Captain America

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.

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Captain America

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A trailer for the Captain America movie coming out in July.  Two superheroes have managed to become symbols of the nation:  Superman and Captain America.  One of the first of the comic book heroes, Superman first appeared in 1938  and helped establish the whole concept of a superhero.  “A strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of a mortal man”, Superman was a hit from his first publication and rapidly achieved fame around the globe, as World War 2 GIs carried Superman comics with them throughout World War II. 

Captain America was another favorite comic of American GIs.  He first appeared in Captain America Comics #1 dated March 1941, which was actually on sale in December 1940.  It told the story of Steve Rogers, a classic 98 pound weakling, but with the heart of a lion.  A student of fine arts, he desperately wanted to fight for America in the war he saw coming against Nazi Germany, but was rejected by the Army due to his physical weakness.  He was offered an opportunity to serve his country by volunteering to be a  human guinea pig in an experiment by Dr. Josef Reinstein.  Reinstein injected him with a formula that transformed him into a perfect human specimen:  muscular, quick and agile.  He was to be the first of many volunteers who would be injected with this “super-soldier” formula, but a Nazi agent who had infiltrated the project shot Reinstein to death, before being subdued by Rogers, and therefore he would be the one and only “super-soldier”.  The first issue sold an astounding one million copies, an indication of just how popular Captain America would be with the American public.  However, not all of the public.  Writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby also received hate mail and death threats from isolationists and Nazi sympathizers in the country.  I guess Captain America punching out Hitler on the cover of  issue # 1 was a clear indication of where Simon and Kirby stood as to the Third Reich. Continue reading

Captain America vs. The Tea Partiers!

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In my mispent youth back in the Sixties I read a lot of comics.  My parents would give me and my brother a dollar each as our weekly allowance and at 12 cents a comic we could buy quite a few, even more if we purchased them for a nickel each used  at an antiques\junk store in downtown Paris, Illinois.  The most sacrificial Lent I have ever made was in 1965 at the age of 8 when I gave up my beloved comic books for Lent!  Back then comics were quite safe for kids.  On the whole I’d say they were beneficial for me, extending my vocabulary, introducing me to literary genres such as westerns and science fiction and the writing sometimes was of an unexpectedly high level.  Some of the artists who drew the comics were of high calibre.  Steve Ditko for example, the original artist who drew Spider-Man, had a very effective and memorable style of drawing.  I stopped reading comics back around 1972, although I do buy silver age comic compilations for nostalgia and I keep half an eye on the industry as an aspect of popular culture.

I was not surprised to learn that a current story arc in Captain America has the Captain taking on the tea party movement.  Comic book artists and writers have skewed heavily to the Left since the Sixties.  My first protest letter, my first pre-computer attempt at a blog post, was a letter I wrote to Marvel Comics in pencil in 1969 protesting a story line in which Captain America was turning against US involvement in Vietnam. 

In issue 602 of Captain America, the Captain and the Falcon, a black super-hero, see a tea party rally and decide that it poses a danger to, well that is not precisely clear, although I assume it is dangerous to the government.  Captain America hits upon the brilliant plan to have the Falcon pose as a black IRS agent and go to a red neck bar and stir things up.  (Hmmm, apparently plots and story lines have gone into steep decline since my day!)  The hoot about this is that as long as the Republicans had the White House, the comics were filled with paranoid story lines involving evil government plots.  With Obama in the White House, it is now evil to protest the government.

This of course has caused a huge amount of controversy.  When controversy rears its head the comic book industry has a traditional response: back down faster than a man who has forgotten his wife’s birthday.  Continue reading

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