Captain America: Sam Wilson #1
Written By: Nick Spencer
Art By: Daniel Acuna
Release Date: October 11, 2015
Welcome to The Marvel Report’s Captain America: Sam Wilson recaps, where we’ll be reviewing the All-New, All-Different Captain America series.
As you might have heard, the Captain America mantle—which has bounced around quite a bit over the past ten years—has fallen to Sam Wilson, who was first introduced in 1969 as Falcon, the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics. Although he’s often referred to as Captain America’s sidekick, the writers tended to treat them as equal partners. Steve Rogers inspired Sam to take up crimefighting and trained him, but their relationship was more nuanced than merely mentor/mentee. Sam corrected Steve, called him on the carpet and even rescued him when he got in over his head. Bucky may have been Captain America’s first partner, but Sam and Steve’s camaraderie has lasted longer and, frankly, been more interesting.
So it’s little surprise that, after Rogers lost his Super Soldier Serum and finally became the 90-year-old SOB he’s always been at his core, he passed along the shield to the person who’d seen him use it more than anyone.
Plenty of ink has been spilled on the enormity of Marvel bequeathing one of its flagship mantles to a black man, so this review won’t spend too much time on it other than to say it’s a terrific move. The fact that millions of black children can now open the pages of a comic book and see an American icon who looks like them is a very, very big deal.
Nevertheless, as we’ll see, life is going to be a little bit harder for this particular Captain than it was for his predecessor.
For starters, Sam Wilson doesn’t have the Super Soldier boost Steve did in his prime. He’ll have to get by on training, a nifty pair of wings, a pet hawk and some super powered allies in Misty Knight and Dennis Dunphy.
He’ll also have to make do without SHIELD clearance, and based on the first issue of Captain America: Sam Wilson, that’s going to be a recurring bummer throughout the series. But it also helps frame Captain America as a determined outsider who strives to be better than the establishment that created him. He’s not America’s mascot; he’s America’s conscience. At their best, Captain America stories aren’t really about a do-gooder with a shield. They’re about what it means to be a good American during hard times.
As Captain America, Sam is as frustrated by the deep schism he sees in just about every facet of American life. Politically, racially and economically, he faces a nation far more divided than Steve Rogers ever dealt with. This weighs heavily on him. He sees it as Captain America’s responsibility to help fix it, and in order to fix it, he needs to choose a side.
This is another interesting shift. As political as Captain America comics have gotten, the writers have usually (though not always!) had Steve Rogers pitch himself as a symbol of unity—a nonpartisan emblem of the American ideals that know no party. Steve Rogers’ Captain America had to remain above the fray. He was almost an American god.
Wilson, however, intends to champion specific causes. He’s got opinions—political, partisan ones—and he’s not above being vocal about them. So, to that end, he calls a press conference. It doesn’t go great.
Unfortunately, Spencer and co. aren’t as brave as Sam and don’t get into the specifics of exactly what Sam believes and why it sets off such a firestorm although it’s hinted that someone like, say, Bernie Sanders would have approved. (UPDATE: And real life Fox & Friends loudly disapproved, giving this whole story an extraordinarily meta overtone.)
That makes good business sense—Marvel doesn’t want to alienate a political demographic by having one of its stars register to a specific political party—but the story suffers for it. There are lots of creative, interesting conflicts that could come out of Sam taking a stand on his political opinion and dealing with the ensuing fallout. The story gives a few hints of Cap’s progressive politics, but lacks the conviction to really follow through and make a fully fleshed out conflict.
Still, that’s a minor quibble, and whatever else the move lacks, it ends up putting Captain America on the outs at SHIELD, making him a much more controversial figure. Steve Rogers was everything we wanted to believe about America. Sam Wilson is more like who we actually are. He has an opinion. He cares about issues. And although this makes him a hero to a lot of people, it also sets some people deeply against him. He’s a much more recognizable hero in this day and age of public figures who are either either America’s savior or antichrist, depending on who you ask.
One person whose not against Captain America is Gideon Wilson, Sam’s big brother and the pastor of a Harlem church who happily passes a collection plate to help finance his little brother’s travel expenses (yep. Now that he’s not at SHIELD, Captain America’s on a tight budget.) These funds send Sam out to Arizona, where he squares off against the Sons of the Serpent, Marvel’s take on a Cliven Bundy-esque militant wing of hyper-Libertarian white supremacists. Their leader’s rant about illegal immigration wouldn’t sound out of place on your great uncle’s Facebook wall, and Captain America shows up to protect a group of immigrants they’re looking to kill. (Told you Bernie would like this guy.)
That business goes about as smoothly as superhero business can go, but it draws some surprising ire, and sets up what will probably be one of the major conflicts of this arc.
The artwork here is gorgeous. Acuna, who previously made his mark at Marvel with X-Men: Schism and 2010’s Black Widow series has deserved a job this high profile for a while, and he’s clearly enjoying himself. It’s no mean feat to make a man with wings and an American flag shield look cool, but Acuna’s best work is in the quieter moments like Sam asking his brother for money, or a delightfully rendered conversation with two frat bros on the airplane.
This is all matched by the writing of Spencer, who has a deft ear for quippy dialog and one-liners, as he proved in the wonderful, woefully underrated Superior Foes of Spider-Man series. Past issues of Captain America have gotten pretty dour, tending towards grim espionage tales and political weightiness. Spencer doesn’t exactly abandon that—this issue deals with illegal immigration, after all—but he brings a lighter touch to the proceedings. It’s a good fit.
All told, the stage is set for an interesting look at just what sort of hero Captain America needs to be in 2015. The questions posed—like, can a leader truly remain above the tumult of public discourse?—are worthy of discussion, and expect that discussion to be far more important to the coming issues than haymakers can shield slinging. For all the table setting this issue does, it’s tremendously self assured first issue that speaks to great potential for the future. And what is Captain America about if not potential for the future?