Friday, May 10, 2019

The Country That Captain America Built

"Never underestimate the power of advertising." -- Jordan Dixon, alias the Viper

Having recently taken a look at one possible future for the X-Men--and for the world--which occurred as a result of misguided individuals attempting to protect those they felt were threatened by outside forces, it seems appropriate to pivot to a story by Peter Gillis and Sal Buscema which focuses instead on Captain America, an individual one would seldom if ever describe as misguided, and certainly not threatening (well, if we're being honest about it...) -- that is, if we were talking about the Captain America who ended up in a block of ice and was tossed by the Sub-Mariner into the ocean, to be later found and revived by the Avengers. But this story puts an interesting twist on the story of another Captain America--the one who surfaced during the 1950s, whose developing psychotic nature eventually twisted his values and forced the government to capture him and place him in cryogenic hibernation (along with his own "Bucky") until a cure could be found for his instability. Revived in 1972 by a disgruntled worker dissatisfied with the state of the country, "Cap" and his partner once more proved to be out of control--finally coming into conflict with the original Cap (and his partner, the Falcon), who ended their threat.

In Gillis's story, however, Namor never arrives at the site of the frozen "idol" being worshipped by Eskimos, who instead end up transporting it with them on their long migrations--and so the Avengers never encounter the floating, famous figure from history. Eventually, lacking a central unifying spirit, the Avengers members decide to suspend their activities and take a hiatus in order to tend to their personal affairs.  But our disgruntled worker is still around, and still unhappy with Nixon's overtures toward China--and, again, he knows just who to turn to.

Of course there is no current-day Captain America in action for these two to target--but left to their own devices, do you have the impression things are going to turn out any better for them this time?

Nevertheless, at first, the pair get the hero's welcome, since everyone believes it's the original Cap and Bucky who have returned and are back in action--nor are they in any hurry to disavow the notion, perhaps to avoid giving government officials cause to examine whatever records they have on Captain America and put two and two together as to this pair's true origin.* But without the Avengers around this time to establish Cap's bona fides, these two have had to do some quick thinking.

*Of course two empty cryogenic tubes are hard to miss; but having been in operation for over twenty years, apparently the facility they were held in only receives sporadic check-ins from whatever government agency monitors its status. (Or, put another way, the 1950s Cap and Bucky seem to have simply slipped through the cracks.)

As we can see, there's already cause for concern as to this man's inability to adapt to changing times and the blurring in his eyes of "the enemies of freedom" and the erosion of American ideals. That spark hasn't yet turned into fanaticism--but there's one organization of "concerned citizens" ready to fan that spark into a flame and have Cap and Bucky become the perfect vehicles to advance their message--the Committee to Regain America's Principles (appropriately abbreviated as C.R.A.P.), which the original Cap clashed with but could have a more beneficial relationship with a pair of patriots who are all too vulnerable to their brand of subterfuge.

Harderman puts Cap right to work, using his status as a super-hero to endorse a third-party candidate for the U.S. Senate, Norman Chadwick--through which, upon his election, the Committee begins to enact its agenda, promoted with generous usage of the words "America" and "Americans" to take advantage of the voter's sense of national pride and in so doing obscure the more questionable aspects of the proposed legislation.

With minority groups being edged out of the workforce, thanks to Chadwick's one-two punch of the "National Identity Card" and the establishment of a "Federal Jobs Bureau," the disenfranchised mount an inevitable response of visible protest gatherings and marches--non-violent and orderly, but politically damaging to the momentum that has been so carefully built by the Committee and its political allies. And so an incident takes place on the streets of Harlem that serves to escalate the situation and, in the end, advance Chadwick's legislation even further--thanks to the party's injured and still-trusted spokesperson.

Gillis is tight-lipped about whether our sniper was acting on his own initiative or as a plant by C.R.A.P. to ensure a scene of violence and chaos for news coverage, which would of course include the shock value of Captain America being shot by an unseen figure in the crowd and presumed dead.  Instead, he leaves it to the reader to make the call, as if they too were watching television coverage of the incident. And while the dust settled, there are startling new restrictive measures initiated, heartily endorsed by the man who should be the most outraged of all but remains the calm in the storm, the steadfast symbol of American resolve.

With it being obvious that this situation is deteriorating further, it's fair to say that the America First party appears to have voters in the palm of their collective hand--willing participants of a downward spiral that unfortunately continues to grow worse in the years to come.

On that note, the scene shifts to the north Atlantic, where a submarine on patrol makes a remarkable discovery. But while we fully realize who and what they haul aboard, there are those in the crew who would prefer the object be thrown back to the sharks, given what the colors he wears have come to represent.

As Gillis notes, it's ironic that the armed forces have become the only refuge from the draconian policies that are now the law of the land.  And so once the sub reaches New York, our Skipper knows he will be scrutinized as he conducts his incognito guest on an eye-opening tour of Manhattan--made all the more repugnant to Cap by the emblems worn by the so-called Sentinels of Liberty, bigoted overseers of the citizenry who can conduct a "security check" of anyone who appears suspicious, at any time.

Eventually, Cap is led to the location of an underground movement--hidden behind a wall built to contain those whose freedoms have been severly curtailed, but which also ensures that no Sentinels will set foot within. Inside, Cap reunites with a familiar figure from his past, while also meeting others who would have been friends and comrades under other circumstances.

As Fury indicates, the time approaches when the America First party will hold their national convention--leading to the general election where, should they prevail, their grip will be tightened and they will attain the absolute control that they've worked behind the scenes so diligently to achieve. And as we part the curtain to finally reveal those involved, several of the figures present come as no surprise, given the party's agenda. Regrettably, their red, white and blue "public face" is fully on board, still under the mistaken belief that those who have been subdued are spies and traitors who serve foreign powers intent on toppling America. For all practical purposes, Captain America has become putty in their hands, as there is no piercing the misguided beliefs and prejudices that cloud his judgment and his reason.

And so, given his staunch defense of the party and what he believes it stands for, the shocking sight which greets him at the convention is seen as nothing less than a coup--staged by foreign agents who have invoked, in his eyes, the most heinous type of deception he can imagine.

In the battle that follows, the original Cap confronts his imitator with all the false justifications he's used to carry out his abuses. To the end, the 1950s Cap remains in denial, possibly for his own good; for to admit to his acts of persecution and injustice--to realize that he has been a willing part of a plot from within to destroy the very freedoms he believed he defended--would likely drive this man to the brink of insanity, if not beyond. As it is, he falls in battle unrepentant--and, needless to say, as deluded as he ever was.

The crowd at the convention, understandably, reacts with outrage at seeing the one who led them to this point taken down before their eyes. But the words Cap speaks in response slowly break through that anger, particularly when his audience realizes that the true Captain America stands before them, pleading with them to bring their nation back from the brink and join together with those they have wronged. It's quite a challenge he issues to people who had so easily accepted the party's unwritten doctrine that the rights and freedoms they took for granted applied only to certain segments of their country's citizens and not to all. And so as this story concludes, it remains to be seen whether Cap's impassioned plea to them will in time produce the kind of America that every American can take pride in.

What If #44

Script: Peter Gillis
Pencils: Sal Buscema
Inks: Dave Simons
Letterer: John Morelli


George Chambers said...

This might be the best What If story ever.

B Smith said...

One presumes President Chadwick's daughter Cheer was otherwise occupied during this story?

Big Murr said...

Wow. That art looks great! Whoever is inking/colouring Sal really knows their potatoes. Good stuff.

The story...well...I certainly cannot rank it is "bad" or in any way deficient, but for me personally, it is pure tedium. Since I'm not a citizen of the USA, the more intense passages of speechifying in praise of the red, white and blue elicit zero interest. I've always loved Captain America in the Avengers comic because they usually stress the "Captain"; a legendary two-fisted leader of heroes. In any solo title, they too often stress the "America" and my eyes glaze over.

Spider-Man's appearance touched on a question that nagged at me as I read your post: where were the other American superheroes? They're not the patriotic symbols that a Captain American might be, but I don't see the Fantastic Four or Iron Man being too jazzed about this turn of current events. And what about Luke Cage??

Anonymous said...

A chilling prediction of Trump's rise - one of the crowd at the America First convention is even wearing a red baseball cap. But somehow I doubt that a fancy speech about America's true values will ever change any minds at a Trump rally - even if Captain America made the speech!

Comicsfan said...

Murray, I can only presume that Gillis wanted to deal with the heavy hitters and not get the story bogged down in a rundown of why other heroes appeared to be keeping a low profile while all of this was going on. (Not all the costumed characters were looking the other way--Gillis gives us a token look at some who played a more direct role.) We know the Avengers disbanded--something happened to Stark when his company was taken over--and that Gillis tucked the FF away in Arizona for the duration with an "explanation" for their absence that barely passes muster (and I'm being generous with that description). And for all we know, Cage could be part of Wilson's cadre. I think this story was more about politics running amok and the shambles that the country spiralled down to, which probably caught a lot of people off-guard--hero and civilian alike.

Colin, I'm often surprised at how comics writers from the '70s and '80s managed to tap into events that would manifest in later decades. Chilling, indeed.

Killdumpster said...

Sorry, guys. The insinuation is very blatant, and I beg to disagree.

Though our current POTUS is unorthodox and unruly, the true threat of a "Secret Empire" or "Sons of the Serpent" lies mostly on the left side of the political spectrum.

Anonymous said...

My fave nationalist loonies - or, as some might prefer, fine folks (I hear they're on both sides) - from Captain America were the Elite from the Madbomb storyline; probably because they were headed by a Taurey ("tory").
Possibly that pun works better on this side of the Atlantic, but pretty funny all the same.
I wasn't aware of a later appearance, but that seems to be him in the eighteenth century get up in that America First convention panel...