Captain America #170 (February 1974) (cover by Gil Kane and John Romita)
Steve Englehart/Mike Friedrich-Sal Buscema/Vince Colletta
Doug: Welcome back to the second issue in our romp through the "Secret Empire" storyline. You know, I'm just really at home when we're here in the mid-'70s. These stories are my personal "golden age" of comics, and even though I'm reading from the trade paperback you know I'd be all over the ads, letters page, Bullpen Bulletins -- the whole ball of wax. Pardon me while I wipe a tear from my eye... OK. Enough of that sentimentality -- let's get on with it!
Karen: Aw, don't be ashamed -I'm right there with ya, partner! Let's go!
Doug: It's not so good for Cap as we open. If you'll recall the end of last issue, the Star-Spangled Avenger had been accused of murder, as a fellow we knew to be the Tumbler died in an altercation with Cap. This seems to us to be some sort of frame-up by the Committee to Regain America's Principles (C.R.A.P. to you, friend) and its leader, Quentin Harderman. Harderman's on the scene as the Tumbler falls, and instantly thrusts an accusing finger at our hero. Cap lurches toward Harderman and grabs him by the shirt, pulling him in close in a most-threatening way. The cops nearby take note and rush to the scene. Now Cap's faced with a decision -- fight or flight! Overwhelmed by a sense of paranoia ("...what if they, too, are part of the set-up!"), he decides that escape is his best option. But even as he runs, Cap wonders what he's doing -- is this the sort of example Captain America should set? Is this the training that Steve Rogers received? He pauses at a lamp post, distraught over the events of the past days. Suddenly, Cap's struck down to his knees by a force. Groggily, he turns to face his attacker -- a huge, burly guy who shouts out his name: Moonstone!
Karen: Cap is acting most un-Cap-like! But he's in a situation he really hasn't been in before -one where he's adrift, uncertain who he can trust. And he too has lost the public's trust. It's disconcerting to see Cap so rattled, but I think a lot of that comes from seeing him so solidly in command years later on. And how about Moonstone? I thought Sal gave the villain a unique bulky look that was a lot of fun.
Doug: We're next treated to a dozen panels of the real reason we buy comics -- to see two grown super-powered beings beat the living snot out of each other! Problem is, this one's pretty one-sided, with Moonstone holding serve due in large part to the element of surprise. But we do get to see his powerset: super-strength, quicker than average, and the ability to shoot lasers from his fingertips. Not too shabby. As I said, Cap's pretty much on the ropes in this fight, but I did want to note one panel that seemed silly to me, and that's when Cap is launched toward a brick wall. He says, "Got to... get my... shield around... Cushion the impact!" OK, so his head didn't smack the wall; nope, instead it smacked his shield which went up against the wall. Of course, this isn't as dumb as that panel somewhere in Daredevil when DD was falling to a rooftop and put his hand to the side of his face to cushion said blow. Duh... Moonstone shows one more power before the scene ends -- the ability to disappear and reappear. He uses this last trick to thoroughly befuddle Cap, and it's at that point that a laser blast fells ol' Winghead. Shortly, Harderman's back in the spotlight, hailing Moonstone as the new hero of the people. And the crowd goes wild.
Karen: Even though Englehart didn't script this issue, you have to feel that he must have expressed to Friedrich how Harderman should talk; saying things like "evil must be purged by time honored American competition," thinking of the crowd as "consumers," and Moonstone as "stock" really gets across the corporate baddie mindset here.
Doug: You may also remember that last issue the Falcon had asked Cap to assist him in a power upgrade. Sam had been experiencing feelings of inferiority during this period, as Cap had attained super-strength beyond the advantages the super-soldier serum had bestowed upon him back in the War. Cap had enlisted T'Challa, the Black Panther, at Falc's request. A Wakandan airship had arrived in Harlem to pick up Falc and his lady friend, Leila. Now we see them in Africa, in one of the Panther's high-tech computer labs. Leila immediately grates on my nerves, as does the writing of her speech patterns by authors Englehart and Friedrich. Did Falc really say, "I'm sorry, T'Challa -- this fox isn't known for her tact!" Oh, my... Blaxploitation, indeed! It only gets worse (in my opinion) when T'Challa offers Leila the companionship of one of the "court hand maidens", Tanzika, to show her around the palace grounds while the men tried to figure out how to augment the Falcon's powers. "Court hand maiden"... should I hear "concubine"? After all, this set-up in Wakanda has all the hallmarks of a feudal, even medieval, society -- perhaps even a sense of imperial China inside the Forbidden City. We've discussed before (just a few weeks past) that Wakanda seemed to be very out-of-step with contemporary governments of the West. I know I don't have a handle on how it worked! Anyway, as this is the last Monday in February's Black History Month observance, we'd invite some further commentary from our readers in regard to the portrayal of Blacks in this story. Are they honored, or caricatured?
Karen: A problematic scene all the way around! You also have the aspect of the men getting rid of the women so they can get down to business, although I see this as minor, since Leila actually has nothing to contribute to the Falcon's quest. But yes, why is Tanzika a "hand maiden"? Could she not just be an assistant? It's probably just a careless use of the word but it seems like so many writers did not really bother to think through the Wakandan culture, at least prior to Don McGregor's arrival as writer of the Panther's Jungle Action series. I agree with you thoroughly on Leila though: she's flat out annoying. There's a difference between being fiery and being a...well, you know. The Falcon is such a cool guy, you wonder why he would put up with her? Maybe there's a couple of answers. One, it may be purely physical. Two, she may supply him with the sort of street cred he feels he needs. And maybe I'm thinking too deeply about 70s comic characters. I don't know. But boy, is she a pain!
Doug: Back in the States, we find Captain America in jail! Captured after Moonstone had knocked him out, Cap awakes to find his foe standing alongside Harderman and having a press conference just outside his cell! One of the reporters asks if Moonstone wouldn't mind relating the origin of his powers. We get a pretty cool dual narration over the next few pages, with Moonstone holding court in the narration boxes while Sal's pictures tell just a slightly different story. It's fun, and a nice touch given that Moonstone's a thug anyway. After that interlude, Harderman reaffirms to the assembled media that Moonstone is America's new hero, and that C.R.A.P. is all over him. You know what I'm sayin'...
Karen: You're having way too much fun with that acronym! Yes, it's a clever way to show how our chunky villain got his powers, although I can't help thinking there couldn't be too many blue moon rocks out there, and some clever reporter should be able to piece together the botched moon rock robbery and Moonstone's lie. But let it slide.
Doug: Sceneshift again to Wakanda, where T'Challa and Falc are interrupted by a spear landing in the middle of their work table! Falc recoils and whirls, to see Leila standing in a doorway. He chastises her recklessness, and her only response is that she's bored (I am serious -- I hate her character. Hate her). Sympathetic T'Challa again steps in to try to allay her "suffering", offering to send her to a large city so that she can feel more at home. He calls for another craft, and for two of his top men as her escorts. Soon, a Wakandan ship drops down in Lagos, Nigeria so that Leila can wander the markets. Even T'Challa's men feel uncomfortable in her presence, as she exudes tension. While shopping, a large sedan suddenly pulls up and out steps Stoneface -- a tough from Harlem who the Falcon had defeated earlier. Now Stoneface has found what he wants: a hometown girl to make him feel "at home". Of course his overtures are rebuffed, which doesn't work out so well for Leila's escorts. As the Wakandans fall, Stoneface's men grab Leila and push her into the car.
Karen: You know, I sort of want her to just disappear and never come back! There really isn't anything about Leila that makes her appealing to me. She's just depicted as so superficial and selfish.
Doug: Stoneface could have been doing Sam Wilson a favor! Back in the kingdom, one of T'Challa's intelligence officers (dressed like he stepped right out of a Johnny Weissmuller flick) becomes worried when he cannot reach the men escorting the Falcon's girlfriend. He tells his lord the news, and T'Challa orders his ship readied. As the Black Panther ponders how to tell the Falcon, we hear a voice offstage say to not worry about it. And the the Falcon steps into the light, revealing a set of wings! For our benefit, he tells that they are controlled by his mind and allow him to glide on the winds. While not allowing flight per se, they do give him a huge advantage over his formerly grounded abilities. The two men board the craft and point it toward Nigeria.
Karen: That's a really gorgeous illustration of the new and improved Falcon by Sal. Very dramatic and when I saw it, it sort of hit me, 'well of course, he's the Falcon, he should have wings!'
Doug: As we close the issue, we're taken back to Cap's jail cell. His guard tells Cap that he feels he's getting a bum rap, and to hang in there; Cap just sits with his head hung. As he tries to come up with his next move, the wall of his cell suddenly blows up! A team of commandos stands outside, saying they've come to free him from his false imprisonment. But now what should Cap do? If he stays, he's at Quentin Harderman's mercy. But if he leaves, he makes the situation infinitely worse. What should the Avenger do?
Karen: Another big moral predicament for Cap! This was part of what made reading this storyline so fun for me as a kid -it was not only action-packed, it made me really think about all of the choices he had to make. And poor Cap sure agonized over every one.