Saturday, July 4, 2015

An American Odyssey!


1976 proved to be a propitious time for Jack "King" Kirby's return to Marvel and to Captain America in particular. It allowed him the luxury of creating a mammoth tale in one of the then popular treasury editions. Kirby excused the Falcon from this iconic journey which took Captain America into the past, the present and even the future for tantalizing glimpses of moments from America's story.

(Note some differences between this pencil version and the final cover.)
Serving as Cap's spirit guide of sorts was a new character called Mister Buda (revealed many years later to be Tath-Ki of the Elders of the Universe). Buda puts a mystical triangle on Cap's palm which lights up when a transition is about to occur.


Cap then begins an odyssey across the years first landing in Nazi-controlled Germany where he finds his then-dead partner Bucky being interrogated by no less than Adolph Hitler himself. After sharing a brief moment with Bucky Cap is shifted away again to Buda's home but finds himself lost, confronted by an expansive mural similar to one at Gettysburg.


Walking into the street, he is then transported to the days of the American Revolution where he meets Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross who find inspiration in his costume for a new flag. This paradox accounted for Cap then Depression Era NYC where he finds a young boy selling papers who has dreams of one day creating comic books, a boy very similar of course to Jack Kirby himself.


Then it's off to find himself alongside the Native American chief Geronimo, saving trapped miners in a collapsed mine in my own state of Kentucky, and then quickly into a WWI dogfight. Buda shows up again and Cap is confronted by John L. Sullivan in a bare-knuckles boxing match before finding himself helping an escaped slave fend off the men who are bent on recapturing him, and both are helped by a young boy who turns out to be the son of John Brown.

Then on to Alamagordo to see the Atomic Bomb explode in all its horrible glory before finding the conflagration shifted to the great Chicago fire. Then under the sea where scientists work to find food for the growing world population. The future is next, when Cap ends up on a Moon which is a battleground between mysterious forces which must be at least partially American. That becomes the set of a Busby Berkley style musical which Cap leaves disdainfully for all its pagentry.


After that Cap has some control where he goes and finds a young black student working diligently to make a success of himself along with a whole kid's gang who find inspiration in Cap and in themselves as they resolve to work and find success however they choose to define it. That it seems is the thread that ties together the tapestry of the American story.

(My favorite panel.)

Kirby does a great job of telling an American story here which is far from a pagent-show, the usual folderol which passes for patriotism in this nation. While that is there, the substance of the story is about real people in real situations. Given the constraints of time, the ability to touch on all aspects of the American tapestry is limited. No mention made really of any Hispanic connections is an oversight. But then Kirby is writing as always from his own perspective which is informed to a great extent by the Great Depression, so several of the vignettes resonate from that time.


The artwork is stupendous with inking supplied not by the usual suspects. Many point to the work of Barry Windsor-Smith in this book, but for me it is the underrated work of Herb Trimpe who does the majority of the pages who wins the day. He is an ideal inker for Kirby, bringing a warmth to his lines which some miss.


This is a job which could have gone desperately wrong. It might've become a tawdry display of rank simple-minded rah-rah patriotism, but Kirby is not interested in that. He gives us a story which has some more depth than the usual celebratory effort, a story which digs a bit beneath the skin to offer up a commentary which while upbeat in the final analysis doesn't ignore completely the grimmer aspects of the American saga as it reached its two hundredth anniversary. It is instead a true American Odyssey of sorts, full of monsters and myth, but ultimately with an ending which showcases a hero transformed by his journey.


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12 comments:

  1. Don't want to sound like a grump, but seeing that reprint cover at the bottom, I have to ask why it is that a lot of computer colouring makes artwork look like mud?

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    1. I agree on this example for sure. There seems to be a rejection of the bright four-color splendor which once comics bragged about. Having a muted look seems more adult I suspect.

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  2. Yeah, the muddy look can be a pain, but I've seen some nice computer colouring on old comicbook pages and when it's done right, it adds a layer of depth that flat colours don't have.

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    1. That's true too. I don't have a preference save for good looking artwork.

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  3. I've never read Bicentennial Battles (it was on sale here in the UK but I didn't buy it) and for many years I assumed it contained reprints like all the Treasury Editions - this is the first time I've actually read a review of the story so thanks for that. This is also the first time I've seen those Captain Americas from different time periods !

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    1. Those offbeat Cap images were tossed in by Kirby. They're weirdly fascinating.

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  4. Great minds and all that, Rip --

    I used the Colonial Cap image in our well wishes of today!

    And count me among those who prefer the good ol' fashioned four-color coloring.

    Have a great day,

    Doug

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    1. I have it all planned to do so. Thanks and back at ya!

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  5. I never heard of this. I wanna check it out.

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    1. This one is a real time capsule. What I'm discovering reading these vintage Kirby's this time is that there's more thematic depth than I noticed before.

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  6. Kirby really worked in the Treasury size; it's a shame there weren't more with original content. Imagine an entire series, like the Eternals or even Devil Dinosaur in tabloid format.

    As to coloring, what bothers me is when the updated coloring obscures or overpowers the original art, or conflicts with the original intentions. A lot of the old comic art was done with the old technology in mind. It's a distraction to have a collection of Kirby's beautiful Tales of Asgard series where Thor's nose has been airbrushed to resemble that of a Barbie Doll, and all of the psychedelic armor has been muted into Zack Snyder-style earth tones. Tom Scioli wrote a provocative piece demonstrating the sheer wrong-headed damage done to Barry Windsor-Smith's Conan in the Dark Horse reprints. Just because we have the technology to do something doesn't always mean we know how to use it.

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    1. I like what looks good. Sometimes that stuff works (I like the Tales of Asgard changes) and other times it's less successful (the Conan stories you reference). Reprints can come in two ways, to preserve the original intent or to create something for a new audience with different expectations.

      About the treasuries and Kirby - you are 100% correct! Just looking at treasury size issues of the Kirby Collector made year yearn for more stuff in that style. He was a man with big ideas who needed a big canvas.

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