Strong words! Who said them, and why? The answer may surprise you . . .
One of the regular themes of my comics writing here at PF, other than gorilla sex, is about Captain America, in particular the various iterations of what I see as the definitive Cap story: when he faces off against a corrupt version of himself. Nearly every major Captain America writer since the great Steve Englehart has offered his own twist on this oft-told tale, and no wonder: with a character like Cap, one who is meant to embody the most noble, most aspirational aspects of the American myth, you’ve got to find a way to keep the more shameful and corrupt aspects of America from attaching to him. Embodying the darker side of America as another version of Cap and then letting the two punch it out for supremacy is a good way of doing that. (Captain America #292 is perhaps the most offbeat, paradigm-shattering version of this story, and we would expect nothing less from early 1980s J.M. DeMatteis).
To my mind, the best of these stories isn’t even in official continuity. It’s the titanic tale titled “What if Captain America Were Not Revived Until Today?” in What If? #44, written by Peter B. Gillis and pencilled by Sal Buscema with inks by Dave Simons. It is, perhaps, no fooling, my favorite single comic book of all time. First, let’s take a moment to groove on the classic Bill Scienkewicz cover:
The set-up is classic What If?: instead of being discovered by The Avengers in the 1960s (or whenever that would be in current Marvel-time; comics blogger Plok has a nice run-down of some of the problems and possibilities offered by the compressed time-line here), Cap floats in that block of ice for many years more, years that are not kind to America in his absence. Here’s the short version: things proceed mostly undisturbed in this alternate timeline until Nixon takes his historic trip to Red China. Then, an anonymous custodian, frustrated with what he sees as America’s selling out to communism, makes a fateful decision: he awakens two figures who have been held in stasis for years—the 1950s-era “replacement” Captain America and Bucky.
Now, their story is convoluted enough, but, as most people who are still reading this post know, they were two men who idolized the original Cap and Bucky and who stepped in to fill their bright-red boots when the originals vanished near the end of World War II. The replacement Cap even went so far as to undergo plastic surgery to make himself an exact duplicate of the real Steve Rogers. Perhaps this should have been a tip-off to his handlers that maybe all his synapses weren’t firing just right, but look, Hoover was in charge—there was a lot of weird shit going down and it was better not to ask questions. (By the way, this is real.) In any case, 50s-era Cap and Bucky did just fine until they succumbed to their intense paranoia about Communist infiltration; eventually, they became so violent and unstable that the government had to put them in suspended animation. (This all came to a head in the regular Marvel Universe in Cap 154-156).
But in this story, the real Cap isn’t around to oppose his red-baiting doppelganger and teen sidekick when they return. And, though the replacements do some good despite their persistent paranoia about the commie threat, they also become pawns of a nefarious organization known as the Secret Empire, a shadowy cabal that intends to subvert the United States government from within and install themselves as its absolute monarchs. The SE find 50s Cap and Bucky to be mightily effective instruments of propaganda: they don’t rant and rave, but, rather, use their misappropriated status as icons of patriotism to cast aspersions on anyone who threatens the status quo:
Merv Griffin: unflappable.
With their help, the Empire is able to get a foothold in Congress, and they proceed to pass legislation aimed at curtailing civil rights and protecting white privilege. Needless to say, their slow march towards totalitarianism meets with opposition from many quarters, but, when 50s Cap meets with a failed assasination attempt (staged by the Secret Empire, albeit unbeknownst to him) while attempting to halt a protest march, rioting erupts across the nation, resulting in the declaration of open-ended martial law. The result is an America of gun turrets and walled ghettos, policed by thugs wearing uniforms festooned with Cap’s proud letter “A” and mildly silly wings—in order, of course, to honor the principles for which he was so greivously wounded. This is the version of the US that the real Cap awakens to when he’s discovered and thawed out, finally, by the crew of a Navy submarine, a diverse lot disgusted by what’s happened to America.
I should pause for a moment and reflect on the first time I read this story, a time when I didn’t know the history of the multiple Captains America very well, if at all, nor did I know much history, period. Longtime Marvelites happening across this issue now will of course have no doubt about what’s going on and with whom they should side. In 1984, I did not. All I knew was that there were two, nearly identical Caps. And though the story clearly set one up as real and one as fake, it wasn’t always easy for me to tell, from page to page, which one was which. Mostly, and most insidiously, the rhetoric that the 50s Cap spouted sounded perfectly convincing to me, at least early on. Indeed, why shouldn’t those protestors calm down? Why do people always have to be starting something, you know? It was a close approximation of the rhetoric that was thick in the air around me, a miasma of sullen and dug-heeled reactionism, a fog which carried little sound and warped all sense. This was the Mississippi of the 1980s: the state where Ronald Reagan kicked off his campaign for the presidency by sending a barely coded signal that he didn’t care much for rabble rousers and civil rights advocates, either, that people would be happier if they stayed in their places. Plus, 50s Cap kept mouthing off about commies, and wasn’t I supposed to hate commies? Plus plus, 50s Cap had Hawkeye on his team! Who doesn’t love Hawkeye?
I’ve written before that Captain America planted the seeds of my eventual liberalism. Those seeds were planted over a number of issues, but this one is probably the most central, the moment where the notion that just because someone wrapped themselves in a flag, it didn’t mean they understood anything about America or had its best interests at heart, that sometimes the people who shouted “AMERICA” the loudest understood its meaning the least. Such an obvious point, I’d like to be able to say, but it’s one that our nation struggles with daily, so I guess it’s not. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this issue provoked some severe cognitive dissonance in young pre-fessor Fury, especially during the dialogue-laden final showdown between the two Caps. It was easy for me to lose track of who I was supposed to be rooting for, identical as they were and uncertain as I was about which one was saying what.
Here are some of the key images from that battle, in which the differences get sorted out and in which Steve Rogers describes the difference between his America and what America has become in his absence. Silly though it may sound, these images have stayed with me for a long, long time:
“America is a piece of trash!” I kid you not, that freaked this flag-waving 9-year-old way the heck out. More importantly, it created in me an new awareness of the distinction, and the great distance, between the geographical America and the ideal America. Americans and Germans essentially the same? This was not the lesson that comics had heretofore imparted.
There’s a moment on the story’s final page after the man in the crowd identifies Cap as the real deal, where the crowd starts to go nuts and Cap silences them. He tells them that they were led astray by following one charismatic leader and that he won’t let them make the same mistake by following him. I’ve been thinking about that some lately. Like anyone to the left of Joe Lieberman, I’ve found it tough to get excited about a lot of the players on the roster the Democratic party has fielded this season. I want someone to go out there and give this speech, you know? So I can cheer? But that’s not what we have (though that’s not to say that there are no good, even heroic candidates worth pulling for, even if they lack Cap’s shield-slinging prowess.) Maybe some of them are earnest but uninspiring personalities, maybe some others have made less than inspiring votes lately. I know that, barring a challenge from the left (hah!), I’m going to go to the polls in a couple of years and pull the lever for torture supporter Mary Landrieu. I won’t like doing it, but the alternative will surely be worse (at least at the alternative I’m likely to have in that moment in the booth is; another alternative is the long-term work that can go into pressuring someone like Landrieu to change, or to preparing the way for a candidate less willing to compromise on such issues.) But, as Cap here makes clear, to pin all one’s hopes to an inspiring leader, to hope too hard for a hero, is a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take an inspiring leader if we can get one, and I’ll let you know when my attempts to clone FDR bear fruit. But in the meantime, simply voting for the people less likely to betray America’s fundamental principles and to make the world a much worse place to live is not just enough: it’s enough to get excited about.
I don’t know who I’m preaching to, here. Myself, I guess. In any case, I should thank Messrs. Gillis, S. Buscema, and Simons for the following image of Captain America and Spider-Man leading a band of militant black radicals (including “Snap” Wilson!) into combat against a jingoistic madman for the soul of America. I didn’t know enough about anything in 1984 for that to blow my mind as much as it does now.
Although I’m not quite sure what’s going on with Cap’s shield there, this is still one of my all-time favorite single comics pages.
More art and politics posts not linked above:
Gorjus on Animal Man and vegetarianism.
Gorjus on Living with War.
Me on The Last Time Captain America Died.
Me on Chris Bachelder’s U.S.!
Me on Springsteen and the 4th of July.
Gorjus: John Kerry, Rockethead.