Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Review: Captain America's Bicentennial Battles by Jack Kirby

It's become a tradition for bloggers to bring out Captain America for July 4th. I am sure the most common post showcases the 1976 Marvel Treasury Special, Captain America's Bicentennial Battles. Even though I was a rabid Marvel collector in the 70s, I never read this special until last week, the digital version Captain America by Jack Kirby: Bicentennial Battles (which also includes Captain America 201-205).

Mister Buda

Why didn't I read it? Basically because I was holding me nose up against a lot of Kirby's new work. I was being snooty and elitist. It looked corny. Being overly patriotic wasn't a thing in the 1970s, after the debacle of Richard Nixon. But I was wrong. This Treasury tale is a superb and subversive! The artwork is grand, among the best of Kirby's mid-seventies return to Marvel. It gets crazy from page one, where Cap visits a cool cat named Mister Buda, a mystical being who has undefined powers. He is also good at transcendental meditation, which was a big 70s fad in California, where Kirby lived. I am sure he was inspired by that.

Capt America Smith inks Kirby

The main thrust of this story is to send Captain America bouncing around in time, visiting different eras of the past that influenced the United States. Mister Buda gives Cap this gift without his permission, the gift of knowledge of the human condition throughout time. His first stop? World War 2, where he drops directly into Nazi headquarters.

Cap Bucky reunited Barry Smith inks

In a surprisingly moving scene, Cap is briefly reunited with Bucky in the past. It was so touching that now I regret Marvel reviving Bucky. The inkers for this oversized volume are Barry Smith, John Romita and Herb Trimpe. Smith inked the first part of the story in Nazi land, and you can definitely see his embellishment style here, with his signature touches on Cap's chainmail and the forest as they make their escape. Sadly, Cap is torn away from Bucky after a way too brief encounter.

Capt America hand symbol illuminati

There are lots of great splash pages in this special, as you would expect from Jack Kirby. I love this one where he shouts "We're all Americans!" before he is torn from a past encounter. The symbol on his palm is the magic imbued by Mister Buda to transport him through time. It looks a bit like an Illuminati symbol.

Capt America ripped off by Benjamin Franklin

There is also a lot of humor in this book as well as angst. He takes a trip back in time to 1776 where he meets Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross, who take one look at Cap and start making sketches. It turns out the first USA flag was inspired by Cap's costume, which freaks him out to no end.

Kirby appears in past as newsboy

Another humorous scene involves a trip to the 1930s where he encounters a boy selling newspapers in Brooklyn. Some mafia gangsters try to steal a paper and Cap - who, like Kirby, hates bullies - yanks them out of the car violently. The mobsters start shooting, and Cap protects the boy and fights back. You wonder what Kirby is going for here. Is this an homage to the Newsboy Legion, the terrific series he did for DC Comics and which he recently revived in Jimmy Olsen? No. It turns out the boy selling newspapers is Kirby himself! "When I get to be a big-shot artist, I'm gonna plaster Lefty's mug all over the comic pages!"

Capt America shallow

Among the craziness and humor there is a message. This isn't about all the best patriotic moments in America. At one point, Cap gets tired of bouncing around the past and asks for it to stop. I was kind of shocked to see Mister Buda accuse Cap of being too shallow to learn about the history of the USA. It's shocking because this is a character Kirby co-created to be a patriotic symbol. He is not reluctant to shake this character up and do wild crazy things with him. I thought only the young guys like Starlin or Englehart were the subversives at Marvel in the 1970s. I was wrong. Kirby was one of them, too, perhaps an even greater one.

Capt America trying to stop slaughter of Indians

Cap drops in on an American Indian band of fighters led by Geronimo, on the run from a American Calvary. He tries to help them out by talking sense into the Calvary men, to no avail. This wonderful massive double page spread is the result. He doesn't stop ever tragedy from happening. All he can do is bear witness to them. He also encounters a slave trying to escape his masters and a future war on the moon.

I came away from reading this volume utterly delighted. Jack Kirby did the crazy trippy 2001 A Space Odyssey adaption earlier in another Treasury edition format. The Bicentennial Battles Treasury is Captain America's Odyssey. Nuff Said!


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  2. Just finished reading it, pulled from my old collection I haven't looked at in decades. It took me back to simpler time. I was surprised how "subversive" the messages about America were in '76. It gives you an impression that the writer was fairly progressive for the era, if a bit patronizing at times. Although it's terrific message overall, "we're ALL Americans" is a message America could really use in the current age. Although, it probably rang just as needed in the era it was written.

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