Happy Fourth of July everyone. It’s America’s birthday, which means it’s time to celebrate everything that makes America what it is. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot to be celebrating at the moment. The country is in really rough shape, heinous things are being done seemingly every day, and I’ve essentially burned through all my optimism for this country. Things are dark. But, instead of wallowing in that darkness, I felt like we could use at least a bit of joy. And, what better way to attempt to squeeze some joy from modern day America then by looking at one of the greatest symbols of the nation? That’s right. It’s time to talk about Captain America. He honestly doesn’t come up too often on the site, because a lot of his stories unfortunately aren’t weird enough to be featured in a Marvel Madness post. Even in the years when Steve Englehart, a beloved weird writer of mine, was holding the reigns on Captain America the stories didn’t often get weird enough for me. But, I did find something very interesting while looking for odd Cap stories. Because it turns out that in 1976, the year of the American bicentennial, famed comics creator Jack Kirby had weird idea. He’d recently returned to Marvel Comics after a brief sojourn at DC where he created a slew of character that have almost never been handled correctly since, and was given control of one of the most endearing character he ever helped create. Kirby was one of the original creators of Captain America along with Joe Simon, and clearly has a lot of affection for the character. So, with such a momentous occasion in American history coming about at the same time that Kirby was in total control of Captain America, it made sense to let him go all out and craft an incredibly weird special issue of comics where Captain America himself gets to celebrate all of American history. And it’s insane. Honestly, it might be a little hard to describe this story, because there’s not a whole lot of plot. Just a lot of befuddled Captain America rapidly travelling through time and fighting people like an aggro Billy Pilgrim. But, it sure is a fascinating oddity. Let’s get into it!
The story begins incredibly strangely, like several Jack Kirby comics from this era of his career (read the first issue of his Black Panther series and struggle to figure out if you somehow missed a previous issue). Cap walks right into a strange room belonging to a mystical being who calls himself Mister Buda. This mysterious sorcerer has sent Captain America a letter, asking him to visit him in his home on the Fourth of July. And he’s immediately concerned about what’s in store for him, because he finds Buda meditating in some sort of glass coffin, only to watch as his Astral form floats down from the roof and re-enters his body. Which is enough to make Cap rethink coming down here at all. He’s just not very good at mystical things. But, he at least listens to what the man has to say for a bit. And it’s strange. Mister Buda explains that he has a method that would let Cap fully appreciate the history of America, the idea that he’s devoted his life to. But, it requires magic, so Cap gets a little weirded out. He politely refuses, and leaves the room, which unfortunately means that he wasn’t around to hear Mister Buda make some ominous statements. But, as soon as Cap leaves the room he realizes that something is wrong. The building has suddenly become an M.C. Escher-esque maze, leading him to one specific doorway. And, what’s inside that doorway?
Oh shit! It’s Hitler! Cap has apparently traveled through time, and finds himself in World War II-era Germany, where Adolph Hitler is still alive and torturing Bucky. Cap doesn’t really take any time to wonder what the hell is going on, and instead just springs into action, fighting Hitler, his random Nazi’s, and a surprise came from the Red Skull who is hiding behind a doorway to sucker punch Cap. He kicks a lot of ass, including smashing Hitler’s face against some other Nazi’s head like a violent Moe Howard, and manages to untie Bucky. Cap’s thrilled to see his best friend and partner alive and well again, and decides that he needs to try to fix things, and keep Bucky safe. So, the two escape from the castle that Cap randomly found himself in, and the pair begin running through the forests, attempting to escape the Nazis and keep Bucky alive. Unfortunately, Bucky ends up getting ahead of Cap, and when Cap starts to chase after him he finds himself running right back into Mister Buda’s meditation chamber.
Cap’s obviously pretty shocked by this, and angry, because he just got to see his best friend alive, only to have it all fade away. And it doesn’t help that Mister Buda’s explanation is basically that this was just a taste of his awesome powers. Buda is still hoping that Captain America will take him up on his offer to travel through time, and decided to sell him on that by making him relive some of the darkest moments of his life. Which, doesn’t work! But, Cap remains pretty kind, and says that despite the rage he feels, he just doesn’t think he wants to go along with the plan. The two then shake hands, and Cap leaves, this time without having to deal with any psychedelic shenanigans. However, as soon as he get outside, and into a cab, strange things happen again. Because, against Cap’s will, he’s tossed backward in time yet again, this time ending up in Philadelphia circa 1776.
Yep, Cap is now in the time of the Declaration of Independence, and finds himself dressed more than a little outlandishly. People start flocking to him, baffled at the strange way that he’s dressed, and he really doesn’t have any idea how to explain it away, other than making UFO references, which they also don’t understand. But, the attention eventually gains him a more constructive audience. Benjamin Franklin! Cap has been brought to his attention, and he sends out a young boy to bring Cap to him to talk. It turns out that Franklin is interested less in Cap himself, and more in the strange costume he’s wearing. He’s very enamored with the design of it, and it’s finally given him the idea he needed. So, Franklin calls in a friend of his named Betsy, and the two get designing a flag. That’s right! Captain America just got involved in a paradox, and by going back in time thanks to a prank from some weirdo named Mister Buda he’s inspired the design of the American flag, which then will inspire his own costume, creating an insane loop. Or, as Steve succinctly puts it.
Well Steve, that’s what you get when you trust Benjamin Franklin. That dude’s not to be believed at all. I mean, he slept with Doctor Strange’s girlfriend Clea. And yes, this is a true fact in Marvel history, and I would love to tell you more about it, but Steve Englehart quit Marvel in the middle of the story, so it didn’t end up getting finished, meaning that other than an incredibly strange moment where Ben Franklin sleeps with Clea, there’s not much else to the story.
Captain America is very disturbed by the fact that he just got involved in an insane time paradox, and decides to flee from the building. He starts just running through the streets of Philadelphia, trying to escape his insane surroundings, before finding a little nook for him to hide in. But, while he’s catching his breath and trying to come to terms with the strange mark he just made on history, he finds himself sliding through time once more again. This time to Manhattan in the 1930’s. He chats with some strangers who are also confused about his costume, and chats with a rambunctious young newsie, until things are made problematic when a group of mobsters show up to rough the kid up. Cap fights back for the boy, and ends up scaring the mobsters off, deflecting their bullets with his shield and causing them to flee for their lives. The little boy then starts talking about how some day he’s going to be a famous artist, and that he’ll tell stories about the man who saved him, and just when you start to realize that Captain America just met Jack Kirby as a child, he travels through time once more.
This time Cap finds himself in the dusty American Southwest, with a whole bunch of guns being pointed at his face. These guns belong to a group of American Indians who are being led by none other than Geronimo. His men initially want to just shoot Cap, since he’s a white guy dressed in the flag of the people who are committing a genocide against them, but Geronimo tells them to hold off, and calls Cap over to talk. The two end up having a chat about how horrible it is that the white men are killing Geronimo’s people, and that they should all just live in peace, when a sudden attack begins. A group of Union soldiers have arrived and they begin shooting at Geronimo and his men, causing a massive battle that the Apache have no choice but to defend themselves in. Cap does his best to calm things down shouting at the Union soldiers that this battle makes no sense, and that they’re all Americans, when the mark on his hand begins glowing again and he’s sent forward in time again.
The next thing Cap knows he’s underground in a coal mine which has recently had a cave in. He’s saved by a group of miners, who drag him out of some rubble and fill him in on what’s going on. They’ve been trapped in her for a while, and it doesn’t seem like things are going to end well. A couple of the miners have been trying to keep some hope up, but things are getting dire. Cap promises to help them in any way he can, and that promise ends up becoming important when a pocket of natural gas opens up, threatening the men. So, to help, Cap ends up using his strength to rip his way through some of the rubble, providing the men with a way to escape. Cap’s saved the day yet again, and for his reward he ends up being sent through time again, this time ending up in a pretty precarious position.
Whoops! Cap has just appeared inside of a biplane during World War I, being chased by what appears to the Red Baron himself. He doesn’t really have any experience with planes this old, but he gets the hang of it quick enough to participate in a dogfight with the Baron, not exactly flying circles around him, but carrying his own. He’s even able to get away from the Baron when he pulls off a little maneuver that lets him slip through a pair of trees while the Baron gets the wings of his plane ripped off.
And that’s all that happens in this jump. No grand insights, just a little bit of plane warfare. After Cap deals with the Baron he ends up jumping back to present day, where he meets up with Mister Buda again. And Cap is not pleased. He demands that Buda takes the mark off his palm, and that he’s become jaded about the fact that all of American history seems to revolve around fighting. But, Buda seems to be displeased with these feelings, and decides to send Cap back in time again, this time to the late 1800’s and into the ring with boxing legend John L Sullivan. Sullivan doesn’t really question why this strange man materialized in front of him while wearing a weird costume, and just starts fighting with him. Cap doesn’t really want to fight this man for no reason, but ends up getting into the spirit of things, and actually starts sparring with him. Unfortunately, Captain America has the super-soldier serum flowing through his veins, so it’s not exactly a fair fight.
People aren’t very pleased with this outcome, but that doesn’t matter much, because as soon as Cap knocks Sullivan out some police arrive to raid what was apparently an illegal boxing match. And, in the ensuing chaos, Cap finds himself thrown through time once more, this time landing in right in the path of a group of scumbags who are planning to abducting a runaway slave and dragging him back down to the South. Cap’s obviously pretty aghast at the situation that he finds himself in, and prepares for a fight with the slavers. Cap really wants to beat these bigots up, but worries that it might end with the poor man they’re after being killed, so tries to exercise some caution.
Well, until a nearby farm boy notices the standoff and decides to get things started. He takes a shot at one of the slavers, starting the battle. Cap then takes control of the battle, and starts beating the hell out of the assholes, knocking them all unconscious and giving the man who was once a slave, and unfortunately doesn’t get a name in the story, the chance he needs to escape. Once the slavers are taken care of the two have a quick chat, and Cap tells the guy that humanity isn’t necessarily as horrible as this guy’s experience has been. Cap tells the guy that they can consider themselves friends, and they go their separate ways, giving Cap his chance to be sent through time again, but not before giving us a weird twist over the identity of that little boy.
Cap then begins riding off into the sunset on a stolen horse, when he’s sucked forward in time, being dumped out into the barren American Southwest again, but this time in the 20th century at least. Unfortunately, he’s immediately then picked up by a group of Army MP’s who are stunned to find Captain America himself in their neck of the woods. They invite him to be their honored guest for a special demonstration, and he hopes into their Jeep and goes with them. And, as you might have guessed, it turns out that Captain America has been popped into Alamogordo, New Mexcio just in time to watch the Trinity test. So, Cap gets to sit back and watch a group of scientists test out an atomic bomb which would shortly be used to kill shocking amounts of people in Japan, all of which Cap knows.
And as Cap is watching the fiery explosion in horror he’s sent through time once again, this time landing in Chicago in 1871, the night of the Great Chicago Fire. He springs immediately into action, doing his best to save as many people as he can. He uses his shield and strength to break people out of burning buildings, save them from falling debris, and just generally guide everyone to safety. He gradually pushes everyone to safety on the Chicago river, before falling into the water and battling some goddamn sharks. He’s traveled in time once more, but it’s not quite clear when or where he went this time, but it appears to be closer to modern day, because after fighting the sharks he ends up getting picked up by some scientists who take him to a weird underwater laboratory.
This doesn’t really lead anywhere though. The scientists save Cap’s life, and almost immediately he’s transported through time again, landing in Mister Buda’s home once again. The two start bickering once again, and Cap feels pretty cynical. He assumes that Buda’s whole goal was to show him how monstrous American History is, and he accepts that it’s not all monuments and patriotism, but that he still believes in the inherent goodness of people. But Buda doesn’t accept this, and ends up upping his game, sending Cap into the future this time.
Cap finds himself on the moon, in a special space suit, and watching some sort of battle beginning. Two armies begins blasting each other with laser guns, and Cap has to just watch as Americans of the future continue their endless battles with each other. He has no idea what’s going on, and before he can work on figuring out what this battle even means, he’s sent back in time once more. And this time he appears on a studio lot during the Golden Age of Hollywood, with a whole bunch of confused actors and directors. Cap’s disorientated, like usual, but he does catch the eye of some producers, who decide that his overly patriotic garb would be perfect to feature in a new film. So, against his wishes, Cap is tossed into what appears to be a patriotic Busby Berkeley movie, which leaves him perhaps the most uncomfortable of his entire trip.
But, for some reason, this is the straw the broke the camel’s back. Cap starts flipping out, makes them stop the production, and begins screaming into the heavens, demanding that Mister Buda bring him back to the present, for good this time. And, actually listening, Mister Buda transports Cap to some strange Brechtian set where the two start debating. Cap is officially sick of Mister Buda’s shit, and demands that they stop this whole charade. Cap wants to know why he was put through all of this nonsense, and demands that Mister Buda explain himself. Which doesn’t work. Buda starts saying that he wants to show Cap why America is the way that it is, what makes it great, and what makes it troubling.
And, to finally finish the quest, Buda agrees to tag along with Cap for one final adventure. The two then begin bopping around time, looking at nice things for a change. Which seems pretty shitty, sine Buda kept sending Cap to the worst possible places. They stop by the American South to chat with an old man who plays them some bluegrass music, then zip to a ghetto in New York where they watch an underprivileged kid who is working his way into a good school to make a difference in the world, before finally landing in a park full of kids. Buda disappears at this point, and Cap gets to talk with a group of kids who want to talk about heroism. The group of creepy children then look straight at the reader and begin talking about everything that Jack Kirby thinks makes America a great country.
When I first heard about this issue, I assumed it was just going to be a weird little oddity. Jack Kirby had a whole lot of clout at Marvel, and after his return they seemed to be willing to give him anything he wanted in order to keep him in the House of Ideas. So, a huge story written and drawn by Kirby that just followed Captain America through history so that Kirby can draw all sorts of famous historical events seemed a tad self-indulgent. But, surprisingly, I found myself really drawn to this issue. Yeah, it’s a bit goofy, full of weird gags like Ben Franklin stealing Cap’s costume design for the American Flag, or the utterly bizarre John Brown reference, but I think that the issue actually had a lot to say.
Jack Kirby was a surprisingly enlightened man. Despite being born in 1917 the man seemed very open to the changing times he found himself in, open to different points of view and all manner of equality. He seemed to hate injustice and intolerance, and spent his life creating stories about men and women who devoted their lives to helping the common man. And, in the end, that’s what the thinks is best about America. It’s honestly a pretty fantastic viewing of America. This issues doesn’t look away from the fact that Americans haven’t been that great to themselves or others. We’re a reactionary, violent, and petty people who seem to jump on any sort of weakness. And Captain America should be an icon of that. It’s easy to dismiss Captain America as a very jingoistic character, a hoo-rah personification of America. You could make Cap a monster, someone who thinks that America can do no wrong, despite all the horrors that this nation has done. And yet, everywhere Cap goes he finds himself able to convince people that despite the horror that they’re experiencing, there’s still good in the world. Cap isn’t a reflection of what America is, he’s an idea of what America could be. He convinces a runaway slave the life gets better by showing him some friendship, he saves people no matter what it could do to him, and he argues that everyone should be considered Americans no matter what they look like. Kirby really and truly believes in an America where people coming together, getting past their differences, and living lives of empathy and altruism is the best possible world. And he’s right. We live in a terrible world, and America is in awful shape. And yet, we can’t give up hope. Things are dire, and it seems like it’s just going to get worse and worse from here. And yet, if we can be like Cap, if we can believe that everyone deserves to live in the version of America that we’ve always claimed it could be, the world would be a better place. It’s never been great, but it could be if we we worked for it.
So, this Fourth of July I hope you take the message of Jack Kirby and Captain America to heart, and be your best self. Be good to other, help people in need, and accept the disenfranchised for who they are. I’ll spend July regaling you in other strange stories from the history of Captain America. And, just as a little hint, things are going to get a tad hairy.
Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles was written and penciled by Jack Kirby, inked by Barry Windsor-Smith, Herb Trimpe, and John Romita, colored by Phil Rachelson, and lettered by John Costanza, 1976.
Categories: Marvel Madness