The idea behind “Captain America: The 1940s Newspaper Strip” isn’t a bad one. Marvel ran a fake Captain America comic strip written and drawn by Karl Kesel as an online comic, as if it was published back in the 1940s. That was a time where adventure and serial comic strips were not only much more common but better appreciated, after all. With a new appreciation for older strips like “Popeye” and “Prince Valiant” now thanks to new collections (both were surprisingly good back in the day, as it turned out), this project could have been a natural.
Unfortunately, while Kesel gives it his all, it never quite sustains what he’s going for. It’s unfair to try and compare “Captain America: The 1940s Newspaper Strip” to actual 1940s strip “The Spirit” by Will Eisner, of course, but even Popeye’s “Thimble Theatre” is a much better example of how to run a story like this.
“Captain America: The 1940s Newspaper Strip” ends up being forever unsure if it’s a comedy or an adventure story, and veers a little too far in both directions. Sure, the best strips of that time period had a bit of both, but this goes too much. With an opening of “aw gosh shucks” faux-hilarity of Steve Rogers being yelled at by the mean Sergeant Rogers (I’m pretty sure I saw the same jokes in the “Laverne and Shirley Join the Army” cartoon) and lots of big, exaggerated winks, it’s painful. Then, you turn around and our characters are being gassed and locked up in tense sequences that bring to mind old action-adventure stories. The book goes from one extreme to the other, and it actually ends up being a distraction from the otherwise perfectly normal story that Kesel is trying to tell.
The art at least fares a bit better, when we don’t get cornball humor in the strips. It’s a clean, straightforward style, and Kesel handles scenes like Miss Ross being led through the base with a series of signs in a way that is attractive and doesn’t require dialogue to bring us to the punch line. That sequence actually reminded me a bit of Eisner’s old “The Spirit” strips, and that’s a good thing. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen Kesel pencil a book (more often than not he’s just on board as the inker) and it’s a reminder that he’s good at that part of comics, too.
I wanted “Captain America: The 1940s Newspaper Strip” to be fun, but it’s just slightly annoying from start to finish. (Also, while we’re at it? There’s no apostrophe in “1940s,” in case anyone at Marvel is reading and wants to fix this before the other issues see print.) This is a great idea for a strip, but it feels like it’s trying to do a little too much all at once.