Captain America #176 (1974)

1974 was one of the toughest years to be an American. The U.S. was leaving Vietnam with its tail between its legs, President Nixon resigned in disgrace, and it was several years before punk rock would come to the USA. Naturally Captain America felt the same despair that many Americans did in that era.
Actually, Cap had it worse than most people. For the few months before this issue, Captain America had been fighting an evil group called the Secret Empire, slowly closing in on the group’s headquarters. In Washington, D.C. In the White Hourse. In the Oval Office. And in the climax of the battle, the leader of the Secret Empire, who also happens to be the leader of the free world, commits suicide in front of Captain America. For anybody, that would have been a shattering experience. For a man who was created to symbolize and embrace everything that was great about America, the impact had to have been unimaginable.
Captain America #176 deals with the aftermath of those horrific events, as Cap has a true crisis. After many years of fighting the good fight, he simply has become overwhelmed by events around him: "I’ve seen America rocked with scandal – seen it manipulated by demagogues with sweet, empty words – seen all the things I hated when I saw the newsreels…" This issue shows Cap’s friends the Avengers as true friends, tryiing their best to help him make the best decision for himself. It helps that writer Steve Englehart was writing the Avengers at the same time, because he delivers the definitive characterizations for each of the characters in their short scenes. Thor loves the thrill of battle: "to strike for the right, with one’s blood roaring and one’s prowess the measure of survival – as we too have so often done with the Avengers – why, ’tis then that a man be most alive! ‘Tis then that true nobility will out!" The Vision is logical – "I know of your quandary, and I only have this to say: Ask yourself if Captain America can turn away from a life of adventure."
But what makes this comic one of the best of a remarkable run (Englehart wrote some 40 issues on this title, as solid and interesting and professional a book as any of the era) is that Captain America really was a symbol of the struggles that many Americans were going through at that time. "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’ve done things I’m not proud of – but I always tried to serve my country well. And now I find the government was serving itself. I just don’t understand I just don’t understand." The very institution he loved and embraced for so many years ended up being the very agent of his betrayal. It sounds melodramatic in abstract, but how many other Americans who had lived through the Depression were thinking the same thing in 1974?
It’s an exquisite comic. Measured and thoughtful, the expression of writer Englehart’s views while also serving both the character and era, it’s been one of my favorites since I first stumbled over it.

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