The Curious Case of Sam Wilson

All-New_Captain_America_Vol_1_1_Textless

(I was this close to naming this entry “They may have wanted Tim Meadows…”  I thought better of it, but if you get the reference, then you get a No-Prize.)

There has been a significant amount of attention directed at Sam Wilson becoming the all-new Captain America as part of Marvel’s Avengers Now! (note the obligatory exclamation point) initiative.  I have to say I was a big fan of the move from the moment it was announced.  I’ve loved The Falcon for ages and Anthony Mackie’s fantastic performance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier upped the public’s awareness of the character immensely. I figure if Steve was going to be picking anyone to carry on for him it would be Sam (or maybe Carol Danvers, but she’s got too much of a good thing going right now in Marvel’s other Captain book).

And I have to say, Marvel delivered.  I was not a big fan of Rick Remender’s previous run on Captain America, but I loved All-New Captain America #1.  The action was great, the character moments were spot on, and it was beautifully illustrated.

There’s one thing that’s kind of bothering me though…

Sam Wilson more than deserves to take the mantle of Captain America, but should he?

The thing about Sam is that he, as the Falcon and in his civilian identity, has always been his own man.  It takes a strong character to stand next to Captain America as an equal, as someone who will call Cap out when he’s wrong, as a partner, not a sidekick.  Sam never minced words with Steve and this honesty is one of the hallmarks of a partnership that keeps coming back decade after decade while other relationships between heroes fall away.

Again, it makes perfect story sense for Sam to be the person to carry one for Steve: he’s the legend’s choice.

Sam, however, was also the first African American superhero in mainstream American comics.  That’s no small thing.  And it’s also where we need to ask some questions about this particular move.

Representation is important.  You need only read about the impact that Miles Morales has had for children of color since his creation to see that.  Having an African American take on the mantle of Captain America is hugely significant.  It speaks to a multicultural society, not of the future, but of the present.  Those who decry this move as a progressive ploy are missing the point.  Superhero comics are becoming less exclusively heterosexual, male, and Caucasian because they are reflecting the reality around them, not pushing a social agenda.  A black Captain America speaks to a society that is more diverse than it has been portrayed in media.  It speaks to a society that has always been more diverse than it has been portrayed.

The question we need to ask is whether Sam Wilson wearing the stars and bars can have the opposite effect.  Will Sam Wilson becoming Captain America and stepping away from his role as The Falcon send a message about the importance of assimilation instead rather than the importance of diversity?  Does the subsuming of the first African American superhero’s identity for one established by blond, blue-eyed Steve Rogers suggest that Sam Wilson can only be significant by stepping away from that which made him unique?  Or is the message one of the larger whole being strengthened by the unique things different groups bring to our society?  Sam has, after all, not given up his wings for Steve’s old chain mail.  He is very much his own Captain America.

I don’t know the answer to these questions, truth be told.  I think, however, that they merit asking.  Conversations about representation in comics, in particular, and in media, in general, need to move away from a model of vitriol being lobbed back and forth between polarized groups.  What we need are intelligent discussions on what messages are actually being encoded in those representations.  The devil, as they say, is in the details.

I’m always glad to talk about this stuff.  I hope you guys are too.  In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying All-New Captain America, however long it lasts.  And when Steve Rogers inevitably returns to wielding the shield, I’ll be expecting a Falcon solo book with a good creative team.  It’s long overdue.

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