In the wake of Secret Empire’s conclusion, Nick Spencer stepped away from Captain America, the title he shepherded for Marvel from October 2015 through September 2017. During this time he handled the majority of Sam Wilson’s iconic turn as Cap as well as the (infamously controversial) Hydra corruption of Steve Rogers, resulting in Steve becoming a fanatical white supremacist. Amidst the most soul-crushing, hopeless storyline I’ve ever read in a comic, Spencer orchestrated the resurrection of hope in a way so authentically powerful, I felt as though I’d been reborn along with Steve Rogers. Now, in the Marvel Legacy era, Rodney Barnes has taken over writing the brand-new Falcon series while Mark Waid has taken over Captain America. For me, the results have been mixed.
Nick Spencer’s time writing Cap (both Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers) will forever stand as one of the most important stories I’ve read, in any genre. Yes, it was controversial, but he had the courage to ask pertinent questions, making his readers look at the reality of the world around us and daring us to hope in the face of utter hopelessness. If Captain America isn’t the character who should handle such topics, then who is? Spencer showed us an uncompromising vision of evil, blatant hatred in the form of rising fascism, but he also taught us how right can win in the end. Using Steve Rogers’ return in Secret Empire #10, Spencer showed us, “there can only be one choice when confronted by this kind of evil. You do not run. You do not hide. You stand — and you fight. You stand — and you fight. Stand — and fight. Stand — and fight. Until you cannot stand any longer. This is how you are tested. And how your enemy is tested.” Using Sam Wilson’s arc, he illustrated the truth that we can’t hope to overcome corruption if we break after only one battle. We must rise, again and again, refusing to back down. In so doing, things will begin to change. This was the story we needed. This was the story of our times.
I was sad to see this era come to an end, although I understand Spencer’s desire to move on. What do you do with a character after you’ve taken them to the darkest of lows and most jubilant of highs? Still, it was hard to imagine anyone else handling Sam or Steve’s journey with the emotional aftermath of a story as profound and far-reaching as Secret Empire. But, as is always the case with the comic medium, a new day dawned and I found Rodney Barnes’ Falcon #1 and Mark Waid’s Captain America #695 waiting for me in my file at my local comic shop.
The setup written for the intro/recap page of Falcon #1 speaks to the scars both his time as Captain America and the war with Steve Rogers and Hydra have left on Sam Wilson’s heart and soul. It tells the readers Sam is, “embarking on a new mission, to decide what kind of hero he wants to be.”
Sam Wilson heads to Chicago along with his new protégé, Rayshaun Lucas, the Patriot. The issue opens with Falcon stopping an outbreak of gang violence. At a public ceremony afterwards, the mayor praises him while promising to “prosecute every low-life thug that plagues our quality of life.” Sam counters with the reminder, “The gang problem is one that locking people up won’t solve. Along with local law enforcement and community leaders, I’m hoping to help heal the situation.” In a few pages Barnes has painted Sam Wilson as someone who is looking to help people from the ground up. He is aware that simply punching bad guys does nothing to stop gang warfare and that other circumstances – our prison system, poverty, unemployment, educational inequalities, systemic racism, etc. – are responsible for people joining gangs and turning to a life of crime. This feels like Sam Wilson. It’s tonally and thematically consistent with the history of the character and ties to where he was after his time as Captain America and the war with Hyrda. This feels like the next step of Sam’s story.
The emotional fallout of Steve’s betrayal and the scars of Secret Empire are what led Sam to Chicago in the first place. While Sam and Rayshaun are trying to organize a truce between the Spanish Kings and the Southstone Rangers, Chicago’s two biggest gangs, there is more than a desire to make the streets safer motivating Sam’s actions. We see this when Rayshaun asks him directly:
Shaun – “Why are we here? I mean, I know we’re helping the Kings and the Rangers make peace, but why are we really here?”
Sam – “Steve being a traitor validated every cynic who felt America was an idealized metaphor for the dominant culture’s survival and the minority’s suffering. I can’t let that idea take hold. People need hope.”
Yes! This is Sam Wilson! This is why I loved him as Captain America and am still happy to follow him now that he’s back as the Falcon. But it’s not just lip service; Secret Empire’s shadow is all through the story. When they get the gangs to agree to sit down and talk, the mayor doesn’t trust it, citing Sam’s inability to see Steve Rogers’ Hydra allegiance over all those years. How Steve lied to him for decades is something Sam is clearly wrestling with himself. The effects of Secret Empire are still hanging in the air.
Barnes explores the psychological effects something like that would have on Sam while anchoring the story in a strong social justice message and a new menace. Sam is moving forward. Despite what happened to him, Sam still has hope and believes in transformation. At the press conference where the gangs gather for their truce, the head of the Rangers murders the head of the Kings in cold blood and then it’s revealed that they Mayor of Chicago is really the demon Blackheart and is the one pulling all the strings. This is brilliant! I think part of the reason some readers struggled with Nick Spencer’s writing was how direct he was in criticizing systemic sin. I think naming evil and sin directly is necessary and I think art that does it well, as Spencer’s writing always did, is important. However, it undeniably turns some readers off. In this move, Barnes is teaching us truthful and vitally important lessons about systemic oppression, inequality, poverty, and crime but by making the “bad guy” the demon Blackheart he gives the reader a layer of separation. We can learn the lesson without feeling too chastised. He’s honoring who Sam Wilson is (by having him address social justice issues often ignored to the detriment of our culture) while also taking him in a brand-new direction (by having him battle a mystical, demonic force).
The whole thing is incredible and Rodney Barnes had me hooked immediately! In issue #2, the “mayor” tells Sam to leave Chicago or he’ll arrest him for inciting the riot. Sam really struggles with what to do until talking with Shaun and Jericho Drumm (Doctor Voodoo) reminds him of who he is and what his responsibility is. So Sam and Shaun head back out into the chaos to try and bring order…and they are promptly arrested. Issue #3 sees Jericho gets them out of jail and they take the fight to Blackheart.
As Sam and Shaun battle the Kings, their leader Drey tells them they’re siding with Blackheart because he’s giving them a chance – something the world never has. While Barnes is using a demon to teach the lesson, it doesn’t change its truth. People turn to evil, to violence, to crime when they feel they have no other way out. Systemic oppression creates crime and we then punish the criminals, often unfairly, instead of breaking down the system that breeds crime and rebuilding it in the name of justice.
Everything about Falcon is captivating and I can’t wait for it to hit the shelves each month. This is a comic that feels topical and necessary while always feeling like a great superhero comic book. It speaks of systemic oppression and social justice but is also filled with monsters, magic, and menace that have Falcon, Patriot, and Doctor Voodoo calling on all their heroing talents to battle.
Mark Waid’s Captain America, sadly, is another story…
Remember Falcon’s opening/recap page? While Captain America #695 says, “An evil version of Captain America led the world to the brink of destruction. The original Captain American returned in time to stop him, but the dark legacy of the Secret Empire still lingers on – a truth felt by no one more than Steve Rogers himself. Can Steve find his place in a world that has been made to fear Captain America?” I was so excited by this…annnnnnd then Waid did absolutely NOTHING with it.
Issue #695 opens with Steve saving a bunch of school kids (on a field trip to a police department) from white supremacist terrorists in Nebraska shortly after he woke up from the ice. Um…really? We don’t think we’re being too “on the nose” here? “Hey! Look at me! I’m a hero who protects kids from Nazis! There are local police and American flags all around too! We’re in the Midwest!! America!!!!” Ugh.
Then it gets wildly preposterous by saying Steve’s only been out of the ice for ten years. Really? I get it; comic timelines are all but impossible. Yet, with our suspension of disbelief, it can work. But I’m supposed to believe the entire fifty-four year history Cap’s had in the Marvel universe since he was thawed out and joined the Avengers in 1964 has occurred since 2008? For %$#@*&% real? Cap’s whole career has played out since Barack Obama was elected president? Why even put a specific time stamp on it, much less a ridiculous one?!?!? Ugh again.
This town in Nebraska is holding their “Captain America Celebration” on the day Steve returns. People come up to the stage, one after another – of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and professions – to talk about how amazing/important/inspiring Steve Rogers is. One man even says, “You see him up in Washington a few months back, beating the hell outta some Hydra criminal pretending to be him? Cap rescued the whole country. It got pretty awful before Cap stepped up, but they say he had to bust out of a trap first. That sounds about right. He’d never give up on any of us. Sure, lots of people are still angry at him for letting it get as far as it did, and I get it. But those people aren’t here today, are they?” Um…well, where are they? Where is the “the dark legacy of the Secret Empire” that apparently “still lingers on”?
Seriously, I’m not kidding. Based on the story Waid’s telling, it doesn’t seem like anybody anywhere has a problem with Steve Rogers. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?? HIS CORRUPTED HYDRA SELF OBLITERATED LAS VEGAS WITH A NUCLEAR MISSILE!!! THERE WERE INTERNMENT CAMPS AND WAR AND THOUSANDS DIED BECAUSE OF HIM. Yet there seems to be no mistrust or distance or even cognitive dissonance surrounding him in this title at all. It’s like Secret Empire had no effect, anywhere, at all.
Then the same baddies he beat right out of the ice show up again. Naturally Steve beats them again and gives a speech about how the regular people are the real heroes. It’s all well and good but it’s clearly manufactured to be a “safe” and “traditional” Captain America story. It doesn’t fit at all with the man we saw return in Secret Empire #10 or the man we saw facing his demons – or the monster who wears his face – in Secret Empire: Omega. It’s just Cap being Cap…with no connection to anything that’s happened over the last two years. Sam Wilson’s Captain America isn’t present in any form regardless of all the Captain America merch they’re selling at this festival. The final page of Secret Empire #10 clearly shows everyone playing with a Sam Wilson Cap action figure. The message of Secret Empire #10 is clear – both Captain Americas have an important place in our culture. The message of Captain America #695 is apparently Steve Roger’s always been great and no one remembers anything else at all and we’re all happy the end.
It’s insulting and it’s cowardly writing.
I don’t entirely blame Mark Waid for this. He’s been helming some of the most socially conscious, justice-oriented, emotionally complex writing happening at the moment over in Champions. He could’ve written the story Steve Rogers deserved. I think it’s Marvel the company, scared of angry old white male fans who can’t have their worldview threatened by the comic they’ve read for ages, who wanted to back-peddle. I fault Waid for going along with it, but I blame Marvel for wanting (or demanding) such a poor, boring, one-dimensional story for their Legacy Relaunch.
In issue #696, Steve finds his way to a small town near Atlanta, GA. There he stops at a dinner, the locals fawn all over him, he bonds with the diner owner and ultimately has to try and save the town from the new Swordsman who wanted to destroy it.
Most recently, issue #697 has Kraven capture and hunt Steve because the chumps from issue #695 paid him to do it (because I guess Kraven’s a merc now? and all they’ve done with his character in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl doesn’t matter?). These are stories that could be pulled out of any generic period in Captain America’s history. It all makes for great Cap stories – Steve getting out in the country to see the people – but it feels completely divorced from everything that happened in Secret Empire. Steve isn’t getting out to connect to the people and remind them who he is. He’s taking a road trip where anyplace he stops, 100% of the population gush because the greatest celebrity and hero ever has shown up. It feels forced and phony.
In the wake of Secret Empire, Marvel’s given us two comics following two Captain Americas – one former, in Rodney Barnes’ Falcon and one current, in Mark Waid’s Captain America. Falcon is brilliant, intelligent, purposeful, and aware of what’s come before and where it’s going. Captain America is the worst sort of fan pandering. If it wasn’t for Ta-Nehisi Coates taking over with issue #700 – and the incredible respect I have for him as a writer – I would have dropped the title with issue #695. Steve Rogers deserves better. We, his fans, do too. Thankfully we have Falcon to save the day – a title as worthy of Falcon’s rich history as it is of Captain America’s.