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The Day They Walked Away: Captain America!

Longbox Graveyard #116

Super-Blog Team-Up #2 of 6!

Welcome to a new feature: Super-Blog Team-Up, where I and a select cohort of blogging pals all tackle a similar issue on the same day. For this inaugural feature, we all look at a time when a superhero decided to hang up his mask!

For my favorite superhero — Captain America — that particular moment came in issue #176, in the summer of 1974, marking a bold high point in author Steve Englehart’s long run on the book.

Captain America #176 cover by John Romita

That 1974 date is critical to putting Cap’s decision into context, and that context can best be summarized in one word: Watergate.

Goodbye, Dick! Watergate, 1974

The greatest political scandal in American history, the Watergate affair led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, and sent the United States into a tailspin of shame, despair, and self-examination. Even as a twelve-year-old, I felt the sting of national embarrassment as the Watergate scandal dragged on and on, dominating the news cycle and providing one final, fatal flashpoint in the national debate about Nixon’s controversial terms in office.

Nixon would flee the White House in August of 1974, but Captain America’s identity crisis — sparked in no small part by Tricky Dick’s malfeasance — would continue into 1975, concluding with issue #185. It is the length of Cap’s absence from his own book — as well as the reasons why he quit, how Cap handled his own hiatus, and how the experience changed the way we regard the character — that makes this particular resignation saga unique among the many times this trope has been examined in comics.

So pervasive was Watergate that the scandal is scarcely referenced in the comics — we don’t need a reminder for why Captain America might be feeling a crisis of conscience over the country he embodies. Instead, rather than Watergate, the roots of Cap’s fateful decision reside in the “Secret Empire” story from issues #169-176. Here, Cap found his public image smeared by the “Committee to Regain America’s Principles” (an allusion to the real-life Comittee To Re-Elect The President, which was saddled with the you-can’t-make-this-up quasi-acronym of CREEP). Cap’s quest to reclaim his good name brings him face-to-face with the leader of the Secret Empire, who was, in all but name … Richard Nixon!

Captain America witnesses Nixon's "suicide" -- issue #175,  by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

When “Nixon” kills himself, Cap decides he’s had enough. America isn’t a country he recognizes anymore — it has become a corrupt and ambiguous place unlike the nation he fought for during World War II. After a bit of soul-searching, Cap decides to give up his identity, provoking incredulity from his fellow heroes, including a “nosey” Iron Man who appeals to Cap’s sense of duty …

Iron Man offers advice, by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema -- note the "nose" on Iron Man's mask!

… as well as more personal appeals from Cap’s partner, the Falcon, and Cap’s World War II-era love interest, Peggy Carter.

Falcon Confronts Captain America, by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

Captain America's friends react to Cap's resignation, by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

But for Cap, what was once simple is now complex. In the wake of Watergate, and the Vietnam War, America is uncertain of her place in the world … and so is Captain America.

Captain America's identity crisis, by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

And so, Cap makes an impossible declaration.

Captain America Must Die! by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

So far, so good. Cap is suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder after seeing “Nixon” top himself, uncorking all his long-simmering anxiety over representing an America that has come off the rails. Still, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a superhero hang it up, and even twelve-year-old me knew our hero would have to reverse his decision eventually.

But the following issue makes clear that this isn’t a crisis that will be resolved quickly. Steve Rogers is resolute in his decision to give up his Captain America identity, which is as much as his partner, Sam Wilson, can take. As the Falcon, Sam would become the book’s headline hero for the next several months …

Falcon & Captain America's partnership dissolves, by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

… but the name on the masthead was still, “Captain America,” and to keep the character present in his own book, Englehart developed a clever subplot where substitute heroes — with no particular powers — sought to take up the uniform, with uniformly disastrous results!

Captain America impersonator, by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

Man of action that he is, Steve Rogers can’t help but be involved in fisticuffs, but coming to the Falcon’s aid in a street fight backfires when Sam’s deep-seated “sidekick” insecurities are laid bare.

The Falcon tells off Captain America, by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

The only person in Steve’s life who seems content with his decision is Steve’s lady love, Sharon Carter. Having resigned her job as a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent, Sharon seems only to want to play house with Steve. Frankly, this isn’t Sharon Carter’s finest moment — she spends most of this saga acting frivolous, or pouting when Steve begins to reconsider his decision (and in this her behavior is in marked contrast to how Steve Gerber was writing Sharon in the contemporaneous Marvel Two-In-One #4-5, where Sharon elbowed her way into a time travel adventure with Cap and the Thing, then put it to the Badoon alongside the Guardians of the Galaxy!).

Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter are happy Captain America resigned, by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

Despite this dissonance, Cap’s resignation is nicely handled in the rest of the Marvel line (and it helped that Englehart was also scripting The Avengers at the time). Cap’s decision sends ripples through the Marvel Universe, prompting Steve Rogers to come under attack from the obnoxious “Golden Archer” …

The Golden Archer, by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

… who proves to be Hawkeye, hoping to convince Steve to more fully examine his decision.

The Golden Archer is Hawkeye! by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

It weirded me out that under his Golden Archer mask that Hawkeye was wearing … another mask! But no matter, it’s the thought that counts, and in this as in many things, Hawkeye proves the right kind of crazy, inspiring Sever Rogers to take up an entirely new identity!

Captain America gets a bright idea -- Nomad! by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

Now we’re really onto something — the story has taken an unexpected turn, and Englehart revels in it (“You thought this was just a rerun of a thousand old plots.”) From the end of Captain America we are now present at the birth of a new superhero — Nomad, the man without a country!

But first, there has to be a costume montage, with a not-so-subtle Batman reference …

Nomad costume montage, by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

… and who knew that Steve Rogers suffered from Cape Envy?

Steve Rogers has "Cape Envy" by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

The Nomad, by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

Hmm. Not a great look, Steve. That plunging neckline is especially daring, but … sheesh.

No matter. Cap — I mean Nomad — is soon in action, and his new costume scarcely survives its shakedown cruise. Cap learns that capes are reserved for DC superheroes …

Nomad in action, by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

… but Steve’s fashion crime isn’t severe enough to cost him his Avengers membership, as the team is eager to welcome him back, whatever his identity.

Nomad and the Avengers, by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema

Alas, things go from bad to worse for Steve, as the Nomad soon bottoms out, battling against … the Gamecock? Oh, Steve, say it isn’t so!

Nomad vs. The Gamecock, by Steve Englehart & Frank Springer

Still, Steve seems to have had genuine affection for his alter-alter ego, and might have remained the Nomad indefinitely, but he would soon learn that Captain America wasn’t something he could just pack away in a box.

The public’s confusion over Cap’s decision would come to weigh heavily on Steve, who did himself no favors by renouncing his identity while Cap was still under a cloud from the Secret Empire’s smear campaign …

Nomad wrestles with his conscience, by Steve Englehart & Frank Springer

… and so powerful a symbol was Captain America that aspiring heroes could not leave it alone. First played for laughs, Englehart’s subplot about the substitute Captain Americas took an exceedingly grim turn when the last of Cap’s stand-ins was gruesomely murdered by the Red Skull!

Captain America crucified by Red Skull, by Steve Englehart & Frank Springer

The Red Skull’s reappearance sparks another identity crisis for Steve. At first he seems to cleave even more strongly to his Nomad identity, but in the span of a few panels, Steve has an epiphany about the power of symbols, as well as his own central role in the pinnacle of symbolism — the “American Dream.”

Nomad reconsiders his identity, by Steve Englehart & Frank Springer

And just like that, Steve realizes that Captain America isn’t a symbol of America as it had become, but instead a symbol of America as it should be.

Nomad makes his decision, by Steve Englehart & Frank Springer

And so Captain America was reborn!

Captain America reborn, by Steve Englehart & Frank Springer

In short order, Cap would put paid to the Red Skull and restore his good name. With Captain America restored to the Marvel Universe, Steve Englehart would depart the book, but he made a mark on the character that few creators can equal. By positioning Captain America as the guardian of the American dream, Englehart simultaneously insulated the character from future political scandals, and elevated the character to mythic status. Captain America because Marvel’s elder statesman, more purely heroic than ever before, and occupying the role of the one superhero in the world that everyone could agree was truly … super.

In giving up his Captain America identity, Steve Rogers finally discovered what Captain America was all about. There would be dozens of different takes on the character in the years ahead (Jack Kirby’s idiosyncratic take on Cap in his 1970s return to Marvel would commence within a year), but Cap’s role as the voice of moral conscience would be core to the character, echoing down through the ages, lending additional authority to countless “Cap speeches” and possibly reaching it’s ultimate expression when Cap chose to side with the spirit of America over the letter of the law in Marvel’s 2006 “Civil War” event.

That will do it for my look at the day Captain America walked away, but our Super-Blog Team-Up continues over at Flodo’s Page, where Super-Blog Team-Up #3 (of 6) looks at the time Green Lantern told the Guardians of Oa to take their ring and shove it! And be sure to check out all the articles in our “Day They Walked Away” Super-Blog Team-Up series …

#1 Silver Age Senstations: The Thing
#2 LongBox Graveyard: Captain America
#3 Flodo’s Page: Green Lantern
#4 SuperHero Satellite: Superman
#5 Chasing Amazing: Spider-Man
#6 Fantastiverse: Hank Pym … COMING SOON!

And you can always see the latest Super-Blog Team-Up project on the team’s very own page.

Thanks for reading! Share your thoughts on Cap calling it quits — and on all our Super-Blog Team-Up efforts — in the comments section, below!

Read The Collection: Amazon

NEXT WEEK: #117 Top Ten Superhero Lairs!

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About Longbox Graveyard

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978. There's a new blog every odd Wednesday at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on November 20, 2013, in Super-Blog Team-Up and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. The Gamecock! Talk about a z-list villain. I’ve never heard of the guy. Anyway, I have some of Englehart’s Cap run, but none of these issues. I’ll have to pick them up in a trade one of these days. This seems like one of those seminal Bronze Age stories.

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  2. I started reading Cap in the 70’s much the same as you so I remember this run really well. I hated that Cap wasn’t Cap anymore but I did like Nomad, including the gag with the cape. (Wonder if Brad Bird saw this?).

    By the way, love the superblog team up idea and the concept, walking away sure is a popular Super Hero trope. I do feel sorry for the person who drew Hank Pym though, that would take 10 blogs to cover completely.

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    • The first comic I ever bought was Captain America #177. I only had something like forty cents in my pocket and I must have spent an hour in front of the rack, paging through comic after comic, deciding which one to buy. Early in my browsing I picked up that issue of Cap — because I liked the character for whatever reason, probably a cartoon — and then quickly put it back down, because it has “too much secret identity stuff in it.” When I finally got disgusted with myself for overanalyzing everything, that’s the book I settled on after all … only to get it home, read it, and find out that Cap basically isn’t in the book at all, aside from a dream sequence at the beginning.

      Despite that … I still became a fan. But I guess that’s obvious.

      And yes, that Hank Pym post is going to be a monster! (Part of why it doesn’t drop until Friday — that and the author is in the middle of moving from Australia to the U.S.!)

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      • I jumped in a bit earlier. The first storyline I remember fully was the run from issues 153-156. That was the story where the Cap and Bucky from the 50’s showed up in modern days (1972, yikes I’m old!) as Red baiting racists. If memory serves I started in at the middle and had to scout out previous issues to get the whole story, something not easy to do in the days before specialty shops and a ready supply back issues. Finding earlier comics meant scouring the stands for a lazy dealer who had yet to send back unsold copies. Fortunately we had a few, although I don’t think I got to read issue 153 until much later.

        Nostalgia was big in the 70’s, as it is now, but back then we were nostalgic for the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s. Cap was the ultimate nostalgia trip, straddling the Golden Age and modern times, and this story threw in the 1950’s as a bonus. Good times.

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        • DC more readily embraced their history — with the Flash of Two Worlds, and all that wonderful JSA/Earth-2 stuff, before Crisis poo poohed it for everyone — but Marvel had a more scattershot approach to their past. They had all those Golden Age characters laying around, and brought them in as they saw fit, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Cap, of course, was a high visibility character, and they jumped through some hoops (frozen in a block of ice!) to justify his reappearance, but other characters just popped up out of nowhere, with little indication they’d had a past (Patsy Walker!) or had shared little more than a name with some forgotten Golden Age hero (The Vision!).

          The interesting thing about Cap is that guys like Englehart and Roy Thomas (an inveterate retro-historian) felt compelled to bring Cap’s history into the book itself, usually with memorable results. So we get that great/weird Cap of the 1950s story, and all sorts of World War 2 craziness leaking into this book right up until the present day — one of the things that highlighted Brubaker’s Cap run was his continual rehabilitation of characters from Cap’s past, even comparatively recent characters like Arnim Zola. That strong connection to his past (paradoxically) makes Cap a timeless character … Marvel doesn’t feel a need to run from his history, the way they do, say, with the Fantastic Four, where Ben was originally a WW2 pilot, and Reed fought in France with a Sgt. Fury who looked nothing like Samuel L. Jackson!

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  3. Hey Super-Blog Team Upper! Just for the official record excellent work as usual Paul. The Nomad stuff is too good to pass up..hilarious and funny! What a costume. Although looks like Falcon didnt exactly have anything to laugh at . The male plunging neckline was in back then! Cant see it passing in today’s Marvel Movie world!

    Thanks for taking the time out and entertaining my little thought balloon..but the result is a very good historical piece for lots of folks to jump in and enjoy!

    Its a great time to visit the Graveyard!

    Hero Out!!

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  4. He may have given up the role of Cap due to disillusionment, but nothing could stop Steve Rogers from waxing his chest.

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