In celebration of the American Day of Independence, it's a great time to point people in the direction of some great stories about the greatest champion of the United States, Captain America: The Sentinel of Liberty.
It happens to be more relevant these days when the current mainline story about Steve Rogers is…less than satisfying and not particularly enjoyable for many.
A great start would happen to be a classic by Roger Stern and Steve Englehart, with art by Sal Buscema: the original "Secret Empire," starting in Captain America and the Falcon #169 from 1974. It focused on a concerted effort to defame and discredit Captain America by the organization known only as the Secret Empire. They enlisted the help of such foes as the original Viper, the original Moonstone, and the Tumbler, and they also attacked the X-Men and the Brotherhood, wanting to use their mutant powers for their own nefarious ends. It's worth mentioning that this is also the story in which the Falcon first acquires his wings, presented to him by guest star Black Panther. You can pick up a collection of this story on Amazon right now for less than $14.
Following "Secret Empire" and discovering a government official (implied to be Richard Nixon) who supported their attempted coup, Steve Rogers became disillusioned with carrying the mantle of Captain America. With this, he took up the identity of the Nomad, the Man Without a Country. This involved a fabulously 1970s costume and taking on the Serpent Squad and the Red Skull. He picked up the shield before long, realizing that there needs to be a Captain America. This one can be picked up from Marvel directly for $10 or from Amazon for less than $18.
Though this was not a Captain America-specific story, the original Secret Wars spotlighted the First Avenger for quite a bit, as he did his best to lead a group of heroes made up of the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the Hulk, Spider-Man, and the X-Men against a gathered group of villains made up of Doctor Doom, Kang the Conqueror, Ultron, the Wrecking Crew, Absorbing Man, Doctor Octopus, the Lizard, and other threats at the behest of the cosmic Beyonder. This one is a legendary tale brought together by Jim Shooter, Mike Zeck, and Bob Layton. It has a great deal of Captain America and shows him at one of his best moments.
Mark Gruenwald's Captain America series from the 1980s has a lot of classic stories, including the formation of the Serpent Society, the rise of the Captain, and the era of John Walker: Captain America. This is often considered one of the best eras of Steve Rogers, and Mr. Gruenwald is a favorite writer of my father, the world's biggest Captain America fan.
Brian Michael Bendis' Avengers: Disassembled pushed Captain America to the limit as he tried his best to hold the team of Earth's Mightiest Heroes together in the face of dissension, the return of old foes, and the mental instability of the reality-bending Scarlet Witch. This one has lost prestige due to its depiction of Wanda Maximoff, but it holds up. The grim art by David Finch definitely helped add to the atmosphere.
This story crossed over to Captain America's comics, written by Walking Dead writer Robert Kirkman, famed Black Panther writer Christopher Priest, and with art by Scot Eaton and Joe Bennett. In this story, Steve Rogers has a bitter reunion with former flame and Serpent Society member, Diamondback, and he faces challenged by S.H.I.E.L.D.
Following the collapse of the Avengers, Captain America and Iron Man brought together a new team including Luke Cage, Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Spider Woman. This was the New Avengers, and it came together in response to a massive breakout at the supervillain prison known as the Raft. Cap and Tony co-lead this team until the implementation of the Superhuman Registration Act.
Ed Brubaker's Captain America is oft-considered a modern classic and for good reason. His run on the super soldier's comic book is incredible, aided by the work of talented artists like Mike Perkins and Steve Epting. This run saw the return of Captain America's first partner, Bucky Barnes (my all-time favorite superhero). He had been brainwashed by the USSR into becoming the assassin known as the Winter Soldier.
Controversial writer Mark Millar brought about one of the most famous comic book crossovers, Civil War. In light of a disaster brought about by a clash between the New Warriors and Nitro, the Exploding Man, in Sanford, Connecticut, the United States government implemented legislation calling for the registration and culling of America's super heroes. Captain America stood strongly against this, while Iron Man felt that the heroes should follow this to prevent worse crackdowns from happening. Luke Cage, Spider-Man, Spider Woman, Hercules, Falcon, Goliath, and others joined up with Steve. Yellowjacket, Wasp, Mister Fantastic, the Thunderbolts, Deadpool, Ms. Marvel, and Wonder Man aligned themselves with Tony. The story led to the death of Goliath, Bill Foster, and Captain America himself.
Back in Brubaker's comic, Bucky Barnes took up the mantle of Captain America, having to struggle with foes such as the insane William Burnside, the commie-smasher Captain America from the 1950s (a reference to the propaganda Captain America comics of the '50s). He also tangled with a mad scientist attempting to reanimate the corpse of Toro, an intangible villain known as the Man With No Face, Crossbones, and Sin, the Daughter of the Red Skull.
Barnes even joined up with Luke Cage's underground New Avengers, still written by Brian Michael Bendis. When the Heroic Age began again, he joined up the main Avengers team, also by Bendis.
Upon Steve Roger's reanimation, ironically at the hands of the Red Skull, he led a group of covert operatives known as the Secret Avengers, joined by Beast, Valkyrie, Black Widow, War Machine, Nova, Shang Chi, and Moon Knight. This was also written by Ed Brubaker for a time, later replaced by Rick Remender, and Steve was taken off the team.
Bucky was outed as the Winter Soldier by the Russian government, and his near-death at the hand of Sin Schmidt was used to make it appear that Barnes had actually died. Steve took back the mantle as Captain America in the Brubaker Captain America comic, and the Winter Soldier had his own spinoff series written by the same scribe.
When the Super Soldier Serum that gave him his powers abruptly stopped supporting him, Sam Wilson was given the shield by Steve Rogers. He became the All-New Captain America. This dramatic event was written by Remender and drawn by Stuart Immonen.
Sam soon joined Luke Cage's Mighty Avengers in Captain America and the Mighty Avengers, written by the talented Al Ewing.
After Jonathan Hickman's Secret Wars, Sam joined the All-New, All Different Avengers, which turned into just the Avengers, both written by Mark Waid.
With All-New, All-Different Marvel, Nick Spencer took over the Captain America side of the Marvel Universe. Spencer has since written the controversial stories of Steve Rogers: Captain America which brought Steve Rogers back to superhero-ing under the control of Hydra, and the new Secret Empire, which had Steve take over the U.S. as a genuine fascist.
That aside, Sam Wilson: Captain America under Spencer has remained an excellent book which has pitted Sam against the Serpent Society, the Sons of the Serpent, U.S Agent, the Americops, and a portion American media (thinly veiled Fox News and Bill O'Reilly).
So there you go. A potted history of Captain America comics, spotlighting the best Steve Rogers, Sam Wilson, and Bucky Barnes stories. Hopefully, you will find a lot here to like. I know I thoroughly enjoyed all of these books.
Good reading, and happy American Independence Day.