Monday, July 4, 2016

The Man And The Nation!

Given the media coverage of the national bicentennial celebration in 1976, as well as the oversized format of the Marvel Treasury books which were being published at the time, it made good business sense to use that format to spotlight Captain America in a bicentennial special that took the character through a tour of America's key historic moments and scenes--and with the recent return of long-time Cap artist Jack Kirby to the company, it seemed like the ideal pairing of character and artist for such a project.

I didn't have a high opinion of this edition in a general post on the Treasury books--"disappointingly written" was how I put it at the time, and to an extent that may be true. Kirby's approach to Captain America, as a writer, is very different from others who have scripted the character, as he strove to make Cap relatable to kids while isolating him to a certain degree from the Marvel continuum, as well as turning back the clock for him and discarding the evolution he'd gone through as a character since his reappearance in 1964. Captain America, for Kirby, carries the 1940s with him in temperament and spirit--while the environment and people around him reflect simpler times, despite the actual date on the calendar.

It's that approach which Kirby regrettably brings to Captain America's Bicentennial Battles--though, giving credit where credit is due, the caption "A Jack Kirby King-Size Spectacular!" on its cover is a pretty accurate description of the work within. Excluding table of contents and pin-ups, the story comes in at a whopping 76 pages (get it? '76?), which is well over the original story content of an annual or special--and considering the number of other books that Kirby was handling at the time, it's a remarkable piece of creative work that shows no signs of being a rush job or gives any indication of Kirby not giving it his best effort. He remains a gifted storyteller, combining concepts made for comic books with a sense of logical progression from panel to panel, page to page--even in a story such as this, which takes Cap through different time periods with seemingly no purpose or reason. The final product is a well-crafted blend of the book's theme (the bicentennial) with a story that must somehow take all of these diverse elements and arrive at a satisfactory ending which takes them into account.

Forty years after it first saw publication, and in light of today's date, it seemed appropriate to take a second look at Kirby's commemorative story that celebrated Captain America, the bicentennial, and the spirit of America as Kirby saw it.

To span the years as Kirby widely does in this story, he had to devise some way to pull Cap through the timestream not only randomly, but restrict him to brief stops along the way. There might have been any number of time-related devices or characters already established in Marvel lore available for Kirby to make use of; but again, it was a rare day when Kirby, as a writer, tapped into Marvel's wealth of story material or its stable of heroes and villains to use in his own tales (the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization being one exception--that is to say, his own interpretation of what SHIELD was), preferring instead to create his own characters on the fly and not bothering to worry about Marvel continuity to a great extent. And admittedly, there's nothing wrong with that; for instance, look at Marvel as it is today, its characters and histories a far cry from what they were and its numbered issues self-contained arcs that have no eye on an extended run or what came before. For what it's worth, this story would fit into Cap's continuity regardless, if that were its goal; and as for Kirby's new characters that constantly filled his pages in the two-year period of his return to Marvel, they continued to be made use of by other writers long after his departure, which says something about his instincts here.

For this story, it would be another new character--the enigmatic Mister Buda--who's used as the catalyst for Cap's journey, though his reasons for doing so remain a mystery for now.

As you may have noticed by the fanfare given the story on its first page, Kirby's trademark style as a writer is to provide the reader with a sense of adventure immediately on scanning the first page, with large lettering for emphasis and bold statements to intrigue you into reading further. Most writers will instead depend on the dramatic image on that page to do that job, with the help of a few appropriate captions to set the tone; it's perhaps a bit of a gamble on Kirby's part to expect a casual reader to take the time to wade through all of the exposition he puts in place, though it perhaps explains why certain words are intentionally enlarged in order to hold your attention.

Cap listens graciously to Buda's introduction, but declines to stay since it appears Buda is pushing a mystic self-help pitch, however convincingly he comes across. Yet when he turns to leave, Cap unexpectedly finds himself in a scene he never thought he'd see again, which goes double for the people he encounters in it--and just like that, this story is put in motion.

Despite the impossibility of it all, the danger to his young former partner, Bucky, appears real, and Cap explodes into action, with the two escaping their pursuers and taking to the woods. But the reality of the situation becomes apparent when Cap finds himself returned to where he was, and his suspicion of Buda's involvement is confirmed.

It's here, with Cap's second attempt at departure, where his journey truly begins, thanks to the talisman Buda has planted on him. We have a general idea of what Buda's purpose is--"a trip through an America which none other has seen"--and we also get a sense that Buda's reason for involving Cap is benign, though as a new character we don't know enough about him to be 100% sure. But Buda will mostly take a back seat from this point on in the story, as the events he's put into play will soon sweep Cap up and put him on a course... where? It's when Cap departs Buda's dwelling that we're presented with a two-page "mural" of jumbled images that serve as a portent of things to come, as well as an indication to the reader of what form this journey will take for Cap.

Once out of the building, Cap figures he's free of Buda's odd behavior and actions and hails a cab, going about his business. But it doesn't take long for Buda's talisman to activate, and Cap is surprised to find his cab has become a coach, and his destination is now the 18th century. And he arrives at a most defining moment in American history (if still debated to this day).

"The very thought of what has happened staggers Cap! He bolts from the shop!" The scene helps to illustrate just how Kirby's version of Captain America differs from the man who evolved from the World War II soldier in the field and developed sensibilities to better cope with the changes in the world twenty years later--the symbol of America who went on to gain a further understanding of his role representing the country's ideals rather than its political state--the man who fought alongside both the Avengers and SHIELD and learned to cope with the unexpected, developing a greater understanding of the fantastic threats facing the latter decades of the 20th century. Captain America eventually discarded his naiveté, leaving it behind on the battlefield and replacing it with a calm, unwavering resolve to deal with situations by taking into consideration details other than troop numbers and enemy movements. The Captain America that we're familiar with would hardly become startled--much less wildly alarmed--at discovering that a seamstress was using his costume as a basis for the country's flag design, nor would he flee and plead to the empty air (in this case Buda) in a near-panic to "Get me out--Get me out of this place!" He can handle guns being pointed at him withing batting an eye--but breaks at having discovered he might have inspired his flag's design? Goodness, give this man a tranquilizer, it's no wonder he fell apart.

Yet Buda indeed shifts him elsewhere, and elsewhen, to the 1930s, when the Great Depression has gripped the United States and the gangster John Dillinger is, as Kirby puts it, "on the lam." A number of these scenes must have provided some enjoyment for Kirby to delineate, since his memories no doubt provided some of the details that make them resonate on the printed page so vividly. For instance, he would have been in his early mid-teens around the time of Cap's appearance--and if the newsboy Cap encounters seems to be familiar, we probably owe Cap a debt of thanks for stepping in when he does to see to the lad's safety when a mobster doesn't want to cough up a nickel to pay for his newspaper.

No tour through American history would be complete without covering the conflicts involving native Americans--and here Kirby chooses the forces of Geronimo, who carried out campaigns against both Mexican and American forces and who regards Cap's words of peace and negotiation with skepticism. And in the two-page spread which follows, Kirby acknowledges that this is a conflict that is still a heated one, and which no one man can stop--with Cap's fervent protest of "We're all Americans!" drowned out by the thunder of men on horseback.

Kirby continues to cover a considerable amount of historical ground by way of Buda--at times briefly, but always providing Cap with first-hand exposure to the American struggle. We seem to be witnessing the country's "growing pains," for want of a better description. The theme of this story of course restricts itself to the conditions of such growth being unique to Americans, though in some cases the differences only boil down to locale. For instance, there have been mining disasters all over the world in the histories of developing countries, yet Kirby chooses to include one here--not identified by name but, presumably, Kentucky's Hurricane Creek disaster in late 1970.

When a gas pocket opens and death seems certain, Cap is there to lead the way in digging through the rock and debris to a clear area in order to buy time--though he again vanishes, this time to an air battle in a fighter plane from World War I.

Once he dodges death from collision with a Nazi observation balloon, Cap receives some breathing room in an interlude with Buda, who brings Cap back to assess how much he's learned from what he's seen and done. (The use of the talisman by now appears to be superfluous, since Buda is capable of guiding Cap through this journey without it; it seems instead to be a visual "prop" that Kirby has put in place to enhance for the reader the effect of the transitions Cap experiences, and if so it's indeed a nice touch.) Cap, understandably, is frustrated by this ordeal and so far has seen little point to it--and Buda goes so far as to suggest Cap would be more comfortable with becoming the kind of national symbol who merely waves to parade crowds rather than understanding the country's foundation. That's very much over-simplifying the kind of man we know Cap to be--and we could also point out that we haven't seen Buda trapped in any mines lately, so he doesn't exactly have a leg to stand on here.

Nevertheless, Buda seems to feel it's important for Cap to continue, since, as he puts it, "Turbulence! Tragedy! No history is made without them!" And even though Cap makes it clear that he fully realizes that, he turns to find himself on the end of a roundhouse right from a bare-knuckle boxing legend of the late 19th century.

It's a fight scene well choreographed by Kirby, who perhaps gives Sullivan more stamina than he should have against Cap, a fighter with a build of his own and knowledge of hand-to-hand combat that's equipped him to go up against and floor tougher bruisers than Sullivan. But Kirby perfectly captures the spirit of a brawl such as this that served to build the rep of a rising fighter in the 1800s--and Cap's victory comes across believably enough as hard-fought.

From there, he's taken a little earlier in the century to the period when abolitionists like John Brown attempted to overthrow the institution of slavery, waging insurrection against those who fought just as hard to keep it. There's little question which side is going to gain Cap's sympathies.

Cap's words fall on deaf ears, since there is no reasoning with men who hunt for bounty--but he gets a welcome distraction from a hidden witness to the altercation who opens fire on the bounty hunters to disarm them, giving Cap and his new friend the chance to take the offensive. The conflict settled, at least for the time being, Cap leaves on horseback; but when his horse bolts out from under him, he finds himself in different territory--specifically, New Mexico, mid-1945, in an isolated area that is nearly deserted for good reason.

It's a far more vivid and dramatic period of American history than Cap has experienced thus far (a scene which Kirby phrases quite well), and one that seems to shift Kirby's story a bit to instances of more violent scenarios. Yet that doesn't necessarily mean going forward from here. A disaster that happened in the city of Chicago in 1871 is Cap's next port of call--at least, for as long as that city remains standing.

There is no hope for the city, as the conflagration serves as a stark reminder of how tragic events force us to rise from adversity (and, in this case, from the ashes).

The scene segues to another moment in time when Cap dives into the river to rescue a drowning refugee, and instead finds himself nearly drowning in view of an undersea station in more contemporary years. It's the only scene that doesn't quite fit the pattern of Kirby's story, since it deals only in research and hasn't reached the point of being a pivotal or determinable point in history. And, to mirror the point made earlier, there are researchers who exist all over the world--and scientists, for the most part, don't link their work to patriotism.

Another interlude with Buda allows Cap to underscore the point he's been trying to make without success thus far--that Buda isn't showing him nuances about America that Cap isn't already aware of. Buda's response is typically enigmatic--perhaps translated best to something like "Wait and see."

"Beyond" is right, as Cap now finds himself on the moon sometime in the future--discovering that even a lunar environment offers no haven from man's ability to wage war.

Kirby's narrative here about "where the issue lies" doesn't necessarily hold true; more often than not, wars are fought over things like territory and ideological differences. It's difficult to imagine a sane person undertaking war due to a subconscious need to bring about a change in character for the human race as a whole. The time for that would seem to be before you engage in a conflict which will end the lives of thousands or even millions. War becomes imminent due to a series of events or acts of aggression that occur very quickly, and that hardly makes allowances for an underlying cause of the nature that Kirby proposes. Man's character will likely change as a result of such events, yes--but those are two different things.

Coming up to the end of this winding story, Kirby at last eases up on the drama of history in the making and instead indulges in a type of mindless frivolity that can only be found in Hollywood during the 1940s. Buda justifies it with a statement that's ludicrous on its face--"There's nothing more American than a movie!"--but Cap more rightly labels this new transition a farce. And judging by the scene that unfolds (or, rather, gaudily explodes), he's not far off the mark.

As Cap embarks on the last leg of his journey, Buda implies a more human connection to the "truth" that Cap is now expecting this experience to yield. The larger part of this story has dealt with America's growth as its population throughout history has struggled with adversity, in the form of either tragedies and disasters or due to the evolution of character and ideas within themselves in their dealings with one another. Yet now, it seems inevitable that Kirby would choose to circle back to the hope and dreams of those he likely considers his prime audience--young people, who in their innocence are already striving to become more. And on that note of confidence, hopes, and dreams, Cap comes to an understanding of America on a fundamental level, and the story reaches its conclusion ringing with the spirit of optimism.

While there's probably little argument that the saccharine level is off the scale in these closing panels, for all intents and purposes Kirby's story does its job, adding to newsstands everywhere a well-crafted celebratory tribute to the country's 200th anniversary that put its most visible fictional representative--Captain America--front and center, present and accounted for. It was exposure that couldn't help but raise Marvel's profile, coinciding with a similar stars-and-stripes themed story that Kirby had carried out in Cap's regular mag. For regular readers of Captain America, who were at the time reeling at Kirby's approach to the character, the Treasury story offered little cause for celebration, as Cap continued to reflect the kind of character Kirby felt he should be--patriotic, old-fashioned, and, above all, a conduit for adventure to thrill and inspire young readers, with the world adapting to Cap's perspective rather than the other way around. What readers and, ultimately, Marvel would decide about Kirby's continued presence at the company and his handling of its characters while in the writer's seat is a matter of record; and it's probably the consensus that it was never Kirby's talent that people took issue with, but rather his vision for comics characters in general. In retrospect, the Treasury story may have showcased Captain America exactly as Kirby always saw him and always would--and perhaps a successful reading of the story depends on regarding it as such.

A few pin-ups of the character based on segments of Cap's journey--
as well as the inside back-cover that gives Steve Rogers his due.

Marvel's bicentennial celebration continues, with--Dr. Strange!?

Captain America's Bicentennial Battles

Script and Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Herb Trimpe, John Romita, and Barry Smith
Letterer: John Costanza


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Comicsfan said...

We'll be seeing a little more of Ben Franklin in the follow-up to this post, Colin, so keep your eyes peeled. (On second thought, given the circumstances, you may want to avert them!)