This is perhaps the most pivotal and significant issue we’ve covered yet on this blog, encapsulating so many problems that Captain America has struggled with, not only since the beginning of the “Secret Empire” storyline (in issue #169) but ever since emerging from the ice as a “man out of time” in Avengers #4. Also, it begins a new status quo for the character that will last until issue #183, one that will be revisited from time to time in the years to follow.
Speaking more personally, this is the 100th post at the Virtues of Captain America blog. <hold for applause> For some reflections on the blog so far, see this post at The Comics Professor.
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Naturally, issue #176 starts with a subtle, understated splash page.
In case you’re new to this storyline, Cap just finished battling the Secret Empire, who destroyed his reputation with the American public using a coordinated publicity campaign (including setting up him for a murder), and when he finally reached their mysterious Number One—in the White House, no less—he discovered it was none other then the President of the United States, who then committed suicide in front of him.
With his confidence in the country he swore to serve now in doubt, Cap is convinced that…
The rest of the issue has Cap questioning his very purpose—as he has done since emerging in the modern day—including remembering his origins (told previously in Tales of Suspense #63 and Captain America #109), especially his overriding desire to serve in the war effort.
(Doesn’t seem hard to understand, does it?)
As we know, despite his patriotic spirit, he received a 4F because of his physical meekness…
…and is soon thereafter recruited into Project Rebirth, transformed into a pinnacle of human perfection, only see the doctor who created him killed by an undercover Nazi.
Below, we see a concise statement of the meaning of his life as he understood it in those early days: representing the country he loved and believed in with no reservations or doubts.
The following two-page spread ends with Number One/POTUS’s suicide, and a shaken Sentinel of Liberty.
Apparently he wound up in Avengers Mansion during this reverie, because he’s visited by the ghost of… I mean, hey, it’s Thor! After Cap draws the same analogy between the Secret Empire’s campaign and Nazi misinformation tactics that we saw in the last issue, the Odinson reminds him of his essential nobility and (dare I say) virtue.
Cap seems to have misunderstood—Thor was speaking of Cap’s nobility, not anyone else’s—but as we will see, Cap is not exactly receptive to his friends’ counsel, no matter how reasonable or well-intentioned. (And to be fair, things in Asgard are not exactly simple, to which fans as Thor’s own title will surely attest!)
Thor nails it below when he says (in his own way) that Cap has to figure this out for himself, and then Cap’s thought balloons reveal that he did understand what Thor meant, but didn’t want to admit it out loud: He had been less than noble or virtuous since the Secret Empire’s campaign began, which stands in stark conflict with his reason for being.
Speaking of “stark”—OK, that was too easy—along comes Iron Man, complete with nose (explained here), who finds yet another way to say “with great power must also come great responsibility.”
Here, Tony is playing Clarence the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life, asking Cap what would have happened in all these adventures had they not been around. (Dickens, Capra… this issue has it all!)
But Cap turns Iron Man’s point around, citing the futility of helping people who so quickly believe lies about him…
…which Tony, to his credit, doesn’t buy. It’s certainly understandable that Cap is dispirited by how easily and quickly the American people lost faith in him, but that was never the reason he fought for them, and certainly doesn’t make for a good reason to quit. (“I’ll show them… they’ll miss me when I’m gone!”)
(And more generally, you know you’re headed in the wrong direction when Tony Stark is giving you good advice.)
Next in our episode of “It’s Your Life,” we welcome Sam Wilson to the stage!
And Sam’s not alone! (Peggy nicely reminds us that Cap still hasn’t told her about him and Sharon, a continuing subplot that simmers beneath the surface.)
If Cap’s the together member of the team, I’ve got news for you… you’re in trouble!
Sam recounts his history with Cap, ending with the contribution made by (super) heroes (while sadly minimizing his contribution as a social worker).
But Cap turns this around too, explaining how the concept of a hero was devalued in his mind, after being a hero didn’t help him much when the press was used against him, and seeing other people who were supposed to be heroes in their own way exposed as corrupt.
I can’t decide if that’s more the aphorism “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing” or a variation of Gresham’s law from economics (that bad money drives out good). Either way, he’s got a good point… not that it helped much.
Peggy takes a different approach altogether, focusing less on Cap than on the country in which he’s lost faith in but is still worth representing.
Cap appreciates what she says, but now looks at things a little differently.
It’s great that Cap has come to appreciate the diversity inherent in the American experiment, but he seems to think this implies that America itself is fractured rather than united in its belief in the core ideals of justice, liberty, and equality (as I wrote at the end of my book). Yes, everyone understands and interprets those principles differently, but this forces us to constantly reconsider and re-evalute how we put them into practice, and prevents us from taking them for granted.
Next we have the Vision, who usually drops counterintuitive wisdom like a synthezoid Yoda, but just drops the ball here.
“You’ll miss adventure”… really?
Sharon doesn’t try to sway him one way or another, but simply offers her support and love.
Get yourself someone like Sharon is what I’m saying to you here (in case I was too subtle).
And then, it is time for Cap to make a decision… and we learn that his main issue is not with himself or his mission, his reputation (and how quickly it was ruined), or even his country itself, but with the people that govern it, ostensibly in the name of the American people.
Just to be clear, Cap is turning away from his responsibility to the American people because he rejects their government and its potential for corruption. (And if you agree with me that this reasoning is flawed, stay tuned.)
Below, Cap realizes that as much as he feels a duty towards so many people, this decision ultimately has to reflect his own moral integrity and how he can (or cannot) continue to serve (although he ends with a flourish of hyperbole).
And now for the big finish (although, for the record, he didn’t “ask” himself whether Captain America must die—he strongly asserted it, right there on page one).
Now you have to keep reading, won’t you? Will Steve Rogers actually stop being Cap? Would someone else step up and wield the shield? What would he do instead? And will he wear a cape while he does it?
Captain America (vol. 1) #176, August 1974: Steve Englehart (writer), Sal Buscema (pencils), Vince Colletta (inks), Linda Lessmann (colors), Artie Simek (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Collected in: Captain America and the Falcon: Secret Empire, Marvel Masterworks: Captain America Volume Nine
PREVIOUS ISSUES: Captain America #174-175 (June-July 1974)
ALSO THIS MONTH: Avengers #126 and Giant-Size Avengers #1 (August 1974)
NEXT ISSUES: Captain America #177-178 (September-October 1974)
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