Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?

[See an expanded version here: Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?]

Technically, in order to celebrate the first black Captain America, we’d have to resort to the sort of contortions common in the comic book universe—the time machine.

Truth: Red, White & Black was a seven-issue series in 2003 with, yes, a black Captain America [1], as Joshua Yehl noted when the more recent announcement of a black Captain America surfaced: “While it is notable that this will be a black Captain America, it turns out that he’s not the first. Isaiah Bradley was not only the first black Captain America, but he held the mantle even before Steve Rogers.”

But the comic book universe is also noted for acting as if the same-old-same-old is NEW!!! for decades—with reboots (and more reboots), renumbering long-standing titles, killing superheroes, having those superheroes’ sidekicks take over for the dead superheroes, and then resurrecting the superheroes.

It’s exhausting.

But in 2012, Marvel rebooted Captain America (again) after recently killing off Steve Rogers, having his sidekick (Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier) take over, and then bringing Rogers back (sound familiar?), building a two-year journey to issue #25 announcing the new Captain America, as Yehl explains:

Tonight on The Colbert Report, Marvel Comics’ Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada revealed that the new Captain America is Sam Wilson aka The Falcon.

With Steve Rogers losing his super powers in the pages of his solo series written by Rick Remender, readers have been guessing who the new Captain America would be, and now we have our answer. General audiences will recognize Falcon from this summer’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie with Anthony Mackie playing the winged superhero.

The new Captain America by Stuart Immonen

A few aspects of this move to have a black Captain America are worth noting. First, as the announcement above shows, Marvel’s commitment to films is significantly impacting their comics.

As well, making Sam Wilson/The Falcon the new Captain America takes a step further a decision by Marvel in 2011 with creating a bi-racial Spider-Man in the alternate universe Ultimate Spider-Man.

Sam Wilson/Captain America appears to be solidly in the mainstream Marvel Universe, and Captain America as superhero comic character reaches back to 1941.

Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?

My serious comic book collecting years were mainly in the 1970s, and I was drawn always to Captain America because The Falcon was one of my favorite characters. The series featured The Falcon by name and image on each issue’s cover for most of the 1970s, in fact.

Captain America #180 (Dec. 1974). Art by Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia.

My teenaged self lurking below a few decades of the 50+ self is, then, quite excited about Sam Wilson/Captain America; however, that adolescent nerd-glee is significantly tempered by the social justice adult I have become, leaving me to ask: Should we marvel at a black Captain America?

Captain America #25 opens with Steve Rogers remembering Sam Wilson—Wilson’s warrior nature, his losing both parents (minister and community organizer) and raising a brother and sister, his resilience in the face of prejudice. Notably as well, Sam Wilson was, according to Rogers, “just a man. A man dedicated to showing what one person could accomplish after a lifetime of misfortune.”

Too often, comic book narratives remain firmly entrenched in the cliche (of course, if your audience is primarily children/teens, most anything can seem new to them, and is), but where comic book narratives have failed over about eight decades is that they mostly reflect social norms, even the biases and stereotypes (see Hugh Ryan on Wonder Woman), uncritically.

Readers in the first pages of issue #25 are led to believe (as the surrounding superheroes do) that Wilson has died heroically—and Rogers is about to pronounce Wilson a martyr. Until Wilson speaks.

The issue then turns to the aging Steve Rogers, no longer invigorated by super-soldier serum, who speaks to The Avengers in order to announce Sam Wilson/Captain America. This reboot ends with Wilson/Captain America in a hybrid uniform—red, white, and blue, Captain’s shield, and Falcon wings—shouting, “Avengers assemble!”

The All-New Captain America #1, interestingly, comes in a variant edition—all-white cardboard cover with only the title blazoned across the top. And with a somber and powerful opening page in which Sam Wilson recalls his father’s sermons and death, and his mother’s murder soon after, building to a refrain alluding the Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, the black Captain America takes flight.

I mentioned Wonder Woman above because I am now reading Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. If Wonder Woman was born out of the rise of twentieth century feminism, as Lepore details, and then the series itself in action and image contradicts those feminist ideals, what good a female superhero?

And there I am stuck about the black Captain America, built up in Captain America #25 as the rugged individual, the exceptional human (superhuman) who lifted himself up by the bootstraps (wings didn’t hurt, there) and overcame every obstacle, including racism.

And there I am haunted by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

If a black Captain America reinforces the “terrible advice” confronted by Coates, if black Captain American continues to perpetuate crass militarism and unbridled vigilante violence, I am left to ask, what good a black superhero?

[1] See Sean P. Connors on this series in Chapter 9 of Thomas, P. L. (ed.). (2013). Science fiction and speculative fiction: Challenging genres. Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

4 comments

  1. goldenoj

    As long as you’re writing about my youth, too…

    I think the good of a black superhero is because it is counter programming to the deluge of information with which culture forms implicit bias. Superstar athletes and entertainers helped America move forward in racial issues, because we felt we knew or know them, because we might even idolize them. It can always be flipped to exceptionalism… “why can’t you do what Colin Powell/Barack Obama/Oprah Winfrey did?” (Moment of sorrow for how the first powerful minority woman I thought of was an entertainer first, sigh.) But at some level it’s changing unconscious assumptions, loosening the grip of deadly and pernicious assumptions.

    Plus, Sam Wilson is the man who should have been Cap last time, too. Took Batman until the 2nd replacement to get it right, also. If Captain America persists as a fictional title, it’s nice to have it go to a fictional character that merits it.

  2. Peter

    Boy, one of my first Cap comics was one of the first Falcon issues with a big beautiful Tomita cover. Them was the days.

    I’ve long wondered why it has been so hard to come up with some decent black superhero. I followed Luke Cage from the first issue, but even a teen-aged urban white kid could see that he was something of a caricature, but at least he was a headliner. I think ultimately comics have had three main templates for a hero.

    There’s the classic Silver Age version typified by the DC heroes, who were basically champions of the status quo and dominant culture. There was no place in that a model for anybody who wasn’t going to be identified with the mainstream dominant culture. I don’t think anybody was going to know how to fit a black character into that.

    Then the first wave of Marvel heroes who, at their best, represented superheroes as metaphor. Peter Parker (original flavor) wrestles with his responsibility and personal issues. Bruce Banner wrestled with his dark side. Matt Murdock, Tony Stark, et al dealt with their alter egos as expressions of their problems. Stan Lee’s genius was to turn his audiences’ inner fears into the high drama of superhero action. Who in the comic world knew or understood the inner fears of black teens well enough to translate it. Even when the X-Men eventually started leaning on the idea of being super-hero “others,” the tendency was to lean them toward metaphorically gay– not any other American minority.

    The newest wave is hero as wish fulfillment (for me that’s epitomized by replacing Scott Summers with Wolverine at the head of the X-Men, and by Peter Parker’s transformation into an attractive successful young man with a hot model wife). Now superheroes are the expression of how awesome and powerful the audience would like to be. Again, who in the comics world knew what those power and success fantasies looked like for black teens and could still be marketable to a predominantly white audience.

    Comics have rarely been truly counter-culture. They’ve played with it occasionally; Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams teamed up Green Lantern and Green Arrow so that Arrow could confront Lantern’s knee-jerk support of the establishment. But it didn’t last and it didn’t spread. The values of comics lean always toward conservative white values, and that has limited what rollers heroes could play.

  3. Pingback: Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America? | The Middle Spaces

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