This was another book I got out of a 3-Bag purchased at either a department store or a toy store, most likely the former. And it was Jack Kirby’s final issue both writing and illustrating the adventures of the character he’d helped to bring into the world three and a half decades earlier. If I’m honest, most of Kirby’s 1970s work didn’t appeal to me at the time when it was coming out. I didn’t have the life experience to click into the themes that he was exploring–my tastes tended to simpler fare, super heroes battling super-villains in clear-cut conflicts. Kirby’s books didn’t read like anybody else’s–they were paced weirdly to my mind, and the copy and dialogue didn’t have the stylistic flow of the other Marvel titles. The artwork was somehow course and rough as well, in a way that I didn’t quite understand. it was at once fascinating and repulsive to me–I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t ignore it. I was on much more comfortable ground the following issue, when Roy Thomas took over and turned CAPTAIN AMERICA back into a standard marvel title of the era.
That all said, I have a much greater appreciation of Jack’s 1970s work today, and I think it stands the test of time much better than a lot of the contemporaneous material being produced then, much of which feels derivative and empty and in some cased amateurish, and without anything meaningful to say about anything. Like it or hate it, Kirby’s work was always trying to communicate ideas about life, the nature of existence, the world that was to come, and so forth. So I can completely understand why audiences in 1977 were not all that wowed by Kirby’s return to Marvel (as was largely the prevailing wisdom of the hardcore fans of that period) but that judgment, like so many other things about that era, has changed in retrospect.
Of all the stories that Kirby produced upon his return to CAPTAIN AMERICA, this final two-parter was probably the most traditional super hero adventure in the run. And it starts with a truly great situation to put such a character in: following the end of his battle with the Red Skull two issues ago, Steve Rogers has been injured and blinded. SHIELD’s top medics are uncertain whether or not his sight will ever heal and restore itself. For a character whose whole thing is physical combat, suddenly Steve is faced with a handicap that outweighs all of his formidable battle prowess. Into this situation comes the Night Flyer, an assassin and quasi-cultist who has been hired to seek out and eliminate a defector who is about to give information to SHIELD. If I’m remembering right, this defector was connected to the Corporation, a group that Kirby had originated in his MACHINE MAN series and also used a bit in CAPTAIN AMERICA. It was a plotline that he never got an opportunity to wrap up, so it fell to Steve Gerber and then Roger Stern to decide who and what was behind the Corporation, which they did in subsequent issues of CAPTAIN AMERICA (along with a bit of INCREDIBLE HULK.)
The Night Flyer is geared up with a number of technological innovations which make him more than a match for an entire base full of SHIELD operatives. And even when it looks as though SHIELD may have gotten one up on the Night Flyer, he simply meditates, and his strength and well-being is restored. He’s also got a symbiotic connection to the high-tech hang glider that he used to make his approach, something that will factor into the climax of this issue. Anyway, having restored himself, the Night Flyer is able to stagger the SHIELD guards who move to detain him, as well as Steve Rogers himself, and continue deeper into the complex to meet his contact and then rub out the defector. Hampered by his sightlessness, Captain America only barely emerges from the encounter with his life, and he’s not truly able to do anything to thwart the high-powered hit-man. A general alert brings more SHIELD troops running, though, along with Cap’s partner the Falcon, who will now need to pick up the ball and run with it, given Steve’s infirm situation. In an exchange that was really an outlier of things to come but was somewhat shocking for a super hero in 1977, the Falcon instructs the SHIELD boys accompanying him that they need to shoot to kill–that nothing less than lethal force will be enough to stop the Night Flyer.
The Falcon does manage to catch up to the Night Flyer, but the coolly professional assassin handily deals with the high-flying hero. Elsewhere, hearing the sounds of combat echo all around him, Steve Rogers resolves that he cannot remain on the sidelines. He dons his Captain America colors, figuring that the recognizable symbol of his costume may help to give him a psychological advantage over his foeman, who will know of Cap’s fighting ability. But it’s also a bit of a placebo for Steve as well–a way for him to feel whole again, even though he is far from fine. As cap feels his way towards the fighting, he comes upon one SHIELD trooper hanging back. This guy is a traitor, and the Night Flyer’s contact. He links up with the Flyer and gives him updated direction as to where SHIELD is keeping the defector. Sensing his opportunity, Cap lunges to the attack, but without his sight, he’s hard-pressed to lay even a glove upon his opponent.
Cap fights on, but it’s clear that he’s on the losing side of this encounter, and that the Night Flyer may well kill him before it is over. Elsewhere, the Falcon, having been locked away in a nearby cell by the Night Flyer after his defeat, struggles to liberate himself. and while Sam Wilson is putting his back into breaking through the door to his prison, SHIELD’s top scientists and weapons specialists are homing in on the Night Flyer’s hang glider, which has been circling overhead since he first dropped into the base. They begin to fire ordinance at it, eventually succeeding in blowing the thing out of the sky. As they do so, the Night Flyer drops to the floor, dead, burned up from the inside. (Which is just a little bit frustrating from a storytelling standpoint–neither Cap nor the Falcon were responsible for the win, and it’s only dumb lick that caused the Night Flyer to fall before he could finish off Cap.) His seeming symbiotic connection to his glider having passed the effects of its destruction back to him.
In the wrap-up, we learn that SHIELD was one step ahead of the Night Flyer all the time, and had the defector secreted away in another far away installation. So his mission was doomed to failure no matter what. On the upside, Steve and Sam realize that the former can see again. Cap explains that his vision slowly came back to him during his fight with the Night Flyer–it seems that the shot the Flyer had shot off earlier near to Cap’s eyes had shocked them into working again. And that’s pretty much it–with all outstanding plot threads wrapped up (or at least the ones he touched upon during this final installment), Jack Kirby, like Cap and the Falcon in the final panel, walked away and didn’t look back.
The letters page makes Jack’s departure evident, as well as broadly hinting that it will be Roy Thomas who takes over the series in the following issue. There’s been a lot of talk over the years about how the letters pages in Kirby’s Marvel books of the 1970s were slanted against him, and there’s some evidence to back that up. This particular page, though, is overwhelmingly positive.