The story of this essay is one of my own hubris. In November 2018, I started to write about the importance of Sam Wilson, both to Steve Rogers personally and to Captain America as a concept; the notes for that document ran to 36 pages, and yet the document remained incomplete. Sad to say, given how long the process of clipping panels was taking, I hit a wall and gave up on the endeavor. Clearly, I don’t have quite the same tenacity as Steve Rogers himself.
However, the very length of that outline speaks to the hubris of my initial idea. The reality is that Sam Wilson as a character is far too important to be covered in only one essay. Consider that Sam Wilson’s introduction led to the very title of the comic changing for 88 issues – or 47% of a Claremont – in a row. For more than seven years, then, Captain America was not a solo character but one part of a duo.
In this essay, I want to begin our examination of Sam Wilson’s role by, appropriately enough, starting from the beginning. The broader context and environment is crucial here, because Sam Wilson enters the narrative at one of the lowest points in Steve Rogers’ life: the Red Skull has regained possession of the Cosmic Cube (which is way more powerful than any mere Tesseract), which in this story functions as a cross between the literal Demiurge and an infinite wishes genie:
Captain America, being who he is, decides not to “pay homage to your acknowledged master” and instead chooses to fight God barehanded. As one might expect, this doesn’t go so well, but as with most existential struggles, the point is that Cap refuses to give in to an unjust God or to break when subjected to mind-bending Lovecraftian torture:
Like the top-quality supervillain he is, the Red Skull isn’t satisfied with the mere physical victory of flinging his opponent “a thousand dimensions away” So in order to finally break Captain America’s indomitable spirit, he hits on the most terrifying torture known to man: identity theft.
For once, this strategy actually makes a lot of sense. As an inherently ideological hero, there is little that Captain America fears more than an attack on his reputation among his fellow citizens. The Red Skull’s Grand Theft Me plan threatens to weaponize that very bond with the common man, turning Cap into a vector for Nazi ideology. Making it all the worse is that Rogers can’t really fight back on the battlefield of public opinion while wearing the Red Skull’s face. (People who made it through Secret Empire will note that this Cap-turns-evil storyline is surprisingly familiar; I would argue that this version is way more meaningful on a psychological and political level than what Nick Spencer put together.)
However, the Red Skull is way too much of a vaudevillian villain to start with such a straightforward scheme. Instead, Schmidt’s initial plan is to force Sharon Carter to shoot her lover while Cap is trapped in the body of his hated enemy for maximum drama. (Not the last time that Steve and Sharon’s relationship will involve her pulling a gun on him under some form of “all-consuming compulsion.” If they ever go to a relationship counselor, that poor bastard has their work cut out for them.) In a twist that would surprise precisely no genre fan, the nigh-omnipotent Red Skull is foiled…by the power of love:
Outraged that he’s been defeated by the equivalent of the Care Bear Stare, the Red Skull banishes his body-swapped nemesis to a Caribbean island that has been conquered and colonized by his Nazi boy band, the Exiles, who are best known for outlawing love:
is the context in which Steve Rogers meets Sam Wilson on the island of
forbidden love: as far as he knows, he’s permanently trapped in the Red Skull’s
body (for really stupid story reasons, it turns out that the titular cranium is
“really just a mask,” allowing Steve to pass as a totally generic white dude,
but with black hair) and will never be Captain America again, and suddenly he
meets a freedom fighter seeking to liberate black people from Nazi oppression:
meeting gives Cap a way out of his identity crisis: because he might not come
back, either as Captain America or because he’s lowkey planning to die fighting
God, he sees Sam Wilson as his replacement. (For his part, Sam Wilson’s
relationship with Steve Rogers is permanently shaped by the fact that, virtually
uniquely in the Marvel Universe, because of the body-swap, Sam got to know
Steve Rogers the person before he met Captain America, the living legend.) Steve
offers on the spot to train Sam to be a super-hero:
If all of this Grecian wrestling on the From Here to Eternity beach strikes you as a bit Tom o’ Finland, you’re not wrong. Whether intended or not, there is a robust queer subtext to Gene Colan’s pencils – from the “camera” angles and framing, to how Sidney Poitiers was the clear inspiration for the portraiture, to the composition of Sam’s frequently shirtless torso – that will only become richer in future installments of A People’s History of the Marvel Universe. Particularly significant for the purposes of this column is the fusion of the romantic with the ideological and super-heroic, as Steve and Sam’s relationship is forged in overthrowing a Nazi regime:
While Sam and Steve re-enact the Haitian Revolution, the Red Skull’s long con plan to destroy Cap’s reputation is undone by the fact that he can’t handle people liking him:
Once again, the Red Skull’s Nazi ideology – in this case, his anti-populist belief in social hierarchy (and no, it’s not an accident that Schmidt recoils from the admiration of a black family and immediately begins reiterating his belief in the subordination of the masses by the master race) – proves to be his undoing, because he can’t deal with ordinary people. First, when Schmidt tries to ruin Cap’s reputation by making him look like a publicity-obsessed gloryhound, he freezes up when the free press asks him the mildest of questions:
Almost thirty years of experience in building doomsday devices and hiding out in volcano bases turns out not to be very good preparation for dealing with public relations. Second, the Red Skull is literally chased out of town by the sheer Beatles-like intensity of Cap’s fanbase:
Once again, the kids are all right. Foiled by a bunch of meddling kids, the Red Skull succumbs to a fit of villainous egoism and decides to use his godlike powers to revert the body-swap, thus giving Cap the ability to fight back:
And so where Cap failed on his own, Captain America and the Falcon unite against the psychological torment of the Cosmic Cube, using the power of teamwork – and some unseen assistance from M.O.D.O.K, who doesn’t like the Red Skull biting A.I.M’s style – to confuse and baffle the Red Skull until he bobbles the Cube and goes out like the Wicked Witch of the West:
And so, their friendship tempered in the heat of battle, Captain America and the Falcon are anointed as a superhero duo – with the Falcon, officially the first African-American superhero, declared the protector of Harlem and Steve continuing in his role the Man out of Time:
the presence of the crowd suggests, Captain America and the Falcon’s
partnership would be a way for Stan Lee and Gene Colan to Talk About Race in
America – for good and ill. But that’s a subject for the next People’s History of the Marvel Universe…
 While Some Anvils Need to Be Dropped, there is a certain awkwardness that comes with two white creators dropping a black character into the narrative for the sole purpose of saying that Steve Rogers is “one man with soul.” One of the running themes of this and succeeding essays about Sam Wilson is going to be the more than occasional awkwardness that comes from two well-meaning white liberal dudes in their mid-to-late 40s opining on race relations in late 60s/early 70s America. See also in this story where Sam Wilson describes himself as a “big city brother” from the “swinging slums of Harlem.”
Avengers Assemble! The Endgame is upon us, and everyone is on the edge of their seat! We may not know what’s going to happen, but one thing’s for sure, when we come out of the movie we’re going to want some cool collectibles of our favorite characters! Luckily, new Avengers Endgame Minimates have just assembled in Walgreens stores and comic shops nationwide!
Four two-packs are now available exclusively at Walgreens stores, each pairing two cast members from the sure-to-be-blockbuster film – Iron Man with Thanos, Black Widow with Hawkeye, Hulk with War Machine, and Quantum Suit Captain America with Quantum Suit Rocket. That last pack also includes alternate parts to turn Captain America into Thor, complete with Stormbreaker!
In comic shops now, a special exclusive Marvel Minimates box set brings four more figures – including alternate looks to create more characters – into the game! The set includes Tony Stark in his Quantum suit, with alternate heads for Hawkeye and Ant-Man; Black Widow with an alternate head for Nebula; Quantum Suit Hulk and Quantum Suit War Machine. Buy two sets to get all the bodies you need to make all the characters!
Each 2-inch block figure features 14 points of articulation and fully interchangeable parts.
Today’s the day, Earthlings. The surviving Avengers and their allies gather for their last stand against the Mad Titan, Thanos! And we celebrate with… extremely well-made action figures! The fine folks at Hasbro have provided us (for free, and for the purposes of review) the new assortment of Avengers Endgame Marvel Legends. Thank you, Hasbro, for sending these along! While I often break up full assortments, we’re going to dive right in with all seven figures and the very imposing armored Thanos build-a-figure.
Captain America: The sole figure without a BAF piece in the assortment, Cap comes with the most obvious accessory for Cap, his shield. The shield is a new take, however; the past few Cap figures have come with similar, if not the same, shields, while this one has a slightly different color palette and a raised texture. It’s a nice bit of detail. Also nicely detailed is Cap’s outfit, which should be familiar to viewers of the various Endgame trailers. The head sculpt here uses Cap’s mask, but I think that it’s also a good likeness of the Evans jawline as the same time. I was kind of lukewarm on the idea of the various Avengers in this outfit, but seeing this one out of the package kind of makes me want to pick up that Target exclusive two-pack of Hawkeye and Black Widow in these costumes with the extra heads (Ant-Man, Nebula, Iron Man). It’s well-done.
Ronin: The team kind of outdid themselves with this one. Ronin is an obsessively detailed figure with a number of cool touches. The outer hood is removable, but the figure looks good either way. The head looks great, with the paint apps on the eyes being particularly effective. There are lots of subtleties in the overall sculpt, and details from the comics, like the flourishes on the boots, are in evidence here. A functional scabbard is attached to the figure’s back. Additionally, the figure includes three more accessories: a longer katana, a smaller ninjatō, and a hand throwing shuriken. These are all well-made, with the two blades easily fitting into the figure’s hands. In the pictures, I sheathed the katana and swapped the left hand for the shuriken-throwing model to give you an idea of the effect. I really like what Hasbro did here. I have a feeling that, among individual sellers, this is going to be a really popular selection from this assortment.
Citizen V: I’ll drop all chill here: I’ve wanted a Citizen V figure since the first issue of Thunderbolts by Busiek and Bagley dropped in the ‘90s. And now that it’s here, it’s awesome. It feels like someone peeled Bagley’s art from the page and shook it until expanded into 3D. The cape in particular is super-cool; the design and sculpt have real weight to it. The saber is another in a seemingly endless line of cool accessories from Hasbro; it’s totally appropriate and looks great. It’s interested how the creative team was able to give the figure personality in spite of it not really have a face (due to the nature of the mask). But everything is there in the sculpt. I was shocked and delighted when the figure was announced, but seeing it out of the package? Still delighted.
Nighthawk: Here’s another from my long-time list. I was a big fan of the classic Defenders, so I’ve been waiting on the ML version of this guy for quite some time. I loved Citizen V’s cape, but Nighthawk’s cape/wing structure is the MVP of this assortment. The figure has so much presence. The claw details on both hands are really good as well. I know that he might seem a bit more obscure today, but Nighthawk was a mainstay of the Defenders of my youth, and I’m really glad that Hasbro saw their way to include the character. I haven’t figured out shelf-space for him yet exactly, but I take a picture of his future home of the Defenders shelf. Nice one, Hasbro.
Ebony Maw: Rejoice, because Hasbro has given to you this child of Thanos! That’s right; Thanos’s hype man, the telekinetic Ebony Maw, makes it into figure form a year after his Black Order siblings Cull Obsidian and Proxima Midnight. The Maw was a crucial part of Infinity War and turned out to be a much-requested character; apparently, he was always up the design team’s sleeve. Straight out? Ebony Maw is cool as hell. He’s much taller than I expected, and solid. The facial sculpt is excellent, as are the fingers; the left hand is made in a such a way that it actually allows the “hush” pose immortalized in the trailers. The costume details are exacting, as usual. When I open Corvus Glaive for next week’s column, I’ll do a shot of the Black Order and Thanos all together. For now, just now that this is a particularly strong entry in an already strong assortment.
Living Laser: First off, I’m always happy to see new villains added to the mix. Secondly, I’m glad that the Living Laser finally made it to the 6” scale, after being introduced to figure-life in the 3.75” expression. I have a bit of soft disappointment that he’s not in the original costume (or, at least the one he wore in Avengers #164 to #166, which is one of my all-time favorite Avengers stories; speaking on which, can we get THAT version of Count Nefaria?). Regardless of my personal preferences, I can say with some satisfaction that this is a good, solid figure. The paint ops are cool, and I like how the electric design elements into the arms sort of segue into the attachable energy accessories. Also, the color on this figure isn’t quite like the color of any other figure, which is sure to make it stand out on the shelf. Not my favorite of the group, but rather good, nonetheless.
Hercules: Damn, kids. This Hercules figure is GREAT. That expression is terrific. It’s the perfect combination of bemused self-satisfaction, mirth, and arrogance that you’d expect from the Lion of Olympus; additionally, the blue of the eyes just leaps off the sculpt. This is another figure with some heft to it, and that lends some extra dynamism to the posing. The accessories are another home run, with great mace and sword interpretations packed alongside an extra pair of hands (two open, two closed fists). The costume is the more modern version that Herc has sported for some time, notably recently in the Waid/Zub/Ewing sagas No Surrender and No Road Home. It’s a quantum leap from the Hercules released in 2007 (and that one wasn’t bad).
Thanos BAF: I should have saved that “damn.” This armored Thanos BAF is a wicked new version of the character. It’s pretty massive, and that face is ANGRY. Look how pissed this guy is! Contrast that with the borderline happy face from last year’s Infinity War BAF. That guy looked amused at his own villainy; this guy looks like he’s ready to kill heroes while stomping on puppies. The detail work is super-impressive, from the Infinity Gauntlet itself to the various notes on the armor. I’m not sure what the name of Thanos’s weapon is, but Good Lord, it’s huge. There was some question initially as to why you’d do another BAF Thanos already; the answer is that because they could make one that looks like this. THIS is an epic villain.
Listen up, all. Hasbro gave us all a very, very strong
offering with this set. There is dynamic character work across the board, the
accessories are on-point, and the BAF is just badass. It also has four
characters with no prior Marvel Legends representation at all (Living Laser, Citizen V, Nighthawk, Ebony
Maw), updates of two characters that received figures over a decade ago (Ronin
and Hercules), one fan favorite in a different costume (Cap), and a hugely
popular BAF villain, which is, of course, perfectly balanced. This is really
great work, and I’m sure it’s going to go over really well with fans.
SNEAK PEEK: Next week, I’m taking a look at the Wal-Mart Exclusive Marvel Legends Loki and Corvus Glaive two-pack! Here’s a quick picture of that to get you ready. Come on, readers; let’s talk. Post your comments and get in the conversation.
Just a week before Avengers: Endgame hits theaters, Beast Kingdom is rewarding fans with a new line of PREVIEWSExclusive Mini Egg Attack figures featuring Captain Marvel, Captain America and Iron Man and two new PREVIEWSExclusive Egg Attack Action figures featuring Ronin and Black Widow!
Featuring fan favorites from the most anticipated superhero movie of the year to life, Beast Kingdom is proud to present the latest in their range of Mini Egg Attack figures: MEA-011 Avengers: Endgame Statue series! Based on their character designs from Avengers: Endgame, these detailed, hand-painted statues of Captain Marvel, Captain America, and Iron Man measure about 4″ tall. These dynamically-posed Avengers characters feature special effects that truly make them pop!
Beast Kingdom’s latest additions to the Egg Attack Action family feature two of the deadliest characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Ronin and Black Widow. Born through immense pain and suffering, Roninthe mysterious, hooded assassin, carries his katana just like a samurai to avenge the fallen. With his Samurai Sword and the included Sheath, the EAA-081 Ronin PX Figure also features movable eyes and 28 points of articulation for dramatic and movie-accurate posing! His real fabric one-piece suit and black hooded jacket retain Beast Kingdom’s signature focus on detail, while highlighting the buckle and gold rims of the outfit. Ronin includes an exclusive action figure stand with Avengers: Endgame logo and character name.
Black Widow, a symbol of deadly beauty has been a staple of the MCU since her first appearance in Iron Man 2! Even though Natasha Romanoff is only human, her alluring yet precise fighting techniques has solidified her spot in the Avengers. With delicate head carving, and a focus on facial features, the latest Egg Attack Action figure continues the immense level of detail collectors have come to expect from Beast Kingdom! Two faces and a replaceable head allows the dark assassin to convey her different emotions, and with an assortment of weapons including her trusted batons and pistols, Black Widow is ready to join the fight of her life with her fellow Avengers. Black Window features 22 points of articulation and a real cloth uniform with no details spared, from the tiniest of zippers to the stitching!
ThePREVIEWS Exclusive Avengers Endgame MEA-011 Captain Marvel PX Figure (MAR198383; SRP $12.99), Avengers Endgame MEA-011 Captain America PX Figure (MAR198382; SRP $12.99) and Avengers Endgame MEA-011 Iron Man MK50 PX Figure (MAR198384; SRP $12.99), as well as the PREVIEWS Exclusive Avengers Endgame EAA-081 Ronin PX AF (MAR198380; SRP $80.00) and Avnegers Endgame EAA-082 Black Widow PX AF (MAR198381; SRP $80.00) are available now for pre-order at comic shops, with an expected release date of November 27, 2019.
Announced at the “Women of Marvel” panel at C2E2, Tini Howard has signed an exclusive agreement with Marvel.
Howard is writing the current Age Of Conan: Belit, Queen Of The Black Coast limited series, the Thanos six-issue series beginning in April, and also has a story in June’s Guardians of the Galaxy Annual #1. She will also be writing the new Death’s Head series teaming up with artist Kei Zama.
She made her Marvel debut with September’s Captain America Annual #1. You can hear her talk with us on Graphic Policy Radio.
Howard broke in to comics with 2014’s Magdalena: Seventh Sacrament after winning Top Cow’s talent hunt. She also current writes Glow from IDW, The Forgotten Queen for Valiant, and Euthanauts for IDW’s Black Crown imprint.
To people who haven’t read classic Captain America from the 1970s, that factoid might seem outlandish on its own. But the details of how the saga actually unfolded are so baroque that they demand an in-depth exploration.
Rather that starting with an action sequence (as one might expect from a superhero story) or intrigue in the halls of power (as one might expect from a 70s paranoid thriller), Captain America’s struggle with Richard Nixon begins with a slice of life interlude inCaptain America and the Falcon #166:
In the midst of everyday class struggle, Steve Rogers notices a full page advertisement – on the back page of the Daily Bugle, no less! – attacking Captain America as a lawless vigilante, seeking to raise doubts in the minds of the Daily Bugle’s urban working-class audience (given the Bugle’s status as a stand-in for the New York Post and the New York Daily News) as to whether Cap defends them. Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema hint at the ads’ ultimate author through the Daily Bugle’s front-page headline on a presidential address from Nixon, positioning him as Cap’s opposite number both in the media and in morality.
Starting the story off this way is an interesting choice for a genre generally dependent on punching to advance the plot, as Cap can’t really hit back at a foe which is incorporeal, insidious, and above all immaterial. What’s at threat isn’t Cap’s person but his reputation, and more broadly Cap’s vital connection to the American public. We see this much clearer in Captain America and the Falcon #169, where Englehart and Buscema give us a full-page example of the propaganda campaign being waged against our hero:
This television commercial makes the political allegory clear: here, the Committee to Regain America’s Principles (CRAP) is an obvious stand-in for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (which everyone in 1974 knew better as CREEP). More than just Nixon’s re-election campaign, CREEP was the crucial financial link between the Watergate burglars and the White House through which Nixon not only paid the legal fees for the men arrested in the break-in but used campaign funds to attempt to bribe them into not testifying about the White House’s involvement.
The style of this attack ad – which positions Captain America as a dangerous vigilante acting against “recognized legal agencies” like SHIELD, subtly suggests that Captain America’s Nazi punching (note that the “private citizen” shown being attacked by Cap is actually HYDRA psychologist Doctor Faust) should be condemned, raises ominous questions about whether the super soldier serum has driven Captain America mad (shades of faux-populist attacks on “elitist” experts, from anti-vax to Brexit there), and once again raises the question of whether Cap fights for the “law and order” America of the “silent majority” or the America of the student movement and the counter-culture – would also have been familiar to readers in 1974. Only two years earlier, many of them had seen on their television a deluge of attack ads created or funded by CREEP against George McGovern’s campaign, as a part of a deliberate strategy of “positive polarization”:
While this liberal critique of political advertising might seem like an odd choice for an antagonist in a superhero story, this isn’t the first time that Captain America has run afoul of the advertising industry. In issue #157, Cap had already clashed with the ad executive turned snake-branded supervillain Viper and his Serpent Squad (later re-branded as the Serpent Society and later as Serpent Solutions), who’ll get name-checked later in this storyline.
The media angle is particularly appropriate for this storyline, because there were deep connections between the advertising industry and the Watergate scandal. We see this more clearly when Cap goes to confront the bryl-creamed man behind CRAP’s ad campaign:
Quentin Harderman would have been instantly recognized by a 1974 audience as a stand-in for H.R Haldeman, “the President’s son-of-a-bitch.” An ad man at J. Walter Thompson for 20 years, Haldeman had managed Nixon’s failed gubernatorial campaign in 1962 and became Nixon’s Chief of Staff in 1969. Known to history more as the man who Nixon turned to threaten the CIA into pressuring the FBI to drop the Watergate break-in and the other man in the missing 18 ½ minutes of Nixon’s Oval Office tapes, Haldeman had previously been known for bringing Madison Avenue techniques to the White House, organizing tightly scripted public events, establishing the Office of Communications to coordinate messaging, and installing his fellow J. Walter Thompson alumni Ronald Ziegler as Nixon’s Press Secretary.
After this tense
confrontation, Harderman and CRAP set the next phase of their conspiracy into
motion by luring Captain America into participating in a charity boxing match
where his opponent turns out to be the Tumbler, a petty supervillain whose
robberies Cap had foiled. When Cap pursues the Tumbler, an assassin hiding in
the rafters (shades of the second shooter on the grassy knoll) makes it look
like Cap has murdered the Tumbler:
While the Watergate scandal never quite made it to the level of assassinations, both CREEP and Nixon’s “plumbers” were known for using false-flag operations as part of a broader campaign of “ratfucking.” Originating in the fraternity politics of USC where Donald Segretti (future mentor of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove) and the future “mad men” Ronald Ziegler and H.R Haldeman got their start. “Ratfucking” started as a combination of opposition research, ballot-stuffing, and “dirty tricks” aimed at discrediting opponents. As was gradually revealed during the Watergate investigations, CREEP and the U.S Attorney General John Mitchell spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in a campaign to disrupt the 1972 presidential campaign – this included “false flag” operations where Republican operatives like then-20-year-old Roger Stone would steal stationary from the campaigns of Senator Edmund Muskie, Senator Hubert Humphrey, and others in order to create forged letters attacking other Democrats or people of French-Canadian descent.
Similar to his
real-world counterpart, Harderman’s objective isn’t to use the legal system
against Cap – after all, an autopsy would raise unwelcome questions about the
real cause of death – but to discredit him in the court of public opinion. In a
truly baroque complication to an already complicated master plan, Hardeman
organizes a “false flag” jailbreak and deliberately avoids killing Cap when he
gets the chance (something else he shares with other supervillains).
As the bottom two panels emphasize, the point of all of this is to produce images – both of Captain America as a fugitive criminal and Moonstone as the hero bringing him to justice – that can shift public opinion in CRAP’s favor. (We also see Englehart elaborating on his media critique by pointing to both the prurient-yet-prudish audience and the passive news media who let themselves get worked by the Nixon Administration.) It’s also a good opportunity for some costumed fisticuffs in a storyline that is heavy on the talking and light on the usual super-heroic fare:
As antagonists go, Moonstone is almost painfully generic – the costume lacks any visual distinction, the light blue/purple/yellow color scheme doesn’t exactly pop, and the helmet takes away any distinctive facial features without adding anything to compensate – but deliberately so. It’s visual evidence (along with the fact that the reader has already seen Moonstone shoot the Tumbler on behalf of Harderman) that the man who intends to “replace” Captain America is a fraud, an uninspired phony cooked up by Madison Avenue hacks who lacks the deeper ideological commitments that Cap clings to even in his lowest moment.
The purpose behind Harderman’s build-up of Moonstone in the public eye becomes clearer when the pseudo-hero makes an appearance on television (which I’m almost certain is meant to be NBC’s Today Show, then hosted by Frank McGee, although it could well be a pastiche):
This is where Englehart moves from mere allegory to direct political commentary, directly commenting on the Watergate scandal. What this page suggests is that, in Earth-616, Nixon tried to distract the country from the unfolding Watergate scandal through engineering the downfall of Captain America, in the hopes that political whataboutism would tar his opponents or at the very least that Captain America would be unable to speak out about the crisis at the heart of government. In this broader conspiracy, Harderman engineered Moonstone as “the stranger in the midst” who would replace Cap in the imagination of a public desperation to find something to believe in – and at this pivotal moment get “regular Americans” to focus on the conservative goal of “keep[ing] the ship of state afloat,” rather than getting to the bottom of political corruption.
Here we see Englehart and Buscema’s media critique at its sharpest, seeing the media as a passive, spin-regurgitating machine easily manipulated by political operative like Hardeman, and the audience as eagerly “lapping” up vapid celebrity gossip and mild titillation rather than paying attention to the real issues facing America.
Now that the Watergate issue has been brought to the fore, we get to the part of all of the best Captain America stories where Steve Rogers learns to connect his own struggles to broader issues of systemic injustice. And this being the Marvel Universe, the minority group bearing the brunt of repression from Nixon’s campaign and Administration is everyone’s favorite metaphorical minority:
A year before Chris Claremont’s run on the X-Men begins, we see an interesting extension of the mutant metaphor – not just “hated and feared,” mutants are being hunted like animals, not merely by prejudiced mobs but by a corrupt establishment. Indeed, the very language used by Professor X has some interesting connotations within the broader Nixon allegory: the term “open season” was used to describe a series of police shootings of Black Panther Party members which culminated in the shooting of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in December of 1969.
Beyond a mere cameo, Professor X’s intervention is crucial for getting Captain America to see that “the group that hunts you is the same group that hunts us” – the foundational element of solidarity. Moreover, Professor X’s more direct experience with persecution means that he can provide critical context linking Harderman and CRAP to the real enemy, the vast conspiracy at the heart of everything:
While hardly a perfect person – Cap is understandably preoccupied by the being-framed-for-murder thing – this does demonstrate why Steve Rogers is a good ally. Not because he’s perfectly informed or fully enlightened (after all, he does start from a position of asking “how are your problems connected with mine”) but because when he’s confronted with new information or new perspectives, he doesn’t react defensively but rather instantly takes it on board and then acts in solidarity:
As someone who hasn’t exactly been thrilled by how Captain America’s been characterized in crossovers with the X-books from Avengers vs. X-Men up through last month’s Uncanny X-Men #11, I’d like to point out this scene specifically to Marvel’s writers and editors who might think that Cap’s position would be the reflexive defense of the status quo. We already know which side Steve Rogers will come down on in a conflict between mutants and the state, even if it comes down to blows with Nick Fury and SHIELD, because he made that decision forty years ago. Nor is Steve the type to sleep on pressing issues of social injustice – if anything, his instincts are to act in a decidedly militant fashion. (Not that he’d always make the right decision, but rather that his “sins” would be of the “warm-hearted” rather than “cold-blooded” variety, to borrow a phrase from FDR.)
After coming to
blows with SHIELD, Cap and the X-Men succeed into breaking into the Secret
Empire’s base and learn that this “silent, subtle, and sinister war” against
mutants has been launched for the purposes of literally weaponizing prejudice:
Operating on the (sadly, probably
accurate) assumption that no one will miss mutants, the Secret Empire has been
abducting heroes and villains alike to power their doomsday devices, treating
mutant bodies as nothing more than living batteries for their engines of war.
All of which brings us to the question: what is the Secret Empire, and what do they want? As Cap learns shortly before he goes undercover to infiltrate the Secret Empire, he learns that they “like AIM, were originally an arm of HYDRA” who “broke away from the big boys, to try to conquer the world on their own.” This is a particularly significant association, because contrary to what Nick Spencer might argue, HYDRA is an inherently Nazi organization.
Add on to that
already foreboding backstory the particular iconography and rhetoric of the
Secret Empire, a group of white dudes who like to dress up in purple hoods and
robes, stand in orderly ranks and throw one arm up into the air in the
direction of their leader, and plot the overthrow of the United States:
The symbolism might mix and match a bit between Nazism and the Klan – with just a soupçon from the Prisoner in the way that they all go around with numbers on the front of their hoods which they use in place of names when addressing one another – but the overall political direction fairly straightforward. Englehart puts even more of a point on things when he has the leader of the Secret Empire refer to his organization as the “invisible government,” paralleling the Klan’s self-appointed title of the “invisible empire.” As allegory goes, this is hardly subtle, but I don’t think Englehart and Buscema are trying for subtlety; rather, they’re grabbing up the most charged imagery of the worst enemies of America from without and within and hurling it in Richard Nixon’s face.
totalitarian anti-mutant bigots who want to take over the world, the Secret
Empire have a broader plan which ties into what we know about the
Harderman/CRAP conspiracy already:
As it turns out, the Secret Empire’s
plan turns out to hinge on that peculiar neuralgia of the 1970s which Jimmy
Carter so fatefully termed “malaise.” In part reacting to an unforeseen
revelation of a real crisis – the Watergate break-in – and in part
manufacturing a false crisis – the framing of Captain America – the Secret
Empire is deliberately attacking America’s ideals and its faith in its of own
institutions. In such a state of division and despair, the Secret Empire seeks
to use the public’s “desire for a new, untarnished hero” to legitimize a fascist
Because this is
still a superhero comic, however, said coup takes the form not of a military
junta but rather a mutant-powered flying saucer:
Fortunately for the
survival of American democracy and unfortunately for the Secret Empire, Cap’s
infiltration of their secret base allows him to first thwart their doomsday
device and then pummel Moonstone into turning state’s evidence against CRAP and
the Secret Empire both:
The result is a kind of liberal
fantasy of how the Watergate scandal should
Like something out of Aaron Sorkin’s fantasies, the news media does its job and beams the unvarnished truth straight into America’s living room. And unlike the deeply conflicted outcome of the actual Watergate scandal, which saw relatively light sentences and the political rehabilitation of many of the Watergate conspirators, here the whole of the Secret Empire – notably including the “sanitation squad bombers,” a pretty clear reference to the White House “plumbers” – are brought to justice. This time, the long hand of the law reaches all the way into the Oval Office:
While Buscema never shows us Number One’s face – possibly for libel reasons? – Englehart’s portrayal of Nixon’s character is worth commenting on. In some ways, I think Englehart has a surprisingly canny angle (given the comic book nonsense he surrounds it with), describing Nixon as a man who could never be satisfied (after all, Nixon did his level best to steal an election he was always going to win handily), as a man who refused to accept the constraints of legality (hence the creation of the enemy’s list as a way to use the government against his domestic critics, hence the creation of the “plumbers” to pull “dirty tricks” that the CIA and FBI wouldn’t). And while it never came anywhere close to a coup in real life, there was a moment when Nixon was ordered to hand over the tapes where it could have come down to a conflict between the U.S Marshals Service executing a warrant and the U.S Secret Service obeying the orders of the president to block what he considered to be a violation of executive privilege. Finally, Englehart’s use of a poker metaphor as Nixon chooses to commit suicide rather than stand trial (speaking of something that would change America forever) even evokes Nixon’s skill at the game which made him enough money as a Navy ensign in WWII to finance his first red-baiting campaign for Congress.
Despite this complete triumph over the forces of reaction, though, Englehart realizes that Steve Rogers’ idealism has been strained to the breaking point. Thus, rather than exhilarating in his restored reputation or basking in the adulation of the American people, like many of the American people in the 1970s, Steve Rogers has to take his motorcycle and go in search of the American people once again as Nomad…but that’s a subject for a future edition of A People’s History of the Marvel Universe.
 An issue that otherwise focuses on a rather problematic Yellow Peril villain bringing mummies to life in the Museum of Natural History, but I digress.
 Incidentally, Roger Ailes of Fox News infamy got his start putting together Nixon campaign ads in 1968…
 Which at the time that Captain America and the Falcon #174 went to print in June of 1974 was in a highly delicate state, with the House Judiciary Committee beginning impeachment prosecutions against Nixon but before the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to hand over the tapes which would already bring him down. As late as June of 1974, Nixon’s approval and disapproval ratings remained tied, and support for removing Nixon remained below a majority and had actually slightly declined over the spring.