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As I write this, Agents of SHIELD is gearing up to do an entire episode in honor of the classic Marvel “What If?” format. This was a whole comic series dedicated to asking bizarre questions about altered Marvel continuity like what if Daredevil had killed Kingpin or what if the X-Men died on their first mission.
It was a popular series during the ‘70s and ‘80s with a handful of revivals around big events in recent years. Speaking of big events, Marvel’s current big event for the summer is something called Secret Empire, in which Captain America reveals himself to be a Hydra agent after some reality warping shenanigans from a previous comic.
The pitch has caused a lot of discourse; most of it I’d like to avoid getting into here. However the subject of altered reality, evil Nazi Captain America, and What If comics reminded me of one of the greatest What If two-parters of all time- What If Captain America had Led an Army of Super-Soldiers in World War II and What If Captain America had formed the Avengers. Obviously, there’s more going on than the titles or covers suggest so follow me into one of the darkest and most compelling and well written altered continuity stories this side of Superman: Red Son.
For those still unfamiliar with the origin of Captain America, let’s cover that first, so the “What If?” angle of this story actually makes some sense. Back in the ‘40s, the US was doing all kinds of crazy science to beat the Nazis, one such operation was Project Rebirth. The project was a super soldier serum designed to create the ultimate human fighting machine.
In the main comics universe, Steve Rogers was the only recipient as a Nazi secret agent gunned down the serum’s inventor, Dr. Abraham Erskine, after injecting Rogers. In What If #28, we see an alternate world where Rogers saved Erskine at the last minute, and he was able to produce an entire battalion of super soldiers.
That’s the title premise anyway but from the start, this book makes it clear it plans to take us to task in the shock and twist department. Firstly, we open with President Rogers giving an interview in the present about his origins, discussing how widespread use of the super soldier serum has led to a Golden Age.
However, we see almost immediately that Roger’s “Golden Age” is little more than a gilded cage, a fascist America drowned in the tawdry colors of cheap patriotism as Captain America flags fly from every homestead even as President Rogers casually orders mass murder, internment camps, and praises his new world order. It’s an absolute gut punch of an opening that throws down the gauntlet for how dark things are going to get going forward.
From there we backtrack to see how this terrifyingly prescient nightmare came about, especially from such a seemingly noble origin. In this world, Cap was given a team of super-commandos, made up of various SHIELD supporting characters from the main universe like Nick Fury, and the group was ordered to assassinate Hitler. A lot of What If comics end up steeped in “spot the cameo” stuff like this, often with the book’s narrator, the Watcher, pointing them out to us.
For instance, there’s a very compelling scene of Cap and the super soldiers liberating Auschwitz in which Cap actually meets a young Magneto and ends up curbing his whole “hatred of humanity” thing, thus sparing this world from his villainy. It’s all peaches and cream, but after they win the war, it’s the peace where things start to really curdle.
After an explosion on the return freighter kills the entire super soldier squadron, save for Captain America, things start to really change. Cap gives up his costumed identity to become a politician, pioneering use of the super soldier serum for American interests like annihilating the Soviet Union before they could develop nuclear weapons. As Rogers rises to power, you slowly start to see the dark seems of fascism emerge around him.
First he begins controlling the super soldiers with a booster shot that’s needed to maintain the formula then announcing the serum only works on white people when making it available for public use. More and more we watch, helpless, as President Rogers slowly transforms America with the serum and his super warriors, condemning the civil rights movement to internment camps. The book even explicitly draws parallels to Japanese internment in this action, making the commentary feel all too topical these days.
They aren’t limited to just taking out real heroes either, they go after the fictional ones as well. The Fantastic Four, Hulk, even Spider-Man all get gunned by Steve Rogers’ death squads. Finally, the first issues ends with one heck of a twist as one such squad is hunting down Namor in the Arctic Circle only to discover- Captain America frozen in the ice.
Yes, in the ultimate triple twist it turns out the Steve Rogers turning America into an Aryan fascist state wasn’t the real Captain America at all but rather a clone that the Red Skull had put his mind into. Despite hating Captain America, this is actually a fairly common Red Skull scheme, which makes sense when you think about it. Captain America is the ideal physical specimen and also a blonde haired, blue eyed, straight man, he’s basically the Nazi Ubermensch just one that happens to fight for America.
From there the book loses a lot of the subversive impact it first had and turns into much more of a game of spot the character but there’s a lot of cool re-imagined history. Writer George Caragonne really knows his Marvel history, which gives the new characters a greater air of creativity knowing they make internal sense. For instance, after Cap manages to sway Frank Castle from his death squad job one of the first people they recruit is Logan.
However, in this world, Canada was invaded by the US, so there was no Weapon X program. Instead, Logan fell victim to the curse of the Wendigo, following a revised version of the plot of his first appearance in the pages of the Hulk. Sam Wilson also shows up, and they give him Giant Man’s costumes while it turns out Magneto founded his own X-Men in this world only for them all to get killed by the death squads. There’s also a really cool idea that the Rogers’ administration was using a captive Thor as a power source for their operation.
It all concludes in a pretty amazing brawl of Cap’s makeshift Avengers against an entire army of super soldiers in their helicarrier stronghold. The confrontation between Captain American and President Rogers is a real highlight. Red Skull’s always been a smarmy, monolog-heavy bad guy but he absolutely shines here showing off how much he’s twisted America.
It fits with the entire comic’s undercurrent of highlighting how easily the ideals of equality and freedom can become twisted or forgotten. There’s also no shortage of commentary made on the actual parallels between America’s history of empire building and eugenics and the master race ideology that Red Skull subscribes to.
Most chillingly, though, is the realization that Red Skull really has won and it comes down to people’s laziness and willingness to turn a blind eye to suffering in the name of personal comforts. The super soldier serum has become a literal opiate of the masses persuading them to simply accept things like mass internment, roving death squads, and thuggish extortion on a global scale.
Even the Avengers ultimate victory is more of a call to action than a true success as they sacrifice themselves to destroy Red Skull’s super soldier army and helicarrier. We see in the future that things heal, but it’s very much in the same mood as the end of the original Red Dawn, a bittersweet better tomorrow that cost the lives of every hero we had to spare.
I want to talk about the artwork briefly because this has been less of a review and more of a summary- I didn’t have a point to make about this issue I just wanted to share it with you. However, I still want to draw attention to the work of Ron Wilson, Ralph Cabrera, and Javins & Vincent because the art in this comic is excellent. It all smacks of being a “house style” of artwork in that there isn’t the same amount of unique visual flourish that modern artists have, but it’s still very enjoyable.
None of these guys are honestly considered master craftsman but there’s such a solid, workmanlike consistency to the art it almost has a retro quality all its own. The style feels decidedly ‘80s but in an action figures kind of way that makes all the dark stuff actually more impactful. There’s no layer of glitter or gloss over the genocide and fascism, it just looks like any other Captain America book of the time. We aren’t removed from the characters and their world, making it decidedly more unnerving.
As I said, I don’t have a point to make about this issue in its relation to Secret Empire or Agents of SHIELD even though all three of these things involve an alternate world strangled by fascism. If I was being forced to make one I’d say What If? #28-29 stand above the pack for how well it imagines a nation’s slow slide into fascism rather than just dumping it on everyone. Seeing the complete corruption of something so seemingly pure as Captain America is a lot more impactful than just having him shout “Hail Hydra” out of left field and go from there.
What’s more, it ends up making a much more meaningful statement about our own slide towards fascism in the now. Sure, our boogeyman are a lot more basic and cartoonish than the Red Skull is here, which is kind of amazing, but the fact we still see talk of internment camps and similar arguments to the ones made 30 years ago is pretty chilling. So if you’re looking for a good story with evil Captain America, the twisted and disturbing creep of American fascism and radical re-imaginings of Marvel heroes check this one out- it won’t disappoint.
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