Monday, March 31, 2014
This is the End of the Innocence: Captain America 175
Captain America #175 (July 1974)(cover by Sal Buscema and John Romita)
"...Before the Dawn!"
Steve Englehart-Sal Buscema/Vince Colletta
Doug: This is it! The one you've been waiting for! Prepare to have your senses shattered! OK, OK -- maybe not all that, but this is the climax to the "Secret Empire" storyline. We'll be back next week, however, with the epilogue, as Steve Rogers decides his future as Captain America. This one, though, has been building over the previous six issues -- what sort of pay-off will it have?
Doug: We open right after the atomic annihilator had gone off, crushing our five heroes in its wake. This is the third time Cap had been knocked out in this arc; will he awaken to get in on some secret info. as he has the previous two times? Of course, the heroes aren't dead, nor are they done in right away. Nope, instead they Secret Empire agents haul the good guys down some steps that would have done Boris Karloff proud. They are literally spirited to a dungeon. How's that for building some outta sight digs under the desert floor? And yes -- Cap does awaken first, to two S.E. figures leaning over him. Cap comes to in a fighting mood, but is told to back down by a hooded figure claiming to be his friend! Cap's obviously suspicious, until the lead agent removes his hood to reveal... Gabe Jones, agent of SHIELD! And alongside him is Peggy Carter, Cap's WWII-era lady friend. Uh... now waitasecond. If my memory serves, which is risky these days, we learned at the beginning of this story that Peggy was going to join SHIELD and everyone thought she was crazy and needed to be talked out of it. In real time, she would have been around her early 50s. Not exactly secret agent material, huh?
Karen: I wonder if the super-soldier serum protects Cap from concussions. After this storyline, he could be feeling pretty loopy.
Doug: Author Steve Englehart uses Gabe Jones as a cipher to tell us, the readers, the history of the Secret Empire, and it's a history that hearkens back to the Silver Age and actually involves the Hulk, Sub-Mariner, and SHIELD. Whooda thunk it? I thought it was pretty nifty when Englehart showed how he'd woven together all of the books he was writing -- I had no idea that his villainous cartel had actually been around the Marvel Universe for the better part of a decade when this saw print. Pretty cool research and recycling, I say! So after the catch-up for Cap, Gabe heads out so that Cap and Peggy can get reacquainted; just what Cap doesn't want, as he's now in love with Peggy's much younger sister.
Karen: I also thought it was pretty nifty that Englehart had used an existing (if obscure) villain organization to carry out this storyline. I didn't recall seeing the Secret Empire before from old Tales to Astonish issues or Marvel Super-Heroes reprints. With his tendency to link together different corners of the Marvel universe, Englehart was the true successor to Roy Thomas! On the other hand, the return of Peggy seemed a very questionable move and the situation with her just dragged on and on. The whole aspect of having Sharon be her younger sister (I think they might have changed that to niece later on) was very uncomfortable -OK, icky - and there was really no way for Cap to come out of it looking good. He didn't want to hurt Peggy but he let it go on so long, and then there's the whole feeling that he was sort of replacing Peggy with a younger version...well, it's just all pretty nasty.
Doug: Totally agreed. But, in Cap's defense, and this may seem very superficial, Cap would have been around 30 years old, max? Let's say he enlisted right out of high school in 1941, so he's 18. At the end of the war he would have been 22-23 years old (which is very difficult to wrap my mind around). So let's say that Marvel Time is quite a bit shorter than real time, and maybe "now", years after his big thaw, he's approximately 30. If Peggy aged naturally, I could certainly see why Cap would think there was a disconnect. Doesn't mean the only fish in the sea has to be Sharon Carter, though.
Doug: We cut to a huge room where lays a saucer -- not flying yet, but that's the plan! And here's what I don't get (well, actually a few things): 1) the mutants must really have been groggy after Cap had freed them, because they were all recaptured seemingly immediately, 2) the electron-gyro is some sort of navigational device?, and 3) what in the world are the X-waves in the mutants brains that are going to power the ship?? At any rate, the saucer does indeed fly, and Number 1 gloats that all of the machinations have led to this -- the perfect attack on America! Uh, yeah dude.
Karen: As Rick James said, "Cocaine is a hell of a drug." You can replace 'cocaine' with the substance of your choice. OK, OK, I'll get serious. I think perhaps this was an homage of sorts to all those sci-fi films that had flying saucers invading America. Of course, the greatest was "The Day the Earth Stood Still," and it did indeed have a great big flying saucer land in Washington D.C. The mutant brain power thing doesn't seem too odd -I seem to recall that there were other stories where similar angles were used with mutant physiology. Sure, it doesn't make a lot of sense -why would say Iceman's brain have any special juice? - but I think there may have been some sort of precedent. I guess it would have made more sense (from a comic book-science point of view) if they'd have kidnapped mutants with energy-generating powers, like Havok and Cyclops and used them to power the vehicle.
Doug: Wow, Rick James making his debut on the Bronze Age Babies! "Ghetto Life", "Mr. Policeman"... I wore out his Street Songs album back in the day. Gotta be a topic for another day! But in regard to the mutants and any X-tra ordinary energy they might possess, I suppose one could write it off to the whole "children of the atom" angle.
Doug: Cut to Washington, DC, where Moonstone and Quentin Harderman have just left a congressional hearing on... we aren't told, but I'd assume it was something on the fall of Captain America or the threat of something or other. I'm sure Harderman had it rigged up just perfectly. The two men pass by a window, where they see the Empire's saucer landing -- on the White House lawn! Englehart remarks in a narration box that America's fear of flying saucers runs deep -- the Secret Empire knew that, and so chose just one more detail to put Americans on their heels, to raise doubt in the public consciousness. Almost immediately the press and army assemble (where was the Secret Service?) and wait anxiously for word or movement. Suddenly a hatch opens on the top of the saucer and a large video screen rises. On it is the megalomaniacal Number 1, and he says he wants America's unconditional surrender -- now! The army responds with an attack first, ask questions later answer.
Karen: Boy, this is a conspiracy buff's dream! A perfectly manufactured, pre-packaged threat. I can read this now and think, "Well of course they conspired to topple the government by faking a threat" and not think twice about it, but I'm sure it was all very different in 1974. I was too young to really understand what was going on when Watergate was in the news (it seemed like constantly then -little did I know about the 24 hour news cycle to come) but I could understand the change that came over the people around me. Watergate, and the Vietnam War, and the Recession, all seemed to bring about a general sense of pessimism in the adults of my world. In the years before that, things seemed more optimistic. We were sending men to the moon. America was always the good guy. But by the mid-70s, things had changed. I know that I grew up with a cynical streak. And I'm pretty sure I know why. But let's get back to the flying saucers and megalomaniacs.
Doug: Suddenly Moonstone swoops in and postures in front of the cameras. He calls out Number 1, and challenges him. A door opens in the saucer and out steps a guy who bears a striking resemblance to the robot that Gil Kane drew on the cover of the previous issue. Of course, this guy is supposed to be the dude on this month's cover, but it's just not matching up for me. Anyway, Moonstone flies directly into his new adversary and hits like a brick wall; and is then repulsed by one big Buscema-blast. Moonstone says that his powers have been nullified; he's been defeated. The new baddie tells him to rise, and to get his butt inside the saucer. The TV cameras lap this stuff up. Once inside, however, we see that this was all some sort of pro wrestling set-up. Moonstone, after congratulating the other fella for his fine acting, comes back out of the saucer to tell the crowd that it's hopeless -- the Secret Empire cannot be beaten. Number 1 now shows himself in person and proclaims that his Sanitation Squad has planted atomic explosives (missed the plutonium heist somewhere along the line, did I) around America's major cities that will detonate unless America surrenders within 30 minutes. Oh, boy.
Karen: How did you like Number One's casual comment that "your leader is far away"? A good excuse for why we hadn't heard from the president I guess? Number Two -what a terrible name! - looks pretty ridiculous, but he does a great Buscema-blast against Moonstone. The two of them conspiring inside the saucer was well done by Sal. So now we finally get what Moonstone is all about - he was just getting built up in order to drag all of America down. Not your standard comic book villain, that's for sure.
Doug: Unbeknownst to Number 1, Secret Empire moles Gabe Jones and Peggy Carter were on board the saucer. And on board with them? Why, Cap, Falc, Cyclops, and Marvel Girl (we're told that the Professor had to sit this one out. Wonder how he got home from the desert?)! Captain America is mad and seeking vindication -- "So now we put our lives on the line, for Honor, Retribution -- and Country!" Attaboy, Cap! And before Number 1 and his cronies can react, they're smacked hard by seven heroes. Once they survey the mound of hooded thugs at their feet, Cyclops moves to the control panel of the saucer and destroys anything that looks like it might be related to the siphoning of mutant brain energy. And then Cyke and Marvel Girl decide to bow out, leaving the final clean-up of this mess to Cap and Falc. But Cap orders Falc to use Cyke and Jean to go through the saucer and find an Empire agent who will tell them where the bombs are located. Cap's heading outside.
Karen: There's no indecision with this Cap -he's acting much more like the version we were used to seeing in Avengers. Obviously it's because it's clear to Cap who's wronged him and what he needs to do. It's a bit refreshing to see him taking charge again.
Doug: Since I just recently re-read Avengers Forever for our Vision/Torch post, the extent of Cap's downtrodden spirit post-Secret Empire is especially magnified by this return to form, as you say. Wow, will he crash only moments after this...
Doug: The only problem with Cap getting outside is that Number 1 is still standing in the doorway of the saucer, ranting and raving about the S.E. taking over. Running his mouth, that is, until he does a faceplant with Cap on his back! Cap hits him really hard, carrying Number 1 right off the ramp to the ship. But when Cap rights himself, he's greeted by none other than Moonstone, still spouting lies about Cap being in league with the Empire. And you know what? Cap's had quite enough. In a beautiful splash page, Sal Buscema gives us the fury that had built up inside the Star-Spangled Avenger as he bull rushes Moonstone and puts him right through a small tree! Moonstone is totally out-classed, as we see eight panels of Cap just pummeling him. It's a beautiful sight. And what of the opportunistic Harderman? Of course that scum runs up to Cap, trying to put a spin on things that would paint C.R.A.P. (ha - one more time...) as the victims in this whole thing, duped by the Empire. Moonstone shakes off the little birdies singing in his head long enough to catch Harderman's line... and then contradicts everything ol' Q said, with the truth. Oh, and remember the assembled media? Yeah, cameras were still rolling.
Karen: I would agree that it is very cathartic to see Cap lay a well-deserved beating on Moonstone (and Sal does a great job on the art here), but Englehart puts in a caption here that really caught my attention. Right before the fight starts, he says,"He is where he should be -doing what he should be doing! Captain America is fulfilling his heritage!" Now after all the talk we've had about the propaganda of Moonstone being built up as the "defender of our heritage" I thought this was an interesting term to use. And after Watergate and Vietnam, what was the American heritage?
Karen: But as Englehart also went on to talk about 'what makes a fighter?' and described Cap's fighting spirit, I admit I got all mushy inside.
Doug: Falcon returns to the White House lawn after alerting SHIELD of the location of the bombs. Dum Dum arrives, and he, Gabe, and Peggy are all smiles. Cap's congratulated by Falc, and it looks like we have a wrap on this tale. But what of Number 1? Suddenly he stands from the spot where Cap had deposited him, and makes a break for it -- straight toward the White House. Again, I say -- where the heck was the Secret Service? Cap gives chase, and the two men enter the mansion and into what could very well be the Oval Office. Cap hits his opponent hard in the back again, putting the man down against a wall. Wheeling around quickly, Cap grabs Number 1's hood and yanks it away to reveal... well, we're not told. But Cap's cry of "Good Lord! You!!" gives us a pretty good clue. The man on the floor rails on about power, and how he couldn't get enough of it legally -- the only route to total power was a coup. But to cut his losses (namely, being hauled off to a very long jail term), Number 1 pulls out a pistol and puts a bullet through his skull. Cap has no chance at stopping him, and can only shield his eyes as the hammer clicks. Outside, Cap walks, stunned. No one knows what just happened, save one man -- the Sentinel of Liberty. And he can't talk about it.
Karen: I missed this issue back in the day but got the next one, so I wasn't sure what had happened. But to be honest, I think I just wouldn't have gotten this as a kid. It would have gone right over my head. But now? Boy, this is heavy! We think our hero has a nice, neat, happy ending, only to find that the very leader of his nation was behind his attempted destruction, and the take-over of his country. The Secret Empire's pulp villain shenanigans stand in for the Watergate crews' efforts at sabotaging our electoral system, and just as the American people became disillusioned, so too has Cap. Before this, I don't think we had ever seen him question his belief in his government. All that was going to change dramatically. In retrospect, I actually think the issues that came after this, with Cap trying to figure out what he really believed in and stood for may have been more interesting than this storyline. But this one certainly had some interesting twists and turns.
Doug: Pay-off? For me, this one had it. Although there were some loose ends left hanging (namely, everything surrounding the mutants - while I appreciate Englehart's efforts or editorial's mandate to keep the X-guys' names out there, it was odd that any mutant beyond Cyke, Jean, and Xavier was in this story), Steve Englehart overall did a nice job tying it all together. And while you can argue with the end result for Number 1, I don't think there's much to quibble with in terms of Englehart using the character to channel his own disillusionment with political issues in America at the time. And like Karen said, this really isn't the end of this storyline.