Today, Ryan M. and Drew are discussing Steve Rogers: Captain America 12, originally released February 22nd, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Ryan M: Empathy and understanding can only be built by listening. That’s why representation is so important. Reinforcing norms of exclusion only bolster the narrative of inequality. An outsider telling your story, however well-meaning, influences the message. The speed and breadth of modern media only add more veils between the truth and the version people hear. In Captain America: Sam Wilson 21, Sam wrests back control of his own story.
The issue is framed as a letter to Misty, explaining what has led him to leave his role as Cap. Nick Spencer also sprinkles in several interludes. Steve Rogers kills a man whose values don’t align with Steve’s own principles and then confirms that launch of a propaganda campaign. Gideon and Dennis walk the smoking streets of Harlem, representing the kind of roots-level work that Gideon and Sam’s father championed. Spencer also gives a moment with Joaquin as he stands over his fallen friend, kept alive only by machines. The mood of each short scene reflects the portions of Sam’s letter, including the last one in which Sam’s vlog message of hope encourages a young Rayshaun to channel his frustrations in potential heroics rather than street-level rioting.
The letter functions as a plea for Misty’s understanding while also allowing Spencer and Daniel Acuna to show the events of the Sam’s life through a different lens. In some respects, the content of the letter is a recap of events covered in previous issues. The story is more than that because it’s told through Sam’s eyes for such a specific purpose. He is building a case. Acuna’s art bolsters each line through specific imagery. When Sam mentions his time fighting alongside other super heroes, Acuna communicates the emotion of those memories.
Sam bursts over the gutter, with arms spread, hand clenched in fists and mouth open in a roar. He is powerful and strong, even making the Hulk look small below. When both panels are taken as a whole, Steve’s stance is especially interesting. He is leaning to the left, essentially getting out of Sam’s way.
The text accompanying this image does not immediately dovetail with the visual language of the art. While Sam is talking about his “habit” of fighting alongside Steve, the reader can see through the casual rhetoric to the intensity of this time. Sam praised Steve’s show of respect and forward-thinking. Again, the images are not simply repeating the elements of the art, but giving us a glimpse into how Sam remembers that time. It’s his story, so he decides how it goes.
The idea of the stories we tell our selves is reinforced as Joaquin stands over Rage’s hospital bed. He tells his fallen friend about the lost hope of the pair of them becoming a duo. His monologue ends with him telling himself a new, more hopeless story. The panel’s background lights with a streaky sunburst orange as Falcon uses this new narrative to fuel his anger into action.
Spencer embeds another device in which Sam frames his message. As Captain America, Sam’s actions and words are examined and misconstrued and repeated through a biased media machine. In the last act of the issue, Sam speaks directly to the people through a web video. It’s perhaps the most powerful sequence of the issue, partially because the content of the address strips away the fantastical elements of the world and becomes universally human. Sam’s speech is about trying and failing to live up to your ideals. It’s about questioning a system that wants blind acceptance but cannot be trusted to care for it’s people. What makes the speech more that a diatribe, is the ultimate message of hope. Acuna keeps the art very simple for this scene, just several panels of Sam’s face lit in the blue light of his computer screen. The simplicity and repetition makes every expression land harder. When he looks away with a furrowed brow, imagining the negative reaction to his choice, it’s an emotional moment, only bolstered by the next panel.
Rather than the frown he has in nearly every other panel, Sam’s mouth is softer as he urges the viewer not to lose hope. Spencer pens a speech that both encapsulates the reason that Sam doesn’t need the shield to be a role model and offers a direct address to the readers of the issue allowing the veil of fiction to drop a bit. It’s a moving moment acknowledges discouraging darkness but urges bravery. The world is a scary place where you may lose but you can’t quit. In other words, this is the sequence that made me cry.
Drew, what did you think? Clearly I ate up all the epistolary goodness with a spoon. What’s your take? How does this fare as a conclusion to Sam’s time as Captain America? Are there any creepier images than Hauser in profile with what looks like a crawfish hanging from his mouth?
Drew: Oh man, that whole Harry Hauser/Paul Keane/Steve Rogers scene made my skin crawl. Obviously, Hauser’s “Hail Hydra” moment isn’t as earth-shattering as Steve’s (and heck, it might be less of a surprise, given Hauser’s rhetoric), but the thought that Hydra has a significant foothold in the media is deeply unsettling. It has profound implications for Steve’s plans for Hydra, but I’m most disturbed by — and suspect it was included in this issue because of — this moment’s uncanny resemblance to the world around us.
Under Spencer’s pen, Sam’s tenure as Cap often offered meaningful parallels to Barack Obama’s presidency, highlighting the unique struggles a black man faces in a prominent station heretofore only held by white men. Sam’s term as Cap — just like Obama’s term as president — had to end at some point, but the fact that both ended as the nation convulsed with fascism is absolutely heartbreaking. Both men worked tirelessly to heal deep wounds in our country that had largely been left ignored by their predecessors, and both were dismissed as agitators by their critics. You can feel that labor — and that heartbreak — in Sam’s departing words.
Due to the vagaries of comics production timelines, it’s difficult to know if Spencer was even able to explicitly reference Obama’s farewell address when writing this scene (though I suspect he probably was), so I hesitate to read too much into the similarities, but there’s one crib that I can’t ignore: hope. That both men would strike a hopeful tone at their departure, a time that seems like the most hopeless time for their supporters, makes sense; both are committed to (and fully aware of) the long, hard work of promoting equality and justice. But, of course, it’s hard to hear the word “hope” these days without thinking of Obama’s 2008 campaign. Or, more specifically, Shepard Fairey’s ubiquitous poster:
To my eye, even the bluish, high-contrast artwork in Sam’s farewell video echo this image, drawing yet another parallel between these characters before both give up their titles. Unfortunately for Sam, I don’t think he’s flying off to kitesurf with Richard Branson.
But again, Spencer included that scene with Hauser and Steve for a reason. The bitter pill isn’t just that Sam is leaving (though that he felt driven to step down certainly speaks to the resistance he was facing), but that his legacy will be actively erased by a fascist who works disturbingly close with fascist media figures. Steve’s secret complicates Sam’s departure — he isn’t just stepping down, he’s handing the reins over to someone who intends to dangerously abuse their power. It hits very close to home, and, like I said, makes my skin crawl.
Of course, the more disturbing thing may be that I have more hope that Sam will succeed in his mission than I do that Obama will. As a former president, Obama certainly has a degree of influence, but one substantially diminished from his time as president. As a former Captain America, Sam has basically the same power he had before. I suppose he’s down one shield, but he’s just as public a figure, just as fierce a fighter, and just as strong a character as he was as Cap. He’s able to continue in largely the same capacity as before, meaning he’ll be back next month carrying on the fight — just with a new costume.
But that’s not really the point of this issue, which impresses upon us the full weight of Sam’s decision. That he’ll be back in issue 22 doesn’t diminish the heartbreak of him leaving here, nor does it make his reasons any less compelling. Most importantly for me, focusing on the goodbye here and now helps me work through some of my own feelings on Obama’s departure. Not many comics can do that.
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