So it’s been a crazy week. I had fully intended to do my usual column last Tuesday, but then that whole “election” thing happened, and I figured people had more important stuff to worry about than funnybooks. And the week that’s followed since has been… well, like I said… crazy. The last time America saw a White House dissolving into this much desperation was the Watergate era, when President Richard M. Nixon lead a secret super-villain cabal in a scheme to discredit Captain America and destroy American democracy.
What? You… don’t remember that? But I mean…
Nixon’s the guy in the hood! Does that help?
Well, that’s probably because it only happened in the funnybooks. The real Richard Nixon masterminded an illegal break-in to Democratic offices at the Watergate Hotel, a crime committed out of paranoia that ended his time in office. The funnybook version (being a funnybook version) was a bit more grandiose.
This was writer Steve Englehart’s response to Watergate, translating real-world fear and mistrust into something Captain America could, literally rather than figuratively, wrestle with. Comics are good at that. I mean, Cap didn’t actually punch Hitler, either…
…but it’s still satisfying, even now, to see him do it.
Even though “Cap vs Nixon” was pure fantasy, though, Englehart did not balk at bringing some real-world elements into the story. If you think scary attack ads and positive names hiding ugly agendas was a modern political invention, check this out:
Anyway. The Secret Empire does this smear campaign on Cap, eventually sending him and the Falcon on the run. While living as fugitives, they run across the X-Men, who are also on the Secret Empire hit list, outsiders always being the easiest targets. But it’s not just mutants’ outcast state that sends Nixon after them. Oh, no! The Secret Empire’s also planning to use them to power their ultimate doomsday weapon!
Eventually, of course, Cap takes down their evil scheme, and chases their leader into the White House, with the chase ending in the Oval Office itself, where the big reveal happens:
Okay, so we never actually see the Secret Empire leader’s face. But, c’mon! In the wake of Watergate, who else could it be? Or at least, who else was any reader of the day going to think it was? Make no mistake, this was Steve Englehart giving America the cathartic ending of Richard Nixon, in ultimate disgrace, shooting himself in the head.
Considering the flailing, lying, narcissistic meltdown happening in the White House right now, I think we could all use an updated version of this story. Ta-Nehesi Coates is doing something sort of like it, I realize. But his version, in my experience, is too complex to really serve as catharsis. We need something simple and stupid and really freaking direct. It doesn’t have to be suicide. A punch in the mouth would do. Or maybe a few dozen…
At any rate. This horrifying revelation haunts Cap, of course…
…and to start a voyage of self-discovery that eventually leads him to rediscover America itself.
And that’s something I could really do with right about now.