by Ryan Mogge
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
The central conflict of Captain America: Sam Wilson 23 is not between the Avengers and the Mole Man. Instead, it’s a reverberation of the themes that Nick Spencer has been exploring throughout the series’ run. Sam Wilson is a hero because he believes in helping people. His work begins at a human level, functioning as part of a community. By contrast, the Avengers present a plan to save the world. Their goal to rescue Steve Rogers using the cosmic cube could alter the course of human history.
While Sam agrees to help them, he is forced to abandon the work that brought him out of his self-imposed isolation. His underground subway system has saved lives and kept families together. The mere fact that he has been willing to pay tribute to Mole Man is only further evidence of his commitment to helping, despite personal distaste.
Sam’s attitude about the dreadnoughts reflects his general strategy with insurmountable obstacles: rather than trying to beat them, you try to escape them. However, now that he is faced with a chance to help on that macro level, he feels compelled to help the Avengers.
The bickering between Tony and Sam illustrates their very different perspectives on the role of a hero in a time of darkness. Sam expresses frustration that the team hindered his ability to help the refugees. At the same time, Tony sees Sam’s off-the-grid lifestyle as hiding out. Neither is wrong per se, but Spencer has educated us enough about Sam’s inner life to understand that he wasn’t sitting out the fight. He was helping people. Just seeing him with little Dandelion you know that he has been improving lives, offering hope and providing comfort. That’s all anyone can ask. I guess, unless there are cosmic cube fragments to collect.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?
Moirai: A key characteristic of Greek Tragedy was Fate, and how it would screw over the main characters. But the equally important fact was that choices were made to fight Fate. The tragedy was that they despite every effort otherwise, they couldn’t avert what was already foretold. Oepedius is the classic example. Everything was done to keep Oepedius far, far away, and that very choice led to the chain of events that led to Oepedius killing his father and marrying his mother. Ultimately, even the Fate obsessed Greek tragedy was built upon choice.
Which is important, as I think choice is what was missing in this issue. This issue, like the previous one, is mostly filling in gaps. It uses the transport of the Underground to exposit on meaningless elements. Explain who Sam gets out, how they get out and what he has to do to do so. Which actually isn’t important. The Writing Excuses podcast, I believe, said yo should only show 10% of the world building you do. Know what is happening, but don’t explain it. And if someone else said it, Writing Excuses has certainly warned against the threat of getting trapped in worldbuilding. Rich Burlew, of Order of the Stick, has admitted that certain characters were written with no backstories precisely because that wasn’t important. He needed three powerful, evil dead mages. And that was all that was important about them, and so they have no backstories, only broad personalities, to do the task they were required for. Meanwhile Spencer, just like last issue, is obsessed with using Sam Wilson to fill in gaps with his backstory. Explain things that don’t need to be explained.
It is important that Sam smuggles people out of the country. Dennis’ role in helping build it isn’t important. The fact that he uses a train isn’t important. The fact that is goes through the Mole Man’s land isn’t important (even if it enriches the Global Geopolitics theme I’ll discuss in Secret Empire 4). If Sam Wilson walked through the woods where HYDRA wasn’t watching, it wouldn’t change anything. And Spencer is so obsessed with using the Underground’s attempts to get out of America to explain this meaningless information, that he forgets to properly place drama
Spencer wants to suggest that Sam’s actions have consequences, as he struggles with, as Ryan elegantly put it, ‘Serve the Community, or Save the World’ . But that’s not true. Because he hasn’t. Because Secret Empire has made clear that he hasn’t made that choice yet. Sam specifically doesn’t make a choice. He does not fully commit to either. Just delays it. And then, giant robots from nowhere and, without Sam making a choice, fate conspires to screw him over. The reason robots attack isn’t even properly explained in this issue (I assume it is the traitor calling them). Honestly, there is enough to imply that this was always going to happen, and couldn’t be avoided.
So what does this mean? It means we have the appearance of progress, but no actual progress. Instead, this issue is just more wheelspinning, explaining the unnecessary elements as it for Secret Empire to reach the point where it can be important. It is weird that I think Sam Wilson is now the weaker Captain America book, but I’m not sure that Spencer really knows what to do with these books now that the story is over at Secret Empire now. The last issue of Steve Rogers was lucky enough to have a really clever narrative conceit that justified the exercise, but Sam Wilson lacks that. Instead, the wheels spin, and spin, going nowhere.
We have an issue where, essentially, things go wrong for Sam because Fate wills it, without Sam making any meaningful decision on the outcome. All so we can get some basic backstory