I’m an extreme moderate, Mr. Rutledge
Benjamin Franklin, John Adams
Drew: Of all the quotes misattributed to Benjamin Franklin, this might be my favorite. Only, this isn’t a common saying, but a line of dialogue from HBO’s 2008 John Adams miniseries. Either way, it sums up Franklin’s political beliefs beautifully. Moderation feels like a dirty word in our current political climate, but Franklin’s moderating force throughout that series (and, you know, actual history) proved essential in making any real progress in declaring and affirming the United States’ independence from British rule. That lesson feels somehow even more essential today, where moderation stands not just between the poles of the political spectrum, but as a necessary alternative to increasingly insular extremes. Of course, those extremes have happily vilified moderation (or at least, happily left moderates in the crossfire), leaving folks like Sam Wilson with enemies on all sides. It’s been a lonely road for Sam to walk, but issue 16 finds Falcon and Rage joining him in the center.
Sam Wilson (and writer Nick Spencer, for that matter) caught flack early on for protecting illegal immigrants from violence — it seemed many on the right missed the memo that violence is bad, and is ultimately the thing that makes bad guys bad (In hindsight, it’s odd that nobody ever takes offense that their non-violent desires for money or power are so often vilified in comics). Critics (again, both in-narrative and out) continue to fume about that perceived slight to their cause, turn their attention in this issue to the new Falcon, Joaquin Torres, who didn’t just commit the crime of defending illegal immigrants, but is an illegal immigrant himself.
Like Sam, Joaquin doesn’t want to be political — Joaquin isn’t even sure of his legal status — but his very existence is politicized by a Coulter-esque talking head on cable news. Artist Paul Renaud cleverly captures the way that kind of punditry can reinforce itself, overlapping the panels of this sequence to create a kind of teetering tower of bullshit.
It’s a wordy sequence, but I really just want to draw your attention to the layout — Renaud doesn’t use this kind of layered overlapping anywhere else in this issue. It reinforces the notion that these arguments are built upon themselves — the segment never cuts away to show footage of Sam or Joaquin, sticking instead with the two-shots and close-ups you’d expect of a talkshow.
While Renaud cribs the visual language of talk-shows to add context to the arguments, Spencer is cribbing the language of the arguments to give them texture. In this sequence, Ariella Conner refers to Sam’s actions as “Anti-American Extremism” and calls for Joaquin to be deported. Later in the issue, she suggests that relaxing immigration laws would lead to anarchy. While her points are received with support in the TV segment, her language is met with jeers at her speech at Empire State University. She’s using language that her supporters have normalized within their ranks, but is seen as absurd or insulting by everyone else.
Spencer takes a similar tack when a group of hypocritical students attack Conner. They’re using the language of the so-called “social justice warriors” to justify their violence, but it sounds just as absurd and insulting to the outsider as Conner’s do.
Much as I am loath to bring up twitter outcries when discussing the content of an issue, it’s worth noting that this issue has sparked outrage on the left similar to (albeit apparently smaller than) that sparked by those early border patrol issues. In both cases, the offended parties see the language but not the violence, feeling that their ideologies have been vilified unjustly. In this case, the argument goes that ridiculing SJWs is wrong because their cause is just, and drawing a parallel between them and those advocating against the rights of, say, illegal immigrants is a false equivalency.
I think that latter point may be right, which I suspect is actually the point of this sequence. These characters sound way sillier than Conner even though they’re protecting people’s rights. Spencer insures that they sound sillier, upping their use of insular language to absurd levels.
To me, the takeaway is that the right is WAY better at making even monstrous points sound reasonable, while the left struggles to make even the most reasonable points sound like anything other than nonsense — a notion Renaud reflects in giving this sequence none of the rigid discipline of that TV interview. That’s a point that couldn’t feel less controversial in the wake of this election.
And Spencer couldn’t be clearer that the problem here isn’t ideology, but violence. Joaquin agrees with the Bombshells up until their conclusion that Conner must die for her sins. And that act of moderation — the argument that, hey, maybe we shouldn’t kill one another — earns Joaquin enemies on the left, even as his enemies on the right double down on their attacks against him.
Man, Spencer, I’d like to believe that this kind of flack-from-all-sides moderates get was as fictional as a half-bird, half-man, but the reaction to this issue sure seems to prove that wrong (Spencer sure has a knack for anticipating/generating exactly the kinds of real-world criticisms we always see in his books). I don’t think this issue would have been quite as depressing were it not for that reaction. Speaking of how depressing this issue was, I didn’t mention the ending at all. I guess we can look forward to outcry from violent Robocops next month!
Spencer: They’re a grossly misunderstood demographic!
This entire issue is remarkably timely, Drew, but that ending may be its most prescient bit — and I’m not even referring to the profiling/police brutality/whatever you wanna call it.
Sam’s monologue here is wonderfully optimistic, and it’s certainly something I’ve always tried to keep in mind. By the time Rage is knocked out on the floor, though, Sam has to concede, “Then again, maybe things never change, and maybe all that hope was just an illusion.” That feeling, that shattering of hope and of the idea of continual progress, is something a lot of us faced after the election. To be fair, that’s something a good portion of the country feels after every election, but there’s a remarkable difference between “oh no, we have a black president now!” and “oh no, the new president is going to bankrupt and/or destroy this country and strip already underprivileged people of their rights!” Whether any lasting progress has really been made, and whether we can continue to move forward despite a fascist President-Elect, is something we won’t really be able to tell until a few years down the road. Nick Spencer doesn’t have that much time when it comes to telling this story, so I’m curious to see if/how he’ll proceed with this idea.
Drew, I think you covered the broader, more overtly political themes of this issue really well, but there was a more subtle idea lurking beneath the surface I wanted to discuss a bit, and that’s the idea of youth. Joaquin’s youth is emphasized throughout the issue — he’s got a serious case of impulsiveness, hits on every girl he sees, and pretends that he’s an Empire State student once he’s on Campus — and while his youthful charm may work its wiles on readers, it’s often a detriment within the story itself.
Joaquin running off half-cocked to confront Ariella Connor was never a smart idea, but his biggest disadvantage against her is his youthful inexperience. Joaquin stands his ground and makes smart points, but not always in the smartest way. This is easily his most articulate moment in the issue, but he’s still got a more emotional, less refined speech pattern than Connor, and that’s gonna stop a lot of people from taking him seriously. This is something Renauld goes out of his way to emphasize in his layouts and staging — Connor significantly looms over Joaquin in every shot, even if it means Renauld has to use some rather extreme tricks of perspective. They’re never on even ground because Connor would could never consider herself Joaquin’s equal.
(That’s not fair, and she discounts him for more reasons than just his age, but it’s true nonetheless.)
Youth is part of the problem with the Bombshells as well.
Young people are prone, not only to strong, intense emotions, but to seeing things in black-and-white instead of shades of gray; it’s an us-or-them attitude that feeds right into today’s political climate. “Teach you some tolerance — or else!” is such a ridiculous line; no one should tolerate racism or xenophobia, but you can’t force tolerance either. As much as some of the Bombshells’ dialogue may be over-the-top, the sentiment rings true to certain groups of young folks on the internet who play social justice as some sort of holier-than-thou, zero-sum game where they send death threats to anyone who makes the slightest slip-up. It has no effect other than alienating allies and enemies alike.
This is where we get back into some of the language issues. I sorta agree with Drew about the absurdity of some of these terms, but a bigger part of the problem is that they’re misused and distorted by members of both sides. A “trigger warning,” for example, is supposed to be saved for something that could set off seizures, panic attacks, PTSD symptoms, or the like, but the term started getting thrown around for every little slight that upset anyone until it lost all meaning. Meanwhile, the right actively works to discredit these kind of terms and the people who use them; for example, nobody actually calls themselves a “Social Justice Warrior,” it’s something people call others in order to trivialize and ridicule their cause. Honestly, the right has just as much embarrassing, juvenile vocabulary as the left — cuck, snowflake, etc. — they just use it to attack, not as central points of their dogma.
Youth also fuels enthusiasm, even fanaticism, and Spencer sees both the benefits and the downsides of that.
Age and maturity brings with it vital clarity and perspective, but sometimes that makes it easier to slip into complacency as well, and that’s when the kind of kick-in-the-butt only the young can deliver is necessary. I really like that point, because even as the issue depicts Joaquin and Rage maturing as heroes, it also shows that they bring a lot to the table as-is. Even as Ariella Connor tries to dehumanize Joaquin, Spencer and Sam celebrate him as an individual.
I’m thankful for that. This issue otherwise so accurately highlights the myriad problems with politics right now — the way the left will turn on each other at the drop of a hat in order to maintain their principles, losing all chances of actually winning a victory in the process, while the right will sacrifice their principles in a heartbeat to support their party, even if it means backing a demagogue — that if it weren’t for those few spots of hope, I’d probably lose my mind.
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?