Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post by Paul Thomas, is our second this year, and continues the discussion of the political and social ramifications of the black superhero. We hope to publish guest posts at least four times a year, so be sure to check out our submission guidelines. This post has been modified from an earlier version that appeared on The Becoming Radical.
Superhero comic books are driven by color and iconography, notably in the symbolic significance of the superhero costume. That importance cannot be overstated for Marvel’s Captain America, who for me as a comic book collector in the 1970s will always be the Jim Steranko version (above).
Captain America in red, white, and blue—especially with his arm and shield raised—is a political statement, although one too often more about jingoism and nationalism than even patriotism or—notably—social justice.
I suspect, however, that why I was truly a fan of Captain America over forty years ago was because of the Falcon, the black side-kick who shared the cover billing from issues #134–192 and 194–222 (February 1971 – June 1978). The Falcon introduced another important color to the mythology of Captain America—one that especially made sense in light of his struggles throughout his career against the evil racial supremacy of the Red Skull—black.
Much has changed since my comic book collecting days—the sidekick is now the lead character—but for Marvel to introduce Sam Wilson/The Falcon as the new Captain America, I believe, raises more questions than the decision seems to answer. Questions—similar to the ones Robert Jones, Jr. raises about Cyborg—about racial stereotypes and the responsibilities of superhero comics in the context of pop culture and social norms.
Since the 1930s superhero comics have weathered a tumultuous but sustained role in U.S. pop culture, often reflecting and even perpetuating the worst of cultural stereotypes about gender, race, and nationalism. Over the past two or three decades, superhero comics have been bolstered by the rise and popularity of film adaptations of iconic superheroes such as Spider-Man and super-teams such as the X-Men and Avengers. Therefore, the media’s response to a black Captain America reveals a great deal about what questions we should be asking.
In 2012, Marvel rebooted Captain America (again) after bringing back an assassinated Steve Rogers, to replace his one-time sidekick (Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier) who had taken over in his absence, and then building a two-year journey to issue #25 announcing the new Captain America, as Yehl explained:
With Steve Rogers losing his super powers in the pages of his solo series written by Rick Remender, readers have been guessing who the new Captain America would be, and now we have our answer. General audiences will recognize Falcon from this summer’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie with Anthony Mackie playing the winged superhero.
Media hype around the Sam Wilson/The Falcon blurs the comic book and film universes, highlighting, I think, how important the pop culture aspects of superhero comics are to the enduring power of the media/subgenres, but the need for market sustainability very likely compromises the ability of that medium to challenge social norms.
Making Sam Wilson/The Falcon the new Captain America adds to the mainstream Marvel Universe a move by Marvel in 2011 to create a bi-racial Spider-Man in their alternate Ultimate universe, prompting further questions about the value of race for Marvel, and the potential for major characters of color to rise above the comic book industry’s pattern of perpetuating stereotypes more often than confronting them.
But, technically, in order to celebrate the first black Captain America, we’d have to resort to the sort of contortions common in the comic book universe—the time machine.
The Second First Black Captain America
Truth: Red, White & Black was a seven-issue series in 2003 about, yes, a black Captain America. As Joshua Yehl explained at The Daily Beast when the more recent announcement of a black Captain America surfaced: “While it is notable that this will be a black Captain America, it turns out that he’s not the first. Isaiah Bradley was not only the first black Captain America, but he held the mantle even before Steve Rogers.” And as Ng Suat Tong notes, Truth provides a bold take on Captain America as black: “The idea that the first Black Captain America should be sent to prison the moment he steps foot on American soil is not only sound…but resonates with reality.” Further, Noah Berlatsky adds about the power of Truth: “To understand what Morales and Baker are doing in Truth, you have to recognize that not just Captain America, but superheroes more broadly, have from their inception been obsessed with Americanness — and with assimilation.”
Although likely not intentionally, the convoluted history of Captain America as black (the mostly ignored first black Captain America and then the newly christened “first” black Captain America in the film-era of superhero comics) reflects a similar pattern in the acknowledged history of the U.S.—the often invisible history and even presence of black people, except in service to the generosity of whites.
But, the erasure of Isiah Bradley in the announcement of Sam Wilson’s ascension should not be surprising, the comic book universe is noted for acting as if the same-old-same-old is NEW!!! for decades—with reboots (and more reboots), renumbering long-standing titles, killing superheroes, having those superheroes’ sidekicks take over for the dead superheroes, and then resurrecting the superheroes. Within those conventions, Sam Wilson as black (or the significance of race, more generally) can be easily ignored in the shuffle.
Sam Wilson’s characterization as the rugged individual and then his ascension to the role of Captain America are political messages that must be addressed beyond the tendency of media to oversimplify the political ramifications of things, or streamline complex histories.
Captain America as superhero comic character reaches back to 1941. With Captain America as a reconfigured superhero, what should we expect from the red, white, and blue iconic shield now joined by wings and masking a man who happens to be black?
Dare We Expect Social Justice from a Black Captain America?
Captain America #25 opens with Steve Rogers remembering Sam Wilson—Wilson’s warrior nature, his losing both parents (minister and community organizer) and raising a brother and sister, his resilience in the face of prejudice. Notably as well, Sam Wilson was, according to Rogers, “just a man. A man dedicated to showing what one person could accomplish after a lifetime of misfortune.”
Too often, comic book narratives remain firmly entrenched in the cliché (of course, if your audience is primarily children/teens, most anything can seem new to them, and is), but where comic book narratives have failed over about eight decades is that they mostly reflect social norms, even the biases and stereotypes, uncritically.
For example, consider Hugh Ryan’s examination of the recent creative team change on Wonder Woman in The Daily Beast:
That comics are a bastion of sexism is a truism so banal it almost goes without saying. But it is particularly galling to watch the feminist superhero [Wonder Woman] be treated in such a way. The Finches have made no small point of the fact that Meredith is one of only a handful of women to ever write Wonder Woman. “I love the idea that it’s a woman writing a woman,” David said in an interview with USA Today, “because we’re trying to appeal to more female readers now.”
Seeking to be celebrated for simply hiring a woman is tokenizing and offensive. From writer Gail Simone to artist Fiona Staples, there are incredible women already working in the industry. Let’s celebrate them. The Finch’s ideas of feminism, strength, and what appeals to women today seem retrograde, borderline misogynistic, and—to be frank—boring. Wonder Woman deserves better.
While Sam Wilson/The Falcon as Captain America has great promise, we must consider that the change is as likely to be as superficial and unfulfilling as a woman superhero who does little to confront and much to perpetuate sexism.
After a battle with Arnim Zola in Captain America #24, The Falcon is placed on the ground by Iron Man, thus, readers in the first pages of issue #25 are led to believe (as the surrounding superheroes do) that Wilson has died heroically—and Rogers is about to pronounce Wilson a martyr: “Everything he ever did was for somebody else,” Rogers says.
Until Wilson speaks.
The issue then turns to the aging Steve Rogers, no longer invigorated by super-soldier serum, who speaks to The Avengers in order to announce Sam Wilson as the new Captain America. This passing of the torch ends with Wilson in a hybrid uniform—red, white, and blue, Captain’s shield, and Falcon wings—shouting, “Avengers assemble!”
The All-New Captain America #1 comes in a variant edition highlighting color—an all-white cardboard cover with only the title blazoned across the top. And with a somber and powerful opening page in which Sam Wilson recalls his father’s sermons and death, and his mother’s murder soon after, building to a refrain alluding to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, the black Captain America takes flight.
In the context of the history of superhero comics, the MLK allusion sparks another question: Will Sam Wilson/The Falcon be reduced to the sort of superficial blackness, subsumed in the Americanness Berlatsky wrote about regarding Truth—just as MLK is often reduced to a passive radical when honored in the ceremonial national narrative?
In other words, are both Sam Wilson and MLK used here in superficial ways? Yes, in fact, the first issue appears to hide business-as-usual for superhero narratives behind a racially charged veneer.
Again, Wonder Woman offers a parallel concern: if she was born out of the rise of twentieth century feminism—as Jill Lepore poses in The Secret History of Wonder Woman—and the series itself in action and image contradicts those feminist ideals, what good a female superhero?
To ask such a question of the black Captain America built up in Captain America #25 as the rugged individual, the exceptional (super)human who lifted himself up by the bootstraps (wings didn’t hurt, there) and overcame every obstacle, including racism, requires Ta-Nehisi Coates’ exploration of “The Closing of the Progressive Mind” as a frame:
There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.
If a black Captain America reinforces the “terrible advice” confronted by Coates, if black Captain America continues to perpetuate crass militarism and unbridled vigilante violence as part of a narrative that blames black people for their own inequitable social position, I am left to ask, what good a black superhero?
P. L. Thomas, Associate Professor of Education (Furman University), taught high school English in South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He is currently a column editor for English Journal (National Council of Teachers of English) and author of Beware the Roadbuilders (Garn Press). Follow his work at http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/ or @plthomasEdD on Twitter.