Captain America (1st series) #174

Issue Date: 
June 1974
Story Title: 
It’s Always Darkest…!

Steve Englehart (writer), Sal Buscema (artist), Vince Colletta (inker), C. Jetter (letterer), G. Russous (colorist), Roy Thomas (editor)

Brief Description: 

The disguised Captain America and Falcon are inducted into the Secret Empire and eventually led to their room. However, a hunch tells Falcon they are walking into a trap and, even so forewarned, they barely manage to save themselves. A few battles later, they meet up with the X-Men and Professor X, whose telepathic warning had caused Falcon’s hunch. Together, they find the abducted mutants used as a kind of power source. However, they are surprised by Number One and his people and are shot – and seemingly killed – by the Atomic Annihilator. In the meantime, Moonstone is still succeeding in the public eye as new national hero.

Full Summary: 

The secret underground HQ of the Secret Empire:
Disguised as two jobless wanderers, Captain America and the Falcon have just passed their initiate test and are being led into the group’s hidden lair beneath the southwestern desert. Cap wonders how he got into this situation. Maybe if he had been more vigilant, less trusting…

But he couldn’t believe the massive ad campaign to discredit him would sway public opinion. He should have known better. Suddenly, they capped their campaign by framing him for murder. He protested his innocence but, by then, plenty of people had lost their faith in him. And he only looked worse when he was jailed by Moonstone. Everywhere he turned for proof, he was framed, even when the Falcon came to help. His enemies were always one step ahead.

Moonstone’s drawl sent them to Nashville but they got sidetracked into a battle with the mutant Banshee. At least that led them to the X-Men and Professor X’s theory that Cap’s foes and the X-Men’s were the same – The Secret Empire.

This one lead forced Cap and the Falcon to disguise themselves as prospective flunkies for the Secret Empire and, to prove themselves, they had to steal the electron gyro from the Brand Corporation.

Cap still feels guilty about the theft and prays the people will believe the note he left.

The hooded Number 13 leads the promising rookies into a cavern and greets their leader on a throne with a ‘Salaam.’ He informs Number One that he brings the electron gyro and two recruits.

Number One muses it is their final component needed for the conquest of America.

America is reeling from continuous blows, Number One announces. First the toppling of its greatest symbol, next the fortuitous Watergate scandal. How much simpler that has made their work! The Committee to Regain America’s Principles has been swamped by support! The public is anxious for an untarnished hero – their Moonstone! He interrupts his soliloquy and gives orders for the recruits to be led to their quarters.

Number 13 remarks they must have impressed Number One for him to talk so freely. He leaves them in their room and locks the door. Suddenly, Falcon has a hunch and tells Cap to quickly change into costume. Cap protests that they are her to spy on these guys. Falcon asks him to trust him. They gotta get out! He touches a vent, only to find it electrified. They find a panel in the wall and Cap tears it off. Falcon tells him to hurry. They climb inside the hole behind the panel, just as they hear footsteps.

They enter the shaft and look behind into their room to see lasers striking everywhere, lasers that would have killed them. Number 68, Linda Donaldson and another man enter. The man is Mr. Black, the Roxxon man who claimed to believe in Captain America’s innocence when he found Cap’s note, which tipped him off. Number 68 finds the shaft and they sound the alarm.

Cap and Falcon find an exit and hear the alarm. Cap figures it’s bad enough they stole the gyro, but he’d hoped their reputation would survive. Still, it is no wonder Number One told them his plan. He was mocking them. They almost run into some Secret Empire soldiers but manage to hide.

Meanwhile, the three X-Men are up above. Professor X learned of Black’s treachery and telepathically warned their friends, which led to the Falcon’s hunch, but now everything is happening so fast.

Down below, Cap and Falcon are confronted by a giant red robot. Afraid it will alert the rest of the Secret Empire, they attack. From the air, Falcon sees a circuit panel on its back. He distracts the robot, while Cap throws his shield at the panel… and the robot is down.

Cap suggests they get out of here. Falcon reaches for a door handle. Not yet, he replies. Another hunch is tugging at him. He wants to open the door the big bouncer was in front of. Cap hesitates, then admits Falcon was right before. He wishes he’d explain those hunches.

As they open the door, a new voice announces that he can. It is Professor X. He and Cyclops are levitated and lowered by Marvel Girl’s telekinesis. He explains that, once they discovered this airshaft, it seemed the best method of helping Cap and Falcon, after he asked them to open the way. Was that him rapping in his mind? Falcon asks. Xavier informs him it was and adds that his reception of Xavier’s urging marks him as a man with a paranormal mind. Falcon asks if he is a mutant. Not necessarily, Professor X replies, although he has heard of his unusual rapport with his hawk. They can discuss this later. For now, follow him. He knows where his missing mutants are held.

In the meantime, Moonstone is in a talk show and is asked how it feels to be America’s latest idol. It is no bed of roses, Moonstone claims, your life being constantly in danger but, considering his first arrest was Captain America after he disgraced them all when he collapsed into a murderous frenzy, it’s worth it.

The blonde at his side, Miss Kearney, snuggles closer to him. Just sitting next to him gives her goosebumps. Red, white and blue all over, she coos. Just doing his job, Moonstone announces. With Captain America and Watergate pulling this nation apart, that’s all any of them ordinary Americans can do to keep the ship of state afloat.

In the wings, Quentin Harderman grins as he notes how everyone is lapping Moonstone’s words up. In a few short days, his advertising did what the Secret Empire hired him to do - make people trust this stranger in their midst. His old partner, the Viper, merely wanted revenge on Captain America, but soon the Empire and he shall go far beyond that!

In the lair of the Secret Empire, Professor Xavier has led the heroes to a door and orders them to open it. Inside, they find the missing X-Men past and present (Angel, Beast, Havok, Iceman, Lorna Dane), as well as several mutant villains (Blob, Mesmero, Mastermind and Unus), all lying unconscious and all wired to some hideous machine.

Xavier announces his mental probe reveals the machine is siphoning their brain energy. They quickly free the mutants but find they are still dazed and probably unable to walk for the next ten minutes. Still, Xavier believes he can put that time to good use. He begins by probing Angel’s mind to learn how he came here. That’s what brought the X-Men into this deadly puzzle in the first place.

Angel was relaxing at their school when he was attacked by Magneto, who stole his energy-absorbing costume. Sometime later, Angel awoke, now dressed in his original X-Man uniform, the one Marvel Girl and Cyclops have re-adopted by now. He went looking for the other X-Men, unaware that Magneto had spirited them away. But, as he flew away, he was struck by an ambush.

Next, Xavier probes Beast’s mind to learn he was loping toward the job his alter ego held at the Brand Corporation’s Long Island complex when he met the same fate.

His probings show similar stories for all these men and women, even those who call themselves evil mutants. Cap guesses they ran into someone more evil.

And so have they! a voice announces. It is Number One, flanked by Linda Donaldson and more armed Secret Empire agents.

Cap and Falcon lead the attack against them but, as Cyclops notes, reinforcements are coming. Marvel Girl joins the fight and Xavier warns that the other mutants are still too groggy to help.

The four heroes struggle and soon Linda tells Number One that the heroes are wiping the floor with them. He orders her to tell Number 68 to bring the Atomic Annihilator.

Number 68 enters and fires at the heroes, all of whom sink down. All dead! Number One exclaims. Nothing survives the Atomic Annihilator! And with them gone, America shall soon follow!

Characters Involved: 

Captain America
Angel, Beast, Cyclops, Havok, Iceman, Lorna Dane, Marvel Girl, Professor X (all X-Men)

Number One
Agent 13, Mr. Black, Linda Donaldson Moonstone I (agents of the Secret Empire)

Blob, Mastermind, Mesmero, Unus

Story Notes: 

Magneto’s attack on Angel happened before events in Avengers (1st series) #111.

Beast was captured sometime after Incredible Hulk (2nd series) #161.

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