King Kirby, Captain America and American History

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A guest post by commenter Fabio Paolo Barbieri on one of the legendary comic book artists, Jack “King” Kirby, his greatest comic book creation, Captain America, and Kirby’s trip through American history with the Captain:

With Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles we at last reach a masterpiece within the meaning of the act.  The Marvel Treasury Edition format in which it was published, though suffering from the same bad production values as the regular titles, tried for a more upmarket and collectable air: instead of slim pamphlets with floppy covers, padded out with cheapo ads, they had 80 large pages, no ads, and more durable hard(ish) covers. On the whole, it was an unhappy compromise without future, but Kirby, who had seen formats and production values decline throughout his career, grasped the opportunity of more elaborate work than the regular format allowed.  (Artists of Kirby’s generation are often heard commenting on the quality of paper and colouring available to today’s cartoonists, even when they don’t read the stories; bad printing had been such a fundamental reality to their period that improved paper stock and technology are the one thing that stands out when they see a new comic.)
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That is not to say that it is flawless everywhere; few details of title, packaging and secondary material could be worse.  That anyone could come up with such a title as Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles would be incredible had it not happened; its clanging, flat verbosity belongs more to the kitsch of 1876 than of 1976 – “Doctor Helzheimer’s Anti-Gas Pills”.  The pin-ups that pad out the awkwardly-sized story (77 pages), with Captain America in various pseudo-historical costumes, are positively infantile, the front cover is dull and the back one ridiculous.  Nothing shows more absurdly the dichotomy between Kirby’s mature, thoughtful, even philosophical genius and the bad habits of a lifetime at the lowest end of commercial publishing coming on top of a lower-end education; the nemesis, you might say, of uneducated self-made genius.  The Kirby who did this sort of thing was the Kirby who filled otherwise good covers with verbose and boastful blurbs, who defaced the English language with “you matted masterpiece of murderous malignancy!” and the like, who cared nothing for precision and good taste – in short, the man whose lack of education lingered in his system all his life. Kirby went into his work with less inherited “baggage” than any other cartoonist, and was correspondingly radical and revolutionary, but he also had little share in common taste and standards.

What’s more, the jejune, contentless pseudo-patriotism of these spot illos goes against the spirit of much of the story, a spirit strikingly, even startlingly contemporary.  It was not Steve Gerber, Grant Morrison or Alan Moore who made Betsy Ross and Benjamin Franklin copy the American flag from Cap’s costume, with Cap running out screaming “I’ve been ripped off by Benjamin Franklin!“; or who placed him as the centrepiece of a crass flag-waving Hollywood musical.  It was the man most identified with the certainties and moral fervour of an older generation.  And he did so as part of a celebration of America – something I doubt even Grant Morrison would have the nerve to do.  One forgets how easily, naturally and inventively Kirby’s art fitted the absurdist satire of Steve Gerber’s Destroyer Duck.  Much of Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles belongs with the absurdist, post-modernist sensibility that came in with Steve Gerber and celebrated its triumphs with the three British Ms, Moore, Morrison and Milligan; Kirby, as usual, being right at the forefront and indeed prophetic.  And yet he pads out a book in which flag-waving patriotism is nothing but an object of satire with a string of empty and unsubtle pin-ups.

II

That Kirby felt the need to pad this book with pin-ups, rather than add a few story pages, is important.  Evidently, when he finished work on the story, he realized it was awkward-sized, but decided to alter nothing, and put in the pin-ups to make up the difference.  An extraordinary decision, on the face of it: the book’s anthology-type format seems quite suited to being expanded (or for that matter shortened), especially to the marginal extent of three pages, and Kirby was usually the most adaptable of writers: cutting or adding pages was nothing new to him.  But in this case, he refused to do anything to the story.  It had to be the way it was and no other way, even if it had to be padded with inappropriate material.

This focuses our attention on the plot.  The book consists of Captain America’s journey through various moments of his country’s past, present and future, forced on him against his will by a vaguely Oriental sorcerer and wise man called Mister Buda.  These are the the episodes and their approximate dates:

pp.3-5: Cap meets Buda
6-11: He revisits his WWII experiences and briefly meets Bucky, his dead
partner (1941-45).
12-13: he is back in Buda’s place.
14-15: Cap has a brief, mute vision of a Civil War battle (1861-65).
14-17: He talks with a contemporary New York cabbie (1976).
7-21: He meets Bemjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross, who copy the design for
the future USA flag from his costume (1776).
22-24: In gangster-ridden New York, he thumps a gangster who’d mistreated a paperboy who turns out to be the young Kirby (1927-34 approx.).
25-32: He finds himself between Geronimo and the US Cavalry, calling
uselessly for peace between fellow Americans (1880 approx.).
33-36: He heroically rescues some miners free from a cave-in.  The date is not given, but is clearly recent – the miners’ helmets have electric lamps.
37-40: He is caught in a World War One dogfight (1918).
40-41: He has a brief, angry interview with Buda.
41-44: He goes a round with the legendary heavyweight John L.Sullivan, and has to flee the police because boxing is still forbidden (late 19th century).
44-48; He frees a runaway slave from slave-hunters, and indirectly contributes to the rising tide of hate that will lead to the Civil War (1856 approx.)
49-52: He witnesses the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo (April 1945).
53-57: He is caught in the great Chicago fire of 1871.
58-60: He visits an experimental undersea program that promises to “feed
all of mankind” in the future (1976 or later).
61-62: He meets Buda again.
63-67: On the Moon, some time in the future, he witnesses a war, but does
not know who is fighting who.  He surmises Americans are involved.
67-72: In a farcical scene, he is used as the centrepiece of a patriotic
Hollywood musical (1930-1940 approx.).
73-79: Final meeting with Buda and conclusion.

Each of these moments is significant.  They need detailed examination,
because each of them is a definite contribution to the whole (one of Kirby’s less acknowledged gifts is a startling talent for compression and pregnant brevity).

III

Buda’s first spell time-shifts Cap to an unidentified building full of Nazi troops.  In a room he finds some of them, led by Hitler himself, trying to beat information out of his old partner Bucky.  He promptly thumps them, unties Bucky, and they rush out, vanishing in a thicket close by; but Cap loses the boy in the twisting vegetation, and before he knows it he finds himself back in 1976 in Mister Buda’s sanctum.
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This episode has nothing to do with Kirby’s own war, one of his greatest experiences; the indeterminate setting, Hitler’s buffoonish and ineffectual picture, and his presence at a minor act of criminality as if he was one of his own lesser henchmen, all belong rather to the world of Simon and Kirby’s first Captain America – in 1941, before Private Kirby was drafted or sent abroad.  Its emotional core is the brief, poignant appearance of Cap’s old partner, who, young and very alive, doesn’t understand why Cap is so moved to see him; and its climax is not the rather perfunctory beating of Hitler and co., but the haunting scene of Cap losing Bucky from sight and desperately calling his name.

However, having brought the lad so vividly to life and reminded us so poignantly of his loss, Kirby leads the story away: Bucky is never so much as mentioned again.  Why, then, is this scene in the story at all?  For one thing, it establishes Cap as the symbolic figure of 1941; in a book where symbols and their value are a prime concern, this is not irrelevant.  But more, it emphasizes Cap’s solitude.  Throughout this great adventure he has no friend, no lover, no equal, nobody to relate to or to share his spiritual experience.  Buda is a spiritual master, not a partner.  Without Bucky’s appearance and disappearance, the loneliness of his experience might not have been noticeable: Cap would simply have come striding in at the start, in costume, and without ever revealing Steve Rogers’ face, taken part in the great journey just because he is Captain America, the symbol of the nation. Things are in fact more complex. The book strikes a very delicate balance between the Captain as the symbol, the spirit, of America, and Cap as a person, an individual who suffers, stumbles, strives, and learns.  He starts out quite unconscious of the meaning of his role and of his country, and all through the book he is struggling towards an understanding.  He is, in this respect, and not only in this respect, a mortal, a man – unaware, surprised, fumbling.  He is always reacting to events, and sometimes misunderstanding them: in more than one scene, he is a butt of fun.

Yet at the same time, he acts and speaks time and again as the spirit of America.  He is in at the deep end from the start, and from the start he acts as the hero; he is never without the mask, and the name of Steve Rogers is not mentioned except for a pin-up.  In the latter part of the story, he is recognized twice, and once treated as the major figure he is, but more often, and most emphatically in the first few episodes, he is misunderstood.  This often carries a symbolic meaning: when he tries to speak peace to Indians and bluecoats, to slave and hunters, you feel that the spirit of America has spoken to them, and they have been unable or unwilling to listen.  He talks peace to Geronimo when all Geronimo can and knows how to do is war; he talks sense and common humanity to the slavers – such a hope! During the Chicago fire, he saves the life of a man who wanted to rush back in his burning house to save his possessions; it is the spirit of America who says to him that as long as he has his life, he hasn’t lost everything.

You might say that, in seeking for the meaning of America, Captain America is searching for himself.  In some sense, he is the spirit of America, and does not understand himself.  But he also stands in front of America and its people as an individual in front of others.  Without that individuality a lot of the story would be lost.  It is the Bucky episode that has subconsciously stamped the Captain’s individuality on us: a man with a past, a man with am history, a man with a tragic loss he hasn’t forgotten.

There is perhaps another, more subterranean element that carries over from the Bucky scene: a Bucky-sized hole in his life that gives extra meaning to his attempt to understand his country.  The curious aspect of the Bucky episode is that it has nothing whatever to do with America: it is only about Cap’s relationship with Bucky.  America in any form or meaning is not present at all.  From then on, however, the whole story is never again about Cap’s relationship with any one person (and that is certainly why neither Sharon, nor Sam, nor Nick Fury or any of the Avengers, are ever mentioned), but with America and its people.  It is almost as though, in the balance of the book, Cap’s relationship with America had taken the place of his relationship with Bucky, and it is significant that his odyssey ends among an America of children, just as it had begun with the single child Bucky.

IV

Kirby refuses to tell anything like a “history” of the U.S.  The plotline dodges back and forth between years, following an arbitrary course that avoids almost all the more popular bits of history.  The War of Independence is hardly touched.  Davy Crockett and the Alamo are nowhere (but Kirby used it for a sardonic, almost Alan Moorish comparison with the criminal lunatics’ last stand in Captain America #203).  The only Wild West scene is to do with Geronimo’s hopeless struggle against advancing America.  The Civil War is only glimpsed, though its origins get a thorough airing in the slave-freeing scene. And only the brief, incongruously light-hearted Bucky scene has anything to do with World War Two.

Yet the plot doesn’t avoid war or violence in the least.  World War One, Geronimo, gangsterism, the atom bomb, are all brought to our and Cap’s eyes, and the Civil War is grimly alluded to.  However, except for the WWI episode, there are no scenes of foreign wars.  The cover, with its Revolutionary and World War Two scenes, is deeply misleading.  The one thing we expect from a Bicentennial comic – the cry of “The British are coming!” – is never raised; all that Kirby does with the epic of Revolution, Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and Constitution, and all the beautiful and less beautiful things that might be said about it, is to tell the surreal joke of the flag copied from the costume copied from the flag.  As for the British, he’s fond of them (as shown in several Kamandi and Jimmy Olsen issues).   This book is not about fighting foreigners.  All bogies old and new, British, Mexicans, Germans, Japanese, Russians, and Chinese, go simply unmentioned.  Even the World War One episode is not really about the war against Germany; for all we are told, the enemy might as well be Klingons. Who they are, why they are being fought, what deeper questions are raised, never comes out at all.  It is about “those magnificent men in their flying machines”: not for nothing does Kirby open with some verse about flight.  It is an evocation of the terror and romance of the new-fangled biplanes, and Cap’s grumbling over having to pilot a “tricky antique” underlines the fact.

The only wars that interest the King are the Indian and Civil ones.  The latter seems particularly close to his thoughts: although, as I said, he does not involve Cap in the fighting, his spiritual journey opens with its cruel, brooding, ghostly vision, an evil dream he struggles to escape (pp.14-15).

Part of the reason is narrative economy: when it takes so little to raise the shadow of the bloodiest conflict in American history, to do more might be unnecessary.  Stories like these, that every schoolboy knows, can be evoked by association, by implication, by allusion, a fact of which Kirby makes full use.  Part is that a book that centred on the best-known wars in American history would be unadventurous.  But the most important reason is in the meaning of the story: a meaning given us from the beginning, fulfilled in the end, and never once forgotten, and which yet it might be all too easy to misunderstand.

The quest on which Cap is sent is (I am quoting) a quest for the truth at the heart of America, the thing that makes all Americans stand up as one.  He is not to perform a song and dance about the externals of America,its symbols, its military victories, even its governance; he is not, in fact, “celebrating” in any external sense at all – his journey begins with him being shanghaied away from one such junket, and later on both he and the mystical master Buda refer to symbols and parades with something close to contempt.  He has to identify something so central to the American identity that all these things are either only its outward accidentals, or even its perversions.

That is why foreign wars, including the War of Independence, are not important: by definition, being foreign, they do not touch this deep core of America.  Wars among Americans, however, go to the very heart of the matter. Cap’s own World War Two adventures led nowhere: he finds himself back in Buda’s home.  But the enigmatic vision of American fighting American, important enough to be given a two-page spread, is the start of everything. Alone among all we see of American history, it is quite silent: neither Cap nor we the readers are allowed to reach out and touch it.  It hangs over him and us, dark, silent and ferocious, like a rent in reality, a vision of doom. And yet it is not the prophecy of some half-seen future mystery, but the image of the best known and most investigated single event in the history of America.

In fact, the meaning of the Civil War reaches across time.  It is a question asked of all American history, and its answer must reach across the whole range of American existence, past and future.  Cap is not done with it when, thinking he’s shaken it off, he leaves Buda’s house.  Something is eating at him; he is in an unhappy, questioning mood, surprising a cabbie who never thought someone with Captain America’s record could be a prey to self-doubt.  Significantly, what actually raised his doubts is the prospect of “giving an address to a bicentennial luncheon”; suddenly, a conventional celebration has turned into a problem for intellect and conscience – can he speak about America, can he speak for America, without such an understanding?

IV

I divide the book in three parts: the opening episodes (pp3-13), the journey (14-72) and Cap’s closing debate with Buda, with the triumphant conclusion.  This is based not on Kirby’s chapter headings, which depend on no internal logic, but on breaks in the story’s rhythm.  The real adventure, quite separate from the brief Bucky jaunt, begins on page 17, when Cap is snatched to Benjamin Franklin’s time, and goes on with no serious break – even the meetings with Buda hardly slow it down – until it comes to a farcical, screeching halt on pages 70-72. In effect, it begins and ends in farce.

The Franklin scene does one thing right away: knock off any expectation that the truth about America might be found “in the beginning”.  To Kirby, 1776 has no special magic: it is just a place, a time, with people as befuddled, as ignorant, and as stumbling, as us.  The central joke is festooned with the oddly accented conversations of curiously ordinary people, and brings us down to earth with a bump: we have met one of the most revered names in American history, and what words of wisdom and inspiration have we heard?  Not bloody many!

This is typical of Kirby’s method, keeping both Cap and us off-balance. The constant shifts in time and place are as much to continuously change his and our perspectives, as to cover American history.  He steers clear of most obvious points; at the same time, all the events he uses are iconic, significant not only as history but as mythology.  A sport such as boxing, the arrogance of gangsters in pinstripes, even the development of airplane flight, are all things that have a special resonance to American culture.  It’s interesting that the almost-forgotten exploits of the German air ace Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, were resurrected and turned into a cultural icon by an American cartoonist, Charles M.Schulz; barnstorming and such air heroes as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart never stopped meaning a lot to the American public.  Boxing has been the first American sport to become iconic, with strips like Joe Palooka and movies like Someone Up There Loves Me.  Gangster movies were being produced even while Joe Torrio and Al Capone were free and murderous.  Their significance as symbols and icons has, if anything, grown since; Quentin Tarantino’s movies treat gangsterism itself as nothing else but a cultural icon.

Kirby, of course, was not steeped in the comfortable pop culture of young Tarantino: he saw gangsters not as fascinating abstractions of intellectual violence, but as uncouth, overgrown neighbourhood bullies.  His episode simmers with sixty-years-old, but never forgotten humiliations, and is, in a sense, the least successful part of the masterpiece.  That Cap would stand for the starving paperboy is obvious: but his sudden and unthinking violence – crashing the gangster out of his car along with the door – is out of character and unnecessary.  There is a strong element of wish-fulfilment here.  This is Kirby, decades after, feeling the still raw wounds of a tragic childhood; this is what he would have liked to do to his tormentors.  The paperboy’s final line both identifies him and gives the game away: “when I get to be a big-shot artist, I’m gonna plaster Lefty’s ugly mug all over the comic pages!“.  Half a century later, “Lefty” long since dead, a settled and successful Kirby was still doing just that.

(Kirby’s rage against gangsters was genuinely lifelong.  Will Eisner remembered a young, physically slight but furiously angry “Jack King” driving a threatening mob man, come to demand protection money, bodily out of the Eisner-Iger studio, while Eisner himself quivered – Eisner, The Dreamer.)

Cap is shifted from Depression tenement-land to Geronimo’s New Mexico. The change in climate is subtle but important, and no other episode could have followed to such effect.  Both Geronimo and his world are suffused with a grim but unmistakable dignity: the effect is of moving from a mean and dirty world to a dry but clean one.  Geronimo is a man who knows his own mind and whose word can be trusted.  Yet his dignity that of tragedy, the dignity of men bound to fight and die.  The only way they can assert their worth as men is to stand up against the near-certainty of grief, lonely struggle and an early end.  It’s rather startling to see the symbol of the U.S. living as it were by proxy the experience of a defeated Indian ridden down by the U.S. Cavalry: a particularly significant case of Kirby’s use of shifting and unusual narrative perspectives.

We then find ourselves in another American tragedy: not the grandiose downfall of the Indian peoples, but a more ordinary, workaday mining disaster, with a few miners trapped underground with almost no air.  These men don’t have the subdued, grim stoicism of Geronimo and his warriors: they gripe, whine and rage, normal working fathers in front of something they can’t handle.  It is for their sake that Cap throws himself into the most heroic act of the whole book: when gas is smelled seeping in the tunnel, he hurls himself with all his strength against the mass of rubble, risking a terrible death to clear a path for the men.  This page is a Kirby triumph: we feel the pressure and the terror, and are not allowed, until the struggle is over, any feeling that “it will be all right in the end”.  It might easily go wrong; Cap might be crushed to death, and the miners die of gas poisoning or a gas explosion.

Before the dazed and scared men can quite realize they have been saved, Cap is somewhere else, on a biplane, fighting a World War One air ace.  Once again, the change of atmosphere is subtle but electric: from crushing, constrictive oppression to dizzy open air.  Even the danger is different – not heavy like the walls of a mine shaft, but sudden, darting and snaking like a banking airplane and tracer bullets.  As I said, this scene is about the romance of early aircraft; but war is a definite element too – war, you might say, as such, more than an understanding of a definite enemy.  After the silliness with Franklin, none of these early episodes is free from danger; well might Cap tell Buda it’s not easy to have to live the danger and death of, apparently, every American who ever lived.  Like the young Kirby, born in one of the nastiest holes in New York and hating it, Cap has been thrown in at the hard end of history.

The very next episode breaks the spell.  There is violence all right – but it is half-way between the showy and the merely silly.  Just as Cap is talking of being with men in danger of their lives, he is mown down by a punch from the famous nineteenth-century boxing champion John L.Sullivan. There are definite aspects of farce to this: John L. is shown as a fighting- mad and not very clever Irish bull, and the idea of his taking on Captain America is a joke in the first place.  To make matters more undignified, just as Cap brings John L. down the whole meeting collapses in chaos – the police (in hilarious Keystone Kops costumes) have come in: boxing is still illegal.

But Kirby does not allow us to relax for long.  Suddenly Cap is protecting a runaway slave surrounded by armed slave hunters.  A young farm lad sees, unnoticed, the whole scene; he has a rifle, and hates slavers – as does, we are told, his father – and, seeing Cap and the slave cornered, decides to take a pot-shot at their enemies.  The shot distracts them, and Captain America needs nothing more.

The central figure here is not Cap at all, nor even the runaway slave, but the farm lad: a fair-haired boy with the clean and healthy air townees like Kirby associate with the country, in striking contrast with Kirby’s own self-portrait as a motor-mouthed, streetwise New York boy cynic, and even to the similarly motor-mouthed Bucky.  Kirby, the poet of physical action, actually motions our eyes away from the fight: we look not so much at the whirl of the Captain’s body and fists mowing their way through the posse, as to the boy looking on.  The camera briefly leaves him to close in on Cap, giving the freed slave a horse and the title of brother; but it goes back again when his father, a bearded countryman with gloomy eyes, happens on the scene and compliments his son on the quarry of slavers.  He is John Brown, the fanatical opponent of slavery who led nineteen of his sons and associates to storm a weapons store at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in the wild hope of starting a slave rebellion, and whose hanging hardened the attitudes of both sides. Every American knows John Brown was a fanatic, and that his attempt was a foredoomed piece of insanity.  Kirby opened the whole adventure with the horror of fratricidal war: now, in a single economical panel, he delivers us the shock of a man whose fixed fanatical eyes contain the whole horror of fratricidal hatred.

Yet the cause was good.  The last thing Kirby wants us to do is forget the horrors that John Brown’s kind opposed: to make sure we don’t miss the point, the notoriously inarticulate author not only describes  his slavers as crude and vicious villains, denying the slave cause any dignity, but equips his runaway slave with articulate anger and striking force of character – and none of the negro accent of the time.  This is a man and a brother.  Keeping him in chains is clearly a crime.

Yet how can fanaticism and fratricidal civil war be right?  Here we come up against a stark fact: Kirby has only told us so much.  He has not given us a diagram or an explanation or a road map of where John Brown’s fanaticism fits in his vision of the America of hope and “stubborn confidence”.  All we have is the picture of the long-bearded, grim patriarch towering over his fair-haired, angel-faced son, conditioning and directing the lad’s natural honest mind to lead him and his brothers to Harper’s Ferry and war.  Kirby does not drive the point hard: he does not underline the fact that John Brown is leading his own son down a dark path, and does not drive in on us the fact that this charming boy is marked out for a grim destiny.  The tragic subtlety of his treatment, the gentleness, almost, with which he approaches these inextricable compounds of right and wrong, the not so much thought-provoking as thought-demanding depths of this single moment, places it among the peaks of Kirby’s career.

Next we come to the atom bomb.  Again, Kirby avoids the obvious; skipping Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Enola Gay, he takes the Captain to the scene of the first nuclear explosion, Alamogordo in the New Mexico desert.  What he wants to communicate, I think, is not so much the darkness of a single episode as the fact that America has called into the world a thing that cannot be called back.  The emotion is not so much horror as anxious surmise, because what we are dealing with here is not a past evil like slavery or a past terror like the Chicago Fire, but the long shadow of an abiding yet largely unachieved threat of the modern age.  The atom bomb has done its work not by being used, but by not being used – by being the permanent background of doubt to modern life, what Kirby calls a maddening problem thrown in humanity’s lap.  In a sense, its potential is more potent than its results: the destruction of two Japanese cities was not very different in kind or degree from what conventional weaponry achieved in Germany and Japan – but the fact that some men now have the equal of Zeus’ lightning in their hands casts a grim and brooding shadow over every angle of modern life.  This is specifically relevant to America: both America and the rest of the world identify America as the country with The Bomb.  Any treatment of America today that does not mention this massive fact would be hypocritical – and that is the last word one would use for Kirby.

The reason why two so heavily charged moments follow each other is that their topics are nearly opposite, and the one actually brings out the peculiarity of the other: the slave episode is all about individual conscience and fanaticism, and the Alamogordo one is about what individual conscience, in this day and age, is faced with.

Suddenly we are dragged from these awesome heights to a more domestic horror – though one that involves a whole city: fire.  The Chicago Fire episode is distinguished by the unforgettable picture of the people of Chicago crowding the piers on the lake, a half-terrified, half-purposeful mob moving in a single direction: it serves as a memorable picture of what is fragile and what is enduring in human society.  The city, its institutions, its buildings, its normal life, is being destroyed: yet the people are still a unit, still in some fashion a community, hanging together by instinct. There is little that is heroic about this.  The people Kirby shows rushing out of the doomed city are completely unexceptional – tired, confused, huddled, scared.  It is not any inspiringly exceptional bravery that leads them, but an instinct so common and so basic as to be hardly noticed; they come together in a catastrophe because they just naturally live together.

Yet Kirby does manage to find something not merely grimy or commonplace in this scene of confusion.  The little polite gesture of Cap carrying a middle-aged woman’s luggage might, in the middle of such a city-wide conflagration, seem pointless; yet it is an artistic masterstroke, showing people’s natural instinct for community, for common standards of behaviour, for mutual understanding, assert itself in the middle of a catastrophe that seems to go so far beyond the sphere of any individual.  Even when the city is burning, a gentleman will carry a lady’s luggage.  It is a lovely, startling little touch, with just a little of the heroic about it.

The scene is just as remarkable for what it does not show as for what it does.  There is no looting, no violence, no outbreak of brutality in any form. If the firemen, and Cap, have to use force and the threat of force, it is because they have to save their fellow men’s lives: the fire engines have to get where they’re needed, even at the risk of trampling somebody, and Cap has to stop a man running into a burning building, even if he has to wrestle him down.  The law of emergencies, it is clear, is not the same as blind violence: common standards always prevail.  In the midst of the most dreadful disaster, society holds together in a desperate but steadfast fashion.  Almost any other writer today would have done the opposite, presenting a grim picture of society collapsing and men reversing to the primordial beast: Kirby resists the temptation of facile cynicism, and certainly his picture is more sane and truthful.  The cohesion of society is the result not of superficial conventions and man-made laws, but of the most basic need of man, that which made the ancient Norse poet say “man is man’s delight”; and the morality on which it is built is as natural to its members as breathing.  Cap’s reminder
that the city would be rebuilt may seem corny, but it only underlines what every reader knows: Chicago was rebuilt, the indestructible instinct for community was reasserted.

It is no wonder that Cap moves from this grim scene with its communitarian content to a place of quiet, honest endeavour.  The undersea research lab he finds himself in brings in at once the idea of the future, of building for a better world (“What we learn down here may one day feed the entire human race”) and of committed daily endeavour, constructive work.  So far, the only views we have had of work have been grim (the paperboy who has to sell papers “or my family eats soap this week”) or tragic (the trapped miners, thinking of the wives and children their dangerous work paid for); this, though set in a dangerous and vaguely heroic undersea stage, is our first glimpse of work as simply work, not tragic, not desperate, and not without a future.  We are told little about these men: even the fact that they saved Cap’s life is played down, and we get the feeling that they regard him mainly as a minor problem, if not an annoyance, in the course of a working day – another day, another dollar.  Only when describing the purpose of what he does, does the man who meets Cap briefly light up, but his priority is to get rid of him and get back to work.  (These two scenes, the Chicago Fire and the research centre, together balance the previous two, the slave scene and Alamogordo, offsetting their picture of what might destroy society – civil disorder and the Bomb – with that of what holds society together – community spirit and purposeful work.)

At this point Cap meets Buda again, and tells him that what he has seen had not added to his understanding of America.  Buda smiles and tells him his journey isn’t over yet – and suddenly Cap is on the Moon.  For a minute we think that this is an allusion to America’s greatest achievement in the last half-century, but we are soon disillusioned: although the allusion is there, part of Kirby’s ability to add layers of meaning, what the story actually tells us is that in the future men will fight a war on the moon, and Americans will be involved.  Cap actually sees a smashed-up war vehicle, and is almost certain there are dead and wounded men inside, but has no time to go to their help; he is whisked away by Buda’s magic.  This whole episode might be terribly disappointing, almost despairing, if it were handled any other way: it might say that mankind would always be stuck in the same groove of violence and power lust (imagine Alan Moore handling such a subject).  But Kirby avoids the reverse moralism of this by making the whole thing silent, mysterious, barely seen: Cap is taken away before he can learn anything of the combatants, the issues involved, and the methods of war.  We have had a glimpse, not a picture, and we are not allowed to reach any judgement.  The future does not speak.

V

The one thing this scene does is dispose of Utopia.  The future holds no more answers than the past, the moon no more than Ben Franklin.  But there is to be one more shattering denial before we reach home at last: the most astonishing and justly climactic episode yet.

Just as Cap is trying to reach the dead and wounded on the lunar battle-field, the world changes again, and, in an astonishing sequence, he finds himself staring at a movie camera.  He is in Hollywood (as we will soon find out) sometime in the Busby Berkeley era, and his appearance disrupted a take. Quickly and unceremoniously hustled off the stage, he finds himself in a crowd of costumed extras where his costume is no more unusual than Superman’s on New Genesis (Jimmy Olsen 147), and is immediately hustled on another stage by a perfectly ludicrous type of Hollywood wonder boy producer.  Before he knows it, he is functioning as the centrepiece of a whirling series of dancing chorus lines in mini-skirted imitations of army uniforms, among a delirious assemblage of pseudo-patriotic symbols.

After the long and emotionally draining odyssey of “turbulence and tragedy” (as Mr.Buda calls it) Cap has undergone, and the grim reality of war and uniforms he met time and again, this sheer brazen Hollywood Lie is bound to have a stunning impact.  Kirby, with his agonizing personal experience of war, did not put the Captain in the middle of a lot of dancing girls flaunting their legs in imitation military uniforms for no reason; nothing here is without meaning, least of all those mini-skirts.  They make the difference from real uniforms, being cut off to flaunt the legs – dozens, hundreds of long, bare, tap-dancing girls’ legs in high heels.  Sexual allure sterilizes the grim reality of military symbols; baring female skin covers up reality, making uniforms harmless and attractive.  One girl is suspended from the ceiling, carrying a bright artificial smile, an imitation airplane engine and a (predictably) bare-legged aviator’s uniform; and we think of Cap on the World War One airplane, and how hard he found it to “sit in the seat where brave kids have been blown out of the sky”.
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Far from celebrating American history, the spectators of this movie are invited not to see the reality of what army, navy and air force are about. The instrument of this is the girls’ bare legs.  Their dance has no positive content at all: nothing is happening except the denial.  The grim reality of a march-past is turned into a frivolous set of choreographed twists, taps and turns.  The very number of dancers, all with their plastic smiles on, is a denial: it avoids the eye being caught by any one beauty and considering her, perhaps, as a person.  We must by dazzled by hundreds – by thousands – of equally, impersonally pretty and available-looking girls; the dance not only goes brazenly for the crotch in order to silence the brain, but does so in a loud, tinselled, organized, aggressively meaningless way.  It is not even really sexual, since it uses the sex not for itself but as an excuse not to see something else.

This tinselled, clockwork performance, however, is close to one facet of Kirby’s experience of the military not yet covered by this story, though familiar to us from Mister Miracle: I mean the mindless, parading, sloganeering, marching-in-step side.  Scott Free spends his childhood among walls painted with huge, meaningless slogans (“To live well is to die well. HAIL DARKSEID!”), under a time-tables that demanded every member of the academy should even eat in the same rhythm as all the others.  The grim choreography of Granny Goodness’ school becomes, here, sheer farce involving no particular threat: the girls are obviously only turning it on for the money.  But the deadness, the artificiality, and the production of emotion by repetition, are decidedly from the same cupboard.

This is the world of post-modernism: a world of symbols separate from any content, manipulated by big media business, and governed by denaturated sex.  Once again, King Kirby proves bang up to date: few things could be more close to the modern spirit than the question of spirit and sign. The story begins with the question: what is the thing that binds all Americans together?  And the biting depiction of patriotic symbols carries its own answer.  (Nothing, Mister Buda says, is more American than a movie.)  This is why the revered figure of Franklin was presented in a comic light: Kirby was not, at that moment, interested in Franklin the philosopher, the scientist, the writer, or the statesman, but in the American flag, the symbol and its meaning.  What makes this perfectly clear is the presence of Betsy Ross, a mythical figure whose only part in Franklin’s life is the legend of the making  of the flag, the “broad stripes and bright stars” whose garish display has been part of American showbiz for two hundred years.  It’s worth noticing Kirby doesn’t use Old Glory once in a serious context in all 77 pages; after Cap has been ripped off by Benjamin Franklin, the flag disappears – nobody even notices the hero is himself wearing the national colours – until the musical.

But Kirby was no post-modernist.  This was not a climax, but a false climax; not a revelation, but the denial of one.  A series such as Flex Mentallo exists purely in the world of denaturated symbols; to Morrison, and to Morrison’s admirers, superheroes are</i> their own absurdities, and nothing else.  They may be even fond of their absurdities, but that is all they are. The tormented genius of Alan Moore may take things more seriously, but there are enough purely satirical moments in the weave of WildC.A.T.s to drive home the message that these, to him, are a set of symbols with a peculiar yet absurd (because meaningless) set of rules that shape them with no reference to any reality.

But Kirby’s point is exactly that, not only apart from the hollow and manipulated symbols, but completely untouched by them, there is a reality; there are real people doing real work, suffering real tragedies, and achieving real achievements.  There is nothing post-modernist, nothing of the symbol functioning autonomously of any reality, in his dying miners, in the hungry paperboy, in the hard-working undersea scientist, in the fleeing Chicago citizens, in the nervous soldiers at Alamogordo; where there might have been a touch of artificiality – as in the scene on the Moon, which risked coming close to science fiction – Kirby has deliberately held back and said nothing.  Even the making of movies is real, though their content is not: we are struck very forcibly by the atmosphere of purposeful, serious work around these unreal, unserious entities. The whole book is underlain by a deep respect for people who seriously and without pretensions do things.  If Kirby has presented work most often in a tragic and heroic light, it is because it is, to him, a tragic and heroic reality.  The boy who once had to sell newspapers in order for his family to eat is not likely to forget how much may hang on it.  It is from this that all the rest springs – the miners, fathers and husbands risking their lives to feed their families; the fact that a few men’s work may one day feed all of mankind.  The whole book never presents any honestly working man or woman in a bad light (indeed, it is remarkably short of villains of any sort); the only people who are earnestly set up to be laughed at are the couple of Hollywood producers, father-in-law and son-in-law, who do nothing, but order about those who do. The actors, the cameramen, even the dancing girls, are not there to be despised.

Indeed, nobody is.  This episode is contemptous, but good-natured too. This awful and appallingly believable movie is not the work of villains, but of absurd and even rather pathetic men, self-important movie moguls without a brain cell in their skulls, prancing in and out of the scene like extras in Laurel and Hardy.  He does not hate them; he doesn’t present them as monsters to be extirpated, but as monuments of human absurdity to be smiled if not laughed at.  Like most of his generation, Kirby had dreamed of a career in Hollywood (even the name he adopted resulted from his admiration for the Irish male movie stars of the thirties), but he seems to have seen better than most through the pretentious absurdity of American media.

VI

And so the story hurtles towards its conclusion.  Cap furiously calls on Buda.  This nonsense must have an end: if there is a reality behind all this, let’s see it!  So Buda, after advising him to react to events as a child, accompanies him on two swift last stages.  First they meet an old farmer relaxing on his porch after a hard day’s work with some country music. We have to understand he is a good violinist, and his music is to Cap the very sound of peace after struggle, rest after the storm (not to mention making a telling contrast with the glitzy razzmatazz of the musical: the use of music here is in absolute opposition to that).  But he cannot stay there.  As Buda concisely points out, the wish to “stay here for ever” “is the wish of a weary man, but not the truth”.  Endeavour, not rest, is the natural condition of man; while rest and peace are the “prize unequalled” of hard work, still the hands need the work, and seek it.  Next we see a black boy, busily studying. He can’t get quality education – Cap surmises – so he is going to educate himself.  It is an enthusiastic surmise: Cap is struck with admiration for a disadvantaged kid who still has the “brain matter” and, more importantly, the “guts” not to give in to his environment.  Buda reminds him of his meeting with another ghetto kid – surely the young Kirby himself – who did not give in.  For a moment Cap thinks that he has reached the truth, in this picture of courageous endeavour, but Buda disillusions him.  There is still one stop, and he will be taking it alone.

Buda removes himself because Cap’s attitude to him is too antagonistic. If he was still present at the end, Cap would be too bent on ramming the truth down his throat to fully enjoy it: “the truth is not to be flaunted – but shared!”  So Cap is alone when he finds himself in a playing field full of children; a singularly mundane place, the children think, for such a personage.  For once he is not only recognized, but treated with the wonder and appreciation we expect.  Children are generous with admiration, and Cap is a perfectly justified object of hero-worship.  He forgets about Buda at once, but not about his goal: he sees it in the children’s eager faces, full of uncomplicated enthusiasm: the word is not endeavour.  It’s confidence.

That is what America has meant to Kirby: not the guarantee of success, but the trust that he could try.  It’s believing that you have the chance.  This reminds me of something somebody said about saints: what they have to say may often seem platitudinous, but we have to remember that what seems flat to us is three-dimensional to them.  To Kirby, the description of America as a land of opportunity is not a cliche’ learnt at school, but a hard-won reality. He really has fought his way from the bottom of American society, and never forgot it.  He hated where he started from (he did not even enjoy the sightseeing trip of his childhood haunts, arranged by some fans when he was already famous and secure in Southern California) and, while not entirely happy with his status, he was proud of what he had achieved.  The delicate allusion to poor schooling in the brief ghetto kid scene reminded us that he had built both his education and his art for himself.  In short, he had every reason to take a realistic and not rose-tinted view of the difficulty and danger of work, and this is what gives this book its fundamental strength.
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The point however – shiningly brought out by the children in the final two-page spread – is that work is what allows each man to achieve his personal value and destiny.  One child dreams of being a superhero.  One child wants to be a millionaire, giving his father the success he could not achieve himself; his eager honest smile robs the word “millionaire” of any piratical, exploitative connotation, making it simply the deserved result of hard and intelligent work.  Another is not interested in millions, but wants to be a writer and make enough money to have a farm with cows and chickens.  Another doesn’t know what he wants to be, but thinks it will be fun finding out. Cap calls this “the chance of making life meaningful”; success is not a matter of money so much as of being allowed to do the thing you have in you as well as you possibly can. It is a triumphant, marvellous finale, the most muscular outburst of joy in all Kirby’s work and in all comics. Let nobody say that no child alive ever said anything like “When I find out, I’m just going to go ahead and be it!”. Of course they never did. But as a final assertion of the potential of man, of the confidence that man, in America, has “the chance of making life meaningful”, these, and no others, are the right words.  The first time I read this panel, I could hear music: Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, the first movement, the great passage in which the main theme returns – one of the most triumphant, assertive, white-light-blazing moments in all music, logic and emotion growing out of each other, making a statement of such joy and strength and beauty that no negative answer is possible.  What Kirby has achieved here is nearly incredible: using a crowd of children to make a positive statement about life that has not a shred, not a shred, of sentimentality about it. I can, I suppose, analyze the means by which he manages it; the way the story starts with Bucky and leaves a Bucky-sized hole in Cap’s life, which the certainty embodied by these children finally fills; the fact that he is finding in them, not an escape into “innocence”, but the potential for future work, future struggle, and future achievement; the fact that nothing he says here has any tendency whatsoever to escape from or soften the hard realities we have seen again and again, and therefore does nothing to negate the moral of the whole work.  But that he should dare such a thing; that, in a work already glowing with luminous artistic courage and honesty, he should end with this most daring of finales, skirting and yet completely avoiding sentimentality, is something that no explanation can soften.  This is a very great work of art.

This panel is not done by Jack Kirby, it was drawn by Jim Steranko, but I have always thought it captured the essense of what Kirby meant Captain America to symbolize:

Cap-AwesomeBig

2 Responses to King Kirby, Captain America and American History

  • Man, I just never know what to expect when I click on The American Catholic. I suspect I might appreciate this entry a bit more than most. I’m 61 years old and have been reading/collecting comics since I was about 10. I am very familiar with Jack Kirby’s work and have the Bicentennial edition discussed at length here. This is a very detailed analysis; the kind I am usually reading on comic sites. Here this was a pleasant surprise.

    Most readers of this site are probably familiar with Captain America from the recent movies, his own and the Avengers. Most of Marvel Comics movies exude an obvious conservative tone, which I believe has resulted in their success.

  • “Man, I just never know what to expect when I click on The American Catholic”

    Precisely our intention George!

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