I’m pretty sure that this issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA came out of the same 3-Bag as yesterday’s issue of INVADERS. It represents, among other things, my first real exposure to the writing of Jack Kirby. I had read a few Kirby stories before–an issue of KAMANDI several years earlier, a reprint of a Golden Age Sandman story, and more recently reprinted issues of FANTASTIC FOUR. And I was aware of his output–you couldn’t help but notice his covers in the house ads DC ran in those days. I wasn’t ever truly interested in the subject matter–I was a bit too literal in wanting super heroes in my comics–but even so, images like Kamandi walking out of a destroyed Chicago or OMAC taking on a city of the super-rich stayed with me.
Jack Kirby is my all-time favorite comic book creator, and I’ve got a special affection for the 1970s and 1980s work which he wrote himself. He was tackling ideas and expressing a point of view unlike anything anybody was doing at that time. But to be honest, these books were very much an acquired taste for me. Initially–like when I first got this issue–I didn’t like them. There was something very harsh, very coarse about them that I couldn’t quite describe. I never felt like I got an entry point into the characters and what they were doing and why–an entry point that made me care about them. The art, too, was more impressionistic, without the smooth lines of Joe Sinnott rounding off Kirby’s sharp edges. This was a much truer Kirby representation, but in 1977 I didn’t like it. For all that, though, panels and images would stick to my ribs.
The scene above is one. But before we get to that, let’s backtrack. The issue opens with Cap reunited with the Falcon and his girlfriend Leila, whose memories have returned after last month’s adventure in which they were stricken with amnesia. The trio sets out for home, but Cap is worried about is relationship with Sharon Carter, as Sharon would prefer that he put all of this super hero stuff behind him. From there, we cut to a prison in Central America where the Commandant, known as the Swine, is brought two prisoners who have been causing trouble. When the men claim that they’re simply starved, the Swine offers one all he can eat from his own table–and forces the man to eat himself to death. It’s a horrifying sequence, and Kirby was talking about something he knew very well, Nazis, through the lens of what was going on in the world in the 1970s. It’s a moment of cruelty I’ve never forgotten.
Back in the States, Steve Rogers, Sam Wilson, Leila and Sharon are eating a more leisurely dinner, though the conversation inevitably turns to the dangers of Cap and Falcon in their lives as super heroes. Before things can go too far, though, a waiter is accosted by a few of the Swine’s men–seems he’s an escapee from the Swine’s prison, and they’ve come to take him back. When the lead goon pulls a gun, Cap and Falcon get involved, starting an all-out brawl with the Swine’s men.
Back in Central America, we see more of the Swine’s heartlessness. He finishes feeding the one inmate to death, ten coldly shoots the other under the pretext of him carrying plague. Out in the yard, the rest of the prisoners work at back-breaking and pointless labor, and they dream about killing the Swine. But not a one of them has the spirit to try any longer–their bodies are broken and their will shattered. Meanwhile, Steve and Sharon have headed home as the evening wraps up, unaware that they’re being shadowed by the Swine’s men. Having cost them their prize, the goons figure on capturing Steve as a replacement victim for the Swine.
As Steve and Sharon discuss their relationship–in a conversation where Sharon quite rightly tells Steve that he’s still a little boy who loves war–the Swine’s men fill the room with gas, and before they can react, both Steve and Sharon are unconscious. There’s a particularly absurd moment here where the Swine’s men realize that Steve has his shield strapped to his back under his clothes–even though there’s no earthly way it would fit there. Even in Kirby’s illustration of the moment, it seems to disappear as soon as it touches the edge of his jacket. In any event, the Swine’s men carry Steve off, intending to take him back to their master, where he can be broken like so many others. They relish the thought of the Swine getting to do his worst to a super hero.
Back in Central America, the Swine continues his rounds, showing off his cruelty. For a prisoner who complains of the weight of his burden, he gives the man a tiny fruit–and sentences him to push it with his nose for ten miles every day for a month. This, too, was a memorable moment. But the Swine has a weakness, and it is his beautiful cousin Donna Maria, who sunbathes in the compound despite his expressed orders against it. She is the one person who does not fear the Swine, and she’s waiting for the day when a real man will arrive and tear him down. And that’s where the issue ends–Kirby’s sense of pacing during this period was often idiosyncratic, and it sometimes felt as though he’d end an issue wherever he ran out of pages. So, yeah, this issue didn’t do anything to make me a regular CAPTAIN AMERICA reader nor an aficionado of Kirby’s work–but that would all come in time. It probably didn’t help that this was something of a breather issue, and the only real action took place with the heroes in civilian garb.