Released in June 1976, this 84-page Marvel Treasury Special—really more of an early graphic novel than a comic—is a massive tribute to Captain America and America herself from Jack “The King” Kirby on the year of the country’s bicentennial. In it, Cap is sent by a strange being named “Mister Buda” on a time travel adventure like no other, visiting various periods in American history to gain perspective on the nation he has dedicated his life to, beyond even his many experiences to date.
(Although Cap’s guide evokes the Buddha at times, he is “revealed” later—that is, retconned—to be an Elder of the Universe named the Contemplator who sends Jeff Mace, the Patriot and the third Captain America, on a similar journey in 1982’s Captain America Annual #6.)
This will be a lengthy post, so buckle up—we’re in for quite a ride.
We jump right in with the first page, which explains Kirby’s plan with this story.
After Buda’s “astral form” returns to his body, he greets a skeptical Cap, who writes off what he sees as the result of hypnosis. Buda ignores this and explains what he wants to do for Cap and, more important, why: to help him serve the American people by understanding them better.
On the other side of the “fold,” Cap finds himself in Nazi Germany during World War II, where he encounters two familiar faces, one a welcome sight and the other… definitely not.
Even the Red Skull shows up, and after Cap defeats all the Nazis—as you do—he reunites with his young partner, while agonizingly unsure about how much he can believe about this whole experience.
After Cap frees Bucky and they escape from yet more Nazis, Cap seems to let himself enjoy this reunion a little bit before he reflexively urges caution, especially in light of what he knows to be Bucky’s ultimate fate.
Good thing he enjoyed it while he could, because once Bucky disappears from sight, Cap finds himself drawn back to Mister Buda’s quarters. (Maybe “pad”—it is the ’70s, after all.)
Buda explains that what Cap saw was real, and guesses why he refuses to believe it. (Maybe he’s actually Doctor Buda, therapist to the superheroes.)
Although he seems to open Cap’s eyes a bit, our hero declines to have his eyes opened more… but he doesn’t have a choice.
Oh Mister Buda, you scamp!
After Cap hops in a cab, his comments to the driver suggest that he’s ready for his journey…
…which begins before he even gets out, when the cab turns into a coach and Cap finds himself in revolutionary times.
It isn’t long before he meets his first celebrity, and Cap is awestruck (and respectful, of course).
Below we see a nifty time-loop:
Below, Cap finally catches on to what is going on and who “Betsy” is. (Let’s give him a break: This must be very strange for him!)
This is actually too much for Cap, who freaks out and runs out of the house. Before he knows it, though, he is transported through time again to the Great Depression, which he lived through as a boy but now sees through the eyes of a man.
Gangster John Dillinger’s cat-and-mouse game with the government lasted from 1933 to 1934, which means the Crawford/Gable movie advertised above would probably be 1933’s Dancing Lady, but that doesn’t explain the large S at the end of the title on the poster. Forsaking All Others came out in 1934, but not until December, whereas Dillinger was caught and killed in July. (For more on the eight films Crawford and Gable made together, see this post at Once Upon a Screen….)
OK, back to our story! Below, Cap steps in to make sure a newsboy gets his nickel, showing his famed disdain for bullies.
While the thug argues with the boy and the beat cop, Cap can tell he’s about to take another Quantum Leap…
…and Jack Kirby draws himself into a comic book yet again!
Cap’s next time jump takes him to the Old West to meet famed Native American leader Geronimo, but only after tussling with his men a bit.
Above and below, Cap gets his first chance in this strange journey to wax lyrical, preaching unity and brotherhood to those who have seen neither from the troopers who pursue them.
If this seems naive of Cap, remember that this journey is meant to teach him new things about America, and perhaps to test his faith in the principles he’s sworn to uphold even when he sees them violated throughout history.
When the U.S. Army comes, we are treated to a magnificent double-page splash from Kirby…
…immediately followed by this rather striking close-up in which Cap futilely tries to make the same argument to the cavalrymen that he made to Geronimo.
The psychic-talisman transports Cap yet again, this time to a collapsed mine shaft in an indeterminate time.
Once the men smell gas, their efforts to find a way out are renewed, with Cap leading the charge, demonstrating his vaunted perseverance. (Speaking of which, it’s a good thing his shield didn’t spark against any of the wood or rock!)
Once he’s found a way out for the miners, Cap jumps through time again, this time to World War I, behind the controls of a biplane.
After sending his plane on a collision course with a German zeppelin, Cap bails out, only to find himself back with Mister Buda, tour guide from hell.
Although Cap began this journey with some appreciation of its purpose, now he seems done with it, whether through frustration or exhaustion. But Buda pushes on, questioning Cap’s love for his country and its people—and Cap takes the bait, unfortunately.
Happily, Cap calms down and admits that experiencing these events was difficult, even for him… and doesn’t even notice that he’s not talking to Buda any more, but…
…legendary boxer John L. Sullivan, heavyweight champion from 1882 to 1892!
Cap holds his own, eventually knocking Sullivan out, only to look up and see what may be the most disturbing trip Cap takes in the book.
Cap knows a principled argument against slavery won’t work with the bounty hunters, so he makes a plea based on the laws of the time.
Even his conciliatory argument fails; as he realizes, these men would rather think with their guns than with their brains.
A nearby boy distracts the bounty hunters and gives Cap and the runaway slave a chance to get the upper hand. (Later, we learn that the boy’s father is none other than John Brown, the controversial militant abolitionist.)
Cap again sounds naive, this time promoting rational discussion about racial equality to an escaped slave…
…but nonetheless, he seems to make a good impression, and Cap ends with a simple message of shared humanity even in the days leading to civil war.
Next, Cap is transported to a military test site, in a time recent enough that he’s actually recognized.
And what is the military testing this day? Oh, just the first atomic bomb.
If this was actually the first detonation, that would place this scene in New Mexico on July 16, 1945—two months after Steve Rogers disappeared, but of course the public isn’t aware that William Naslund is now wearing the stars and stripes (as we learn in 1977’s What If? #4).
Next up: the Great Chicago Fire.
It isn’t difficult for Cap to find someone who needs his help: Below, he counsels a panic-stricken man at the same time he saves his life (and his own) from a collapsing building.
Even as he helps the rampaging crowds away from the fires, he thinks to help a woman with her suitcase. (Such a nice boy!)
“Someone’s in trouble” seems to be a redundant statement during such an emergency, but it serves to trigger his “reflex” and get him in the water…
…where he soon realizes he’s not in the Chicago river anymore. Nonetheless, he finds his shield works just as well underwater, especially when driven by “superb swiftness and ingenuity.”
Ultimately, the effort of fighting the shark takes the last of Cap’s air, but a passing diver sees him and brings him into his sub, where he is recognized (vaguely). Cap dismisses that, though, more interested in acknowledging the researchers’ work (which the researchers surely appreciate).
This stage of Cap’s journey does not last long, as he is quickly recalled to Mister Buda’s lair, and elicits quite the reaction when he mocks the being’s inversion therapy.
Cap defends the way he’s always seen America, but Buda remains unsatisfied, so Cap’s journey continues.
And with that, Cap is transported to the moon in the future, to see a vision of America’s continued conquest and its costs.
The exposition below suggests that further exploration should be focused inward as much as much as outward.
As Cap looks into the vehicle, his view mutates into something completely different, as we see in the innovative panels below (anticipating some of the pages in Watchmen twenty years later).
Cap’s back in the past now, apparently the late ’30s or very early ’40s, judging by comments in a later panel about Cap looking like “one of those new comic book heroes” and the fact that the studio is making patriotic films (as we’ll see) but not obviously war films.
Before Cap can get his bearings, he’s accosted by the studio head and his son-in-law production chief—perhaps modeled after MGM chief Louis B. Mayer and his son-in-law David O. Selznick, although this scene reminds me more of Mayer and Irving Thalberg, the “Boy Wonder” of Hollywood, especially as portrayed in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, in which the Thalberg character was involved with the daughter of the Mayer character.
Remember the USO scenes in Captain America: The First Avenger? Well, imagine those on the scale of a grand MGM musical extravaganza.
As the exposition below suggests, Cap may wish we were back fighting the Hitler and the Red Skull in Nazi Germany!
Kirby isn’t playing these scenes for laughs, but rather to show how Cap feels about merely performative patriotism.
And he’s had enough.
Suddenly the studio and all its personnel disappear, replaced by Mister Buda himself, who urges Cap to calm down and then reveals that he’s pleased with Cap’s progress.
Below, Buda invokes the Eastern focus on the child state as a seat of forgotten wisdom and uncomplicated serenity.
With Cap letting his subconscious fly the plane, their first stop might please Messrs Thoreau, Emerson, or Whitman, but it isn’t enough for Mister Buda.
In other words, inner peace and serenity can be sought but not kept, attained temporarily but not maintained forever. (Maybe Buda is the Buddha after all!)
Next, Cap and his new pal find themselves in the home of a young man pushing against forces trying to keep him down—not excusing injustice, but perhaps working to combat it someday. From this, Cap generalizes to the American Dream, not a guarantee of success but ideally the promise of opportunity, even if imperfect (as represented by our young student struggling against a system working against him).
Cap has finally reached the end of his journey, though not without a little resentment for his host.
Appropriately enough, Cap ends his journey where new ones begin—with children, who I hear are the future. (I trust Cap will treat them well and let them lead the way.)
Hokey as this (and the next pages) may seem, it’s consistent with one of my favorite themes in Captain America stories: that we can all be heroes if we just care enough and help others in ways both big and small.
(I wish we saw more scenes of Cap with kids; this one always reminds me of the fantastic “I Got Rhythm” number from An American with Paris with Gene Kelly, but unfortunately with less dancing.)
The last story pages in Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles are a double-page spread of Cap and the kids expressing their hopes and dreams for the future.
I’ll focus in on a couple parts of the spread that I find most poignant, starting with Cap’s final comments on the American Dream, reflecting optimism tempered by reality.
Flowing from Cap’s comments about finding meaning, several of the children share what that means to them, including what gives them meaning as well as the joy of pursuing it once you figure it out.
I’ll wrap this post up with the final exposition box at the bottom of the image:
It’s inspiring to me that Jack Kirby, who lived through the Great Depression, served in World War II, and experienced anti-Semitism all his life, could maintain such optimism, however qualified by those experiences, and share it with us through this fantastical and magisterial work. Although it’s not regarded by many as seminal Kirby, I think Bicentennial Battles shows us what drew the King back to one of his earliest creations during the 200th birthday of America: Captain America embodied his hope for us as a nation.
Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles, 1976: Jack Kirby (writer, pencils), Barry Windsor-Smith, Herb Trimpe, and John Romita (inks), Phil Rachelson (colors), John Costanza (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Collected in: Captain America: Bicentennial Battles and Marvel Masterworks: Captain America Volume Ten.
By God, that was a COMIC BOOK!
Have a happy July 4th. Kirby was such an amazing, insightful creator. This story is a good reminder of the United States’ complex, complicated, flawed history, of the clash between principles and reality, and the need to constantly work to make the much-lauded American Dream an actual reality for everyone.
I posted a link to this on the Comic Book Historians group on FB.
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Couldn’t agree more, Ben — thank you!
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This is a very nice review. I posted a link to your article on my Facebook page.
Thank you, Mark!
Thank you for this post and for bringing this oversized issue to my attention. It only increases my respect and admiration for Kirby’s utterly unique voice.