OOPS! I ACTUALLY POSTED THIS ON MY BLOG ON JULY 28 AND FORGOT TO MIGRATE IT OVER HERE, AND THEN DIDN'T EVEN NOTICE UNTIL TODAY. ENJOY!
Welcome to Longbox Junk, where the comics are cheap and the reviews are free!
Despite getting a late start on things due to a family medical emergency and things being super hectic at work (I manage a hotel and I think the only way to make people stay at home THIS year would be an actual apocalypse of some sort), it's July and I can't let July pass by without shining the Longbox Junk spotlight on some Captain America!
SO. . .
Let's jump into the Longbox Junk paper time machine and set the dial for a short trip back in time to the edge of the Bronze Age. . .the year 1984! The comic at hand is one of the final issues (#44 out of 47) of Marvel's What If? anthology series, which explored what would happen if the stories of familiar characters were changed in some small way.
What If? is right up there in the top ten of my all-time favorite Bronze Age comic series. I've always enjoyed tales of alternate history AND this series is a who's who of Marvel's Bronze Age talent, so what's not to like? Even better, if you're a Longbox Junker such as myself, the issues are fairly easy to come by, with only a few being "valuable" enough to be priced out of the bargain bin.
But enough introduction! Let's jump into this comic that asks the question, "What if Captain America were not revived until today?" With "today" meaning 1984, of course. Ready? Let's do it!
WHAT IF? #44
WHAT IF CAPTAIN AMERICA WERE
NOT REVIVED UNTIL TODAY?
SCRIPT: Peter Gillis
PENCILS: Sal Buscema
INKS: Dave Simons
COVER: Bill Sienkiewicz
Now THERE'S a Bronze Age beauty if I've ever seen one! Classic Captain America rendered in impeccable detail by the one and only Bill Sienkiewicz! This is one of my favorite covers from the whole What If? run, and it has taken several turns up on the "Wall O' Covers" in my office at work. It's just a great piece of comic art, period. Let's get inside!
We begin our tale as the Avengers pursue Namor. . .but unlike OUR world, the Sub-Mariner eludes them and they give up the chase before discovering the body of Captain America suspended in ice since the end of WWII.
Years later, without the binding influence of Captain America to keep them together, the Avengers decide to disband. A political tensions worldwide rise, we see a mysterious man in a government base release Captain America and Bucky from some sort of laboratory where they were being kept in suspended animation!
Although the two heroes are confused as to how exactly they got where they are, they know they have a purpose. . .to restore order to the increasingly lawless nation! And so we see them in action shortly after their revival taking down a group of armed bank robbers. It is during this scene that we begin to realize something is. . .off. Cap and Bucky seem to be much more ruthless and brutal than we know the heroes to usually be.
In the months to follow, Cap and Bucky take down all manner of criminals, proving themselves as heroes in the eyes of America. . .but all the while keeping a secret. They are actually the replacement "Captain America and Bucky" from the 1950's, forced into suspended animation by the government when they felt there was no longer a use for them.
Then one day, a representative from a far right wing political group approaches Cap and Bucky, letting them know that their group is aware of their secret, but wants to enlist their help promoting their political cause. The two heroes agree.
In the months to come, Captain America and Bucky use their status as patriotic superheroes to push a hardline anti-communist/ anti-immigrant candidate to the top of the polls, all the while quashing rumors of their true identities.
After sweeping the election with Captain America's support, Senator Chadwick quickly begins to enact anti-immigrant and racist legislation, including a national identity card. . .
Protests soon begin to turn to riots, including one where a sniper attempts to kill Captain America! Emergency powers force martial law across the nation, leading to more and deadlier confrontations between government forces and protestors. . .
We move forward in time several years. A U.S. submarine on patrol finds something strange. . .a man frozen in ice! After thawing out the mysterious figure, he revives and fights the sailors, believing them to be Nazis. The Captain of the sub realizes that they've just discovered the REAL Captain America!
When the sub returns to port in Brooklyn, the Captain sneaks Captain America off the boat and takes him on a tour of New York. Cap is horrified to see the city is in the grip of an armed occupation, with armed soldiers wearing the insignia of Captain America. . .the "Sentinels of Liberty". . .everywhere!
The Submarine Skipper takes Captain America to see a contact with ties to the Underground. . .J. Jonah Jameson. With Jameson's assistance, Cap and the Skipper are able to cross the heavily-guarded barrier known as the Harlem Wall. Cap is disgusted by the poverty-stricken despair found in the racially-segregated ghetto Harlem has become.
Deep in the Harlem ghetto, the submarine skipper introduces Cap to the underground resistance movement, led by General Nick Fury, Spider-Man, and Snap Wilson (AKA the Falcon). At first he is suspected of being an infiltrator, but after Cap talks to Fury about their time fighting WWII, he is accepted into their ranks as they prepare for a major operation against the "America First Party" during their National Convention, soon to be held in New York City.
Elsewhere, we find the imposter Captain America meeting with the leaders of criminal organizations that have infiltrated the government, and we learn of their plans for complete control of the United States. . .as well as his support for their plans as long as they at least pretend to align with his insanely unbending anti-communist ideals.
Shortly thereafter, the scene shifts to Madison Square Garden, where the America First Party is holding a huge, heavily-guarded rally to finally cement their complete political control of the United States. The underground infiltrates the stadium and then attacks as the imposter Captain America makes his speech!
As Captain America fights the imposter Cap in Madison Square Garden, the Underground attacks across America, sparking a second revolutionary war!
Eventually, Captain America prevails, beating the imposter unconscious on national television. The people believe HE'S an imposter until Cap makes a rousing speech and convinces them that he's the genuine article.
Once Captain America has convinced the people that he's back, they chant his name in adulation, but he stops them. . .saying that he won't allow himself to become such a large symbol that people can't think for themselves. At the end, the gathered crowd agrees and they join in with Cap singing "America The Beautiful" as the nation moves forward into a new day.
So there's the story. Let's break it on down!
BUT FIRST. . .
THIS IS YOUR TRIGGER WARNING!
If you are the sort of political obsessive who simply cannot stand ANY negative criticism of right-wing conservative values, then DO NOT read this comic OR this review.
OR. . .
If you are the sort of political obsessive who simply cannot stand ANY positive affirmation of right-wing conservative values, then DO NOT read this comic OR this review.
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
Okay. . .everyone in that's staying in? Last call. Let's do this!
As you can probably tell by the trigger warning above, this is a comic that is rooted deep in political commentary. If you are a die-hard conservative, this comic will be uncomfortable to read. If you are a die-hard liberal, it will be just as uncomfortable. If you're a moderate like me, you'll find it an interesting time capsule of Reagan-Era politics that reflect on current events a bit more than they should.
I don't really want to start any sort of political discussion or alienate any readers of Longbox Junk, so I'm going to try and judge this story on the story itself. . .just be aware that this comic is basically a 52 page slam on conservative tendencies to wrap political policy in the red, white, and blue. But then again, it's ALSO a slam on the liberal tendencies to downplay patriotic beliefs as racist or oppressive. Like I said, this comic was written in 1984, but it could have just as easily been written last week.
SO. . .
The story itself is a fairly typical "What If?" offering, where one little change causes EVERYTHING to shift in a bad way. In the story at hand, everything shifts toward patriotic fascism when the Avengers disband and the "Commie Smasher" failed Captain America experiment in recreating the super-soldier serum from the 1950's, William Burnside, is unleashed on America and becomes a symbol of all the absolute worst the country has to offer, but wrapped in a patriotic cloak of red, white, and blue that appeals to the population.
Burnside was co-created by Sal Buscema (along with Steve Englehart), but hadn't been used much up to this point, except in a short story arc (Captain America #353-356) as an explanation as to how Cap could be smashing Commies in the 50's when it was established in early Avengers issues that he'd been on ice since 1945. So it was interesting to see him used here as the antagonist. The character is actually well-written and you almost feel sorry for the way he's been used by unscrupulous politicians and criminal elements in this story.
Most of the story focuses on how bad America has become under the influence of Burnside, and how willingly the population has gone along with his obsessive anti-Communits, racist, and anti-immigrant beliefs. . .which makes the sudden swing back to patriotic flag-waving at the end of the story feel sort of rushed and frankly just a bit cheesy that one single speech from the real Captain America suddenly makes everything okay, and everyone from sea to shining sea is just singin' Kumbaya. . .er. . . Bless America together as one united nation.
On the art side of things. . . Of the Buscema brothers, I like John's art a little better, but Sal Buscema is still one of the better Bronze Age artists in my book. His art here is energetic and expressive, with some REALLY great panels scattered throughout, making this one very nice-looking comic, with art that definitely still stands up today.
Overall, this was an interesting comic from a political point of view. It's a commentary on Reagan-Era politics leaning heavily to the left that actually reflects pretty well on the current American political divide.
But beyond that, it's a pretty darn good "How bad can things get?" story about politics wrapped in patriotism. . .even if the ending IS a pretty hard and sudden swing in the opposite direction, and sort of cheesy.
The art in this comic delivers a solid visual half. . .from the great cover to page after page of some pretty darn fine Bronze Age pencils from Sal Buscema.
All in all, unless you're the type to get politically triggered by either criticism OR affirmation of right-wing conservative messages, I can highly recommend this story, especially if you're a fan of Captain America in general and are interested in an early appearance of "Commie Smasher" William Burnside.
Up Next. . .
I got in late on July for Captain America comics, so let's ride that Red, White, and Blue train right into August! It's Captain America meeting Black Panther during WWII. . .with Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos mixed in!
It's Marvel's four-issue "Captain America/ Black Panther: Flags of Our Fathers" series.
Be there or be square!