Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles must have been the first Kirby comic I actually turned down. I recall seeing it on sale in the Barn Street paper shop in Strathaven in 1976. As a fan of Kamandi, the Demon and Mr. Miracle (and to a lesser extent, the New Gods) I was drawn to new Kirby Kreations but this one never grabbed me. It seemed too patriotic, I suppose.
Flash-forward more than thirty-five years and Bicentennial Battles presents a kaleidoscope of images from American history. The comic opens with the astrally-projecting Mr. Buda, a “strange little man” who sends Cap on his “ultimate trip”. Barry Smith ( ironically a Kirby imitator in his early career) provides inks which soften Jack’s figures as we are pitched back to the Star-Spangled Avenger’s earliest days with cameos for Bucky, Hitler and the Red Skull.
Cap is then propelled through a series of cinematic vignettes: Ben Franklin; the Depression Era; Geronimo; a mining disaster in Kentucky; a WW1 dogfight; a bout with John L.Sullivan; a runaway slave; the Great Chicago Fire and a Jaws tribute, reminding us of the impact of the first 70s blockbuster movie.
The time-travelling continues with a firefight on the Moon; a Hollywood musical (homaged in the recent Cap movie); Country Music and a two-page assembly of multi-racial kids. I think it’s fitting that the man who brought us so many groups of young people, from the Newsboy Legion to the Forever People chooses to end on an image of youthful potential: “That’s America- a place of stubborn confidence!”
(One of the criticisms of Kirby’s run on Cap was that the Falcon’s emergent black consciousness was neglected. I feel that’s somewhat unfair as I don’t know where the Falcon could have gone after Englehart revealed him, quite dismissively, as a bespoke assassin created by the Red Skull. I think Kirby treated him with respect as Cap’s equal in the Madbomb storyline. I also like to imagine that Jack might have created a new Bucky to tap into his theme of the potential of the younger generation: someone like Krunch from The Dingbats perhaps.)
But that double-page spread in Battles wasn’t quite the end. There’s a playful pin-up section featuring Colonial Cap, Western Cap, the Astro-Hero and Steve Rogers himself. The whole package is zany but celebratory.
Critics within the House of Idea savaged Kirby’s mid-70s work on Captain America: the vicious satire of “Jack the Hack” indicates how out of step his writing and pencilling seemed to the Kozmic Krew. It’s true that Bicentennial Battles still seems an off-kilter pageant of Gerald Ford’s America but I think it has a charm and verve and, above all, an imaginative sweep that failed to materialise elsewhere ( I’m thinking specifically of Englehart’s abortive “Occult History of America” in Dr. Strange)
I’m now wondering what Kirby might have wrought if Infantino had given the Shazam! title to him instead of C.C. Beck. Comics like Fighting American and the 70s Sandman suggest the King would have been at home with Talky Tawny, Mag Sivana and Mr. Atom. But as Kid Robson has wisely observed, it would probably have been too Marvel for DC fans and vice versa.
Next: Giant Super-Hero Team-Up
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