This issue is notable for being (if I’m not mistaken) the only Captain America story pencilled by Frank Miller (who also drew the front and back covers you see above). Inspired by a story by Roger McKenzie, this comic is credited to Miller and Roger Stern—of the classic Stern/Byrne run on Captain America starting with issue #247 as well as many great issues of Avengers—and contains several elements that we’ll see in Cap’s appearance in Frank Miller’s “Born Again” story in Daredevil several years later.
Our story opens with a dramatic portrait of our hero alongside exposition that emphasizes both the responsibility he bears as a symbol of the American dream and his realization that some want to destroy that dream… at least for anyone they’ve decided doesn’t deserve it.
The fire being started above draws the attention of freelance artist Steve Rogers—draws the attention, get it?—while a courageous New York City firefighter attempts to save a woman and her child.
Cap rushes to the scene as the firefighter manages to grab the woman, who loses hold of the child…
…whom Cap saves with an acrobatic flourish.
Cap joins the heroes already on the scene (much as he did in Captain America #258)…
…and after the fire is out, accepts their gratitude and praise humbly while pointing out the good they did that night.
Cap checks in with the police soon afterwards and sees the arsonists’ extortion note signed “We — the People.” When the official expresses his frustration at this, Cap is quick to reassure him that these criminals do not represent the American people, and that the abuse of freedom on the part of a few does not diminish its value overall.
Having made that promise, Cap plays Daredevil for a night, beating up thugs in bars and dangling them over rooftops to get information.
I think this is a bit out of character for Cap, who would recognize that these people haven’t necessarily done anything to deserve this treatment—a point I make in reference to a certain caped crusader elsewhere—but perhaps we can write it off to his own frustration, especially at the arsonists’ brazen use of the “we the people” phrase, which would probably strike a nerve (despite his reasoned words to the police official earlier).
After Cap gets to Pier 5 and takes out the guards outside, we get some welcome action shots from Mr. Miller, with a particularly nice kick in the third panel. (I do wonder where the “I don’t like knives” line comes from, though.)
Unfortunately for Cap, Carson doesn’t know about the “We the People” arsonists, whom he resents for disrupting his own “arson-for-hire” business, and whom he even seems to fear a bit, given their terroristic motivation.
Our scene changes to an average family home in Cap’s home borough of Brooklyn…
…seen outside by our hero, who envies the simplicity of their life—a life we have seen him envision while under the influence of Sister Dream in Captain America #295—but, as always, he realizes he has a greater responsibility to protect that dream for others.
What he doesn’t know, but we see above and below, is that it is “normal people” like Hal Brady who are behind the arson and extortion.
After they gather, we hear all-too-familiar frustrations, here aimed at institutions such as government and big business whom they feel abused and forgotten by, but later expanded to include the “poor and infirm” that they feel are cheating them as well.
The hesitant fella above is a police officer named Don, who tries to bow out but is forced at gunpoint to comply. (We’ll see him again soon.)
When the alarm goes off at Sunset Manor, Cap accepts the earlier invitation to join the firefighters…
…and rushes in after a resident trying to save his wife.
Cap does what any firefighter would have done—at least if they had his enhanced strength and stamina—and escapes with the couple just in time.
Cap and a firefighter work together to revive the wife…
….but to no avail, as shown in the effectively dramatic 15-panel grid below that makes Cap’s despair and anger all too apparent.
The badge leads Cap to Don, who is witness to an astonishingly skillful—and, frankly, brutal—bit of shieldwork.
Don admits his role in the arson while expressing his regrets, and then names their leader, Hal Brady…
…whom Cap does not yet realize is the kindly father he watched say goodbye to his family before work.
He still doesn’t realize it after bursting into the Brady home and accusing him of leading the arson ring, forcing him to confront the idea of the other people he’s hurt…
…until Brady’s son Johnny valiantly defends his father, even after his mother points out who Cap is.
Brady’s wife sticks up for him as well, at which point it finally hits Cap: The man he envied for his quiet normal life is the one working to deny the same for others less fortunate than him. And this only makes him more angry.
Once at their “hideout,” Cap puts a quick end of the arsonists’ game of darts before demanding an explanation from them.
Brady indicts both the government and those who are less fortunate—writing the latter off as cheaters who have taken the country away from him and those like him—and in the ultimate symbolic statement of resentment, sets fire to the same flag he gripped lovingly earlier.
Cap explains that no one’s rights in a free country include the right to hurt others and then points out how fortunate they are, implying that even if they have no sympathy towards others (as shown by Brady’s zero-sum, “us or them” thinking), they have no right to hurt them, especially for mere money (which amounts to actual cheating of the system, and in a particularly violent and deadly way).
The other members of the “We the People” gang back down before Officer Don enters the scene, but Brady remains defiant, choosing to set one last fire rather than go to jail and shame his children.
Cap rejects Don’s words, emphasizing instead that Brady had a chance—more important, he had a choice, and he chose the path of resentment and grievance instead of appreciating what he had and working toward making things better for everybody (or, at least, not making them worse).
After Cap gets everybody else out, he remembers one last thing that needs saving.
Eventually, Cap emerges triumphant…
…and explains that the American dream doesn’t work for anybody if we don’t work at it together; that it represents an opportunity, not a promise, which some of us succeed at, through a combination of effort and luck; and that those of us who succeed at it have a responsibility to lend a hand to others who don’t fare so well (or at least to not help keep them down).
Marvel Fanfare (vol. 1) #18, January 1985: Roger Stern (writer), Roger McKenzie (story idea), Frank Miller (pencils), Joe Rubinstein (inks), Lynn Varley (colors), Jim Novak (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Collected in: Captain America Epic Collection: Society of Serpents