Friday, May 24, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 5 by Jack Kirby, et al.

Kirby’s back!
Though Volume 4 was a bit of a disappointment, I am happy to report that Essential Captain America, Volume 5 is a return to fine form. This black-and-white paperback from Marvel Comics reprints numbers 187 to 205 of the Captain America and the Falcon comic book series, issues that were originally published from July 1975 to January 1977. In addition, it also includes the Captain America King-Size Annual #3 from January 1976. But wait, there’s more! What really makes this volume exceptional is the inclusion of Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles, a Marvel Treasury Special that was an obvious labor of love for writer and artist Jack “King” Kirby.

With the last issue in Volume 4, Steve Englehart’s tenure as writer on the series came to an end. For the first six issues of Volume 5, the writing duties are split between short runs by John Warner, Tony Isabella, and Marv Wolfman. There’s nothing really exceptional about these stories, but the quirky art by Frank Robbins at least makes them a joy to behold. Then the great Kirby returns to the character that he created and assumes both artist and writer roles for the Annual, the Bicentennial Battles special, and the series run from 193 through 205. In contrast to Englehart’s stories, which were rather mundane soap operas, Kirby brings his trademark penchant for epic and cosmic storytelling. While Englehart’s Cap would have seemed woefully out of place tackling threats from outer space, Kirby’s Cap is right at home battling an alien invasion in Annual #3.

The real gem in this collection, however, is Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles, a real tour de force by Kirby. In this giant-sized issue, Cap meets a mysterious man named Mister Buda who sends him on an astral journey through time to experience the true meaning of America. Against his will, Cap is transported to Revolutionary-Era Philadelphia, World Wars I and II, the Wild West, the Great Chicago Fire, a nuclear bomb test, and many other scenes throughout America’s history. Though designed to capitalize on our nation’s 200th birthday, the story is not merely an exercise in gratuitous patriotism. Cap sees the dark side of America as well when he witnesses slavery and the persecution of Native Americans. Kirby uses the special issue to express his own personal views of the American dream, which come across as equal parts utopian optimism and liberal criticism. The reader really learns a lot about Kirby from this work. Kirby even gives himself a guest appearance, as a child, in a scene set in the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, in the Captain America and the Falcon series, Kirby delivers a story about a secret society of neo-monarchists who want to overthrow America’s democratic government and return the nation to the days of pre-Revolution aristocracy. This storyline, which takes up the better part of 1976, is exactly the sort of terrorist threat that a patriotic superhero like Cap should be facing, and in the hands of Kirby it is a rollicking good time. The volume ends with a few stories of interdimensional invaders and other sci-fi monsters that one expects from Kirby’s audaciously bizarre, out-there imagination. Needless to say, throughout the volume his art is absolutely superb. If you are a Kirby fan, this is some of his best Marvel work. After having recently read through the first five volumes of Essential Captain America, I can confidently say that if I were to buy just one of these books, Volume 5 would be the one to get.
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