Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Jack Kirby, and the issue is Captain America #211, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated July 1977. These scans are from the Captain America by Jack Kirby Omnibus, which came out in 2010. Enjoy!
Kirby went back to Marvel in 1975/1976 and took over Captain America, and his 22-issue run (plus two annuals and a special) is pretty bonkers, honestly. As with a lot of Kirby solo work, it’s kind of hard to even judge it because of the spectacle. Kirby took Cap and the Falcon (the title was changed include Sam) and simply threw them into one weird situation after another, and I wonder if anyone has ever broken down exactly how long all this stuff takes, because in “real time,” it feels like less than a month. It’s insane and glorious and totally Kirby. Toward the end of it, Kirby introduced Arnim Zola and brought back the Red Skull, because it’s a Cap story and of course the Red Skull is going to show up! I mean, really. But first! an added bonus from issue #198:
Kirby didn’t do any single-page splashes in issue #211, so I thought I’d show this one from issue #198. When you consider that many splash pages these days feature one or two characters posing, this scene jumps off the page. Kirby leads us around the page very well, from the Falcon holding onto the dude who’s clutching the big machine on the right, so that we move from the upper left to the slightly lower right. The punk’s legs form a “roof,” if you will, over the two dudes falling down after being shot, while his arms and left leg frame the dude using the machine gun and the other dude getting shot. If we go from his crotch downward, we find the hand of yet another thug who’s been shot – at least he gets a line before he’s choked off. In the foreground, we get a bunch of blue-suited S.H.I.E.L.D. agents firing their weapons. In the lower right, one agent invites the reader into the frame, as he looks “out” at us and tells us to “rush ‘em!” It’s a clever device to make sure that the drawing isn’t too remote from us – we might be looking at it, but that guy helps draw us into the panel. Obviously, here we see more manifestations of the Mature Kirby, as he’s in complete command of the page, making sure that everything clicks together. As we’ll see, this is not an unusually busy panel in Kirby’s run, because Kirby liked his panels busy!
As this is a big ol’ Omnibus, I can’t open it far enough to scan the art without some of it falling into the spine, so we get this poorly-scanned double-page spread. But I don’t care about the left side of the page. Let’s take a look at Donna Maria:
Kirby in the 1970s drew women who could kick anyone’s ass (as opposed to Kirby in the 1960s, where his women tended to be a bit more waspish), and Donna Maria is a good example of that. Yes, she’s a bit freaked out by that thing crushing her arm, but I think everyone would be a bit freaked out by that. Kirby does a nice job with Donna Maria’s fearful face, as he widens her mouth and arches her eyebrows, while he or Mike Royer uses just a little hatching to make her face look more worried. Donna Maria’s hand is a bit weird, but let’s ignore it to drink in her magnificent body. Kirby liked wide torsos, which makes his large-breasted women look much more “normal” than what we usually get from comic artists, and Donna Maria has a fairly thick waist, which fits with her wider torso. She also has solid legs, as many Kirby women do. She is, in other words, in the proud tradition of Big Barda, as Kirby obviously dug large yet beautiful women.
Zola, referring to himself in the third person like any good supervillain does, runs around his lair, and we get a bunch of Kirby-isms on one page, which is nice. First, there’s Zola’s design, which is nuts. I mean, why wear that little apron over your crotch, dude? What are you hiding? Zola’s lair, with its rough lines implying stone, clashes well with the Kirby Kontraption in Panel 3, which has the smooth and sleek lines of a futuristic machine. Kirby leads us well from Panel 1 to Panel 2 to Panel 3, where he tilts the floor just for the hell of it, even though Zola himself is not tilted, which means he’s leaning to his right as he enters the room. What’s up with that, Arnim? Kirby gives Zola a beautiful angry face in Panel 1, but then he’s weirdly satisfied in Panel 4 as he hooks himself up to the machine. Kirby’s design of Zola allows him to draw his trademarked wide Kirby face without worrying about it being too wide for the head, because it’s as wide as a torso! And as we’ve seen, the purple and orange/yellow color scheme on Zola looks good even when modern coloring techniques are applied to them. I don’t know if Kirby or colorist Glynis Wein came up with the scheme, but it was well done!
On the next page, we get this tremendous display. I love pages like this, because they’re just bursting with energy, and Kirby does them so well. The Krackle from the “E.S.P. box” flows through every inch of the laboratory, almost overwhelming Donna Maria and Cap in Panel 5. I like two things especially on the page – in Panel 3, Kirby puts a dragon statue onto the futuristic machinery, because Zola is hanging out in a castle. I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be a fancy staircase, which would make more sense, but Kirby’s blending of the medieval with the modern here is pretty neat. In Panel 5, he draws Donna Maria and Cap running very dramatically – they take big strides and swing their arms really wide. Comic artists draw characters running in different ways, but I like how Kirby does it, because it’s like he does everything – big and bold!
Kirby wasn’t much for odd layouts, especially during this run of Captain America, but that doesn’t mean his pages are boring, because, as usual, he packs so much into each panel that it’s hard to catch your breath. Here’s a fairly standard six-panel grid, but look at all that happens on this page. The door handle tries to ensnare Donna Maria before Cap breaks it, swords and spears fly out of a column and almost obliterate our heroes, some kind of wooden furniture flies at the two of them, and the floor opens up and our heroes fall into it. Kirby drives us relentlessly across the page – the handle aims us to Panel 2, the weapons in Panel 3 fly across the gutter to Panel 4, Cap leaps over the furniture into Panel 6, and the hole falls off the page. Despite the fact that this was an era where no one used one word where five would do, Kirby’s pages never feel cluttered even though they could stand to lose some of the verbiage. It’s really a testament to how well he’s able to lay out a page even when he’s “just” using a simple grid. Meanwhile, once again we get the nice blending of medieval and futuristic, as the ornate door handle “comes to life,” which feels weird and science-fictiony, while the castle’s defenses are old-school swords and wood. Kirby brings them together well.
While Cap is running around with a scantily-clad sex bomb, Sharon Carter is discovering that the Red Skull is behind all the skulduggery, which isn’t terribly surprising. Once again we get the six-panel grid, and in Panel 1, we get the one emotion Kirby doesn’t do too well, and that’s disgust. Sharon realizes that the Skull isn’t an old man, but someone wearing a mask, and her emotions don’t really match the impassioned exclamation about his “true face.” Kirby brings her eyebrows down to scrunch up her face a little, but other than that, Sharon doesn’t really look too horrified. That’s okay, though, because the rest of the page is nifty. The way Kirby stretches the mask in Panel 2 is grotesque, foreshadowing the reveal of the Skull’s face directly below it. Panel 3 is one of those Kool Kirby panels in that we see only the Skull’s hands holding Sharon’s, and we have to imagine both faces as she sees the Skull. Just the way he bends Sharon’s fingers and uses the motion lines to show her hands shaking gives us a good idea of how she’s reacting. Panels 5 and 6 are really nice, too, as Kirby doesn’t do anything different with the Skull, but the Skull has always been a really good visual villain, so Kirby shrinks his pupils and irises so that he looks more insane and gives him a mouth only an orthodontist could love. In Panel 6, the close-up is even better, as the eyes are even more insane and the Skull’s brows clamp down over his eyes, making him both crazy and terrifying. Kirby certainly knew what he was doing.
This is the next time we see Cap after the floor swallows him, and Kirby shows him and Donna Maria emerging from the – frankly – anus-looking hole onto a rough ground. If someone hasn’t written a treatise on the sexual imagery in Kirby’s work, someone should. Then we get the eye, which is tremendous, as it connects this part of the story to the Red Skull’s blazing eyes, although this is a cooler blue and looks far less malevolent – it’s trying to kill Cap and Donna Maria, but only because it views them as intruders. In Panel 3, Kirby once again expands the space with an illusion, as Cap pushes Donna Maria off the panel (again, I apologize for the blurry scan), creating a sense that they’re in a vast chamber but also making the monster bigger simply by implying that two people can’t be in the same space as it is because it will drive them into the gutter itself. For some unknown reason, Cap calls Donna Maria “foxy lady” in Panel 4 (Kirby should have had her respond, “NOT THE FUCKING TIME, CAP!!!!”), and then we get that really nice final panel, as Cap and Donna Maria find themselves back in Zola’s lab. Kirby pushes Cap off to the side, both for mundane reasons – to fit the word balloons into the panel – and for aesthetic reasons, as it diminishes Cap just a little and allows Kirby to close in on his eye and mouth. Unlike the creature above but like the Skull, Cap’s pupil and iris are smaller, making him a bit more deranged as he challenges Zola’s madness. Kirby does insanity better than he does terror, as Cap’s eye and downturned mouth veer him toward losing his grip on reality. It’s a tremendous page, as it pushes Cap almost to his breaking point (he comes back, fret not!).
Kirby’s run on Captain America in the 1970s might have been the last great comic he worked on, although he never stopped working, of course. Tomorrow I think I’ll look at something a bit more personal to Kirby, if I can find it. If not, well, I’ll think of something. In the meantime, don’t forget to check out the archives!
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