Whew. After an exposition-heavy first issue that spent a lot of time with introductions, Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuna waste no time in jumping right to the action in a deeply layered second issue that manages thrilling action and nuanced characterization, even though it’s almost entirely told in backstory.
We pick up with Sam Wilson on the same transcontinental flight he was on in the last issue, stuck between two information-addled frat bros, defending his young legacy as the new Captain America. The frat bros have it figured through the Twitter pipeline that Sam got himself arrested by Steve Rogers in Arizona. They’re only partly wrong, as it turns out. Steve didn’t arrest Sam, but the two former best friends are definitely on the outs, and Sam explains why in a narrative brimming with real world application and current events; one that, blessedly, shies away from easy partisan stereotypes.
That’s particularly noteworthy given the stink Fox and Friends made over last month’s issue, on account of Sam Wilson sticking up for a group of Mexicans attempting to cross the border. This issue doubles down on Sam’s cause—Donald Trump won’t be getting an endorsement from Captain America anytime soon—but it picks up an equally contentious and possibly more complex issue in the process: government overreach.
It seems a shadowy government whistle-blower known only as “The Whisperer” leaked a SHIELD proposal to stockpile Cosmic Cube fragments in case they ever need to “make changes in reality” (for those not in the know, the Cosmic Cube—called The Tesseract in the Captain America and Avengers movies—is a classic Marvel Mcguffin that allows the user to reshape reality as they see fit. Pretty nifty.) SHIELD defends the proposal. After all, as Director Maria Hill says, if the Cosmic Cube could be used to prevent tragedy with a “minor, carefully considered use of this program, shouldn’t we? Isn’t that our obligation?”
Hills’s speech sounds ripped from defenses of the Patriot Act, but Captain America writer Spencer wisely avoids spending too much time getting hung up on the rightness or wrongness of the U.S. government’s authority to remake reality as it sees fit. Both Sam and Steve waste no time in telling SHIELD where they can stick the proposal. Where they part ways is on what should be done about The Whisperer him (or her!) self. Their argument provides the backbone of the issue, and one of the most resonant comic book conflicts since Tony Stark proposed a Superhuman Registration Act.
Steve wants to bring the Whisperer to justice for leaking classified SHIELD documents. He has faith that the U.S. court system will be fair. Sam has no such faith, and no interest in pursuing anyone who broke the law for the good of the country.
It’s not the most subtle Snowden metaphor I’ve ever read, but Spencer wisely avoids easy characterization here. When Steve and Sam’s disagreement gets bitter, Sam offers a poignant summary of where they part ways. It works as a pretty fair assessment of a similar divide in America today.
Acuna’s art is just fantastic here, particularly in his rendering of Steve, who remains an imposing presence even without the Super Soldier Serum. And both Acuna and Spencer deserve credit for embracing one of the dicier aspects of Wilson’s character: namely, his canonical telepathic link to birds.
Some writers have chosen to avoid that detail altogether, figuring having a man with wings stretches credulity enough without adding in the ability to psychically communicate with every single bird in the world—like an avian spin on parseltongue. Spencer makes it clear that bird friendships are going to be a real part of Sam’s character (Sam’s pet hawk, Redwing, saves his bacon not once, but twice in this issue), and it’s to Acuna’s credit that the depictions never feel like too much of a stretch.
He also does great work with Misty Knight, keeping her faithful to her classic ’70s appearance without her looking like a walking anachronism. That said, it’s now been two issues in a row that Misty has walked on to yell at Sam about for a couple panels before vanishing. Her rant in this issue about how she’s not getting enough attention is a delight, but it’s frustratingly accurate.
Mind you, readers are getting filled in on all this while we’re also following Sam’s attempts to figure out just why the Sons of the Serpent are so interested in kidnapping immigrants—attempts that eventually involve a run-in with Armadillo. That’s a villain you may not have heard of, but Sam has. What’s more, Sam had once promised to help cure of him of his armadillo-ness. That promise, evidently, took a backseat to more pressing matters.
That’s a pretty somber inner monologue to process in the middle of a splendidly rendered fight scene. This issue separates Sam from Steve not only in their American ideals, but also their feet of clay. Whether or not you believe Steve’s bleeding heart optimism about America is irrelevant. Steve believes it, and as Captain America, he lived it. Sam isn’t Steve Rogers, either in his values or his sheer capacity to inspire greatness. Steve was known everywhere as a living legend. Although he had no true super powers, he was more like DC’s Superman than anyone else in the Marvel Universe—a godlike reminder of humanity’s potential for greatness. Sam, it seems, is more a reminder of our potential for goodness. He makes mistakes. He gets called on the carpet. Just about everyone second guesses his decisions. But he’s trying to do the right thing, even if that puts him at odds with his former mentor, partner and friend.
The divide between Steve and Sam doesn’t look like its going to be rectified soon, but that’s not even the most dire of Sam’s issues right now. It seems Sam and the Whisperer are still in touch (any guesses as to the true identity of the Whisperer? Nick Fury? Sharon Carter? Someone new?) and he’s getting intel on Karl Malus, an evil geneticist and frequent thorn in Spider-Woman’s side who is apparently behind the immigrant kidnappings. Last we saw of Malus, he’d been eaten alive by Superior Carnage but, well, death is about the least permanent thing in all the Marvel universe, so it should surprise virtually no one that he’s back to cause trouble. But he really needn’t bother. Sam’s got more than enough compelling conflict going on in his life, even without bad guys.