Woodstock gives way to Watergate as Cap enters the 1970s. The youthful exuberance of the ’60s — free love, women’s lib, civil disobedience — is eroded by scandal and despair. During this time, Marvel found itself with an influx of young, iconoclastic creators, not unlike the New Wave directors making their mark in Hollywood. One such writer was Steve Englehart. At the height of his socially-conscious, highly topical run, Englehart would deliver a starkly different take on events in his version of the Nixon Administration’s failings.
Fifth columnist fiends the Secret Empire had successfully infiltrated the United States government. Captain America thwarts their plans and confronts the organization’s leader, Number One. He unmasks the villain and is startled by the (off-panel) revelation of Number One as a high-ranking government official. Englehart’s stated implication is that this executive was none other than the President of the United States. So, in the heightened reality of the Marvel Universe, Captain America witnesses a disgraced commander-in-chief — Richard Nixon in all but name — commit suicide in the Oval Office. He doesn’t take it too well.
More than the earlier visual motif of Easy Rider echoed by Lee, now Englehart has lifted the film’s undercurrent of detachment and disillusion. A shaken Cap adopts a new identity as Nomad, the man without a country. He serves as an embodiment of the collective conscience, drifting out of touch from a cynical, corrupt leadership whilst feeling impotent against the system. It was all too fitting.
In Captain America, Englehart found the ideal outlet for his liberal sensibilities. If such major developments on the title were divisive, it wasn’t reflected in revenues. Englehart and regular artist Sal Buscema helped prop up the title as a top seller for Marvel. Creatively, Steve Rogers was imbued with a deep sense of fallibility, reshaping him more than ever in the Marvel mold. Like all of Marvel’s heroes who have stood the test of time, Captain America would eventually come full circle, finding his way back. But the world wouldn’t stop for Steve to work through his issues.
Next time: Cap tackles Reaganomics, Cola Wars, crack babies, global warming, and grunge! Well, not exactly. But there will be plenty of moral relativism on tap as we do look at significant developments of the ’80s and ’90s. Same Place to Be Station, same Place to Be Nation!