BHOC: CAPTAIN AMERICA #204

This was another comic that I got from my school friend Donald Sims, set smack-dab in the midst of Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel after a number of years away at DC where he innovated his Fourth World Saga, among other things. Kirby’s comeback was well touted by Marvel, but his approach–an approach which had defined the Marvel style in its earliest days–wasn’t in line with the overall aesthetic of the line (or, indeed, in line with anything else being published at that time. Kirby’s books always stood apart from the rest even when he was working for DC, both for good and ill.) And in all honesty, while I have a much greater appreciation for them today, at the time I found his stories and copy stilted, hard to get into, and off-putting, lacking in the style of characterization and whimsey that I had come to embrace as the Marvel style.

As in almost any Kirby run, his CAPTAIN AMERICA issues are bursting with new concepts and new characters, only some of which have been effectively used on a regular basis since then. Some of them were so idiosyncratic and specific to Kirby’s own vision and sense of humor that later creators actively avoided them for decades–I’m thinking in this instance of the Night People of Zero Street, two of whom we see on the opening splash page above. I wasn’t aware of the other complaint leveled against Kirby’s return to CAP at the time, which was that it was a sharp break with the storylines and characterization of the main players that had come immediately before; mainly the well-received tenure of Steve Englehart. I was coming to the title after that, but I knew that I found the book hard to get into, for all that it regularly featured visuals that would stick with me, moreso than most other books.

This particular issue opens at a SHIELD facility, where Captain America has brought the Falcon and his lady Leila after the two of them were brainwashed by the aforementioned Night People in the previous adventure. Cap’s hope is that SHIELD’s super-science can bring his partner back to himself. As they walk the halls of the facility, the lead professor Doctor Hartman tells Cap about another case they’re studying. It’s a dead body that suddenly got up and has been making attempts to move and speak. It stiltedly says that its name is Agron and that it’s from the far future. It’s a science fiction take on demonic possession, a hot topic in 1976 when this story was done. But the SHIELD team doesn’t know what to make of Agron.

Leaving the Falcon and Leila in SHIELD’s care, Cap heads out with his girlfriend Sharon Carter, alias Agent 13 of SHIELD. Depressed after visiting the bleak facility and its hopeless cases, Cap and Sharon stop off in a nearby wooded area for some communing with nature. Once again, Sharon tries to convince Cap to give up his life as a super hero because it is too dangerous–a strange thing for an Agent of SHIELD to espouse, really. It’s a typical sort of Marvel-style soap opera development, but somehow Kirby’s language is a bit stiffer and more formal than what was the norm, and the characters often feel as though they’re speaking at one another rather than to one another. Kirby’s scripting style is something of an acquired taste, and if you can click into the mindset of one of his stories and approach it on its level, it often contains nuggets of great insight and lyrical beauty. But to the young me, it was simply harder to read than other comics, harder to connect with and embrace on an emotional level. It felt like reading blueprints somehow–all of the ideas were there, but the execution of them was rough, off-putting, difficult sometimes.

Back at the SHIELD base, Agron has reawakened, and he’s more powerful than before. He throws his doctors around like rag dolls, then bursts free of the holding cell that they’ve got him in. He’s monstrously physically powerful, and his dead body is unaffected by the bullets SHIELD’s defense troops throw at him. But after a bit, Agron seems to run out of energy and he collapses to the floor–this wasn’t due to anything that the SHIELD men did, and they’re worried that if Agron comes to, they won’t be able to handle him. A frantic Doctor Hartman places a call to Steve Rogers’ apartment, where Cap is watching an old movie on television and thinking about his relationship with Sharon–and the fact that Steve Rogers and Captain America are inseparable. To love one is to love the other. But despite Hartman’s pleas for help, Cap tells him that this problem is more in the Doctor’s wheelhouse than his own, and refuses to come.

This is, honestly, kind of a crappy thing for Cap to do, but hey, he’s had a long, tiring day rescuing Leila and the Falcon from Zero Street. Anyway, after cap hangs up, Agron becomes active once more, giving off crackling energy that seems to indicate that the possessing spirit from the future has finally gained full control of the body its inhabiting. Agron is determined to break free, and so he turns his massive strength on the walls, shattering them. SHIELD’s conventional forces are helpless–one man says that only a super hero could handle this situation. Which makes Doctor Hartman recall that they’ve got a super hero right here among them–the Falcon! It’s probably a bit of malpractice to send a sick man suffering from identity-disassociation up against a powerhouse like Agron, but Doctor Hartman doesn’t feel like he’s got any other choice if lives are to be saved.

The Falcon, though, in his brainwashed state only owes his allegiance to his Brothers and Sisters on Zero Street, and Doctor Hartman has to tell him that they too are in danger in order to get him to fight. Fortunately, they let the Falcon keep his costume with all of its flying gear intact even while he was in a straitjacket for his own protection–Kirby mentions that they tried to take it from him, but Sam wouldn’t let them. So once the Falcon is freed, he’s into the fight with the much larger and much more powerful opponent. And then, the issue ends–Kirby’s stories often didn’t conclude with a particular cliffhanger or a crescendo, they simply paused when the appropriate page count was reached (or at least that’s what it often seemed like.) It would be decades before I’d finally read the second half of this two-parter.

5 thoughts on “BHOC: CAPTAIN AMERICA #204

  1. I bought Kirby’s DC work because I loved his art, and still do, but his writing etc just didn’t work for me and his return to Marvel didn’t fair much better, though I did prefer his Eternals to his DC stuff. Some of the letters in his Captain America books were a bit brutal as I remember. I guess Cap was well defined by this point and Kirby’s work just missed the mark there for some readers. The likes of Neal Adams and Roy Thomas had suggested that Jack seemed to need some help in that department, perhaps too many ideas and a need to reign them in for the betterment of the final product perhaps, I don’t know. For me, at that time his standout work was 2001 – I don’t think anyone else could have given it the kind of atmosphere that Kirby did. I think Jack could have made books without any writing and they would still have sold on his artwork alone. I know I would have bought them. Not too long ago there was a Nick Fury book that contained (IIRC) Steranko’s first tryout work over Kirby’s layouts, (only a couple of pages I think), but I bought it without knowing or caring what was in the rest of the book. I think a lot of modern artists, whilst being technically better perhaps, could still learn a lot from Kirbys layouts and how to make stuff seem to just leap off the page, even with just four simple colours and barely any background.

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  2. I recently read Marvel Team-Up #52 for the first time, and was surprised to see Gerry Conway jam a Spidey/Cap team-up in between issues of this run, right before this issue. In a story that canonically took place on the same day as PPTSM #1 and ASM #164, even. A whole lot of continuity for an issue of MTU.

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  3. Boy, its a relief to hear a comics professional comment that Kirby’s work can be an acquired taste. Without denying his unrivaled legacy, remarkable innovations and endless imagination — I struggle to appreciate his artwork the way the comics community makes me feel like I “should.”

    I feel like a philistine for confessing that I find his abstracted anatomy looks janky to my eye.

    Sometime I wonder if the godlike adulation Kirby gets now is partially due to a collective guilt we all feel for how under-recognized and under-compensated he was for his work as a creator.

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    1. I often see that said of Kirby now and it’s fine – we each have our own preferences etc when it comes to things like art and comics are no different. I think for many, you’re more likely to like Kirby if you grew up with his work or if those were the books you first started reading. I’m a fan of his art (especially the late 60s) but I’m not a zealot and don’t feel that he created everything like some do, and toward the end of his career his artwork did decline (like for most artists) and his comments/interviews seemed increasingly odd and bitter, He even said he created Superman in one interview for example. There are professionals out there that have respect for Kirby and what he did for the industry, but don’t necessarily rate his work as highly as some – especially his DC work and return to Marvel after gets mixed reviews. Neal Adams has respectfully said as much for example – some YouTube videos out there if you look. It’s even said that not long after Kirby had left Marvel the second time, incoming artists referred to him as a ‘hack’ (due to his anatomy so you’re not alone) which I find pretty astonishing if true. I think often when you grow up reading a book with a particular artists, that can define the look and feel for that book/character/team, but if you come in later, you may find the current artists has defined the characters for you, and those who came before can look old fashioned etc. I guess it’s all just a case of perception for each of us.

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  4. As a kid, I remember being of two minds on Kirby’s return to Marvel in the 1970’s. I found his work on Captain America and the Black Panther much too odd sometimes—off-putting, just as Tom says, especially compared to how those characters had been portrayed in the period just prior to the King’s return.

    On the other hand, I loved The Eternals and Machine Man (Aaron Stack/X-51 remains one of my favorite Kirby creations), so I guess I was more tolerant of Jack’s Bronze Age style in his all-new creations than on his old ones. With age and hindsight, however, I love it all now. All Hail The King!

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