“America is a piece of trash!”

faked by Monday, November 6th, 2006

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:

What If? #44

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:

Cap and Buck visit Merv Griffin

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:

Cap v Cap 1

Cap v Cap 2

Cap v Cap 3

“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.

Spider-Man and his amazingly well armed friends!

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.

26 Responses to ““America is a piece of trash!””

  1. gorjus says:

    “It’s still possible for you to bring freedom back to America” should be the rallying cry for all people who love this country. How extraordinary that is. And the tension between the False Cap—who naively believes that America “can be refined like silver”—versus the Real Captain—who knows it’s a struggle to maintain freedom.

    Freedom is hard, and I don’t mean that in the stupid “freedom isn’t free” bumpersticker. I mean it’s hard to let the Nazis march in Skokie, it’s hard to give rights to those who would destroy our cities, it’s just damn hard. But you have to do it. It’s just part of who we are. To do any less—to do what the Bush Administration has done—ignores our very identity.

    This is why a few years ago we actually issued a Catoptric endorsement of Senator Kerry—because we wanted an America to be proud of again.

  2. plok says:

    If I recall correctly, Peter B. Gillis had a certain way with “What If?” that worked for me, much better than anyone since Roy Thomas, whose baby it was. I hope I’m not misremembering. I think there’s a good post somewhere in the matter of what “What If?” was intended to be for in the first place…the later issues which featured universal doom and ugly continuity tweaks were a great disappointment, but when “What If?” first came out it sent a thrill through my little fanboy heart, and I’d be curious to know just why.

    Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Marvel’s regular titles were all really “What If?”s, too?

    Well, aren’t they all, right?

    How sad is it that Gillis et. al. couldn’t get away with writing this comic today. I know, I know: obvious comment. But I miss that long-ago time.

  3. plok says:

    I’m not even American, and that showdown gives me chills.

  4. Kamikaze says:

    Aw, Prof, this is an inspiring pre-election day post. You patriot, you.

  5. Election day! I trust everyone is following the attempts—let’s just say it, the attempts by the right—to ensure America’s further and continued trashiness.

    If not, Josh Marshall at the crew at Talking Points Memo (and its subsidiary, Election Central) are doing an outstanding job of keeping up with the reports of vote fraud, including, but not limited to, touchscreen voting machines in battleground states that consistently record a vote for the republican candidate when the voter attempts to vote for the democratic candidate. To say nothing of old-fashioned voter suppression, of course. Oh, and this.

    And Fred at Slacktivist has a post up today on the frustrating apathy our media demonstrates when presented with evidence of voter fraud… (The first part of the post, about Bush, Saddam, and their mutual distaste for concepts like “rule of law,” is quite good as well.)

  6. Thanks, Professor.
    The book has aged well, hasn’t it?
    I always viewed What If? as an excuse to do the best damn issue of X ever done—to get to the core of the character unfettered by continuity.No more so than this issue.
    My only real regret was that, since we were doing these issues on an inventory basis, we had no idea when the book would hit the stands. Thus we missed out on a much more resonant title, “What If Captain America Were Not Revived Until 1984”?

    And hey, I wrote the thing, and the ending still gives me a bit of a chill.

  7. Odd Jack says:

    This is a classic issue. What If had a few great Cap issues. And this one truely stands out. But I am trying to remember if this is the one where a parade of minorities, and mutants (read the original X-Men), are being lead down the street in a panel, as a show of the threats to “America”. Time to did the issue out and read it again.

  8. plok says:

    Wow, Peter B. Gillis!

  9. Indeed! Peter, I hope the warped, faded state of the pages that I scanned will give a sense of how oft-handled this comic was for me. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. hud says:

    Man, that was a fantastic write up.

  11. roger says:

    Gruenwald’s Cap also inspired me in the political sense.

  12. roger says:

    The true fight about liberty is not about impose democracy to Irak or keeps “freedom” (security) at any cost: is about keeping the civil rights in their true sense, without playing with it at the convenience of lobbies and cynicals.

  13. mboston says:

    america is a piece of shit because they’re so racist that its not even funny.

    Obama made a speach that should have brought everyone together but instead because white america is so racist, his speach did little effect.

    This is why black crimes will spilll over into the white so utopia communities and they will realize that they’re to blame because by continuing to be racist, the problems will get larger.

  14. gorjus says:

    Well . . . I don’t know about that. In fact, I think the Senator from Illinois’ speech is best seen as how America isn’t static—that we can change, get better, reformulate how we think about and approach race.

    Unfortunately for the spillover of crime into suburban areas, people rarely look at the root of the crime—low income, poor job access, lack of access to higher education. It’s real easy just to think of it as “us” and “them” in those isolated situations. We have to get to the point where we begin seeing other folks as a part of ourselves.

  15. Brian says:

    mboston, I don’t know your background, but a couple of observations about Obama’s speech.

    I’m a minority and I have firsthand experience with dealing with racism. And I found Obama’s speech to be among the most progressive and on point than any that I’ve heard in the past two decades.

    But there’s a wise man that just passed away (Randy Pausch) and he noted, judge someone by what they do, not what they say.

    If you look at how Obama has been silent whilst his inner circle trashed Hillary, the intimations that people from Alaska are somehow less American than people in the Lower 48…why, I’m reminded of the same damn arguments that people STILL use to justify why hispanics are “less” than whites.

    So is it racist when Democrats look down on people from smaller towns because we didn’t go to the “right” schools?

    get with the program, why do you think African-Americans that have known Obama the longest disrespect him the most (Rev Wright, Rev Jesse Jackson)???

    He delivers a great speech, no doubt. But it takes more than speeches to break down racism. It takes commitment to doing the right thing.

  16. [...] Dematteis is establishing here isn’t, as it was Englehart’s 1970s Cap stories or in my favorite single comic of all time, different versions of America duking it out. Instead, it’s Captain America versus empty [...]

  17. knoxvilledaniel says:

    My God !!
    I’ve seen this comic on the web a lot, & I know ruddy well why.
    The America that the fake Cap represents sounds very much like what this country is on its way to becoming…... We’re not quite there yet, but we’re on the road to it, especially if McCain wins, dies in office, & Sarah Palin takes the reins. I know I’m prognosticating, but it’s a very distinct possibility.
    I’ve nothing against the Right Wing, really, but they think that they can create a nice little police state & turn America into ” Amerika “.
    Which is what real Cap was fighting against.

  18. [...] of folks like this comic book a lot. For more in-depth analysis, read this, this, this, and this) By Scott Slemmons | Posted in Captain America, Politics in Comics [...]

  19. [...] “America is a piece of trash!” « PrettyFakes – 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 … [...]

  20. John-David says:

    “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.”

    Hopefully between the time you wrote that and the time you voted you grew up a little bit. Better to not vote at all than to vote for someone simply because you believe they are the lesser evil.

  21. Man, I’ve got to get back on a regular posting schedule so I can inspire more comments from condescending assholes.

  22. [...] Revived Now? (#44), which is possibly one of my favorite Cap stories ever printed. There’s a great run down of the issue here, and it’s worth a read. Sadly missing from this collection due to licensing issues is the [...]

  23. John Locke says:

    “Well, I say America is nothing! Without its ideals — its commitment to the freedom of all men”

    The line above is whats important, not the america is trash part. Cap fought just as many liberals who actually thought america was trash and should be destroyed.
    Too many people believe politics is like a sports team, I’m a democrat because republicans are bad or vice versa. If you think that you should look at charlatans and criminals like Al Sharpton.
    What has Obama done except give us an unpayable forced health care plan and continue almost everyone of the Bush era policies?
    Every minority in the US could have voted for Obama and he still would have lost, its whites who elected Obama. If this county were as racist as you all seem to think it is a black man could not have won overwhelmingly. I’m a minority and I dislike Obama not because he’s black but because he’s a weak, ineffectual, leader who takes too many vacations.

    Poverty doesn’t cause crime, the breakdown of the family does. Most poor people are decent folk, I should know I’ve been poor, I was born in a slum. Don’t believe me read the Moynihan report, written in 1965 by the liberal Pat Moynihan, about what was going to happen to black america.

    “Government is at best a necessary evil, at worst an intolerant one.” Thomas Paine.

  24. You’re going to have to point me to those issues about Cap fighting America-hating liberals. I’d seriously like to read them.

  25. [...] Loftis at Big Monkey, Helpy Chalk has a great link to an account describing how Marvel’s Captain America periodically reminds young Americans [...]

  26. The_L says:

    @John Locke: What do you mean by “the breakdown of the family?” If you mean the disturbing trend of urban kids growing up without their fathers because Daddy’s in jail, or the new and bizarre justifications for child abuse pushed by people like the Pearls, then I agree.

    If you mean “oh noez, teh gayz are getting MARRIED and raising KIDS!!” then you’re using “family” as a smokescreen. “Family” is a set of people, related by blood, marriage, or adoption, who care for each other and work together as a unit—regardless of religion, gender, or sexual orientation. People who disown their kids for doing something daddy doesn’t like are not family. People who abuse each other are not family. Family is more than blood.