Marvel’s latest trade paperback volume of 1974’s classic Captain America and the Falcon: Secret Empire (collecting Captain America and the Falcon #169-176), written by Steve Englehart and Mike Friedrich with pencils by Sal Buscema, follows the titular heroes as they (with some help from Black Panther and a handful of X-Men) fight to uncover the truth about the slick ad exec who’s sabotaging Cap’s (Steve Rogers) life and reputation, only to discover that the mystery goes much deeper into the corrupt underbelly of American society than they thought. Tapping into America’s immediate post-Nixon, post-Watergate fears and concerns, it clearly has no relevance to our lives in 2017. No sir, none at all. Anyway, is it good?
Captain America and the Falcon: Secret Empire (Marvel Comics)
Before we jump into the past to talk about the comic at hand here, we need to talk about the undeniably baffling things that are happening right now in American politics and Marvel Comics–both as a fictional universe and as a real-world corporate entity.
I’m not going to waste too much time detailing how scared, angry, and saddened I am by the state of American politics right now, or how disgusted I am with the Trump administration and those supporting it. Donald Trump is a fascist, corrupt sociopath, and if you don’t agree, perhaps a review of a Captain America comic from 1974 isn’t the proper forum for me to try to convince you otherwise.
However, that is not to say, by any stretch of the imagination, that a comic book review is not an appropriate place to talk about politics at all. Political commentary has a place in all art forms, and comics, and thus, comics criticism, are certainly no different. If you’re reading this, I probably don’t need to remind you that Captain America was created by two Jewish cartoonists that chose to have said red, white, and blue-clad hero punch Adolf Hitler himself in the character’s first appearance in 1941, well before the United States got involved in World War II.
I bring this up not just to prepare myself for whatever angry comments I may get regarding my inability to put my politics aside to write an “unbiased review,” or to be called a snowflake or a cuck by a bunch of white supremacists. This is all just preamble to the pink (or orange, I suppose) elephant in the room when it comes to Marvel in 2017, which is the fact that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter not only donated a million dollars to the Trump campaign, but is now serving as some sort of advisor to the Trump administration (details regarding the exact nature of his role are hard to come by).
Obviously, this is upsetting for many fans of Marvel’s characters, fictional universe, and various media ventures. So why aren’t more people angrier about it? Besides the fact that Perlmutter is a rather elusive figure who rarely is seen in public, let alone participating in any interviews or providing any statements, it probably has a lot to do with the fact that Trump’s particular brand of conservatism hasn’t seemed to affect the stories that Marvel tells, at least not in any way that would be especially obvious.
It’s a bit confusing, actually. Trump-like figures have been mocked in recent Marvel comics without much subtlety, and while there’s still plenty of work to be done in terms of representation and inclusivity, it’s still hard to believe that progressive comics like Champions, Ms. Marvel, or even the current Hawkeye run would be allowed under a Trump supporter’s watch.
Of course, by now, you’ve probably heard about that whole “Captain America is a Nazi now, and secretly has been all along” plot that started in writer Nick Spencer’s Captain America: Steve Rogers run, which is set to culminate in this summer’s Marvel mega-event entitled, quite frustratingly, Secret Empire (seriously Marvel, between this and Secret Wars, you really need to try to come up with new names for your stories. At least Civil War II can clearly be differentiated from the original Civil War). Far more frustrating, though, is the fact that Marvel is now insisting that in spite of everything, that story has nothing to do with the current political landscape.
This all may seem tangential, but it’s key to understanding the importance of the original Secret Empire and the timing of its reprinting. Obviously, Marvel wants to capitalize on the hype for their latest “everything will change forever” event by putting the spotlight back on Steve Englehart, Mike Friedrich, and Sal Buscema’s landmark storyline, but do Perlmutter and the rest of Marvel corporate even understand the implications?
I mean, look, I don’t want to get too much into spoiler territory for a 43 year old story, but this is about as blunt in its political commentary as Comics Code Authority-approved Bronze Age superhero comics can get.
It’s actually structured somewhat similarly to Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s later classic Daredevil: Born Again, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Miller took some inspiration from Englehart and Friedrich. Here, however, it’s not a vengeful mob boss trying to ruin our hero’s life and reputation, but a slick ad exec.
Actually, you know what? Screw it. I won’t be able to properly express how special this story is without giving away crucial details, but I strongly suggest that you pick up the book anyway. Also keep in mind that I knew most of the basic gist of the plot before reading this myself, and I still found it to be an entertaining comic. Nonetheless, if you really want to go into the book with as few expectations as possible, you may want to stop now.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR A 43-YEAR-OLD STORY
Englehart, Friedrich, and Buscema juggle a few different subplots at once here, though it all stems from the manipulative tactics of the Committee to Regain America’s Principles–or C.R.A.P., though the comic never dares use such an acronym, however obvious it may be–which of course sounds awfully comparable to a recent presidential campaign slogan.
One of the first things that they do is run a scathing ad that attacked Captain America, accusing him of being a vicious vigilante who doesn’t properly represent America. Furious, Cap tries to confront the accusers, in a series of events that leads to him becoming public enemy number one in the eyes of the American people.
This all leads Steve Rogers on a quest to clear his name. Along the way, his friend and ally The Falcon (Sam Wilson) literally gets his wings for the first time thanks to Black Panther (in a moment that feels like it should have happened five years earlier when the character first appeared), a villainous (and rather disappointingly bland) “replacement” for Captain America comes out of the woodwork when our hero gets framed for murder, and an evil cabal known as The Secret Empire appears from the shadows to prove that they were the ones behind the curtain from the start.
Oh, and who was at the top of The Secret Empire? None other than motherfucking Richard Nixon himself.
We never actually see his face, and his name is never spoken, but it’s so heavily implied that it would be silly to even try to look at it any other way. Anyway, he kills himself with a bullet to the brain almost as soon as a shocked Cap unmasks him.
By the final issue of the arc, after seeing how deep the corruption in the country that he works so hard to represent really ran, and how easily the American people were able to be manipulated by lies and fear mongering, Cap is so shaken up by what he had experienced in the previous seven issues that he seriously considers laying down the mantle of Captain America. Obviously, this many decades of Captain America comics later, we know that this is not a change that lasts forever, but it still reads as a powerful moment.
It’s hard not to be empathetic to this decision, and it’s a poignant one even for contemporary readers, but it’s also a bit odd that this particular collection ends where it does. This arc was originally followed by just four issues featuring Steve Rogers in his decidedly less jingoistic identity as “Nomad” before taking up the stars and stripes once again. Perhaps it can be read as its own arc, but it would have been nice if the events that lead up to Cap restoring his faith in the United States and himself enough to feel ready to represent his country once again. With this volume presented almost as a standalone story, though (there are no numbers on the spine), it’s a real downer.
Nonetheless, I was surprised by how well the story as a whole holds up as a suspenseful, entertaining, and even somewhat emotional adventure. That’s not to say that it doesn’t feel like a product of its time, though, because it absolutely is, and I won’t fault it for that.
Mike Friedrich scripts the second half of the first issue, the entirety of the next two, and then has his role reduced to “Amigo” in the fourth part of the arc before disappearing from the credits entirely. (If you’re new to comics and want to know what an “amigo” does, I’m afraid I can’t help you, as it’s not a credit that I’ve ever seen before. I’d assume that it means something along the lines of “special thanks”). The transition from Steve Englehart’s words to Friedrich’s back to Englehart’s is fairly seamless, but considering that Englehart was plotting the whole time and wrote the crucial issues of the latter half of the story, he’s definitely the star of this book.
The dialogue and captions are fairly typical of Marvel comics of the era, so if you’re inexperienced with Bronze Age comics it might take some getting used to. Once you get past that, though, you’ll find that Englehart knocks it out of the park with his plotting, especially given the constraints he was faced with. There’s nary a dull moment to be found here, and even going into it knowing most of the essential plot beats (this is a rather famous story, after all), I still found myself thinking “oh man, how are Cap and Falc going to make it out of this one?”
It helps, of course, that Sal Buscema is such a talented penciler. I must admit that before reading Secret Empire, I tended to think of Buscema as a poor man’s Jack Kirby, and while he definitely falls into that classic Marvel “house style,” he does undeniably great work here, with clean, unfussy lines, dynamic action, and easy-to-follow layouts. He’s such a great visual storyteller that many crucial moments can be understood without reading the words, which is a skill that many younger, flashier artists don’t necessarily have. There’s also at least one point instance of that signature Buscema thing in which somebody gets punched so hard that they flip backwards into the air, which is always nice to see.
Inkers Vincent Colletta and Frank McLaughlin make Buscema looks great, as do colorists Petra Goldberg, Linda Lessman, Michelle Brand, and George Roussos. Colorists didn’t have nearly the same kind of power in the 1970’s that 21st century color artists do, simply because the technology was such that they were forced to work with a more limited palette that tended to flatten everything out, but I still found these pages to be sufficiently colorful for their time. There’s nothing flashy about Charlotte Jeter and Art Simek’s letters, either, but as always, they get the job done largely by staying out of everyone’s way.
Is It Good?
With a political (and dare I say satirical?) gutsiness that contemporary superhero comic creators can learn a thing or two from, Captain America and the Falcon: Secret Empire is just as poignant, relevant, and entertaining as ever.