Captain America: Sam Wilson 17

capt-america-sam-wilson-17Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing Captain America: Sam Wilson 17, originally released January 4, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.

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.

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.

Bombshells

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.

In the extreme!

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.

hopeful

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.

uneven

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.

or-else

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.

pushing

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?

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4 comments on “Captain America: Sam Wilson 17

  1. I have interesting thoughts of this issue, where I don’t think it entirely comes together. There are a lot of good ideas in how it balances the youth and zeal of young activism (with Sam learning an important lesson about not worrying about being so moderate that he ceases doing anything, and asks Rage to be there to give him a push) and how it can actually twist into something horrible. Despite the twitter fury, it is important to note that while the Bombshells are bad, they are shown to be attacking someone who is also bad. They are on the right side, but they do it badly. Their problem, as Sam Wilson says and Nick Spencer says again and again on twitter, ‘don’t throw grenades’

    But it feels like things don’t come together properly. Is the left’s discussions around language a great target of well aimed satire? Yes, it is. Is the left’s discussions around platforming figures like Ariella Conner worthy of targeted satire? Yes (in fact, it is interesting to look at some of these discussions, after Milo Yiananopolous’ book deal. And now, you have a bunch of people who have to explain why Milo Yiananopolous is just that worse than anyone else. Milo is much worse, simply because there is nothing to his work except to incite actual violence, but is gets hard to make that distinction)

    But it feels like these things don’t go well together. There is a lot that you can discuss with language use. I love Drew’s point about how this sort of language ends up sounding like nonsense – I do believe there is a contingent of people who enjoy the fact that this language makes them sound more intelligent than anyone else (and I am probably guilty of it at times), and that sense of superiority they get ends up being a priority than actual communication. Which then leads to ego being more important than getting things done. There is a lot of discussion to be had about this sort of discussion on language, especially alongside Spencer’s points about how often it can be misused. Or how it can be used for purity tests. But I don’t think it is something that the text really explores as well as it should. The language is just there to give a bunch of clear, obvious cues of their politics, but it is so obvious which side they are on it doesn’t really add anything. The problem isn’t the lack of subtlety – this is superhero comics – but it feels inauthentic.

    I always get surprised that I keep having this problem with Nick Spencer. Spencer has very strong views, but they are actually nuanced. Even if you don’t agree, you can at least admit that he will throw some evidence at you, explain that figure in a greater context and explain why your evidence is wrong. His arguments always have depth. Yet in the comics, he can never express that depth. I know that comics aren’t the right place for statistics and discussions on the validity of different measures of employment, but there has to be some way to create deeper satires. In fact, I would argue that Ariella Conner is a great example of that. She isn’t likeable, and her views are offensive and obviously racist. But they don’t sound inauthentic. By giving her a single topic, immigration, and letting her go deep, we get a much better target to skewer.

    So why couldn’t Spencer do the same with the Bombshells? If they are going to discuss No Platforming, then let them discuss that. There is a much better way to satirise such folks than giving them a bunch of dialogue that ‘sounds lefty’ and painting them with such a surface level brush

    And the structure of this arc will forever annoy me. The idea of stretching the definition of Captain America to include queer people, woman and Hispanics at the moment of the narrative where Anti-Sam hate is at its greatest is a good idea, but the fact that the story doesn’t truly address that hatred just at the moment where the most interesting plot element is the fact that Steve ROgers secretly escalated that hatred is so sad

  2. Maybe it’s because I’m in the age range (and ideological range) that Nick Spencer is attempting to critique (parody?) but this issue just didn’t sit right with me. I GET what he was going for–free speech is important, and that means that even people with vile viewpoints have a right to express their thoughts–but I felt like he was just punching down at a group of people who, rightly I think, feel systematic oppression (be it economic or racial) on a daily basis. It’s easy for an established white man to preach moderation against “radical” ideas when he has never felt oppression that women and people of color (who, you can note, make up the “Bombshells”) experience on a daily basis. Now, to his credit, he does express, via Sam, a certain regard for SOME youthful energy/ideology, but there is still the caveat that such ideology is by and large too “out there” to be of any merit on its own. “Your passion inspires me,” he seems to say, “but what you’re passionate ABOUT is violent and wrong. Join me in moderation and everything will work out just fine.”

    This, of course, seems to be because Nick Spencer believes in the inevitability of progress; compromising one’s values is fine because, ultimately, the arch of history bends towards justice. This, however, is wishful thinking. If anything, this recent election has shown that we, as a people, do NOT always progress. Furthermore, I would argue that the reason the election went the way it did is BECAUSE establishment liberals put too much stock in “compromise” with the otherside; you had Hillary Clinton pandering to centrists and right-wingers rather than speaking to the issues that everyday, working class, Americans cared about.

    But that, I suppose, has always been Nick Spencer’s way; he criticizes millennials for being too radical and preaches moderation while this country goes to Hell in a handbasket. Creating a group of strawmen like the Bombshells doesn’t make him balanced, in my opinion, because certain issues do not have to be balanced out to begin with (it smacks of that “we need to hear two sides of every story” mentality that leads to climate change deniers being given equal airtime on the news as climate scientists). As I mentioned earlier, to attack safe spaces and trigger warnings is more punching down at the young while the country faces much more pertinent issues. If you want to criticize SJWs for being too preachy, that’s fine, but to portray them as grenade chucking vigilantes is a step too far, and it de-legitimatizes some very important issues that affect PTSD victims and persons of color when you place them as buzzwords in the mouths of strawmen.

    • I’m not sure laying Clinton’s loss at the feet of trying to appeal to centrists and right-wingers really scans. Nobody appealed harder to right-wingers than Trump, and that ended up being a winning strategy. The reason she lost is that a significant enough portion of dems refused to compromise, even though that compromise would be way closer to what they want than allowing Trump to win. People in their own political bubbles thought they had room to be picky, so abstained or voted third party rather than compromise.

      The point of this issue is that that thinking is destructive. Spencer literalizes that destruction in violence. The language they use makes it clear what bubble they’re in and that that bubble is a little up its own butt (that language is straight-up impenetrable to outsiders). Like it our not, SJWs are on the fringes of our society right now, and they’re going to have to figure out a better way to communicate their message if they ever hope to build a coalition to actually win some elections.

    • I think the Bombshells are obviously supposed to be treated in much the same way that Poison Ivy is treated. A Poison Ivy story isn’t an attack on environmentalism, and in fact usually supports environmental causes. The problem with Poison Ivy is that, quite simply, she is an ecoterrorist. But there is rarely a Poison Ivy story that doesn’t emphasise the fact that Ivy’s target deserves comeuppance, nor a story that doesn’t state that Bruce Wayne spends boatloads of money on the same causes. Even as a Poison Ivy story is about how she needs to be stopped, it never attacks her ideology.

      And honestly, that is the same here. Ariella Conner is shown as a horrible person that is unsympathetic. We here both sides, and she is still shown as a horrible person that is never, ever vindicated. The protesters outside aren’t treated as villains (and are in fact fans of Sam), and Joaquin’s actions are shown to be hotheaded, but ultimately from the right place. Sam Wilson learns that he has been too restrained lately, and asks Rage to push him so he never gets comfortable. The only meaningful difference between Joaquin and the Bombshells is that the Bombshells throw grenades. There is nothing in this comic that doesn’t say that we should make a point to stand up against the Ariella Conners in the world. Nothing says we should simply let them speak and see where things go. The constant theme of this book is the need to act, since the very first issue where we learned that Sam is controversial because he refuses to keep quiet and look pretty (again, Sam actually asks Rage to keep pushing him so that he keeps acting and pushing the envelope)

      I think there are major problems with the execution. There are interesting discussions to be had around discussions of trigger warnings (they are very important for the reasons you state, but there are discussions to be had on the misuse of them). But they don’t really fit, and feel like Spencer throwing obvious signifiers in where they don’t really fit. To use Poison Ivy as a comparison, imagine a Poison Ivy story where she is blowing up oil rigs to fight Global Warming, but keeps referencing deforestation. Technically related, but actually has so little to do with anything that it ends up clumsy and meaningless, screwing up the messaging. To me, that is the real problem. Without that, the basic story beats are a good example of ‘Hey, they may have thrown grenades at people, but they also serve as a fantastic reminder that we can’t get complacent and must act’. But all that useless stuff clouds the story, and confuses it by getting people to focus on the wrong stuff and then wonder why they can’t get a good read on what the hell Spencer is trying to say about trigger warnings.

      Also, you have majorly misdiagnosed Nick Spencer’s politics. He does not believe in the inevitability of social progress at all. In fact, he actually respects the Republican’s party ability to move things backwards (does not approve of them, but treats their threat as serious). If I remember correctly, he was among the first to realise that Donald Trump was an actual threat. He certainly was certainly amongst the most cynical of Hillary Clinton’s chances, very aware of the campaign’s failings, frequently aware of how Donald Trump could not be dismissed as a threat and doing everything he could from his position to make people understand the seriousness of the election. He was savage towards Hillary’s campaign during those last days, in how poorly they reacted to the FBI’s actions. He is not complacent.
      He certainly believes in the important of the system. He believes that you can’t have the magical revolution that fixes everything, and instead have to put the effort into working through the system, doing everything you can. He prefers pragmatic, strategic action to idealistic, ‘easy’ solutions. He believes the systems in place are the things that protect us and move things forward, and burning the system down means we lose those protections, and not suddenly gain free healthcare. But do not confuse that with the idea that he is someone who sits down and does nothing. He’s already planning for 2018 and 2020, while trying to do everything he can to fight Trump at the moment. Believing in the system and in strategic moves does not mean sitting down and waiting for time to save the day. He is quite literally the opposite.

      Also, I think your diagnosis of what went wrong with the election is a bit misguided. Clinton’s loss is due to a large series of complex and intertwined factors that, combined, led to her loss. No single factor was instrumental. Sexism, Racism, Russian Espionage, Voter Suppression and Intimidation and many other things. If you want the Tipping Point (the one event that pushed events off the edge), it was the FBI broke protocol and making a massive announcement about the possibility of reopening the email case eleven days before the election. Despite being a nonstory as nothing was found and the FBI didn’t reopen the case, there was a truly astonishing change in the polls that completely rewrote the odds, to the point that the most accurate election models couldn’t catch up (though they did model that Trump’s odd were increasing at a really surprising rate).
      But here’s the thing. While Clinton made some strategic mistakes in her campaign, some of them major, the fact that it was because she was ignoring issues that working class Americans cared about is dead wrong. Her platform was the most progressive party platform in history, and she frequently discussed policies in her speeches across America. But while Trump’s speeches were given lots of airtime, Clinton’s speeches were often ignored. I can’t remember the stat or where to find it, but there was a shocking stat about the how many consecutive speeches CNN didn’t show. Hell, CNN and other media stations, while Clinton gave a speech about raising wages for working families, showed footage of an empty podium as they waited for Trump. CNN have actually admitted that they didn’t give enough airtime to Clinton. Any discussion that Clinton wasn’t talking about issues that working America didn’t care about has to take into account that when Clinton did, she was ignored.
      And honestly? Attacking Clinton on the strategic errors that she made, none of which are atypical for victorious Presidential Campaigns, is a fantastic way to ignore all the more important reasons. The ones that really need to be discussed. Because Clinton not running the perfect campaign is not an adequate explanation for how Trump won.

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