Captain America: Sam Wilson #12
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Daniel Acuna
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
What is it they say about opinions and elbows? Or maybe another part of the human anatomy?
But like it or not, we live in an opinionated world. Everyone brings their own beliefs to the table, and in today’s election cycle, everyone has a voice that’s clamoring to be heard, whether it’s on your bumper stickers, social media, or even the comment section. And in many ways, Captain America: Sam Wilson #12 proves to be Nick Spencer really crystallizing the politics behind his new Star-Spangled Avenger, as he poses some provocative questions that yield very few easy answers.
Perhaps it is Spencer’s striking flashback introduction that rings so true here, as Steve Rogers walks into a Harlem precinct to clear up a grave misunderstanding - namely, the police arresting Sam Wilson rather than an actual bad guy, the Trapster. It’s an effective intro that is so simple - and so resonant - that I’m shocked it hasn’t been done before, but Spencer really taps into the pervasive, guilty-until-proven-innocent mindset that has yielded astronomically unbalanced death and incarceration rates over the years. But ultimately, that’s been the uphill battle Sam has had to face both in the comic books and in the real world, ever since Marvel announced he would be picking up the shield - he not only has to maintain Steve Rogers’ legacy, but this longtime Avenger winds up being asked to prove his own merits again and again and again and again.
And as Sam winds up saying later in this issue, that often times puts him right in the middle of some political powder kegs - and being stuck in the middle is a “great way to take most of the hits.” On the one hand, you have the Blackwater-esque Americops stirring up tensions in their iron-fisted pursuit of law and order, while on the other, you have the well-intentioned but short-sighted vigilante Rage punching first and asking questions never, escalating the situation until a fight breaks out. While the idea of the jackbooted Americops and their obviously Republican backers sets up a moral winner and loser to Spencer’s debate, it winds up being a case of gilding the lily when Spencer doesn’t need to. While there are so many law enforcement officers who aren’t engaging in profiling or excessive force, these stories have hit the front pages enough times for it just to seem chilling - not surprising, but chilling - to see an Americop grab Sam by the arm as he tries to bring reason to the brewing conflict. “Now, see - that?” Sam says, shaking as he tries to suppress his much-deserved anger for the greater good. “That is what you don’t want to do.”
While Spencer highlights the kind of moral tightrope Sam is walking, he also spends a lot of time showing that very few people in this book share the same opinion on any topic. While he’s helped create a self-fulfilling prophecy by slugging one of them, Rage scoffs at the idea of deescalation in the face of the Americops’ shakedowns: “They look like they wanna talk to you?!” he asks, as a group charges at them with stun batons. (Even Joaquin, the new Falcon, tells Rage he was a “big fan of what you were doing back there,” even as he yanks the former New Warrior out of the melee.) Even Sam has evolved immensely over the last 12 issues - while his career as Captain America began with him following his heart and disavowing S.H.I.E.L.D., now Sam is struggling between his own beliefs and experiences as a black man in America, and the kinds of heavy expectations Steve Rogers’ shield holds for him.
But I would argue that Spencer is at his best when he shrewdly tackles the other side of the equation, as he introduces John Walker back into the title, as a group of conservative politicians and businessmen urge U.S. Agent to take Sam Wilson’s shield back. In another universe, I might consider this subplot cartoonishly oversimplified, but in today’s election cycle, disinformation has become commonplace - and while Spencer does strawman Republican talking points by having a Texas senator spin the villainous Serpent Society as “job creators and business owners,” the heart of Spencer’s thesis sadly rings true.
In the comic books, Steve Rogers gave Sam Wilson his shield, and told Sam to keep it even after he returned - and this cabal telling Walker that it should be otherwise is the kind of gross fabrication that’s been a staple this year's mean-spirited presidential campaigns. Spencer does Walker some credit by having him evoke an old-school Republican ethos - he can’t stand political theatrics, and while his time in the battlefield has yielded some strong opinions that most liberals would likely disagree with, he also resists the urge to enforce those beliefs on others - but ultimately, he cuts to the core of today’s political environment, with bias, spin and outright lies being used to maintain an increasingly toxic status quo.
This issue also winds up being a strong showing for Daniel Acuna, who drenches much of these pages in the kinds of shadows that play up the shifting moral ambiguity of Spencer’s premise. In particular, I love the cranky, no-nonsense attitude he gives U.S. Agent, especially the growl he gives his hosts when he asks them what they want with him. But Acuna is an artist who is at his best with static figures rather than images in motion, and Spencer gives him some great beats to work with here: the panel of Sam being grabbed by the Americop is superb, as Sam gives him a look of pure rage and disgust, but the lack of a big movement makes the scene even more powerful, giving readers a mini-cliffhanger of where this potentially catastrophic situation might go next. Acuna’s colors also are in fine form here - his use of dark blues and cool colors to play up the nighttime setting looks superb, and the way he’s able to contrast with the brighter blues of the Americops’ weaponry adds some nice energy to the mix. Occasionally, though, Acuna’s designs to veer into the realm of caricature - while the Americops’ fascistic outfits are a throwback to an earlier design, some of ordinary citizens standing by Sam look a bit more stereotypical, sporting shades, chains and bad teeth.
Sometimes it takes a while to say what you’re really trying to say. Sometimes you just have to wait for the right moment for the right message. And I think Captain America: Sam Wilson #12 has finally hit that point. For so long, Captain America was seen as a bland arbiter of good, but the lines of right and wrong are all too often a battleground in and of themselves. That battleground is where Sam Wilson fights, oftentimes even when he’s at odds with his own instincts and deeply-held beliefs. That can and will make for a divisive comic book, one that will result in as much hostility and vitriol as it will applause and excitement. In many ways, it’s anti-escapist escapism - while it has its share of rough edges, Spencer and Acuna are going for the original Marvel ideal, to show the world outside your window. It might not always show us the best view, but it’s the kind of challenging and important storytelling that Captain America deserves.