It must have been quite an experience to be a comic book fan in the early 1970s. The books themselves were maturing, with more complex stories and better writing. Artists like Gene Colan and Jim Steranko were staking out claim that each page didn’t have to be six boxes. And the stories themselves were moving away from the plodding devotion to “introduce-fight-bigger fight” story beats of the all the done-in-ones of the 1960s, and were starting to tackle “real” issues. Sure, sometimes it was heavy handed, but when it worked…You got Secret Empire.
It starts with a street fight in which Captain America shows up to help Falcon, and just leaves Falc feeling insecure. Falcon accuses Cap of treating him like a “pet” not a partner, and to his credit Captain America doesn’t respond with anger. He offers to help.
Remember, Cap now has super-strength, so he’s not the “every man” that Falcon originally partnered with. So Falcon asks Cap to hook him up with Black Panther, which Cap does, and Falcon leaves to go to Wakanda. That takes him out of the story for a while.
Then there’s CRAP. In a clear comparison to Nixon’s CREEP, we get “CRAP”-the Committee to Regain America’s Principles, led by Quentin Harderman (like Halderman, get it?). The alt-right organization sets Cap to battle against a guy called The Tumbler (he’s stupid, but don’t worry about it-he’s just a fall guy). During the fight, they shoot Tumbler from a sniper perch, making it look like Cap is a murderer.
This enables CRAP to surreptitiously introduce their own hero: Moonstone. I will say that CRAP’s involvement in this is behind the scenes, but as a reader I think it was fairly obvious that they were behind all this. As Cap, going through the adventure, it’s plausibly not obvious to him.
Moonstone beats Captain America, and Cap wakes up in jail. With his gloves and cowl still on. OK. Give Steve Englehart license for that. He didn’t want to have the secret identity compromised. Anyway, some “supporters” break him out of jail.
Meanwhile, Falcon is going through all kinds of stuff with Black Panther and he emerges with a flight suit, and the costume he’d keep for decades…
Falcon returns to the U.S. and Iron Man tells him that Cap is wanted and on the lam. Iron Man is pretty quick to believe that Cap needs to be brought to justice, and Falcon insists on Cap’s innocence.
So, when it comes to Captain America, Iron Man has been a dick since wayback.
The story takes a little bit of misstep in issue #172, when it gets sidetracked with an X-Men cameo, but since Steve Englehart was lobbying to have the right to reboot the X-Men’s book, it’s understandable. Plus, it helps stretch out the Secret Empire conspiracy, which really does need time to breathe. If it had moved any faster, it would have felt rushed.
Anyway, Professor X tells Cap he needs help figuring out who is hunting and capturing mutants, and Cap agrees. Just then, Nick Fury shows up to arrest both Cap and the X-Men.
Of course, he fails, and that’s when Xavier tells Captain America about a conspiracy for world domination led by The Secret Empire! X tells Cap that both the conspiracy to set up Cap and the hunting of mutants can both be tied to Secret Empire. They team up and follow leads together.
Turns out, the Empire are a bunch of guys in numbered hoods who greet each other saying “Salaam!” and pumping a fist in the air, an odd amalgam of black panthers, KKK, and Nazis.
A weird thread is dropped here, too, and is followed intermittently throughout the 1980s. Falcon seems to be able to pick up on Xavier’s thoughts, and X suggests that Falcon may have powers-perhaps even being a mutant. It’s interesting, because remember: This whole, half-year arc started with Falcon wishing he was special. So fucking special.
Anyway, we then see all the kidnapped mutants, back together, imprisoned by Secret Empire…
Then there’s a big battle and the heroes win-but they trace the roots of the cabal all the way to the White House, where Cap unmasks the leader and the leader then kills himself. Based on everything that’s happened so far, it’s safe to assume that the big bad is President Richard Nixon.
The next several issues of Cap will deal with the fallout from this, mainly Captain America’s disillusionment with his country.
Creators: Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema
For the complete history of the MU, year by year, go here.