Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Drew: Perhaps its ironic that I never knew the origin of the oft-paraphrased quote above, but it actually comes from the first volume of Santayana’s The Life of Reason, published in 1905. In its original context, the quote seeks to balance progressivism with retention of the past. Of course, it’s possible to take that too far, and some might argue that superhero comics are too obsessed with their own history to make any meaningful progress. It’s a difficult balance that I certainly don’t envy trying to strike — fans want new stories, even as they want their favorite stories and characters celebrated — but its one that Captain America 7 aims for. Marvel assembles one hell of a creative lineup for this celebration of Captain America’s 75 year history, but circumstances may have put them all in a no-win situation.
There are plenty of cynics who might see Cap’s 75 year history as 75 years of baggage. I certainly don’t expect one issue to resolve the tensions between celebrating the past and reliving it, but I do have to accept how complicated this issue’s relationship to its own history is. Those complications start on the cover, which celebrates Captain America 1 by cheekily recreating its famous cover.
It’s easy enough to read this as a simple homage, but the density of symbols here is staggering. In particular, I’m baffled at the choice to have Sam punching Steve — not because I think anyone means to suggest that Steve is Hitler, but because that action suggests something much more transgressive than the issue actually backs up.
Indeed, aside from the 8-page prologue, Sam barely features in this issue at all. Instead, this is very much Steve’s story, which is where that devotion to the past becomes so sticky. I mean, I get it: Steve Rogers is a great character with decades of history, and an anniversary of sorts is an entirely appropriate time to reflect on that history. But at the same time, doing so in a series ostensibly about Sam Wilson turns this celebration into a bit of spotlight-stealing. This symbolic gesture becomes all the more troubling when race is considered: Steve’s role as the focus of history only emphasizes his power, and the fact that he can take that focus back instantaneously shows just how tenuous Sam’s power really was.
I’d like to give the creative team the benefit of the doubt and believe that this series was simply the obvious and natural choice for celebrating the history of Captain America. Still, it seems like everyone was at least a little aware of how icky it might be to devote an issue of Captain America: Sam Wilson to a guy that is neither Sam Wilson nor Captain America, basically because he’s old and white. It’s no coincidence that Sam’s name is omitted from that cover, for example, even if that represents its own problematic gesture. More importantly, writer Nick Spencer seems very aware of the awkwardness of the placement of this celebration, giving Sam a more-or-less standalone (if incomplete) adventure before the title page shows us where the real Captain America story starts.
What follows is a 32-page Steve Rogers story, where Sam appears in one panel outside of a flashback montage. Indeed, the Steve Rogers narrative is paced like a standalone story, complete with an opening flash-forward that makes its connection to Sam’s prologue downright confusing. Oddly, Spencer also explicates Bucky’s history with Cap in both the prologue and the main story, which makes me suspect that maybe these were never meant to be read in the same issue. I’m almost inclined to think that there may have at some point been a special anniversary issue planned, and this issue represents a kind of compromise between that and a separate issue of Captain America: Sam Wilson, but I’ll save my conspiracy theories for the comments.
Anyway, like I said, I doubt anyone means for that cover to imply that Steve is Hitler, but given the way this issue highjacks Sam’s narrative, it’s hard not to see Steve as representing the entrenched white male power structures. Unfortunately, nothing in this issue ever deigns to punch such structures in the face. Far from it — the three All-Steve-All-The-Time back-ups serve only to bolster Steve’s centricity. Which I guess brings me to the biggest problem of all: I love all of these stories. Both of Spencer’s stories are fantastic, and I’m particularly enamored of the timeless backups, helmed by all-star creative teams: Joss Whedon and John Cassaday, Tim Sale, and Greg Rucka and Mike Perkins. Spencer manages to give Steve a triumphant return to form, and those backups distill Steve down to his essence.
But — and this is a huge ‘but’ — the symbolism of celebrating Steve Rogers in the middle of Sam Wilson’s story is profoundly troubling. Steve’s inevitable return always represented a kind of existential crisis by-way-of racial appropriation for Sam’s tenure as Cap, but to herald and celebrate that crisis within Sam’s series verges on insulting. I think I could have gotten over the complicated historicity if these stories had a less symbolically-charged venue, but their placement in this issue makes that subtext the text itself, totally derailing any discussion of the content of those stories.
Patrick! I apologize that I didn’t get into any substantive analysis of the actual contents of this issue, but man, I couldn’t ignore the symbolism of the whole thing. Maybe I said enough about that stuff that you can actually comment on the comics (there really is a lot to praise here), but I can’t blame you if you just want to keep parsing this issue’s relationship to its own history.
Patrick: Oh man, Drew, I am sorry, but my take on this issue is even more esoteric than yours! I will agree that it is profoundly icky that an issue that is essentially an entry in Sam Wilson’s series ends up being about the old white man that held the position before him, but I will go so far as to suggest that the ickiness is the point. Further, I don’t think we’re supposed to be thinking about these characters in terms of who they are — ridiculously patriotic superheroes — but who they could easily represent — United States Presidents.
The strings to that metaphor aren’t subtle, but they are brief. Let’s start with Sam, because he does appear to be the victim of this comic’s obsession with the past. When Steve honors Sam with a whopping four panels of flashback exposition, his language is both familiar and a little pedantic.
Just to make sure we’re all reading it the same way, Rogers calls Wilson a “community organizer,” and that’s one of those credits that President Obama was routinely criticized for bandying about by his opponents. Rogers goes on to take kind of a generous, but still adversarial, view of Wilson, saying “I handed him the shield.” Rogers has the agency in that transfer of power. By comparison, on the next page when he touts Bucky’s history, his language favors Bucky’s agency: “he beat their programming” and “he took the mantle and more than proved he was up to the job.” For Steve, the narrative is clear – Bucky was an obvious and worthy successor and Sam was something he tried and didn’t really love.
But I don’t just think that Steve here represents the American public or anything like that. I believe he’s representing the entire history of American Politics. Before Acuña’s stupendous three-quarter-century-spanning splash page exploring Roger’s history in comics, we get one very provocative image nestled between to very comic-booky panels:
Cap for President. That’s two nods to the office of the President — one referring to Steve and one referring to Sam. I know it’d be reductive to say that Steve could represent the entire run of old white Presidents while Sam represents the one, current black President, but the parallels are definitely there. Which makes the cover that Drew mentioned, with Steve taking the place of Hitler, and the whole story of Steve regaining his mantle because that matches up with the idiot-dream of a nostalgia-obsessed child all the more powerful and transgressive.
Which naturally loops back around to the excellence of those three back-up stories. All three of those stories hinge on Steve’s natural goodness and down-home values. They’re also notably short on copy (which is a welcome relief after reading Steve narrating his way through Cap’s legacy for 30 pages), but the message is also clear there: Cap was more appealing (and more effective) when he talked less and acted more. From a storytelling standpoint, that’s hard to argue with. But then again, why would Steve Rogers need to articulate his thoughts when these narratives are so fucking clear? There’s no subtlety or complexity in that first story, written by Joss Whedon — Steve demonstrates the power of his shield (and by extension, the United States) to protect people rather than harm them. The black and white morality afforded to the storytellers from the World War II setting allows that kind of straightfoward narrative. The tank’s got a goddamn skull on the front of it — of course it’s going to be great when Steve takes it out.
Ditto the Tim Sale story, which might even be more critical of our constant looking back. Steve infiltrates a Hydra base to retrieve a baseball signed by Babe Ruth from his old footlocker. Again, what makes this story so immediately appealing? Part of it is that Sale is an excellent storyteller and he’s a genius at leveraging some simple iconography to tell this story efficiently, but we’re also being lead down a narrative that we already know. The MacGuffin here is an instantly understood and recognizably old-American treasure. It wasn’t enough for the trinket to simply be anything from Steve’s childhood, it had to be something meaningful to America.
I think all these creators are leaning into the fact that we have affinity for an American history that looks noble and just from one specific perspective. Sam Wilson — or arguably, anyone that could be Captain America — doesn’t have the same luxury. We don’t live in a world with skulls on the fronts of tanks or where a signed baseball somehow represents American exceptionalism. The only reason I’m hesitant to tie this all up into one big bow is that the other shoe never drops in this issue. The status quo — an old white guy we already know and who represents the value of the past is in power — is restored but we peace-out before seeing any consequences. But I think Spencer and Acuña have the same perspective that it sounds like Drew and I share; that this is a harmful, or at the very least childish, development. Take a look at Kobik, who has all the power to decide the next
President Captain America:
Hey man, she just wants to make America great again.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?