The Captain Black America Needs

I’ve been trying to avoid Marvel’s summer event series Civil War II and its related tie-in issues. Avoiding the core book is easy, I simply don’t buy it, but when it comes to the tie-issues that crossover with my regular books, it is a little more difficult to accomplish. I usually have no problem simply not buying particular issues of a book on my pull-list. For example, I avoided the first four issues of the last volume of Spider-Woman because they were set in the whole Spider-verse mishegas, and in the current volume I skipped issues #5 and #6 because they crossed over with some Spider-Women event that asked me to not only buy issues of books I am not that interested in, but ignore the fact that editorially-mandated crossover stories tend to be poorly written, force fill-in artists to cover for burdened regulars, and do little or nothing to further the plot or develop the characters of the main book, which is the whole reason I follow it to begin with. I’ve complained a lot about this in my various reviews of current comics, so you can check them out if you want specific examples.

SWCA10-cvrAnd yet, despite this willingness to not acquiesce to whatever completist urge I might have as a comic reader and collector and simply not buy books, I have found myself trying out a few books that do tie into Civil War II because sometimes creative teams manage to pull-off good stories or entertaining examples of characterization even when forced to take part in a company-wide event. This is a good thing, because I don’t enjoy going a month or two without a new Ms. Marvel book to read, for example. And if there is anyone who is holding a master class on how to write a comic that is part of a crossover without sacrificing the book’s charm and the focus on the main character and supporting cast’s development it is writer G. Willow Wilson, so I’ve been happily reading Kamala Khan’s struggles with the ethical dilemmas set up by the events of Civil War II. Wilson has made sure we don’t need to know much, if anything, about the main event book to follow Ms. Marvel, and that is how it should be.

It is because of this willingness to flip through a tie-in issue that Civil War II succeeded in returning me to a book—albeit perhaps temporarily—I had dropped in disappointment: Sam Wilson: Captain America.

Despite my measured praise back in November of 2015 for the Nick Spencer/David Acuña series in my post “The Captain White America Needs,” I ended up dropping the book soon after because it followed up an over-long plot wherein Sam Wilson is transformed into a werewolf (leading him to be consistently ineffectual in his own book and, you know, not recognizably Black) with the Avengers: Stand Off crossover (which also led me to drop All-New All Different Avengers). However, upon learning of the death of James “Rhodey” Rhodes (aka War Machine) in the pages of Civil War II, and that his funeral would be depicted in the Sam Wilson: Captain America book I decided to pick up the issue and the one that followed, especially after a flip through of issue #10 (w/ art by Angel Unzueta) revealed a scene I needed to know more about.

CASM10-gatheringIn the scene, Sam Wilson finds Marvel’s best known Black superheroes gathering before Rhodey’s funeral. Storm, Black Panther, Luke Cage, Monica Rambeau, Brother Voodoo, Nick Fury, Jr, join Sam and Misty Knight to privately commiserate over their loss. The suggestion here is that the Black superheroes of the Marvel Universe have gathered in a moment of solidarity in considering the death of one of their own. The only major Black character not present is Blade (who Storm explains is off handling something “severe”). In this church backroom, Marvel’s eight long-established Black superheroes gather (save for Nick Fury, Jr, they’ve all been around since at least 1982), and there is a strong tension between this shared moment of recognition among Black superheroes that they have lost one of their number and the realization that despite hundreds of superhero characters in the franchise, there are only eight Black superheroes left (now that Rhodey is dead) that have any kind of name recognition (Miles Morales might be the only exception, but he’s still a kid). As Monica Rambeau sadly explains, “we are a man down.” The scene feels too short, but the pathos is palpable. Sam balks at being chosen to give Rhodey’s eulogy, because, as he admits, he did not know him all that well, but it seems that when you are Captain America eulogies come with the costume. Anyway, the point here is not necessarily friendship, or at least not simply friendship, but what makes them (in Misty Knight’s words), “family”—a recognition of these heroes’ marginal place in their world despite being among the elite superheroes that ostensibly shape that world. As such they need to work together to reaffirm a belonging among each other. It is for this reason that Nick Fury, Jr is present, despite being a newcomer. Marvel introduced him in a relatively clever way by having Black Nick Fury recognizable from the MCU films (that has his origins in the Ultimate Universe), be the mixed race son of the original WW2-fighting Nick Fury in the main Marvel Universe. Junior eventually replaced his white dad. Sam reassures Nick, Jr that he belongs there, his legacy granting him the recognition necessary to access the room full of Marvel’s major Black players.

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Sam greets Nick Fury, Jr and Monica Rambeau reminds us why they’ve gathered.

The scene is not a lovefest (though Luke Cage’s over-enthusiastic hug of Sam feels authentic to my own experiences of grief, sometimes working too hard to comfort others to avoid one’s own feelings). When the topic of events surrounding Rhodey’s death come up there is disagreement about the ethics of the Inhuman precognitive powers being put to use and that are the center of the Civil War II conflict.

Let me pause here to give as brief a synopsis as possible of the conflict called Civil War II. Essentially, a young Inhuman called Ulysses has the power to process some kind of complex quantum algorithms that can foretell the future and forecast crime and catastrophic events. Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers) wants to use this power to apprehend perpetrators before they get a chance to fulfill the prophecy, while Iron Man worries about the ethical implications of arresting people for things they have not done (and presumably by being stopped can never do) and in several issues (including Spider-Man vol. 2, #6 and Captain America: Sam Wilson #11) refers to it as a form of profiling.  Essentially, because of this disagreement they are readying their superhero friends to pick sides and fight about it. It was pursuing one these predictions that led to Rhodey’s death. If this all sounds familiar, it’s because it is a transparent riff on Philip K D. Dick’s story “Minority Report.” (Eh. Who am I kidding? They probably just saw the horrendous 2002 jetpack-cooking-hamburger movie).

Back at the church before the funeral, Misty Knight is skeptical. Brother Voodoo wary of the consequences of such power. Black Panther is clinical in his investigation of the forecasting ability, and Monica Rambeau doesn’t think they can afford to ignore the predictions. Sam quickly quashes the disagreement, but it serves its purpose in the issue. The scene is not about simply bringing all of Marvel’s Black superheroes together to agree or just to grieve, but to provide a space mutual acknowledgement of how the current political situation among the Marvel Superheroes affects them as Black people without representing them as monolithic.

CASM10-disagreeThe scene reminds me somewhat of my feelings on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah. (You can read my review here). The book takes the perspective of a Nigerian immigrant on American racial relations, part of which takes the form of blog posts by the main character in which she explores various topics from natural hair to dating to dealing with police. The book is straightforward in its dealing with race, to such a degree that Adiche’s narrator even addresses the conundrums of dealing with race in fiction, as if she could foresee some of the criticisms of the book—that it is didactic or lacks nuance—which a look through Americanah’s Goodreads or Amazon reviews will show you plenty of. The problem with the “nuanced” approach to race in fiction, however, is that race becomes a motif, a detached theme that values so-called artfulness over impact. Such a criticism is tantamount to asking the author value white people’s feelings over racial reality. The main value I see in Adichie’s book is not in some symbolic exploration of race, but in its plainspoken everyday realness and confusions. It is not that Americanah necessarily tells us anything new about race in America (at least not new to people of color who have resisted being conditioned to see white supremacy as natural and beneficial), but in confirming the experience, especially in Black America, that individualism and the atomization of communities casts their experience into doubt. In other words, on our own the dominant culture gaslights us, works to make the experience of bigotry both on an interpersonal basis, and especially in confronting its systemic manifestation, a doubtful one. We ask “Is it just me?” Or, “Am I misreading or overreacting?” because society around us accepts such conditions as normal. Coming together in solidarity as a community sharing various forms of racialized experience, while always holding in mind that no group is monolithic or ever in perfect social and political alignment, is the best defense against that gas-lighting. In sharing experiences with other people who can understand them and acknowledge their effects we can come to that necessary answer, “No, you are not crazy. No, it is not just you.” You’d think in the era of Black Lives Matter there’d be ample evidence to the contrary, but the reactions of the fragile “All Lives Matter/Blue Lives Matter” advocates demonstrate that the question of evidence is moot.

Returning to Civil War II, just as whatever algorithms Ulysses is using to forecast crime cannot be trusted to not be influenced by the biases built into the varying social, economic and political systems he is tracking, cross-referencing and extrapolating from, people of color in America, and more specifically (because specificity matters both historically and in terms of the pivoting positionalities of our identities) Black people in America, cannot trust individual attitudes and perspectives to not reinforce deeply racist systems, even as everything in the society around tells them that “people are just people.” There are no non-racialized interactions in America, even though the discourse of race in America’s dominant culture continues to value “color blindness” and respectability. It is because of this that the kind of solidarity displayed in the scene from Captain America: Sam Wilson #10 is so crucial. It is an opportunity to imagine the Black superheroes of Marvel Universe acknowledging the place they occupy in their world. It is an opportunity to imagine them considering the connotations of current events in light of the death of one of their own. It is an opportunity to say this loss has meaning beyond War Machine’s part in reinforcing the dominant cultural ideology, but that it is a blow to a community that has already lost (and continues to lose) so many of its own.

CASM10-BlkManBefore the funeral, Misty Knight gives Sam Wilson a pep talk that makes all of this more explicit. She explains that she agreed to join him and help him in his taking on the mantle of Captain America because she “knew how important [it] was going to be.” She goes on to say it even more directly, “Sam, you are a Black man, and you are Captain America.” She explains that she sees and understands this historical moment, even if the transition is a painful one that can obscure a sense of progress. She evinces a double consciousness­—both cognizant of the difficulty of the moment that requires collective work, while imagining a future where hopefully a Black Captain America ain’t no thing. She understands the importance of his visibility to kids in South Philly and all over America, if not the world.

Nick Spencer didn’t write the comic in which Rhodey was killed off (the Free Comic Book Day issue in which his death occurred was written by Brian Michael Bendis from a plot probably developed by or with Marvel’s editors), so I will leave aside here the possible problematics of using the Black body as the focus for intra-superhero conflict (just as was done with the original Civil War back in 2005), but I do admire how the writer imagines these Black heroes coming together to deal with it.  Later in the issue when Sam is giving the eulogy, he gives the usual bromides of the dedicated soldier who never gives up the mission “to make the world a safer, better place,” but Angel Unzeta’s panels, showing the faces of those in audience tells us much more than the typical speech of generic “inspiration.” Visually, the comic builds on Misty Knight’s words to Sam earlier. We see Miles Morales, Ms. Marvel, Nova, all young superheroes of color. We see Misty Knight looking on in admiration, and Captain Marvel’s white face when Sam mentions what “might be trying to tear you apart.” (In fact, she is the only white face on that page.) We see two Black children sad-faced and holding candles when he expresses a hope that “the message get through to the people who need it the most.” This visual return to Black and brown faces maintains the focus of this comic book title to our real world American concerns that we saw in the early issues tackling immigration and right-wing rhetoric. A focus that bookends this issue as it starts with 24-hour cable news reportage on white people protesting against Sam Wilson’s continued use of the Captain America moniker after the return of Steve Rogers, their “Not My Cap” protest signs echoing the “Not My President” rhetoric of the Tea Party regarding Obama. A right-wing talking head launches a #givebacktheshield reactionary hashtag. The issue closes with a look at the brutal over-policing of minority communities by the Americops, faceless nearly robotic private police officers to whom Black lives do not matter. The superhero civil war may provide the issue’s instigating event, but it is actual America’s divisiveness that it wants us to consider. It reads like a comic of the moment, leveraging idealized characters to shed light on a less than ideal situation. The ending of Sam Wilson: Captain America #11 depicting Sam on his way to confront the brutal Americops models what he feels we should do about it. And that seems right, both in terms of the historical moment and in the history of Captain America.

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The Americops are depicted as brutal and targeting particular communities. (Sam Wilson: Captain America #10 – art by Angel Unzueta)

Despite my appreciation for what Spencer does in this issue (w/ Unzueta’s help), I would be remiss if I did not spend a little space to at least consider the shortcomings of this issue and its perspectives.

First of all, even before the return of Steve Rogers there was a danger of Sam Wilson becoming “the Black” Captain America, which is to say, the method of defining him against the original Captain America is to point out his Blackness in a way that marks him as different from an “authentic” original. Oh, but wait, what is “original” is no longer original, ever since 2003’s The Truth: Red, White and Black established Isaiah Bradley as the actual original Captain America.  And yet, this ret-con in itself falls into the trap of all more recent revisions or re-imagining, they are marked against a “more real” early incarnation.  Now that Steve Rogers’ youth has been returned to him and he has taken up the mantle of Captain America as well, it is doubtless that Sam Wilson is reduced to being “the Black Captain America” as a form of distinct identity. While Spencer is acknowledging this through his inclusion of the “Not My Cap” protest rhetoric, the return of Rogers, nevertheless, conveys that Marvel does not trust a Black character to be the star of one of their ongoing flagship franchises.

Secondly, the storytelling in this issue falters in spots. The worst case being the one page of synopsis of the events of Civil War II that led to Rhodey’s death, but does not actually bother to include the detail necessary to contextualize it. The “He died in bravely in battle” stuff when Sam and his colleagues are discussing the death is clunky, too. Too much reliance on long horizontal panels down a page; the boring-ass “cinematic” widescreen look that way too many contemporary cape books from the Big Two use and that always feels like a lazy underutilization of the comics form.

CASM10-SouthPhillyThirdly, while I loved Misty Knight’s pep talk to Sam before the funeral, I was struck by her role in this issue (and the issues from early in the series) as simply support for the male character. Of course, she is technically a supporting character, the comic book is named for Sam Wilson, so obviously he is the focus, but looked at in the context of the under-representation of Black women and the frequency with which they exist in popular media just to push up men (both Black and white) rather than taking the lead role feels a little too routine. I think the failed Fearless Defenders series and some short-lived versions of Heroes for Hire might have been the only times Misty got a starring role albeit in an ensemble comic, and in at least one of those she was mind-controlled. Sigh.

Lastly, as good a job as I think Nick Spencer is doing, I wish Marvel would give a chance to more Black comics creators, and not just superstars from the literary or journalism worlds like Ta-Nahisi Coates and Roxane Gay, but some of the innumerable and virtually nameless Black writers and artists who have been developing their comics craft for years. These are opportunities regularly awarded much less well-known (if not wholly unknown) white creators.

Comics remain far from perfect, but as I was recently discussing on Twitter in regards to Latinx representation and as I’ve argued less directly in previous posts, characters of color have to exist within a genre, even if misrepresented, to serve as a focus for both imaginative fan engagement and actual revision into something resembling the fully human range allowed characters of the dominant culture. This means both that I can feel worried that Sam Wilson’s confrontation with the Americops won’t go far enough, while simultaneously admiring the comic’s attempt to address the current national concern about Black lives, over-policing and brutality. It means I can roll my eyes and groan when Captain America is stuck as a friggin’ werewolf for three issues, while imagining that the inclusion of young African-American superhero Rage into the current story can explore justified Black rage at oppressive systems, and still fear he will be used as a strawman example of “extremism.” Engaging with the medium (comics) and the genre (superheroes) means to understand that Sam Wilson is the Captain America White America needs because they need their conception of America radically shifted, and that he is the Captain America Black America needs to see their struggle represented not merely as victims, but as actors with agency in a form of media where White America is idealized and has rarely questioned its dominance—in order to be seen and have him say, “I see you.”

Sam Wilson: Captain America #10 came out on June 22, 2016, and #11 on July 6. Sam Wilson: Captain America #12 will be out August 17, 2016.

6 thoughts on “The Captain Black America Needs

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