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The bizarre story of when Captain America battled Nixon

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AT AGE 75, Captain America has always wielded a certain political symbolism, whether making his serum-powered debut during World War II by socking Hitler in the jaw, or going rogue in his new film “Civil War.” But his political life is, of course, markedly different on the page from how it is on screen.

For the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the filmmakers decided to freeze Steve Rogers from World War II until present day, like some Rip Van Popsicle. “Once he goes to sleep for 70 years and wakes up,” “Captain America: Civil War” co-director Joe Russo told Comic Riffs last week, Cap “escapes sort of the deflowering of America.” Steve Rogers, in other words, “missed Watergate, Vietnam, he missed everything.”

Captain America has a much richer political story, however, in comics, which had Rogers reawaken and not miss Vietnam and Watergate.

As the nation changed during that tumultuous time, Marvel Comics had to respond to stay relevant. And so the publisher turned to its then-straightest arrow that was Timely/Marvel’s first Avenger.

“During that period, sales and interest in Captain America started to lag, for obvious reasons,” Tom Brevoort, Marvel’s senior vice president for publishing, tells Comic Riffs. “Given that the nation was embroiled in an unpopular war — especially unpopular with the young people who were being drafted to fight — characters such as Cap or a Iron Man, who had the seeming [image] of being pro-Establishment, were out of step with the audience.”

And the writer who changed this course was Steve Englehart.

“Steve himself was a young guy at this point, in his early 20s, and he was plugged into the counterculture,” Brevoort says. “And so he set about trying to make Captain America relevant to the times, and the world around him in the 1970s. This all led to that Secret Empire storyline, which was an allegory on the Watergate scandal and the way it played out in the press.”

Englehart asked himself, “Who is Captain America?” The answer was: This star-spangled, Army-juiced crimefighter believed in the American presidency, right up until he tracked a criminal conspiracy to the White House — a superhero tracking down all the president’s men.

Cap defeats the evil Committee to Regain America’s Principles and unmasks its leader, who is presumed to be Richard Nixon. (“The metaphor is strong and direct,” Brevoort says.) The leader kills himself rather than be arrested; a Watergate-style scandal is cooked up so that the leader’s posthumous body-double can resign.

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“Like most of his generation, I don’t think Steve liked or trusted Richard Nixon, so for him it was a small leap to turn him into the head of the Secret Empire,” says Brevoort, who has edited such Marvel runs as Civil War.

Once Captain America uncovers the conspiracy, however, his sense of patriotic trust is broken.

Just as important as the Secret Empire arc, Brevoort says, was “the immediate aftermath of that story, in which Steve Rogers went through some ’70s-style soul-searching and search for self, adopting the identity of Nomad — the man without a country — along the way, before finally returning as a Captain America, who was loyal to and motivated by the America dream rather than any particular party or government office.”

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“This mirrored the sort of soul-searching that much of the audience was going through at the time,” says Brevoort, who joined Marvel in 1989, “and caused Captain America to once again become one of Marvel’s most popular titles.”

Which raises the question: Now that the on-screen Captain America himself distrusts government and institutional authority, too, could a Nomad be in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s future?