Captain America plays an important role as the moral compass of America. From his beginnings Captain America has been a commentary on what the right thing to do is, and in December 1940 with the release of Captain America Comics #1 the right thing to do was end the Nazi regime as the good Captain punches Hitler. Even though America had yet to enter WWII it was still easy to see who was in the wrong as Hitler spread his master race rhetoric across the world and someone had to speak out against it. In popular culture that person was Captain America. I don’t believe that its coincidence that the American ideal, the American willing to stand up against Hitler and his ideology of hate was created by two Jewish gentlemen who wanted to voice their displeasure at what was happening to their people in Europe. Although the Holocaust would not be known for a few years there was not a doubt that the Jews were being treated as a scapegoat by the German Regime and they were encouraging Anti-Semitic behavior throughout the country. So Captain America was born and was willing to stand for what was right and fight evil across the theater of war for what was right, to stop hate, and promote the American Dream.
Overtime Captain America became more then just a NAZI smasher. He became the embodiment of the America Dream, and to an idealist like myself, that means doing the right thing even when the world seems to stand in your way. Over the years Captain America has risen to the forefront, often in a meta-textual context, as commentary on where America has gone wrong and ways that we can right the ship. Captain America has also been a compass for the American Society when it feels like the world is stacked against us it’s Captain America who has risen and done his absolute best to right the ship. I still remember the emotional reaction I had when I read Marvel Knights Captain America #1 in the wake of 9/11. To see Captain America emotionally shell shocked, like most of us were, at the inability to stop the attacks or trying to comprehend the simple question, why? Unlike most of us the good Captain could act, and even though it was a piece of fiction, it was cathartic to read the next few issues as Captain America struck back at Terrorism and the fictional representation of Al Qaeda. Because that is what Captain America is supposed to do, stand up against the evils of the world because it is the right thing to do.
There was a previous time where Captain America was substituted in for American ideal and was the moral compass for many of the wrongs of society, so much so that for a time Captain America couldn’t represent what the country had become and adopted the identity of Nomad, the Man without a Country. I’m of course referring to the post-Watergate storyline known as the Secret Empire that ran through Captain America #169-176. 1974 was an unsettled time in America and faith in the American Government was low. We’d had our first President, Nixon, in history resign and if not for the intervention and pardon by President Ford we would have probably seen our first President sentenced to prison. We had an unelected President, who only became the Chief Executive thanks to the 25th Amendment and not the popular sovereignty of the people. In the post-Vietnam and now post- Watergate world the citizens of the United States were just waiting for what was next and wondering how the society had come to this state. Also questioning this was Captain America, as he chose to tackle the issues of the day and the distrust in our Political and Societal institutions. This is the basis of the Secret Empire.
The Secret Empire is the brainchild of longtime comic writer Steve Englehart and was written as a commentary on the post Watergate American society, yet surprisingly in touch with our current political climate. The Secret Empire is set in a divided America. An America where society is divided into factions and a strong belief that if you aren’t with us then you are against us. In this environment a secret group decides that it is their place to take over America and rule by domination. To accomplish this they first must discredit the holder of the American ideal, none other then Captain America. To accomplish this an Interest Group is formed, the Committee to Re-Gain America’s Principles, and begin airing negative ads against Captain America. These ads call into question, who holds Captain America accountable. How someone can wrap themselves in the flag but still be a mystery to the American people. They air doctored footage of Captain America assaulting average citizen’s and how law enforcement doesn’t even trust him since at the time period Captain America and Nick Fury had had a falling out and so Cap was persona non grata with SHIELD. The kicker was the question of how America could trust a man whose powers came from drugs and mysterious experiments.
The Committee to Re-Gain America’s Principles was successful in making Americans question the role Captain America played in society. They then easily set him up for murder in the hope of removing him as a threat as their true nature appeared as well as their real name, the Secret Empire. The Secret Empire began as an offshoot of Hydra, and described as being dedicated to Domination—Without the people they dominate being aware of it. Their principle tool is propaganda to persuade people to their side without them even realizing they are siding with evil. Captain America and his partner, the Falcon, are forced to go underground to find the truth about the conspiracy to defame Cap and to unsettle the culture of America. While on the run Captain America and the Falcon come into contact with Marvel’s number one minority group, the Mutants, who are also being targeted as the scapegoats for many of the wrongs of society. Once again, it’s not your fault your life isn’t going well; it’s someone else’s.
With the aid of the X-Men Captain America and the Falcon infiltrate the Secret Empire. We learn that the Secret Empire are not identified by name but by number and never reveal their true faces but conceal themselves under purple hoods, as hate groups often do to hide their identities, since I’d like to think they know they are wrong. The Leader of the Secret Empire is known as Number One and his goal is to assume the unconditional surrender of America or they will use the power of harnessed Mutants to destroy select cities around the world. The final act of the Secret Empire takes place on the White House lawn as Captain America and his allies make a last stand against the Secret Empire, finally revealing the truth to the world and the fraud that had been perpetrated upon them and in one final conflict Captain America chases Number One into the Oval Office. Once he realizes he cannot succeed Number One reveals himself only to Captain America, but it is heavily insinuated that Number One is in fact Richard Nixon. After this revelation he places a gun to his head and pulls the trigger, thus ending the threat but causing Captain America to question his roll in society and can he represent an America so easily corrupted by evil.
For a time after the end of the Secret Empire Steve Rogers would relinquish his title as Captain America and don a new costume and take the name Nomad: the Man without a Country. In time Steve Rogers would return to being Captain America but the commentary on society was apparent. I did not read the Secret Empire until the ‘90s when I was in my 20s so some of the significance was lost on me but the story still stuck. Yes, readers today may have a hard time with the dialogue heavy issues, and dated dialogue at that, but that’s how comics were written in the ‘70s. They were very descriptive and the main characters explained everything, I mean everything. But as I grew to love Captain America in my youth the Steve Englehart run became one of my favorites, as he truly understood the symbolism of Captain America. That Captain America represents the American ideal, and that may be antiquated or dated but Captain America is a man out of time, a man from our greatest generation, and a man who should question the evils of the world just as America should. The mid ‘70s were a dark time for America. Our faith in our leaders was shattered and questions of how this could happen went unanswered. But we persevered. We got back up and dusted off our pants and went back to work and helping us along the way, at least for comic readers, was Captain America with his faith was restored and choosing to once again wrap himself in the American Flag, hefted his Shield and went back to representing what America stood for and what America could be.
I believe this is the basis for my frustration with the current Secret Empire. We’re once again living in an unsettled time. Faith in our leaders is low. Where our president can be elected by less then 30% of the Electorate, use the highest office in the land to promote his self interests, rob Americans of their healthcare, blame others for all of societies woes, openly lie with alternative facts and call anything or anyone that disagrees with him as fake news. This is a time we need Captain America. We need a reminder of what makes us the Greatest Nation on Earth. Rather we are stuck with a Captain America who supports the fascists he was created to destroy. Hydra are Nazi’s. Stan and Jack created Hydra as a stand in for the Nazi regime. Hence Captain America is now a supporter of a history where the Nazi’s were right; hence the Holocaust was justified, which I find insulting to an icon created by two Jewish men. I know Marvel keeps telling us to be patient, that we’ll get the real Captain America back but to be frank ‘our’ Captain America should have never become ‘this’ Captain America.
For Jason Kahler’s take on Captain America & the mistakes of Secret Empire Click Below.