Captain America has always stood for what’s right. It doesn’t matter who’s wielding the shield. He’s a symbol of justice and a protector of peace. Yes, those descriptors sound cliché and extremely campy, but they’re true nonetheless. After what was an extremely dark period for the mantle, it’s never felt so great to see Captain America back in action. He’s kicking bad guy ass and protecting the innocent. It’s all very down-to-earth, which is just what the character has needed.

The events of SECRET EMPIRE came with serious ramifications for Steve Rogers. By the end of the event, he’d lost all credibility as a hero. Now, Steve is working to rebuild his reputation. His current adventures are very down-to-earth. They focus on the famed hero helping out average, everyday people. It’s a comfortable and much-needed return to form for the character.

The prior CAPTAIN AMERICA series by writer Nick Spencer was intriguing and gritty but was also sometimes heavy-handed in terms of storytelling and dealing with real-world issues. It was still, however, a highly enjoyable series that culminated in a spectacular Marvel crossover event. The recent exploits of Captain America, written by Mark Waid, have been much more pleasant and simplistic. At the same time, they deftly capture the essence of who Captain America is and what he stands for.

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Steve Rogers is Back (For Real This Time)

Writer Nick Spencer took readers on a journey through the secret history of Steve Rogers, aka Hydra Cap. Alongside that story, he also mapped out the consistently frustrating life of Sam Wilson. Both of those individual CAPTAIN AMERICA titles led up to the highly controversial SECRET EMPIRE event. This, of course, ended with the epic return of the true Steve Rogers.

Captain America
From SECRET EMPIRE #10. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Since then, writer Mark Waid has happily taken Steve out of his usual element of constantly saving the world. Steve’s been on a cross-country journey to rebuild his good name. The story is handled in a very simple manner, and it succeeds on almost every level. There are some pacing issues here and there, but the message comes through loud and clear: Captain America is back, and he’s here to protect the innocent.

Previous Captain America Titles Forgot Something

Though the Captain America titles of the past decade all stood out in their own ways, they all seemingly forgot something vital about the character. They forgot what the mantle meant at its core. Nick Spencer’s Sam Wilson title dealt with the personal ideals of Sam, rather than the ideals of Captain America, which is fine as most of those ideals line up with each other. However, the way the story dealt with real-world issues sometimes interfered with the story itself. Spencer’s Steve Rogers title simply built up to a groundbreaking event story. There wasn’t much else to that one.

Before Spencer, Rick Remender and Ed Brubaker held the reigns of the character. Remender’s series was told less from a thematic standpoint and more from one about telling a fun, zany story. Brubaker had a blockbuster run on CAPTAIN AMERICA, but his story felt more like a spy thriller, and it got very wrapped up in Bucky Barnes’ drama.

While each of these runs was fantastic in its own right, they didn’t handle the same way Mark Waid’s current story does. After a thematically heavy story from Nick Spencer, Mark Waid’s run comes very much as a refreshing palette cleanser.

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Waid’s Simplistic Storytelling is Super Effective

Stories are often filled with stylized nuances and deep, dramatic themes. More often than not, they work to extraordinary effect and make a story more impactful. Other times, they make no sense and feel tagged on for flair. Mark Waid’s CAPTAIN AMERICA falls under neither category.

The series is only three issues in, but so far, Mark Waid’s series has been incredibly well-written. Part of the reason the series is succeeding is because of how simplistic it is. The storytelling is very straightforward. It forgoes the need for heightened dramatic flair and themes hidden beneath the surface. Instead, Waid tells a very down-to-earth story.

Each issue thus far has seen Steve traveling to different areas across the States. Steve deals with a different threat in each issue. In the first issue, he deals with a new white supremacist group known as the Rampart in Bouton County, Nebraska. In the second issue, Cap finds himself in the town of Sauga River, dealing with a brand-new Swordsman. And in the third issue, he has a run-in with Kraven the Hunter.

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Cap deals with every threat as you’d expect him to. But the threats themselves aren’t what matter. What matters is how he deals with them. Without a second thought, Cap jumps into action to face the danger head-on and protect people. None of his enemies thus far have been particularly grand, which makes his reaction to them even more meaningful. It doesn’t take a world-ending calamity to call Captain America to arms. All he needs to know is whether or not someone’s life is in danger. If they are, you can be damn sure he’ll be there to help.

It’s Important to Understand Who Steve Rogers Is

There’s a great moment in Jonathan Hickman’s AVENGERS that encompasses who Steve Rogers and Captain America really are, at least to a certain degree.

Captain America
From AVENGERS #34 (2014). Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Hickman managed to perfectly capture the essence of the character in one beautiful page. It’s a sweet summary of who Steve is and what he stands for, and what the mantle of Cap represents. There are a lot of great moments in Hickman’s AVENGERS, but this one stands out so vividly. It’s a pitch-perfect moment that you can’t forget; it’s an incredibly brief moment, but it’s also one of the most powerful in the series.

Mark Waid’s CAPTAIN AMERICA has numerous little moments that point to this scene from Hickman’s AVENGERS.

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CAPTAIN AMERICA #695 is very much an ode to Captain America. It spells out quite obviously, but not forcefully, who Cap is and what he stands for. Not only that, but it’s also a sort of call to arms to do what’s right. This issue more broadly expresses what Hickman did in a single page.

And that’s fine. After months of evil Hydra Steve, it’s nice to be reminded who Captain America truly is. Seeing Cap just take down hoards of bad guys for the sake of saving people, as opposed to stopping a world-ending crisis, is a nice change of pace for the character. Hearing how Cap inspires people to do good and hearing him lay out his ideals once more is endearing. This issue is full of wonderful moments that perfectly set the tone for the series to come.

Not to mention, it ends with the pitch-perfect message about how anyone can be a hero. Sure, it’s cliché, but it’s always nice to hear. Especially from Captain America.

Captain America
From CAPTAIN AMERICA #695. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

A Callback to Hickman’s AVENGERS

Whereas CAPTAIN AMERICA #695 more broadly expresses the ideas of Hickman, CAPTAIN AMERICA #696 and #697 seem to imitate what Hickman did. In fact, these two issues almost sum up what Hickman wrote more succinctly.

In these issues, Cap faces off against the new Swordsman and Kraven the Hunter. The highlight of these issues is neither the villain nor the action. It’s the specific moments that speak to who Captain America is.

In CAPTAIN AMERICA #696, Swordsman holds the town of Sauga River hostage. All he wants is some money and the honor of killing Captain America. It’s all very plain and simple. During the fight between the two characters, Swordsman questions why Cap would even care about the small town in the first place. Cap’s response is short, sweet, and to the point.

Captain America
From CAPTAIN AMERICA #696. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

A similar moment happens at the start of CAPTAIN AMERICA #697. After Kraven captures Steve and takes him to a secluded island, he reveals that there is someone else stranded on the island. Cap is unsure of who this person is, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest. He leaps into action to save the guy’s life, no questions asked.

Captain America
From CAPTAIN AMERICA #697. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

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These moments perfectly capture who Captain America is. They’re smartly written and aren’t too overstated; they don’t draw an exceptional amount of attention to themselves. This only helps to make these moments more impactful. Something as simple as running to save a single man’s life speaks volumes to Steve’s character. It’s a powerful message that has been absent from Cap for a while.

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It’s great to see moments like this in a Cap series again. It’s equally great to see Steve Rogers back in the saddle (and in his classic costume, to boot). But that doesn’t mean Steve’s the only guy who’s worn the mantle to have good morals and a firm sense of what’s right.

The ideals of Captain America are universal. Regardless of who’s wielded the shield, what Cap stands for has never changed. Whether it be Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, or Sam Wilson, Captain America stands for what’s right. That will never change.

Sam Wilson: Captain America

Other than Bucky Barnes, Sam Wilson is the most notable name to wear the mantle of Captain America. Having an African American Captain America was awesome! Of course, Rick Remender was the one to put Sam on this path, but Nick Spencer ultimately spent more time with the character.

Captain America
Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Nick Spencer’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: SAM WILSON was an extremely well-written series. It was gritty and harsh, compared to most other Captain America titles. Towards the end of the series, the line between Sam Wilson and Captain America became razor sharp. Sam stood for all the things Captain America is supposed to stand for, yet he repeatedly got flak for it. This led Sam to give up the mantle. He would later make a triumphant return as Captain America in SECRET EMPIRE.

Sadly, Sam Wilson has now returned to his roots as the Falcon. But the way I look at it, it’s nothing to be upset over. Sam’s time as Captain America was well-earned and well-spent, mostly. Things got rough here and there, but he never lost his way. That only elevates the character of Sam Wilson tenfold. All-in-all, Sam had a powerful run as the Sentinel of Liberty.

Nick Spencer’s CAPTAIN AMERICA Was Problematic at Times

However, with Sam Wilson taking the mantle, the story of Captain America took a sharp turn. The problem with CAPTAIN AMERICA: SAM WILSON was how it responded to real-world issues.

I’m not saying it’s bad that Nick Spencer wrote a comic that responded to real-world issues. I respect him for that, actually. It’s not always an easy thing to do.

Unfortunately, at certain points during CAPTAIN AMERICA: SAM WILSON, the story felt very heavy-handed. The way the story responded to those real-world issues was excessively forceful from time to time. I love a good story that sends a strong message against racial injustice, but it doesn’t all have to be so doom and gloom.

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The story of Sam Wilson moved opposite the story of Captain America, in a way. Yes, Sam wielded the shield, but he didn’t believe in it. And, frankly, he had no reason to. Everyone was telling him to give it up. It came as no surprise to see him quit for that short while.

The Americops and Dealing with Racial Prejudice

Some examples to draw on as to why the story sort of failed would be the Americops and how Spencer’s story responded to racial prejudices towards African Americans. During Spencer’s time on the story, real-world police brutality (especially towards African Americans) was prominent. Spencer’s series responded to such issues in a very big way. He made it clear that he, and Captain America, thought police brutality is wrong. That’s a very easy idea for anyone with an amicable moral compass to get behind; cops being jerks to people is wrong.

Here’s the problem with the way Spencer wrote this: the Americops were specifically painted as the bad guys. You only ever saw the Americops being aggressive towards black people, so, realistically, you could only ever view them as bad people. Thing is, that’s not how police officers are in the real world. Not all of them, at least. Police officers are the good guys. Cops don’t go out of their way to be jerks to people (usually).

Spencer’s story made the argument decisively one-sided.  It would have been a more agreeable argument if there was, perhaps, a small moment of unity between Sam and the Americops. They could have all had to work together to save lives or something. But, the way the story stands, it tries too hard to tell you what to think. It’s too in your face to be taken very seriously, unfortunately.

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How Nick Spencer Redeemed His Story

Ultimately, though, Spencer redeemed the story of Sam Wilson in SECRET EMPIRE, when Sam made that awesome return as Captain America. Yes, Sam’s story was tragic. At times, it came off as a bit forceful. But, while Sam Wilson’s story had its hiccups, it all came full circle in a very meaningful way in SECRET EMPIRE. When Sam stepped on that mound and rose up that shield, it showed he was willing to put everything behind him and stand for what was right.

Because that’s what Captain America does.

Captain America
From SECRET EMPIRE #7. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Captain America: A Hero to All

SECRET EMPIRE was a huge turning point for Captain America. Before the event, there was no Captain America; Sam gave up the mantle, and Hydra Cap definitely doesn’t count. But the moment Sam made his return, readers knew that Captain America was back for good. With Sam having passed the mantle back to Steve, nothing’s going to keep Captain America from being the hero we all know and love.

It’s just great to have Captain America back. The mantle has been through a lot in the past few years. Seeing Sam Wilson wield the shield was awesome, but having Steve Rogers back in the saddle feels appropriate now. After Nick Spencer’s controversial, tumultuous story, Mark Waid’s more relaxed tale is probably what readers have needed.

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The newest series has highlighted some of the greatest things about Captain America. He’s a hero who protects the innocent and never backs down from doing what’s right. No matter the threat, big or small, and no matter who’s in danger, you know Captain America will be there to help. He’s a hero who embodies everything good and a role model we can all look to when things get grim.

Where Cap’s story takes him next is anyone’s guess. Much as I love the well-mannered morals of Waid’s story, Steve’s character needs to evolve. But I’m not too worried about that. Really, all I’m waiting for now is the next time Cap gets to shout, “Avengers Assemble.” It’s always a treat when he does.

2 Comments

  1. Crihavoc

    February 21, 2018 at 12:12 am

    This was an great piece, that used Hickman’s monologue to encompass what Captain America should stand for. My issue, is of course, with the portrayal of Nick Spencer’s repugnant storyline as anything like “highly enjoyable.” I may someday return to Marvel, but perhaps once Spencer has left the comic writing medium and moved to Craig’s List to script well-crafted want ads.

    Reply

  2. Eddie

    February 5, 2018 at 12:55 am

    Very well written, comprehensive, and thoughtful article. This is the type of review and analysis we need for comic books in general. Awesome job!

    Reply

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