Stealing from the Long Box, or the Political Education of Young Harvey
Dave’s seminal f*@% yeah moment came near the end of the “Born Again” storyline in Daredevil. Which is, without a doubt, one of the great f*@% yeah moments ever.
My own seminal moment was a bit different.
First, a bit of backstory about yers truly. (I'm terribly self-involved. Sorry.)
Back in 1984, when Young Harv was eleven, I had begun to throw myself into comics with the intensity one can find only in boys of that age. The J.M. DeMattis/Mike Zeck run on Captain America was my favorite title, as it was filled with cool stories and rootin’-tootin’ art. Therefore, when I saw What If… #44, “What If Captain America Were Revived Today,” written by Peter B. Gillis with art by Sal Buscema and Dave Simons, I had to have it.*
(NOTE: Click on any picture in this post to enlarge it.)
Like any eleven year old, I was just beginning to form my understanding of the outside world. I was pickled in the Cold War-infused popular culture of the time. Nationalism was on the upswing, and the intrinsic specialness of America was touted in many places. The Team America song “America! F*@% Yeah!” would have been our unofficial national anthem in those days, had it been written yet.
At an oblique angle to this was my upbringing, which taught me that people were people, and anyone telling you differently was either an idiot or a liar.
Reconciling these two ideas was tough.
Second, a bit of backstory about Captain America.
The character of Captain America was created just before World War Two to be America’s “super-soldier.” During the war he punched out Germans by the truckload and Japanese by the boatload.
With the war’s end came his irrelevance and cancellation.
During the Korean War, his comic was briefly revived as Captain America, Commie Smasher. It didn’t take. Due to low sales, his anti-communist antics lasted for all of three issues.
Then came the Marvel Explosion of the early sixties. During the heady rush of success, the company decided to revive their old flagship character one more time. In Avengers #4 (1964), a team of heroes finds a figure frozen in a block of ice. Who is he? Why, it’s Captain America, frozen since 1945! He’s back and ready to break his foot off in evil ass!
Cap has been a mainstay of comics ever since.
In the early seventies, Marvel decided to dip into their history and acknowledge the “Captain America of the Fifties.” How? According to the comics’ internal timeline, the "Commie Smasher" couldn’t be the real Captain, since Cap was frozen in a glacier throughout the fifties.
So who was he? The writers decided the Commie Smasher was a wannabe Captain who had re-discovered the serum that gave Cap his strength and that said wannabe used it to emulate his hero. As a none-too-subtle comment on the past, the new story went beyond this simple idea. The comics explained that Fifties Cap and Bucky had gone insane and began seeing communist agents and “enemies of America” everywhere.
The government captured the Crazy Cap and Bucky back in the fifties and put them in suspended animation until scientists could find a cure for the madness. In Captain America #153, an unknown employee of the lab set the Commie Smasher versions free, declaring that “America needs its true heroes.”
Sure enough, Crazy Cap and Original Cap meet and get into fisticuffs, with CC accusing OC of being a Red Dupe and OC finding CC to be a paranoid fascist loon.
Memories of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy and the red scares died hard.
At the end of the story in #156, Modern America beat the tar out of Paranoid America, the music swelled, and all was spiffy.
But…what if Original Cap wasn’t defrosted until 1984?
Welcome to What If… #44, where there’s only Crazy Fifties Cap. Revived and set loose on a modern world by that same lab employee, Crazy Cap, with his sidekick, Crazy Bucky, start out as standard-issue superheroes. Enjoying publicity, they go on talk shows, where Crazy Cap dredges out that lovely sentiment of "criticism of America aids our enemies."
Master villains being master villains, the heads of the Empire recognized Crazy Cap-n-Bucky for who they were: super-patriots who could be talked into outrageous thuggery, provided you wrapped it in a flag first.
Captain America’s amazing popularity and influence over the American people came to bear on the election campaign of Norman Chadwick, a pawn of the Empire. Chadwick and Cap push forward the authoritarian agenda of the Empire which, through a convenient sniper attack on “America’s greatest hero” leads to riots and a subsequent crackdown on civil liberties.
Forward to 1984. The prime mover of the shadow plot, a man named William Taurey, is poised to become president. Upon election, he plans to declare himself monarch. A national “police force” called the Sentinels of Liberty acts as the strong arm of the government. Bigotry against minorities has become accepted policy. Paranoia and strong-arm tactics rule the day.
…until a submarine on patrol runs across a strangely-shaped lump of ice…
The true Captain America returns home to find what has become of his country, and how a man pretending to be him has used his name to betray every ideal for which Captain America is supposed to stand.
Within the walled ghetto of Harlem, Cap immediately joins up with a resistance movement (made up of characters who were his friends in regular Marvel Comics) and leads them in Bringing The Hammer.
Young Harvey, at this point in the story, felt the truth of the core idea resonate in my wee little bones: It Could Happen Here. (Not as simply or easily as the comic pointed out, but hey, it’s a superhero comic and I was eleven.) It matched the idea that had floated, unformed, in my head: simply “being American” didn’t make you right. Being right required something else, despite what a lot of folks tell you.
As the climax approached, Young Harv was engrossed.
The story didn’t let me down. The climax of the story contains more F*@% Yeah! per square inch than any comic I can think of to this day.
Crazy Cap and his entourage hold a rally at a stadium to announce the candidacy of William Taurey for president.
Oh yeah, we’re in trouble.
...until the Second American Revolution begins.
Crazy Cap, confident as ever, attacks his counterpart.
Nice throw and speech, Mr. Crazy Cap.
"You'll have to do better than that, fascist."
On the next page begins the mightiest beatdown you'll ever see.**
“Get up so I can knock you down!!”
“Freedom to only those ‘worthy’ of it. You make me sick.”
Cap's hitting his evil counterpart so hard, the panels turn yellow! Hoo! Nasty!
Seeing his shield destroyed, Crazy Cap realizes who he's facing.
And a cornball line to put it away.
Thus does the madness of Crazy Cap end.
Say it with me…
At this point, Young Harv was beside himself. The most evil of villains had been trashed by the greatest hero in an epic battle. It was great. It was exciting. It was Totally Goddamn Airwolf.***
But the comic wasn’t done yet. Nope.
What about America itself?
In a few panels, Captain America lays it all out.
The crowd goes nuts and celebrates their hero. But goddammit, Cap's not done yet.
And with that, Captain America saves America’s soul.
The issue concludes with a touching bit of cheese.
Young Harv nearly had a heart attack from the intensity of it all.
And damned if a comic book superhero didn’t resolve the conflict in my mind between “all men are equal” and “America kicks ass.”
After this story, I got it: America is special because of what it does, not what it is. The ideals are what matter, not the turf nor the symbols. Abandon the ideals and it all becomes crap. Thus was my eleven year old mind broadened, and the difference between patriotism and nationalism sank in to my young brain.
This dumbass story gave me the words to understand what I’d tried to grasp before.
All that plus the best fight ever.
Not bad for a one-dollar comic book.
*The same “What If” idea was used in the second series, What If vol. 2. #67-68. I haven’t read them. I can’t imagine that story is anywhere as F*@% YEAH! as this one. If they were, lemme know.
**Those with an eye for comic history may notice that a lot of the panels here were swiped from Tales of Suspense #85, Cap versus Batroc the Leaper. (Please pardon the smear. Scanner trouble.)
I don’t care. Even swiped, Fascist Crazy Cap-versus-Real Cap is nothing but F*@% YEAH!
***As long as I’m stealing Dave’s Long Box “F*@% Yeah!” bit, I may as well steal the “Airwolf” slang too.