Monday, November 5, 2012
Return of the King: Captain America 193
Captain America #193 (Jan. 1976)
"Screamer in the Brain!"
Writer/Artist/Editor: Jack Kirby
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Karen: We usher in November with a series of four reviews featuring Jack Kirby's work upon his return to Marvel Comics in the seventies. Kirby really hadn't been gone all that long. He'd headed over to DC in 1970, where he generated the "Fourth World" stable of characters, as well as others, like Kamandi, Omac, and The Demon. But just six years later, he was back at Marvel, the company that owed so much to his creative capabilities and artistic style. Yet in that short time period, much had changed. Comic art had skewed towards a more realistic style. Kirby's art however, had become even more bombastic and over the top than before. When 'The King' returned to Marvel, his artwork was somewhat jarring to see. It just seemed out of place, although he was back at the company he'd helped build. Of course, leading up to his arrival, we had several months of Frank Robbins on Captain America, so for me, anything was an improvement! Sorry, but it had to be said.
Doug: I remarked to Karen when we were deciding to run this series that I am truly a tabula rasa on all four of these books coming your way on Mondays in November. As a youngster I was really turned off by Kirby's art by the time he got back to Marvel. I'd really only seen his Kamandi from DC, so really had no knowledge of the Fourth World stuff until many years later. But as Kirby started to do a lot of covers at Marvel, I did not appreciate the blocky style of his fingers and the awkward linework for shading, etc. To be honest, it somewhat jaded my perceptions of his Silver Age output being seen in Marvel's Greatest Comics, Marvel Double Feature, etc. I've since come to really treasure that material, holding his runs on Thor, Fantastic Four, and Tales of Suspense among the best comic book art of any age. But more than anything, reading his self-penned stories only makes me value Stan Lee all the more.
Doug: And I will always second your appraisal of Frank Robbins. Never, ever, a fan. I know he has his apologists -- I would not be one of them.
Karen: Comics had also continued to mature in storytelling, and Captain America had been a prime example of this in the early seventies. Writer Steve Englehart put Cap in a situation where he had to question his beliefs and his loyalties. When Kirby picked up the series, it was right after it had been revealed that Cap's partner, the Falcon, had actually been a criminal and had been brainwashed by the Red Skull to work with Cap. Cap had been trying to work through this in previous issues, but when Kirby came on the title, he never made reference to it, essentially starting his series 'from scratch'. While I personally thought this Falcon storyline was a bad idea, it was perplexing as a reader to see it dropped entirely from the book. Kirby's Cap seemed to exist in his own little universe. I suppose this worked best for Kirby, as he likely was not too familiar with what had been going on at Marvel while he was gone. But as a reader, it was noticeable. The Cap in this title seemed different from the Cap over in Avengers. It was as if Kirby was writing Cap circa 1969.
Doug: Is it ego, or just clumsiness? We've seen similar disregard for the past from John Byrne and of course Brian Michael Bendis (among others, I'm sure). In this case I'd tend to side with Kirby's workload being immediately very heavy and his not taking the time to get current with the contemporary Marvel mythos.
Karen: This issue jumps right into the action. After a strange, symbolic splash page showing Cap and the Falcon standing in front of a giant screaming mouth, covering their ears in agony, we see Cap and the Falcon arm-wrestling in someone's kitchen while Leila, Falcon's girlfriend, makes them coffee! OK, if you had read any previous issues of Captain America, this scene would come across as highly incongruous.
Doug: I was not a full-time Cap reader in those days but I'm thinking that Englehart's Leila wouldn't have been making anyone a cup of coffee.
Karen: In the midst of all this, Cap and Falc are zapped in the heads by some sort of ray and attack each other. Cap: "I'll break you, Falcon!" Falcon: "Try it, Whitey! Just try it, and I'll!..." The two trade blows but Cap is able to overcome this sudden violent urge, and Falcon does too. But then Leila goes bonkers! She grabs a kitchen knife and tries to attack them. Falcon attempts to disarm her when a brick comes flying through the window. Cap leaps outside and finds pandemonium in the streets. The captions tell us it is the work of the "mad bomb". To me, this seemed like a very clunky piece of writing. Why tell us what's causing the problem right up front?
Doug: This scene between Cap and Falc came right out of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, didn't it? And again, why are our heroes in costume on their leisure time? Can't anyone ever just chillax in a pair of jeans and a hoodie? And are you seriously trying to tell me that if you were going to set off some awesome mind-control gizmo that you wouldn't stick it just off the sidewalk, between two buildings where any shmoe could find it? C'mon -- that's where I'd hide it!
Karen: Cap is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the mob. Trampled and battered, he picks himself up off the ground, and spots a strange device between two buildings. It is the mad bomb. As he makes his way towards it, the emanations grow stronger and start driving Cap crazy. He struggles to reach it. He grabs it and laughs maniacally, saying that the bomb is ugly and must be destroyed. A fellow lunatic comes up behind him and says he wants the bomb, and just as he is about to bash Cap's brains in, Cap crushes the bomb with his shield, and they both sink to the ground.
Doug: The scene goes apocalyptic pretty quickly doesn't it?
Karen: Cap slowly regains his strength and looks around, to see the neighborhood in utter ruins. He spots a sign about to topple onto a woman, but luckily the Falcon comes swooping down to save her. The two heroes begin to discuss what's going on, agreeing that it seems that the madness was artificially induced, when a mysterious man appears and shows them a fragment of the "mad bomb" that caused it all. Now why couldn't we get our first reference to the mad bomb right here? Anyway, we see the inner workings of the device, complete with "simulated human brain"! Cap guesses that the man is a SHIELD agent and the man doesn't respond but simply insists that their country needs them and they must come with him right away. Coming off Englehart's "Secret Empire" saga, Cap's quick acceptance of this is a bit hard to swallow. The two heroes board a plane with the agent, who tells them that the government is aware of more mad bombs but not who is responsible for them. However, they've clamped the lid down on the media so that they are only reporting the incidents as riots. Gotta love that repressive government in action! The plane lands at a secret base that is coordinating all efforts against the mad bombs. The place is under high security, and once they land, the two heroes are told to enter a corridor and keep on going. Falcon starts to question this, but Cap says, "Let's just follow instructions, Falcon." This was just really hard to swallow at the time! It didn't sound anything like the Cap I had come to know and love from 1973 on up.
Doug: What sort of commentary was Kirby making about the government in this part? We all know he had been a soldier, and soldiers follow orders, but Cap's blind obedience belied (as you say) what had gone on recently in the book. And I don't think Englehart was any sort of counter-culture hippie for having penned "Secret Empire"; I think he was reflecting on the views of many Americans. So for this suit to just show up and never identify himself (remember, Cap had been a member of SHIELD at one point) was just silly. And neither Cap or Sam thought this could be a machination of AIM, or the Skull, or Dr. Faustus? Duh...
Karen: Of course, the heroes then face a gauntlet of gas, hurtling metal rods, and walls closing in on them. Cap finally locates a hidden switch and they escape, only to come face to face with -- Henry Kissinger! Upon seeing Kissinger, Cap says they should get some answers, to which the then-Secretary of State responds, "Hah! You dreamer you! The test isn't over yet! We'll have our chat -if you survive the final hurdle!" This story is definitely veering off into realms of the absurd!
Doug: As if this wasn't a dubiously-told tale, the entrance of Dr. Kissinger sent it heading south in a hurry.
Karen: The second phase of the test has a room full of thugs attack Cap, but he quickly batters his way through them. Satisfied, Kissinger calls them off. Kirby tries to mimic Kissinger's heavy accent but it is more distracting than successful. When he has the secretary tell Cap to call him "Henny" my jaw nearly hit the floor.
Doug: I tried to quit "hearing" Kissinger's accent, but it was tough. Agreed -- totally distracting. And "Henny" -- well, you've already said it. Oh, and after all of the projectiles and collapsing walls, a bunch of goons were needed to "prove" these guys?
Karen: Kissinger activates a video screen and shows the pair previous mad bombs. The first, "Peanut," was a tiny bomb that wiped out a small town. The next one, "Dumpling," devastated a town of 200,000 people. The one the heroes faced in New York was larger still. Falcon speculates that the next one could be the size of a barrel, and possibly wipe out the rest of New York, or other big cities like Chicago or Los Angeles. "Guess again Mister Super Duper!" Kissinger says, in another cringe-inducing bit of dialog. Kissinger shows them a photo of the next mad bomb that was secretly taken by a spy and smuggled back to SHIELD. It is "Big Daddy" -- a towering bomb easily two stories high, capable of wiping out the entire United States. And just for extra fun, Cap says, "And my guess is that he's timed to go off at the start of the bicentennial year!"
Doug: As far as set-up goes, and I'm not speaking here of execution -- only substance -- this issue served Kirby's purpose. We are left with a sense of impending doom, a whole lot of unfinished business, more than a few head-scratchers, and a big brain in a hot water heater (well, that's what it looked like to me). And you know what? Everything I've ever read about Jack Kirby talks about his energy and his wild and crazy imagination. Well, the energy shines through, but that imagination could have perhaps used some boundaries. Being one's own editor isn't always the best thing it would seem.
Karen: I'm just gonna say it: I thought this story was terrible then, and I think it is terrible now. Kirby's art went from dramatic to being a caricature of itself. Every single scene is hyped up; people are always screaming it seems. And the writing... where to begin? The dialog is stilted, the captions pound us over the head with things that we don't need to know. There's no subtly here whatsoever. As mentioned before, the characters also are off. After everything Cap has been through in the last few years with his government, the last thing he's going to do is jump on a plane no questions asked and just follow orders. I thought this was a real low point for the title. The sad thing is, if Kirby had been brought back just to draw the book, it might have worked. But his writing, and the fact that he completely ignored significant changes to the characters since his time at Marvel, were huge blows to the title.