26 July 2011

Re-Cap, Part 15: The Night Fever People

Greetings, fans of the Star-Spangled Avenger! Quite a span has past since the last episode of “Re-Cap.” Part 14 was back in May of 2010, over a year ago. Since that, something has happened in the world of Captain America, something important . . .

Like a terrific live-action film! But I’ve gushed about that already.

With the excitement of the movie pulsing in my veins, I’ve returned to the to comics. But here’s a painful truth: even though Cap is my favorite superhero, I can only read so much concentrated comic book material at a time before I burn out. Over the last year I have kept up on the trade paperbacks of the current run with Ed Brubaker, which continues its amazing quality; it is now one of the definite eras of Cap’s history. But in the back-issues, I stalled once reaching issue #200 (July 1976). The ‘70s Jack Kirby artist/writer run—it doesn’t work for me. It pains me to say this about one of the greatest artists in the medium, and a former judge of the Illustrators of the Future Contest, but I am not enjoying these comics. The art is great, because Jack Kirby is rarely less than stellar. But his stories are silly and/or weird, the dialogue melodramatic, and so many of the interesting subplots and supporting cast that developed during Steve Englehart’s great run have vanished. Worst of all, although Jack Kirby can still draw Captain America like nobody else, the stories Kirby puts him in don’t suit him at all.

Once I got through the eight-issue slog of the “Madbomb” story, I didn’t feel like charging on to the rest of it yet.

But I’m back. The movie has infected me with fresh Cap-mania, so I’m going to power through the rest of Kirby’s run. Then I will go read his Devil Dinosaur comics and feel better about him. (I did promise at one point to review all those issues, right? Eventually, eventually, True Believers.)

As “Madbomb” ends (there is a short wrap-up scene in #201 with Mr. Harding, the scientist who betrayed his villainous overlords to help the heroes save the day) Cap and the Falcon head into a three-issue adventure that combines Dickensian freaks, a dimensional-traveling insane asylum, big rock monsters, and a goofy Texan with a lariat. Yeah, it’s odd.

Issue #201 launches us into the new story with the new villains. Why Kirby didn’t rely to use some of the classic villains he created, I cannot understand. At least one new classic villain will come out of this period—but not in these next issues.

“The Night People” of the title of #201 are stunted grotesques perfectly suited to Kirby’s pen, but their motivations and history are loopy in a Golden Age way. They’ve overrun the city with thefts of strange trinkets, never money, and disappear to a location they call “Zero Street.” In #202, we find out that they are inmates from an insane asylum that got thrust into a planetoid on another dimension because of the experiments of a mad genius incarcerated there, Brother Wonderful. Don’t look at me, I didn’t make the name up.

The Night People capture Leila (good to see a supporting character appear), causing Falcon to pull one of the stupidest stunts imaginable so he can get back to the city fast: trying to grab onto the wing of a jet while it’s in flight—head-on! Fortunately, a cowboy named Texas Jack Muldoon who carries a lariat with him everywhere lassoes the Falcon into the plane. Yes, really. He opened the door of a moving jet and roped the Falcon inside. This Texas Jack fellow is going to hang around to the end of the story, driving me almost into an asylum myself with his cornpone slang.

Falcon ends up in the Night People’s planetoid, where he and Leila are brainwashed. The Night People want a “personal superhero,” which was why they nabbed Leila in the first place: they knew the Falcon would come for her. The brainwashed Falcon defeats a cool-looking Jack Kirby rock monster at the Night People’s behest.

Cap finds his way to the dimensional Zero Street through the help of Texas Jack; somehow, this modern cowboy (what does he really do? Sell pork sausages on TV?) and his buddy “Beasley” are well-acquainted with dimensional rifts the swallow insane asylums.

Issue #203, “Alamo II” (I’ll admit that’s a punchy title) begins with a great splash-page of Cap in a Kirby-riffic pose as he enter the Zero Street dimension; it’s nice to behold because Cap so far has had little to do in this story.

The Falcon, still brainwashed, attacks Cap, but they then team-up to stop a barrage of the dimensional monsters that fall on the planetoid and the asylum. Texas Jack keeps hanging around, although he achieves nothing. Brother Wonderful decides to save the planetoid by sending all the monsters to Earth. Cap, in a very off-character moment, does the “Kirk-argues-with-Super-Computer” trick to convince Brother Wonderful to test the device by sending the Falcon, Leila, and the pointless cowboy back to Earth first. Cap then throws Bother Wonderful through, corrals the other Night People along, and leaves behind him a detonator for the dimensional device before going through himself. POW! The monsters blow up, the portal seals, Earth is safe, and Marvelites everywhere started writing angry letters that will appear in issue #205.

You got all that?

Why was this story in Captain America and not, say, The Fantastic Four, or some other epic science-fiction magazine? There are some wild fantasy concepts here, and the notion of the insane asylum structuring their own society based on their illnesses is a juicy one. But it is so rushed in these three issues, and too much gets left unexplained until too late for it to have an impact. Much of the story, as a letter writer points out, feels “juvenile.” The whole piece seems to be beaming in from another comic book universe entirely. Cap gets to fight a bit, but otherwise plays a minor part. Texas Muldoon could have gotten erased off the page in the rough pencil stage without changing a thing, in a “Garfield-without-Garfield” manner.

On the plus side: it looks great. Kirby never falls down in that regard. Otherwise . . . the Hell? I hope the next few issues get us a bit more grounded.

The action from this issue spills over into Marvel Team-Up #52, which shows what happens when all the Night People and Cap, plus a few monsters that managed to get through the explosion, materialize on the other side of the dimensional door. Spider-Man is involved, of course, sine he is the usual default half of these team-ups. (I loved that magazine as I kid; good, heroic self-contained adventures. I might buy one the collections someday.)

Sharon Carter appears in #202 for two pages where she has an illogical freak-out over the phone when Steve tells her he has to save the Falcon. Sharon seems like she is reading from a different script, reciting the same old “we could be together if Steve wasn’t Captain America” argument. Sharon was growing in interesting ways before Kirby took over, but she’s reset back to the ‘60s now. At least we know she’s still out there.

Cap’s next adventure from Jack Kirby isn’t in issue #204, but in Captain America Annual #4. I have decided to skip the annuals for the moment, unless they have a major impact on the continuity. This one does not.

In real-world comic news, Stan Lee announces in “Stan’s Soapbox” for #202 that Archie Goodwin is now officially Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief. This position has swapped rapidly during the past few years of the decade, with Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, and Marv Wolfman all in the top stop. Archie Goodwin won’t have the title long either. Jim Shooter is around the corner, a controversial figure, but we’ll get to that later.

Hey, have I mentioned that the Captain America movie is great? One of the villains in it was invented during this Jack Kirby run. I wish he would arrive soon. (Issue #209, by the way. I’ll get to that in our next exciting installment.)

Previous episode: The Kirby Kontroversy

Next Episode: His Head’s Not in the Right Place