The theme this time around is timely for a lot of people: What does an American icon do when American iconography itself goes ass over teakettle? It was timely for Steve Englehart, author of most of the below, as well. Here he is speaking on the inspiration of his storyline:
The important takeaway to me is that Englehart wrote it in response to Nixon and Watergate, but it's not just about Nixon and Watergate. Ditto for the nowadays parallels, wherever they may fall for you.
THE SECRET EMPIRE
Captain America #169 - 176
Captain America #169 - 176
After many adventures together, the Falcon decides to truly keep up with Cap he needs some super powers of his own. Cap recommends the services of Harry Pym or Tony Stark, but the Falcon had someone else in mind: T'Challa, the Black Panther. ("He's black, so it would make me feel easier." Fair enough.) Cap agrees to set up a meeting and leaves for Avengers Mansion to get right on it. On the way, though, he sees a crowd gathered around a storefront window, watching some kind of program on himself.
|Our old friends: C.R.A.P.|
Cap punches his way into C.R.A.P. HQ (run by advertising hard man Quentin Harderman) and agrees to go to a charity event to ostensibly clear his name. It's a set-up, though, and when a villain named the Tumbler is assassinated, it's blamed on Cap. Cap flees the scene and is attacked by a hero-in-the-making (secretly bankrolled and controlled by Harderman) Moonstone.
|Sooner or later this fake-hero/false-flag situation shows up in every Marvel title.|
"The Secret Empire is dedicated to domination - without the people they dominate being aware of it. They often use advertising - or propaganda - produced by their agents on Madison Avenue..."
With some help from the X-Men and Gabe Jones, who helped the Hulk battle the Secret Empire over in his book, Cap and the Falcon, disguised in "City on the Edge of Forever" outfits make their way to Tennessee (home of Moonstone) and finagle to get themselves recruited by the Islamofascist-commie-kinda-anticommie-too-confusingly apparatchiks of the cult.
I'm skipping over all the stuff with Sharon Carter - undercover with the Secret Empire along with Gabe Jones - and her older-sister-later-aunt Peggy Carter - who will strike up a relationship with Gabe in the next section but is for now afflicted with amnesia, pining for her WW2 sweetheart Steve Rogers - and plenty more, but it all leads to a showdown in D.C. where Cap defeats Moonstone and chases the masked head of the Secret Empire - known only as Number One - into the White House itself, where, after a dramatic off-panel reveal, he paints the walls of the goddamn Oval Office with his brains.
So, while everything else was happening in the Marvel Universe, it is strongly implied that Richard Nixon was actually (or concurrently) the head of a cult of thrill-kill SLA John Bircher crazies. And instead of resigning - as all us rubes believe - he actually committed suicide in the White House. (This was written before Nixon's actual resignation. As Englehart alludes to up there, events were happening faster than even his comics-plotting brain could anticipate.) The next time you revisit a Marvel with cover date July 1974 just remember: this was the Watchmen-esque drama down in Washington, DC. Anytime you see Cap after this, this is the horrible secret truth he (and whomever disposed of the body and fed the resigned story/ managed Nixon's hologram appearances for David Frost, etc.) carries in his heart.
|THE MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY |
Captain America #177 - 186
Englehart must have been an optimist. He imagines that Steve's reaction to such a paradigm shock would be to take a step back and self-reflect.
|Hawkeye goads him into donning a mask, again, though, by disguising himself and trying to kill him a few times. For his own good.|
|And thus is born:|
I've always loved this costume from when I first saw it in Marvel Team-Up 146. Meanwhile, the Falcon carries on as a solo act, but various wannabes keep trying to take Cap's place. No one can, of course, although eventually a youngster named Roscoe decides to make a go of it, making up in spirit what he lacks in experience/ skills.
Things don't end well for Roscoe. Which is what prompts Steve to stop his soul-searching and accept his destiny. Before we get to that, though, the villains for this part of the story are the Red Skull and -
|the Viper nee Madame Hydra.|
Madame Hydra frees the Viper from prison - just so she can kill him and take his name. Very metal. She gets the Serpent Squad back together (or maybe forms them for the first time, I can't keep up) and teams up with Krang, the Sub-Mariner's old foe, who has the Serpent Crown, one of the thousands of objects in the Marvel Universe which allows for mass hypnosis and mind control. (Someone needs to Curious Goods this inventory.)
|This time, it's the head of Roxxon Corporation - Marvel's stand-in for Evil Corporations Everywhere making their first appearance here - that gets kidnapped.|
In these last 18 issues of his Cap run, Englehart channels all the malaise of the 70s: cynicism and distrust of government, the energy crisis, extremist groups and terrorism, and fear of corporate conglomerate power. (And lizards.)
Unfortunately, halfway through this story arc Sal Buscema was replaced by Frank Robbins. The effect is jarring. Say what you like about Robbins - I know he had a long and storied career and all possible respect, etc. - but he is an unfortunate mismatch for the tone and pace of proceedings here.
|This is what inspires Steve to become Cap again.|
They never really explain the clothes, here. I mean, was he carrying an extra set? Did he strip Roscoe, somehow repair the damage to the chain mail, then put it on without washing off any of the sweat and blood and what not? And did he leave Roscoe's naked body on the roof? Maybe I missed it. Anyway - the detail above is from the cover of Cap 183, drawn by Gil Kane. Here's how Frank Robbins interprets the same scene in the issue itself:
I mean, is Steve Rogers flailing? Like putting his hands to his face and shaking them at the wrists while shrieking "OMGEEEEEEEEEEEE"? This is fargin' ridiculous and completely punctures what the hell we're supposed to be emotionally processing. How the hell did this fly? Awful. Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come.
The whole Snap Wilson thing is a really odd idea. Many have speculated that Englehart had planned to reveal that the Red Skull’s Falcon revelation was just some psychological torture of the Captain by the Skull but as it was his last issue, he never got the chance. Englehart explains otherwise: "This was one of those things I did where I toss an idea into a story and then see where it takes me. If I’d been the writer, we might have found out that it was true, or we might have found out that it was all a mind-fuck by the Skull, or we might have discovered some third or fourth solution - but I would not know until I ran with it for a while. Since I was not the writer and didn’t run, I have no idea, and when John (left the title after only two issues) the whole thing ended up going nowhere."
|Robbins' art is even more out of place with this kind of stuff.|
People sort of pretended it just never happened until later writers decided to try and clean it up. I'd have done the same. For this as well:
As mentioned here: "'Cage's color is a very slim lead, but it's all I can come up with right now!' Uh, Steve, Cage's color isn't a lead at all. 'Cage is something of a detective' is a pretty good excuse to go to Luke Cage. 'Cage knows the streets of Harlem pretty well and might be able to tell me about anything unusual going on' is a pretty good excuse to go to Luke Cage. 'Cage is black and so is my friend who is missing' is actually a terrible reason to try and get his help." So say we all. At least Cage thoughtfully left a huge note stuck to the plywood covering his office entrance. Before moving on, one last thing:
EVERYONE I DON'T LIKE IS HITLER
The Red Skull tells Cap that he is commemorating the 30th anniversary of der fuhrer's suicide in the bunker. He - and Cap - must have forgotten that Hitler was actually killed by the Golden Age Human Torch and also lived on in a cloned body that became the Hate Monger. I guess neither Cap nor the Skull read either of those 60s FF annuals. Ah well.
GIANT-SIZED AMERICAN ROBOT
Captain America #261 - 263
Captain America #261 - 263
The Nomad next returns in J.M. DeMatteis' first storyline for the title in Cap 261-263. Cap is called to the West Coast to advise on a special film about his life, but as soon as he arrives he finds himself conspicuously upstaged by a mysterious stranger wearing his old Man Without a Country duds.
|Nomad plays the Moonstone role with a mysterious "Teacher" orchestrating his every appearance.|
|Meanwhile, Cap pals around with this We Wear Short Shorts PA.|
Things come to a head when during a parade to promote the film, Cap is attacked by his old foe The Ameridroid, described by our friends at SuperMegaMonkey as "such a dumb idea that it goes back around to being cool again."
The Nomad appears, again to upstage Cap, but the Ameridroid murders him and captures Cap.
|All of which leads to the big reveal of the "Teacher:"|
|He combines all the aforementioned schemes (discredit Captain America through Fake News, raise up a false hero, bewitch the masses through hypnotic media)|
|with the micro-made-macro (Giant-Sized Cap Robot).|
|Cap thinks little of the plan.|
DeMatteis went on the greater things on Cap (such as the very next issue) but the broad strokes of this one are pleasingly meta. Like many a DeMatteis story, it's really a story of lived truth vs. manufactured truth, substance vs. spin, ethos vs. conformity. Cap has gone through the ringer on all these topics in the Secret Empire and original Nomad story; this one recalls them well while demonstrating where Cap is at as a result of having lived through them.
YOU DON'T KNOW JACK
I like how these things from Cap's past keep returning in new forms - sometimes only slightly different (as Cap remarks on the Skull's scheme in the Ameridroid issues above - isn't this just C.R.A.P.'s scheme again?), other times more surprisingly. Such is the return of Jack Monroe aka 1950s Bucky, last seen getting shot by Fifties Cap.
|He got better.|
Things get started with Cap watching old newsreel footage of himself and Bucky and feeling old and man-out-of-time-ish.
|Steve doesn't notice another figure in the dark of the theater.|
50s Bucky (aka Jack Monroe) decides to follow Steve home and tell him what happened to him after they saw each other last: SHIELD detained him then stamped him "No Longer Crazy" and kicked him loose. (With no warning to Cap. Or anyone.)
|Steve greets him in the mighty Marvel manner. But once he explains himself, he's quick to offer the younger man his friendship. Because that's the kind of thing Steve Rogers does, bless him.|
Faster than you can say This Little Greaseball Tried To Ethnically Cleanse Harlem Multiple Times, Steve's got the lad dressed up in one of Bucky's old outfits - who the hell keeps spare Bucky kits in the closet? What a weirdo - and out on patrol, where they're attacked by the Constricter, who's thrown in with our old pal:
|The Viper. (Shooting the messenger)|
|Fresh off a plot in Spider-Woman, who at this point in Marvel continuity was the Viper's daughter.|
Her plan is simple - another admirably-meta mish-mash of all previous Nomad appearances, right down to SHIELD having its own undercover agents in the thick of things:
It all ends with a big air balloon action sequence, which is kind of fun. The real story is the Man Without a Country come back again (that suspiciously recurring player in US history), former American Nazi, rehabilitated. Interesting choice for the visual symbolism of the Nomad uniform. Interesting symbolism all around.
|Cap's drugged up on hallucinogenic drugs for most of the story.|
|Another DeMatteis thematic staple.|
Jack/ Nomad stuck around for the rest of my Marvel-reading days, although Gruenwald turned him into someone else entirely on his watch. We'll look at all that in turn. It's odd, though, that I consider the rehabilitated Jack Monroe here as the real McCoy and not any of his other appearances. First impressions in the comics world last for decades.
NEXT: STERN and BYRNE