In this column I will dive into times, throughout superhero history, that comics got political. There seems to be a constant debate if political discussion has a place in the medium. I hope to show that politics and superhero comics go together. This time we look at a contemporary controversial comic, Nick Spencer’s Captain America(s) run.
Captain America as a Political Symbol
Captain America has been covered before about how the character has roots in political discourse. He started as a pro-war symbol at a time the country was not fully committed to World War 2, and was created by Jewish creators. His costume is the flag, which in and of itself is a political symbol. He stands for the nation, even if at times he stands against the government. If you remove politics from Captain America you just have a generic superhero with no real weight or meaning to him. Thankfully, it seems that he has always stood at the forefront of the American political discussion. You could grab a Captain America comic from any era and understand the political landscape of the time. From Nazi killing, to Commie smashing, to being a man out of his time, to leaving the flag during Nixon, and to dealing with a post 9/11 landscape, reading these comics is a lesson in American history. However, it doesn’t seem that any have caused more turmoil in the reading public than Nick Spencer’s Captain America run.
Nick Spencer’s run basically started off at an interesting time for Captain America. Steve Rogers was aged and no longer Captain America (though he did work for Shield). Therefore the shield and title of Captain America was passed onto Sam Wilson (long time friend and partner of Steve Rogers as The Falcon). The optics of this made sense. Steve has not always been Captain America (in recent past Bucky Barnes took the title) and Sam is a logical choice to fill in those shoes. Having a black Captain America would be meaningless if it didn’t realistically examine the implications of that. Therefore, Nick Spencer chose to use the character as the left wing of American politics. Again, this was not shoehorned onto the character. Sam Wilson’s backstory is complicated and confusing (thanks to the cosmic cube) but looking at his upbringing and history as a social worker, it stands to reason he would be a progressive voice. Sam Wilson Captain America dealt with issues like the mistreatment of illegal immigrants and corporate greed. While he was doing this there was a movement of the fictional public (and sadly the real public) that was demanding that Steve Rogers #takebacktheshield.
There were protests of groups in the comic declaring “Not my Captain America” which directly paralleled the right’s protest against Obama using “Not my President” as a rallying cry. The inherent racism and hate comparisons were not subtle, but I’d argue Captain America comics were never meant to be. Even Fox News got on the air decrying this comic when it was first running (they had major problems with Sam Wilson treating Mexicans as humans). However NONE of this controversy compares to…
Steve Rogers “HAIL HYDRA”
This was the moment that made everyone on the left and right mad. Steve Roger’s being rewritten as a Hydra agent/Nazi didn’t make many people happy. On the right they saw this as a comparison to Trump (as he is constantly called a fascist from the left). On the left they were upset that it was an affront to Kirby’s original creation and ideals. Both sides saw the problems with retconning and changing origins (a common complaint in comics even outside of political reasons). Personally, these changes did not bother me, I just saw it as another aspect in a long line of making Captain America comics political. Red Skull was shown as a modern day fascist using fear of refugees (something that Trump and others on the right have done) to drum up support.
The idea the Captain America was always a hydra agent and only turned due to cosmic cube shenanigans had deeper symbolism. You could see America as being a symbol of the free world, but at the same time has had a dark history. This is the nation that recently (at the time this comic was printed) voted in Trump. It makes sense to look at that event and wonder if the American political system was always poisoned. Nick Spencer swears that this was not meant to be a take on Trump, but when you have Hydra taking over the White House in the comics the same time Trump is, in real life, the parallels are fair. Considering that this comic has always drawn on commentary of the government it only makes logical sense to the readers.
My only issue is the way everything ended and it being a big return to the status quo. Steve was the only Captain America again, and his Hydra roots were 100% erased. Sam Wilson returned to being The Falcon and lost the chance of having a major title. However, they did give Captain America to Ta-Nehisi Coates who has not given up on commenting on Trump’s America through his title. Regardless, I still miss having a bold take where Same Wilson was the progressive voice battling against a government and public that hated him. He was fighting for objectively good causes and was trying to be the inspiration the symbol of Captain America was always meant to be. Sam Wilson was a clear return to punching Hitler in the face..