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This is the first reprint of a series of essays I wrote ten or so years ago about various works by the great American cartoonist Jack Kirby. It is probably of little interest to most, so you can skip it if you want; I am reprinting them after a disagreement with [profile] johncwright. It is rather reworked, and, I hope, improved.
Any defence of an unpopular idea (such as that Kirby's 1975-78 period shows no "decline" in the master's poetic power) should deal first with the hardest issues. Now, while Devil Dinosaur is the most commonly quoted instance of this "decline", it is in fact from Kirby's last run of Captain America that the most solid arguments for a "decline" may be drawn.

There is a real problem here. There is a larger proportion of feeble work in this series than in any other of the period: I am going to make no argument for C.A.Annual #4, and little for the Madbomb run (#'s 193-200). The latter is an inconsistent item, uneasily joining the hardly credible idea of a self-proclaimed "elite" seeking to set up some sort of aristocratic rule by means of a super-weapon, with a tissue of allusions to transient fads of the time, which say next to nothing about the American experience as such.

Kirby’s inker Mike Royer used to maintain that the natural Kirby audience, the public for which the King and he worked, is that of 12-year-olds; and it's true - I can say it with confidence - that, for such readers, the Madbomb series works well. I remember, at 12, being entranced by Italian Disney stories using much the same sort of devices - "ancestors" of the heroes who look and act exactly like them, blatant references to fashionable movies and fads, etc.: 12-year-olds wouldn't see the socio-political questions that the concept of the "elite" asks of older readers - who are these people, where did they get their wealth and their plans? - nor would they be troubled by the questions of reincarnation and/or heredity in the similarity of ancestors and descendants. To them, the story would be simply a grand riot of American images, leading to a climax (#200) which even enemies of Kirby and cynics like me must admit is beautifully paced and imaginatively detailed (the elite having "an evil George Washington for a butler", for instance, is an idea of the first rank).

But what I want to argue is that the King is more than just a great children's artist. Yet, far from reaching the level of genius one expects, the story does not even read as well for adults as the best kind of children's comics do. No intelligent adult is ill at ease with, say, Barks or Goscinny-Uderzo. Kirby appears here just as a capable worker in the field, not quite of the first rank, and certainly not the majestic genius he is. The truth is that he said all he had to say about his country in the Marvel Treasury Edition Captain America's Bicentennial Battles. One Cap Bicentennial tale had exhausted, for the moment, his imagination on the subject; the evanescent feel of the regular-series story is simply due to the fact that he could not produce the same ideas twice. We see then that Kirby can't just repeat the same idea on demand: stories and series are events to him, not products to be cranked out.

It is, however, with the following issues (#'s 201-214) that the real problem arises. I don't speak of the oft-repeated red herring of the "silliness" of Kirby's ideas: let readers still bamboozled by that silly (yes) charge think how important silliness is in many of the most glorious moments of our artform - Crumb and most underground cartoonists, Herriman, Segar, Sam Kieth, Steve Gerber. Will anybody who has read ÂKrazy KatÀ - or Gerber's Defenders - or The Maxx - complain about Brother Peach Pie - let alone Agron - because the concept, as such, is "silly"? Well, then!

There is no silliness in Kirby’s attitudes. When Steve Englehart hinted that the Marvel Universe' Richard Nixon was a villain in a cowl and eye slits, fans praised the maturity and relevance of this silly tacked-on plot twist. When Kirby built a whole Captain America story on a striking, realistic view of Latin American military tyrants - pitting the image of America against a cruel prison commander - nobody even noticed. Yet Englehart had done nothing else than to exploit headlines to pep up a messy, overlong Secret Empire multi-parter: it took no courage at all to attack Tricky Dickie when he was already being impeached, yet he did not even dare show his face - and what "relevance" does it have to Nixon's real crimes to make him a supervillain? Kirby, on the other hand, was quite recklessly brave in dealing with a subject that most Americans find uncomfortable. Kirby's perceptions are sometimes bizarre, but when he gets hold of a stick, he usually gets the right end. His views on military dictators were already formed when, as a shy twenty-year-old cartoonist, he drew an editorial cartoon with Hitler as a monstrous python gorged on Czechoslovakia, and explained to an angry editor - who asked why an unknown Lower East Side kid should presume to comment on abstruse foreign policy matters - that he knew gangsters when he saw them.

His views haven't changed. The Swine's agents have the classic Kirby signifiers of the gangster - heavy black moustaches, slouchy hats, long thin mouths; his officers are no different from gang leaders like Black Panther's Scarpa; he himself is a thin-faced, round-glassed nerd, inadequate and cruel. Even Kirby's almost naive courage is the same: as he did not think himself unsuited to comment on Hitler at twenty, so he did not think at sixty that there was anything particularly daring about the implicit political stance of the Swine story. To him a gangster is a gangster is a gangster - whatever his relationship to Washington or Moscow or Berlin. For this reason, it was not hard for him to imagine foreign agents violating American sovereignty, violently kidnapping their victim in front of a crowd, endangering witnesses with loaded guns, and finally abducting Steve Rogers for no other reason than to feed a victim to their leader's sadistic lusts; gangsters would, so why not political thugs? And in this, surely, he is right.

The story suffers from a grave blemish where it can least afford it. A boxed-in Captain is "rescued" - so to speak! - by a monster, leading to the the introduction of Arnim Zola, a monstrous self-dehumanized creature who has advanced genetic science enough to mold life as he likes. This is not just convenient: it is absurd, not led up to, not prepared. These stories show a fantastic, and increasingly powerful, narrative tension and artistic splendour, at the same time as they show an increasingly poor grip of plot. Their beauty increases - up to the splendours of the Arnim Zola sequence, #'s 209-212 - just as their coherence decreases. The Zola sequence itself suffers from an inexcusable original sin, being dragged in by the ears to interrupt another beautiful story (Cap's clash with The Swine, a Latin American prison camp commander) in which Kirby appears to deliberately box in the Captain just in order to bring in Zola's monster as a Deus ex machina - a plotting device that would disgrace the worst of Stan Lee.

Yet let anybody look at the drawing and tell me that the King was not working at the height of his artistic ability. Every line of stupendous artwork in these issues cries to Heaven that the greatest cartoonist who ever lived was powering ahead with a commitment not seen since the suppression of his great epic. Nor can we say that poor plotting was a feature of Kirby's style of this period: let whoever thinks so study The Eternals #'s 1-13. No; there was something about the nature of this particular series that made Kirby's plot burst at the seams. What was it?

II

We can begin to explain this (and, incidentally, provide a framework for the analysis of all Kirby series) by expanding on a previous remark: that to Kirby, every story is an event. He says that he is often as surprised as anybody by what turns up on the page (Evanier interview, ÂAmazing Heroes À#100). He is not capable of recycling stock plots in different series; although he has, like any experienced professional, a quiver-ful of stock devices, he does not base his approach on them mechanically, but allows each story or series to develop under his fingers as it will, according to its own internal logic. What then was the internal logic that made Captain America reel from pillar to plotting post while Eternals or Machine Man show tight and discipined writing?

The peculiar atmosphere of a story is given by the setting; and if we examine Kirby's series of the period, we find that the setting of each is striking and characteristic. Eternals, for instance, is set largely at the uninhabitable limits of our planet, where men could not survive: on mountain-tops, beneath the seas, in outer space. Where the Gods come down on more-or-less inhabitable ground - in a Peruvian temple - they proceed to fence it out to keep humans out, except for a few favoured servants. All of this prepares us for the fabulous and mythological distances of the story. Black Panther is set in the exotic rather than the fabulous distance: the lands he visits or dwells in are not the unattainable extremes of Eternals, they are human territory, but territory whose distance and difference makes it dangerous. The strip may practically be defined as not American; the few recognizably American characters are far from the American norm, because of crime (the gang boss Scarpa, fleeing America for Corsica) or immense amoral wealth (the aged billionaire Silas); or else, like the film crew in #8, are out to set themselves in an exotic context - only to find more than they bargained for.

These settings amount almost to genres, imposing their discipline on the material, giving it internal logic and character. You would not expect the Black Panther to stray into Olympia during his wanderings; but if he did, it would be a curiously diminished and altered Olympia, no longer the place of semi-religious awe it was in its own series, but more like the "one big minefield" that is King Solomon's tomb in B.P.#4, made rather for heart-in-mouth, breathless adventure and discovery than for slow-moving awe. You couldn't say of it, as Karkas unforgettably says in Eternals #12: "The shadows hide nothing but the cool breeze... there are no enemies... in paradise!"

(So much, by the way, for those who claim that Kirby cannot write good English; he can write like Keats when he puts his mind to it).

What, then, are the typical settings of Captain America? They are - America; not even the hills and highways of Machine Man, which might be called a superhero road movie, America the continent-nation of vast distances and people always on the move; but a city America of respectably settled citizens, where people called Steve and Sam have lunch in the house of a girl called Leila (C.A.#193) or go out together to dine in what seems a Mexican restaurant (C.A.#206). Steve Rogers stays in a hotel room and watches old sci-fi movies of an evening (C.A.#204-205). Even if T'challa ever visited the U.S.A., you can't possibly imagine him like that: his constant royal dignity - in B.P.#7 he claims diplomatic immunity with such power as to convince a hostile king - would by no means agree with slouching in a chair, with a drink by his elbow, killing time in front of the idiot box, mulling over his problems with his girlfriend. For that matter, can anybody imagine T'challa's love affairs in the messy and highly human terms that Sharon and Steve's take - with her trying to make him give up his job, and him spouting psychobabble at her (C.A.#206, pp.22-23)? No: he would court with heroic and dignified ardour some distant and dangerous princess, in lofty and elaborately decorated halls - not squabble in a hotel lobby and up the elevator.

But this staid America is the most dangerous of all Kirby's settings. Violence and terror explode literally out of nowhere, without any warning. The opening of #193 sets the scene for the whole series: four friends are dining together - then suddenly one of them snatches a knife and lunges at the others. From then on, horror and danger are everywhere: maniacs from another dimension abduct and brainwash people, a hospital ward is torn apart by the sudden fury of a corpse, a waiter is seized and beaten by foreign political thugs in the middle of a crowded restaurant, two lovers are gassed in their own hotel rooms as they argue such mundane matters as career choice, and one of them wakes up thousands of miles away, kidnapped for no reason other than to placate the sadistic lusts of a minor official in a military tyranny. Everywhere, the idea of normalcy is revealed as a self-indulgent deception born of equal doses of folly (the by-standers in #205, pp.17-23, who treat Cap's battle with the dreadful Agron as a joke), complacency (Cap himself in #206,inclined to believe the violent kidnapping of Felix is a regular police arrest until the evidence forces him to change his mind), and a positive intention not to know and not to allow to be known how frail and thin this supposed normalcy really is, and what cosmic forces it is at the mercy of (the officials and military brass at the end of C.A. Annual #3, deciding to cover-up the appalling visitation from the stars that nearly devoured Cap himself). As Kirby once said, "we have a fetish for putting up walls... we decorate them, make them livable..." - but those walls are the thinnest kind of shelter from reality. The definite, almost formal settings of the more exotic series - and in particular of The Eternals - place evil and danger within recognizable frameworks: the Deviants are beings of such a kind, the Eternals another, the Celestials yet another; one kind of society exists beneath the ocean, another on mountaintops. But in Captain America's world, where danger of both the meanest and the most fabulous description does not so much lurk as explode everywhere, anywhere, the internal discipline imposed by the setting of the more exotic series does not exist.

(It is perhaps a part of this negative view of “normality” that the Captain himself turns out to be rather ineffective. In all the stories written by Kirby, he never scores a definite victory. In the Madbomb, Agron, Arnim Zola/Red Skull and Perfect Man stories he is helped, and often saved, by the US military or by Shield; in the Night People, Swine and Arnim Zola/Red Skull ones he is clearly overpowered and lucky to survive. This reminds us of the sad fate of Captain Cosmic in 2001 #6, and suggests that the greatest superhero author of all time had become rather sceptical about the image of the superhero.)

Do you see where this argument is heading? We asked why this series grew in power and splendour even as it declined in coherence. Now we find that the nature of the series, set in a world whose rules are fallacious - a world which pretends to be staid and organized when the slightest jolt will expose it to dreadful, chaotic forces - bears the risk of incoherence in its very nature! Kirby looks at his own world - the New York City he himself knows - and the threats and possibilities just multiply in his mind. Far from showing a tired talent, this astonishing series is the product of a man whose genius riots with so many images and ideas that he sometimes is unable to keep them in order. No wonder that a frustrated King complained in one interview that Captain America and Eternals "were all headed towards things that would astonish you"! If the sheer rage of fertility these few issues display was still alive in him when he was removed from C.A. - or when Eternals was cancelled - or when, in despair, he left Marvel in the middle of a powerful Black Panther story - the shock of deprivation, the rudely interrupted inventive flow, must have been of a magnitude that lesser minds can scarcely comprehend.

IV

Kirby's Captain America is, of course, first of all an imaginative feat, with few obvious "relevant" allusions; except, as everyone knows, for the remarkably bold Swine story, where the great man not only shows Latin American tyrannies in the most justifiably revolting light, but had their agents outrageously violating American soil to kidnap a harmless escapee. (Compare this with the indecisive, uncommitted and basically ignorant light in which other writers present the problems of countries in which, after all, America is the main foreign influence!)

But in the light of my remarks on the city-American setting of the whole work, and of the terrors that constantly menace it, we can no longer regard this story, in which the great embodiment of American values describes America's allies as "these two-bit dictatorships" in which bullies like the Swine flourish, as an anomalous item in an escapist fantasy. We must look on the whole series as the reaction of Kirby's luxuriant transforming fantasy to the things he saw in his own world.

We must start by noticing that this story is not just the obvious and merely topical comment on Latin American military tyrannies that Englehart would have made if he'd had the nerve (he didn't). In subtle ways, without making its point too obvious, it ties the local and (hopefully) temporary conditions of Third World dictatorships with another evil, gangsterism, inviting the reader to see the common factors of two kinds of organization that torture and murder for pleasure and openly disregard the law, exploding into the lives of ordinary people with the unexpected violence of a brawl in a restaurant or the hideous subtlety of gas seeping in a closed room. This shows the timeless factors behind events in time; and timeless stories are what the King, in his interview The Jack Kirby Quarterly #1, has explicitly said he aimed for.

The Agron story (C.A. #204-205) is more purely imaginative, and less easy to lead back to purely social or political thinking. Yet it has its part in Kirby's imaginative exposition of the plight of organized society: opening in a hospital - a frontline post of society's war against death and natural forces - it gives a terrifying and unforgettable picture of a sudden break in that normalcy which even Cap - held, at that point in the story, by his personal concerns - was taking far too much for granted. After all, any picture of human society which limits itself to social fact alone is bound to be woefully lacking: society lives in a far larger world in space and time, and frightful visitations like the bubonic plague, far beyond its control or its bounds, might change it without warning. The worldwide terror of AIDS is a perhaps exaggerated reminder that such things are possible.

Yet even in this terrible cosmic, trans-human context, the Captain lives and acts as a man among men - stupid men who ask why he shouln't be fighting Doctor Doom instead; frightened men who realize they are in the presence of something terrible; careless men who keep driving by as Agron throws their own great hero under their wheels; but also organized men who are capable of working and finding an answer to the single terror before them - caging it, if not putting an end to it. Compare this episode to the similar Hatch 22 story in Black Panther #2-3: would the light-hearted sight of the hero doing push-ups in front of the man from the future be conceivable here? Would the swift action of professional adventurers like the Panther, Princess Zanda and Mister Little suit the climate or the meaning of this story? No: this may not be a sociological story, but it definitely is a story whose point is about society.

Yes, I can hear people asking, but what about the Night People? What indeed: what can be the societal significance of a self-organized band of lunatics, exiling themselves from humanity at large, brainwashing new members, orgainzing their own violent and isolated society, only to be overwhelmed with terrible force by the hatred they themselves have unleashed? What does this idea have to tell us about American and human society, the reader might ask. A single word might answer - Waco. America is peculiarly prone to forming little groups of fanatics - often insane in the medical sense of the word - who insulate themselves from the rest of the world, and as often as not have to be broken up after their acts - violence, theft, or most often sexual crime - made them intolerable to society at large. But it is not even a matter of America alone, or of religious or political extremism; let no-one who has not lived in a house-share in this country and suddenly seen his or her neighbours, people who hardly knew each other before, coming together, encouraging each other to believe obvious nonsense. Let no-one presume to speak who hasn't found him or herself in the lamentable position of being a single voice of reason among those who are busy convincing themselves. Yes, there are parts of our society, here, now, which amount to madhouses; in which it is a very bad idea indeed not to consent to lunacy.

Even more astonishing, and indicative of the lonely intellectual worlds in which Kirby’s thoughts had wandered, is that Kirby explicitly connects this building of an insane, insulated society with the settling of the American West and especially of Texas. I do not think that this is intended to be a basic attack on America or American history; if it were, Kirby would have given a more sympathetic account of the vicious monsters who live in the part of space where the Night People are trying to settle. The restricted and brainwashed perspectives of the Night People are exactly mirrored in the unreasoning violence of their enemies, and there is no positive end to this story at all. It cannot be read as an allegory – no man of sense (and Kirby has a lot of sense to underlie the strangeness of his imagination) would possibly cast Anglo settlers as a gang of escapees from a lunatic asylum and Injuns as a pack of inhuman monsters. It is more in the nature of “how would it be if…?”; a concentration of all the “bad thoughts” about settlement and colonization that one does not want to think in the course of a national celebration, in fact a sort of dark imaginative shadow cast by the Bicentennial celebrations that had dominated Kirby’s work on Cap for much of 1976.

All these things come together with the force of a nightmare in the Arnim Zola story (C.A. 209-212). This is both the best and the worst sequence in the whole series. Its sudden lurching apparition in the middle of the unrelated Swine story, though not a good idea, can be under- stood as a part of Kirby's whole dangerous Captain America world, where no situation may ever be taken for granted - even a bad one; hero, heroine and villains thought they knew where they were - and suddenly something far more horrible and uncontrollable is on them. What has frankly no excuse is the string of appalling plot holes that rip through the texture of the narration like a machine-gun volley. Bank- rolled by the Red Skull, Zola proposes to use Steve Rogers' face for Adolf Hitler's brain. SHIELD, however, is investigating, and SHIELD agent Sharon (Cap's lover) stumbles on the Skull. He flies her to Zola's castle in the Alps, where, meanwhile, Donna Maria has thrown at Zola a chemical which turned out to be explosive. As the whole castle (which is organic - it's Zola's grandest experiment) groans chain-reaction explosions, Cap, the Skull and the two girls face off; Cap is blinded, and the Skull almost manages to murder him, but an explosion separates them.

Marvel at the time had no editorial structure, and it shows. It is frankly incredible that nobody returned the pages to Kirby for rewriting, or at least rewrote them in the office: the story as we have it is as crazy as it is could be without actually losing panel-to panel continuity. When he realizes that Cap is missing, the Falcon flies off to no possible purpose, stumbles on a monster, and is rescued off-panel, wasting our and Kirby's time; Arnim Zola refers to a conversation with the Red Skull that never took place - the Skull was interrupted by Sharon before he could tell his accomplice what to do with the hero; and Cap and Donna Maria recognize two monsters they never saw before - they were thrown into a cell before Zola formed them out of Doughboy.

Yet even discounting the towering and incomparable artwork - Kirby's best of the period, among his best ever - these miserably plotted issues are, each of them, scripted to stunning effect, orchestrated like symphonies. If you read each single issue without thinking of the overall plot, the design, what I call the orchestration, of each issue, is memorable. It would take too long to list all the strokes of genius in storytelling, characterization, drawing, even dialogue; but to mention only one - the Red Skull's entrance in #212, page 22, is the ultimate demonstration of Kirby's expressive power. His speech is lettered bold, not because he's shouting, but because, at that moment - among the ruin of his plans, facing the suffering he caused - it could not but have the impact of a blow. Well might the blinded Captain say, "I'd know that malevolent voice in a howling storm"! The Skull's whole personality is memorable. He's always in control, reacting to events with speed and subtlety. There is no doubt at all that, in front of the quiveringly tense Sharon, he is the one who has the edge. Yet he is bitter, mean, vengeful; his hate is drawn on his face in the unforgettable top two panels of #212, p. 27. He is, in short, the Devil. Sharon repeatedly describes him as Satan, and at one point asks: "Has there ever been a mooment when someone hasn't suffered at your hands?", and she points a gun at him. And he reacts as the Devil would, by quoting Scripture for his own purposes: only a Nazi could pull that trigger, he says, and the answer works - he halts Sharon's murderous rage in its tracks.

We may well interpret this story as Cap's descent to Hell. It is no coincidence that, in the opening pages of the next issue, Cap sees the Skull as the eternal enemy. Indeed, for the first (and last) time in the series, the writing describes the thing he faced as "evil", pure and simple: villainy has had its hour, and now it passes, leaving behind familiar by-products: death, Âdestruction and injury... the fall-out of evil. Even the brave must pay for risking its touch! Kirby had not spoken in those terms of the Night People, or Agron, or even the Swine.

I can say that the impact of #212 on me was enormous when I read it in an Italian reprint twenty-four years ago, and it is enormous still. With all its imperfections on its head - imperfections that must have made even friendly readers groan for what Kirby would not have at any cost, an editor - this is as clearly a work of genius, however wayward, as anything Kirby ever did.

It was, for all practical purposes, Kirby's last word on his most enduring character. Two issues later, he left or was forced out of the title. There had been a strong feeling in certain quarters that Kirby's period on Cap was a backwards-looking aberration; surely, the anti-Kirby lobby must have said, now the old man is out the good times can come back! - meaning the somewhat overrated Englehart period. People are prone to praising "golden ages that never existed", as John Major would put it; and the Englehart period had in any case run out of steam before Kirby came back - the last few issues had been inferior, messy, and not by Englehart. What happened was that, with the King's driving force removed, the title sank into a morass of substandard stories, whirling musical-chairs writers and artists, and desperate fill-ins, from which it was not rescued until three years had elapsed and a particularly cretinous team had seen fit to pointlessly murder Sharon - a character who had, in Kirby's hands, been vital and exciting.

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