Captain America #173 (May 1974)(cover by Gil Kane)
"The Sins of the Secret Empire!"
Steve Englehart-Sal Buscema/Vince Colletta
Doug: Welcome back to the halfway point in our series of reviews of the epic "Secret Empire" storyline. In today's issue the Empire is finally exposed, and a slew of guest-stars are on hand to deepen the plot. Along the way we'll also inspect the lives of the X-Men in the interim period between X-Men #66 and G-S X-Men #1 as well as just what the heck Cyclops's eyebeams are supposed to be able to do!
Doug: If you recall, when last we left our merry band of fugitives, Professor X, Cyclops, and Marvel Girl had rescued Captain America and the Falcon from a fracas against Banshee in of all places Nashville, Tennessee! Cap and Falc had hitchhiked their way to the Music City in search of clues to the origin of their recent nemesis Moonstone. However, they'd by chance stumbled upon Banshee who had heard the recent bad press around Cap. Assuming Cap was their to convert him to the "dark side", Sean Cassidy engaged first and probably didn't plan to ask questions later. Well, the X-Men were in pursuit of Banshee to try to save him from being kidnapped as many of their mutant brethren had been when they got involved in the superhero scrum. Got all that? You'd better, because today's ish races at about 300 mph!
Karen: That's a nice summary, partner! This story is getting so complicated, you need a diagram to keep it all straight!
Doug: We open with an order to our heroes to raise 'em high! Now what...? How about Nick Fury and his best agents of SHIELD? The good guys aren't surrounded, but Fury has come with quite a force. But as we've seen in previous installments, Cap's in no mood to be held in custody again. With an assurance from the X-Men that they will be Cap's and Falc's allies, they attack. Fury and the boys seem taken aback -- one has to wonder if they really thought Cap would surrender. And in another of those head-scratching panels, Marvel Girl levitates the Falcon (egad, he calls her "Marvel Mama"! "Mama"?? How old would she have been? 21?) so that he can get his flight on. What I still don't get is how he can fall yet rise again? Even if riding wind currents in a gliding fashion, you'd have to have the right winds at precisely the right times to do that -- am I wrong?
Karen: It's really quite mortifying to see the Falcon have to rely on someone to help him fly. Has any other so-called flying hero been treated so shabbily? Again, what were they thinking? And "Marvel Mama" - oh well, it was the 70s, I guess that covers a multitude of sins.
Doug: And then we get to one of the quandaries of today's story -- the workings of Cyclops's optic beams. On the cover above, you see him using his beams to melt a SHIELD agent's gun. His first use of the beams on the interior is to explode a tree trunk behind which the agents were seeking cover. But now, as our heroes need a diversion in order to escape, Cyclops fires his eyebeams into the brush... igniting it into a raging inferno! And from the looks of it, Cyke started a forest fire. So here's my beef: a) on the way to Nashville, the trucker who'd picked up Cap and Falc drove mostly through the rain, and b) the fire burned as if the ground was a tinder box. No way. My suspension of disbelief went right out the window on this one. But what of the more fundamental issue of the properties of Cyke's eyebeams? Wikipedia seemed to have a good collection of thoughts on the matter, so I've provided those for you here, complete with in-text references maintained:
Cyclops emits beams of energy from his eyes, described as "optic blasts", which have the appearance of red light and deliver massive concussive force. The beams cause no recoil or heat, but are tremendously powerful, and can be used to rupture steel plates and pulverize rock. The beams constantly emanate from his eyes involuntarily, and can generally only be stopped by his own eyelids, or by shielding his eyes with "ruby-quartz", a translucent mineral; Cyclops wears ruby-quartz as lenses in glasses or in his visor, which is generally the only way for him to safely see without inadvertently damaging his surroundings. The beams' involuntary nature has been explained as a psychological shortcoming that resulted from childhood trauma. Cyclops can nevertheless manipulate the beams in several different ways, partially through the use of adjustable apertures in his eyewear that allow the beams to fire through their shielding at variable levels.
In addition to varying the beam width, height, and intensity, Cyclops has demonstrated a high degree of skill and accuracy in manipulating his optic blast. Cyclops is able to reflect the beam off hard and shiny surfaces. This feat also demonstrates his intuitive sense of spatial geometry between objects. The reflective qualities of the beams allows him to bounce the beam off many different surfaces in rapid succession. The effective range of his optic beam is approximately 2,000 ft. It has been observed to be focused tight enough to punch a pin hole through a coin, drill through the trunk of a log, and pierce the skin of the Blob. Cyclops has shown the power of his optic blast by blasting through the walls of a hardened building, tunneling through solid rock, and blowing the top off a mountain. Cyclops' force beams were measured by Iron Man to be almost 2 gigawatts. Two gigawatts is about half the peak power output of the Doel Nuclear Power Plant and when Cyclops released this much energy he exceeded his control over his optic beam. With Cyclops unable to shut off his optic beam, Leech came to his aid and negated his mutant power. Against other Marvel characters, Cyclops has been able to use his optic beam to knock Thor's Hammer from his hand. He is known to be able to overload Bishop's energy absorption power and is revealed to never have willingly used more than a small fraction of his full potential due to his anxiety regarding his optic blast.Doug: So that's how I thought they worked, and is representative of the action as we've known it from Dave Cockrum and John Byrne in the pages of the All-New, All-Different X-Men. Do you suppose the inconsistencies on display from Englehart and Buscema are due to the hiatus period of the Children of the Atom?
Karen: Yeah, it was very perplexing to see Cyclops portrayed as an ocular version of the Torch. I wonder if Sal Buscema drew him causing fires and Englehart just went with it? I do think the hiatus might have had something to do with it.
Doug: As Cap and the gang escape, Fury thinks something to himself that I also found curious -- he says, "I admit I don't like that cornball Avenger..." Really? I thought that was out-of-character, unless Fury was thinking only about the situation at hand. Anyway, Professor X then makes a statement that flies in the face of every Western movie ever made: "In here, Captain. We shan't be found in this deserted mine tunnel." Uh, yeah -- hey, dude, that's where everybody always hides out... We then get a nice melding of other Englehart plotlines to this one. Stainless Steve was concurrently writing Captain America, the Avengers, and the Beast's tales in Amazing Adventures. In true Marvel Universe fashion, Englehart was able to blend these three outlets together and funnel it all into this Secret Empire storyline. Pretty clever, huh? Xavier remarks that he's been losing mutants left and right (funny... sounds like the plot of the aforementioned G-S X-Men #1), and has traced the crimes to the Secret Empire. He states that domination is the goal of the S.E., and propaganda is their game. Cap says it all fits, and thanks the Professor for the info. while agreeing to team-up with the X-Men. Xavier welcomes the aid, as he has a lead they could not follow -- a former girlfriend of Hank McCoy.
Karen: Fury's attitude does seem odd, but looking back over previous issues, he and Cap had been having problems for quite some time. This was a real rough patch in their relationship. So if you were a reader who'd been with the book for the last couple of years, Nick's thoughts might seem harsh but maybe not that surprising.
Karen: Englehart really was good at weaving so many disparate storylines together, wasn't he? I always wonder how much was planned in advance and how much of it came to him after the fact. Whatever the case, it worked out very well. And Xavier was a terrible headmaster! His students were always getting abducted. Not a great tactician either -he's down to three students and he sends them out on solo missions! Of course he loses one (Iceman). Good grief.
Doug: We sceneshift to the Dallas branch of the Brand Corporation, where McCoy had worked and had met a Linda Donaldson. She, we quickly learn, is working for the Secret Empire and refers to herself by a number -- just like members of the Sanitation Crew had done over the previous two issues. Donaldson enters her car and as she begins to drive away from the plant contacts "the Masters". She uses a high-tech gadget to report that she continues to fail at stealing the "electron-gyro" due to heavy security. She's admonished for failing and told to find a way. Miffed, she pulls into her apartment complex where she's suddenly attacked by Cyclops! Hiding in the shadows, however, are a couple of blue-collar drifters... by the names of Sam and Steve! So this was Xavier's plan to dupe Donaldson and to gain access to the Secret Empire. All players carry out their roles to perfection, and after Cyke is "chased off" Linda Donaldson gets to the introductions. She figures that "Roger Stevens" and "Willie Samuels" are pretty dense, so has them followed to the flophouse they're bunking in. As the two incognito heroes bide their time, there comes a knock on the door.
Karen: I thought it was a little clunky when Englehart had Donaldson doing the mental recap. But hold on -suddenly our heroes are all in Dallas? They were just in Nashville! But there's no explanation for it. They had such a tough time hitch-hiking to Nashville, but now they're just magically in Dallas? I think probably what happened is they caught a ride in the X-Men's bizarre-looking jet (it ain't the Blackbird) that we see later, but that's entirely skipped over here. Again, perhaps a lack of communication between Sal and Steve, or just trying to cram a lot into one issue?
Doug: Had I been able to speak to the Stainless One in Indy this past weekend (grrrr.....), one of the things I was going to ask him is whether or not he worked with full scripts or Marvel Method. I would like to know. Maybe someday I'll have the opportunity to speak directly to Englehart. But in the meantime, I did ask Gerry Conway on Twitter yesterday and here is his reply:
Doug: So that makes Cyke's eyebeams, et al. even more curious to me if there are two creators in on a deal like that.
Doug: "Willie" opens the door to find a man in a business suit, but wearing a huge hood over his head and shoulders and bearing the number 13. He tells the two men that he represents the Secret Empire and has a job for them -- steal the electro-gyro (apparently we lost an n from first mention to second mention) from the Brand Corporation. "Willie" begins to ask a question, but is told that they can make $10 grand for the heist -- $5Gs now, and the balance upon delivery. The two down-on-their-luckers agree to the contract. When they get ready to depart the dorm, however, they're in costume. I wasn't clear on the explanation that Cap gave Falc -- maybe you can clue me in, partner?
Karen: No, it wasn't clear to me either. Cap says he'd normally just ask for the gizmo, but since the smear campaign has turned people against him, he can't take the risk of doing that. I suppose they switched to use their weapons (wings and shield) and let's face it, we'd rather see them in costume!
Doug: At the Brand Corporation Cap and Falc make easy entry to the facility and even on into the room that holds the gadget. But wouldn't you know it -- security was a little more sophisticated than planned and the guards now level their guns on our heroes. Cap's getting a lot of experience at this sort of thing, so he and Falc bullrush their would-be assailants and storm out with the electro-gyro in hand. Reinforcements turn up with high-powered weapons, but Cap evens the odds by using his shield to cut through a water pipe in the sprinkling system. I had to wonder... this sprinkler system contained as much water pressure as the garden hose at Jennifer Walter's house -- like a tidal wave! Near a window, Falc tells Cap to grab his arm (no, ya juvenile - not "pull my finger"). They jump through the window and Falc uses his new wings to spirit the pair to safety. Back inside Brand, the factory manager tells security to stop their pursuit. It seems Cap had left a note in the electro-gyro room saying they'd only take it for a short period and would return it unharmed. The manager believed him, even while the radio played more propaganda from C.R.A.P. (that never gets old!).
Karen: I was amazed Falcon could stay in the air with Cap hanging off of him. I figured he'd plummet like a rock. OK, OK, I'm just a little disappointed with his wings...
Doug: Oh, you're more than just a little disappointed! Me, too. Hours later "Willie and Roger" deliver the electron-gyro (found our n) to Number 13. He's ecstatic to get it, and exclaims that these men are definitely Secret Empire material. He bids them to follow him outside, where he fires a ray from a pistol, seemingly cracking open a boulder to display a quinjet-looking airship. After a flight of undetermined length, the ship sets down in the desert. A cactus stands in for the bust of William Shakespeare as tilting it reveals the steps to the cave lair of the Secret Empire. Down go our protagonists with Number 13, as Cap wonders if they can fool a group with this much power and resources for very long. But up on the surface another ship lands -- a ship bearing the X-Men. Xavier's tense, as he says to Cyke and Marvel Girl that Captain America and the Falcon may never emerge from beneath the desert floor!
Karen: Wait -what? They get in a rocket ship and fly to a desert and move a fake cactus to get in a secret underground lair? This is definitely 1940s grade C serial territory! This is one of the weaker parts of this story. Overall, it's intriguing and exciting, but this detour with the X-Men seems to have gone off-course to me. I'm anxious to get back to the main part of the story, with Cap taking it to Harderman and Moonstone. Thankfully it looks like we're headed back that way.
Doug: So the plot thickens indeed! This has become very interesting, yet not overcrowded, with the addition of three members of the X-Men. I haven't felt that it's forced and so far it has served to add depth to they mysterious Secret Empire and how they fully tie-in with Harderman and Moonstone. That there are other mutants who have been kidnapped makes one wonder about how powerful the Empire is -- do they have other super-powered agents in addition to Moonstone? Why do they want the mutants specifically? A thought on the art: I thought this was Vinnie Colletta's weakest effort of the four issues we've seen him over Sal Buscema. I really didn't think he did Sal any favors in this issue; in fact, I thought he took away from what's been a really solid, typical effort from Sal over the course of this arc. Englehart's script seems to have some holes in it here-and-there, and some elements of it (Cyke's eyebeams stand out) just seem ill-researched. But overall he has kept the story moving along, and there is suspense building as the stakes become clear and indeed get higher as we move through. I don't have a problem calling this one a Bronze Age classic.