This volume of Captain America adventures is about 1/3 Jack Kirby stories and 2/3 stories tales from other journeyman Marvel talent. I'm not sure why the people behind the Essentials reprints didn't just expand Vol. 5 so that all of the 1976-77 Jack Kirby run could be collected in a single volume. Maybe they figured that splitting it up would be a good way to get people like me to buy both volumes. If so, well played you bastards.
The advantage of this split though is that it does create an interesting opportunity to compare Kirby's work to what others were doing at the time, illuminating the strengths and weakness of both. And Kirby still comes out on top.
Kirby is (rightfully) one of the most highly regarded comic creators of all time but his 70s work is problematic. His art style had evolved in a lot of ways: The lines were heavier, the characters blockier, and his ability to drawn anatomy and facial expersions - never the best - grew worse. A lot of it veered towards caricature. Nevertheless it was still bold and exciting, filled with energy and a mastery of depth that made the characters seem to leap off the page.
More problematic was his writing. Kirby came up with all sorts of great characters and concepts but he had trouble bringing them into focus. His plots and dialogue were clunky at best and his emphasis!! of always!! using lots and lots!! of exclamation points!!! was tiresome!
This volume kicks off with a 10-issue arc by Kirby in which Cap in civilian clothes is, for no reason that makes any sense, kidnapped and dragged off by thugs who never realize he is Cap. He finds himself in a banana republic Latin American country run by a nasty dictator called the Swine who runs horrific forced labor camps. After building up the Swine for three issues Kirby then abruptly kills him off-panel by a monster created by a mad scientist called Armin Zola. Zola is working for the Red Skull and whisks Cap off to his castle in Europe. There Zola reveals plans to place Hitler's brain in Cap's body. Meanwhile, the plight of the people in the labor camps is completely forgotten and the Falcon flies to Central America and is attacked by a giant bird in another plot thread that is never resolved. Anyway, Zola's plan collapses when the Swine's Latin bombshell cousin - who suddenly, inexplicably switched sides and joined Cap several issues earlier - just happens to find some chemicals that Zola had lying out that cause his entire "living castle" to suddenly die, covering Zola and the Skull in rubble.
There are some great ideas in there, like Zola himself, a genuinely freaky-looking creation. The execution is really messy though. Kirby needed a strong editor to bring focus to his tales, but by this point he was insisting on working on his own and nobody could tell him no.
The Kirby tales end abruptly. Sales fell badly at the title during his tenure and he was kicked off of it. The title then switches to a series of writers like Roy Thomas, Steve Gerber, Don Glut and Roger McKensie with art mainly by the ever-dependable Sal Buscema. The switch is stark. The Kirby tales seemed to exist in their own universe. These tales are much more standard 70s Marvel fare. They are also fairly weak.
Thomas kicks off a long-running storyline in which Cap tries to rediscover his life as Steve Rogers before becoming Cap, much of which he has forgotten. There is no big revelation here, just a long tale of Cap moping around wondering "who" he "really is". Meanwhile the Falcon, after nearly hundred issues, is unceremoniously dumped from the title.
While the Kirby tales had their faults they are a lot better than this weak tea.