Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Don't Call Us, Cap--We'll Call You

If you were to open a comic book and see the story begin with a space ship, a farmer, an alien, and Captain America all in the same room in the middle of a firefight, chances are you'd only think of one person in comics who would try to pull that off:

Yes, of course--Jack Kirby, whose work here came about during his return to Marvel in the late 1970s. And given that this particular work was produced at the time of Kirby handling both the writing and artwork on the regular Captain America book, if you were reading that title you'd already be used to Kirby's habit of injecting Cap into all sorts of unbelievable scenarios which had little to do with--well, Captain America. Or at least the Captain America which had been steadily built upon in character since his rebirth.

In addition to the regular Cap title, Kirby also produced two Cap annuals which, like his other work with the character, were pure escapism--which seems to be the state of mind you must adopt if you want to get through a wholly Kirby-produced Marvel comic, since the character(s) you've become familiar with will have little in common with Kirby's interpretation of them from a characterization standpoint.

That said, I was still curious to take a look at these two annuals, if simply to factor them into the sheer amount of work which Kirby was producing during this time and see if they measured up to the massive creativity he was channeling into his projects at Marvel. And while they may have fallen short of contemporary readership standards, Kirby spared no effort with this work, packing into each annual nearly forty pages of new story and art. Given that the first two Captain America annuals contained nothing but reprinted material--the first two, mind you--Kirby arguably showed the good Captain's readers a lot more respect and dedication than those who were calling the shots with the publication of those earlier annuals.

The first story, in Captain America Annual #3, opens with the usual Kirby teaser--and if you leave Cap out of the picture for a moment, it's actually not a half-bad premise:

Now how can you pass up that kind of reading experience?

Fortunately, you don't have to.

The thing that probably caught your eye in that teaser was the part about us behaving as humans, which means we'll make mistakes (which Kirby seems to want us to take as a given). I certainly can't find fault with that assumption, can you? Even though, with Captain America investigating this--yes, that Captain America, who with the Avengers has had plenty of experience dealing with aliens--mistakes and knee-jerk reactions should be minimal. Yet here, Cap goes on the offensive and takes sides almost immediately, when his farm friend, Jim Hendricks, shows him the alien being who was the target of the bruiser they encountered within the ship:

Given the lethal nature of successive attempts to capture the alien, and that the alien himself constantly maintains that his life is in danger but who is short on details, Kirby does what any good storyteller does mid-point in the story--he makes sure that Cap asks just the question that's on our minds, but leaves us hanging in order to get the story moving again and build more anticipation:

More attacks come their way--and when Cap heads off to reconnoiter, he's overwhelmed by a massive effort to deal with the alien. And as with the other attacks, Kirby's action sequences with Cap spare no effort:

But then Kirby springs his surprise, and we find that our hunted alien is being hunted with lethal force for good reason:

But Cap is out of his depth with this creature and soon succumbs to his might. I mean, reality check--if your enemies send a thousand warships after you, chances are you can take care of one sentinel of liberty no matter how much bravado he's packing, even Kirby's brand of bravado. But on the bright side, that gives us a chance to hear this alien's chilling plans for us in this beautiful full-page rendering:

And you know something? I'm riveted at this point. In a comic scripted by Jack Kirby--imagine that. And not because Our Hero is threatened--but because this is turning out to be a pretty good story. Good pacing... good action... good foundation... a damn good threat... and there's still more to come. But to save you from drooling all over your computer display, let's cut to the climax, where the alien's hunters are now closing in on their target who is quickly regaining his dreaded power:

And if that isn't a cue for Cap to take one more desperate crack at him, I don't know what is:

Of course, as you can see, this is still a Kirby script, with Kirby's odd misplaced emphasis on key words. So I'm going to take the liberty of adjusting the emphasis on Cap's shout to make it flow a bit more effectively:

And Cap's last-ditch toss incapacitates the alien just long enough for his captors to move in and bind him in preparation for his final fate:

As for Cap, he's left to reflect on events, and his musings give us a sense of symmetry with Kirby's opening teaser. Captain America was, in a way, our "guide" in this story, a tale which was meant to open our minds to "life in space" and the infinite possibilities that await us there. Thanks in part to Cap but moreso to the alien's pursuers, we avoided a threat which would have meant the end of the human race as we know it. And Cap now has the time to give the story closure, at least from our point of view:

It's obvious how much time and effort Kirby spent on this particular story, and I must give credit where credit is due--with everything else the man had on his plate, he still turns in a good, solid adventure story like this. And I found that, once I was able to put aside my expectations for the Cap I was familiar with, at least for the duration, I was able to enjoy Kirby's story on that level. But, believe it or not, we're not through here yet. First, Kirby underscores the threat of this alien menace by suggesting that even cremation in a star won't rid of us of him. However, his captors had something else in mind:

(I realize that we're nearing the end of the annual's allotted pages, with little room to spare, but I was a little disappointed that we couldn't see a more spectacular Jack Kirby super-nova here. And I think it would have made a more effective climax for Kirby's story, as intensely as its focus was on "space.")

Food for thought can be found in the story's epilogue, which I thought was a reasonable portrayal of Cap as he's debriefed by the government on the incident--up to a point. When the occasion calls for it, Kirby sometimes will make an attempt to touch base with familiar elements from Marvel continuity in order to supplement the direction he's taking his story in--attempts which don't often succeed. Take this exchange between Cap and the security committee:

These men clearly want to sweep this incident under the rug, and using such odd contradictions. Kirby has them speaking language that's suited to our reality--"UFOs," wanting to avoid panic, lack of evidence, etc. But Cap's world--the world of the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and yes, Galactus and the Kree and the Skrulls et al.--is not the world the rest of us live in, and downplaying the incident that Cap has described makes no real sense, especially behind closed doors. The "average man" in Cap's world has seen Galactus at street level, and certainly more than a few Skrulls, and any number of other alien encounters--so as far as "preserving mankind's collective sanity," that ship has already sailed because that cat is well out of the bag. Nobody's saying that this incident has to be blabbed to the Daily Bugle (despite Cap's almost crazed clarion call in the final panel)--but for the government to brush off a briefing from Captain America is like asking us to swallow them doing so in regard to the dozens and dozens of similar briefings the Avengers must have given them.

Kirby handles this approach much more effectively in The Silver Surfer graphic novel he later completed (good lord, the man's hands never stop!) where, after a devastating attack by Galactus, mankind isn't given the luxury to dwell on the incredible events that have taken place:

The difference of course being that, in this story, there were no other super beings, and Galactus and the Surfer were the first aliens Earth had ever encountered.

All in all, though, "The Thing From The Black Hole Star!" made for fun reading, which thoughout Jack Kirby's history as a writer has always seemed to be his goal. In his next (and final) Captain America annual, he brings us more into the Marvel mainstream, with Cap against Magneto and his evil mutants. I know, I can't help drooling, either.

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