Review by Frank Plowright
Despite having the same title as Marvel’s 2017 crossover, this Secret Empire is the type of story one suspects Marvel would no longer run for fear of offending politicians in widely separated society. Even in the 1970s it took some guts to even suggest, if not explicitly reveal, that a President disgraced in the real world was behind a wide-ranging conspiracy to control the USA from the shadows.
All these years later it’s fun seeing how Steve Englehart reflected the real world, while at the same time giving Captain America a threat he had to outsmart, not punch out. Quentin Hardeman has his own reasons for blanketing a series of TV ads aimed at disgracing Captain America, manipulating events to present a version of the truth, but one greatly shaded. Today it’s commonplace in political advertising, but in the early 1970s it was a cesspit in its infancy, and Englehart named his villain after President Nixon’s Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, whose previous work had been in advertising.
Sal Buscema illustrating everything in his neat form of cartoon realism draws some of the sting from the political commentary, which was probably just as well at the time, and he’s always solid on the superhero action. There is, though, a sniff of pulp about a hooded villain in black robes.
Englehart structures Secret Empire as a story with a continuing thread, but broken down into single chapters to satisfy an audience reading the story on a month by month basis. Back in the 1970s there was also the treat of seeing the X-Men three years after their own title bit the dust, representing the less remembered aspect of the storyline, which was Englehart taking the opportunity to tie up some continuity. A little concerns the X-Men (and Banshee), but most wraps up plot threads from his cancelled series starring the Beast. He also has the Black Panther’s scientific knowhow upgrading the Falcon into a superhero now able to fly.
For all the innovation, guest stars and political parallels, Secret Empire is all too often bogged down in mundane battles with the unimpressive original version of Moonstone and armoured thugs, and the revelation of how the Secret Empire are powering their contraptions is hokey. Credit for the good, but getting at it involves wading through a fair amount of the commonplace also.
These stories are also available in hardback as Marvel Masterworks: Captain America Volume 8, and in black and white on pulp paper as Essential Captain America Vol. 4.