Politics in Comics: Captain America vs. Captain America

If you were trying to come up with the ultimate conservative superhero, it’d be hard to miss with Captain America, don’tcha think? I mean, the guy was a soldier, so desperate to serve his country that he volunteered for a dangerous chemical experiment and agreed to wear just about the gaudiest red, white, and blue costume imaginable. He was plucked out of the 1940s and revived about 20-40 years later, depending on what version of Marvel continuity you go with. By all rights, he should be almost a cartoon of nationalistic fervor. Indeed, he’s often been parodied as an over-the-top patriotic extremist.

But Cap really is a dream assignment for anyone who wants to write about public affairs, the nature of patriotism, or the state of the nation. One of his most amazing appearances came in a comic that was actually outside of Marvel’s regular continuity.

In 1984’s What If? #44 by Peter B. Gillis, Sal Buscema, and Dave Simons, we take a look at a parallel universe where Cap’s disappearance leads to the creation of an alternate Cap. But the new Cap’s patriotism comes in a decidedly dark flavor. His paranoia about Communism leads him to denounce anything that threatens the status quo, and he becomes a propagandist opposing civil rights and free speech. In time, a faked assassination attempt on him allows a group called the Secret Empire to take over the country and declare martial law.

The real Captain America thaws out of his iceberg many years later, awakening to an America that looks more like Nazi Germany than the United States. Jackbooted thugs wearing Cap’s “A” on their jackets terrorize the populace, no one has any rights to speak of, and everyone is required, almost by law, to idolize Captain America, for fear that the Commies will take over if the nation shows any weakness.

Of course, there’s a terrific battle between the two Caps, with both spouting off entire political soliloquies between every punch. As expected, the real Captain America emerges triumphant. But that’s not the end of it. Cap makes a grand oratory to the crowds who just watched him beat up the fake Cap, and the result is both shocking and inspiring.

Here it is, along with my transcription, just in case you can’t read the text in the panels.

“Listen to me — all of you out there! You were told by this man — your hero — that America is the greatest country in the world!”

“He told you that Americans were the greatest people — that America could be refined like silver, could have the impurities hammered out of it, and shine more brightly!

“He went on about how precious America was — how you needed to make sure it remained great!

“And he told you anything was justified to preserve that great treasure, that pearl of great treasure that is America!”

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

“A nation is nothing! A flag is a piece of cloth!!”

“I fought Adolf Hitler not because America was great, but because it was fragile! I knew that liberty could as easily be snuffed out here as in Nazi Germany! As a people, we were no different from them!

“When I returned, I saw that you nearly did turn America into nothing!

“And the only reason you’re not less than nothing — ”

“– is that it’s still possible for you to bring freedom back to America!”

Caption: “There is a long silence, then…”

Spectator: “Th-That is him!! That’s the real Captain America!”

Those five panels are just amazing. Everything you need to know about the dangers of blind nationalistic jingoism, everything you need to know about our susceptability to power-hungry demogogues, everything you need to know about the fragility of democracy and freedom. Everything you need to know about what a real patriot is like, minus the funky chainmail costume…

Cut it out, send it to your Congressional representatives, to your preferred presidential candidates, to your favorite Supreme Court justice. Send it to your local hate-radio blowhard, to the howling TV pundits, to the national columnists who still insist that any criticism of the figurehead in charge of the government is the same thing as high treason.

Happy Independence Day to everyone. Celebrate with some burgers and hot dogs, with some fireworks, by listening to some of those great old Sousa marches. But don’t forget to spend some time celebrating your nation by reading this and by reading this. Heck, if you’ve got time, here are some more links to great things you should read this July 4th.

(Lots of folks like this comic book a lot. For more in-depth analysis, read this, this, this, and this)

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