Captain America is one of the most famous and important superheroes in the Marvel Universe. He is also the oldest Marvel hero to consistently have his own comic as he was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941. Beginning as a figure of anti-German and Japanese propaganda, Captain America and his civilian identity evolved into a man out of time, and one who was filled with great guilt because of the death of his partner Bucky Barnes. He went from wholeheartedly supporting the United States’ policy to refusing to wear the stars and stripes when the president himself was at the center of a conspiracy to hunt him down and kill him. He has fought and been betrayed by old friends and lovers, but Captain America still act as the moral center of the Marvel Universe, and the hero everyone from Spider-Man to The Punisher and Wolverine look up to and respect. His comics are full of fast moving action and adventure and have acted as a showcase for many great artists over the year beginning with the greatest of them all. This article will look at the best Captain America artists in chronological order from his creation to the present.
Jack Kirby (Captain America Comics in 1941-2, Avengers in 1963, Tales of Suspense in 1964-8, Captain America in 1968-9, 1976-7)
Captain America was Jack Kirby’s first big comic book creation, and he drew him punching out Adolf Hitler on the cover of Captain America Comics #1. These early stories set the foundation for the action-packed, visually dynamic stories that would define all of Kirby’s work. The red, white, and blue shield gave Cap many ways to take down unending hordes of Nazis and look good while doing it. The mix of punchy action and a patriotic character in the middle of a war time made Captain America Comics a huge seller (in the millions) with kids and GI’s snapping up copies. Kirby’s initial run on Captain America only lasted ten issues, but he brought him back later in Avengers #4. In Avengers, Kirby replaced the Nazi villains with sci-fi inspired characters, like the time-traveling Kang the Conqueror. The juxtaposition of a man wearing an American flag and Kirby’s drawings of futuristic technology truly showed how out of place he was in the brave new world of the Marvel Universe. Even though Jack Kirby is most well known for his cosmic stories, like the “Galactus Trilogy” and New Gods, his work creating and drawing Captain America showed he could do grounded action sequences with a down-to-earth character who happened to have fantastic abilities. It also gave him a chance to draw period war stories as well as some new adventures. Some of Kirby’s last work for Marvel was the “Bicentennial Battles” storyline where Captain America fought during various times in history and showed that the Star-Spangled Man’s heroism and right hook could work in any setting.
Jim Steranko (Captain America in 1969)
Why is someone who only pencilled three issues of Captain America on this list? It is because of images like the one above. Even though his body of work is small compared to other great artists like Kirby or Will Eisner, Jim Steranko was one of the most innovative artists in comics, and his work for Marvel, including Captain America, is a great example of that. Coming off a legendary run on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, Steranko brought elements of spy fiction and espionage front and center in Captain America, which featured HYDRA and their new leader Madame Hydra as villains. As well as being influenced by Kirby’s work, Steranko brought in elements of expressionism, surrealism, pop art, and collage to his comics. His work was very detailed so he could only write one book at a time. Steranko’s Captain America burst out of the panels to make his action scenes the most visceral and mindboggling yet. It was filled with great quiet moments, like the Avengers and Sharon Carter mourning his supposed death in Captain America #113, and Cap coming to terms with Bucky’s death and making Rick Jones his new sidekick. Even though his run was brief, Steranko helped shape the character of Captain America while showing why he was one of the greatest storytellers in comics history.
Gene Colan (Avengers in 1969, 1981; Captain America in 1969-1971, 1981, 2009)
Gene Colan’s greatest contribution to the Captain America title was co-creating his ally The Falcon with Stan Lee. The Falcon was the first African American superhero and later would co-headline the Captain America comic. In his work, Colan dealt with things like the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War as well as punching giant gorillas. Colan’s line work was a lot thicker than his contemporaries like Kirby, Ditko, and Everett and was distinct at the time. His Captain America had a “groovy” visual style with a lot of splash pages and monsters between scenes of social commentary, or Steve Rogers feeling out of place in the world. These scenes would influence later artists, and Colan set the tone for Bronze Age Captain America artists. His stories were fast-paced, and his anatomy a little more realistic than his contemporaries’ more stylized work. They still had the big action scenes and motorcycle chases that Captain America comics were growing famous for, and Colan even drew a multi-part epic where Cap faced his arch-nemesis the Red Skull. In 2009, Colan returned to Captain America one last time and drew a 40 page story where Captain America fought vampires in WWII. This homage to both his superhero and horror work on titles like Tomb of Dracula earned him an Eisner two years before his untimely death in 2011.
Sal Buscema (Avengers in 1969-1983, Captain America in 1969-1983)
The younger brother of John Buscema, Sal Buscema drew most of the major Marvel comics during the Bronze Age and had a pair of long runs on Captain America from 1972-5 and 1978-9 along with various fill-in work. Like all great Captain America artists, he could handle the neo-Nazi punching, wall (and jaw) breaking fight scenes along with Falcon soaring and dropping villains from the sky, but Buscema was also skilled at the more quiet, character-driven scenes. Writer Steve Englehart liked to put contemporary politics into his work on Captain America, and Buscema gave his characters facial expressions that showed the tension Cap felt when he dealt with racists in Harlem with Falcon and fought the violently anti-Communist Captain America of the 1950s. He also worked with Englehart on the famous “Secret Empire” storyline and showed Captain America’s emotions when he realized that the President (a thinly veiled Richard Nixon) was at the center of a conspiracy to destroy the United States. Buscema’s stories showed the human side of Captain America and that his ideals didn’t often correspond to the reality of the 1970s United States. However, his Avengers work was a little more light-hearted as Cap and the Avengers fought a wide variety of crazy threats, including the Squadron Sinister, a parody of the Justice League.
John Byrne (Avengers in 1977, 1979-1980, 1989-1990; Captain America in 1980-1; Batman/Captain America in 1996)
While expanding the world of Uncanny X-Men and drawing and co-plotting classic stories like “The Dark Phoenix Saga”, writer/artist John Byrne had a short run on Captain America and Avengers. Despite its brevity, Byrne’s run was filled with some big events, like Captain America thinking about running for president. Other artists dealt with Cap’s angst and uneasiness at being a man from another time, but Byrne added another layer of darkness with scenes like Captain America beheading Baron Blood, the vampire brother of Golden Age hero Union Jack. Though dark, Byrne reveled in Golden Age nostalgia during his run on Captain America bringing back the Invaders, including the aforementioned Union Jack. His last issue on Captain America retold the character’s origin and life story effectively rebuilding his mythos for a new generation of readers. This was a precursor to Byrne’s later retelling of Superman’s origin in Man of Steel, but Captain America #255 was a tighter story. Byrne’s mixture of modern angst and Golden Age action made him a perfect fit to write and draw the 1996 intercompany crossover where Captain America joined forces with Batman and Robin to fight the Joker and Red Skull in a story set in the 1940s.