Wednesday, January 7, 2015

I’ve got the runs: Captain America by Jack Kirby: Captain America 193-214, annuals 3 and 4, Marvel’s Treasury Special: Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles.

I’m not giving anyone any new information by saying Jack Kirby was an amazing innovator. I could fill an entire sentence with hyperlinks to pages extolling his virtue.

But there’s a specific stretch of Kirby Krazy that I cherish above all others: his mid-1970s run on Captain America, just in time for our nation’s bicentennial.

Kirby returned to Cap – he co-created the character with Joe Simon in 1941 – after spending several years away from Marvel at DC, where he introduced the New Gods, the Demon Etrigan, OMAC the One Man Army Corps, and Kamandi the Last Boy on Earth. His ’70s Marvel creations included the Eternals, the Celestials, Devil Dinosaur, and Machine Man.

The King was pretty much given free rein on Cap. Under the credits he is listed as writer, penciller and editor. Marv Wolfman is listed as a consulting editor, and later Archie Goodwin is listed as just plain “Admirin’.”

The King’s greatest contribution to the Cap mythos in this two-year run was Arnim Zola, the mad Swiss biogeneticist whose face is in his stomach. Zola has remained one of Cap’s most prominent villains. Cap’s current writer, Rick Remender, used the character in his very first arc, establishing a dimension where Zola ruled supreme over a kingdom of mutated creatures and bore a human son and daughter. No disrespect to John Romita Jr., who drew those first issues with a clear and present nod to Kirby, but it’s a hard to compete with those early Zola monsters, among them a flying glob of organic matter named Doughboy, a walking pair of giant ears with eyes, and a robot with Hitler’s brain just waiting to have Steve Rogers’ face plastered onto it.

Kirby’s run, for the most part, can be broken down into three long arcs: The Madbomb conspiracy, The Night People, and The Swine/Zola. Each finds Steve Rogers confronting one threat only to be thrown headlong into the next, larger, more fantastic threat.

Here’s a short list of some of the things Kirby had Cap confront:

-An Eastern-mystic mishmash named Mister Buda who sends Cap on a journey through U.S. history to show him “the real America,” which it turns out is in the hearts of children, or something

-A bomb that drives people mad, powered by a simulated brain

-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who puts Cap and Falcon through an obstacle course to verify their identities and test their mettle before debriefing them on the Madbomb

-The Royalist Forces of America: A group that wants to destroy the Bill of Rights to return America to pre-Revolutionary times. Their leader, the descendant of a British loyalist, blames an ancestor of Steve Rogers for the death of his ancestor in a duel, in the ultimate example of, “My dad can beat up your dad.” Also they kept mutated freaks as slaves.

-Deadly skateboard derby (This was the ’70s, after all, and the original Rollerball had just come out the year before.)

-Vagrants from another dimension who come to ours to steal junk at midnight

-A Central American dictator who runs a labor camp and has a creepy relationship with his voluptuous, halter-top wearing cousin

-A perfection-obsessed hired killer named the Night Flyer who gets around via teched-out hang-glider

-A pair of symbiotic mutants named Mister One and Mister Two. Mister One was extremely tiny and lived inside a wristwatch. Mister Two was an ogre.

-Old-school crazy, nuance-less Magneto’s lesser Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, comprised of Peeper, Lifter, Burner, and Slither (Kirby didn’t really get mutants, and he created them)

All this happened during the period when the title of the book was Captain America and The Falcon. Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson’s bond is one of my favorite things about Captain America. Cap’s story and uniform make him this deified personification of American exceptionalism. Most of the Avengers have, at some point, been written as having been in awe of him. But Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson are legitimate friends. There’s no sidekick treatment, no scenes of Cap making the Falcon run obstacle courses or teaching him lessons about what it means to be a hero through pain and difficult choices. Instead, they go on double dates with their special gals and arm-wrestle between missions like they’d just watched Over the Top for the first time (although that movie would not exist for another 10 years).

Speaking of special gals, among the supporting cast were Wilson’s girlfriend, Leila, and then-ex-SHIELD Agent Sharon Carter, who just wanted Steve to settle down and make a life with her. Kirby wrote Sharon as a far wetter blanket than she’s depicted as in modern comics. Then again, she does hold the Red Skull at gunpoint for an entire issue, so she didn’t spend the entire run as a fainting damsel.

At the same time, there are few points during the run when Steve seems to forget he’s in a relationship. Both the Madbomb and Zola storylines find him paired with other women. The first one – a sickly woman connected to the Madbomb conspirators – he appears to develop feelings for, the second one – the Swine’s cousin Donna Maria – he stammers over a bit but ultimately declines.

Additionally, Kirby’s characters have a strange habit of magically realizing plot points that weren’t revealed to them. In issue 193, Cap sees a tiny gadget wedged in an alley during the chaos of the first Madbomb and “senses” it’s the source of all the commotion. In 198, Cap breaks into a scientist’s house on a recon mission and ends up in the room of the scientist’s bed-ridden daughter, who automatically rules out Cap being a burglar, solely because he’s dressed like a roadside firecracker. The next day, he approaches her on the beach in his civilian togs riding a horse he took from the local riding academy, and she assumes – flat-out knows – it’s the same guy.

Kirby’s run also introduces Army General Argyle Fist, which may be my favorite character name ever. Fist spends the Madbomb arc scouring the Western badlands looking for Cap and the Falcon using a drilling machine called Hound-dog. If only he know what Cap realized right away, that an entire underground civilization of faux-British loyalists was hidden under a few foam rubber boulders like a Hide-A-Key left out for a neighbor to bring in the mail.

My other favorite Kirby Cap character would have to be Texas Jack Muldoon, a cowboy hat-wearing, lasso-wielding stereotype who aids Cap and the Falcon during the Night People story. If the Rich Texan from The Simpsons lost weight, it’d be the exact same guy. Yee-haw!

Jack Kirby’s 1970s Captain America run is available as a hardcover, full-color omnibus, or, if that’s a bit price-prohibitive, you could buy the black-and-white Essential Captain America Vols. 5 and 6, which include the Kirby run plus a few issues immediately before and after.

Dan Grote has been a Matt Signal contributor since 2014 and friends with Matt since there were four Supermen and two Psylockes. His two novels, My Evil Twin and I and Of Robots, God and Government, are available on Amazon.

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