Captain America: Sam Wilson #5
Written By: Nick Spencer
Art By: Paul Renaud
Release Date: 1/16/16
Captain America, more than any other comic book, is a political exercise. It’s right there in the name, of course, but it’s also baked into the character. When Steve Rogers was selected to be America’s first Super Soldier (75 years ago today!), it was a clear reaction to the cultural enthusiasm surrounding the United States’ entry into World War II. The origin story is well-known to all, but the premise assumes a few things that were common in the ’40s that aren’t necessarily common today—namely, that the American government is ultimately good, and has the best interests of its individual citizens at heart.
75 years is a long time, and while Steve Rogers generally continued to epitomize that rosy vision of American life and politics—even to his detriment—Sam Wilson is not beholden to such a perspective. Wilson doesn’t owe anyone, let alone the government, for his powers. And though he’s frequently operated as a SHIELD agent, an Avenger and (in the movies) a member of the Army, he’s never been a government representative the way Rogers was. His Captain America is a populist—more Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton. Even in the Civil War arc, in which Rogers fought against government regulation, he ultimately surrendered, trusting the system to do the right thing. It’s very hard to see Wilson, as Nick Spencer writes him, having that same faith.
I open with all that, because Captain America: Sam Wilson #5 is the most nakedly political any Captain America book has gotten in recent memory. Way back at the beginning of Spencer’s run, I criticized the book for playing it safe with its political leanings. Spencer’s slowly worked in more explicit references to his own left-leaning politics (he crafts some intelligent, fiery takes over on Twitter with great relish) but in the most recent issue, Spencer really cuts loose with Viper waxing some politics that’ll sound familiar to any American with an Internet connection.
It’s a little more rehearsed and coherent than your average Donald Trump bloviation, but “Make America marvelous again” is probably the least subtle dig at Donald Trump this side of a New Yorker cartoon.
What makes all this particularly interesting is that in the early days, “exceptionalism” was in Captain America’s very DNA. Project Super Soldier was meant to unlock the true potential that was every American’s right by birth. It took decades of deconstruction from writers like Steve Englehart, Roger Stern, J.M. DeMatteis and, of course, Ed Brubaker, to add nuance to the Captain America mythos. And now, in 2016, Spencer is well-equipped to take the Captain America mantle on its next iteration: battling against the idea of American exceptionalism. It’s a risky move but, then Captain America has always manifested the very best and highest ideals of whatever American era he finds himself in. These days, if that means taking a stand against the xenophobia and fear being espoused by certain political figures, then so much the better. The appeal of superheroes has always been that they can be the heroes we can’t—whether because they’re strong enough to stop a locomotive from plummeting over the tracks, or just because they’re brave enough to speak truth to power. Hopefully, they can inspire us to be better, and Wilson is definitely in the business of inspiring.
Of course, Wilson is also a werewolf right now, which continues to be one of the most delightfully nonessential things I have ever seen and I sort of hope it never changes. He spends the entirety of this issue tied up, forced to hear out the Serpent Solutions’ big monologue, which is about as torturous a fate as I can imagine. He finally manages to retort with one of the lowest blows you could ever read in a comic book. Not for the faint of heart, so if you have a sensitive stomach or are under the age of 21, please stop reading here.
Please send condolences to Viper’s surviving friends and family, because he absolutely did not survive a burn that harsh.
And we haven’t even gotten to the issue’s big reveal of the All-New, All-Different Falcon—partially because the tease last issue was so strong that this counts less as a reveal than a confirmation of a suspicion most readers already had. But yes, it appears that Joaquin Torres, having survived being genetic experimentation, now has his own set of wings, some weird, birdy eyes, and a psychic link to Redwing. He gets ably set up here to be a new, worthy Falcon to Wilson’s Captain America, which—to my knowledge—would make him Marvel’s first superhero to have migrated to the states illegally.
And lest you think being here illegally would offset Torres’ sense of nationalistic pride, he’s only got one thing on his mind as he soars over New York City in an attempt to save Sam from the Serpents…
Okay, two things.
Torres’ story is somehow both the overarching narrative of the issue while still feeling rushed at the end. Despite getting a terrific cover from Daniel Acuna, this story’s focus jumps around a lot, and Torres’ backstory takes the biggest hit. It’ll be interesting to see how he fairs fighting alongside Sam next issue, which seems likely enough given how things are left here. Spencer’s ear for banter is one of Marvel’s sharpest, and giving Sam and Misty Knight an untested newcomer to bounce off of is loaded with potential.
But in the meantime, Spencer continues to steer this ship in the right direction. This issue features a villainous cabal of snake-themed supervillains spewing Trumpist bigotry to a werewolf Captain America who gets rescued by a genetically mutated migrant teenager with a psychic link the werewolf’s pet hawk. I’m not even sure that sentence would be anything more than a mishmash of arbitrarily chosen words in anyone else’s hands, but Spencer manages to make it all not just coherent, but thrilling, emotionally engaging and culturally relevant. That’s a feat in and of itself.