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!