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Farewell To The King

Longbox Graveyard #83

Jack Kirby’s mid-1970s return to Marvel Comics was a mixed blessing. It was nice to see Jack back at the comics company that he helped to build, and the King did produce some imaginative work in this period. I enjoyed Kirby’s idiosyncratic take on Black Panther, and the Eternals got off to a promising start before untimely cancellation consigned another Kirby cosmic space epic to the dustbin of history. And of course there was Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It was Kirby’s return to his signature character that most disappointed me, then and now.

Captain America #193, Jack Kirby

Maybe you just can’t go home again. Or maybe Jack was running on empty with Captain America — after all, he was pushing sixty by this time, and he’d been penning Cap’s adventures for thirty-five years, first with co-creator Joe Simon in Cap’s original Golden Age run, and later with Stan Lee as Cap was catapulted into the Silver Age in Tales of Suspense. Elevated expectations may have been part of the problem, but Kirby’s 1976 return to Captain America did not seem all it could have been.

Jack’s concepts were strong. Actually, they were inspired. A psychic bomb that could destroy the country … a secret society of criminal aristocrats determined to create an American monarchy … an inter-dimensional insane asylum … a demonic force from the end of time walking the earth as a powerful undead corpse … all of those ideas sound great! But for the most part, in execution these ideas came off flat. Maybe Kirby was trying to do too many comics at once, or maybe his playbook was showing its age, and the old approaches weren’t working any more.

Captain America #203, Jack Kirby

speaking as a fan of Captain America and Jack Kirby, I’d rather NOT remember Alamo II

Whatever the reason, the King’s mid-seventies two-year run on Captain America wasn’t a happy one, characterized by some of the most negative letters pages I’ve ever read in a Marvel book. Kirby had his supporters, but many letters took Jack to task for clunky scripting that siloed Captain America from the rest of the Marvel universe, and ignored the more nuanced version of Cap previously developed by writers like Steve Englehart in favor of Kirby’s self-assured, two-fisted man of action (and for more insight about the letters pages of this era, check out Scott Edleman’s blog).

Kirby Negative Letter

Kirby Negative Letter

I was among those disappointed legions. When triaging my Accumulation, I was surprised to see I only had about half of this run, which meant I gave up on Jack’s vision for Cap when I first read it at the age of fourteen. I recall being disappointed that the Cap I saw in the Avengers had so little to do with the Cap in Kirby’s book. I’d like to blame my dissatisfaction on callow youth, but a recent back-issue purchase let me complete this run at last, and I must admit the re-read was a disappointment.

I’m not tone-deaf to Kirby’s style. In fact, I like the Kirby approach much better now that I am older and no longer take comics so seriously (said the man with the weekly comic book blog). I recently re-read Kirby’s Mister Miracle, which is just as old-fashioned as this Cap run, but Mister Miracle benefited from greater flights of imagination and richer characterization than Jack’s return to Cap. I can’t help but feel that Kirby was going through the motions here.

But then right when I was about to write this series off entirely, out of nowhere, Kirby attacks!

One second, Cap is waltzing around the jungle with a generic Central American dictator, and the next …
Captain America #208, Jack Kirby

Holy crap!

Captain America #208, Jack Kirby

Good God!! W-What is it!? WHAT IS IT!?

It’s Jack Kirby cutting loose! Here, at last, in issue #208 of Captain America, the King is back, delivering on the promise not quite realized in his previous dozen-odd issues.

For all his energy, though, the Man-Fish was just a monster, and Cap had fought plenty of monsters in Kirby’s run. What made this monster special was that he heralded the arrival of Kirby’s last great contribution to the Captain America Canon …

first appearance Arnim Zola, Captain America #208, Jack Kirby

The goofy-looking Arnim Zola might be easy to dismiss if he didn’t represent a very real modern anxiety, as Kirby outlined atop the splash page to issue #209.

Captain America #209

But rather than bore us with cautionary tales about cloned sheep, Kirby expressed his disgust for genetic manipulation with monstrous creations like the amorphous Doughboy …

Captain America #209, Doughboy, Jack Kirby

… or a living citadel that shapes itself into horrific forms, both to menace the lovely Donna Maria …

Captain America #209, Jack Kirby

… and to threaten Cap and Donna when they later try to escape.

Captain America #211, Jack Kirby

Kirby saw Arnim Zola as a modern Frankenstein, a twisted genius who sculpted horrors from flesh and bone. Like Frankenstein, Zola conducted his experiments in a remote Swiss castle … but unlike Frankenstein, Zola’s first experiments were on himself.

Captain America #209, origin of Arnim Zola, Jack Kirby

That Zola was so pleased with the horrific results of his transformation speaks to the sickness of his mind. We can safely conclude that Cap was not a fan.

Captain America #209, Jack Kirby

Not content with making Arnim Zola a top-drawer weirdo, Kirby reveals Zola as a top-drawer weirdo with a past by connecting his mad scientist to the Red Skull.

Red Skull, Captain America #210, Jack Kirby

But Kirby wasn’t done. As if a story featuring synthetic monsters and the Red Skull weren’t enough, Kirby goes to even stranger depths, first by detailing a bit of Zola’s mad handiwork …

Captain America #211, Jack Kirby

… and then by offering his own spin on They Saved Hitler’s Brain!

Captain Americ #211, Jack Kirby

I’m sure some later writer sorted out how Zola’s Hitler brain-in-a-box was reconciled with Hitler’s post-war identity as The Hate Monger, but it’s above my pay grade to look it up. Suffice to say this story already had it all even without Hitler’s brain!

Captain America #212, Jack Kirby

But even without Hitler’s brain, this would be a classic Cap story, if only because of The Red Skull. No one drew a more decayed, corrupt, and evil Red Skull than did Jack Kirby, and seeing the Skull one more time was a special treat.

Captain America #212, Jack Kirby

The tale comes to an abrupt but appropriate end as Cap and the Skull slug it out in the collapsing ruins of Zola’s castle, as they had done in the ruins of Hitler’s Germany.

Captain America #212, Jack Kirby

But that would be the end for Jack Kirby and Captain America. His Arnim Zola arc was energetic and entertaining, and might have been an indication of better things to come, but after issue #214, Kirby would leave Cap (and Marvel comics) behind forever.

farewell to the King

Kirby’s future lay in animation, while Cap would once again be just another Marvel Comics superhero book, neither very good nor very bad for years to come (and this particular Cap fan thinks the series didn’t really find it’s groove until Ed Brubaker came aboard three decades later). Most of these stories would fade from memory, but Arnim Zola haunts me still, though I can’t quite get used to his mainstream movie incarnation …

Toby Jones as Arnim Zola

All-in-all, this run of Captain America is not how I would have chosen to say farewell to King Kirby, but all things have their time, and it had to end somewhere. And thanks to the terrifyingly bizarre Arnim Zola, I didn’t have to spend my final words about Kirby’s Captain America trying to find something nice to write about The Swine and General Argyle Fist!

The King is dead. Long Live The King!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #84 Top Ten Instagram Superheroes!

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978. There's a new blog every odd Wednesday at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on January 16, 2013, in Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. I don’t have any issues from the Kirby Cap run, but this story arc does look pretty good. Yes, the movie version of Zola is pretty lame, but they often tend to make the characters much more “realistic” when they transfer them to the Silver Screen.

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    • I kind of like Toby Jones as Arnim Zola, actually, though in the film they’ve changed him into the “reasonable Nazi scientist who might have a heart” rather than Kirby’s raving loon. The original Kirby character design would be a tough sell on film but it’s worth noting that design still fits in well with Ed Brubaker’s gritty approach to Captain America. Arnim Zola, what a weirdo!

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  2. I’m in full agreement that Ed Brubaker’s helming of Captain America raised the bar on the handling of the character, and successfully did what many have tried to do over the years–have Cap operate successfully and believably in the contemporary world, while continuing to interweave elements of Cap’s past with his present-day life. Kirby’s Cap was still very much a man of his time, and his idealism was almost suffocating–while Brubaker realized we don’t need the spirit and patriotism of “Captain America” thrust in our faces constantly.

    As for Zola, he was certainly one of Kirby’s lasting accomplishments. And as a fan, I loved the subtle nod to the comic character when Toby Jones makes his first appearance in the film. :D

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    • The thing that most impressed me about Brubaker’s Cap mythos is that he kept nearly all of the material from the Tales of Suspense run … but somehow made it all fit together and seem to make sense (to a degree never really present in the original books). It is an amazing feat of storytelling, which I lauded in my review in the early days of Longbox Graveyard.

      I missed the Zola nod you mention — I’ll keep an eye out for it the next time I watch the film.

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  3. Kirby suffered the same curse that Ditko encountered later in his career his style of art and writing had become redundant. However that Cap run had it been written by a competant writer it may have had a chance. Kirby was still writing with WW2 sensibilities when society had moved on. I remember It was the same feeling I had forDitkos run on Speedball was how his art was clearly stuck in the 60s. Loved the Speed ball concept though.

    Still saying all this I loved Kirby Cap. As a Kirby fan my biggest dissapointment was his work on DCs Super Powers mini in the 80s. The book was advertised as a major event and we saw Kirby at his sloppy worst drawing all of DCs big guns and just seeming lost in 1962.

    Thanks for posting this one Paul, I just love that artwork.

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    • Compared to 1976 the work did seem old-fashioned; now that all of Kirby’s work is in our past it seems more contemporary, because Kirby himself was timeless. Funny how that works.

      I have that Super Powers series in my “to be read again” pile … and maybe I will let it stay there for awhile. I liked these books well enough (particularly the Zola story) but for my next Kirby I think I want an unambiguous classic. Maybe it’s time to dig in on the original Fantastic Four. I haven’t covered that book at all yet.

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      • I like Kirby on Super Powers, if for no other reason that it gave us a chance to see Kirby do some DC stalwarts such as The Joker, The Penguin, and Batman & Robin that we had rarely, if ever, gotten to see him do before. The Stories are solid, but they aren’t that good unless one takes the time to realize that they were made basically to get kids who bought the toys to try out a comic, and in that light, they sort of transmogrify into something semi-magic as one takes on the viewpoint of a 5-7 year old kid reading these and being exposed to Penguin, Joker, etc. for the first time ever…and it’s the King bringing them these guys!

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        • I have a complete run of Super Powers that has been sitting, loveless, on eBay for a couple months. Maybe I’ll snatch it back and try to appreciate it again. It’s inferior Kirby, but still Kirby. And, yes, it was an instruction manual for playing with toys (as was Secret Wars), but that shouldn’t deter us from enjoying the work. It’s like watching those superior DC animated shows — inevitably there comes the JLA “toyfight” for five minutes, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. That’s why skimming was invented.

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  4. Captain America?
    I must confess that if not for Jack Kirby’s work I would have had next to zero interest in this character.

    I would buy issues, from time to time, when illustrated by some of my favorite artists like Gene Colan, Frank Robbins or Mike Zeck (although, as big a fan as I am of Zeck’s art, I couldn’t even read more than a dozen of poorly written stories. That must be one of the reasons why I had not been aware of Brubaker’s run, so far.

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    • The Brubaker stories are best in class. Well worth tracking down. Brubaker’s Captain America Omnibuses (Omnibusi?) are a good place to start, though pricey. If you have a Marvel Unlimited digital sub then you’re set. In fact, I’d suggest it’s worth ten bucks for a month’s sub just to binge on digital Brubaker. Enjoy.

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  5. I showed my girlfriend Man-Fish, and she was taken aback and impressed by him. I have always heard that the editors tried to make Kirby look poorly by printing letters excoriating him. Comic Book Legends revealed says that was a myth, but I dunno.

    Kirby’s take as far as Captain America didn’t necessarily undo or negate what Englehart had done, so much as I think that I always saw it that Cap had been tested, come back from it, and believed even more in himself and the American Dream than ever. That is not explicitly stated obviously, but it just sort of feels that way.

    Kirby on Cap is never a bad thing though. NEVER.

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    • I think it is the nature of companies — particularly large, creative companies — to compete internally as much or more as they do externally. It is perfectly plausible to me that guys at Marvel would be more interested in outperforming the editor across the hall as they were DC across town. In that environment, it is easy to see how Kirby may have had few allies at Marvel in the 1970s, particularly as he was out in California, and possibly perceived as privileged or somehow a special case for being a creator unto his own. That doesn’t make it right (and it may not be what happened in this case) but it’s something I’ve seen time and again during a lifetime working in creative industries.

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