This is a significant issue for a couple reasons. First, we see Captain America get his latest idea for serving the American people off the ground. Second, a new ideologically-based villain name Flag-Smasher is introduced—yep, that’s him on the cover—who will be a presence in the book for some time, prompting interesting discussions about nationalism and patriotism. As such, this is one of the first of many thoughtful issues in Mark Gruenwald’s run, and one of the reasons his span of the title is widely considered to be legendary.
The issue opens with Flag-Smasher attacking the United Nations building and giving a hint of his worldview, which will be expanded on later in the issue. (Hint: Even though he destroys an American flag in the page below, he’s not anti-American in a simplistic sense, as suggested by his comments about the U.N. as a whole and the fact that he cut all the nations’ flags down.)
More about him later… let’s turn to our favorite couple, enjoying a quiet morning that turns surprisingly eventful, starting with a confirmation of Bernie’s future career path, first mentioned in the last issue. (She might even defend a Captain America one day.)
It’s only the mailman, but he might as well have been Ed McMahon.
It’s nice to see the government make a mistake in someone’s favor for a change…
…although Steve isn’t happy about it, especially because the money comes out of the pockets of the people he’s sworn to serve.
He clarifies the obvious—that he carries the shield out of duty, not for money—and then has an idea about what he can do with the money, seeing as the government doesn’t want it back.
And the Captain America national hotline is born!
Bernie helps him realize that this will not be as easy as it seems, which he seems to have anticipated to some extent, and realizes that he will need help, including from Bernie herself, to put everything together.
When Cap visits the site of the hotline headquarters, he makes his gratitude clear, which seems to take Ms. Steckley by surprise.
“I did a similar job for Iron Man last year and all he did was hit on me.”
I include the panel below just to ask: Are those socks, or a part of his costume like his (mostly) white sleeves, or are his feet just really pale?
Cap’s pose on the couch is paralleled in the next panel, featuring Flag-Smasher—real name Karl Morgenthou—out of costume.
He recalls his origin story: His father was an ambassador, personally driven to fight for world peace, but Karl just saw nationalistic prejudice in every country they visited. His father was killed when a demonstration at the Latverian embassy became violent, turning the young political science major Karl against nationalism or patriotism of any kind (not just the extreme nationalism, often linked with racial identity, that is such a concern around the world today).
People are very excited for Cap’s press conference…
…which, like the government check, makes Cap uncomfortable, afraid that people might misunderstand what and who he stands for, both more important to him than anything about himself.
In his speech, he focuses on the American people themselves, and admits that his New York state of mind sometimes obscures the rest of the country.
He builds to the topic of his hotline when a certain anti-nationalist breaks in and certainly misrepresents his cause.
Cap tears down the flag—while apologizing to it and all it represents—to save the rest of the platform, and then turns his attention to Flag-Smasher.
Cap uses his shield to disable Flag-Smasher’s jetcycle, but his foe manages to grab the shield itself and turns his weapon on the crowd, stopping Cap in his tracks out of concern for the bystanders (who hadn’t even gotten the hotline number yet!).
Flag-Smasher takes the floor, and again exaggerates the differences between himself and Cap.
Even though Bernie has certainly shown heroism in the past, such as in issue #270, she exercises good judgment in staying out of sight, given the danger in front of her.
Cap gives a lesson on the First Amendment that many always seem to need to hear: that it guarantees the right to speak but not the right to be heard (nor to have one’s speech printed or broadcast by others). But it seems to be wasted on Flag-Smasher, who doesn’t recognize the authority of the Constitution—or, presumably, any other laws validated under it, which is not very surprising.
(If I didn’t know better, I’d swear Cap’s face above was drawn by Dave Gibbons of Watchmen fame.)
Finally, Flag-Smasher makes clear what he really stands against…
…and that he has nothing against America in particular, despite his cry of “America must die” just a few panels ago. (How could anyone possibly misinterpret that?)
Cap could have easily provided counterarguments—for instance, that extreme nationalism is not the only kind, and that Cap’s own conception of patriotism is moderate, accommodating, and cosmopolitan, taking pride in one’s own country and nationality while respecting others as well, as I explain in chapter 6 of my book. But instead, perhaps due to the urgency of the situation, Cap takes issue with Flag-Smasher’s method of getting his point across, which was wrong in themselves, beside defeating his own argument for peace and unity among the peoples of the world.
The crowd stands behind Cap, but I’m not really sure they understood what either he or Flag-Smasher said, resorting to “love it or leave it” rhetoric and ignorant name-calling.
Again, Flag-Smasher accuses them all of extreme nationalism that elevates patriotism to hatred toward other countries, which was definitely a problem then as it is now, but at that time it may have be more common among governments themselves than the citizenry.
Finally, Cap gets a chance to leap to action… and what a leap it is, practically vaulting over the cameraman.
After a brief struggle, Cap gets hold of Flag-Smasher’s mace…
…and the two enter a battle of strength and will, from which there is an inevitable victor.
Even with the continued support of the crowd, Cap regrets the fact that so many were in danger. After apologizing for this, he addresses Flag-Smasher’s arguments themselves, making a point similar to the one I suggested above: One can be proud of their country and its traditions without denying the validity of others, or the equal dignity of all persons everywhere. (He also draws ethnic heritage into it, making the same point about appreciating your own while respecting others, in response to Flag-Smasher’s larger point about eliminating all differences between people.)
But Cap… you still didn’t give them the hotline phone number!!!
Collected in: Captain America Epic Collection: Society of Serpents
PREVIOUS ISSUE: Captain America #311 (November 1985)
ALSO THIS MONTH: Avengers #262 and Secret Wars II #6 (December 1985)
NEXT ISSUE: Captain America #313 (January 1986)