Marvel’s new Sam Wilson: Captain America series by Nick Spencer and David Acuña is the Captain America series I wanted to see from the moment they announced the former sidekick would be taking over the role… Okay, maybe not quite, since Marvel remains too cowardly to directly address the race of their African-American Captain America, but then again maybe that is not such a bad thing given superhero comics’ poor track record with its treatment of race. Still that history is no excuse not to try to do something with some relevance to the “world outside your window,” which has been Marvel’s mantra since radioactivity was a source of super-powers and not cancer. What I saw of the first Captain America series to feature the former-Falcon in the role (by Rick Remender and Stuart Immonen) did not convince me that we should Marvel at a Black Captain America, but this series shows promise right off the bat, not only for its story content and characterization, but also for Acuña’s clever paneling and mix of bright colors with muted palette and shadows to clarify the interlacing timelines in the non-linear story-telling.
Despite my having suggested that Captain America’s origin was as a proleptic character that foresaw the ascendance of the Pax Americana post-World War II, these days Cap is just behind the curve when it comes to American politics. I guess he’s been behind the curve since he defrosted in Avengers #4 back in 1964, though the classic Steve Englehart Secret Empire arc that led to a shadowy Richard Nixon stand-in shooting himself in the head and the consequent disillusionment with American politics that saw Cap become Nomad was in step with the Watergate zeitgeist, coming out several months before Nixon’s resignation. Yet, as we reach the end of the Obama-era and its attendant racial anxieties, coded language, dog whistles and explicit racist attitudes, it is only now that we are finally given a Black Captain America whose adventures echo those concerns and how they highlight the deep-seated racial animosity woven into the American social fabric, and considers the crucial role of whistler-blowers willing to flout laws set up to reduce freedom in the name of protecting it, in order to actually preserve what vestige of democracy we might have ever have had.
In Sam Wilson: Captain America #1, Nick Spencer uses the wit and pacing we saw refined in his sleeper hit series Superior Foes of Spider-Man, to explore a politically-active Captain America who decides that he can best serve justice by divorcing himself of his direct ties to the U.S. government and SHIELD. There is a series of flashback panels regarding Wilson’s disillusionment that suggests to me an awareness of the inherent ideology of white supremacy tied into the superhero game. He is more explicit in expressing concern about the collapse of bi-partisan political compromise in the U.S. and a distressing lack of addressing the immediate issues that endanger and restrict ordinary people’s lives—one panel, for example, calls to mind Ferguson and the problem of police violence. Wilson’s narration also makes direct reference to the ways the government violates our rights, laws and professed values in the name of protecting national security. The NSA is name-checked and the comic features an Edward Snowden type character referred to as “The Whisperer” who leaks a report that suggests the government was developing Project Kobik, a plan to use fragments of a Cosmic Cube to re-write reality to maintain order and the status quo, which meets with heavy resistance from public intellectuals, even as SHIELD director Maria Hill simultaneously tries to play it down as “just a proposal” and defend it as a meaningful contingency.
If this sounds familiar it is because this plot point echoes real life plans like 2003’s CONPLAN-8022-02 (which came to light in 2005), which planned for pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the “perception of imminent threats” and Rex 84 (uncovered by journalists in 1987), which was a “readiness exercise” that considered the logistics of detaining tens of millions of Americans in case of “civil disturbance.” These dystopian oppressive government scenarios might seem like the kind of thing that comes from a dark future sci-fi movie like Children of Men, but there are people in our supposedly democratically-elected government who feel it is their job to prepare for such eventualities regardless of their dubious ethical foundations, or how they are at odds with the very values they claim make America great. In the words of Sam Wilson’s narration, “the good guys…are getting caught doing things we never dreamt the bad guys would do…” something that is clear in the real world, where there are no unambiguous “good guys” and in the comics, where superhero schemes are indistinguishable from that of a Kang or a Baron Zemo
I love that Sam Wilson is being written as Captain America in this context, using the genre to broach politics, rather than to pretend that any work of cultural production can somehow be apolitical. The central story in these first two issues is the most obvious example of this because you probably heard about it when conservatives and Fox News ran with stories condemning it a few weeks ago. Sam decides to fly to the U.S.-Mexico border to investigate the disappearance of people who have gone missing while crossing it, or helping those who are. The new Sons of the Serpent are thought to be responsible, and they are—though they might not be who they seem to be. The original Sons of the Serpent were a white supremacist supervillain organization that I most recently remember running across in the pages of Mark Waid’s run on Daredevil, but that dates back to 1966. Waid’s version is the only one that turned out to be actual racial supremacists. The other versions all turned out to be other villainous forces using that guise to other ends of power (like Chinese communists trying to undermine American order), including one not very well-thought out version in Defenders vol. 1 #22 to #25, in which they are led by an African-American businessman who looks down on other Black Americans. This might seem like an interesting plot element involving internalized white supremacy and self-hatred, if it weren’t so common for race-based villainy in comics to end up the fault of a minority character as some kind of racially tone-deaf plot twist.
Anyway, I bring up the long history of the Sons of the Serpent because I want to point out that racial politics were a part of the concern of Captain America and the Avengers for nearly 50 years. (Hell, Captain America punching Hitler on the cover of Captain America Comics #1 back in 1941 was about a prevalent and immediate form of racial politics for Jewish creators Jack Kirby and Joe Simon). The complaints of Fox News commentators and other conservative pundits are based on the same kind of ahistoricity that support similar complaints leveled against so-called “political correctness,” considering concerns about language and representation something new that matters most in terms of inconveniencing members of the dominant culture, rather than a long standing discourse finally (and rightfully) making its way into the mainstream. Even the kind of jokes that appear in Sam Wilson: Captain America #1 are a kind that prefigure the Fox News rhetoric about the comic with headlines calling him “Captain Anti-America,” one of the Sons of the Serpent referring to him as “Captain Socialism,” and a white flight attendant making the comment that Sam Wilson isn’t her Captain America, in a way that echoes racially-coded Tea Party notions of Barack Obama not being “their” president, or wanting “their America back.” The scariest part, of course, is Fox & Friends’ lack of hesitation to associate the violent xenophobic position of the Sons of the Serpent with their conservative agenda. These masked men—threatening the lives of poor and unarmed people trying to make a better life for themselves and their families—are just concerned citizens, “ordinary Americans” like those watching Fox & Friends, though I guess Tucker Carlson is right in the sense that Klan members are ordinary Americans, as were those people smiling in lynching photo postcards.
Ultimately, the political position Sam Wilson: Captain America takes is unsurprisingly middle-of-the-road. Captain America isn’t going to the border to necessarily support the immigration of these undocumented atrevesados, but to protect their lives, because regardless of his feelings on the legality of their entry into the U.S. he believes they have a right to some simple human dignity and safety, to not be preyed upon and exploited for simply believing the exaggerated narrative of America that Americans themselves so often extol. Hey, but at least it takes a political position of some sort.
In the end, the Sons of the Serpent turn out to be cover for some other super-villainous plot—some scientist bad guy wanting subjects for experiments or slave labor (or both), it remains to be seen. The Serpents were just using the cover of a Minute Men-like group to get their hands on some bodies that they thought no one would miss, not because they held any particular political opinions on immigration. The coyote leading people across the border even turns out to be in on it, and the conflict with the Serpents was a ruse to throw attention away from their true intentions. Once again comics plays the ole bait and switch, making us think that maybe it will actually confront the racist ideology that undergirds so much of white American cultural identity, but instead giving us…well, pollyanna would be too strong a word, since I think Spencer is doing his best to address these issues within the allowable corporate framework of Marvel comics, but something a little wishy-washy. The penultimate scene of issue #2 provides a kind of backdoor out of the very kind of strong progressive position that Fox and others accuse the comic of having. It shows a hearty debate strike up when a passenger on the same plane as Sam Wilson thanks him for helping Mexican people (her husband is from Mexico). Other passengers object to the sentiment claiming these Mexicans are taking the jobs that belong to “Americans first,” someone else counters that “We’re a nation of immigrants,” while still another has problems with the illegality of their entry, and so on. It allows the reader to see the dehumanization of those seeking to come to the United States—and provide more labor, economic fuel and cultural energy than their need could take from it—as just another legitimate opinion in a discourse built on the assumption of American exceptionalism.
And yet, like Sam, who realizes over the course of the story that the former Captain America, Steve Rogers counts on America to do what’s right “when the chips are down,” people in a marginalized position vis-à-vis the dominant culture can only hope it will, because history has not provided much evidence that the majority will ever do “the right thing” when not forced to. In other words, what should be obvious to the reader, but that the comic does not allow Sam Wilson to say, is that the reason that he and the original Cap, Steve Rogers, have always been “miles apart” is simply because Steve is white and Sam is Black, and America will likely always treat them differently because of this simple fact. It takes righteous people acting against that majority—sometimes alone, but mostly collectively—to show them the depth of American injustice. And yet, we, as readers, deserve a comic series that explores the possibilities of that tempered hope of a better America that comes from never forgetting the dark facts of American history and not giving in to its troublesome myths. If superheroes are supposed to represent the best of what America aspires to—even if, unfortunately, they also represent how its worst inclinations and white supremacist ideals are woven into those aspirations—then even if white America doesn’t want a Black Captain America, a Black Captain America is what it needs.