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Captain America by Jack Kirby Omnibus (Review)

April (and a little bit of May) are “Avengers month” at the m0vie blog. In anticipation of Joss Whedon’s superhero epic, we’ll have a variety of articles and reviews published looking at various aspects of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” Today, I’m focusing on one in particular, Captain America.

“All the years of combat against forces of overwhelming power have done little to prepare Cap for the terrifying experience of being thrust under the Klieg Lights amid an undulating sea of precision dancers…”

– Oh no! Cap’s fatal weakness! Precision dancers!

It seemed like a bit of a no-brainer. With America’s bicentennial celebrations approaching, Marvel decided to put comic book legend (and co-creator) Jack Kirby on the comic book. Publishing two annuals, twenty-two issues of the on-going Captain America and Falcon book, and the iconic Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles, Kirby celebrated two centuries of the United States in style, crafting Captain America stories that were at once anchored in the past, yet boldly forging forward. He also seemed to embrace the crazy and energetic potential of the medium he helped define, producing a run on the character that was borderline surreal, occasionally crazy, but never boring.

The most awesome comic panel ever…

When I describe Jack Kirby’s Captain America run, collected in this omnibus, as “crazy”, I mean it in the best possible way. Kirby’s drawing cackle with a sort of kinetic energy, with his figures seemingly constantly in motion. His concepts here aren’t too far away from the sci-fi friendly high concepts he introduced in his Fourth World or even the stranger aspects of his Challengers of the Unknown. This is a collection which opens with a cover promising Captain America “versus the thing from beyond the stars!”

And it opens with that conflict in media res, with little sense of context. There’s an awesome splash page. And then there’s an awesome double-splash page. Kirby seems to acknowledge that there’s little time to waste with boring se-up when you can just dive head-first into a story. “A strange twist of fate has brought Captain America into contact with a ship from the stars!” the narration explains. “But how it happened is not as important as this moment…” And the moment, as captured in Kirby’s distinctive style, is wonderful.

Kirby-ing my enthusiasm…

We’re on the fifth page before a thought bubble handily explains how this situation came to be. “Who would believe that a local farmer would call and ask me to inspect a U.F.O. which landed in his meadow…?” Captain America asks, and that’s all we get by way of background information. It’s rare to describe a comic book opening with three consecutive pages of splash artwork as “compressed”, but Kirby’s work seems almost hyper-compressed. It’s clear from the outset that the writer and artist has his own ideas about the plots he wants to cover, and he’s going to cover them as efficiently as possible.

That’s not to say that there isn’t set-up and pay-off – Kirby does a decent job making sure that the arcs bleed into one another. For example, Captain America discovers the monster Agron while he’s visiting Falcon in a mental institution where his fellow superhero is recovering from his experiences in the Zero Street arc. The events of The Swine feed into Kirby’s Armin Zola arc. There is a sense of flow between the stories, where each isn’t its own completely stand-alone entity.

Not so fast, Bucky!

However, the opposite is also true. It seems that there are times when Kirby’s attention span wanders from the plot he has set up, and so the writer and artist just casually brushes everything he isn’t interested in developing aside. The most famous story-arc collected here, for example, the Mad Bomb arc, reads almost like a collection of stand-alone stories, each with its own wacky high-concepts that are brought up and promptly forgotten. Monster men! Death derby! The love machine!

More than that, though, Kirby seems to cut his Swine plot thread a bit short, literally having a monster appear from off-panel and brutally murder the despot at the most convenient of moments, thus cutting off the story arc rather abruptly. Later on, the Falcon is investigating Captain America’s disappearance, with an issue’s penultimate page setting up a cliffhanger confrontation with a monster. It seems that Kirby forgot about this plot point (or wasn’t too interested in it), because the next time we see the Falcon is by Captain America’s bedside after everything has wrapped itself up. Steve provides some handy exposition, “I understand that S.H.I.E.L.D. team yanked you from a nasty fracas!”

A new perspective on things…

It’s also worth remarking that Kirby’s writing here is still very much in the mold of the Silver Age. So there is a lot of very weird stuff that happens here. A lot of it is gleefully impressive, but some of it just seems… strange. Why does Magneto, for example, the Master of Magnetism, need a “Magna-craft”? Perhaps for the same reason he needed a “strange, camouflaged, submersible fort” over in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Mighty Thor. Why does Henry Kissinger subject Captain America and the Falcon to a “Panic Course” (a death-trap maze) before he briefs them. Though it is somewhat excused by the awesome line, “I like you two. I apologize — you may call me ‘Henry’ if you like…”

Of course, focusing on oddities like this ignores the tremendous imagination at work. So what if it’s a little silly at times? Only Kirby’s imagination could produce images like a mental institution magically transported to a sinister alternate dimension, or the absurdity of preserving Hitler’s brain in a cyborg body, or sending Captain America through time to learn the true meaning of the United States of America. It is gleefully over-the-top and surreal, but Kirby has a rare zeal in doing it – you want to go along for the ride, and take that next crazy sharp turn in the tale.

Zola, Z-O-L-A, Zola!

It can be a bit frustrating, when Kirby’s imagination has clearly formulated a plot point that he was too busy to articulate earlier. There’s a sense that he’s not playing fair when he introduces certain new crazy plot twists on top of already crazy plot twists. I can accept Captain America caught in “Kill Derby”, a “murder sport” that is an affectionate homage to Rollerball. However, it irks me just a little bit when Kirby introduces new insane made-up rules to his new insane made-up sport as the plot demands – catching Captain America and the reader off-guard with “an explosive mannequin primed as a deadly surprise!”

Still, that can be forgiven when Kirby’s imagination works, as it does with concepts like the sinister “love machine”, Kirby crafting a totalitarian regime based on Orwell’s 1984 that seems to prefigure Apple’s iconic television commercial, hosted by an interface that “just a composite face, put together by a computer”, introduced years ahead of Max Headroom. Similarly, there’s a reason that Kirby’s Armin Zola has become a key part of the Captain America mythology – there’s just something so wonderfully unnerving about the character and his design.

Shield yourself!

Reading this, I get an even greater sense that Grant Morrison is the modern hier to Jack Kirby, or at least one of the few writers with an imagination that seems as free-flowing as that of the King. There’s a reason that Morrison tended to gravitate towards Kirby’s creations when writing Seven Soldiers or Final Crisis, after all. Indeed, it’s hard to not to read Kirby’s Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles without thinking of Morrison’s The Return of Bruce Wayne (and, admittedly, Brubaker’s Captain America Reborn), as the stories feature a fairly conventional hero catapulted through time.

Much like Morrison’s Batman, Kirby does take care to point Captain America as a relatively grounded figure, even among all these incredibly random events. Confronted with monster Agron, Captain America refuses to believe that he’s a time-displaced sentient energy field. “A body being used by an entity who doesn’t have one,” Steve Roger muses. “It’s just too far out, Doc!” Later on, he repeats, “You can’t be serious, Doc! It’s just too fantastic!” There’s a sense that Kirby knows that Captain America isn’t necessarily a character the reader associates with such strange high-concepts, but that just makes this a bit more interesting in this world of aliens, astral projection, time travel, Mad Bombs (“a simulated brain, encased to broadcast madness! it’s a frightening weapon!”) and “the night people of zero street.”

Stars and Stripes Forever…

There’s something gleefully post-modern about Kirby’s work on Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles, where a time-travelling Captain America actually manages to inspire the American flag in a “startling historical paradox.” The flabbergasted hero declares, “It isn’t possible! It just isn’t possible! I-I’ve been ripped off by Benjamin Franklin!” Things get slightly weirder when Steve Rogers actually meets a young paper boy who may be Jack Kirby and perhaps even inspires his own creation.

Saving the kid from some Depression-era gangsters, the kid is inspired to fight evil-doers through art. “When I get to be a big-shot artist, I’m gonna plaster Lefty’s ugly mug all over the comic pages!” he declares. It’s worth noting that Jack Kirby did actually work as a newspaper boy in his childhood. It’s the kind of mind-screw that Grant Morrison would be proud of, with Captain America, the fictional character, perhaps influencing his creator into creating him. This is what I’m talking about when I mention Kirby’s boundless imagination.

Mister Rogers…

Indeed, when Steve Rogers does manage to discover the meaning of America, there are hints smilar to those Grant Morrison would extend past Kirby’s Fourth World into a hypothetical Fifth World during his Justice League of America run and his Final Crisis, the notion of humanity itself becoming home to a new future and a new mythology with boundless potential. Captain America talks to kids on a street corner about the unlimited potential of America, “It isn’t an object, exactly — it’s a terrific feeling that we can become strong and smart enough to beat the overwhelming problems which every American has to live with!!” A kid replies in a Morrisonian manner, “Sure! We can become like superheroes!”

There is a wonderful sense of optimism underlining Kirby’s work here, as in a lot of his other work. “Still,” Cap muses after vanquishing one of countless sinister alien invaders, “a man can’t help but wonder about the infinite… for every terror, those billions of stars must hide a miracle of life… perhaps a living thing of inspired dimensions… a friend to all it touches.We’ve seen so much these past years — and yet, hardly anything at all!!” Later on, Carol remarks of Steve, “You’re not a hater — and I love you for that!” I think it’s hard to overstate the wonder that Kirby instills in his work, and reading it today, even if the dialogue and plotting is somewhat awkward, there’s enough energy and optimism to make it a joy to read.

Perhaps Zola should screen his subjects better…

Of course, detractors would argue that it’s all plot-driven nonsense, and that there’s no real sense of depth to it. I’d disagree with the assertion that Kirby’s work is in any way shallow, but I have to concede that his dialogue and scripting might not match pace with his ideas. His Steve Rogers is exceptionally fond of phrases like “Holy Toledo!” and “Good gravy!“, just as the Falcon has a tendency to use  “Jive!” At one point, Captain America invites an opponent, “Go ahead, Taurey! You’ll never get a better chance to get your rocks off!” I never had Captain America pegged as a Rolling Stones fan.

At some points, Kirby’s dialogue (or internal monologues) do detract a bit from what he’s trying to say, especially when writing the Falcon, famous as the first African-American Marvel superhero, and a frequent vehicle for social commentary. “It’s a cruddy job to be doing, in the very hour of America’s Bicentennial Celebration!” Falcon remarks as he races to stop the Mad Bomb. “An ironic deal for a black man, too!! — The direct descendant of a cotton-pickin’ slave… Perhaps, this is very reason that a black man must do this job — so that slavery can never happen again! Not here — not anywhere!”

It’s pure madness!

On the other hand, Kirby uses the character to make a still-relevant point about the prison sentence received by the white conspirator Mason Harding. “Hundreds of my black brothers are on the same trip for doing much less,” he remarks to Rogers, feeling less than sympathetic. Sure, Kirby’s dialogue is a little ham-fisted, but that sort of systemic inequality is still an issue with the American prison system today.

Still, I think that there’s a lot more depth to Kirby’s Captain America work than most give it credit for. There’s no denying that it’s a very pulpy run, but I think that Kirby’s trying to offer something of a commentary on American identity after the end of the Second World War. Indeed, the specter of the Atomic Bomb hangs over Kirby’s work here, even thirty years after they were first developed and used in warfare.

Spaced out!

The Mad Bomb is very clearly modelled the nuclear warhead developed by scientists during the Second World War. Even the names of the models – “peanut”, “dumpling” and “big daddy” – seem like shout outs to the “fat man” and “little boy” models. It’s no coincidence that Kirby described the invention of the Atomic Bomb as “maddening” in Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles. It’s hard to escape the shadow that weapon cast over American history, and so Kirby’s Captain America seems like a vehicle to explore it.

Kirby seems to focus on the scientists who develop weapons like that, casting the developer of the Mad Bomb as trapped in his own tragedy. Later on, in the Zero Street arc, we discover that “Bother Wonderful” used to be a scientist who was committed to the mental institution, Doctor Abner Doolittle, “a nuclear physicist.” Similarly, Armin Zola represents scientific advancement unbound by ethical concerns, the successor to the Josef Mengele or the Japanese Unit 731. “Youth forgets,” Captain America remarks when Zola’s plan to resurrect Hitler is revealed, “but we remember, don’t we, Zola!”

Suit up!

Kirby suggests that the Sentinel of Liberty needs to remain on guard against new and old threats as the twentieth century comes to a close. Kirby’s saga cautions about the stockpiling of political and economic power in a small minority – the assault on democracy of the privileged few. It’s no coincidence that the powerful “elite” Taurey has a name that sounds uncannily like “Tory” and a habit of dressing in old British clothes. That notion of autocracy is the antithesis of American democracy. “Democracy shall die!” he vows. While the threat might come through new technology, the ideas underscoring the threat are old-fashioned. Democracy is a philosophy, and so are its enemies – it cannot ever truly defeat them, only ward them back to fight another day.

That is why the Red Skull remains such a potent threat. “The years cannot stop this madman!!” the goons in Steve’s nightmares warn him. “He returns again and again!”Kirby tends to dwell on the fascist philosophy as an enemy of freedom, something that can never truly be exorcised. Indeed, the last third of the collection is sure to pit Captain America against Nazis in all their shapes and forms, even long after the war has ended.

A soaring accomplishment?

While some of the imagery is intentionally old-fashioned and decidedly retro, like Hitler’s brain or the Red Skull himself, Kirby also makes sure to update the trappings. Armin Zola is conducting his sinister Nazi experiments in Central America, recalling the stories of those who escaped the Third Reich after the war. The Red Skull lives in Switzerland on stolen money under a fake name and fake face. While the threat might have been vanquished by the Second World War, it was not completely destroyed – it lurks in the shadows, and we must be wary of it.

More than that, though, the tinpot dictatorships of Central America are fascist. The lead character in the Swine has all the trappings of a high-ranking Nazi official – with a uniform that looks quite similar. The conditions in his prison camp aren’t too far off those in concentration camps, with prisoners worked until they are dead, and executed seemingly for the warden’s cruel amusement. Although Kirby never goes toopolitical on this, the implication is clear – despotism is festering right on the American doorstep.

A buda-ing astral projectionist…

And Kirby uses this to generate a sense of angst for Steve Rogers, Captain America. I won’t pretend that it’s clever or nuanced characterisation – in fact, it seems like Kirby channelling the sort of existential angst that Stan Lee instilled in Spider-Man. But it works relatively well at giving the story a sense of depth, as we dwell on the fact that he’ll never be done. Of course superheroes will never be done, because they’re on-going open-ended narratives, but the ideas of freedom and democracy will never be so secure that Steve Rogers can retire his mask and just be Steve Rogers.

Sharon Carter pleads with him, “Wrap it up, Steve… Put aside your costume and shield and be a man instead of a monument — please, Steve!” Later on, she asks, “What can you possibly contribute to the cause of justice that you haven’t already given!?” And, in try angst-generating fashion, the one time that Steve Rogers decides to put his personal life ahead of his obligation to the country, carnage ensues and the monster Agron escapes captivity. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,”Thomas Jefferson stated, and that creates a sense of tragedy around Kirby’s Steve Rogers. A hero’s work is literally never done.

Nothing revolutionary, but good fun…

Even outside of that central problem, Kirby seems to recognise the factors that drive Steve Rogers. In Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles, he’s sharp enough to explore the fact that Steve still feels a huge sense of loss over the death of Bucky, his kid sidekick. “Then this Bucky is the void in your existence?” Mister Buda asks, and it’s very perceptive for Kirby to point out just how deep those scars run in Steve’s psyche.

That said, Kirby’s dialogue here tends to get a little bit overblown as well, as Sharon bemoans the way that S.H.I.E.L.D. seems intent on keeping her and Steve apart. “Nick Fury’s machine is cold and efficient,” she laments. “It knows nothing about love between men and women. It knows nothing about the aches and fears of the human heart.” Luckily enough, they offer to pay for a new hairstyle, and she’s suddenly right-as-rain. Kirby might have had some difficulty with race relations, but I’m never sure he ever truly got female characters, even after he toned down on some of the more obvious stereotypes in his early X-Men and Fantastic Fourwork.

Night flying, deserves a quiet night…

It’s also worth noting that Kirby’s Captain America run sort of skirts with continuity in a fascinating way. While Kirby helped define the shared Marvel Universe while working with Stan Lee, he cleverly steers clear of crossovers or cameos in these adventures – with a guest appearance from Magneto perhaps the closest thing to a crossover. On the other hand, he does make frequent reference to Nick Fury, and also cites characters like Reed Richards and Doctor Doom. I like this approach, and I think it works – after all, I’m reading a comic about Captain America. If I wanted something else, I could buy The Avengers.

Kirby’s artwork is as striking and distinctive as ever, as you can see. There’s more than a hint of The Eternals or The Fourth Worldaround his designs for new characters like Armin Zola or the Death Derby or the Night Flyer (who seems like a nod to his Black Racer, but with a handglider instead of skis). Nobody does kinetic panels quite like Kirby, and I love how emotive his faces are – even if his eyes look a little odd. Nobody draws a completely bewildered Captain America quite as well as Kirby does.

Drawn to his magnetic personality?

Jack Kirby’s Captain America run probably isn’t among the writer’s most essential of works, nor among his most cherished. However, it is solid good fun, from beginning to end. If you can look past the dated style of the writing and the relative lack of complex characterisation, and instead allow yourself to be swept up in the gleefully insane appearances of watch-dwelling mutants and roller-skating death-sports, it’s well worth a read.

2 Responses

  1. Hey Darren. What would you say is the hierarchy of quality for Marvel’s Silver Age stuff. I know Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four are on top, and Incredible Hulk and X-Men are near the bottom. But where does everything else fit?

    • That’s probably about right. The second Lee/Kirby Thor run is pretty great, even if there’s a lot of mediocrity leading into it. I am also fond of Archie Goodwin and George Tuska’s Iron Man, with the caveat that everything beforehand is very bland. I actually quite like the Roy Thomas and Neal Adams X-Men, even if that’s skirting the Silver/Bronze divide.

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