And now, we come to the end — the end of my three-part series prepping all of us for the release (eventually) of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+. It was originally slated to hit the streaming service later this year, but due to complications with Covid-19, its release has been pushed.
But in the meantime, we now have more time to catch up on all our comic reading, right?
Gotta find that silver lining.
Onwards to the article.
Thus far we’ve covered Bucky Barnes — his birth in the Golden Age of comics as a plucky but effective teenage sidekick to Steve “Captain America” Rogers, his Silver Age retcon into a martyred hero of war and line of pathos for the good Captain, and his Modern Age retcon (his second) into the Winter Soldier.
One thing we’ve not touched on is his time as Captain America, but that’s what this article is about.
We’ve also covered Sam “Falcon” Wilson — his birth in the Bronze Age of comics, his semi-retcon into Sam “Snap” Wilson, how the Red Skull was responsible for his creation via a Cosmic Cube he stole from A.I.M., ultimately designed to be the perfect sidekick for Cap with the end goal that he would eventually betray Cap and how his role, partially, and rather quickly, became to show that there are two Americas.
One thing we’ve not yet touched on is his time as Captain America, but that’s what this article is about.
On top of discussing both Falcon’s and Winter Soldier’s times as Captain America, we’ll discuss two other sagas in the life of Cap and his allies. The first one is the mid-70’s epic known as Secret Empire, where Steve Rogers, for the first time, relinquishes his title of Captain America to be known as “Nomad.” The second one is the saga of John Walker, who we first meet as Super-Patriot before he takes over the title of Captain America after Steve Rogers relinquishes his title for a second time.
Why these two stories?
So glad you ask.
See, we think they may be pertinent to the story being told in the MCU and, as such, may have some clues as to what we might expect when we — finally — get to see this highly-anticipated series hit Disney+.
First things first we must acknowledge that there are TWO stories in the Marvel universe titled “Secret Empire.” The first one, the one we’re talking about in this article, was created by Steve Englehart, Mike Friedrich and Sal Buscema and is from 1974; the second one, the one where it was revealed that Captain America had been a secret Hydra agent since WWII, was created by Nick Spencer and Steve McNiven and is from 2017.
Starting in Captain America and the Falcon #169, the very same one where Falcon goes to Wakanda to get his first set of wings from Black Panther, Captain America discovers that a PR and marketing executive named Quentin Harderman has started a smear campaign against him, though he’s not initially sure why.
Over the next few issues, as he and Falcon pull at the threads to unravel more and more of the mystery, they discover that Faberman and his goons all work for an organization that calls itself the “Secret Empire.” Everyone wears red robes and covers their faces with red hoods and is assigned a number, so no one knows the true identity of anyone in the organization. The entire organization is ruled by the Council of Nine with Number One being their supreme leader.
After a single-issue fight with Banshee in Nashville, they are met by the X-Men. As it happens, Cyclops, Marvel Girl and Professor X are in the same city because some of their fellow mutants were kidnapped by the Secret Empire. Going undercover as two hoodlums for hire, Cap and Falcon are able to infiltrate the enemy base and then escape capture with the help of Professor X’s psychic powers. Eventually, they discover that the mutants have all been kidnapped to power a flying saucer that will then terrify Washington D.C. into relinquishing full control and leadership of the U.S. government to them.
Or, as Captain America puts it —
In this quote we can see one of the primary conflicts impacting America’s identity crisis in the early 70’s. After all, Captain America is of the Greatest Generation; their fight was against the Nazi’s — the very definition of good vs evil. It used to be as (relatively) simple as laying a haymaker to the fürher’s face, but now America’s greatest existential threat isn’t invasion by the Third Reich — it’s America’s own government. The snakes are already in the house, already turning the wheels of government for their own selfish demands, “dominating” the American people via insidious means.
Like — if you’re Captain America — how do you fight that?
It’s not like you can support that, put your identity behind that — you can’t suddenly change your morals or what you stand for — can’t change your name to Captain Watergate.
Finally, we get to Captain America and The Falcon #175 where the entire Secret Empire epic comes to a very very very dramatic conclusion.
It starts with this page, talking about who America was and who, after Watergate, Vietnam and the Cold War, America had become. We then immediately cut to see the evil PR man Haberman and Cap’s primary antagonist in this series, Moonstone, celebrating their victory in Senate thoroughly smearing Cap’s name. And then the Secret Empire arrives in their flying saucer.
In fact, in the issue right before, Moonstone mentioned Watergate directly saying, “I just do my job, Miss Kearny, with both Watergate and Captain America pulling this nation apart, that’s all any of us regular Americans can do to keep the ship of state afloat.” It’s on the nose, but that disillusionment is what many Americans were enduring at the time.
With the American people turning against Cap, manipulated by the plans of the Secret Empire, their plans finally come to fruition as their flying saucer lands on the front lawn of the White House. However, Cap and Falcon were able to set free all of the mutants on the ship and start taking down the evil organization from within.
As the leader of the Secret Empire, Number One, addresses the gathering crowd, telling them that they have to relinquish full control of the nation to them, Captain America explodes out of the ship, taking the fight into public for the news cameras, and all of America, to see.
With the heroes’ victory well in hand, the leader of the Secret Empire, Number One, runs away from the fray
— into the White House
— pursued by Captain America
— where once in the Oval Office, our Sentinel of Liberty tackles the villain and unmasks him and —
… well … let’s just look at the pages.
— And while it’s never fully revealed that the villain unmasked is President Richard Nixon … it’s totally President Nixon.
The Watergate Scandal, which had started in 1972 came to a dramatic and disillusioning conclusion in 1974, the very same year that this storyline concluded. With a name like Captain America — if and when America perpetrates any unsavory deeds or nefarious machinations, the Sentinel of Liberty and his creative team must respond.
Up until that point in the comics, Cap had made commentary on the Cold War, Facism, and on the racial divide in America, but had not made any direct corollaries to any particulars or specific moments — but this was the President embroiled in a scandal that put himself above country and, all of a sudden, America found itself grasping for new ways to define itself; Captain America was no different.
And thus, in Captain America and the Falcon #176, Steve Rogers makes the decision to relinquish the mantle of Captain America and just … be like a normal dude living in America with his girlfriend, Sharon Carter. This particular issue is a really well-written conversation on just what or how we should define America, what it is to be an American and what it means to seek justice and equity. The conversation is spread between all of Cap’s Avengers teammates and his other associates as he struggles with the decision: to be Cap, or not to be.
Perhaps the best summation of his struggle comes in his conversation with Peggy Carter where he says,
“America is not the single entity you’re talking about. It’s changed since I took my name. There was a time, yes, when the country faced a clearly hideous aggressor, and her people stood united against it. But now, nothing’s that simple. Americans have many goals — some of them contrary to others! In the land of the free, each of us is able to do what he wants to do — think what he wants to think. That’s as it should be. — But it makes for a great many different versions of what America is. So when people the world over look at me — which America am I supposed to symbolize?”
At the end of the issue, he finally makes his decision, saying —
“The government created me in 1941 — created me to act as their agent in protecting our country — and over the years, I’ve done my best! I wasn’t perfect — I did things i”m not proud of — but I always tried to serve my country well — and now I find that the government was serving itself. I just don’t understand! I just don’t understand! … I’m the one who has to be or not be Captain America … the one who makes him live or die … and I’m the one who’s seen everything Captain America fought for become a cynical sham!”
Ultimately, Cap cannot live with the cognitive dissonance of being the symbol for a country that has betrayed that for which he, as that symbol, stands.
So, for the next four issues, Cap is just a dude with super powers hanging with his girlfriend, Sharon Carter, going on dates, having dinners, trying to keep Falcon from pulling him back into the good fight and trying to stay out of the fight for himself.
As a side note, there are some tremendous side stories of these other aggro dudes thinking that it’s easy to be Captain America, so they keep suiting up and then getting themselves into trouble. There’s a pro baseball player who decides to retire and become Captain America and a badass biker who thinks it’s totes easy — and neither one can pull it off.
It’s — definitely a highlight.
Finally, in Captain America and the Falcon #180 we get the reveal of the new Captain America — that of Nomad, the man without a country.
We see here that the values of Captain America still stand — those of fairness, justice, fighting the good fight for objectively righteous causes and always doing the right thing no matter how hard it might be — but Steve Rogers — and therefore also Captain America — can no longer associate with a government so cravenly bereft of these virtues. He can’t be Captain America for a government that selfishly abuses its power for its own profit and power, but he still must fight for these values he believes in and believes the country needs to recover.
And now, on to the NEXT occasion where Steve Rogers relinquished the mantle of Captain America.
THE SAGA OF SUPER-PATRIOT
Ronald Reagan is President of the United States, America has basically won the Space Race, and the Cold War seems to be winding down. However, America was very much an active military presence in the world, with the bombing of Libya and the Iran-Contra affair both happening in 1986 and America was divided on every single bit of it.
1986 also happens to be the same year we got Captain America #323, written by Mark Gruenwald and penciled by Paul Neary.
And why do we bring this up?
Because it’s this issue where John Walker, a.k.a. Super-Patriot, makes his first appearance.
We promise — this is important for the upcoming series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
So, Super-Patriot is the very definition of a certified chode. Sure he ends up turning around in the end and becoming U.S. Agent — more on that later, but until then — he’s an absolute chode — a total aggro bro douchebag.
And that’s sorta the point.
Quick background on him — he idolized his older brother, a strong, patriotic GI who died in Vietnam, so when he was old enough, but by that point the Korean War was over and he felt like he never got the chance to prove his patriotism or to honor his brother’s memory; apparently, the only job available to him in the Army was peeling potatoes, which we can see in the example below.
Back in the States and still looking for ways to prove his strength, John Walker comes across a dude named The Power Broker who, for the right price, has found a way to give people super strength and speed — so Walker signs up for that thinking that he can at least prove how strong he is in the UCWF, a.k.a. the Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation.
Yes — America’s next great patriotic hero got his start as a professional wrestler — just like The Rock.
This is where Super Patriot gets his super strength and speed — it’s in training to be a wrestler that he gets his fighting prowess. Very quickly, however, Walker is scooped up by a talent manager who believes he could be a super hero and he starts doing PR for him.
And what does that PR look like — huge political rallies all over the U.S. where he takes shots at Captain America, saying stuff like, “Is Cap the best symbol of America there can be? Heck no! Cap’s been around longer than I’ve been alive. He’s getting old, getting slow, getting out of touch with America!” and “I say it’s time Grampaw America retires, and the good ol’ U.S. of A gets itself a new symbol of liberty and justice!” Ultimately, he believes that “Grampaw America” is stuck in a bygone era of America and doesn’t measure up to the modern age. In a decade marked by massive technological leaps, new forms of Capitalism and an America not afraid to flex, Super-Patriot believes that Cap is too slow, too weak, and too addled by old age to keep up.
See — what’s happening here is that Captain America is having to change his identity again. In the early 70’s it was because America, as a country, was having an identity crisis — the villains weren’t the Nazis or the Communists, they were in the White House; however, in the late 80’s we have an America that is not afraid to flex, an America increasingly caught in black ops missions and under-handed, dubious political machinations.
Once these shadow operations are brought to light, America is told that are for the protection of U.S. interests — an example of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons — but that’s still not the America for which Cap stands. No, Cap will always strive to do the right thing and always for the right reasons, no matter how hard.
And that brings us back to the purpose of Super-Patriot being a dick; because he represents that aggressive “shoot first” mentality that seems to be rampant in U.S. government at that time. It’s the reason he fights with a fiery torch-sword of liberty whereas Captain America fights with a shield. Super-Patriot is an America actively on the attack, liberty on a warpath; Captain America is a peacetime America that will always do the right thing, seeking merely to protect itself and any other peace-loving people.
In fact, throughout this series Super-Patriot is running a smear campaign against Captain America by having three of his super-strong wrestling buddies terrorize various towns and college campuses around town with racist epithets and “America First” messaging while wearing Captain America cowls. They call themselves Bold Urban Commandos — or Buckies — and they say they are doing all of this under the influence of Cap!
Super-Patriot embodies the America of the 80’s whereas Captain America embodies the spirit at the core of who America wants to be.
You can see the difference between the two in this page from Captain America #327 — Cap attempts a diplomatic discussion with Super-Patriot and levies a warning against him to stop his attacks. Then, as he walks away, Super-Patriot says, “He’s not punking out on me this time. I mean to prove my superiority over him — right here and now!
And he attacks.
In the America of the late 80’s, the name of the game was attack any and all threats the moment they materialize — so good ol’ Wingdings has gots ta go!
So now, back to the story.
In one of the most iconic Captain America stories, found in Captain America #332, we see Steve Rogers brought before a board convened by the President to handle superhuman affairs.
It is brought to the attention of the U.S. Government that Captain America signed a contract with them in the 40’s and that the Super-Soldier Serum, the uniform, the shield and even the name of Captain America are all property of the U.S. Military; therefore, Capt. Rogers is still a soldier under the purview of the government and, as such, he should quit the Avengers, stop doing any and all personal missions and transfer over to U.S. Military Command. Essentially, Captain America is back in the Army!
Steve Rogers really struggles with this decision, but in the end he once more relinquishes his title saying,
“Gentlemen, I have given the matter we discussed yesterday a great deal of thought and I regret to say — that in all good conscience I cannot accept your conditions of employment. Captain America was created to be a mere soldier. But I have made him far more than that. To return to being a mere soldier would be a betrayal of all I’ve striven for for the better part of my career. To serve the country your way, I would have to give up my personal freedom and place myself in a postiion where I might have to compromise my ideals to obey your orders. I cannot represent the American Government; The President does that. I must represent the American people. I represent the American Dream, the freedom to strive to become all that you dream of being. Being Captain America has been my American Dream. To become what YOU want me to be, I would have to compromise that dream … abandon what I have come to stand for. My commitment to the ideals of this country is greater than my commitment to a 40-year old document. I am sorry, but that’s the way it must be. Gentlemen, I believe these are yours.”
And then he just — walks away.
So in Captain America #333 the President’s council starts looking for a replacement for Steve Rogers finally coming to the conclusion that this Super-Patriot fellow should take his place because in the issue before he had actually accomplished some crazy heroics and saved all of D.C. from a mad man with a nuclear bomb.
As his training progresses, as he struggles with learning how to wield the shield the way the OG Captain America did, as he learns of the pressures of being a symbol for liberty and always being under the scrutiny of the public eye, he starts to realize that maybe, just maybe, Steve Rogers wasn’t an old fuddy duddy grampaw but was actually better at this job than anyone ever could have been and, thusly, he starts to change his ways and change his attitude.
In the meantime, Steve Rogers takes on the identity of “The Captain,” wearing a black uniform with the stars and stripes emblazoned on the chest with one lone black star in the corner.
Also — it’s during this time that Steve Rogers straight up punches a bear. So, if you’ve ever wanted to see Cap punch a bear — here ya go.
Finally, in Captain America #350, published in 1989, with both Rogers and Walker manipulated by the Red Skull, the two come to blows only to realize they’ve both been duped and manipulated by the Red Skull. When giving their report to the Commission on Super Human Affairs, the Commission offers Cap back his uniform and shield and, after coaxing from Walker, he takes it.
Then, in Captain America #354, after faking the assassination of John Walker, he takes Rogers’ black uniform from when he was simply “The Captain” and rebrands himself as U.S. Agent.
And now, we will discuss how Sam “Snap” Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon, became Captain America in the comics and what he predominantly dealt with.
So — long story short — Steve Rogers had a fight with Arnim Zola in another dimension and he lost all of his super-soldier serum, which reverted Rogers back to an old man. When he returned to our dimension, it was evident that he could no longer bear the shield, so he gave it to his longtime partner, Sam Wilson.
In Captain America #25 — this would be Volume 7 because both Marvel and DC keep restarting volumes to increase sales — the elderly Steve Rogers hands his shield over to Sam Wilson.
Then we get Rick Remender and Stuart Immonen’s All-New Captain America run, only six issues long, which sees Falc-Cap fighting Hydra and trying to stop their attempt to sterilize the entire world via the blood of an Inhuman whose power is — you guessed it — sterilizing anyone that touches it. Their evil plan is to stop the entire world from being able to reproduce, leaving them as the only ones who can. But let’s skip over that. It’s a great read, but what they do with Sam Wilson in Captain America: Sam Wilson following the Secret Wars event in 2014 is where we want to focus.
Starting in 2015 we get a brand new Captain America as written by Nick Spencer and penciled by Daniel Acuna in their Sam Wilson: Captain America #1
Sam Wilson, knowing that Captain America’s job is to fight the fights he feels need to be fought, decides to fight for the rights of illegal immigrants and social justice in general. Immediately, corporate America starts to call for him to relinquish his shield, essentially saying, “Not our Captain.”
In his first story, as he follows the money trail and unravels the threads of power and corporate greed, he discovers that the Serpent Society has rebranded itself as Serpent Solutions and they are now corporate consultants willing to do all of the evil deeds corporations need to do to stay in power, to keep the wheels of commerce turning over the backs of the consumers the U.S. economic system oppresses.
The parallels here to our own time are pretty obvious. America is still struggling with corporate responsibility, corporate bailouts and greedy Wall Street fat cats who put profits and bottom lines over the environment, acceptable living conditions and human lives in general.
And do any of us honestly believe that if Captain America were a real figure in our society that most Americans would be cool with him, a white male, appointing either a black man or a black woman to take over that mantle? Or for that matter, a Latino-American, or an Asian-American, or any number of the Indigenous Peoples of North America?
Also, the leader of Serpent Solutions, Viper, is the best the character has ever been written, with all of his villain monologues peppered with corporate buzzwords we hear from Capitalism’s staunchest defenders all day everyday.
Finally, let’s briefly cover how Bucky took over as Captain America.
Remember the Marvel movie, Civil War?
Okay, so in the comics, when that story concludes, Red Skull directs Crossbones to assassinate Steve Rogers, but he’s really assassinated by Sharon Carter, who’d been brainwashed by Doctor Faustus. This all takes place in the iconic Captain America #25, by the legendary team of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting.
Coincidentally, they are the ones that created the Winter Soldier, so it makes sense that they would be the ones to eventually make him Captain America.
Tony Stark was in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D., heroes were still in hiding and didn’t know who to trust, the entire world knew Peter Parker was Spider-Man and most people still didn’t even know that the Winter Soldier actually existed, let alone that he was Cap’s old WWII partner, Bucky.
It was a very crazy time in the mainline Marvel Comics universe, known as Universe 616.
Bucky blames Tony Stark for his best friend’s death and decides it’s time for Iron Man to die. He steals Cap’s shield from S.H.I.E.L.D. custody and, through a lot of spy-thriller-twists-and-turns, eventually makes his way on to the helicarrier where Stark resides. However, Stark had recently received a letter from an attorney that was written by Steve Rogers. The post mortem letter implored Stark to take care of Bucky and to give him all the help he needs to flourish.
In Captain America #34, Bucky finally catches up to Stark, Stark reveals the letter to him, let’s him read it as much as he needs to and then makes him an offer he has a hard time turning down — take Steve’s place as Captain America. Bucky agrees, but on two conditions — he operates alone and SHIELD takes out any of the remaining programming that had been put into him by the Communists during the Cold War.
They expose a secret plot by the Red Skull to get a third party candidate elected President, they fight a Secret Invasion of Skrulls, they fight a Siege of Asgard by an overly-aggressive and militant government organization called H.A.M.M.E.R., which is lead by Norman Osborn, and Steve Rogers was never actually killed but was put into some weird suspended animation dimension by Arnim Zola … or something like that …
Like we said — it was a crazy good time to be a Marvel fan.
But eventually, we come to Captain America #611.
Sidenote — the numbering for this volume gets confusing because at Captain America #50 Marvel decided that, since that would have been the 600th issue of Captain America comics by legacy counting, they would revert back to that numbering system, so Captain America #51 = Captain America #600.
I know it’s confusing, but it wasn’t my decision.
So, Baron Zemo releases previously unreleased tapes and transcripts of Bucky’s time as a Cold War weapon of the KGB and, with the American public now very well aware that this new Captain America is actually a wartime criminal, Bucky is put on trial for his war crimes. It’s a great read that reveals more of Bucky’s past as a Cold War weapon of the Communists that ends with both him proving his loyalty to his country and, ultimately, clearing his name.
ALL THE CAPTAINS
So why, oh why, did we go on and on and on and on about the Secret Empire, The Super-Patriot, Bucky-Cap and Falcon-Cap?
Because as Marvel has proven, they don’t usually adapt one story for the screen; rather, they tend to adapt the spirit of many stories and characters. This is evident in Guardians of the Galaxy where the story of Star-Lord and the Guardians trying to find the Power Stone and taking on Ronan to protect Xandar was not a straight adaptation of any other Guardians stories. But it still felt like a great Guardians of the Galaxy movie, right? The same can be said for Infinity War, which was really more of an adaptation of Thanos Quest than the original comic and Endgame wasn’t really an adaptation of any comic they’ve ever done — more like an amalgamation of a lot of stories and a lot of character great character moments.
With The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, we should expect the same approach, especially with them moving from a two-hour movie to a ten-hour TV series on Disney+.
What do we know already going in?
For one, we know that Steve Rogers gave his Shield to Falcon at the end of Endgame, so it’s likely he’ll be taking on the role of Captain America.
For two, we know that Wyatt Russell is already cast as John Walker — the Super-Patriot.
For three, we know Baron Zemo is returning, as played by Daniel Bruhl in Captain America: Civil War.
As such, it seems that the series, much like his time as Captain America in his own comics, will address the racial divides in this country that have only seemed to get deeper as time has gone on.
There are two Americas now. Steve Rogers fought for both Americas and we can expect Sam Wilson to also fight for both Americas. The difference is that, for the most part, both Americas accepted Steve Rogers as Captain America, but it’s unlikely that both Americas will accept Sam Wilson, which is exactly what we saw in his comic.
Baron Zemo will probably let out a lot of the secrets of the Winter Soldier, putting him on the run from the government and the American people. Sam, seeking justice and knowing Baron Zemo is behind the leaks which have unfairly sullied Bucky’s name, will try to help out his Avengers ally, but will be caught up in the web and dragged down with him.
It’s likely they’ll seek help of some sort from Wakanda, since Bucky has sorta been hinted at being the White Wolf of their nation — it’s a military title in their country.
What is then likely to happen is that we’ll see the U.S. Government, a la the Super-Patriot Saga, create their own All-New Captain America as played by Wyatt Russell, and they will then create a strike team to forcibly take the shield back from Sam, reasoning that, like they did in the comics, that it’s property of the U.S. military anyway.
Sam and Bucky, both disillusioned by the actions of their country but still wanting to honor Steve Roger’s memory, will pursue justice and liberty as Nomads and trying to bring down Zemo’s Secret Empire that has already started to take over the White House.
Just pulling at all of the threads, that is a possible story that Disney Plus could tell — but I’m not writing it, I don’t know the people who are writing it, and my record for guessing the plots to the Marvel movies is essentially:
Marvel — 35
me — 00
And yes, I’m including their television series in that number.
This is all just meant to be total speculation to give an idea of where Marvel might take their series, but more than anything it’s meant to give you a list of comics to read. So now, if you please …
GO READ ALL OF THESE COMICS AND DON’T FORGET TO SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL COMIC SHOP WHEREVER YOU CAN!
This was originally published on 4/24/20