Friday, July 3, 2015

The Nation Stands!

Marvel Comics in 1975 was losing steam, when Jack "King" Kirby agreed to return to the "House of Ideas", which had been mostly his as it turns out.

It was not as big a bombshell when Kirby returned alas as it was when he originally left, since there was a general sense of inevitability about the whole thing. Kirby was not interested by and large in returning to his old haunts such as the Fantastic Four and Thor, but wanted to do new things such as The Eternals and Devil Dinosaur.

But there was an exception made for Captain America. Cap had been under the control of writer Steve Englehart and artists Sal Buscema and Frank Robbins for several years, but Englehart had recently left creating a void. Kirby came in and largely ignored much of the topical continuity that Englehart had laid down in the preceding issues.

The Captain America and Falcon of this new way forward were not as angst ridden as they had been under previous writers, and they were very comfortable working in sync with the government, specifically SHIELD.

 They are driven to join forces with the United States government when a threat to the whole nation is revealed dramatically enough  as a wave of inexplicable hate overcomes both Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson as well as a large part of New York City itself. Struggle and destruction ensued and amid that rubble they are told of the secret conspiracy to destroy the whole nation with a sonic bomb dubbed "Big Daddy", an ICBM-sized device which would throw the country into an orgy of self-destruction.

Behind this scheme is a group of self-absorbed "one percenters" who dub themselves "The Elite". Cap and the Falcon track them into the western "Badlands" and find an underground complex in which a distorted society has reared itself, built on exalted privilege for a few and fueled by greed for those left to support those at the top. It's an Orwellian world in which hate is equated with love. Cap and Falcon are discovered by a girl named Cheer Chadwick, the daughter of William Taurey, the man behind this foul scheme to rid the country of the Constitution and return it to a monarchy with Taurey and his allies at the top.

They fight in a brutal gladitorial contest and alongside the U.S. military are able to bring down the "Badlands" complex. But "Big Daddy" has been moved. By finding its creator, a man named Mason Harding, they hope to find the bomb. But Harding is motivated by the love for his daughter who is overcome by a fatal disease. He is hidden by the Elite as Cap and Falcon and SHIELD descend on their hiding place. But eventually they learn that the bomb is hidden in Philadelphia and the Falcon leads a team to stop it. Cap on the other hand goes to a rich estate to confront Taurey and his Elite colleagues. It's a desperate battle, but it is one at the end of which, as Cap says "The Nation Stands".

I well remember being disappointed by this storyline when I first read it, since it seemed to lack the topicality which had dominated Cap stories of the recent past. But now I see a more subtle symbolism in this yarn which escaped my literal-oriented noggin at that time.

 The "Madbomb" in its shape and function at once stands for the nuclear might which both the U.S. and some other few countries wield, and the effect that awesome power might inflict on the psyche of the public. The concept of "M.A.D." (Mutually Assured Destruction) was a sword of Damocles which hung over the world for decades (and still does actually though we don't confront it nearly as much as we once did in those old "Cold War" times). That fear could easily be manipulated into self-destructive fury.

The world of the "Elites" is remarkable in that they hate democracy, the empowering of the masses. The desire to concentrate power into the hands of a few is a constant struggle in this country, in the world. For those few, currently dubbed "The One Percent", have goals and motivations which do not comport with what is best for the greater whole of humanity.

The story is somewhat simple-minded in that United States military might is offered as a solution to the problem, which while not implausible does offer up a somewhat troubling image. That the Falcon is so easily co-opted into this mindset does run counter to much of his character development which had been the focus of so many previous issues (one of the things which I was annoyed with when I first read the story in its original run).

But one thing I did notice is that the Falcon is often key in much of the story for the success of the effort to stop the Elite. Captain America seems confounded sometimes by the clash of reality and his ideals and the Falcon is able to cut through the philosophy with a no-nonsense attitude.

 The story is clearly meant to give us insights into what makes America a successful nation, and in a reverse mirror sort of way it does just that.

Be here tomorrow for more "Bicentennial Battles" of a somewhat different kind.

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  1. While I was glad to see Kirby back at Marvel, and while his Cap stories were entertaining enough reads, they seemed a little dated even at the time. He was out of step with what was happening in then-current comics and I don't think he helped himself by essentially isolating his characters from the rest of the Marvel universe. (No Avengers for example.) However, anything by Kirby is always worth a look.

    1. It's a problem other comics of the period have, but Kirby's dialogue could be wacked, even at the time and sounds truly oddball now. The Falcon in particular sounds off, but the sentiments are on point. I gaining new respect for the Falcon in these stories as a matter of fact, because I see what Kirby is doing with him and I'm not so annoyed that so much rich back story was dropped when Kirby took over.

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  2. I read a TPB of these for the first time a month or two ago. They weren't great, but there was definitely something interesting about them.

    1. Interesting is a good way to describe them. I don't for a moment rate them among the King's best work, but I find more value in them now than I did then.

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