Monday, January 16, 2006

Unmasking the Secret Empire

[Spoiler Warning: If you don't want to prematurely find out the end of a 31-year-old comic book story, don't read this post or look at the scanned comics page on the left. You have been warned.]

The mid-70's were an interesting time for Marvel Comics. The plotter-artists who created the look and setting of the Marvel Universe, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, had left; various innovative second-generation artists, like Jim Steranko and Barry Windsor-Smith, had come and gone in a few years; and Stan Lee, the voice of Marvel, was writing few comics. Writers such as Steve Engelhart and Steve Gerber had read the Lee/Kirby/Ditko comics during their '60's college years, and wanted to bring both their fannish enthusiasm and a certain literary approach to the comics. That lead to storylines such as the 1974 Captain America Secret Empire storyline, just reprinted in paperback format by Marvel. The story is a sometimes-uneven admixture of cool kid's stuff (Cap's partner, the Falcon, gets a new pair of wings from ally The Black Panther, prince of a super-scientific African country); corny, unrealistic, declamatory dialogue; insight into Cap's psychology; and most important, a satire/parable of America's disillusionment in government as the Watergate scandal dominated the headlines.

The main plot is that The Secret Empire -- one of those SPECTRE/THRUSH type organizations that thrive in Marvel comics -- sets up a conspiracy in which the Committee to Regain America's Principles (and the organization's resemblance to the Committee to Re-Elect the President -- down to the unfortunate acronym -- is strictly intentional) smears Captain America using Madison Avenue advertising techniques, with the goal of setting up their own straw man superhero, Moonstone, in his place. It all comes to a head in a pitched battle on the White House lawn, in which Cap chases the Number One of the Secret Empire into the oval office. As the scanned page above shows, the story strongly implies that the leader of this villainous organization is, in fact, Richard Nixon -- who commits suicide in front of Cap!

The story is an historical document -- but one with echoes for the present time. When Quentin Harderman, the advertising mogul who spearheads the publicity campaign, tells his patsy superhero, "Call the media, of course -- the ones who've demonstrated a bias toward our side," one gets the feeling that Fox News would be CRAP's idea outlet.

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