By the time I was seriously collecting comic books in the mid-1980s, Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel was already history. Kirby had earlier defected from Marvel Comics to rival DC Comics where he created the New Gods Universe. The Powers That Be at DC Comics weren’t supportive of Kirby’s direction and he decided to return to Marvel. Sadly, his return was generally viewed as an unsuccessful one. One of the highlights of this return to Marvel was his run on Captain America, a title he and Stan Lee had taken to epic heights.
While attending French grade school, I had access to a library of French-language reprints of Marvel Comics of the 1970s. One of them was the treasury edition of Kirby’s Captain America Bicentennial Battles. These over-sized pages were the perfect way to display Kirby’s power-packed and dynamic art.
The mysterious Mr. Buda (later to be revealed to be the Elder of the Universe known as the Contemplator) sent Captain America on a time-traveling adventure through American history as part of their Bicentennial celebration. Yes, the dialogue is awkward and corny in places, but the visuals from Kirby are impressive. You can see that it’s the work of an artist in his declining years, but there’s still so much energy and passion in those panels. The scenes explode from the pages and sweep you up into the action. Barry Windsor-Smith, Herb Trimpe, and John Romita all embellished Kirby’s art for this stand-alone issue.
This treasury issue kicked off to Kirby’s run on Captain America, and continued into issue #193, entitled “The Mad-Bomb!”. Look at that cover, inked by the legendary John Romita.
And the interiors are no less dramatic with explosions, literally and figuratively, on every page. Each panel bursts with Kirby dots and the heavy, solid inks by Frank Giacoia. Even the quiet moments have an impactful presence. This issue was one of the comic books I had amassed during my pre-collecting days, and was very memorable for the Kirby art and style as well as the cliffhanger ending that I wouldn’t see resolved for another 10 years!
This storyline, which run until issue #200, pit Cap and the Falcon against an order of extremely wealthy Americans trying to establish a new aristocracy and crush the freedoms of the lower social order. Cap and Falcon’s adventures continued for another year as they encountered colourful characters like Texas Jack, Brother Inquisitor, Primus, and threats like Argon the Unburied One, Doughboy, and Hector Santiago “The Swine”. Kirby’s run also introduced Arnim Zola, the mad Nazi scientist, who heralded the return of his master, the Red Skull.
The only other issue of Kirby’s Captain America run that I had in my pre-collecting days was #213. This two-part story (concluding in #214) was an amazing bookend to Kirby’s run. #213’s cliffhanger ending drove me as crazy as the one in #193 did. Take a moment to really take in the cover copy of #213. “Only Marvel would dare it! Blinded, Hospitalized, Cap fights his deadliest battle!” “He strikes! He kills! He can’t be stopped! The Night Flyer!”
Dan Green, famous for his work inking John Romita Jr’s Uncanny X-Men in the 1980s, inked Kirby’s pencils for #213 and you can really see the difference. Mike Royer’s inks flattered those thick, bold pencils, while Green’s work was more subtle and almost muted Kirby’s work.
Look at page #12 that introduced the Night Flyer. The stoic figure is holding a sophisticated Kirby communication device, but his presence exudes a confidence and an authority. The heavy inks across his face, his mask, all contribute to that awe-inspiring feeling. “I can’t be stopped! I am the perfect man!”.
The Night Flyer spent the next 4 pages fighting his way through S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and the Falcon to assassinate his target. Turned out he was tricked, and despite being out-manned and out-gunned, the Night Flyer wasn’t ready to admit defeat: “I must find and eliminate my target! No one here can prevent it!!!” You’ve gotta love the captions that wrap up the issue. “Can he really do it??? Can one man defy and armed camp — and take it???” How many triple exclamation points and question marks can Kirby get away with using!
Did issue #214 live up to the hype?Yes, and no. It was Kirby’s last Cap issue and Mike Royer returned to ink it. While the Night Flyer battled the Falcon and a horde of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, the injured Steve Rogers dramatically donned his familiar red, white, and blue costume and grabbed his shield to face off against the Night Flyer. In an odd turn of events, it’s a few S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who connect the dots and destroy the Night Flyer’s hang glider which was the source of his power. That dramatic build up is released without any real satisfaction as the Night Flyer is defeated.
Unfortunately, I felt that in many ways this story symbolically summarized Kirby’s run. Visually a treat, but the execution failed, and not for the lack of trying. He threw in all the right ingredients, the heroes, the threats, the situation, but couldn’t put it together in the right way. It’s an amazing run that captured the 70s Kirby energy and his wacky-ahead-of-his-time-ideas. The raw energy of Kirby’s work was spectacular, but it lacked the finish that his former partner, Stan Lee, often provided. Kirby’s storytelling was ambitious and had an unrelenting pace and action. His tales were filled with social and political commentary, featuring larger-than-life drama and characters, combined with quiet retrospective and introspective moments of real character building and growth.