Friday, October 12, 2012

Captain Desperation

Jack Kirby's run on Captain America as both artist and writer may have been filled with "Kontroversy" in his handling of Cap--but if his work on the character isn't regarded very highly, it wasn't for his lack of trying. Clearly, Kirby enjoyed working on these stories. His scripting, if flawed, nevertheless shows a great deal of effort from him in terms of taking Cap through one sensational adventure after another while pleasing his readership. There's no doubt in my mind he had the best of intentions.

If you can get past the scripting, there's still a lot to enjoy from these stories. There's Kirby's usual eye-opening artwork in play, of course--but he also indulges in many more double-page spreads than he did during his earlier work at Marvel. This one, from his first Cap story involving the "Madbomb," unfortunately gives the reader some disturbing indications of how Kirby is going to handle this character:

I don't think you'll find too many contemporary comics scripters who try to build up the threat of devices that could kill millions by giving them antiquated names like "Peanut" or "Dumpling." And as you can see, the name "Big Daddy" is meant to knock us back in our seats with dread. Tell me--despite its description, do you feel at all threatened by a device named "Big Daddy"? Well, you should feel threatened--it's one of "Satan's tools," after all.

Kirby's Cap, I think, was meant for a time when kids were being exposed to these concepts in comics for the first time. And Kirby had a different impression of Cap himself--still capable and extremely resolute, but more liable to be aghast at a perceived threat and less calm at meeting it. Every threat was a shocking emergency, to be met with an almost crazed determination to overcome it once he was in the thick of it. Perhaps it was Kirby's way to heighten the seriousness of the situation--but of all people, Cap should be the calm in the eye of the storm, the clear thinker in a crisis. He already went through his "desperate times" in World War II.

To give you an example of how Kirby now sees Cap, what strikes you as odd in this picture?

Exactly. I can't remember the last time I heard Cap shouting to his opponents, "Let me go!"

Thankfully, there were instances where Kirby let Cap be Cap--and giving equal time to the Falcon, as well. Kirby was generous in his exposure of the Falcon as Cap's partner, and as a character in his own right. In fact, with all the elements of Cap's continuity that Kirby chose to leave behind, I was both surprised and delighted he decided to keep the Falcon on. The two actually make a splendid team during the entire Kirby run on the book, both from a scripting point of view and certainly artistically:

Kirby also ramps up Cap's involvement with various armed forces divisions--particularly S.H.I.E.L.D., which acts as a sort of stand-in for troops that Cap can lead into battle. Personally, I think Kirby just enjoyed drawing all the hardware and different insignia and uniforms:

I think I've mentioned this somewhere before, but Kirby seems to be the only artist I know of who makes an effort to draw clothes and uniforms that actually have wrinkles and creases.

Looking back over these issues, it's almost gratifying to see the longevity of some of Kirby's original concepts that appeared here and elsewhere. For instance, Kligger and Veda, part of "The Corporation," would have integral appearances in the book in later issues after Kirby had departed. Arnim Zola, the scientist for the Red Skull whose face appeared in a screen in his chest area, would have many more appearances throughout the book's run (and also has a central role in the Captain America film--watch for the amusing nod to his comic book appearance when he's first introduced). The Celestials and Eternals, of course, have had frequent appearances in other books, as has Machine Man. Even Princess Zanda and other elements from the collectors storyline in Black Panther have enjoyed new appearances elsewhere.

Ironically, while Captain America and Kirby's other late '70s efforts were and are generally frowned upon, the characters and concepts they spawned continue to be drawn upon by storytellers in this medium and others. It's sometimes been said that Kirby was ahead of his time--though in his writing, perhaps it's fair to say that he was also unwilling to part from it.


Jon H said...

Regarding the names of the bombs, they're clearly inspired by the names of the first atomic bombs, "Fat Man" and "Little Boy". Other weapons with harmless nicknames include the "potato masher" and "pineapple" grenades. More recently, there's the AH-6 "Little Bird" helicopter gunship.

Comicsfan said...

An excellent point, Jon!