February 23, 2010

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Captain America and the Falcon: Secret Empire

Written by Steve Englehart and Mike Friedrich
Illustrated by Sal Buscema, Vinnie Colletta, and Frank McLaughlin
Marvel

In this collection putting together one of Cap's famous arcs from the 1970s, we see the maturation of the Steve Rogers-Sam Wilson partnership. As the Falcon struggles for his own role, Cap's reputation is smeared in the mighty Marvel manner, as he becomes a wanted man framed for murder.

Cap's innocent, of course, but how do you prove it when there's a whole conspiracy against you? As Cap and the Falcon run from everybody from the Avengers to Nick Fury, they run into a rather unlikely ally--the X-Men! Can they combine forces in time to stop the Secret Empire before it's too late? Plus, having seen his own country give in to hatred, can Steve Rogers carry on as the symbol of the nation?

There's a lot of cool universe-building feel here, as the Falcon turns to the Black Panther instead of Steve's white friends because he's just as smart as they are and can understand Wilson's needs better. Meanwhile, the X-Men are shown as being a part of the world, even if they don't have a comic to do it in. (Yes, there was a time when there was no X-Men comic. Amazing to think of that, isn't it?) The Avengers and Nick Fury also lurk about, though I kinda feel like they're miscast here as people easy to turn on Steve. There are also some nice uses of other comic stories to drive the plot, something we don't see nearly as much of these days but happened on a regular basis in 1970s Marvel.

In addition, we get what might be the first time we see Rogers as a man, not just an unthinking fighter for freedom. Forced to choose between following the law and following what he feels is right--Cap goes for the latter. It's a side of him we'll see again several times, most recently during the Civil War.

I also like how Englehart tries to make sure that the Falcon is not just an also-ran in this book. He's more than a sidekick, he's a partner. There are some dated and clunky racial relations scenes, but at least he's trying to make him more than just another hero that follows Cap around.

The story itself is very much a product of its time. Watergate looms over the whole thing and the very idea of a secret society that runs the US Government is something that probably could not have gotten made in the 1960s. Plus, Englehart nails the idea of public relations as a tool that can be used for evil very well, years before we'd be seeing it all over the place.

Those who know me are aware I love Sal Buscema's art and he's in his prime here. Action flows on every panel, even if his lines are stripped a bit of their magic by the Coletta inks. His characters move and react to the situation, rather than stand for their photo shoot in Vanity Fair. There's also a few neat Kirby-like contraptions that he throw in for variety. I know his style is not for everyone, but I think he's perfect for the job at hand.

Despite some dated material, Secret Empire still holds up as a solid story with a few modern elements that may surprise you lurking in a comic from 1974. There's also some character development on the part of Steve Rogers that I think a lot of later writers built upon. This is a slice from the past that is definitely highly recommended.