Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Monstrous Mind of Arnim Zola!


Unsurprisingly, there were a number of creations from Jack Kirby's work produced at Marvel during his return in the late 1970s which proved to have staying power, going on to be included in other titles and stories well after Kirby's second and final departure from the company. Which is one reason why one of them, Arnim Zola, could never be featured as a mystery villain here at the PPoC, especially given his distinctive and well-recognized features.

A Swiss scientist with ties to Nazi Germany during the war, Zola, like Nathaniel Essex (a/k/a Mr. Sinister), made strides in genetic engineering well ahead of his time. As a scientist lacking a moral compass and conducting near-horrific experiments, Zola's introduction could have taken place in practically any of the titles Kirby was working on as writer/artist (with perhaps the exception of Devil Dinosaur); but Kirby had a particularly sinister plot in mind for Zola in the pages of Captain America, a book which Kirby was unfortunately having his share of problems with at the time.

Since the 1940s, of course, Zola's expertise with genetics had only grown more prolific--for instance, the creation of humanoids capable of morphing into any shape as well as possessing incredible strength and other abilities. Even his castle has been recreated as an almost living entity, still appearing as a traditional structure but its every stone and wall responding to Zola's wishes. (Today's entrepreneurs dabbling in "smart homes" obviously need to aim a little higher.)

While the character of Zola might benefit from a detailed origin which explains his fantastic appearance and the reasons behind it in greater detail, Kirby significantly curtails Zola's history and provides the character with only the basics needed--where he comes from, what he's doing, and why he changed his appearance. It's perhaps one of the most uninspired origin stories you could imagine for a character that, from his appearance, would seem to have been given a great deal of thought by his creator.




In essence, Zola fashioned this new body, painstakingly developed a method to transfer his personality, and then killed himself in order to better protect himself against being harmed by his experiments. The fact that he later developed a control module which had the same ability as his new brain's mental power must be keeping him up at night. (Though sleep is likely something he's also done away with.)

Zola first appeared when Cap was in battle with a Central American despot known as the Swine, with the conflict ended after a monstrous creature appeared and fatally dealt with the foe. Cap discovered that the creature was a creation of Zola, who took Cap (as well as the Swine's rebellious cousin, Donna Maria Puentes) into custody and returned with them to his Swiss castle. The two are effectively Zola's prisoners; but in Cap's case, Zola seems to already have Cap in mind for a procedure, one which has been sponsored by a villain with a distinctive feature of his own.



It's hard to say whether the Skull's sudden presence in the book is an attempt by Kirby to placate those readers who have been crying out for Cap to be more integrated with other characters in the Marvel universe, as opposed to Kirby's preference to isolate him in order to presumably allow him to grow as the character that he envisions. That said, and in spite of the somewhat juvenile dialog in these particular panels, the Skull is developed reasonably well for the remainder of his appearance in the book--though he's shown the exit rather suddenly, perhaps due to Kirby's time on the book drawing to a close, with just four more issues of Captain America before making his own exit.

It's at this point in Zola's story where Cap encounters "Nazi-X," another Zola creation but also the pinnacle of his plan (with the Skull's blessing), one which dates back to the last days of the war.










And just in case Zola's revelation hasn't quite sunk in for you as much as it obviously has for Cap, Zola is happy to elaborate on the following issue's splash page:




Before Zola can proceed, Cap and Donna Maria make a break for it, each grabbing an armful of Zola's bottled lab chemicals to use as weapons if necessary. To make a long story short, the two spend nearly the entire issue evading the attempts of Zola's living castle to deal with them, with the hurled chemical bottles acting as deadly bombs which eventually prove fatal to the entire structure. During the attacks, Cap is mauled by one of Zola's creations, with his eyes sustaining serious damage; subsequently, the Skull appears and battles Cap while the castle erupts in flames on its way to ruin, with one of the castle's walls toppling and apparently crushing the Skull underneath. As for Zola, he disappears at the point Cap and Donna Maria flee, never appearing during the remainder of the story, though we know in hindsight he would survive to cause more mischief--a run of villainy which would extend over thirty years down the Marvel road.

However, that longevity would also one day make its way backwards to late 1963, where another Kirby creation makes his villainous debut:



The Hate-Monger is armed with the "H-ray," which, when fired, causes its victims to lose all rationality and instead sustains their thoughts and actions with pure hatred. Although operating in New York, the Hate-Monger is based in a small republic in South America, and appears to have some very sophisticated scientific equipment at his disposal.



The question of the Hate-Monger's identity is solved when the rest of the FF, earlier affected by the H-ray but helped by Reed to overcome its effect, join Reed to bring the Hate-Monger's plan to an end. But as they wrap things up, they make a startling discovery.




The assertion that the Hate-Monger is either Hitler himself or one of his many doubles is rather far-fetched, since this man would still be subject to old age yet, as Johnny notes, still "looks just like his pictures." But in a story which takes place in mid-1980, we finally receive an explanation, one which makes handy use of Zola in both his original and modified appearances and seems to take Kirby's "Nazi-X" story into consideration, as well.




While it's clear that Kirby had no designs for Zola's "project" involving Nazi-X to reach back to the FF story to connect with the Hate-Monger's unmasking (though it certainly would have given readers cause for hope regarding Kirby's acknowledgment of Marvel's broad scope of heroes), Zola's involvement here is a fair demonstration of the character's potential for further appearances--either in association with other parties such as A.I.M. or the Skull, or in schemes of his own. You never know what Arnim Zola, the "Bio-Fanatic," will come up with next--and thanks to the mind and pencils of Jack Kirby, we're understandably a little too horrified at the prospect to find out.

5 comments:

Colin Jones said...

I know I'm in a minority but I like all the Kirby stuff from his return to Marvel - Captain America, The Eternals, Black Panther, Machine Man...I'll even tolerate Devil Dinosaur. By the way, CF, I can't help noticing that you've never covered anything about Deadpool on PPoC - I only mention it because there's a Deadpool movie coming out and he must be the only major Marvel character you've never covered...okay, Deadpool and Conan :D

david_b said...

I'm definitely not a Deadpool fan, much like Wolverine and Harlequin, way WAY overly-done at cons.

david_b said...

Actually while I love the Englehart/Buscema years the most, King Kirby did bring back a wonderful sense of intensity and wonderment that some of the best TOS stories contained.

Much like Gerber's maligned stint on DD/BW (which I enjoyed, again like Colin, in a minority...), Kirby's storylines for Cap were a bit overwhelming and uncharacteristic of Bronze Age Cap in a way, but hey, whaaat-a-ride..!!

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of Kirby's run.
I found his characterization of the Red Skull kind of interesting, with his referring to fascist lingo as "hogwash." I get the sense that the Skull is less a true believer than a cynical old fart who doesn't know how to do anything else than try to take over the world. He probably has some more giant robots hidden away in a South American jungle to use next year when this plan bottoms out.
I think Arnim Zola and the use of genetics and cloning in this story was an inspired touch. I wonder if Jack read or heard about "The Boys from Brazil"?
These were still new concepts back then.
M.P.

Comicsfan said...

Gosh, Colin, Deadpool--I have to admit I've never had much interest in the character. His edge-of-sanity/offbeat-humor/deadly-intentions modus operandi has been duplicated, in one way or another, in other characters (e.g., Madcap, Foolkiller, Manslaughter, and probably a few dozen others who have fit the profile over the years) who arrived on the scene well before him but who were never so heavily promoted. As for Conan, he and his world were too dependent on the sword-and-sorcery genre for me--as opposed to the Asgardians, who certainly don't lack in swordplay or sorcery but who are much more grandiose in scale and who have a unique and more contemporary link to Earth in Thor. I doubt that either Deadpool or Conan will be getting a post of their own at the PPOC, but you never know. (I do have a Conan idea that's been percolating for some time which might be enjoyable to write--we'll see!)

As for Kirby (roping in both david and M.P. here), I find his late-'70s Marvel work much more interesting to write about in retrospect than I probably would have at the time it was being produced, when we readers were scratching our heads in confusion and dismay at Kirby's methods. It seemed that there was Marvel's world, which had evolved over the past decade, and there was Kirby's world--the two approaches to Marvel's characters being very different, combined with a writing style that was more suited to a time when a loaf of bread was still 21¢, gas was 31¢/gal., apple pies were regularly set on open window sills to cool, and all comic book readers were freckle-faced kids who had slingshots hanging out of their back pocket. I have enormous admiration for Kirby's talent, and so I can find ways today to look back at his 1976-78 work with a level of "disconnect" that I didn't have the luxury of applying at the time when I was plunking down change for those monthly titles.

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