement and a guy on roller skates. What’s not to like?
Although a roller skating bad guy isn’t really the most fearsome foe they could have thought up, the suit looks pretty cool if you ignore the wheels (it looked cool to 12 year-old eyes, at least!), and then there’s Cap on a motorcycle in pursuit, complete with distinctive helmet (“And Check Out Cap's Great New Head Gear!” screams the slogan!), which is either a homage to Evil Knievel or Peter Fonda’s character from Easy Rider (or perhaps neither). The armoured villain is called Blue Streak, a very minor entry into Marvel’s pantheon of super-criminals, one who doesn’t appear again after this instalment (for reasons which become apparent by the final page), although the name would get recycled several times across the years.
Inside the covers, after a brief Serpent Society related prologue, the action flits between Steve Rogers aka Captain America and Don Thomas aka Blue Streak. Rogers is leaving the Avengers Mansion (cue cameos from Hercules, Namor and the Wasp) and heading out in a high-tech van (courtesy of the Black Panther and his Wakandan scientists) across the States with the aim of being on hand to help the American public wherever he’s needed. He still holds down his job as a comic book artist (a certain amount of wish fulfilment from whichever creator came up with that profession for Cap’s alter ego!) and is ready for Quinjet retrieval should Earth’s Mightiest Heroes require his assistance. It of course doesn’t take long for him to cross paths with Blue Streak, who has recently been released from the clink and has just turned down an offer to join other villains to mutually protect themselves from a mysterious figure who has been brutally dispatching bad guys with extreme prejudice.
The inevitable clash between hero and villain is relatively short, but there’s a lot of creativity in the way it’s handled, showing how Cap combats a guy zipping about on rocket-powered roller skates (and who wouldn't want to see that?). It works because of the way artist Paul Neary (assisted by Dennis Ianke on inks) displays the action, pacing it nicely and picking the most dynamic angles for each panel to give the whole thing a sense of real momentum. Neary is perhaps better known now as an inker (most notably through his collaborations with Bryan Hitch) and as Editor in Chief of Marvel UK back in the early ‘90s, but his work here is superb. As for the writing…
Obviously I was oblivious at the time as to who Mark Gruenwald was and what he ultimately achieved with the titular character (his run is one of the most highly regarded of all time, in case you didn’t know), but while I was of an age where I probably couldn’t articulate my response sufficiently, there is some really memorable character work on offer here, from the more familiar faces to those individuals who appear only briefly. And, although this is ostensibly a stop gap issue, moving various things into position for new storylines (most notably, the aforementioned 'mysterious figure' who's killing super-crooks), there’s still a definite, undeniable sense of who Steve Rogers/Captain America is, what he believes in and what he stands for, and it's delivered in a way that was powerful enough to turn me into a lifelong fan of the character almost instantly.
In that respect this issue’s a winner, one that really does hold up well. It may not be tied to any dramatic turning point in the life of the Sentinel of Liberty, but the essence of the character is ingrained into each and every page in a way that’s persuasive and inspiring, and to achieve that within 22 pages of thrilling action and adventure makes me think I couldn’t have picked a better first issue of Captain America to start my collection.