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(Comics) A Wolf for the People: Sam Wilson’s First 100 Days as Captain America

Reading 150Sam Wilson has not had an easy time of it during his short stint with the shield. He’s basically operating on a shoestring budget out of the basement of a neighborhood church, with only two (testy) people on his staff and no resources. He’s on the “wrong” side of an ideological difference with his best friend and former mentor, Steve Rogers; that same difference has caused most of the public to turn against him. And, for four issues, he was transformed into a wolf/human hybrid against his will by a mad doctor.

Fortunately for us, Sam’s trouble is our delight. The first six issues of Sam Wilson: Captain America makes a bold statement about how he handles the responsibility of being a symbol; writer Nick Spencer positions Wilson as a superhero in an intensely divided country, so no matter what he does he’s going to piss off half the population. Still, Wilson takes a stand even though it’s unpopular, because he’s learned the only lesson worth knowing from Rogers. In order to be worthy of the costume, you have to live up to your morals unflinchingly.

What makes Sam so interesting as Cap is that his morality is so different from Steve’s. Their big rift comes from the fallout of learning that SHIELD has been working on a Cosmic Cube that has the power to reshape reality. The person who leaked this information, an Edward Snowden-type known only as The Whisperer, was nearly caught until Sam helped him — he believed that blowing the whistle on SHIELD’s activities is a public service that he shouldn’t be punished for. Rogers, on the other hand, thinks that though The Whisperer did the right thing, he should still be brought to trial for his actions. Wilson doesn’t believe it’s possible to trust due process in this case, but Rogers does. It’s the difference between Lawful Good and Neutral Good.

That rift deepens when Wilson takes on a militia appointing themselves as border patrol to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, and it’s there he discovers people are being taken and experimented on by Dr. Malus. On the run from SHIELD and Rogers, Wilson is captured and turned into Cap-Wolf, which is the real reason you folks should get these issues. Of course.

Wilson’s investigation takes him through the business world, where Serpent Solutions is making a power-play on behalf of other corporations. The commentary on the current state of corporate politics is a little more ham-fisted, but Sam’s resolution of the arc is surprising yet pragmatic; what I love about the way the story winds down is his realization that ideals don’t happen in a vacuum. Choices have far-reaching consequences, because at this point of American life everything is connected. You can’t advance your morality without stepping on a political landmine, and those politics are deeply influenced by gigantic corporate interests whose success and failure affect the livelihood of millions. If you shut down one thing, you begin a cascade that quickly spirals outside of your control.

Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson have different ways of reacting to the system. Rogers’ Captain America was wholly inspirational; he wanted to be the physical embodiment of the best principles America was founded upon. He believes that the system works, but only as long as the people within it strive for the ideals they serve to the best of their ability. Wilson’s Captain America isn’t so sure; he believes that the system is rigged and leaves out a lot of people who can’t defend themselves against it, and those are the people he wishes to serve.

The Whisperer is the embodiment of that difference in opinion. Since Steve believes in the system, he believes that he can convince people to do the right thing and justice will prevail. But Wilson understands that even if they win in the courtroom, other connected threads will act to preserve the status quo however it can. The system will protect its own, and Steve is inextricably tied to it. Sam has always been an outsider, so his morality doesn’t depend on that allegiance.

So who IS Captain America these days? What interest does he serve? As our understanding of the government shifts and our ideas about what it should and should not be doing changes, every once in a while we need to step back and check on that. I love that Nick Spencer is really diving into that through Sam’s turbulent first days on the job, and I’m really curious how Wilson’s journey continues. There is going to be a lot more fighting for him coming up — Avengers: Standoff is getting into full-swing, and there won’t even be time to take a breath before Civil War II lights up comic stores this summer. Somewhere in all of that, Steve Rogers will don the mantle of Captain America once more, giving us two versions of the hero serving two different visions of America.

Maybe, at this point, that’s the best we can hope for.

 

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The Month in Comics – October 2015

Reading 150I fell back into comics this month, and I fell a little hard. It was a perfect opportunity to check up on things, actually — the first wave of Marvel’s revamped universe was shipped under the All-New, All-Different Marvel banner. Even though the big summer event that allowed them to shuffle the deck hasn’t ended yet due to delays, it’s still a good time to check in and see all the stuff the House of Ideas is doing with their flagship franchises.

I talked a bit about the comics I was planning to buy here, and on what platform, and why. Once I got in to my local comic shop, though, I realized just how much I missed spending time there. Anna and the gang at Illusive Comics work really hard to make it a community shop for the geeks in Santa Clara, and they want it to be as safe and welcoming a space as possible. I’ve got to support that, so I dusted off my old pull box and will be steadily stocking up on title subscriptions there. This might mean a smaller reliance on Comixology, but that’s just fine with me. Amazon borked the service quite a bit when they bought it, and I’ve been reluctant to go back to it ever since.

Anyway, I picked up a few Marvel titles last month — Sam Wilson: Captain America, the next volume of Guardians of the Galaxy, Howling Commandos of SHIELD, and two Star Wars miniseries, Chewbacca and Shattered Empire. I’m holding back on Uncanny Inhumans, and will probably go digital there. I’ve also picked up a few non-Marvel titles: Archie (from Waid and Staples), Jughead (from Zdarsky) and Bad Moon Rising, because I’m a sucker for a cover with a really intriguing werewolf.

I’ve only read three or four issues out of my haul, so next month’s write-up will be a bit beefier. For now, though, a few thoughts on what I’ve seen so far.

THE NEW CAPTAIN AMERICA
Sam Wilson made headlines last month with the first issue of his new series, and reading it I can totally see why. Nick Spencer is taking Captain America closer to the streets here; Sam wants the shield to be more than just a symbol, but something that regular Americans see and care about. Steve Rogers was more aspirational in his role as Captain, staying above the political fray as much as possible and making sure every single action he took reflected his ideals. Not a bad tack to take, but I could see how it wouldn’t work for Sam.

Besides, Steve has worked for SHIELD and the US Government for how long? He knows what they’re capable of, and his decision to change the way it works from the inside is something he has a fairly good chance of doing. However, Sam’s experience as a black man dealing with institutions he and his community has been disenfranchised with for so long leads him to simply abandoning them and trying to affect change on his own. That makes sense, too — even though it makes it that much harder.

Sam’s first story takes him to Arizona, where the Sons of the Serpent are rounding up illegal immigrants for some unknown purpose. I’m impressed that neither he nor Nick Spencer, the writer, is taking baby steps with this; they both know the shit-storm that’ll come down as a result of these choices, and they do it anyway. It’s a bold statement, not just for the character and the writer, but for Marvel itself. I know we’ve said Cap has always been political; while that may be true, it’s very rare that he’s been this topical.

I dig the hardscrabble nature of Sam’s operation, and Misty Knight, his right-hand gal, is lifted straight from a 70s blaxploitation movie in the best possible way. There’s a hint of romance there, because of course there is, but with Captain America and the new Thor kissing somewhere down the line in the new Avengers comic who knows what’ll happen there. I hope that they don’t introduce relationship troubles before the team’s really had a chance to come together.

Still, the strength of this first issue and the boldness of its choices has earned this a spot on my pull list; now that I know Sam has made the choice to distance himself from SHIELD and the government, it makes me a lot more intrigued to see if the All-New, All-Different Avengers will take a similar stance that promotes the idea that superheroics are best left outside the shifting landscape of the political theatre.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
My engagement with Bendis took a major hit over the course of his X-Men tenure; the quippy, crackling dialogue that worked so well with Ultimate Spider-Man didn’t translate so well to what was happening with the mutant corner of the Universe, and the direction he’s taken them is something I have a few issues with. Using Beast as a catalyst for his run — by breaking the time-stream to bring the original five X-Men forward to the present — has seen Hank McCoy’s character pretty badly damaged over the past few years; we’ll see how all of that shakes out with his run-ending Uncanny X-Men #600.

But what does this have to do with the Guardians? Well, a lot of the problems that Bendis brought to the X-Men have popped up with the Guardians, too. The dialogue, while pretty snappy, doesn’t quite fit all of the characters, and the plotting is so loose that there’s not a good chance to really get a feel for the title or the team. I was hoping that this new volume would be a chance to introduce a new status quo for the Guardians that would see them somewhat more stable, but the first issue makes me a little nervous.

Peter Quill — Star-Lord — has taken over as leader of the Spartax Empire and left the group, which means Rocket is the de-facto leader. The Guardians spend the first issue stealing an unknown artifact from the Chitauri, and that serves as an introduction to the new team — Rocket, Groot, Drax and Venom are joined by The Thing and Kitty Pride, who’s taken on the mantle of Star-Lady. (But where’s Lockheed?)

In order to find out what the thing does, the Guardians visit an obviously unhappy Peter and it’s clear they’re not on the best of terms with each other for various reasons. But before they can do much in the way of expositing, the issue ends with the appearance of two people — one the ally, the other, a villain.

It’s all a bit…shallow. There isn’t any room for deeper character beats, and the plot points don’t even get a chance to sink in before we’re on to the next thing. It makes me wonder if Bendis simply can’t write team books all that well; while he’s really able to do amazing work with single character books, I’m really not digging his team stuff. Maybe it’d be better to pick up Iron Man and drop this title? I don’t know.

Next month will see The Ultimates, Extraordinary X-Men (Welcome to Marvel, Jeff Lemire!) and a whole host of other titles for ANAD Marvel, and I’m sure I’ll pick up a lot more titles than I mean to. See you then!

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2015 in Comic Books, Reviews

 

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