This issue is one of my favorite from J.M. DeMatteis’s several years as the writer of the title, in which he address Captain America’s understanding of and relationship with the American dream. This story represents another epiphany for Cap, similar to Stan Lee’s later stories (such as issue #122) and the end of Steve Englehart’s Secret Empire story, both of which had our hero questioning his purpose and mission in light of the complexity of modern American society.
This issue opens with Cap making a speech at a high school, emphasizing the opportunity and responsibility of the students to craft their future, both for themselves and for their country.
Below, we meet the sycophantic principal as well as a future comics legend, getting her start in the industry by embarrassing a living legend (and then getting upbraided for it by said principal).
Up next is Neil Marks, asking a reasonable question, which Cap doesn’t have the chance to answer after a fellow student named Ira interrupts with his own, distinctly less civil approach…
…which only gets worse, sending Cap into action to protect the civilians in the room (including Ira himself).
When the crisis is averted, Cap has no patience for the principal, turning instead to Ira, who continues to question the Avenger on the optimism behind his comments about the American dream, punctuated in startling fashion.
This upsets the principal more than Cap, who restrains the principal before leaving to ponder what Ira said.
Spitting at someone is a particularly demonstrative and symbolic form of assault, in which the motivation matters much more than the violence itself. It draws much of its effect from the disrespect and disgust inherent in the action, as intended by the person spitting and perceived by the person spat upon, whether the target is an authority figure (such as Cap) or someone seen as beneath the spitter (such as if the principal had spat on Ira on Cap’s behalf).
This will not be the last time Cap is spit on in this issue (!), and while the motivation differs in each case, it is commendable that Cap never takes the bait and responds in kind (or worse). Each time, Cap definitely gets the message but does not take it personally, due in part to his humility and ability to understand and sympathize with the meaning behind it.
Later, Steve and Bernie are enjoying an evening together in his apartment, but his mind is elsewhere, and she is not unaware of this fact.
Steve doesn’t help, forgetting that people you’re dating like you to share personal matters with them (even if they don’t know that “personal” means “secret superhero stuff”).
Don’t worry, all you Bernie bros out there… the “finality,” however distressing it may seem now, doesn’t last long.
Before we return to Cap, let’s introduce you to the antagonist of our story: Larry Ekler, also known as Everyman (or Every-Man), who stands for the downtrodden in American society after he lost his widowed father, who died penniless despite his belief in the American dream. (The parallels between Ekler’s early background and Steve Rogers’s go unmentioned, as does Ekler’s father’s friendship with Reed Richards, revealed later in Marvel Team-Up #132.)
The woman challenging him is Maggie, who later questions his use of violence to further their cause. (Speaking of which, I’m not sure that “under-achievers unite” really expresses their grievances, though—I would expect that they, like Occupy Wall Street and other similar movements, would rather focus on the societal forces keeping them from getting ahead even when they try their best.)
Cap is not unsympathetic to Ira’s (and Everyman’s) points, though, especially concerning the inequality he encounters driving through Brooklyn. His mood is boosted by three young fans…
…but their older brethren are not fans as such.
After they dump garbage on Cap’s head, he quickly vaults up the building to confront them, but only one, Gilbert, stays to face him—and becomes the second person to spit on him in this issue. According to the exposition, Cap might have reacted more severely this around if his true fans hadn’t shown up to defuse the situation.
Again, this builds on earlier stories in which Cap came to appreciate that traditional authority figures can do wrong and betray the public trust, while angry and rebellious citizens can have valid and important points… and that this was always the case, despite the moral clarity he remembers (or imagines) from his youth.
So what does Cap do with his new friends (including the two from the roof who ran away)? Bring them to meet his old friends, of course!
We can all be grateful that Cap did not say “I most certainly do dig it, son.”
Everyone’s favorite Korean War comedy is pre-empted by a newsflash, in which Everyman states his position, challenges Cap to a fight…
…and then murders several police officers in full view of the camera.
On his way to face Everyman, Cap ponders a number of things, including the counterproductive politics of division, the role of the media in uncritically amplifying such messages, and his realization that the American dream is far from reality for many. (All of these issues, unfortunately, are just as pressing today as they were in 1982.)
More personally, Cap also acknowledges that he could have been doing more to address the gap between the dream and the reality, recalling the end of issue #134 when Sam Wilson helped Cap appreciate some of the problems and grievances of the African-American community (which he may have remembered as he rode into Bed-Stuy above).
When he arrives at the Statue of Liberty, Cap finds that Everyman’s supporters are just as impassioned as their leader. Nonetheless, as the sergeant notes below, Cap is less concerned with their objection to him than the fact that they are in danger from Everyman himself.
Cap does have supporters himself, though, which I hope is of some comfort as his foe makes his presence known…
…and attacks (although not to much effect, of course).
Cap questions Everyman’s claims to represent the “common man,” and Everyman does little to convince him otherwise as he endangers the crowd while he doubles down as accusing Cap of supporting the “ruling class.”
After Cap recovers and strikes back, Everyman shows his true colors and desperation by taking one of his own supporters hostage: Maggie, the same woman who objected to such measures earlier.
Everyman goes on to reveal he is not concerned with the people at all, but only with serving his own desire for attention and affirmation and getting his fifteen minutes.
Cap is spat upon for the third time in this issue, but he doesn’t even give Everyman the satisfaction of a reaction—until Everyman reveals his next move. This prompts Cap to change strategies…
…leaning into his foe’s insecurities, enraging him enough to make him lose control and give Cap an opening to save Maggie and stop Everyman once and for all.
After Everyman has been stopped, Cap nonetheless expresses sympathy and concern for him, realizing that he needs help more than punishment. (If he had known about Everyman’s history, I imagine he would have had another “there but for the grace of God moment,” like after he defeated his fascistic 1950s counterpart.)
Even the excitement of his newest fans doesn’t help Cap feel good about his victory…
…but he does feel better about the future after Gilbert and Maggie help him see that the American dream is less about money or possessions and more about personal fulfillment, and that we need to work together and support each other to help us all try to reach it.
This is an excellent statement of Captain America’s attitude towards America itself: He acknowledges its deep-rooted problems but nonetheless believes in the promise of its foundational principles, and he remains ever hopeful that its problems can be solved if we all work together to make it a better country for everybody to pursue their own American dreams.
Collected in Captain America Epic Collection: Monsters and Men.
PREVIOUS ISSUE: Captain America #266 (February 1982)
ALSO THIS MONTH: Avengers #217 (March 1982)
NEXT ISSUE: Captain America #268 and Defenders #106-107 (April-May 1982)