Behold the big save-the-day rallying moment from What If? (vol. 1) #44, cover-dated April 1984, which left an indelible impression on me when I was eleven. Three decades later you can take this dramatic splash page totally out of context and pretend it’s symbolic of you as the one true arbiter of What America Is Really All About, Spider-Man and alt-universe Sam Wilson’s army are your friends who agree with you on everything as far as you know, and the other Captain America is everyone whose idea of America is the exact opposite of yours, thus making them evil impostors who must be crushed. With all those Zip-a-Tone layers giving it more lighting depth than any other page in the issue, I have no idea why no one ever turned this into a poster.
In this very special alt-universe tale written by Peter B. Gillis called, “What If Captain America Were Not Revived Until Today?” (the cover only had room for so many words) our host the Watcher shows us a timeline in which the Star-Spangled Avenger wasn’t rescued from suspended animation in 1963’s Avengers #4, but rather stayed on ice for an extra twenty years. The results are disastrous: after the Avengers break up without a Cap around to keep them unified, an evil political cabal enlists a mentally imbalanced replacement Cap from the 1950s to take his place, represent their sinister interests, win over all American hearts, endorse extremist candidates, yadda yadda yadda, America winds up under martial law and it’s all fake-Cap’s fault.
Then the real Cap wakes up. Heroism ensues. Cap and the surviving heroes have to go take back America. Some old What If? stories had pessimistic endings where everyone died and the villains won and the moral of the story was, “Be very grateful the original stories didn’t go like this.” But this wasn’t one of those one-shot nihilist funnybook stories. Big surprise: Cap and his amazing friends save the day, and then it’s up to the guy dressed in flag regalia to deliver the big speech that reverses the damage, because we all know Spidey would mess it up, the cops would probably start shooting at him, and J. Jonah Jameson would write another nasty editorial about it while cackling uncontrollably.
So it’s up to Cap to assure Americans things are swell again and none of this ever happened. That’s what his disillusioned audience is expecting, anyway. Cap veers off-message and goes in a much firmer direction. And when words fail a duly chastised America, the convocation ends the only way it possibly could: with a song.
…and that’s where the story ends.
Cap’s speech is a little harder for me to read today than it was in sixth grade. At the time, to me this was unlike anything I’d ever encountered. I doubt this story will ever be reprinted, and there’s no way it could withstand a 21st-century reboot. I haven’t collected a Cap series in years, so I couldn’t tell you the last time Marvel printed a Cap story whose main message was “America rules!” or “I love America!” or “America is kind of not-terrible! Yay!” For all I know maybe the new Cap’s whole America motif is purely vestigial and the days of a sincerely patriotic Cap are gone. Or maybe the opposite. Couldn’t tell you.
It’s weird revisiting artifacts from a point in history when citizens didn’t spend the entire week of July 4th brainstorming reasons why America sucks — i.e, not too different from how they spend the other 51 weeks, except for July 4th they redouble their lists because it’s all one big competition to see who can become the greatest Independence Day Grinch of them all. Yes, we get it, America’s not perfect, terrible inexcusable things happen all the time that shouldn’t, someone should pass a “No Child Happy to Live Here” law, things would be so much better if Canada conquered us and paid for all our medicine and forced us to watch all their low-budget sci-fi shows.
But there are things America gets right and does well. No, I’m not listing them for you. Today’s a holiday and I’m off the clock. Because freedom to celebrate, freedom to type and post, freedom not to type and post.
Happy July 4th to our American readers, stay safe, enjoy your weekend, and if a guy in a Captain America costume asks you if you’d be okay with some martial law, chances are he’s not Chris Evans and you can legally sock him in the jaw.