29 September 2009

Re-Cap, Part 10: Captain America is back . . . just in time to quit

My post at Black Gate today is simply the links to all my Twilight Zone reviews, as preparation for the Big Essay next week for the show’s official birthday. You can go read the post if you feel like it, but I’ve already made that list of links on this blog, back with my review of “A World of His Own.”

But I can’t have an entire post here simply telling you that. So how about I revert to an old topic I haven’t touched in over a year.

Wow, it has been a long span since I’ve visited with Captain America in “Re-Cap.” For a time, I was blazing through his heroics on the DVD-ROM that collected all the issues of his comic book up until his “death” in 2007 (which Marvel in April announced—big surprise—they were going to reverse). However, I eventually burnt out. I reached one of the landmark issues, #176, and after the double-punch of two of Steve Englehart’s greatest stories in the magazine, the “Return of ‘50s Captain America” and “The Secret Empire,” I didn’t feel like diving into the third of Englehart’s great trio of Cap Adventures, “The Nomad Saga.” So I put the Red, White, and Blue Avenger aside for a while.

But, ‘nuff of that. Feeling fresh again, I launched into the arc that runs from #176 to #183 covering one of the most famous eras in Captain America’s history. After the disastrous revelation at the end of the battle against the Secret Empire (which started in earnest in issue #170), Steve Rogers decides he can no longer be Captain America and gives up the shield. He eventually takes on another superhero identity, “Nomad, the Man without a Country.” A second tragedy and the reappearance of his greatest foe (hint: starts with “Red” and ends in “Skull”) make Steve again take up the mantle of Captain America.
The “Secret Empire” storyline—which actually started with a goofy idea that the Viper was mounting an ad campaign to besmirch Cap’s image—was a daring one for its time, since it developed in freakish tandem with the Watergate Scandal. Writer Steve Englehart didn’t see this coming, and in the letter columns he noted that he started to change the storyline as current events unfolded. At the conclusion of #175, Cap confronts the masked leader of the Secret Empire, a man who had attempted a coup to take over the U.S., and discovers it’s none other than . . .

Well, I don’t know. We never see the man’s face before he blows his own head off, but the revelation of his identity is so shocking to Cap that it destroys his faith in the U.S. Most fans assume that the Secret Empire’s leader was none other than Richard Nixon. It’s certainly implied that the man is the U.S. President in his dialogue: “But high political office didn’t satisfy me! My power was still constrained by legalities! I gambled on a coup to gain me the power that I craved . . .” That the hidden mastermind of this plot is the holder of the highest elected office in the land is the only revelation that I think is big enough to make Cap decide he can’t represent the United States of America any more.

And so, in famed issue #176, “Captain America Must Die,” with a classic cover from Jazzy John Romita and interior artwork from Sal Buscema, Steve Rogers stands before the other Avengers and resigns “forever” as Captain America. He thinks over his history, his original pride in carrying his country’s name . . . “But so much has happened since then,” he laments in a famous two-page spread. “I’ve seen America rocked with scandal—seen it amputated by demagogues with sweet, empty words—seen all the things I hated when I saw those newsreels—”

Issue #176 has no action in it: it’s just Cap talking to the Avengers and flashing back over his career. That Cap would surrender the job at this point in his life makes sense; in many ways, everything that has occurred since he was revived by the Avengers from the block of ice has built up to this crisis. It’s not just the Secret Empire fiasco that pushed Rogers to the edge. He still carries the weight of Bucky’s death, has a troubled relationship with Sharon Carter, recently discovered that his old love Peggy Carter is still pining for him, and confronted a psycho version of himself from the ‘50s who represents everything he hoped he would never be. The comic book itself had to deal with the changing tastes of its readers, who started to see Captain America as stuffy and “establishment.” Something had to finally give, and it did in #176. It’s a classic issue of the darkening “Bronze Age” of comics that portrays succinctly the internal struggles of a superhero. It encapsulates all the many conflicts of Steve Roger’s/Captain America’s life since he re-entered the Marvel Universe. It also serves as a great platform for the title’s regular artist, Sal Buscema, to work some montage magic.

And thus, Steve Rogers surrendered the mantle of Captain America. For good.

And when I write “for good,” I mean “for a few issues,” of course. Just like Rogers getting killed recently. That lasted a bit longer, but we all knew he was coming back. And I think that everybody in 1974 assumed that Steve Rogers would once again take up the shield—but Steve Englehart would run through an interesting story to get him back to it.

Last episode: Power Records Presents . . .

Next episode: Captain America Is Nomad Is Captain America Again