Thursday, March 9, 2017

'Captain America: Sam Wilson' makes insightful commentary on society

There's nothing better than after a hard, hard, stressful work-week than sleeping in. (Actually, there is, but I try to keep Cary's Comics Craze a *mostly* family-friendly blog.) To make a lazy Saturday morning better, how about reading a small stack of comic books?

There's just a certain something to opening a bag and sliding the issue out. (Again, trying to keep it clean, you perverts!) That moment of fan-bliss is only outdone by the realization afterward that I have read some sharply written stories.

Writer Nick Spencer has been hitting for the grandstands ever since he started writing CAPTAIN AMERICA: SAM WILSON. There's no doubt why, in a world of overpriced new comics, SAM WILSON is the only monthly title I read. Spencer's dailogue fits with each character and he puts Wilson and his supporting cast into tough jams -- ethical challenges and dilemmas worthy of Captain America.

The most memorable superhero and action stories -- and dramas, when it comes to the movies -- are those in which the main character is put into an awful mess. This is the kind of situation that forces him or her to wrestle with who he or she is. But our protagonist resolves it or addresses it, making him or her a better person even though he or she went through the emotional wringer in the process.

Spencer is doing just this with Sam Wilson. And it makes for superb, thought-provoking reading.

It's tough being the person who replaces a legend. Just ask any coach: He wants to be the guy who replaced the coach who replaced the legend. In this case, Wilson is taking over for the original Captain America, Steve Rogers, who literally handed him his shield in a memorable -- and symbolic --- passing of the mantle. To make matters worse and more challenging, there is a heated "Take Back the Shield" movement from racially biased people or those of a certain generation who don't consider Wilson "my Captain America." This pushback is something he's faced since issue 1.

Wilson is a good dude. He is morally upright, acts with high character and with strong morals and conviction; you'd have to say the same thing about Rogers. Yet time and time again, Wilson never gets the benefit of the doubt. The brother just can't get a break.

Having Wilson/Cap face a society of "haters" and critics -- who can voice their skepticism and spew their opinions loudly across social media in an instant -- makes for great reading. A great Captain America story is one in which the Star-Spangled Avenger faces -- and overcomes -- the greatest of obstacles.

Combine that with expressive and dynamic art by Paul Renaud (issues 14 and 17), Angel Unzueta (15, 16 and 19) and Daniel Acuna (18) and you're looking at an instant classic run of comics. (Here's an added treat: Each of these artists apparently ink themselves, a rarity in the comic-book industry.) These issues, if not this entire series, will be looked upon as just as powerful as the stories written by Ed Brubaker.

Social media splash-pages

Spencer uses the opening splash page of each issue as a Facebook/Twitter-like main page. Here he sets the tone for what has happened in previous issues and slyly previews what we will read in the same comic.

On the top half of the page is a TV screen. Below a picture of the action from the last issue is a news scroll which succinctly recaps what happened. On the bottom left is a highlight feed of several people's social media posts -- an ingenious way to provide a man-on-the-street perspective, which by its very nature is social commentary. The new Falcon (Joaquin Torres) is apt to tweet and Cap also responds occasionally to clear up perceptions and answer the public's questions.

The "cell phone" on the bottom right of the splash page includes the credits for the creative team. But the artist also shows the battery power -- which is at 45% on issue 14 and is down to 28% in No. 19.

Something tells me this is important. When the battery reaches zero, what does that mean? Will Marvel Comics bring CAPTAIN AMERICA: SAM WILSON to an end (this is the second variation in the matter of a couple years), only to reboot a similar one? Does the battery percentage coincide with something more significant in Cap's life? Will it bring about a new era for Captain America? Is this a countdown of Wilson's time as Cap? Or could it symbolize something far more gloomy?

Familiar concepts, throwback characters

Another subtlety Spencer has been doing is bringing back concepts and characters from the 1990s era of the first CAPTAIN AMERICA title. This Caphead considers it by far the weakest stories of the Rogers era, yet for Spencer I suspect it's likely when he first started reading the series, given that most current writers are in their 20s.

In the past six months, Spencer has allowed each member of Team Cap to shine in his or own story. Wilson has taken a step back as we've seen:

  • D-Man (aka Demolition Dunphy, a former wrestler) and Battlestar go at each other in the ring in issue 15; 
  • the new Falcon and Rage pair up in No. 17, which addresses illegal immigration; 
  • and Knight's solo story in issue 16 is the best of the bunch.

Knight goes back to her detective roots to track down a pornography ring using Real Model Decoys (LMDs, the subject of the latest season of "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.") after the actual Lady Stilt-Man was exploited in a sex video. This is none-too-subtle nod and acknowledgement to the superhero porn/lesbian catfight that has been produced for the last several years.

But it's Rage's story that will resonate in this series for months to come.

The former New Warrior is falsely arrested and then brutalized by the controversial Americops (Robocop-like law enforcers) after a burglary he attempted to stop. Rage is determined to take his case to trial -- without fancy attorneys -- to prove what happens when falsely accused defendants with little to no money have to depend on public defenders to represent them. Yup, this is a story of false imprisonment and convictions.

In reality, Rage would be acquitted or there would be a hung jury, given that the video Cap uncovered of Rage's beating is considered inadmissable evidence. Spencer does a delightful job of handling an always timely and delicate subject. And fully expect the situation to stickier long before it gets easier.

Grade: A

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