This issue contains a fascinating done-in-one story*, based on a mystery that gradually builds, with an important message at its conclusion. Before we start: Lest the presence of the Falcon’s name is the cover logo get his many fans excited, this is unfortunately a one-time thing. Also, the old-timey X-Men costumes will be explained!
* Although this story stands on its own, both Captain America #268 and Avengers #218, published just four months later, are sequels of sorts.
The story opens with Cap deboarding a plane returning from Argentina, where he was on a diplomatic mission… just the first of many strange things to come (though not the strangest by a long shot).
Cap takes a moment to relax in the limo, where he acknowledges the honor and responsibility involved in wearing the stars and stripes, before makes a self-deprecating comment for the ages (in one of my favorite panels, also seen here).
Aye, it does at that.
Next, the story gets really weird, with several alarming revelations about this world we find ourselves in.
In this reality, Cap apparently never disappeared at the end of World War II, and not only was John F. Kennedy never assassinated, but he was re-elected two more times than FDR (after the 22nd Amendment was overturned).
Hmm… if Cap didn’t “die” in 1945, what about…
Bucky is not only alive—having never “died,” I assume—but is the leader of the Avengers, who all work for S.H.I.E.L.D. (as in the Ultimate Universe to come many years later). Furthermore, the Avengers here fought Ultron and Vision… the memory of whom is the first anomaly that gives our hero pause.
After changing, Cap receives a strange message on his TV that confirms his state of confusion. (Note also the newspaper on the wall that confirms that he and Bucky were present for at least part of the 1950s; I assume it was not the pair active at that time in the normal Marvel Universe.)
After being alarmed by how old he looks in the mirror, Steve Rogers goes out for a walk with his friend Sam Wilson, who is now a Congressman rather than the Falcon. Steve reveals some particularly emotional details about Peggy Carter and their son in this world.
After they bring the robber down, Steve jokes about Sam being a superhero, but Sam affirms his commitment to working for civil rights in his district, which is no less heroic (or super).
Suddenly the world changes to a more dismal one: Sam is now shining Steve’s shoes, calling him “massuh,” and is then kicked by a racist walking by. Steve reacts as we would expect, but Sam tries to calm him down, saying hat they have to accept the ways things are. Steve starts to disagree with Sam, but then receives another message (which the reader sees is from the same woman who appeared to him on TV).
Next, Steve finds him transformed into a boy playing at a carnival with his young friend Sam, where he receives another vision telling him to go to the Waldheim Hotel, before his world changes yet again, to one more familiar and at the same time much more frightening (resembling the Earth-X of DC Comics).
Here, we see mutants (including the X-Men) marching in captivity alongside African Americans and Jews as fellow targets of Nazi oppression (which is consistent with how mutants are treated by many in the Marvel Universe).
As soon as they realize what’s happening, Cap and Falcon leap into action…
…soon aided by the Nazis’ other prisoners, including the Uncanny X-Men.
Cap indulges in a rare moment of satisfaction for this world, leading oppressed people into freedom, until the worst happens, and his satisfaction turns to utter rage.
Cap understandably tears into the Nazis who killed Sam, until he receives yet another message, repeating the last one.
At this point, the story breaks away from Cap and reveals what’s going on: A utopian dreamer named Morgan MacNeil Hardy collected four individuals with psychic abilities to change reality and restore “the decent America” of his youth.
But each of the four psychics had their own ideas about what that “decent America” was: Two of them were the opposite of any conception of decency, as we saw, while another found decency symbolized in Captain America himself, and it was she who reached out to him in attempts to “wake him up.”
Hardy’s obsession with recreating the world of his youth—which was not necessarily as wonderful for everyone as it was for him—reminds me of how fascist movements rely on ideas of “the mythic past” to lure followers, as described by philosopher Jason Stanley in his excellent book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.
As Cap rushes off towards the Waldheim Hotel, the very name triggers more memories of another world, including of the adventure ended in the last issue.
(I wonder if Nick Spencer had this story in mind when he developed his modern Secret Empire storyline based on implanted false mass memories based on the Red Skull’s own “mythic past,” which notoriously showed a Captain America transformed into the leader of the fascist organization Hydra, which had taken over America.)
As Cap approaches the hotel, he confronts groups of foes that change to reflect the visions of the three other psychics…
…before getting to the base of Hardy’s operations, where the man himself has decided to take charge and make sure his own ideas of a “decent world” are realized at last.
After Cap hears Hardy’s tale, he makes the obvious objection:
This is a perennial question of political philosophy, usually answered with some version of liberal neutrality, which preserves for each individual the right to decide what the good life means for them (as well as the right to pursue it, given that they respect the same rights of others). Those who oppose liberal neutrality usually do so because they’re dissatisfied with the choices others are likely to make and want to make these choices for others, which can contribute to fascist thinking.
Naturally, Hardy has no use for liberal neutrality, answering “whose vision?” with “my vision!” He then uses his machine to eliminate all parts of reality that conflict with that vision, but it goes too far.
Finally, Cap meets Subject D, the woman who sent him the messages, and the boy who envisioned Cap and Sam as children—the only two of the psychics who survived the destruction of Hardy’s device.
Cap wonders which world they’ll return to, and even after Subject D assures him it will be the familiar one, Cap hopes that the three of them will remember this episode and its lessons.
Captain America (vol. 1) #264, December 1981: J.M. DeMatteis (writer), Mike Zeck (pencils), Frank McLaughlin and Quickdraw Studios (inks), Don Warfield (colors), Jim Novak (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Collected in Captain America Epic Collection: Dawn’s Early Light.
PREVIOUS ISSUE: Captain America #263 (November 1981)
ALSO THIS MONTH: Avengers #214 and Marvel Two-in-One #82 (December 1981)
NEXT ISSUE: Captain America #265 (January 1982)
So what you’re saying is that Morgan MacNeil Hardy wanted to make America great again? 🙂