Let's Rap about Cap, pt. 3: What If...?


WHAT IF...? #44

What If #44 was pretty much my favorite comic in the world in the summer of 1986. I remember it that way, at least, just like it's endured as one of three or four individual issues of Cap mythos that define the character for me. But am I retconning my own experience of it? I certainly remember reading it a lot that summer, but did I actually formulate any kind that kind of official approach?

I figured I'd go to the source directly. It's been two years since we last checked in with 1984 Me; let's step back into the McTARDIS and visit with 1986 me.

(Mid-summer 1986, Weiterstadt. A young boy plays Pole Position on an Atari in the basement of his parents' house. Comics and Transformers are scattered about him on the couch. He wears a faded Bill and Opus t-shirt and a knee-length pair of jams. 2016-Me materializes, wearing a radiation suit and goggles.)

2016 Me ("Me"): Greetings, younger self! I am the Ghost of Bloggings -

1986 Bryan ("Bryan"): I know who you are. 2032 Bryan and I hang out all the time. He  told me you'd be showing up today to discuss What If...? #44, the one where Steve Rogers isn't revived until the 80s.

Me: Yes, well. (Removes goggles) And how is 2032 Bryan?

Bryan: (leans in) Not to get bogged down in it, but I think he's some kind of triple agent.

Me: (sighs) Let's just get to it.

Me: Man, I loved What If...? It was like a monthly It's a Wonderful Life trope for Marvel Zombies. Was this the first time we learned about 50s Cap, the John Bircher dude? Do you remember reading anything with him before?

Bryan: I knew about him from Cap #281 and maybe a couple of other places, but this is the first time I've seen him in the flesh, so to speak. 

Me: Just a quick recap for our home audience. A previous issue of What If...? ("What if the Invaders Hadn't Disbanded after WW2") described a world where three different men took over the role of Captain America after Steve Rogers disappeared. The third of these was mentally disturbed, and the government shut down the whole Captain America program as a result of his shenanigans. This filled in the gaps between Marvel's actual publication history of the character and how he'd been appearing in Marvel continuity since Avengers #4. Jim Shooter, Marvel's EIC at the time, liked it so much he made it official continuity. This What If...? story, then, is technically a What If of a What If. 

Me: In this reality, as we saw in those panels above, the Sub-Mariner does not hurl the frozen Cap idol into the water where he's found by the Avengers. He remains undiscovered, and the Avengers, "lacking a central unifying spirit," disband quietly. Life goes on, and then in the 70s, an unnamed government employee is finally pushed too far.

Me: I'm always amused by the idea that Nixon's going to China was somehow a bad idea. It was one of the best big plays of the Cold War! (Squints at younger self) Did any of this inform your take on the Cold War? Never mind, leading question. So, after reviving the 50s Cap and Bucky, the unnamed janitor slips back into obscurity. "Just remember me as an American, Cap."

Bryan: From there, Cap and Bucky re-integrate themselves into regular Marvel society. 

Their fame leads them to the late night talk show circuit, where Bucky laments missing out on miniskirts and Cap has this to say about the "new" America he sees around them:

Me: You hear variations of this with every cycle of "student unrest." Especially in 2016. Do you remember anything like that in 1986?

Bryan: (not hearing the question) 2032-us tells me President Kardashian - whomever that is - smothers civic unrest with "bionic twerking," whatever that is. Forest fires, too. That's some buttocks power, I tell you what.

Me: I'm tempted to think he was just messing with you, but to be honest, it's disturbingly plausible. Sticking with the civil unrest theme, though, one thing this issue addresses is the periodic allegation that all such agitation is funded from Moscow. It is the catechism of this particular demographic. Think of Shatner's monologue from The Intruder - wait, you don't see that one until years later, again never mind. Anyway, on one hand, it's BS, of course; civil rights are not some commie plot. On the other in the years since the Soviet Union collapsed, declassified KGB records reveal the extent -

Bryan: Whoah now - the Soviet Union collapses? When?

Me: In the 90s. Well, some believe it was simply the final salvo of taking out the Western banks, like Lenin specifically stated was the goal (and how to achieve it) in State and Revolution, but most scholars and economists agree, for whatever such consensus is worth, that -   

Bryan: But 2032-Bryan told me the US and EU were just vassals of the Soviet super-state!

Me: I'm sure he did. And hey, like I say, could very well be. All I'm saying is that the pre-existing problems in American society, like racism, homophobia, chronic poverty, etc. independently pre-existed and were targeted and exploited by Marxists to their own advantage. And not just in the USA. At least according to things like The Mitrokhin Archive. Which every American should keep at the ready as a PDF to search.

Bryan: PDF?

Me: Portable Document - don't worry about it. It's interesting how this story sends up the paranoia of the Cold War while describing exactly the nightmarish apparatus (shadowy elites behind the government, pied paper candidates, inciting violence you then blame on the opposition, stoking racial prejudice, false media narratives, perversions of idelogy, etc.) that plays out as mere background noise in 2016.

Bryan: Oh I agree. I always chuckle when I run into people who believe the CIA or Mossad is capable of anything / responsible for literally everything, yet they don't even have a clue as to all the real stuff the Soviets actually pulled off, over and over again. Or that you see a thousand go-back-and-kill-Hitler stories but not one for Stalin or Mao. Or Kim Philby. One could even say it's downright suspicious, eh, tovarisch?

Me: Did I really talk like this in 1986? That would have been awesome! Anyway! Cap and Bucky are recruited by The Committee to Regain America's Principles. I boldfaced that for you.

Bryan: Oh wow! I totally didn't see that before.

Me: I know, me neither. When I was you / your age, I mean. It's a wink to the Committee to Re-Elect the President, Nixon's unfortunately-acronym'd campaign committee. From there, Cap is drafted to support the campaign of a Senator Chadwick, who rants against job loss to illegal immigrants and pushes for a National ID card.

Some of these people to whom Cap is reporting are from the Secret Empire storyline, which I'll be getting to next month.

Bryan: All of this leads to a polarized America, where one half is convinced the other half is trying to kill everyone. Cap, as a symbol of Senator Chadwick, is drawn into conflict with a group of peaceful black marchers and shot.

Me: It's amazing to me how cyclical these narratives are in American society. 

I mean, this was literally said on InfoWars earlier this week/ every week.

Bryan: And the corrupted version is sympathetic, even. To a point. Not the Jewish banker stuff, obviously. He's guilty of being too naive, and I suppose brain-damaged/ easily led. But that's the whole point! He's no Steve Rogers.

Me: Speaking of...

Cap is found by this MacArthur-looking submarine skipper. (Sal Buscema was known for recycling any old drawings he had handy; I wouldn't be surprised if that was MacArthur actually.)
The enlisted men (white hats) are instantly hostile, while the commissioned officers (browncoats) instantly recognize the sudden appearance of the realm's savior.

Me: Now comes the fun part. The captain takes Cap back to Chadwick's America, where fascism has been dressed up in Cap's clothes.

Good question.
Also a good question.

Me: I love Caps' righteous anger in this next panel:

Me: There's a bit of historical incongruity to it, perhaps - i.e. Cap would know plenty of people in "his" emblems who said and did much worse - but Cap is an idealized version of America's best self, after all. Plus, it's not like Cap wouldn't have been equally pissed at such sentiments in his own time, as is demonstrated all over the place.
BryanCap quickly learns that the media still exists ("People still have to be convinced there's a first amendment") but that it's tightly controlled or work in collusion with the feds.

Me: Again the similarities to 2016 are just shocking. And depressing. I don't want to make too much of it. The story could apply to any number of election years or countries. But man!

Cap is taken to the ghetto.
I know it's just a comic book and all and visual shorthand is entirely appropriate and all, but it's tough to gauge Cap's reaction here. Surely a man of his time and era saw far, far worse on a more or less regular basis than this admittedly bleak ghetto scene.

Bryan: Now for the fun part - Underground Spidey (who in a neat twist, is allied with JJJ in this reality. And that seems right; it would take a calamity of these proportions to forcibly align JJJ with Spider-Man), Nick Fury, and Snap Wilson, leader of the Black Cadres.

Me: I love Spidey with the bandolier. Snap, too, I guess, I just love how Spidey's ditched the mask and added guns to his act. It's fun visual shorthand for life in this version of America.

Bryan: Things move along pretty quickly from this point. Cap and the gang crash the Sentinels of Liberty rally, timed with the Resistance storming other positions across the land, and Snap gets a "Don't Touch That Dial" moment with the camera-man.

The second American Revolution will be televised.
Then Cap is able to turn on his Captain-Picard/Jeff-Winger-level gift for inspirational speechmaking and turns the crowd - who only moments before were gathered together like some Sally Kohn fantasy of a Trump rally - instantly to his side.
I like it, though. I think it's true - most people just need the slightest urging to go either full fascist or full anarchist. It's why we should be really careful about such things. Instead of, you know, rock star reckless about them, 24-7.

Me: And there you have it. It's all over but the crying. 


Me: My question to you, young me - did any of this register at the time as prototypical Cap? A sort of John Wayne type classical liberalism? Ain't got time for fascism of any stripe? Do you have any inkling that this issue, trope-heavy and unrealistic and broad-strokesy and hokey-Let-Freedom-Ring end warts and all, specifically will inform your own take on the US-of-A well into the next century? That when you think of what America means and what it doesn't (or what it shouldn't) it's this What If...? story you think of?

(1986 Bryan is silent, looking back at me. Then he, the basement, Pole Position, and Weiterstadt fade altogether. Time resumes its inexorable course.

Guess some questions you just can't definitively answer, even with a McTARDIS.  

"What if Captain America Was Revived Today?" was written by Peter B. Gillis with pencils by Sal Buscema and inks by Dave Simons.

A look at a couple other stories integral to my development as a man, Cap fan, and American citizen.


  1. (1) 2032 Bryan probably has a lot he could teach us all. The first thing I'd to ask him is whether Stephen King ever writes a novel about Jericho Hill. This is sad, but probably true.

    (2) Well, did he?!?

    (3) The whole "What If of a What If" thing kind of boggles my mind, but in a great way. Comics continuity can obviously be a seriously complicated thing, but I love it when somebody steps up and makes it a positive rather than a negative. Sounds like this did exactly that.

    (4) I had a visit to the doctor on the books for this morning, and somebody had left a New York Times lying around. An old lady walks in, sits down, glances at it, huffs, and tells her companion "that's a liberal Commie rag." I swear to God I nearly asked for her Birch Society card. This is what I thought of when I saw the panel in which the dude is aghast over Nixon going to China.

    (5) I wonder what this version of Cap would have to say about Colin Kaepernick. (I don't actually wonder.)

    (6) "The Committee to Regain America's Principles" -- holy wow!

    (7) "Lets" (sic) "get those lousy black radicals!"-- JEE-zus!

    (8) Those round helmets are weird. Different, so distinctive, it's true; but weird.

    (9) There definitely seems to be a disconnect between the script and the art when Cap sees the "ghetto." Not only would Cap have surely seen worse, but the average New Yorker of the mid-eighties would probably have seen worse on a near-daily basis.

    (10) I don't know what to say about Captain America, Spider-Man, and an alternaverse version of The Falcon singing the national anthem after converting an angry mob. I just don't have the compass for responding to that.

    A hell of a post. I'm glad to have read it! You tell that 2032 Bryan I want some gosh-darn answers!

    1. 1 and 2) 2032 Bryan says "Machine Empty. Order More Cards Now."

      4) I can sympathize, though; the NYT has undergone severe partisan plastic surgery under its current and last couple of owners. There's a demonstrable pattern of bias and bad journalism. Sad. I used to consider both the NYT and the New Yorker to be magnetic beacons and totally reliable, even if the latter always had a strong socialist bias, at least the fiction was outstanding/ design was consistent/ standards high. Now both have really lapsed too far into narrative curation. It genuinely saddens me; both were instrumental in my intellectual development.

      That's not to say I think the NYT should be summarily dismissed, just fairness impels me to point out that old lady's position, once justifiably dismissed as right wing paranoia, makes a lot more sense to me in 2016.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!