Although the seeds have been planted for several issues, Captain America #169 sees the classic “Secret Empire” storyline begin in earnest, as Cap feels the effects of the public relations campaign against him… and starts to fight back. Plus: the return of the Tumbler, who is definitely not Batroc the Leaper!
Interestingly, the issue starts with three pages of the Falcon getting jumped by a bunch of thugs, and it isn’t until page four that we meet Cap, coming out of Sam’s office, where he’s staying since getting kicked out of his hotel. The exposition is careful to assure us that Cap is not running away, but returning to help!
Despite Cap’s best intentions, the thugs’ reaction only hits Sam’s nerve about being the weaker partner.
As always, Cap tries to minimize the power imbalance and reassure Sam that they’re equals in his book, but Sam is determined this time to even the scales, launching a parallel storyline about going to Wakanda to see Black Panther about some costume upgrades, the result of which we’ll see in a few issues.
Sam is still on Cap’s mind as he rides away, until he sees his face on the teevee…
…and the “Secret Empire” storyline proper begins.
As befits a well-designed agenda-driven publicity campaign—even one brought to you by an organization with the initials CRAP (which is never acknowledged in the comics)—everything said is mostly based in fact but twisted to present it in a particular way, namely to paint Captain America as an independent, unaccountable, and out-of-control agent with questionable loyalties (with the odd addition of his “chemical” origins in Project Rebirth, which is hard to imagine was a secret at one time). Note that these issues will arise again and again in future Cap storylines involving conflicts between him and the government (which “Secret “Empire” will become), including “The Captain” and “Civil War” (as I discuss in chapter 6 of my book, if you can’t wait for the eventual blog posts).
Below, Cap nicely provides counterpoint to the claims in the commercial, explaining why the images shown give the deliberately wrong impression, and then acknowledging that Peggy—the woman who just emerged from a twenty-year-long coma—warned him about the danger of the publicity campaign.
Of course, it wasn’t just us who heard him… and once he realizes he has an audience, he pleads his case more directly. (If it’s true that he’d never broken the law to this point, that will not apply for very long.)
Cap appeals to the faith and the trust of the bystanders, which he has relied on and received since emerged from the ice a decade prior, but they seem shaken, not only by the commercial but by his reaction as well.
Before Cap looks into the people behind the committee, he says goodbye to Sam, who’s on his way to Wakanda. (At least T’Challa will not think less of him for not showing up!)
Cap is less polite than usual with the receptionist at the advertising agency responsible for the commercial, but at least he calls her “Ms.”
We finally meet Quentin Harderman, who’s been lurking behind the scenes for several issues, and we learn that not only is he the man behind CRAP, he essentially is CRAP.
But his ultimatum is not what you might expect from a conniving mastermind bent on demolishing the reputation of the Sentinel of Liberty.
Of course, we’ve already seen one such charity boxing match, in Daredevil #43; maybe Harderman missed it and wants an encore?)
Below, Cap contemplates his own impulsive behavior while a bypasser shows the impact the commercial is having… and Cap sees a chance to be himself again.
It’s not Batroc—it’s the other guy who does the jumping and leaping and whatnot! And guess who he’s in league with. (You simply won’t believe it.)
We’re treated to a brief Kirby-inspired fight scene (though check out Tales of Suspense #83 for the real thing). Cap’s acknowledgment of the Tumbler’s tumbling ability is appreciated (even if not expressed).
After Cap defeats not-Batroc, he has an unfamiliar and uncomfortable thought: make sure he gets the collar. (Maybe not so unfamiliar—he was a New York City beat cop for a while, after all.)
Unfortunately, the Tumbler comes to and escapes, leaving Cap embarrassed. After searching for him, he looks for Sharon, learns some shocking news about Peggy, and makes a decision about an uncomfortable truth.
Next, Cap visits S.H.I.E.L.D., but it seems they turned to CRAP as well. (Sorry.)
In the last three panels above, Cap justifies (or rationalizes, depending on how you look at it) his decision to keep the truth about him and Sharon from Peggy, and then turns his reflection to his own situation, and wisely takes a rest from the turmoil.
The next day, he heads to the charity boxing match… at a car show?
The reaction from the kids is not unusual, but he triggers new thoughts from the adults… thoughts that Harderman can apparently read? More important, Cap meets his opponent, for the second time in as many days.
They engage in battle for a page, until the Tumbler collapses with a gasp (or a ggaark), and we discover the real reason Harderman proposed this “match.”
And we even learn how Tumbler died, though not the identity of the murderer… that will have to wait until the next issue.
Captain America (vol. 1) #169, January 1974: Steve Englehart and Mike Friedrich (writers), Sal Buscema (pencils), Frank McLaughlin (inks), Petra Goldberg (colors), Gaspar Saladino and Charlotte Jetter (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
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ALSO THIS MONTH: Avengers #119 (January 1974)
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