Marvel is in the midst of Secret Empire, its massive summer crossover in which a Hydra-corrupted Steve Rogers has conquered America - but before this version of the story, the original "Secret Empire" story-arc in 1974 by writer Steve Englehart and artist Sal Buscema, defined Captain America as a title and as a character, and drew on the politics of its day in a shocking and unprecedented way.
With 2017's Secret Empire stirring up similar political turmoil, and challenging the very idea of America itself (let alone Steve Rogers), Newsarama reached out Steve Englehart to get his thoughts on the modern-day version of his story, the circumstances that led him to redefine the core of Steve Rogers, and the truth behind the original "Secret Empire's" controversial ending.
You can read our follow-up with Englehart, in which we discuss how the Red Skull, reality alteration, and Cosmic Cube-induced betrayals drove the ending of his Captain America run, right here.
Newsarama: Steve, tell me about how you got the job writing Captain America. What were your goals for the series when you came on board? Did you expect to have the long run you had?
Steve Englehart: I was just happy to have a job at that point. When they gave it to me, I had worked my way up. I wrote the Beast in Amazing Adventures as a bimonthly book. But Captain America and Defenders were both given to me at the same time, and they were both bigger, more important titles. My goal going into it was just not to screw it up. When you ask if I expected to be on it that long, I did, in that everybody at that time expected a longer run on a series. There wasn’t the in-and-out situation that happens in a lot of cases these days.
So they handed me Captain America. It wasn’t doing very well, and they said “Well, it’s gonna be demoted to bimonthly or cancelled all together – here, have a good time!” So my first goal out of the gate was to try to figure out how to make it sell better. It is a commercial enterprise after all. I think if I had failed to make it sell, that would not have been the end of my writing career because everyone that had been on it before me had also failed so it wouldn’t have been unsual.
But I tried to figure out something in Captain America that other writers hadn’t gotten to, and hoped that would help it sell. I didn’t do that so I could stay on it for three years, but had you asked me if I was expecting to do that, then yeah, because that’s what people did.
Nrama: You came onto Captain America at a time when the public conscience was very anti-war, and patriotism was a hard sell. How did that environment inform the direction you took Captain America?
Englehart: Well, the first thing I did when I got the job was go home and dig into my collection to read all the previous Captain America stories. I had collected and read them as they came out, but I tried to immerse myself in the totality of the character. I was looking for an element to the character that hadn’t been explored before, and what I saw was, he had been created to be the spirit of American wartime patriotism in World War II, so when the war ended, so did his career, pretty much. After World War II ended, there was no reason to have a Captain America anymore, so the book went away.
They tried to bring him back in the 50s, but that didn’t work. And then when they decided to bring him back in the 60s, they made it very clear that this is the same guy from those stories in the 40s, so unlike any of the other Marvel characters, Captain America has always been in two place at the same time. He was there in the 60s, but he was also tied strongly to the past – a past in which he had had a reason to be Captain America which no longer existed.
As you said, at the time there was a very strong anti-war sentiment, so I looked at Captain America and said “OK, here’s a guy who is now tied to something that’s completely unpopular.” I may not be a genius, but I figured maybe that’s the problem. So I came up with this idea that he stood for general American ideals rather than any specific thing that had happened in our history – whether it’s World War II, or the Vietnam War, whatever America was doing. That seemed to speak to something higher that all people could get behind. Everyone at that point grew up being taught the ideals of what America is supposed to be, and I thought that was something that would be not only more popular, but everyone can relate to that, so I hoped that would make the book sell better.
The next morning I came in, and Roy Thomas, who was editor-in-chief at the time, reminded me of the Captain America of the 50s, who didn’t fit into Marvel chronology with Steve Rogers having been frozen in ice during the 50s, and suggested I do something to square that. So I thought that was perfect, that fit exactly into my desire to tell a story to showcase who this Captain America was. And since the 50s were a much more reactionary time in so many ways, I wanted that to be the counterpoint. Everything just fell very quickly into place to give me the tools to make the character work.
Nrama: That story about the Captain America of the 1950s really set the stage for the core theme of your run, which really focused on Captain America’s identity. Was it your intent to make that something of a mission statement?
Englehart: Yeah, I reached the point where I had decided Captain America stands for American ideals, but I’ve always been more interested in the person inside the suit rather than the suit. I’m interested in Steve Rogers. He stands for these ideals, but who is he? This was a time when Captain America was teaming up with the Falcon, another character who was underused. He was there as Cap’s partner, but he was getting short shrift as well, so I wanted to get more in depth with him.
My general approach to writing comic books is to look at the people under the masks. And then, specifically with Captain America, it’s one thing to be an American icon, but it’s another thing to actually live that day-to-day. The original “Secret Empire” was still a year away at this point. I was just trying to say America wasn’t quite what we were all taught it was, and Captain America is standing up for something. How does that all play out? As I say, later that became a much bigger deal, but at the beginning that’s what I was trying to do.
Nrama: So jumping off of that, one of the major climaxes of your run was the original “Secret Empire” story. That’s got a lot of resonance today, with that title being used again. Where did the idea for this version of the Secret Empire come from?
Englehart: I was reacting to Watergate. For readers who aren’t up to speed on 70s politics, then-President Richard Nixon ordered his people to break into the Democratic headquarters and steal stuff, and they got caught. So it became a big deal because in those days, there was a real idealism in the air, and the thought that the president of the United States could commit such a crime was unthinkable. Today, things are very different, but in those days it just fascinated the country. There were statesman on both sides of the aisle who were more concerned with the republic than any political party, so there was a bipartisan inquiry into what Nixon had done. And it was conducted by people who knew what they were talking about, who were doing a good job, and it was being broadcast on all three or four channels. So every day, when the hearings were on, people would sit down and watch the Watergate hearings on whichever channel.
It was like a political thriller in real life, this sort of daily unfolding of the inner workings of this conspiracy. I saw Nixon give a speech on TV and I thought to myself, “This guy knows he’s guilty, and he knows they’re gonna get him.” He was saying the opposite, but somehow that came through to me.
So Watergate just engulfed everything, and I’m writing Captain America, which is supposed to take place in the same America – everyone lives in the “real” New York City. I thought there was no way Captain America could just keep fighting the Yellow Claw with that going on. And some of it was just hubris and luck – they could have convicted Nixon the next day and I would have been writing a story about something that was already over with. But it looked like it was going on for a while, so I capitalized on that. Nixon’s top aide was H.R. Haldeman, so in Captain America I named him “Harderman,” so I was disguising it plain sight.
But I wasn’t going to do a story about people breaking into a campaign office - that would make a pretty boring comic book - so I thought about what the elements of the scandal were and reconfigured them into the elements of “Secret Empire,” which would work as a comic book. I started off down that road, and the hearings continued, and it stayed in the public consciousness.
Writing a comic book, I couldn’t make it a two year exploration of what was actually at stake at the time, so it ran for six or eight months. I started down that road, that Captain America stood for these ideals rather than what America actually did. And here was America doing these things that had shocked its citizens and the world - it became clear that Captain America would have to go through all that.
Nrama: The culmination of that story was Steve Rogers witnessing the president – secretly Number One of the Secret Empire – commit suicide in the White House. How did you decide to do that?
Englehart: I wanted a dramatic ending. Again, when I write, I like to let the characters breath, and do stuff. I found over the years, if I start out saying I’m going to go in a particular direction, inevitably I’ll write something that makes the characters take al left turn, and all of a sudden I can’t go where I was planning to go because some new idea has gotten in the way. I like that – I like to let stories follow their own path – not to the point of going off the rails, as a writer I’m supposed to bring it together at some point - but I let myself be as flexible as possible while doing that kind of stuff.
So by the time I was looking to end the “Secret Empire” story, I was thinking about what that would do to Captain America, if he really came to terms with the stark fact that America in practice is different from the ideals of America. I started thinking about the Nomad story, and it seemed like the most efficient way to get there was to have a really shocking ending to Secret Empire. It wouldn’t have been all that interesting if he chased a guy into the Oval Office and the guy said “OK, you got me. Take me away.”
The country was so hyped up – no one expected Nixon to kill himself – but the whole thing was highly dramatic. America became highly dramatic. To run it back to today, as I said, in retrospect, the whole thing was like a political thriller unfolding, and I had a sense of how it would end. As it turned out, I was right, but I saw it as this big political thriller. And right now, as a country, we’re in the middle of this big political thriller again. But I can’t tell you how it ends – I don’t have a sense of that this time. I know how I want it to end. [laughs]
I think people can understand the Watergate thing today more than ever because even at that time there was never a moment where everyone said “OK, they’ve got this figured out, let’s all move on.” There was always some new development, which is exactly what’s happening today.
With that kind of heightened emotion and anxiety, I thought my comic book version of the president could commit suicide and that would be the end of it in Captain America. Nixon didn’t blow his brains out, but he destroyed his own career and that’s political suicide.
Nrama: You’ve hinted over the years that originally, Nixon was actually meant to appear on the page as himself in “Secret Empire.” Is there any veracity to that claim?
Englehart: That’s a little strong. I certainly played with the idea. When I was working out the end of the story I considered Captain America just catching him and taking him away, or he’d reveal himself – but then again, I never explicitly said it’s the president. It’s a guy named Number One in the Oval Office.
If I had made it Nixon, I don’t think I’d have been dinged for that - everyone knew who I was talking about. But at the same time, the real Nixon didn’t commit suicide. If Nixon in the comic book killed himself, that would be hard to square with the “world outside your window.” To this day, everyone knows what the story was about but you can’t definitively say it was the president, or it was Nixon. I was less concerned with who it was than what effect the event would have on Steve Rogers.
Nrama: Was there ever a point during the story where Marvel had you pump the brakes?
Englehart: Not at all. When I was given Captain America, Roy said, “We have two requirements: you have to turn it in on time and you have to make it sell. If you can’t do either of those, we’ll get someone who can.”
That’s an interesting sidebar. I learned in later years that when Stan Lee hired Roy Thomas and Denny O’Neil as writers and assistant editors, he drilled into them this idea that they had to sound exactly like him, because everything up until that point had had his voice. He wanted the books to have the same sound, so to speak, so he really made Roy and Denny work hard to capture his voice. So it’s amazing to me – and I give Roy all the credit in the world here – that when Roy became the Editor-In-Chief, he just said “Have a voice, do what you want to do.”
When you get your first job, you don’t know the history of it, you don’t know anything. You just go in and they say “here’s how the job works,” and you say “OK, here we go.” And that’s how the job worked for me. I could basically do what I wanted as long as the book was selling and I wasn’t missing deadlines. And that remained true. The book was selling and I was hitting my deadlines, so they let me tell my story.
And Captain America did go from facing cancellation to being a top book within six issues of when I took over. You could do that much easier back in those days, when comic books were on newsstands and you were selling half-a-million comics a month. Nobody was trying to micromanage me. But they weren’t trying to micromanage my other books either – that’s the working environment we were in.
Nrama: What was the impetus to bring in the X-Men into the “Secret Empire” saga, just before they relaunched and became a phenomenon?
Englehart: Well, the first book I worked on was doing Beast in Amazing Adventures. That was right after Uncanny X-Men had been cancelled – which was incredible to me, because it was being written by Roy Thomas with art from Neal Adams at the time and it still failed. But nobody goes away entirely in the Marvel Universe, so they gave me Beast to see if they could bring back just one of the X-Men in an ongoing way – but that didn’t work, and it didn’t sell so that was that.
If you’re the writer of Spider-Man, you have access to all the Spider-Man villains. If you’re writing Fantastic Four, you have access to all the Fantastic Four villains. But if you’re the Beast writer, you don’t have access to many characters, so right from the start I brought in the other X-Men. Since they were officially nobody’s characters and anyone could use them, I used them for the next few years. I liked the original X-Men, so when I needed an influx of heroes, I’d bring them in. Bringing them into Captain America was just an extension of that.
But because I was sort of doing a political thriller, there’s that issue where Cap and Falcon go undercover without costumes, I needed some more “super” stuff, so that led to me bringing in some characters I had used in Beast’s adventures, which led to me bringing in the X-Men, so everything just tied together.
As far as the X-Men goes, at that point they were just nomads, for lack of a better word, with no one taking the reins on their stories. So for a while, I became the de facto X-Men writer because I was the one using them.
Nrama: So this begs the question, what do you think of the current Secret Empire event? It’s built on those same bricks, but it’s a very, very different story. Do you think it serves Captain America in the same way the Nomad arc did?
Englehart: I have to say, I probably know even less about it than you think I do. I got out of comic books about ten years ago, when I started writing novels, and haven’t read many since. I’m totally aware that there is a Secret Empire event.
Sometimes, in the past, a writer would run out of ideas, look at what’s been done before, and say “OK, I’ll just do this one again.” I think with Captain America, because he stands for what America is supposed to stand for – but the reality of America doesn’t square with those things – I think it’s totally legitimate to revisit that idea, especially in a time of turmoil where, once again, America isn’t living up to the ideas Cap represents.
And again, here we are in the middle of this big political thriller. I know nothing about how the new Secret Empire was conceived, but if I had to guess, I’d say Marvel looked around at what’s going on in America, and realized Captain America has to deal with that on some level.
The reason you’re talking to me today is because back in the day, I came up with an idea that I thought might sell the book, and it wound up being the defining idea of the character. The guy who’s on screen these days is the modern Captain America, not the character from the 40s. The redefining of Captain America is eternal, in a sense – if you revamp other characters, OK, there it is. But Captain America is timeless, so that change I came up with seems to stay resonant year after year.