It doesn’t matter who your preferred candidate is or what your political opinions are—it should be hard for anyone to look at the state of American politics without the sneaking suspicion that something or someone has hijacked our society. Like the Red Skull altering Steve Rogers’ memories in order to make him into a Hydra sleeper agent, something seems to have changed the very makeup of what it means to be an American. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a progressive, a conservative, or a libertarian; it’s damn hard not to look at the country without coming to the conclusion that something fundamental has gone wrong.
In his run on both of the Captain America books, Nick Spencer certainly has tapped into the unease, distrust, and rage that have characterized the politics of 2015 and 2016. In Captain America: Sam Wilson, he’s been exploring the explosive tension that has erupted between police and black communities since the Michael Brown killing, and in Captain America: Steve Rogers, he’s taken the fear and despair that many of us feel about the state of America and channeled it into Steve Rogers, who has been turned into a Hydra agent by the Red Skull using the power of a cosmic cube. And in the process, he’s breaking the hearts of everyone who loves Captain America.
***Spoilers for Captain America: Sam Wilson, Captain America: Steve Rogers, and Civil War II to follow.***
If the entirety of Spencer’s run on Cap has been difficult, CA: SW #13 and CA:SR #5 have proven to be the most emotionally jarring issues so far.
In the Sam Wilson book, Sam has recently fought the Americops—a private security organization employed by the U.S. government that has been attacking black communities—and now has to fight U.S. Agent, who has been sent by a U.S. senator to take him down and return the shield to Steve Rogers.
At the end of the issue, we see a meeting between U.S. Agent and Steve Rogers himself, and we learn that Steve has been a part of the plot to smear Sam’s reputation and take back the shield.
Meanwhile, in Steve’s book, we learn that Rogers himself has been manipulating the Civil War raging among Marvel’s heroes and that he set into motion the events that led to Bruce Banner’s death.
Through all of this, it’s hard ignore the fact that Spencer has a political axe to grind. I’ve complained before about the way in which he takes political positions and opinions that he disagrees with and signals to readers that those opinions are Very Bad simply by ascribing them to supervillains and various Sinister Types. And that tendency is certainly on display in CA:SW #13.
But despite the cartoonishness of the politics, it’s some damn effective storytelling. A lot of people were ticked off about about the Hydra reveal back in may (myself included), but it’s almost impossible to stop reading these books. His often unfair treatment of his political opponents aside, Spencer is a good writer, and the artwork has been strong in both the Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers series.
But what has been most remarkable about the current Captain America books has been the way in which they have tapped into the emotions that are running under the surface of the 2016 political season. If you love Captain America, you can’t read these books without feeling a terrible sense of dread about what’s coming. Watching the Red Skull transform Steve Rogers into a supervillain; watching the rift between Steve and Sam open up into a wound that might never heal; watching Steve descend further into darkness and realizing that he remains as dedicated as he ever was to doing what he believes is right and acting for the greater good—it’s been a torture to read. The worst of it all has been wondering whether he’ll be able to recover his true self and whether or not his name will be ruined forever (yes, I know; few things are forever in comics) in the Marvel universe.
At this point, it’s hard to feel any hope for either Sam or for Steve. I suppose that this is appropriate for a book about Captain America in 2016; hopelessness pretty well captures what it feels like to be an American citizen right now.