This is a wild story that brings together the four men who have served as Captain America at this point in time. It is a spiritual successor to Jack Kirby’s magisterial Bicentennial Battles from 1976, in which the enigmatic Mister Buda sent Captain America on a time-traveling adventure; it also capitalizes on Roy Thomas’s exercise in retroactive continuity in What If? #4, in which the appearances of Caps in the late 1940s were explained, which itself built on his suggestion to Steve Englehart on how to account for the 1950s Cap, beginning in Captain America #153.
When our story begins, you might think this was an issue of another book…
…but we soon realize that this Cap and Bucky are not who we might assume…
…which means this team is actually not the Invaders, but rather the All-Winners Squad. (However, because I appreciate the effect of that opening splash page, I’ll leave that alone.) Below, we find out which of the two 1940s successors to Steve Rogers we’re dealing with.
That would be Will Naslund, the Spirit of ’76, introduced in Invaders #14 as a member of the Crusaders, a pastiche of DC Comics’s Freedom Fighters (with the Spirit of ’76 specifically corresponding to Uncle Sam), and the first man to assume the mantle of Captain America after the disappearance of Steve Rogers (as explained in What If? #4).
Naslund is caught in a tank blast and passes out before he is transported to another realm, after which the scene shifts to the mid-1950s.
Of course, they’re not: It’s the unhinged Cap and Bucky of the 1950s, the as-yet-unnamed William Burnside and Jack Monroe, whose tale was told beginning in Captain America #153. After they break up a neighborhood card game, accusing the African-American players (in vulgar terms) of being part of a Communist front, we see Burnside experience a moment of uncertainty…
…before he too disappears.
Finally, we see a more familiar face in the “modern day” of 1982: After bemoaning his busy schedule balanced between art and Avenging, Cap gets a very pensive look on his face as he wonders how and why he came to live this life.
Cap breaks up a good old-fashioned bank robbery by the Scarecrow (not this guy), accompanied by some laudatory narration.
“–was the first!” (But you knew it was going to say that.) After some nifty acrobatics, Cap disappears like his two successors did.
He blacks out during the interdimensional trip, and when he comes to, he finds himself in company both familiar and unfamiliar… or might that be all too familiar?
As Cap and the editor remind us, Mister Buda was Cap’s host for his journey through American history in 1976’s Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles. While he may or may not be some Marvel Universe version of the Buddah—he is rather coy about that—we learn here that he is an Elder of the Universe (like the Collector and the Grandmaster). But Cap is more interested in the two fellas wot look like him.
He doesn’t get an answer from Buda, but the last member of the Captastic Four to join us offers to help.
Unlike the Spirit of ’76, the Patriot was one of the original Timely Comics heroes, debuting in Human Torch Comics #4 (Spring 1941), not long after Cap himself. Mace explains to Cap how he accepted the shield after Naslund was killed (again, explained in What If? #4), and his short career thereafter…
…as well as his tragic circumstance now, which turns out to be the reason they’re all here today.
Mace reveals that bringing the four Caps together has created a new timeline in which Adam-II—the artificial man who killed Naslund in our timeline but was later defeated by Mace and the rest of the All-Winners Squad—took over the world and is transforming humans into cyborgs. It turns out what they need is a Captain America or two (or four) to remind them that freedom is worth fighting for.
Cap turns to Buda and asks him how he could do a thing like this, but the Elder claims he had nothing to do with it, no sir, nothing at all.
Buda tells him that once humans accept the machinations of fate, they will become gods, to which Cap has a ready response. (I hope Thor didn’t hear this.) In the end, however, Buda is resolute, in his own way, and Cap accepts that he must do what he can to help the inhabitants of the new timeline.
So, the four Caps are transported to the other timeline…
…where they split into two pairs. Naslund and Burnside are both defeated and captured by Adam-II’s androids, leaving us to join Cap and Mace. The latter has been newly restored to youthfulness and is eager to grab one more win while he still can, despite Cap’s protestations—which are interrupted by some more familiar faces.
All cyborgs, I’m afraid… even the Human Torch, always an artificial man, but now absent the essence of humanity he once had (as Cap notes during their battle).
After Cap falls to “Bucky,” Mace begs Buda in vain to pull them back, after which all the Caps find themselves in front of Adam-II, with Naslund and Burnside already converted to cyborgs. Adam-II praises Cap’s spirit, which makes Mace wants to redeem himself by rushing into action.
As he starts to prevail in his personal battle against Adam-II, Mace starts to realize that the power he is enjoying is coming from Cap himself. After Buda confirms that he must take more of Cap’s strength to defeat Adam-II, Mace sacrifices himself to save his hero.
Even the cyborg Naslund finds it inside himself to fight back against Adam-II, but is taken down by Burnside.
Adam-II turns to Cap, whose ability to inspire others he recognizes as the true threat to his plans… but Cap reminds him that the “spark” in him exists in every human being, which enables everyone to be Captain America.
The idea that everyone can be Captain America is one of my favorite themes in the Cap comics; another great example of this is the 2007-2008 miniseries Captain America: The Chosen by David Morrell and Mitch Breitweiser.
Despite his admiration of Cap’s abilities both physical and argumentative, Adam-II defeats him… only to be attacked by Naslund and Burnside (the last of the four to join the fight).
And it is Jeff Mace that deals the final blow.
I have to admit, it’s difficult to tell who is speaking on the page below, especially in the middle row of panels—I would think it was Mace, but he refers to reviving Patriot, so maybe it’s Naslund—but it is confirmed that Cap’s noble speech roused the decent man that even Burnside was before the flawed super-soldier treatment warped his mind. In the end, only Cap and Mace are drawn back to Buda’s realm (with the other two restored to their own places in time, with no memory of what happens, natch), where the smug little Elder asks if Mace is satisfied…
…to which he says, essentially, “sure, I guess.” (Buda is not getting a good Yelp review.)
I guess Cap asked him the right way! The important thing is that Mace is in a better place to face his illness, which earns him the respect of Steve Rogers.
(Mace’s battle with cancer will be revisited soon, starting in Captain America #284.)
This story will be echoed many years later in 2011’s Captain America Corps, which sees the Contemplator again bring together versions of Cap from different eras and different timelines. (He even did the same for <gulp> Deadpool.)
Captain America (vol. 1) Annual #6, November 1982: J.M. DeMatteis (writer), Ron Wilson (pencils), Vince Colletta (inks), Don Warfield (colors), Diana Albers (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Collected in Captain America Epic Collection: Monsters and Men.