Captain America #174 (June 1974)(cover by Gil Kane)
"It's Always Darkest!"
Script: Steve Englehart
Art: Sal Buscema and Vince Colletta
Karen: This issue picks up directly from the last one. Cap and Falc, in their disguises as average Joes Roger and Willie, have passed their initiation into the Secret Empire and are brought into the hidden underground headquarters located somewhere in the southwestern desert of the U.S. Cap thinks back about how they wound up there and gives the reader a flashback to catch up on the story. When he thinks about how he was smeared in the media by his enemies, he realizes he should have known better, as he's seen this technique used before -"The Big Lie." Englehart is referring to the Nazi propaganda method, that if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. Of course the Nazis aren't the only group that have employed that tool, and Cap goes on to mentally note that he'd thought at one time that only totalitarian governments did things like that, but now he'd seen it happen in America. Obviously a not-very-subtle dig at the Nixon administration.
Doug: Right from the top, as an artistic conceit, did you think it necessary to have the floating heads above "Roger and Willie" while in the elevator? Secondly, and I wondered this last issue -- where did Sam get that 'stache so quickly? Glue-on? OK, end of quibbling... after one more general observation. It's difficult to imagine that the National Geological Survey would be clueless concerning the cornucopia of underground headquarters and bases as dug and improved by groups such as the Secret Empire, AIM, Hydra, etc. Shoot -- even the Mole Man!
Doug: I generally enjoy the plot recaps that contain new art, even if in this case we did lose a page and a half of new story material. I've criticized new comics with the one-pager at the beginning because I feel it robs the reader of a story page (but not as much as all of the splash pages on the interiors). This older method is more fun and I would say that it should have been more inviting to a new reader than just a couple of paragraphs of text.
Doug: If you'll indulge me, I'll put in a plug for the online propaganda exhibit on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's website. I've taught from it for years, and have seen (multiple times) both the large exhibit that was at the Museum, as well as the traveling exhibit that has just recently hit the road to tour the nation. I would say that the sections on "Defining the Enemy" and "Deceiving the Public" would tie into the techniques of Quentin Harderman and the Secret Empire in this story. The line that Moonstone was the "new defender of our heritage" in particular smacks of Nazi racial ideology.
Karen: Cap finishes his recap by recalling how he teamed up with Professor X and his two remaining X-Men, Cyclops and Marvel Girl. It seems the Secret Empire is also capturing mutants for some unknown reason. So it made sense for the five of them to join forces. But they needed to infiltrate the group, and only Cap and Falc could do that, by stealing an electron gyro (whatever that is) from the Brand Corporation. With that accomplished, the hooded Agent 13 brought them to the hidden lair and into the presence of Number 1, a hooded and robed figure who sits upon a throne. Oddly enough, when Agent 13 greets his leader, he salutes him and yells, "Salaam!" This is an Arabic word, and I've always wondered why Englehart had them use this term to greet one another. Was he just trying to throw readers off? It seemed very peculiar. Or did it imply some sort of ancient origin for the organization? Yet another mystery, I suppose.
Doug: And that salute, with arm raised and straight... "Salaam" means "peace", but the word also refers simply to the greeting itself. I agree with you that it is puzzling as to Englehart's intentions here.
Karen: Number One is informed that the two new recruits have stolen the electron gyro and he declares that soon the Secret Empire will conquer America. He says the nation is reeling from Cap's fall from grace, and also from the Watergate scandal. "If only we'd known that was coming! How much simpler it has made our work," he says. Hmm... considering who Number One is supposed to be, doesn't it seem odd that he wouldn't know Watergate was going to break in the press? I don't want to give anything away yet, but I thought this was a peculiar comment. He goes on to say the public is all set to glom on to a new hero, their own Moonstone, and that he has a very particular role still to play. But then he cuts himself short, saying the two new men should be shown to their quarters.
Doug: I think the Watergate comment is only odd given our hindsight of this storyline and its culminating. But, knowing that, it does seem strange. His cutting short of his own megalomaniacal soliloquy seems typical of totalitarian blowhards, doesn't it?
Karen: Once inside their room (that's right, they have to share a room), Cap and Falc discover they are locked in. Suddenly Falcon tells Cap to put on his costume -they have to get out of there! Cap tears the cover off a large vent and they crawl out, but he's perplexed by his partner's urging. Falcon says he just has a hunch. Cap turns around and looks back to see lasers criss-crossing the room they were just in. They would have been cut to pieces if they had stayed! A couple of men and Linda Donaldson (remember her?) burst into the room, expecting to find corpses, but instead are shocked to find it empty. One pulls off his hood to reveal Mr. Black, the man at the Brand factory who had read Cap's note last issue and "let" him go. So much for being a nice guy.They discover the air vent that the two heroes used to escape, and sound the alarm.
Doug: OK, I'm going to jump back on the "rubber mask" soapbox here (I only teased that I was done quibbling above) -- you know, how we've complained over the years about the use of rubber masks, even over Doc Doom's faceplate or the Beast's furry face? I want to rail against being asked to suspend my disbelief that the Angel could actually conceal his wings by using a harness and then putting on normal clothing, or in the immediate case that Captain America could conceal his shield by wearing it on his back and under a regular shirt as he must have done here. No. Way. Just look at the image in the center of story page five -- see how the shield hangs out over his lats and delts? But it certainly does serve as a plot point in this portion of the story. Oh, and my question about "Willie's" mustache got answered, too.
Doug: RE- Mr. Black -- nope, I'd not have recognized that dude. In fact, flipping back a few pages in the trade paperback, he really bears no resemblance to the guy at the Brand Corporation factory in the previous issue. Nice that he showed up to see Cap and Falc meet their demise, though -- swell guy.
Karen: Cap hears the alarm go off and begins to feel the net tighten around them. He realizes that Number One was mocking them by telling them his plan; he knew who they were the whole time! Meanwhile, outside and on the desert above, Professor X strives to help by mentally examining the enemies within. In fact it was he who read Mr. Black's mind and ascertained the plot against our two heroes.
Doug: I have a question here about Professor X's powers. I am certain in the pages of the X-Men we've seen him use a variation of Dr. Strange's astral projection. It seems that it might have come in handy in these scenes. Did you find it odd that Xavier had his mental shields down such that Jean could read his mind?
Karen: It seems like there were some missed opportunities with Professor X, and perhaps the X-Men in general. Inside the base, Cap and Falc run into a robot guard and try to disable it before it makes too much noise and brings others down on them. Cap is showing some signs of frustration -he's still annoyed about having to fight SHIELD before, and now this big metal menace -but he's not giving up. Falcon manages to maneuver around the thing and spot a circuit panel on its back. The star-spangled Avenger then destroys it with his shield, putting the robot out of order. Once past that danger, Falcon says he has another hunch, and he opens a metal door -only to find the X-Men behind it! Of course, it turns out that Professor X was behind Falcon's "hunches." The Professor says that the Falcon's reception of his telepathic messages marks him as a man with a "paranormal mind." Does that make me a mutant? Falcon asks. The Professor says possibly but they don't have time to discuss that right now. Professor X knows where the missing mutants are!
Doug: Which robot did you like better -- Gil Kane's on the cover or Sal and Vinnie's on the interior? At first glance, I thought the red one on the inside looked like a bloated Crimson Dynamo. But I didn't think Kane's looked enough like a robot -- it looked like it was wearing leather boots. I'm sure you noticed that Falc attained wind currents simply by jumping in this scene. Had the days of pushing off of lamp posts and being lifted by "Marvel Mama" left him? We can only hope.
Karen: Honestly, I thought both bots looked pretty lame! Perhaps Sal's was a little better, although 'bloated Crimson Dynamo' is an unfortunately apt description! And yes, Falcon seemed to be able to fly in that small space...whatever....
Doug: I wonder if Englehart had any intention of going somewhere with Xavier's comment about Sam's "paranormal mind"? All of the X-Men, and even an enemy here and there, had had Professor X in their heads at one point or another. Surely all of them don't possess some sort of specialness in the brains department. Anyway, I don't know that I'd have felt good or badly about it if Falc had received some sort of amped up mental abilities. But I don't think I'd have wanted to see him take control of the aviary world as Aquaman has the undersea creatures.
Karen: I think the "Is he or isn't he" a mutant angle was explored in Falcon's 4 issue mini-series in 1983, although a quick trip to Wikipedia says that Sam Wilson was revealed as a mutant, and this was later retconned. I think I prefer him as just a regular guy (and as Sam, not Snap, thank you).
Karen: We cut away to a talk show where the hulking Moonstone is the guest. The host and a female guest are falling all over themselves praising Moonstone, and slimy PR man Quentin Harderman stands in the wings, pleased with himself, thinking how the Secret Empire hired him to disgrace Captain America and make America love Moonstone, and he's done it, but there's more to come. That sounds ominous.
Doug: Do you remember back in the day when the talk show genre basically consisted of Mike Douglas, Johnny Carson, and maybe Tom Snyder? Those were simpler times!
Karen: Back in the Secret Empire's HQ, our heroes have come to a huge door. They open it up and are aghast to see (on a two-page spread no less) all the missing mutants. They are strapped to a large disc, with some sort of metal cap device on their heads. We see the Beast, Havok, Polaris, the Angel, and Iceman, and from the bad guy contingent, Mesmero, Unus, and Mastermind. The Blob is on a separate table. They are all wired to some giant machine, which the Professor says is draining their mental energy. Cap smashes the device and they free the captives, who all begin to recover. The Professor probes Angel's mind to find out what happened. So now we get to see Englehart play connect the dots, comic-wise. As you mentioned in an earlier review Doug, the writer does manage to bring a lot of different stories together. He explains how the Angel was attacked by Magneto in Avengers #111 for his energy-absorbing costume -and how he put on his old costume, which the Professor says Cyclops and Marvel Girl have also re-adopted. So at least Englehart did throw us a bone regarding why those two were not in their more recent uniforms. He went to look for the other X-Men and was then ambushed by the Secret Empire. The Prof peeks into the Beast's cranium and sees he was kidnapped right after his appearance in Incredible Hulk # 161. How's that for continuity?
Karen: Right as these recaps end, Number One and his goons show up in full force. Cap wades right into them, glad to be fighting -he can finally cut loose. In fact, all of them are fighting mad, and they make quick work of the hooded hacks. Number One sees things going south and orders that they bring in the atomic annihilator. No, I'm serious. A goon comes forth with a big bazooka-like gun and blasts our five heroes, who collapse. Number One declares them all dead, and says that soon America will follow.
Doug: I loved the panel where Cap smiles while the butt-kicking is being administered. Not too many light moments for our hero in this arc. And doesn't this Donaldson babe have some clout in the Empire? That was one huge Liefeldian gun they used on the assembled heroes (and villains). But -- if all of those just freed were still groggy, don't you think Number One would have wanted to take them back as prisoners so he could fix that siphoning doohickey? And what was the purpose of that -- to power the atomic annihilator?
Doug: There have been many memorable stories with lots of "dead" heroes in the last panel -- Avengers #161 comes to mind. There is a sense of hopelessness when we think it could be over; but also that feeling of anticipation in terms of "now how are we going to get out of this pickle?"
Karen: Well, this one was wall-to-wall action. It was melodramatic, yes, but fun. I couldn't help but feel like Englehart had even more he wanted to say here, but was constrained by either time or editorial fiat. I do think that the issues that came after this, when Cap gave up his Captain America identity, are in some ways meatier. But this was a solid effort here. Once again it seemed the art was a little rough. But I'm looking forward to next issue and the big finale.
Doug: In spite of all of my nitpicking, it was a fun issue. Again, if we look at it through the eyes of a child, this would have been some serious slam-bang fun. I think part of my problem is that I'm reading these issues only several days apart, rather than each month; the warts tend to show a bit more with that temporal framework. But some of the inconsistencies do bother me -- while I love that it seems like Falc can now fly without some silly starting points, that it's just glossed over seems careless. I've liked the inclusion of the X-Men, although I'm not sure even as we're about done with them that they aren't square peg/round hole as far as team-up candidates for Cap and Falc. But you can't say that they don't add to the general pell mell nature of this tale and its pacing. So overall, this remains an oddly satisfying yarn with its build-up and now coming pay-off. Scope and scale, scope and scale... two of the hallmarks of a classic. This storyline has it.