by Drew Baumgartner
This article will contain SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Do the citizens of the Marvel Universe adequately compensate their superheroes? There’s little doubt that the entire planet benefits from the efforts of Captain America and his ilk, but whatever gratefulness the citizens feel doesn’t put food on the table. Which is why so many superheroes either take day jobs (with S.H.I.E.L.D. or the Heroes for Hire, for example), institutionalizing their heroic output, are already independently wealthy (like Tony Stark), or have some wealthy patron (like Tony Stark). That notion of patronage hints at what I’m getting at: superheroism is a bit like making art — society may value the idea of it generally, but that doesn’t exactly translate to money in the bank. It’s a lesson Steve Rogers is learning as his journey as a freelance superhero begins in earnest in Captain America 696.
It’s a message Mark Waid and Chris Samnee set to communicating from the very first panel.
Steve, down to his last few dollars and entering small town Georgia, reiterates that he wants to be his own man. He’s ready to earn his keep, though without an institution to support him, it’s clear that superheroics has become criminally undervalued. Although, it’s not clear that the ever-humble Steve himself recognizes how valuable superheroes really are.
(I have to acknowledge that I’m deviating a bit from the point of this issue, which is full of swashbuckling fun and iconic Captain Americanisms, but the commentary on the plight of the working artist seems too potent to ignore.)
Steve first offers to earn his keep washing dishes, offering his time in some way other than his calling, as if superheroing is just his hobby. He’s taking on a day job, as so many artists have before him, to support his art. Fortunately, the restaurant owner, Joe, recognizes the value of what Steve does, and refuses to accept any payment. Joe may not be able to truly pay Steve what he deserves, but he can at least offer him a meal or two on the house. But even after the herculean effort of rescuing an entire town, Steve feels guilty accepting some chili to go, begrudgingly accepting it as a “fair trade. This one time.”
It’s a charming testament to Steve’s sense of duty that he doesn’t put a money value on it — the true embodiment of the enlisted WWII soldier — but it also feels awfully familiar to anyone with artist friends who chronically undervalue their work. Fortunately, at least Steve’s “clients” (if we can call Joe that) recognize the true value of what he does, reversing the age-old “I thought you’d do this for exposure” conversation. In that way, Steve’s situation might not perfectly reflect that of the typical freelancer, but I suspect we’ll see more parallels before this arc is through.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?