Captain America debuted in “Captain America Comics” #1, published in December 1940. That first issue’s cover is pretty iconic, with the star-spangled Steve Rogers punching Adolf Hitler right square in the jaw. That cover isn’t just a summation of the character’s 75-year history, it’s also incredibly political. Cap was making political statements on his very first cover.
Cap socked it to Hitler a full year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and a full year before the United States entered World War II. While there is no questioning the evil of Nazi Germany now, there were plenty of people questioning that evil in 1940. The personal politics of Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby placed that punch on the cover. Simon was even quoted as saying in the book “Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America” that “when the first issue came out we got a lot ofÂ … threatening letters and hate mail. Some people really opposed what Cap stood for.” Captain America’s creation was a political statement. Captain America has been political ever since then, and Captain America is political today.
Someone should tell that to the hosts of “Fox & Friends,” because they were not happy about “Captain America: Sam Wilson” #1. In the issue from writer Nick Spencer and artist Daniel Acuna, the new Captain America (former Falcon Sam Wilson) stops the hate group the Sons of the Serpent from kidnapping and/or murdering a group of people crossing the Mexico border illegally. The hosts cited that very cover — a cover that caused a stir 75 years ago for being too political — as the kind of apolitical fare they want to see in comics. Co-host Heather Childers chimed in, “Keep politics out of comics, that’s what I say.” Since politics have been inextricably tied to superhero comics since day one (the first superhero is an illegal immigrant to Earth), it’d be kinda silly to start separating the two now.
I know that those conservative pundits would rather have the new Captain America do something without political overtones, like punch the leader of a foreign country in the face, but besides that, how should this story have gone down? Should Captain America have let the Sons of the Serpent do what they wanted with the immigrants? Should Cap have diverted his attention from the shotgun-wielding hood-wearing mob to instead scold the unarmed Mexicans? What does their Captain America do in that situation?
The thing is, I think Tucker Carlson did more damage to the conservative ideology with his comments on the issue than the issue itself. “So who is this Serpent?” asked Carlson on “Fox & Friends.” “Is this Serpent an Islamic [extremist], an ISIS member bent on destroying Western civilization? No. The Serpent is an American who has misgivings about unlimited immigration and the costs associated with it. That, according to the comic book, is evil.”
“Misgivings” is a gross oversimplification of the text, my fellow bowtie-enthusiast. The Sons of the Serpent have been around for 50 years and are basically the Marvel Universe’s Ku Klux Klan. Captain America wasn’t fighting a conservative politician from Arizona, nor was he fighting a group of concerned citizens or other Fox News correspondents who have actual misgivings about immigration. He was fighting blatant racists, Marvel’s hooded stand-ins for the most well-known hate group in America. Fox’s target demo should be ashamed of the comparison — specifically when Carlson looked at the camera and said that people with those same ideologies were probably watching.
This level of political involvement isn’t new for Captain America, as Steve Rogers spent his decades carrying the shield becoming involved in political stories. He punched Hitler before America was ready to fight Nazis, he gave up the mantle of Captain America in the wake of a Watergate-level scandal, he considered a run for president, resisted the Patriot Act-esque Superhero Registration Act during “Civil War” and later fought his 1950s stand-in who had become a puppet for a group analogous to the Tea Party. Writers have been making politically relevant Captain America stories since day one, and that’s why this current run, now two issues in, feels so resonant and right today — and that’s why I love it.
If “Captain America” isn’t commenting on the politics of today, is it really “Captain America”?
“Captain America: Sam Wilson” is directly inspired by the world we live in right now; this book could not exist a year ago and, honestly, I hope that our politics progress enough that these issues look wildly dated by fall 2016. In addition to being in touch with today’s strictly partisan political world, the book also has Sam Wilson in the red, white and blue — not Steve Rogers. This is important, and it’s a key factor to Spencer’s take on the title, although it’s yet to be specifically addressed.
Steve Rogers is unimpeachably great. He’s both pulled from the ranks of The Greatest Generation and carries with him the social progressivism of today; the Steve in both the comics and the films does not flinch at seeing women or people of color in positions of power. This guy respects and believes in the goodness of everybody. He’s the embodiment of the idealized past that we all really wish actually existed. He believes in America, he believes in Americans, he believes in doing the right thing.
Sam Wilson is also unimpeachably great, but he’s not a White guy that grew up during the Great Depression; he’s a Black man that grew up in modern times (maybe the ’80s because, you know, Marvel’s kooky sliding timescale?) in Harlem. He’s assumed the mantle of Captain America for a readership that has heard the stories of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and countless others. He’s Captain America during a longer-than-ever presidential election cycle wherein a billionaire has made keeping out undocumented immigrants — and potentially deporting 11 million people — his whole thing. I heard more about a “big, beautiful wall” in the last Republican Debate than I have in every episode of “Property Brothers” I’ve ever watched.
The country is so divided right now that there is absolutely no way for Sam Wilson — a Black Captain America — to be the great unifier that Steve Rogers was. His skin color is seen as a political act by some people, and I’m speaking about real people that cover up racism with claims of being anti-“political correctness.” Every single mantle change Marvel has made over the past year has been met with a lot of hatred from real world human beings. Spencer could have chosen to write an aspirational story about a Black man being a unifying, mad scientist-punching Captain America in today’s not-at-all-post-racial America, but that wouldn’t be right with “Captain America’s” political history. Instead, Spencer is wisely using Sam Wilson and his point of view to explore today’s real world politics.
That’s the premise of the book: this is a Captain America fighting for a country wherein the government spies on its civilians, black people are disproportionally targeted by law enforcement and politicians seek to revert laws that have been on the books for decades. This is a Cap that has to take a side in order to do his job — and Spencer knew exactly how that would play out. All the real world fallout — the headlines and partisan hatred — that happened on TV and online because of issue #1 play out in issue #1. That’s how predictable our political climate is right now; Spencer called his shot months ago.
But the thing that I think detractors missed is that Sam Wilson is not always right, nor is he presented as such, nor are all the other characters presented as being wrong. Good guys — Maria Hill and Steve Rogers — disagree with him on a number of occasions and they’re not reduced to one-dimensional adversaries. The fact that crossing the border undocumented is illegal is mentioned a number of times. This is a book that knows what it’s doing.
In “Captain America: Sam Wilson” #2, the book features a leak of government (S.H.I.E.L.D.) information in a plotline involving an Edward Snowden stand-in called the Whisperer. (Sidenote: Spencer continues his prescience streak by featuring a timely scene wherein Maria Hill stares down a government hearing with some Hillary Clinton swagger) Spoilers ahead. Sam and Steve both act on the leaked S.H.I.E.L.D. intel and condemn the proposal for the heroic government agency to use Cosmic Cube tech to alter reality. Nuance. But they disagree when Maria Hill tracks down the Whisperer’s whereabouts; Sam views this as a grudge-match witch-hunt and believes the Whisperer will never get a fair trial while Steve sees it as bringing someone who broke the law to justice. Neither is portrayed as being absolutely right; the book might seem like it’s coming down on Sam’s side, but that’s because he’s the book’s protagonist. Steve Rogers makes valid points, so does Maria Hill; superheroes can disagree without coming across as villainous.
The issue also shows another side of the immigrant skirmish in issue #1, with Steve pointing out that Sam went into battle against the Sons without having any real proof of the hate group kidnapping or murdering anyone; that’s a point Sam’s partner Misty Knight made in the first issue, too. So while Sam Wilson’s actions as Captain America at the Arizona border were heroic (he saved lives!) he also charged in without any evidence. And the guy guiding all those immigrants illegally? He’s not some liberal folk hero or a stand-up citizen; nope, he’s in cahoots with the Serpents and is helping them traffic people to a mad scientist.
Instead of allowing all the points to be made by superheroes and outright evil criminals, Spencer peppers the script with comments from actual Marvel Americans who feel everything that real Americans do. This is a political book with a left-leaning lead that is simultaneously admirable and fallible, that has a supporting cast of well-portrayed heroes that aren’t afraid to disagree with him, and that gives space to a number of differing opinions through the mouths of everyday Americans.
This is a political book, and “Captain America” shouldn’t be anything else.
Brett White is a writer and comedian living in New York City. He made videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).