It’s a very, very Mad-Bomb.
Our tale begins innocuously enough (once you get past the cover of a menacing Cap against the backdrop of civilization run amok as the result of the Madbomb, but more on that later) with a domestic scene that goes horribly, horribly awry. Where once there was a friendly competition erupts deadly conflict between Captain America and the Falcon. There’s no explanation for the mind-waves that cause all involved to explode into a rage. It simply happens. And as the recovered Cap and Falcon discover, it’s not limited to the once-quiet apartment they’re sitting in.
The entire city has erupted into chaos, rioters running rampant, taking insane glee in the destruction they cause. Luckily, Jack lets us in on things with a helpful caption: “It is the ‘Madbomb’ at work! Unseen and undiscovered, its invisible waves are screaming in a sea of minds – driving the crowds to violence creating a force against which even super-heroes are helpless!” Cap stumbles across the device at the root of this, and though he finally yields to the inner demons that the Madbomb unleashes, he is able to smash the device and bring calm back to the city. And this happens on the sixth story page (no, I’m not counting the wonderful splash page that sets things off, as that’s more a second cover than an actual chunk of story.) Were this a modern comic, we’d be reveling in the characterization as Cap, The Falcon and Leila sipped their coffee while the menace slowly built. Hey, I’m a fan of characterization (sometimes too much of one), but sometimes you want to start off with a bang, and very few do it better than Jack Kirby.
Every panel is driven by tortured and torturous action, and the moments where Cap finally yields to the call of the Madbomb are genuinely disturbing. Brows furrowed and his face crunched into a frightened, angry fist, drool running from the corner of his mouth, Cap struggles to hold onto a shred of his mind, his personality. He can only defeat it by letting go. This is some powerful stuff, folks.
Needless to say, I’m going to have to forego a detailed playback of the plot because there’s SO DAMN MUCH OF IT. It really is amazing how much stuff Kirby crammed into the book. Granted, haters are going to say that it’s all plot-driven nonsense that has no reason to be there other than to give him an excuse to draw crazy stuff, not to mention the dialogue is stiff and ridiculous. Like I said, an acquired taste. What this lacks in depth of overt characterization and complexity, it makes up for with a secret language all its own. And oh yeah, kick-ass action from page one right up until the end.
This is a world where the agents of SHIELD are everywhere, yet their bases are guarded by guys who look like they’re still fighting the Battle of the Bulge. Here, government installations are not laid out by conventional logic, but by how many deathtraps can be jammed in behind the front door: “That’s sheer nonsense! You’re beginning to dramatize the security routing!” Cap declares to Falcon when he notices this. And after an array of potentially lethal traps and deadfalls, who should be waiting at the center of the labyrinth, but…
“You may call me ‘Henny’ if you like,” he says. I tell you, my brain exploded right then and there. But in a good way. He briefs Cap and the Falcon on the various flavors of Madbomb that the government has found: “peanut” being the smallest, to “dumpling” that quite nearly finished Cap to “Big Daddy” which our faceless and conspiratorial villains are cooking up in their underground lair even as we speak. And did I mention that they’re going to use “Big Daddy” to turn the entire US into a madhouse in time for its bicentennial year? And that the bad guys in question are named “Heshin” and “Taurey”? It’s mad, deranged genius it is. But underneath the loopiness is a succinct summation of who Cap’s real enemy is. It isn’t just the Red Skull or Nazis, even though he spends a lot of time putting the hurt on them. “This country had aristocracy then! Men born to be served! Men who lived above the common rabble!” Taurey (dressed in Revolutionary-era finery) is tyranny given a face, a man who believes himself better by accident of his birth and not by any sense of real merit. He is a true enemy of freedom, which is what Cap really stands for, not simply America the geography, but America the ideal.
Yes, this is all tied in with a relatively outlandish “your ancestor killed my ancestor” revenge theme, but when you look at it, Taurey is the anti-America, wishing to return to a time when the elite ruled over what they deemed as subhuman savages (which they’ve done in their subterranean lair already, but wish to impose upon the whole of the US.) Rather quickly, we’re swept up in a bizarre mixture of Brave New World, 1984, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and finally Rollerball. I swear, only in comics would someone be bold enough to put this all together.
Like I said before, by today’s standards, the dialogue and story will be seen as crude (some folks taking great pains to see it as laughably so), but when you embrace it, there’s some great things to be found. Sure, most of it comes from the unrestrained action on the page, but there are moments where something totally unexpected and totally wonderful happens. Moments where bad guys spout lines like “SHIELD is using super-heroes to smash our set-up! What a rotten thing to do!” or Cap says “Think, man, think!! They’re all your daughters!” when talking about the threat that the Madbomb poses, or Falcon declaring “It’s a quarter to Doomsday!” It’s played totally straight, which is what something this big and overblown has to do if it’s got the slightest chance of succeeding.
Very few people do that better than Jack Kirby did. And the man could draw, too. I’m not simply talking about his powerful draftsmanship, here, either. He knew exactly which points to touch on to get the story told, forcefully delivering enough information for the reader to put everything together, emphasizing the actions of the characters to drive the plot with the power of a runaway locomotive. Even such a story point as Steve Rogers’ and Taurey’s ancestral confrontation is resolved powerfully, both in dialogue and in framing. Cap and Taurey face off at arms-length with pistols to their hearts. Instead of beating the villain with his fists, Cap literally beats him with his words and his eyes. It’s a short sequence that would be turned into a HUGE SPLASH SEQUENCE were it done today, but it simply wouldn’t work as well. Kirby emphasizes the tension and raw emotion with a series of close-ups and expressions that are a perfect counter-point to the over-the-top action that came before.
Is Madbomb for everyone? Oh heavens no. But it’s certainly just fine by me.