This is another old cover that triggers no nostalgia for me, because I got my copy of CAPTAIN AMERICA #208 out of one of those plastic-wrapped packages of coverless comics sold by my local Drug Store. These were books where the covers had been stripped and returned to the publisher for credit, but the insides were also sold off rather than being destroyed as they were meant to. There was a ton of corruption and underhanded dealing in the newsstand distribution market of the 1970s, one of the (but far from the only) reasons why comic books as a product seemed destined for extinction. Fortunately, the evolution of the Direct Sales marketplace of comic book specialty stores gave publishers a viable way out, and here we still are today.
Now this splash page, on the other hand, evokes the sort of response typically reserved with me for a cover, since it functioned as the defacto cover of my copy. This issue was right in the middle of Jack Kirby’s tenure as both the writer and artist on CAPTAIN AMERICA–a run that I was a bit cold to during that era, but whose strengths are more apparent to me today. Even then, though, there was always something compelling about Kirby’s comics, the power of his massive visuals, even if the language often had a cadence that made it uncomfortable to my ear. For all of that, these Kirby stories feel a lot more solidly put together than a bunch of what would follow–safer but less inspired material.
This issue features the wrap-up of Kirby’s story involving the Swine, a brutal South American prison camp commandant. One almost gets the idea that Kirby got bored with where the Swine story was heading, as he takes a sharp left turn into his next key subject matter: genetic manipulation and engineered life forms. And so it is that the issue opens with Cap, having escaped from the Swine’s compound, being attacked by a horrific creature from out of somebody’s nightmares. There’s no real preamble for this thing being there, it just is, and it attacks, in a classic Kirby double-page spread. Despite the fact that the Marvel books of this era only contained 17 pages of story, Kirby routinely opened with this splash page-into-a-double splash page configuration–and nobody was better at it.
Cap is overmatched by the strange man-fish’s brute power, but fortunately for him, a platoon of the Swine’s men show up to drive it off with their firearms. Unfortunately for Cap, they’re here to recapture him for the Swine, and drag him back to imprisonment. But facing down impossible odds is Cap’s meat when they’re human, and so he begins to tear his way through the Swine’s men with little effort. Elsewhere, Leila, Sam Wilson’s girlfriend, is on hand as SHIELD gets another report of a strange creature having been discovered–reports which are all collected in the mysterious File 116. The Falcon has been dispatched to investigate this sighting, and he comes upon an enormous bird’s nest that doesn’t bode well for him should the homeowner return unexpectedly.
Back in the jungle, the Swine himself has turned up with reinforcements, determined to hunt down Captain America whom he refers to as “Tiger.” Cap gives a typical good accounting for himself, but then sips up and falls into a pit trap. With the upper hand, the Swine intends to burn Cap with a flamethrower, but his own cousin Donna Maria intervenes, cutting the fuel line and saving Cap from a horrible fate. In retribution, the Swine hurls Donna Maria into the pit with Cap–which turns out to be a blessing in disguise, because at this point the Man-Fish from the opening of the issue resurfaces, and proceeds to slaughter the Swine and his men (all off-camera, of course–this was a Comics Code-approved book, and Kirby didn’t roll that way in any event.)
As the carnage abates, Cap and Donna Maria are able to fashion a makeshift ladder of stepping stones and climb out of the pit. But the Man-Fish hasn’t departed the area, and Cap has no choice but to close with the creature in order to safeguard his own and the girl’s lives. But his strength and skill is no more effective this time than they had been at the outset. Things look bad–and then suddenly, the Man-Fish turns and withdraws back to the nearby river. Cap and Donna Marian are both stunned by this turn in their favor–Donna Maria likens it to a dog obeying the whistled commands of his master. And then a sudden voice confirms this analysis.
And the issue closes on the introduction of one of Kirby’s most fantastical and memorable creations, Arnim Zola, the Bio-Fanatic. He’s used an ultrasonic device to cause the Man-Fish, his creation, to withdraw–but what he means for Cap and Donna Maria is a mystery for a subsequent issue. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Arnim Zola upon reading this story for the first time. His strange, headless visual with its chest-mounted camera-face weirded me out. But there was also something fascinating about him. A lot of Kirby’s self-dialogued work during this decade had a similar repel-but-attract effect on me.