This issue sees our hero manipulated by a fiend known as—wait, “the Manipulator,” really?—who puts him through a series of set-ups and illusions to try to break him mentally. Although the Manipulator pushes all the right buttons, some of them enabled by Cap’s innocent gullibility, it is no surprise that at the end Cap emerges bruised but not broken. (Hey, at least it makes for an exciting cover.)
As the issue opens, Cap has received a mysterious call from an old friend…
…who confronts him with lies and a gun. Meanwhile we meet the Manipulator himself as well as his benefactor: Sergeant Brian Muldoon, formerly Patrolman Steve Rogers’ gruff superior and later a crime boss.
That is an interesting dichotomy, I agree, but unfortunately I don’t find it well explored by the Manipulator’s tactics (to which there may be a clue later).
Meanwhile, Cap continues to argue with “Peggy,” and before long she reveals another old friend…
…whom she shoots, turning him to dust before Cap’s eyes. This, it seems, finally makes Cap suspect that maybe this isn’t Peggy Carter at all.
“Peggy” turns to dust too, and Cap realizes (somehow) that the dust is not the same as human remains, and is (understandably) relieved.
Next, the Manipulator confronts Cap with duplicates of Nick Fury and several of his Howlin’ Commandos, as well as a number of the Avengers, but by then Cap realizes it’s all fake. But when he is captured by the “Red Skull,” Cap thinks his archfoe is behind everything rather than just another illusion.
Cap easily argues against the false equivalence claimed by the “Red Skull” before the villain finally touches on a bit of the dichotomy the Manipulator cited earlier…
…and then reveals the pièce de résistance of the mental torture designed by the Manipulator.
Cap throws his shield at the Red Skull, revealing that he’s a fake as well, but when he goes to save Sharon, Cap has to watch her die yet once again.
This seems to be the final straw, and as the Manipulator planned, Cap finally breaks down…
…or does he? Unbeknownst to the Manipulator, Muldoon sneaks off to finish Cap once and for all, and when Cap surprised him by being ready for him (and knocking him out), he admits that he had only pretended to break down to draw out the true mastermind beyond all the illusions.
When Cap does eventually confront the Manipulator, the villain admits to something too: He never actually meant to drive Cap crazy, only pretending to do so to study Muldoon’s psychotic hatred of him.
Just then, Muldoon regains consciousness and shoots at Cap, but the bullet ricochets off his shield and hits the Manipulator in the head, revealing that he too is actually a robot…
…prompting some deep thoughts from Cap, relevant to his ongoing issues with truth and identity, as the issue wraps up.
And about the Manipulator’s “unknown creator”: This will be revealed in issue #249, although it’s someone from another book, so there’s no big “a-HA” moment. (Don’t want you to get your hopes up for nothing!)
Collected in black-and-white in Essential Captain America Volume 7.
PREVIOUS ISSUE: Captain America #241 (January 1980)
ALSO THIS MONTH: Avengers #192 (February 1980)
NEXT ISSUES: Captain America #243-244 (March-April 1980)