Monday, February 17, 2014

The Falcon, the Frame-Up, and the Fallen Hero - Captain America 169

Captain America #169 (January 1974) (cover by Sal Buscema)
"When a Legend Dies"
Steve Englehart (p. 1-15)/Mike Friedrich (p. 16-32)-Sal Buscema/Frank McLaughlin

Doug:  When I see that cover, I think of the scene in Tim Burton's first Batman film when the kung fu guy does all this movement and posturing on his way to attacking Batman and it's one punch, LIGHTS OUT!  Somehow, I don't think the Tumbler should be any match for our star-spangled hero.  Hey, welcome to a series of reviews spanning the "Secret Empire" storyline, one of the true biggies of the Bronze Age.  This one'll take us out of February and through March, kids, so make sure you're buckled in and have packed some snacks.  It's going to be a long, but hopefully really fun, ride!

Karen: I had been reading Captain America and the Falcon since issue 138, but it was with Englehart's run that things really got interesting. The "Secret Empire" story was complicated and full of twists and turns - and unfortunately, due to the travails of the distribution system back in the 70s, I wound up missing several issues, so it took a few years before I was able to get the complete story. But it's one well worth reading, and it marked turning points for both Cap and the Falcon -and some great character development, too.

Doug:  We open on the streets of Harlem, with the Falcon mysteriously walking alone at night, right in the middle of the street.  As he thinks to himself about how great his life is, a car bears down on him.  He notices it a bit too late, and is knocked over as he attempts to leap out of the way.  Stunned, he's almost immediately set upon by five toughs brandishing brass knuckles and clubs; one guy has a gun.  Miraculously, Falc separates that hood from his piece, which evens the odds.  But without any super powers, the odds still don't look good.  These guys have come for some payback, from a boss named Morgan -- guy's upset that the Falcon won't join up.  The creeps keep piling on, but Falc fights them tooth and nail.  We pan down the street, where Steve Rogers emerges from a building, allegedly on his way to get a snack -- now that's a brave white man, going to get a bite after dark on the mean streets of Harlem.  Rogers sees the fracas, ducks back inside the building, and emerges a moment later on the roof -- dressed as Captain America!  Cap runs along the rooftop and then launches himself down onto the roof of a car.  He uses it as a springboard to take out three of the hoods.  Falc pummels one guy, when the gang decides they've had enough.  Cap wants to chase them, but Falc say to stay put.  He knows who they work for, and can deal with it later.  What he really wants to discuss is the inequality between he and his partner in the strength department, and how once Cap showed up the bad guys fled immediately.  What we have here is a bit of an inferiority complex on the part of one Sam Wilson.

Karen: And who could blame him? Paired up with one of the most famous (perhaps the most famous) super-hero in all of Marvel-Earth, a legend even, it's going to be hard to shine. Clearly the Falcon was no slouch when it came to dishing out punishment. But his enemies know he's  "just a man."

Doug:  Falc slumps down on the curb, and Cap offers to help in any way he can.  Falc reiterates his desire to be as strong as Cap.  We should mention that this was during a period when Cap's strength was really ramped up.  In my mind, though, I always thought the Super Soldier serum had given him more than just an edge -- but apparently he would have been considered in the "super strength" category during this run of stories.  Anyway, Cap offers to contact Hank Pym for a serum, or Tony Stark for some sort of mechanical advantage.  But Falcon knows what he wants -- he wants Cap to contact the Black Panther for assistance.  It's important to Falcon that the Panther help him, because it would just feel better.  Cap obliges, no questions asked -- he leaves for Avengers Mansion to make the contact.

Karen: Cap's recent (and I would say, unnecessary) acquisition of super-strength doesn't make things any easier on Sam. I like the way these two men relate to each other here. Sam is brutally frank with his frustration, not taking his anger out on Cap, but making it clear that he can't live in his shadow. He's got to have some way to keep equal footing with him -"Otherwise, I am to you what Redwing is to me: a pet!" Harsh words, but ones Cap needed to hear. And Cap is sympathetic; he wants to help his partner. It's interesting that Cap suggests Hank Pym and Tony Stark, but doesn't think of the Panther, who is every bit the scientific genius as the other two, despite his close connections with T'Challa. The Falcon  is very clear though about with whom he wants to work. I thought it was astute of Englehart to have the Falcon express this as he did.

Doug:  As much as Cap was a role model for Sam, you're right -- the Panther could give to Sam in a way that Pym or Stark simply could not.  And that's OK.

Doug:  On the way to the Mansion, Cap's eye is captured by an image of himself on a storefront television.  Slowing and then stopping, Cap listens to a "public service announcement" that portrays him as a vigilante who know one really knows, a man willing to take the law into his own hands while wrapped in the American flag.  The narrator speaks with a sensational tone of warning, attempting to drum up distrust and even suspicion in our hero.  The announcement ends with a screen showing who has paid for it:  The Committee to Regain America's Principles (go ahead -- make an acronym out of that!).  Cap is flabbergasted, and begins to mutter to himself, discounting every accusation that was made.  Suddenly he notices that a crowd has gathered.  He turns and addresses them, saying that what they'd heard was all lies and that they should believe him.  The crowd is a bit standoffish, however, and some even have a look of fear in their eyes.  Cap knows the damage has been done, and speeds away on his bike, his teeth clenched.

Karen: Yes, you gotta love that acronym! Englehart has said he based it on CREEP -Committee to Re-Elect the President (officially it was CRP but CREEP is the popular term). CREEP was a fundraising organization for President Nixon that was implicated of money laundering in the Watergate scandal. Who says the BAB is not educational? This isn't the first time Cap's seen this smear campaign -there was a newspaper ad in issue #166 too.

Doug:  The next morning, a flying saucer (literally) lands in the streets of Harlem.  Out of it steps the Black Panther, arrived to pick up a famous passenger.  Cap did get it worked out -- the Panther is in Harlem to spirit the Falcon to Wakanda.  Falc emerges from his building with his ladyfriend Leila.  Introductions are made, and the Panther says that it will not be a problem for Leila to accompany the men to Africa.  Cap arrives to see his friend off, and give off a real air of encouragement; but we know how uneasy Cap was the day before.

Karen: What did you think of the Panther's ship? It seemed a bit goofy. He sure doesn't know what trouble he's in for by taking Leila with him!

Doug:  Wakandan technology, and Wakanda in general, always leaves me guessing. On the one hand, they seem to be advanced almost to the point of the Kree.  Yet on the other hand, and we discussed this last week in our FF review that featured the Panther, they hold to these feudal ways and antiquated stereotypes in terms of dress.  Strange brew...

Doug:  Later, Cap storms into the building alleged to house the C.R.A.P. offices (heh...).  You know sometimes when people have an impression of you that you don't agree with, but then like a dope you go and act just the way you don't want to be portrayed?  You get me?  Cap didn't.  Because he's brusque with the secretary and then storms into the office of one Quentin Harderman -- the head of C.R.A.P. and the narrator of the TV spot that rankled Cap.  The men have words -- Cap talking about being defamed, Harderman telling Cap that his particular brand of justice doesn't jibe with C.R.A.P.'s.  Harderman offers Cap a concession:  If Cap can "prove himself" to Harderman, then he'll reevaluate the situation.  Cap agrees to a charity boxing match, and then storms back out.  His blood boiling, he wonders if he did the right thing in even going to see Harderman.  But he's soon distracted by a cry for help nearby.

Karen: Cap's acting pretty rashly here, that's true. But then, he's had a rough time of things lately. He had to face the deranged 1950s Cap, then he had a falling out with Nick Fury, he got evicted, and he's been agonizing over the return of Peggy Carter, his WWII girlfriend, who happens to be his current girlfriend's much older sister! So he can be excused for some erratic behavior.

Doug:  Who's under that cowl -- Steve Rogers or Peter Parker??  Cap enters the liquor store to see the clerk prone on the floor and a baddie making tracks for the back of the store.  Cap gives chase and finds that the robber is an old Silver Age enemy of his -- the Tumbler.  Cap takes it to him and the two men scrap for two pages, with Cap of course coming out on top.  In the midst of battle, the Tumbler thinks to himself that he's been hired to discredit Captain America.  Eventually, Cap is able to subdue the Tumbler, but as he turns to leave the Tumbler comes to.  Launching himself at Cap, our hero reacts by shielding himself.  The Tumbler uses the star-spangled disc as a launching pad and vaults over the alley wall and away to freedom.  Cap chastises himself, but vows to find his nemesis.

Karen: The Tumbler is another one of those early Marvel villains that just seems like a bad joke later on. I mean, really, he's just an acrobatic thief. Hardly a challenge for Cap, and Englehart pretty much acknowledges this here -the guy is a nothing, a throwaway, but Cap doesn't take him seriously either, and it costs him.

Doug:  Cap heads off to see his lady, Sharon Carter.  He's worried that she's seen the TV ads.  But when they meet, Sharon's disturbed about something else.  Her sister, Peggy, Cap's wartime love, has joined SHIELD!  Thinking it would be the best way to rekindle the love she and Cap once shared, Peggy joined up with the spy agency to hone her fighting skills.  Sharon tells Cap that a) he has to put a stop to that, and b) they have to tell Peggy about their true love for one another.  Cap leaves to go see Col. Nick Fury.  The agent at the door tells him he's not welcome, Fury's orders.  Then another voice is heard, and Cap wheels to come face-to-face with the Contessa.  She is pretty rude to our guy, and basically tells Cap that Fury was happy with the smear campaign against Cap and Cap should just get lost.  Wow...  Cap heads back to Sam Wilson's social work office and bunks in for the night.His spirits are still high, but he's obviously a bit perturbed.

Karen: It's like the bottom is slowly dropping out of his life. Englehart did a nice job in previous issues of building up the tension and you really see it getting to Cap here. Coming from 2014, it's unsettling -I tend to think of Cap as being always in control, in charge. Here he decidedly is not.

Doug:  The next day Cap heads to an exhibition hall, apparently to meet Harderman for details on the upcoming charity boxing match.  While children present are excited to see their hero, men in the crowd think to themselves that the ads could be true...  Harderman arrives, with a tough next to him.  He makes an introduction and Cap immediately recognizes the guy as the Tumbler.  Cap's incensed, as the liquor store clerk still suffers from injuries sustained during the robbery a few days earlier.  Cap lights into the Tumbler, who finds it difficult to maneuver in a suit and tie.  He really doesn't have a chance.  Cap knocks him down a couple of times, when suddenly the Tumbler recoils... and drops.  Dead.  Cap hovers over the body as a crowd gathers.  But above the fray, peeking through the ceiling panels we see a masked man -- a man who thinks to himself how perfectly his laser penetrated the Tumbler's skull and killed him.  And a man who thinks that Harderman has done well -- now the next step in the destruction of Captain America will begin.

Karen: When Cap goes after the Tumbler, who is in street clothes, he really does look like he uses excessive force. And the expression on the Tumbler's face when he is killed -yikes!

Doug:  Man, what a beginning!  I remarked last week how dense Fantastic Four #119 was; this one's no exception!  I thought the scripting between Steve Englehart and Mike Friedrich was pretty seamless -- at least I saw no evidence that Friedrich came aboard halfway through the story.  And Sal's art is just Sal's art.  He's so steady, always delivering.  I don't know that I have a comment to add on Frank McLaughlin's inks, but we may revisit his work in later issues, and Vinnie Colletta will be manning the brush and India ink in future installments.  There should be a contrast in styles, I'd guess.  But overall, hey -- what whets an appetite like a little murder mystery?  And Falc and B.P.?  Shoot -- we got some plot threads going on here!


Anonymous said...
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Edo Bosnar said...

Colin, the story was published in 1974, so it basically implied that Sharon Carter's older sister Peggy was old enough to be her parent - something that's not that far-fetched. I know several people who have older siblings that were already adults when they were born, including an elementary school chum who had a nephew two years older than himself.

Doc Savage said...

Never liked the super-strength Captain America. Always thought it worked better when he was just maximum human potential.

Personally find Secret Empire heavy-handed and over the top in its efforts to be "relevant" (as if any comic book could be) and "political."

Doc Savage said...

Whoops, that should read "as if any SUPER HERO comic could be" relevant.

Doug said...

One of these days, Matt, we will review something you actually like. It's bound to happen sooner or later.


david_b said...

I came in on Cap around ish 164, missed a few issues, then was lucky enough to not miss any until 175 (the climax, of all issues..). This was generally the best Cap story arc, certainly my favorite.

Obviously the timing was perfect.. Quentin Harderman, of all names. Jeez, could you get any closer to Bob Haldeman, Nixon's Chief of Staff..? I don't agree with Matt's mention of heavy-handed per se, but I'd agree with that and C.R.A.P., it would be hard to nail any harder.

Per Englehart, the entire storyline was supposed to go on for a few more issues, but Thomas or someone apparently told Steve to bring it to a premature close. Very odd, since Steve and Sal's tenure on CA&F made it one of Marvel's best sellers at the time. Not bad for a book near cancellation at several points prior.

Frankly, I loved it immensely at the time and love it still. I'd agree that Sam's verbal leaning towards T'Challa was smoothly handled, without it becoming like a silly GL/John Stewart rant as we saw a few columns ago.

Finally, some much needed depth and direction changing here. I wonder whether Steve's himself put the two arcs together (Sam's new powers and the Secret Empire), or it was just a great happystance.

A bit melodrama at some turns (like with Sharon), but all in all, a classic tale.

So beloved and classic to me in fact, I actually bought up new, nice copies of this arc (well, just ish 169-176) and gave it as a Christmas gift to the 10yr old kid next door a few months back. It had meant so much to me, and I had given him spare reprints or low-qual issues I replace periodically in the past, it was nice to gift him this inspiring near-entire story arc. Sure beats a giftcard.

david_b said...

On another note, what does this Cap-Falc relationship say about the cool writing style of the Bronze Marvel Universe..?

We never saw any vintage Worlds Finest stories about Batman wanting 'improved powers' to fight along side Supes.

Edo Bosnar said...

By the way, love the committee acronym, especially since I'm assuming it was never actually written out as "C.R.A.P." in any of these Code-approved comic books. Thus, it's actually much more subtle than, say, the character F.A. Schist from Steve Gerber's Man-Thing stories - I know as a kid I probably wouldn't have bothered trying to spell out the acronym, so it just would have flown right over my little head...

Looking forward to reading the rest of these reviews, since Secret Empire is one of those big stories that I've never read (but would really like to).

Karen said...

First: happy Birthday Colin. I hope you have a fun day!

As for the idea of relevancy in a super-hero comic -why not? I think anything can be relevant and have something to say about our times.It's all in how and what you have to say.

However, my biggest takeaway from Secret Empire is not the whole Watergate angle but what it does to Cap. It makes him examine himself and what he believes in, what he wants to stand for. And it helped to define the character for fans at a time when they really weren't sure how to accept a hero wrapped in a flag of a country they may have lost faith in (just like Steve). Without giving away too much of the story for those who may not have read it, I think that's the beauty of it and we'll see that as we got along through the review.

Doug said...

Thanks, David and Edo -- that's kind of you to say about this arc and our review!

I'll say this about Englehart's/Friedrich's dialogue, though -- when we get to Leila in Wakanda I SIMPLY CANNOT TAKE IT! Wow, is she written as very over-the-top. I suppose author's often seek to create that character who is loathesome (see Mantis [to some readers], Dr. Druid). They succeeded with Leila, at least for this guy.


Doug said...

Playing off Karen's comment, in our Wednesday post (part of Super-Blog Team-Up -- can't wait!!) we reference the Avengers Forever mini-series. For those who've not read it, the team of Avengers assembled includes characters plucked from various points in the timestream. The version of Captain America is Cap right after the revelation at the end of this Secret Empire storyline. It really adds layers to the Avengers Forever story, and even to Cap's greater characterization.


Doc Savage said...

CRAP isn't actually that silly given that Nixon in reality had CRE(e)P: Committee to ReElect the President.

Super hero comics fail to be relevant because the characters are silly men in tights who think problems can be solves by punching 'em in the face. As entertainment, they're great fun. But relevant? Not to me.

Fred W. Hill said...

This is the issue with which my collection of CA&TF really began -- I'd only gotten a few issues previously but this storyline really hooked my 12 year old self and I managed to get the entire story off the stands. I can't say I was wise enough then to catch on that it was very much inspired by the ongoing Watergate scandal but this was very much one of my favorite storylines of the first half of the '70s. Also, it made perfect sense that the Falcon wanted more power and that he would prefer the Black Panther's help. Of the other big Marvel partnership of this era, Daredevil & the Black Widow, while DD's super-powered senses gave him a considerable edge, his fighting abilities didn't significantly outweigh Natasha's. With CA&TF, however, Cap not only had that extra strength but living legend status -- a guy who'd fought in World War II, been frozen and brought "back to life" and become the leader and embodiment of the Avengers and America itself. Yeah, who are the badguys gonna be more worried about when they go up against Cap & Falc, even before Cap got super-strong?

mr. oyola said...

Is there a good collection that has these issues in them?

I think superhero stories can be relevant BECAUSE they are appealing despite featuring characters that are "silly men in tights who think problems can be solves by punching 'em in the face" - a strange but popular fictional engagement with various explicit and implicit social problems.

mr said...


david_b said...

Quite frankly, if I didn't gush enough earlier, this arc really became the pinnacle of my CA&F love, until the day Marvel had Frank Robbins replace Sal.

In many ways, the richness of this story arc ruined all future Cap stories for me (outside of the pages of Avengers..), even after Sal came back on the solo title.

It may make me sound shallow, but it's just how it rolled.

Doc Savage said...

except they don't engage the problems, they punch them and then move on as if it made a difference. It's not Maus or The Safest Place or A Contract with God we're talking about.

Doc Savage said...

this is available in a collection, seen it on amazon

tried to link for you but copy and paste not working

I prefer the Kirby years myself

Doug said...

I don't see how comic books that attempt to be relevant are any different from screenwriters who create "ripped from the headlines" drama shows.

I'd also argue that Maus engaged problems that emanated from the Holocaust and survival (multiple generations); the storyline that follows Secret Empire shows Cap's response to what he's gone through in this storyline. Wholly different topics on a very disparate scale, yes - but as far as story vehicles the author's attempt to get their points across.

I have no trouble with the notion of relevance in comics, and the Marvel attempts at this seem to me, at least in the Bronze Age, to be much more well-executed than DCs attempts in the same era.


Doug said...

Twice today I have misused the 's. They are both typos. I need to slow down...


Karen said...

Matt, I guess I have to ask if you even read the review, since we discuss CREEP right in the middle of it. But maybe the idea of relevancy turned you off and you skipped it?

I think there's a lot more engagement going on here by Cap than simply punching the problem, but that will become apparent as things go on. Englehart had a lot to say regarding the state of our country and I think it was entirely valid then and now. Using a character that wears our flag on his back as a medium for doing so seems to make perfect sense to me.

Doug said...

Osvaldo --

Matt's right about the Secret Empire tpb, and the next arc is also collected under the title "Nomad". You can probably get either pretty cheap from Amazon's secondary marketers.


Redartz said...

Enjoying today's discussion thoroughly ! Regarding relevance and super-heroes: done well, I feel they can be quite relevant indeed. Yes, they are men (and women) in tights, but in the best instances they serve as a metaphor. The reader focuses on the man, not the costume; what becomes meaningful is the character's reaction to the events occurring around him.

As for the review today: I greatly anticipate following the series. Haven't read it since it first appeared. To me the art seems a little flat; McLaughlin may not have been the most dynamic inker for Sal. As to the story: well, it's Steve Englehart! Nuff said.

Incidentally, Mr. Englehart is on the guest list for the upcoming IndianaCon; I hope for a chance to meet him. Anyone else planning to attend?

Stephen said...

I read this story when it first came out when I was 5 years old (reading my older brother's comic books). Of course, I didn't immediately get the relevance of the storyline until my brother (who was 13 at the time) pointed it out to me but still this was the storyline that made me a Steve Englehart fan and a Captain America fan.

Yes, upon re-reading the story and with our modern sensibilities, the real-world relevance is a bit too on the nose. If I were to recommend a Cap storyline to a brand-new reader, I probably would not start with this, as much as I love it.

Still, I think this is exactly the kind of story that Captain America should be used for.

mr. oyola said...

As for Maus:

There are plenty of critics, both inside comics and out, who make the claim that anthropomorphized mice and other animal figures based on base stereotypes undermines any relevance it can have by making a mockery of a very serious topic - that instead it is a form of Holocaust kitsch.

I don't necessarily agree, but I don't see the results of a comic book story or even its content as relevant as its reflection of ideas that resonate with people - thus as critical as I am about the superhero genre, I think there is a lot to be gleaned from it.

The fact that a superhero comic was TRYING to address Watergate an the disillusionment with government says a lot more than what it actually says about it - though that says something too.

Doug said...

Redartz -

I went to the Indiana Con's website. They have a nice line-up of Bronze Age guests! That weekend is when our spring break begins, and I believe our oldest has to stay on campus at Anderson. I am intrigued...


Fred W. Hill said...

Re relevence in comics, my two favorite then current writers when I was about 11 - 16 (1973 to 1978) were Steve Englehart & Steve Gerber, who included lots of social relevence in their comics but, of course, also told good stories. Part of the appeal was that they were writing stories that had some meaning or posed questions to ponder, which I found far more enjoyable than yet another tale in which Mean Mr. Malefactor has been robbing banks all over town and leaving taunting clues which Captain Hammer of Justice solves, then punches MMM in the mouth, takes him to jail and everything's resolved, hurray! Bleah! The resolution of this particular storyline left Cap so troubled that he quit being Captain America in issue 176 and didn't put the costume back on until the last page of 183, which at the time may have been the longest the title character of any superhero mag did such a thing (not counting instances in which the title character was essentially kicked out of his own mag, as happened with the original Daredevil in the Golden Age).

B Smith said...

One thing that struck me as odd back when this issue first came out was the business about Peggy Carter joining SHIELD......excuse me? She just went up to the front desk of the world's most public top-secret organisation, filled in the paper work, paid the fee, and she's a member?

I mean, they were supposed to be the crack espionage law'n'order outfit globally....their entry requirements would surely have winkled out an old lady pretty quickly, surely?

And given how "secret" they're supposed to be (after all, that barber shop entrance was still supposed to be *fairly* secret), how would she have even known about them....and who told her how to join? If her little sister blabbed all, that'd be a sacking offence at the very least (did that resignation in #153 take?), if not 20 years in Guantanamo.

OK, OK, I can see where from a dramatic/future story lines etc point of view it was to good to pass up....but it just stuck out like a sore tooth back then, and doesn't seem any more sensible now.

Fred W. Hill said...

Regarding Peggy Carter joining SHIELD, yeah a bit much but she was supposed to have been in the spy business during World War II and in 1974 may have conceivably still been between 47 to 50 years old, about the same age or even a few years younger than SHIELD regulars Nick Fury, Dumm Dumm Dugan & Gabe Jones. If Peggy, Dugan & Jones are still used as characters in present Marvel time, I'd have to assume that Nick must be sharing his Infinity Formula with all of them as by now they'd all be in their late 80s at the youngest (my stepdad, who joined the Navy at age 17 in 1943 is currently 88 years old). As it is, the Watergate scandal is more distant by a decade today than WWII was when this comic was one of the latest on the spinner racks.

Bruce B. said...

The Secret Empire storyline ranks pretty high on my list of all-time great Captain America sagas. It's not just another punch-'em-up - it gets to the heart of Captain America as a symbol of America and what that really means.

Yeah, parts of it may seem a bit dated 40 years after the fact, but comics are popular fiction, meant to be enjoyed in the present. Even with some of the dated elements, it's still an enjoyable, thought-provoking story to me.

And Doug, I'm with you about Leila. I get what Englehart was going for - he wanted Sam to be pulled in opposite directions by a "Mainstream America" take on civil rights versus a more militant "Black Power" view. But Leila was so insulting and strident. I couldn't understand why her approval meant anything to Sam. The way she talked to him, he should've just told her to take a hike. A rare misfire in an otherwise masterful run by Mr. Englehart.

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