I had a kind of love-hate relationship with the work of Jack Kirby in the 1970s, in particular the work that he dialogued as well as illustrated. I wasn’t a fan of it, there was something rough and harsh and uninviting about his characters and stories and the way is people talked. But at the same time, it was graphically fascinating in some way. I hadn’t yet warmed to Kirby’s particular stylizations–the square fingers and knees, the impressionistic anatomy–and yet there was something about it all that made it memorable. This was the power of the King–even when I didn’t especially like it, I couldn’t turn away. These days, I think more highly of these comics, but at the time, they weren’t really what I was looking for in my super hero fare.
At the time, Kirby’s return to CAPTAIN AMERICA had just wrapped up, so I had missed it when I came onto following the title. But I wound up with several issues from Jack’s run along the way anyway, almost all of the purchased in the ubiquitous 3-Bags of the period. That’s where I picked up this issue, anyway. Kirby was definitely doing his own thing in these stories, eschewing the popular mainstream Marvel style to deliver an experience which was uniquely his. Even Kirby’s lettering looked different from the norm, provided as it was here by inker Mike Royer. There’s a flavor to Royer’s display lettering in particular that I strongly associate with the Kirby Marvel books of this period–just take a look at that title lettering above.
The story is a typical Kirby sci-fi spectacular. It opens with Cap and Donna Maria, the cousin of the villainous Swine whom Cap had encountered in a recent adventure, falling afoul of Arnim Zola, the Bio-Fanatic, who has been engaging in strange genetic experiments. Zola’s an old Nazi, one who used his command of genetics to rework his own body into a more durable form–one with no head except a sensory apparatus and with his brain safely contained in his chest, upon which a video screen creates the image of his face. He’s a fascinating design. Zola as created two new life-forms in particular: the golden ultra-human Primus and the gelatinous Doughboy.
It’s Doughboy who is able to overcome Cap and Donna Maria when Primus begins to fall, engulfing them in sticky waves of his own gloopy mass. Having captured them to use as new specimens, Zola instructs Doughboy to take them all back to Zola’s castle headquarters–and the enormous figure complies, gathering up everyone present inside his body and taking to the skies. Cap and Donna Maria are imprisoned in a dungeon–one in which the shadows start to move before them. Donna Maria turns to Cap for comfort and affection, but the star-spangled goof can only stammer in response like a Dudley Do-Right. We do get this dramatic splash page, which on the one hand doesn’t really advance the story at all, but on the other hand is almost hypnotic in its depiction of the two lead characters. Which is good, because this is the last we’re going to see of Cap this issue.
Elsewhere, searching for the missing Captain America, the Falcon gets entangled in a fight with a monstrous creature, one of the many unexplained mysteries stemming from SHIELD’s File 116–where they chronicle unexplained phenomena. Falc’s fight is anticlimactic. And at that same time, Cap’s girlfriend Sharon Carter is returning to duty as a SHIELD operative and is dispatched to interrogate Cyrus Fenton, a mysterious and reclusive billionaire whose wealth may be funding Arnim Zola and the many bizarre creatures listed in File 116.
At this point, the regular letters page shows up in the book. It’s been reported that people in the Marvel offices who weren’t enamored with what Kirby was doing on his titles (and who may have preferred it if he had been drawing stories of their design) filled up his letters pages with “knock letters.” In this instance, they have a point. The whole page is devoted to how divisive Kirby’s return to CAPTAIN AMERICA has been–and while there’s a balance of viewpoints presented, the very fact that the idea of a controversy is acknowledged and given credence plays into the situation. This is a far cry from the typically-laudatory fare that filled most Marvel letters pages. Sure, an occasional knock letter might be printed, but usually those were few and far-between.
Back at Castle Zola, Primus has become attached to Donna Maria and implores Arnim Zola not to mess around with her genetics. For his trouble, Primus finds himself forcibly merged back into Doughboy, from whom he originally sprang: “You’re like a tire that belongs to a car!” Zola enthuses on what he’s been able to create through the science of genetics, overcoming the limitations of mechanical technology by allowing his creation Doughboy to reconfigure his genetic structure into whatever he needs. As a concrete example, he has Doughboy extrude a communications device for him, on which he contacts his benefactor: the Red Skull. The Skull is immediately interested to learn that Zola has captured Captain America.
But before Zola can finish his report, the Skull is alerted to the approach of a SHIELD air car at his doorstep, and he breaks contact with Zola and assumes his disguise. For, you see, he is posing as Cyrus Fenton, and Sharon Carter is unsuspectingly walking into his lair. To Be Continued! It has to be said that the pacing on this issue seems idiosyncratic to me even today. Kirby’s books of this period often felt somewhat like he started on Page One and ten just ran forward in a straight line until he ran out of pages. The cliffhanger isn’t much, and we lose Cap halfway through the issue and only get the Falcon for three perfunctory pages. Kirby did always finish his issues with a final caption panel teasing what was to come next, and those always seemed important and dramatic, as this one touting Nazi X does.