RETRO REVIEW: Captain America #175 (July 1974)

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Or – “Hail To The Chief While He Takes Over The Country!”

I had a discussion once with my friend Bruce (aka Major Spoilers resident cartoonist Otter Disaster) after a particularly entertaining day haunting comic shops where we discussed “the thrill of the hunt,” that sensation you get when you find a particular comic book you’ve been looking for.  It might be simpler and easier to just order it from a mail-order catalogue or the intarwebz, but you don’t have the same personal connection to a particular book.  I bought this one off the shelf at a used book store in Tulsa, Oklahoma, along with the previous six or seven issues, since I knew that they comprised Steve Englehart’s Secret Empire story, and led to one of the oddest moments in Marvel history…  We are about to learn, as the man known as Number Six was known to ask, “Who is Number One?”

CAPTAIN AMERICA #175
Scripter: Steve Englehart
Penciler: Sal Buscema
Inker: Vinnie Colletta
Colorist: Petra Goldberg
Letterer: Artie Simek
Editor: Roy Thomas
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: 25 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $23.00

Previously, on Captain America:  The whole mess begins with an ad campaign against Captain America, spearheaded by the Committee to Regain America’s Principles (no anagrams here, folks, comics were supposed to be for kids in the 70′s) to undermine America’s belief in their star-spangled hero.  Once discontent was sown, the Secret Empire brought their secondary plan into play, creating their own hero, the man called Moonstone, to replace Cap as America’s hero.  They even go so far as to break Captain America out of prison, causing him and the Falcon to go on the run as fugitives from justice.  During their trek across the country, Falcon gets his flying rig from the Black Panther, and they plummet deeper and deeper into the hidden world of the Secret Empire. The Empire’s master plan involved the kidnapping of several mutants (including Havok, Polaris, and the original X-Men) to power some sort of massive flying saucer machine to… um…  do… something.  Breaking the X-Men free, Cap and the Falcon tried to create an uprising and overturn the Empire for good.

It did not go well…

Left for dead by the Empire, Cap is awakened by a mysterious masked man, quickly revealed to be the Empire’s #68 who shot him in the first place!  Luckily, the Empire ain’t all so much of a secret anymore, and 68 quickly pulls away his hood to reveal himself as Gabe Jones, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. on a deep cover mission.  It was Gabe who set the blasty machine to it’s miraculously non-lethal setting and who gives them the intel that they need on the Empire’s evil plan, just in time for the hero to leap into action…  after dealing with Peggy Carter, who’s backstory is a convoluted mess.  Short version:  She loves Cap, he loves her sister Sharon.  And what about those poor mutants?

“TODAY WE CONQUER AMERICA!!!”  How twenty guys in a flying saucer will be able to do that isn’t really clear, so I expect that it’s some sort of Xanatos Gambit, where they expect to be defeated in their primary goal in order to be successful in their secondary.  They set off for Washington, where we find Moonstone (the original, who predates Karla Sofen of the Thunderbolts in the role, but is empowered by the same mysterious artifact and has basically the same powers) exiting a Congressional hearing that names him America’s #1 hero.  Because that would happen…  Anyway, the Empire arrives and uses their future weapons to engage the Army in battle, leading to Moonstone’s moment of heroic triumph!

“My helmet grants me the same abilities displayed by this ship!”  Can you vague that up a little more?  Number Two quickly defeats Moonstone in combat, and drags him into the ship, where the two congratulate themselves on a successful ruse.  Moonstone staggers out of the ship and urges the American people to surrender unconditionally to the Secret Empire, while Number One laughs at how successful his plan is.  Within the ship though, Cap and his pals (Falcon, Gabe, Peggy, Cyclops and Marvel Girl) break free of their bonds and shatter the ship’s power converter (which conveniently does NOT kill their friends and fellow mutants) and Captain America bum-rushes Numero Uno in a particularly painful-looking fashion…

Although massively outgunned, Captain America engages Moonstone in combat, giving him the full-scale smackdown with shield and fist, leaving “America’s New Hero” facedown in the dirt, and forces him to tell the truth on nationwide television.  Moonstone’s partner (the head of the ad agency that smeared Cap’s name) tries to pin the whole scheme on the hero, but Moonstone spills everything, and the whole world watches him do it.  Surely now everything will be fine, right?

WRONG!  Number One’s flight from justice somehow evades the Secret Service, and his path makes it clear that he is particularly familiar with the mess of corridors inside the White House.  It’s almost as if Number One is intimately familiar with the building, rushing as he does straight towards the Oval Office, shadowed closely by the red-white-and-blue gladiator known as Captain America  Their chase ends in the seat of American power, and Captain America takes a page from Scooby-Doo…

Looks like they won’t have Number One to kick around anymore…  Though they never actually show the face of the head of the Empire, there are a number of clues in the Secret Empire tale.  His “Sanitation Squad” of “plumbers” who start the whole mess in motion?  The references in the issue and throughout the arc to the Watergate scandal?  The battle-dog called Checkers?  (I may have made that last one up…)  Author Steve Englehart has stated outright that Number One was meant to be President Richard Nixon, which makes Captain America’s crisis of conscience understandable.  After all, the Commander-In-Chief turning out to be a masked villain and then killing himself right before Steve’s eyes?  That’ll stick with you.

In the next few issues, Steve Rogers gives up being Captain America and eventually creates the secondary identity of Nomad, Man Without A Country to try and deal with his disillusionment.  It’s all very 70′s, and by today’s standards awkward, but the story is still a quick and entertaining read.  It’s a little weird to see the X-Men in a very minor support role rather than as a sales device, but Sal Buscema’s art is dynamic and very evocative of the 1970′s.  This kind of book forms the bulk of my comic collection, not highly collectible, but fun and multi-layered, and a bit more complex than some late Silver and early Bronze Age titles, and even the worst Englehart title is a lot of fun to read.  Captain American #175 is the transition point between two key Captain America arcs, and does its job ably, delivering action, pathos and political intrigue and doing it all well, earning 4 out of 5 stars overall.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of the Day:  What comics would you like to see on the Retro Review list?