I clearly remember seeing the internet headlines on a Wednesday morning several weeks ago when the first issue of Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuña's Captain America: Sam Wilson was published, screaming about "Captain Socialism," which were joined later that day (naturally) by Fox News. The irony, of course, was that the alarm was completely unfounded, that all Sam Wilson said in the comics was that he planned to get more involved in politics than his predecessor Steve Rogers did (with all details given off-panel), and it was the press and the American public in the comic book that overreacted by accusing Sam of being anti-American, socialist, traitorous, etc. Were Spencer and Acuña engaging in a bit of playful trolling based on a too easily predictable real-world media reaction which they actually predicted in the same comic? (I hope so.)
Beneath the hype and hysteria, though, it remains that Sam Wilson is a different Captain America, forging a new path that diverges in some important ways from the one tread for decades by Steve Rogers. And even more impressive, Spencer and Acuña have achieved this distinction while staying true to Rogers' well-established characterization. (This contrasts with comments made by a previous creative team who, in the process of explaining the difference between Sam and Steve, oversimplified Steve's views to obscure the fact that Sam was going to be little more than a carbon-copy Cap with wings and a bird.)
Along the way to pointing out Sam and Steve's subtle differences, Spencer and Acuña also toy a bit with the segment of modern comics readership who like to jump to conclusions based on a handful of preview pages and solicitation text and fueled by internet speculation (and, in no small part, the marketing efforts of the comics publishers). Our creative team does so not only with Sam's internal dialogue but also in his exchanges with the dudebros seated on either side of him on an airplane, who take everything they read on Twitter to be the whole story and refuse to listen to Sam's mroe elaborate explanations. As Sam thinks to himself, "it's a complicated, messy story"—and Spencer and Acuña do a masterful job of peeling back the layers to this story (with many more still to be revealed, I'm sure).
The complicated and messy part I was most pleased to see dealt with the difference in Sam and Steve's moral perspectives, a difference which is nowhere near as simple or stark as the final scene of the first issue (or the cover of the second one) would have us believe.
Two scenes in Captain America: Sam Wilson #2 show this very well:
1. In these panels, a reporter asks Steve what he thinks about Sam's new political stance:
He simply nails it: Sam is his own Captain America and he can choose how to play that role, whether or not it's how Steve played it in his heyday or how he would play it now. Steve also struggled with the call to political activism in the past, such as when he wanted to support Andrew Bolt's congressional campaign (early in Mark Waid's Heroes Return run). His solution was to remain neutral as Captain America but work for the campaign as Steve Rogers (regardless of whether people knew they were one and the same—recall that he also made a big fuss about surrendering at the end of the Civil War as Steve Rogers, not Cap). Would Sam make that same decision? Perhaps not, but Sam is not Steve, and it was great to see Steve acknowledge that for the press (in the Marvel Universe as well as ours).
2. After SHIELD catches a man who released secret files describing a proposal to use Cosmic Cube fragments to make subtle changes to reality, Maria Hill makes clear she relishes the thought of submitting him to military tribunal. While Sam and Steve both oppose this project and personally make sure SHIELD scraps any plans to pursue it, they disagree on what should be done with the whistleblower (let's call him "Snedward Owden"), with Sam much more concerned about Hill's plans than Steve is.
Here we see Steve and Sam differ in terms of their confidence that the whistleblower will receive fair treatment and impartial justice at the hands of SHIELD and/or the military, and also their roles regarding the law (on which more below). Sam describes their essential difference of opinion the following page, an important yet nuanced disagreement that feels natural within the context of the two characters' backgrounds and which could lead to some fascinating character beats in future issues:
I could quibble a bit with Steve's statement above that "we don't get to put ourselves above" the law, especially after admitting his past civil disobedience to Sam (and emphasizing his willingness to be held accountable for it). Perhaps this is a result of Steve's official SHIELD role as chief of civilian oversight, just as his appointment as head of global security following the Siege of Asgard made him more assertive regarding Tony's exclusive use of the Iron Man armor (as seen in the first issue of Avengers Prime). Or maybe he feels it's his responsibility as chief of civilian oversight to monitor the tribunal, requiring a certain degree of faith in a process he'll be involved in. After all, unlike the registration act (and earlier government policies he regarded as unjust), he does not see any problem with military tribunals per se that warrants disobedience—especially if he's on the scene. Even if this does signal a shift in Steve's views, it is not a shocking or abrupt one. (This, of course, assumes that this is the same Steve Rogers we know from the 616 Marvel Universe, and not some New 52-style slight-of-hand where, post-Secret Wars, he's "basically the same character but different—just keep reading!" That remains to be seen.)
Only two issues into their run, Spencer and Acuña have fulfilled the hopes I had for Sam Wilson as Captain America since his "appointment" was announced. They've begun to give Sam a unique perspective on serving as Captain America that represents an interesting alternative view on the role that offers endless story possibilities, without watering down or stretching the concept of Cap itself beyond recognition. As well as further discussion with Steve, I hope we get to see some of Sam's internal struggles with his new stance, in which he questions how far Captain America can and should go in support of a particular position. This is not to say he shouldn't be more political than Steve was, but I would like to see him acknowledge and confront the fact that it is a different role for Captain America (rather than simply defending it to others).
Personally, this is the most excited I'm been about the Captain America title since Steve took up the shield after Bucky "died" during Fear Itself. (It's worth mentioning at this point that young James was a different sort of Cap too.) While a part of me longs to see Steve "enyouthened" and back in the star-and-stripes at some point, the rest of me looks forward to a long, insightful, and enjoyable run of Captain America: Sam Wilson from Spencer and Acuña.
If you're interested, I discuss judgment and compromise, principle versus politics, and civil disobedience in chapters 5 and 6 of The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a World War II Superhero.