28 May 2010

Re-Cap, Part 14: The Kirby Kontroversy

Wow, three episodes of “Re-Cap” in one month!

Jack Kirby’s return to Captain America, in the triple role of artist, writer, and editor for issues #193–#214, was anticipated with almost messianic delight in the letter columns. Kirby was a living legend and Cap’s co-creator, so the readers’ excitement is understandable. So too is the divisive anger that followed over the direction the artist-writer would take the magazine. The conflict got its own editorial name: “The Kirby Kontroversy.”

I’ve waited until reading through at least the first story arc, eight issues, of Kirby’s run before attempting to sum up what the readers were attacking/defending and offer my take on it. I’ve read some of the issues from this period before, but never all of them consecutively and as part of a whole Captain America gestalt. Now I feel I can look critically at what readers of 1976–1977 were experiencing.

Here are the salient points of complaint in the “Kirby Kontroversy”:
  1. Subplots and characters from previous years are ignored. Most of the supporting cast is composed of characters created during the run. Sharon Carter is still around, and occasionally Falcon’s girlfriend Leila, but otherwise the secondary players that readers had grown attached to during the last five years remain absent.

  2. Stories tend toward science fiction instead of the more realistic approach pioneered since 1970.

  3. Cap and the Falcon have apparently entered a “pocket universe” that has no connection to the mainstream Marvel Universe.

  4. Recurring past villains are no longer appearing, and the heavies are instead newly invented adversary organizations and alien menaces.

As you can see from this list, the “Kontroversy” (groan) is exclusively centered on Kirby’s plotting, and had nothing to do with his artwork (which is simply too classic to raise any objections). Kirby’s run on the 1960s Cap was principally as artist, while Stan Lee handled the writing. As a writer, Jack Kirby leaned toward grand and cosmic science fiction; look at his legendary “Galactus and the Silver Surfer” story in The Fantastic Four to see this at its best. This tendency increased during his early ‘70s tenure at DC with “The Fourth World,” and he unleashed something similar at Marvel with The Eternals. (Oh, and Devil Dinosaur! Can never resist bringing that one up.)

Some of this would get into Captain America, arriving at a time when readers were accustomed to Steve Englehart’s more realistic and contemporary-relevant style. It was, well, disconcerting to many, even though it was a trend they could have predicted given the history of Kirby’s independent writing style.

Essentially, the mainstream reader of the time wanted Jack Kirby the writer to be someone other than what Jack Kirby the writer was. This hypothetical reader wanted Kirby’s superb art but the writing style of Steve Englehart. And he wouldn’t get it. Some would get used to what Kirby was doing and enjoy it, while others would express increasing frustration and even a sense of betrayal.

I have the advantage of distance, not to mention advanced warning, when I analyze Kirby-Cap ‘76/‘77. Taken as a “non-continuity limited series” like The Legends of the Dark Knight, this whole Kirby period is pop-art wow and almost gonzo in its melodramatics. At a certain point Jack Kirby apparently decided he could just go all-out and do whatever he wanted with Cap, and damn the history. Since I know the history will come back, I’m willing to go with the King for a period. And I can’t argue with how great it all looks.

But . . . well, I’ll let my reaction to this first story explain my specific objections to what “Jolly Jack” did on his much trumpeted return.

This first epic on Kirby’s agenda is “Madbomb,” an event timed to reach its height at the Bicentennial issue, which is also issue #200. Issue #193 wastes only a few panels making a nod toward the recently completed “Trial of the Falcon” before zipping into the new and detached-from-everything storyline. Falcon’s identity crisis won’t be mentioned again during this story, and Leila vanishes as well after this.

Sudden madness strikes Cap and Falcon, and it surges through the whole city until Cap finds the strange device causing it, a “Madbomb.” This isn’t an isolated event; Madbombs of increasing size are igniting brain-wave attacks across the nation, turning normal people into raging, mindless mobs. The U.S. government has found a photo of “Big Daddy,” an enormous Madbomb that could destroy the whole U.S. It is timed to go off on the first hour of the Bicentennial. Only Captain America and the Falcon can stop this dastardly crime!

Sound melodramatic? I’ve only given you a touch of the Silver Age superheroic hyperbole stuffed into this story. It feels like the magazine leaped back a dozen years. The first issue is filled with exclamatory dialogue and a nonstop barrage of weird action that is such an abrupt break from the previous half decade of the comic that it could give readers whiplash. On top of that, Henry Kissinger appears as the top man who orders Cap and Falcon into action. Yes, a Jack Kirby-drawn Kissinger complete with his famous accent written into the dialogue.

By most standard of comic books, #193 is pretty bad, but at least it’s grandly bad, and the art is unarguably awesome. Kirby throws himself into his new day, smashing open the visuals with beautifully detailed full-page spreads and including plenty of nutty tech.

This first episode leaves the reader hanging on who might be behind the Madbombs, but the next issue pulls back the curtain to reveal: William Taurey and the Royalists, a completely new and absurd group that believes in restoring the elitist aristocracy and class system that ruled the Thirteen Colonies before the Revolutionary War. Taurey also has a personal vendetta against Steve Rogers. Not Captain America, but Steve Rogers. A colonial soldier named Steve Rogers killed Taurey’s ancestor in a duel during the Revolutionary War, and Taurey wants vengeance against that Steve Rogers’s modern descendant. He doesn’t know that man is Captain America; he thinks he’s just some scrawny fellow who tried to join the army in World War II and got rejected.

This is a huge stretch. Kirby tries to solidify it with a scene where Cap offhandedly mentions to Falcon that an ancestor of his with the same name fought in the War for Independence. Kirby needed to create a personal angle for his story, and this was his circuitous route to do it. However, a “Revolutionary War Steve Rogers” is a good mythic concept. But—and this is a problem that crops up many times during this arc—the idea isn’t mentioned again for another five issues.

The next two issues follow Cap and Falcon as they discover Taurey’s Royalist forces in a massive underground lair in the Southwestern desert. Here the Royalists have mutated captured SHIELD agents into weird enslaved giants. The highborn “Elite” rule over a caste system that plans to take over the nation after the Big Daddy Madbomb goes off. Cap and Falcon escape form the slave pens, but end up clobbered by a armored giantess called—no fooling—“Tinkerbelle.”

Think this is all a bit weird? Wait until issue #196 and “Kill-Derby!”

This is probably the point where most Captain America readers started to stare in bewilderment at the direction Kirby was steering the title. There could be no doubt that Cap and the Falcon had stepped into an alternate “Kibry-verse” of SF mayhem and gadgetry, with all former subplots and cast members abandoned and replaced with newcomers like Cheer Chadwick and General Argyle Fist, which sound like characters dropped from early drafts of Dr. Strangelove. Kirby’s melodramatic dialogue was also reaching levels where readers knew it wasn’t going to subside any time soon. (“Great day in the morning! You’re right! One of the kill crazy kooks must be using it in the derby!” Plenty more where that came from.)

I have to admit the sheer anything-goes attitude of #196 is a sugar high for me, and the highlight of the Madbomb story. It’s also the point where Kirby’s art for the new era hits its stride—the work here is amazing, and the spread across pages 2 and 3 (Kirby liked using these pages for huge canvases in most of his issues) is an eye-popping masterpiece of Cap fighting against a horde that’s trying to throttle him.

Once Cap and Falc join in the gladiatorial version of roller-derby put on for the amusement of the Elite and under the sponsorship of the beautiful and naïve Cheer Chadwick, the comic and the art go over-the-top. The “kill-derby” is essentially Rollerball on electric skateboards, with armored suits, flame-throwers, net-guns, maces, and anything else Kirby wanted to pile into it. Cap fights like a demon because someone on the opposing team has hold of his shield, and Cap won’t let that great symbol be dishonored that way! (Plus, it’s a handy tool.) It’s almost abstractly wonderful . . . but I can see Cap fans of the last five years wonder what in Odin’s name had happened to the title.

Cap and Falcon eventually break out from the compound in #197, smashing up another astonishing piece of Kirby-tech that sends out massive sound waves, as General Argyle Fist and his soldiers break-in. Normally, the story would end here—but the Madbomb is still hidden, and there’s still three more issues to go.

And Tinkerbelle, Cheer Chadwick, and the underground complex? Never mind. Done with ‘em.

Issue #198 is an abrupt shift, as its title might warn you: “Captain America’s Love Story.” So, it seems King Kirby is getting back to Sharon Carter and the supporting cast. Or, not really. Cap’s “love” is a girl suddenly inserted into the story, Carol Harding, daughter of the man who built the Madbomb. Her father is under the constant surveillance of a goon squad that seems more like typical mob guys than the villainous society seen so far. Carol is ill from some unknown ailment, and Cap falls for her when he enters her house to follow Harding.

I think the idea here was to get some characterization going in a story arc that was leaning too hard on action spectacle, but it flops—mainly because it has nothing to do with anything seen before, and the action that does occur is more reality-based than the insane Kirby fantasy seen so far. This is probably the worst issue of Kirby’s run so far, and makes it seem that any resolution to the “Madbomb” idea is far off. The whole ticking-clock tension deflates for this facile, and disposable, romance. Literally disposable, since Carol never even appears in the finale issue.

In #199, the magazine suddenly remembers the quest for the Madbomb and realizes that it has to finish in the next number. However, Captain America and Falcon still are no closer to discovering the location of the weapon—creating in both the heroes and the readers the maddening awareness that they’ve bumbled around the whole story without really progressing at all. Then crazy luck lands the repentant Mr. Harding in the lap of our heroes. Mr. Harding, whose escape from his guards is the fight highlight of the issue, knows where William Taurey has hidden the Madbomb. Harding can even provide a defense against it for Cap and Falc.

Yeah, you remember that William Taurey guy, right? The villain of this story? Strange we haven’t seen him since issue #194, huh? Still, he and his co-conspirators, the Elite, are back in their powdered wigs and heels, which is far more entertaining than the standard “evil plain jumpsuits” many Marvel villain organizations wear. Captain America vs. The Cast of Barry Lyndon!

With landmark issue #200 and the bicentennial of the United States of America, Malcolm Taurey orders the “Big Daddy” Madbomb set off! However, Cap and the forces of SHIELD attack Taurey’s mansion while Falcon leads another team to defuse the Madbomb in its hidden location inside Taurey Tower in Philadelphia. And they, uhm, succeed. That’s it. After eight issues, a quick mop-up serves as the big climax.

At least Kirby remembered the plot-strand from back in #194 that Taurey wanted to avenger himself on the descendent of the “Revolutionary Steve Rogers” who killed his ancestor in a duel. This interesting idea went completely unmentioned otherwise, and its resolution here is tepid.

Whew . . . that was a long story. An eight-issue arc that came out of no proceeding story threads. What do I make of the complete “Madbomb,” Jolly Jack’s return to Captain America?

The Pros: There’s a lot of wild fun going on in the individual moments. Weird technology, insane gladiatorial sports, giant mutated humans, super energy weapons, and Cap beating people up in marvelous Silver Age style. Kirby’s art is always wonderful to see.

The Cons: The story advances in jerks and starts, often forgetting what it is about and riding off into action tangents (and the strange “love story” distraction) that seem like they only exist so Kirby can draw bizarre stuff. The story whimpers out entirely in the last issue when it should have been epic. And all the general complaints about how Captain America has forgotten about the last thirty issues of Captain America apply as well.

So “Madbomb” is frustrating fun. It goes all-out, but it doesn’t hold together. Much of what had made the magazine so wonderful during Englehart’s era got abruptly jettisoned. But the art style that made Cap so thrilling in the first place is back.

Before I get back to the finishing the rest of Kirby’s run, I’ll take a short break and visit Devil Dinosaur and Moon-Boy to see what else was happening in Kirby Kountry.

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