You don’t have to read too many early issues of The Avengers before you realise that the original Assemblers were a pretty testy bunch. They conducted themselves oh so formally, but often, irritation would leak through their civility. An interruption here, a curt remark there. In fact, they could be downright grumpy, sometimes. You can hardly blame them, though. With as little sleep as they were getting, you’d be grumpy, too.
After all, Iron Man and Thor and Giant-Man also had civilian careers to keep up. Whenever they had some Avengering to do, they had to squeeze it in between Tony Stark’s board meetings, Dr. Don Blake’s medical examinations, and Hank Pym’s laboratory experiments. Throw in the fact that they couldn’t let anyone know about their super-hero moonlighting, it made for some very long, and complicated, work days.
No wonder that, by The Avengers # 16 (May, 1965), they were ready to bail.
Steve Rogers, on the other hand, decided to take the easy way out---by making Captain America his day job, as well.
After he was hauled out of the East River and thawed out, in The Avengers # 4 (Mar., 1964), Captain America was offered a spot on the team. For the next year, Captain America spent all of his time as Captain America, assembling with his teammates and, in his down time, hanging around the Avengers Mansion, looking at his old World War II scrapbook and raiding Tony Stark’s pantry.
That didn’t change any after the Star-Spangled Avenger got his own series, starting in Tales of Suspense # 59 (Nov., 1964). The first handful of these tales were little more than ten-page bar-room brawls, made entertaining by Jack Kirby’s kinetic artwork and Stan Lee’s witty dialogue. Stan knew he couldn't get away with simple slugfests for long, so he quickly shifted to depicting Cap’s wartime adventures while he figured out how to add some depth to his red-white-and-blue hero.
The problem was the man behind the wing-tipped mask, Steve Rogers, had no career, no friends, no existence beyond his costumed identity. So Lee decided to use that as a springboard to providing Captain America with the sort of angst-driven motivation of which the Smilin’ One was so fond. In The Avengers # 15 (Apr., 1965), we learn that Cap’s tired of freeloading off of Tony Stark.
Like any other job-seeker, Cap tries to capitalise on a personal contact to find work. He writes Nick Fury---whom he probably learnt was now a colonel and assigned to the C.I.A. during after-battle shop talk with Reed Richards at the end of Fantastic Four # 26 (May, 1964)---asking for a position doing counter-espionage for the government.
“All my life has been a training ground for such work!”
And to emphasise the new direction, the story puts an end to Cap’s other Stan-provided angst, his constant moaning and groaning over Bucky Barnes’ death, by having his murderer, Baron Zemo, finally pay for the crime.
The next issue’s “The Old Order Changeth” changes the paradigm for Cap, when the other Avengers turn in their membership cards and stick their shield-slinging teammate with leading three reformed super-villains as their replacements. From here on in, you’d think that Cap would be too busy to worry about a private life. But it didn’t take long---issue # 18 (Jul., 1965), in fact---for him to start whining about it, again.
More troubling, though, is that Captain America has started to obsess over getting that job in counter-espionage. When a resistance movement in Communist-controlled Sin-Cong secretly radios the Avengers for help in driving the Reds out of their country, Cap immediately accepts. But not for totally altruistic purposes. In the back of his mind, he’s hoping that Nick Fury will be impressed with his leadership of the Avengers in restoring freedom to Sin-Cong.
That notion may not be that far back in Cap’s mind, after all. When Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, quite reasonably, question getting the Avengers involved in political concerns, he has nothing to say about it. Atypically, it’s Hawkeye who makes the impassioned speech that sways the others into agreeing to undertake the mission.
The Avengers do, indeed, send the Commissar and his Communist flunkies packing. Apparently, Nick Fury doesn’t notice, though, because the next issue finds Captain America still preöccupied over the lack of response to his letter. In fact, he whines almost as much about it as he did about Bucky’s death. It never occurs to him that the problem might be that his information on Fury’s business address was slightly out of date.
As dedicated Marvellites recently learnt, in Strange Tales # 135 (Aug., 1965), Colonel Fury had left his C.I.A. assignment to become director of S.H.I.E.L.D.---Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division (sort of Marvel’s answer to U.N.C.L.E.). And when Fury moved into his new super-secret headquarters, he failed to leave a forwarding address.
Consequently, Cap’s letter, mailed to Fury’s old C.I.A. office, landed on his desk where it remained, dusty and unopened.
That might have been the end of it, and presumably, Cap would’ve gone on crying in his beer over being rejected by Nick Fury---except for Hydra, the terrorist organisation that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been created to defeat. Hydra dispatched a team of operatives to stake out Fury’s former C.I.A. digs, hoping to get a lead to the location of S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters.
(That seemed to be S.H.I.E.L.D.’s only secret. The identity of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s director was supposed to be a secret, too. Yet, it seemed that every villain with a reason to care knew that Fury had been appointed to the job. The only folks who didn’t know were the good guys, like the Avengers.)
Using their scientific devices, the Hydra agents spot Cap’s letter on Fury’s desk and, expecting it to have information on the colonel’s current whereabouts, spirit it into their hands. When they read it, they find it’s a job request, rather than a treasure trove of information, and toss it away.
Through a relay of circumstances, the discarded letter winds up in the hands of the Swordsman, who has a bone to pick with the Avengers. Seeing an opportunity to trap the Assemblers, Swordy sets the bait by having “Fury” answer Cap’s letter, which has the shield-slinger literally jumping for joy.
When the other Avengers criticise him for choosing to give the team only part of his time, he claims that he’s entitled to do so---a strange reaction for the normally duty-bound Cap (as underscored in 1978, when he would condemn Iron Man for doing the same thing). But, since it is a phoney job offer, nothing comes of it. It’s a real ambush set up by the Swordsman, though. He gets the best of Cap, but only long enough to set up the issue’s cliffhanger ending.
Issue # 20 (Sep., 1965) sees Hawkeye and Wanda and Pietro rescue Cap, and then the Swordsman actually becoming an Avenger, as part of an assassination attempt by the Mandarin. Both the Mandarin’s scheme and Swordy’s Avenger-hood are put paid to by the story’s end.
After that, Captain America seemed to have gotten over the whole “Why won’t Nick Fury talk to me?” business. Perhaps he was too busy keeping Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye in line. But fate---and plot necessity---has a way of changing things. Over in Tales of Suspense, Stan Lee decided that Cap needed a supporting cast. That led to his first brush with S.H.I.E.L.D.
In ToS # 75 (Mar., 1966), Steve Rogers is out for a stroll in downtown Manhattan when he passes a young woman who strongly resembles his lost World War II flame. This leads to the sort of “meet-cute” that can happen only in a Marvel mag---Steve tries to intervene when he spots a stranger surreptitiously switching packages with the girl, but she stops him short, followed by mutual feelings of recognition.
Within a few panels, we learn that the pretty blonde is Agent 13, working for S.H.I.E.L.D., and the package mix-up was actually a preärranged exchange with a fellow agent. Steve Rogers’ gallantry inadvertently embroils Captain America in a critical S.H.I.E.L.D. mission. Cap winds up saving New York City from destruction by the mysterious Inferno 42, but not before radiation from the alien substance contaminates Agent 13. She’s carried off in a stretcher, alive but dying.
Captain America finally has his long-awaited reunion with Nick Fury in Tales of Suspense # 78 (Jun., 1968). Colonel Fury visits the Avengers Mansion to warn the heroes about a group of scientific subversives called “Them” and finds Cap the only member in residence. After a quick remembrance of their World War II days, Fury briefs Cap about Them’s newest threat, hydro-chemically grown androids. However, the Star-Spangled Avenger learns about them first hand when one of the artificial creatures smashes his way into the mansion, bent on murdering the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Withstanding a destructive barrage that will cost Tony Stark a young fortune in repair bills, the two WWII vets defeat the android attacker. With its mission thwarted, it self-destructs. Captain America offers the Avengers’ help against Them, but Fury rejects it, insisting it’s S.H.I.E.L.D.’s problem. Before they part, Cap brings up the matter of working for the colonel, but has to beg off. Now, the Avengers require all of his time. (Henry Pym had returned to the team, as Goliath, but he was having problems of his own.) Nevertheless, Fury departs, leaving S.H.I.E.L.D.’s front door open for Cap.
Cap’s encounter with Fury is his gateway to becoming more involved with Agent 13, whose diagnosis of radiation-poison death turned out to be exaggerated. (Evidentally, Stan Lee decided that she had more dramatic potential as a romantic interest, than as another Bucky-like guilt trip, for Cap.) The shield-slinger's burgeoning relationship with Agent 13 brings him into more and more S.H.I.E.L.D. missions, with Nick Fury’s blessing.
It’s a dual-edged sword, though. Each succeeding adventure flames the love growing between Cap and Agent 13, but increases his fears for her safety. Ultimately, Our Hero tries to have it both ways---by proposing to her and asking her to give up risking her pretty neck as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, in ToS # 95 (Nov., 1967).
She turns him down flat.
The rejection sends Cap into one of his woe-is-me fugues, but darker than usual. Steve blames Captain America for all of his troubles and gives up his costumed identity. To make sure he can’t back out, when he publically announces his retirement, he reveals his true face and name. It’s a stupid move that has plenty of predictable repercussions in the next issue. When it dawns on Rogers just how many lives he’s disrupted and put in danger with his actions, he quickly repents and dons the mantle of Captain America once again.
Steve resigns himself to his life as Captain America; Agent 13 stops boo-hooing over Cap quitting; and Nick Fury is glad to have the free services of a super-hero for S.H.I.E.L.D. missions, again.
In fact, from this point on, throughout the remainder of the Silver Age, Cap pretty much works for Fury full time. (The shield-slinger resigned from the Avengers when he quit super-heroing.) The storyline finds him taking on one S.H.I.E.L.D. assignment after another, even after Tales of Suspense becomes Captain America.
Even on personal cases, Cap is given free run of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Manhattan base-of-operations and access to its sophisticated weapons and equipment. And as for our lovebirds, despite the matrimonial set-back, Cap’s romance with Agent 13 flourishes---to the point where finally, three years into their relationship, he learns her name, Sharon Carter.
As the 1960’s gave way to the ‘70’s, and attitudes toward the government changed, seeds of discord over Fury’s tactics were planted in Captain America # 127 (Jul., 1970) that, a couple of years later, would bloom into a bitter fall-out between the Living Legend of World War II and the director of S.H.I.E.L.D.
But that was to come. During most of his time in the Silver Age, when Steve Rogers wasn’t being Captain America, Avenger, he was Captain America, government agent!
Excellent recap Commander, which is not terribly surprising.
When I did my Captain America Silver Age reading project, I recall complaining a lot about how much Cap whined during this period--if it wasn't about Bucky, it was about SHIELD, and if it wasn't about SHIELD, it was about Agent 13. I just think that neither Stan nor Jack had a really good grasp of the appeal of the character--namely that he's not a whiner, he's a guy who gets things done.
Apparently, Cap never knew about Tony Stark's involvement with SHIELD. Perhaps that was to avoid the question of why Iron Man wasn't more involved with SHIELD (and kept his best goodies to himself!).
I don't know that it was Jack's call. According to Mark Evanier, Kirby never liked Stan's take on Cap as a vet who coudln't quite adjust to peacetime.
Sharon was easily the most capable of Stan's superhero love interests in the Silver Age.
Seems there was a tug of war between Lee & Kirby over how to portray Cap, with Kirby favoring way out adventures without much character depth or growth while Lee insisted on some angst, something to indicate to readers that Cap wasn't just an emotionless, perfect super-soldier. Future Cap-chroniclers would have similar problems, trying different ways to make Cap a character readers could relate to while also ensuring their was plenty of action. With Spider-Man, it was far easier for writers because from the get-go Spider-Man had an excellent supporting cast of characters and no one viewed Spidey as a paragon of virtue -- in his early years he was a kid trying to do his best but often beset by troubles that had little to do with the badguy of the month. Silver Age Cap, however, had a bare minimal supporting cast that was unique to his series, mostly Agent 13 and the Red Skull! And he was regarded as a paragon of virtue, "the Living Legend of World War II", as far as most of the Marvel Universe was concerned the "first" costumed superhero (not counting an Atlantean who sometimes waged war on the surface world and an android with freakish flame powers, but a normal guy who had volunteered to be transformed into a heroic figure, dressed in a uniform based on the U.S. flag and eager to fight fascists!
Reading many of those early Avengers and S.A. Cap stories in reprints in the '70s, sometimes the whiney aspects of Cap seemed like overkill, but then again I appreciate that Lee was working on humanizing Cap, showing that he had worries, that pride could cause him to make mistakes, that while he strove to constantly improve himself and was a great hero but he wasn't perfect. He even quit the Avengers in an angry huff, but came running back as fast as he could when he heard they were in trouble. I liked it that when he quit, it wasn't later revealed that it was some sort of test or anything of the like. He was genuinely angry about both the constant bickering of his new teammates and at how easily the public had been turned against them by a con job. Cap got a taste of what Spidey routinely went through and he didn't like it any better. Of course, a decade later, Englehart gave Cap an even stronger dosage of public distrust.
I was reading something relating to TV's Peggy Carter the other day and it occurred to me this is another example of Steve Englehart in the Bronze Age turning a footnote character into a valuable property. The original Agent 13 was what, one story during Lee and Kirby's brief attempt at setting Cap in WW II; she only became a character after Englehart brought her back as Sharon's sister.
“Seeing an opportunity to trap the Assemblers, Swordy sets the bait by having ‘Fury’ answer Cap’s letter, which has the shield-slinger literally jumping for joy.”
Thank you for using the word “literally” both correctly and appropriately.