The Politics of Captain America

Since taking over the writing duties for Sam Wilson: Captain America in October of 2015, Nick Spencer has had a bit of a polarizing run.  There was already dissent (as there always is…sigh) over the fact that Sam Wilson had taken up Steve Rogers’ shield (with Steve’s blessing) as Captain America since he’d lost his Super Soldier Serum.  Far from shying away from the controversy though Spencer has embraced it.  In addition to the usual super villain set, Sam’s confronted polarizing political issues including immigration, racism, corporate greed, using fear to sell a political message, and police brutality.  This naturally begs the question – should a character like Captain America embrace a political message at all?

Captain America 1

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Brilliantly, Nick Spencer has the comic’s plot mirror the real-life controversy surrounding Sam Wilson picking up the shield of Captain America and then engaging in partisan politics.  Why a certain segment of fandom gets so upset when a new character (especially if they are…gasp!…a minority or woman) takes the mantle of an established hero is something I’ll never understand.  As I’ve written before, I think it only strengthens a comic’s ability to serve our culture as a myth.  But people still get upset so, to reflect that, there is a clear (and vocal) current running through the American public in the Marvel Universe that feels Sam is undeserving of wearing the costume and carrying the shield.  And the vocal protest in the comic only grows when Sam steps in the middle of contentious political issues.  That’s understandable.  We project a great deal of ownership over the characters we love and to see them wrestling with something as charged as political messages (especially if we don’t agree with the view being offered) can be unsettling.

I think there’s a lot of people who would instinctively balk at the idea of a comic book having a political component to its narratives.  But, personally, I think it has a place.  Certainly not all comic books have this facet to their stories but we live in an age where the genre seems remarkably inclusive with the variety of stories they tell.  Tom King’s The Vision is a haunting, existential reflection on the nature of being.  Ryan North’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Kate Leth’s Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat deliver wild, absurd, and insanely intelligent hilarity each month.  Ms. Marvel can balance superheroing with remarkable theological depth and present social justice issues.  Black Panther explores the nature of terrorism and the geopolitical landscape.  And of course we have scores of “classic” superhero titles like The Amazing Spider-Man, Deadpool, The Mighty Thor, The Invincible Iron Man, or The Totally Awesome Hulk doing what superheroes always do.  Why then should political discourse be excluded?

Symbol 15

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

America is frighteningly divided at the present moment.  More often than not, it feels as though we aren’t even trying to listen to each other anymore.  Even more disturbing, the existence of 24 hour news networks have forced “news” to become “entertainment” in the quest for ratings, allowing people to watch the networks that already cater to their preconceived notions.  As a result, people can avoid thinking or being challenged at all costs, only watching programs that tell them their uninformed opinions are correct.  Things like “facts” and “history” are regularly discarded as people honestly believe they can will whatever unfounded opinion they may hold into truth.  If Captain America isn’t addressing this…then, really, what’s the point of the character?

Sam Wilson: Captain America #1 begins with a lengthy narration that sets the tone of the series.  Sam reflects on how Steve Rogers tended to stay above the political fray…but he feels compelled to act.  “Let’s just be honest here – this country is as divided as it’s ever been” Sam says.  He continues:

Captain America 16

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

However, things don’t go as Sam hoped and, as a result of his speech, he soon finds himself on the outs with both S.H.I.E.L.D. specifically and the U.S. government in general.  Again, Spencer has the comic mirror the sentiments those types of political stances often provoke in real life.  Captain America becomes an even greater polarizing figure inside the Marvel Universe, realistically exaggerating the opinions of those who condemn anyone with a view opposing their own as being unpatriotic and/or deserving of prison.

Captain America 14

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

But Captain America doesn’t allow bad press stop him.  He isn’t looking to win public opinion polls; he’s looking to protect the country.  In so doing, Sam sets up a hotline allowing anyone who witnesses an injustice to request his help.  This leads Captain America to the U.S./Mexican border in Tucson, Arizona and a confrontation with the Sons of the Serpent – an armed militia group attacking Mexicans crossing into the United States.

Captain America 7

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

The Sons of the Serpent serve perfectly as an allegory for a very specific school of thought in America.  Those with an idolatrous love of guns far outpacing the historical reality of the Second Amendment, those who champion closing our borders and/or mass deportations despite the very real unconstitutionality of such actions, those who feel the only acceptable cultural expression in this country is what they personally define as “American” (which is almost always exclusively white too), those who embrace the modern Nazi Party or the KKK as acceptable  mentalities are all reflected in the Sons of the Serpent.  And, in Nick Spencer’s first issue of Sam Wilson: Captain America, he has Captain America stand against them.

Captain America 19

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

This was not a storyline everyone found acceptable.  The MacIver Institute claimed Captain America now “beats up conservatives.”  And Fox and Friends host Tucker Carlson wondered, “So who is this Serpent?  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.”  That’s…okay, there’s a lot that can be deconstructed in those statements.  But I’m going to focus on two points.

First, the idea that what the Sons of the Serpent represent is “Conservative” deeply bothers me.  I have several very close friends who identify as Conservative.  Are they parodies of/actual members of hate groups?  No!  What the Sons of Serpent are championing has nothing to do with traditional Conservative values.  Go back and re-read those panels above.  Can you ever imagine Ronald Regan saying something like what the Supreme Serpent is advocating?  Or George W. Bush?  No.  What the Sons of the Serpent represent shouldn’t be the face of Conservatism in America.  And if anyone, Conservative or otherwise, believes it is…then we have a serious problem.

Second, Tucker Carlson seems to be implying that Captain America should be fighting Islamic extremists.  The demonization of Muslims already runs rampant in our culture.  If our comic book superheroes are to serve us as mythic guides in any way, they must illustrate the best in us.  They must, through their struggles, help show us the way into the light and help elevate us.  To further perpetuate the hateful illusion that Islam is a terrorist faith or a threat doesn’t help anyone.

Captain America 17

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

And helping is exactly what superheroes do.  Imagine for a second, if you will, that superheroes – exactly as we envision them in our comic books – existed in real life.  Let’s say these people with superhuman powers, operating in an often vigilante way outside of the law, with their pristine comic-level moral compasses, were actually real and lived in our world.  Where do you think they’d be?  Can you imagine Tony Stark or Reed Richards using their super intellects to build a wall across the southern border of the country?  Honestly?  Can you imagine Thor, Black Widow, or Spider-Man patrolling the border and capturing or turning away the men, women, and children looking for safety and a better life?  I can’t.  These characters are supposed to represent our best human ideals and, when we are at our best, we engage in inclusion, compassion, acceptance and an altruistic sacrifice for the other not hate, fear, and selfish preservation.

This is reflected in the current controversy Sam’s facing in Sam Wilson: Captain America #9-12.  Beginning in the closing pages of issue #9 we meet the Americops.  The Americops are the most powerful private law enforcement agency ever assembled in the country.  Founded (and funded) by Paul Keane of Keane Industries and “enthusiastically backed” by Texan Senator Tom Herald, the joint venture illustrates the establishment’s frightening reluctance to acknowledge the problem of police brutality in the country.

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The Americops in action. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Like the Sons of the Serpent before them, the Americops serve as an allegory for police brutality and the violent and often deadly targeting of minorities occuring with frightening regularity in the United States.  The idea of police misconduct can be another polarizing topic in the U.S. with shouts of “All Lives Matter!” echoing whenever the Black Lives Matter movement is discussed.  But this is ignoring reality.  To quote from Tyler Huckabee’s elegant article “The Problem With Saying ‘All Lives Matter’ ” (which I’d encourage you to read for yourself here), “The idea that racism remains a very real reality in America is contentious, but it shouldn’t be. The studies proving anti-black racism remains a common, if not foundational reality of everyday American life are too numerous to cite in one article.”  As a result:

when people say “Black Lives Matter,” they are acknowledging an important context that involves several centuries of slavery, civil rights, mass incarceration and brutality. It’s specifically highlighting the value of black lives because, historically, this country has often ignored that value.  The problem is “All Lives Matter” is that it ignores context…as The Daily Beast’s Arthur Chu says, like someone who “runs through a cancer fundraiser screaming ‘THERE ARE OTHER DISEASES TOO.’” The context of “Black Lives Matter” is not that other lives don’t. The context of “Black Lives Matter” is that the value of black lives remains under assault in the United States.

And disturbingly this assault is regularly coming, in part, at the hands of our law enforcement agencies.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

The U.S. Department of Justice recently published the results of their extensive investigation into the Baltimore Police Department.  The whole document is worthy of a read, casting this debated issue into unnerving reality.  Among many other points it affirms:

This pattern or practice is rooted in BPD’s deficient supervision and oversight of officer activity, leading directly to a broad spectrum of constitutional and statutory violations. This lack of supervision and oversight includes BPD’s failure to use effective and widely accepted methods to supervise officers, collect and analyze data on officer activity, and classify, investigate, and resolve complaints of misconduct. This pattern or practice is also manifested in several ways that violate specific constitutional and statutory provisions: (1) BPD stops, searches, and arrests individuals on Baltimore streets without the reasonable suspicion or probable cause required by the Fourth Amendment; (2) BPD disproportionately stops, searches, and arrests African Americans in violation of Title VI and the Safe Streets Act, and this disparate impact, along with evidence suggesting intentional discrimination against African Americans, exacerbates community distrust of the police; (3) BPD uses unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment; (4) BPD violates the First Amendment rights of Baltimore residents by using force or otherwise retaliating against individuals exercising constitutionally protected activity, such as public speech and filming police activity; and (5) BPD’s use of force against individuals with mental health disabilities or experiencing crisis violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (Pages 21-22).

Remember, this isn’t some “liberal propaganda” piece.  This is from the U.S. Department of Justice.  We may wish that this was an isolated incident but, as the news routinely illustrates, this is a systemic cancer growing in the United States.  So again we must ask ourselves, given this reality, if superheroes as we envision them in our comic books were real, what would they be doing?

Symbol 12

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

I think Nick Spencer, regardless of all of the discomfort that may come with reading these stories, captures it correctly.  If Captain America were alive in our country today as we picture him in the comic books I can’t imagine the scenario where he’d stand idly by and do nothing.

But Spencer’s layered portrayal of the problem isn’t as simple as “good Captain America battles evil cops.”  There’d be no accuracy there, depicting the situation without the nuance and layers occuring in reality.  Rather, Captain America finds the aggressive Americops on one side (representing the violent profiling to be found in our police force) and Rage, one time New Warrior and regularly angry superhero, (representing the scary potential for violence to erupt when someone feels persecuted with no chance at justice) on the other.  Sam tries to get everyone to calm down, to talk and to listen…but neither Rage nor the Americops are interested in that.  Serving as an allegory for the country yet again, violence erupts with Captain America caught in the middle trying to find a peaceful solution.

Captain America 12

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

In this way, Nick Spencer is using Sam Wilson specifically and the identity of Captain America generally to serve as a stand-in for America as a country.  America is on a precarious tipping point.  Regardless of whether you identify as liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, Independent, or just plan unsure…you can feel the animosity in the air.  From debates over gun rights to immigration to a presidential election that (I fear) hasn’t even begun to hit its toxic stride yet, it almost feels as if there’s an emotional explosion always hanging in the air.  We battle each other, fighting for the right to define what America is while it feels like the actual, historical idea of the country itself is in the middle, seeking a peaceful solution but unable to figure out how to find one.

Captain America 18

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

In Nick Spencer’s talented hands, this Captain America as America allegory continues to become more multifaceted in Sam Wilson: Captain America #12, which was released Wednesday.  Now Sen. Tom Herald, Paul Keane, and talk radio host Harry Hauser contact the U.S. Agent to forcible take Sam Wilson’s shield from him and return it to Steve Rogers.  As they work to persuade U.S. Agent of the necessity of the task, they discuss very clearly what is and isn’t the purpose of the symbol that is Captain America.  Keane tells U.S. Agent, “Millions of concerned Americans like us – who are watching the mantle of Captain America be tarnished by a man who tramples on the Constitution and defies everything our country stands for….Captain America is supposed to be a symbol – he’s supposed to bring us together.  But Wilson just wants to divide us.  He’s torn the country apart.”  Who’s vision of the country is correct?  Or, rather, who has the right to define the modern America?

These are questions that, honestly, keep me up at night.  I often lament the dual reality that I truly believe in humanity’s ability to transform our world into something so much better and brighter (I wouldn’t be a theology teacher if I didn’t)…but I no longer see a way to even begin this process.  How can we seek to transform, if we can’t even listen to someone who doesn’t agree with us?  How can we engage the best in ourselves when we allow fear or selfishness to motivate our decision making process?  Or ignore the very real (and very dangerous) reality of racism?  Or champion closing borders and mass deportation while the Statue of Liberty still sits in New York Harbor proclaiming, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”?

Nick Spencer is bold enough to believe that Sam Wilson: Captain America is just the sort of place where we should wrestle with these issues and maybe, hopefully, begin to consider a way back to unity and mutual respect.  And, before anyone claims that having Sam Wilson confront the sorts of issues he does and take the sorts of stands he does contradicts who Captain America’s always been or that it’s an attempt to wrap a modern political agenda around a character once above this sort of partisan politics we should look closely at Steve Rogers’ history.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

As Steven Attewell illustrates in his brilliantly researched and passionately written essay “Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero,” we see, “unlike other patriotic superheroes (like Superman, for example), Captain America is meant to represent the America of the Four Freedoms, the Atlantic Charter, and the Second Bill of Rights – a particular progressive ideal.”  He was an Irish-Catholic kid growing up in New York’s lower east side who first tries to join the army before Pearl Harbor was even attacked, because he rejected fascism as an ideal.  Attewell outlines, “Historically, Marvel writers have been very consistent on this point: When Rogers’ ideals are violated, such as when Nixon commits suicide over Marvel’s version of the Watergate affair, rather than accept a cover-up Rogers resigns in protest…Likewise, when he’s replaced by the right-wing ‘Super-Patriot’ (created by Mark Gruenwald to ’embody patriotism in a way that Captain America didn’t – a patriotic villain’) in 1986, Steve Rogers is impelled to take him on.”  Of course, in 2006-2007’s now classic mega crossover Civil War – meant to mirror the controversy surrounding the Patriot Act – Steve led the opposition forces championing civil liberties.

Captain America 21

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

So it seems clear that Captain America shouldn’t just be embracing a political message but that embracing a progressive political message is central to the very core of Captain America as a character.  Attewell outlines in great detail how, since the inception of Captain America in the 1940s, he has, “embodied not a narrow xenophobic nationalism but an internationalist spirit in which New Deal and anti-fascist values went hand-in-hand with pro-Allied internationalism….So no, there’s nothing ‘revisionist’ or ‘politically correct’ about portraying Steve Rogers as an explicitly progressive superhero.  Without that, he wouldn’t be Captain America.”  In making Sam Wilson a champion of a politically progressive message Nick Spencer is tying Sam Wilson: Captain America to the political mindset that has always guided Steve Rogers as a character and Captain America as a comic book.

Captain America’s politics are clear, both those of Sam Wilson since he picked up the shield in 2015 and Steve Rogers since he was first injected with his Super Solider Serum in 1941.  But our country remains murkier.  The questions we have to answer – What will we do?  Who are we? – hang in the air.  I’ll continue to toss and turn over the road to resolution and transformation at night but I’ll also sleep a little bit easier knowing Nick Spencer’s Sam Wilson: Captain America is out there trying to show us the way.

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