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Marvel’s 1974 Secret Empire storyline speaks to modern comics — and modern politics

Writer Steve Englehart on Watergate, Nixon and why Captain America had to respond

Captain America #176, published August 10, 1974
Sal Buscema/Marvel Comics

In 1974, America was gripped by the Watergate scandal, as President Richard Nixon was accused of criminal acts involving breaking-and-entering and a subsequent cover-up. At the same time, legendary comic creator Steve Englehart was working on Captain America and The Falcon with Sal Buscema. The two decided that such a monumental moment in American history could not go unremarked upon by Captain America: that the overwhelming feelings of distrust and uncertainty had to be incorporated into their superhero stories.

From Captain America #170
Sal Buscema/Marvel Comics

Englehart and Buscema came up with a story that might sound familiar if you’re reading Marvel Comics at the moment. It was called “Secret Empire,” and featured Captain America uncovering a vast conspiracy after a string of attack ads question his fitness to serve as the Sentinel of Liberty. The story is as comic-booky as they come, with the titular Secret Empire planning on using a literal wheel of mutants in their scheme, but it ends in a way that is shocking to this day. Captain America chases the leader of the conspiracy into the Oval Office, where he is unmasked and commits suicide.

We never see the face of "Number One," but the implication is clear; Richard Nixon, or at least the Marvel Universe equivalent of Richard Nixon, was leading the Secret Empire. The metaphor couldn’t be more obvious. Steve Rogers just unmasked the President of the United States as a supervillain and watched him die inside the White House. The Captain America comics following Secret Empire led to a period of self-discovery for a disillusioned Rogers as he quit fighting crime under the name “Captain America,” taking up the identity of “Nomad.” Subsequent stories examined the line between being a patriot and being loyal to the government, as many classic Captain America stories do.

The current Secret Empire by Nick Spencer, Rod Reis, Steve McNiven, Andrea Sorrentino, et al. doesn’t share much in common with its predecessor. It doesn’t examine the real world consequences of corrupt officials, it doesn’t critique real world analogues of notable and controversial political figures and it doesn’t even feature the Secret Empire.

I had the chance to chat with Steve Englehart this Monday evening about his work on the original story, what it is like to create stories about a corrupt and criminal president while a scandal was unfolding in front of the American people and what opinions, if any, he has about the current story that shares its name.

I wanted to start by talking to you about your work on the original Secret Empire storyline in 1974, because one of the most fascinating things about it is that it was produced and published in its entirety before President Nixon’s resignation. What was it like working on that story during that era?

Englehart: I think it was pretty clear that the presidency was going to come to an end, I can’t say I was a great political prognosticator, but the overall deal was that Watergate pretty much consumed America. This was in an era where there were only three television networks and all of them were covering the hearings that were being held on Nixon’s White House. The people that were conducting these hearings were politicians on both sides of the aisle who took their jobs seriously, so even people of the president’s party were investigating it seriously. So it was a legitimate enterprise that was being played out like a political thriller on television in front of the populace. That summer, everyone in America was riveted to this, and the interesting thing about it, too, was how it unfolded like a novel; if it got to a point where maybe Nixon might be able to get away with it, some new piece of evidence might appear.

So everybody was involved, and I was writing Captain America and I thought “There’s no way Captain America could not react to something this momentous in America if the Marvel Universe was supposed to be the real universe.”

From Captain America #175
Sal Buscema/Marvel Comics

So I came up with my disguised version of the situation, much simpler than the actual situation, but it was a storyline that would cover the feel of the whole thing. Then because it was a simpler situation I was able to bring it to a conclusion faster than reality could bring its part of it to a conclusion. As I said, the conclusion seemed obvious. He didn’t resign for a long time after that, but the conclusion seemed obvious with the evidence that had been presented at that point so that’s the direction that I took my story.

What was the reaction from your peers — your fellow writers, artists and editors — when you pitched them on the story and told them what you were going to do?

Englehart: I didn’t pitch anybody. In those days, we had complete creative freedom. Captain America was my book and I could do anything I wanted in it. The only requirements were that I turn it in on time every month and that it continue to sell, so I didn’t discuss it with anybody. I was just doing my run with the hopes that people would like it, so that it would continue to sell. Nobody really knew where I was going with it until I got there, and then people were very happy with the way it worked out. It did sell, it attracted a large audience and that was mostly what Marvel was interested in. There was no editorial interference or pushback on it, I’m pretty sure we were all on the same page.

Did you receive any negative reaction from fans, or was the general sense at the time that everyone was united against the Nixon administration?

Englehart: I think America was pretty united. I remember at the end, there was still 25 percent of Americans in the polls who said they backed Nixon, and I put that in my brain and said to myself in any situation going forward, keep in mind that 25 percent of the people are going to be off in the corner somewhere, but they’re going to be there. It’s never going to be 100 percent. I don’t remember after all this time, but if I got any negative letters in the mail they were few and far between and I really don’t remember any. It would be hard to say there were none, but America was pretty united. I think quite possibly the comic book audience fell into that realm. I mean people who read comics have all different types of opinions, but it was a pretty uniting situation. I think the bulk of comic book readers were, and probably still are, young people, politically active people, rebellious people. Again, his guilt wasn’t so much up for debate, it was more about whether you would accept it or not. The audience was pretty happy with it, I was happy with it, Marvel was happy with it. There’s no real hidden downside to be reported on any of that. That was the era we were in. I know you wanted to talk about today, and I think today things would be very different, because of the internet, the partisanship and the rest of it, but that took place in that place and time, and it went down smoothly.

From Captain America #175
Sal Buscema/Marvel Comics

We talked a little bit about Nixon’s resignation, but the character in your story — Number One — meets a very different ending where he shoots himself in the Oval Office. Did you deliberate on how to end the story, or was it always going to end in that memorable death scene?

Englehart: I was most concerned with how to end it as a story. I knew I couldn’t — in the context of doing a comic book — that I couldn’t do an impeachment hearing that would lead to a prolonged legal argument and I was doing, very literally, The Secret Empire. It was a comic book take on the whole thing, so it’s a metaphor, as they keep saying in the ads for Guardians of the Galaxy. Nixon fought as hard as he could to get away with it, I didn’t know how it was going to play out in the end but it seemed to me that he would lose and if I was going to summarize that then for the unknown, unnamed guy who just happens to be in the president’s office, that seemed to be the quickest way. The way I wrote stories was to start down a line and see what happened. I couldn’t let them wander around wherever, but I like to give them room to breathe and if a new idea came to me in the process I’d try to include that. By the time I got to the place where Nixon killed himself — or whoever that was — I was already thinking about what that would do to Captain America, and the “Nomad” story came after that. So I wrapped up the one plot line and headed off to the other.

Do you think your “Secret Empire” has gained a new relevance in the current political climate?

From Captain America #176
Sal Buscema/Marvel Comics

Englehart: Oh, absolutely, sure. Again, in the seventies the idea that a president would break the law was mind-boggling. I mean, we weren’t all naive, but we weren’t as jaded as we are now and so the idea that the president would do this and try to cover it up was worthy of the congressional investigation and that was worthy of everything that was involved in it. Now, everything that Nixon did has been made legal in America. Well, not breaking and entering but a lot of the stuff he was accused of has now been sort of “legitimised.” Now we’ve got a president who breaks the laws right and left, lies about it and we’re in the middle of a situation where he says “Come and get me if you can” and he’s doing everything he can to keep people from getting to him. I like to hope that we will, eventually. The brazenness of all this, and the lack of concern with flat-out lying to people is another thing, because when asked uncomfortable questions in those days, people answered them. They tried to justify them, but they answered the questions. One of the great lessons of Watergate for American politicians and probably everyone was to start answering questions with “I don’t remember” rather than going on the record for anything. That same general approach has unfolded now. Nixon was in a context where there were rules and it was clear that he had broken them so the politicians’ response to all that was to change the rules and find better ways to ignore them, rather than stop doing that thing. When I wrote that story in the seventies, the idea was “Oh good, we’ve gotten past a blip in history and we won’t do that again” but I’m not a politician so I didn’t get the same lesson they did out of all that.

How current are you with current superhero comics and do you keep up with the community at large?

Englehart: No, I really don’t. When I got out of comics about ten years ago, I started writing novels so I just sort of turned off comics and turned on novels as far as my reading of choice. Then, with the movies coming out I’m like a lot of people, I get my comics on screen rather than otherwise. I know that there’s been various iterations on the Secret Empire concept for forty years now, and I know that there’s one going on as we speak, but I don’t know anything about it.

That would have been my next question, what have you heard about the current Secret Empire event?

Englehart: I’m aware that the current Captain America is supposed to be a Nazi or something, but that’s all I know. I don’t know enough, I think that’s my entire font of knowledge on what’s going on currently, so I have no opinion on where it’s going.

Before I let you go, you mentioned that you’ve been out of comics and you’re working on novels, is that your primary focus now? What’s your day-to-day like now, after comics?

Englehart: I’m writing a kind-of an epic in the same way how I talked about stories in the old day. I’m used to writing with complete creative freedom. When I came into the business they said “Here are the ground rules: You can do anything you want to do so long as it sells and you turn it in on time,” so I did everything I did under that rubric. A flip side of the movies becoming the defacto end of comics is that everything is much more Hollywood-ized. You’re supposed to pitch your editor and you’re supposed to get notes and you’re supposed to do all that kind of stuff.

That’s one of the main reasons I left comics, because I don’t want to do that. I wasn’t trained to do that, I have no interest in doing that so now what I’m doing is writing this epic, for want of a better word, and I’m just letting the story breathe and letting the characters do what they want to do so I can see where it goes without worrying about having to wrap it up in six issues or even trying to sell it. It may turn out to be entirely for my own amusement, I do not know. I’m enjoying the process of writing and have come up with something that I enjoy quite a bit, and when I get done with it we’ll see. If I think I can sell it, I’ll give it a shot and if not then I will have had the pleasure of writing it. To my great amazement, I ended up as someone in the history of comics, so I’m satisfied with that.

From Captain America #176
Sal Buscema/Marvel Comics

Steve Englehart is not wrong to be proud of his career. He co-created the Defenders, Shang-Chi and Mantis, the latter of whom is now appearing on the big screen in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. With Secret Empire, he crafted one of the most politically resonant superhero stories of all time; one that we’re still talking about it over forty years later.

While the original story was about holding a mirror up to society and analysing real world problems via superhero stories, Marvel has been clear that the current Secret Empire is not supposed to be an explicitly political story, and does not reference current events. The original “Secret Empire” took a while to get to its damning and resonant finale, and who knows, the current event might do so as well. Although it’s unlikely that this one will end with Steve Rogers putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger.

Kieran Shiach is a Salford, U.K.-based freelance writer and one half of Good Egg Podcasts. He is on Twitter, @KingImpulse. He wishes in the past he tried more things ’cause now he knows being in trouble is a fake idea.