Sam Wilson, aka Captain America, was only trying to be a hero when he flew to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona to investigate the disappearance of a Mexican teenager in the first issue of Nick Spencer’s post-Secret Wars series Captain America: Sam Wilson. Once there, the star-spangled Avenger faced off against one of Cap’s oldest enemies, the Sons of the Serpent—a white supremacist terror group suspected of kidnapping and possibly killing Mexicans caught crossing the desert.
The masked Serpents, with their big guns and their big, muscly arms, resemble a militarized Ku Klux Klan and spew recognizable Trump-isms at a group of unarmed immigrants. They lovingly refer to a hypothetical “mighty Wall,” accuse all Mexicans of stealing jobs, seeking welfare, and bringing “trouble and disease and crime,” and piously invoke America’s “greatness.”
“Also,” the Serpents’ leader booms at the immigrants, “You know how you make me press a 1 for English at the beginning of every call to my satellite provider? That is something I cannot abide!”
In writing a racist group of armed vigilantes who violently attack, abduct, or kill border crossers into his book, Spencer didn’t expect anyone to sympathize with, let alone defend what he thought was an obvious group of villains. The good hosts of Fox and Friends proved him wrong.
In a segment aired in October, Fox News correspondent Clayton Morris decried Cap’s latest clash with the Serpents as a blatant slight “against conservatives” and dismissed Sam Wilson’s now year-long stint as Captain America as a “PR stunt” (in the same breath, Morris also points out that Sam, formerly the Falcon, “is, uh, African-American”). Morris, a “comics expert,” also called the Serpents a “new, odd enemy” for Cap (they’ve been around since 1966).
Co-host Tucker Carlson also sympathized with the Serpents’ leader, calling him just “an American who has misgivings upon unlimited illegal immigration and the costs associated with it.” Fellow co-host Heather Childers called for writers to “keep politics out of comic books”—except for storylines about “the people who are working the border to keep us safe.”
Earlier in the issue, Wilson had delivered a statement publicly acknowledging his own political beliefs—a significant, decidedly un-Steve Rogers move. In a sharp bit of comedy, Spencer (who also writes Marvel’s funny and poignant Astonishing Ant-Man, as well as Morning Glories and The Fix for Image Comics) omits the actual content of Wilson’s statement and cuts straight to reactionary, satiric headlines. (Sam Wilson: Captain Anti-America? Cap Versus the Constitution? Captain America Approval Rating Plummets Under 50 Percent!)
The headlines were meant as a joke—making Fox’s earnest, unwitting parallel of the hysteria all the more surreal for Spencer. “There is nothing better than being proven right,” he says.
“We were very clear in the book—these were not peaceful protesters of border policy,” Spencer says. “So when you see people saying ‘He’s talking about me!’ well, unless you’re going down and kidnapping or murdering border crossers, no, we weren’t.”
The Daily Beast talked to Spencer about writing Sam as Captain America (Captain America: Sam Wilson #2 hit retailers this week) and what he thought of the Fox and Friends segment.
You've written Steve Rogers as Captain America a few times before, what has writing Sam Wilson been like?
I’d written Sam a little as Falcon, and found the voice came pretty easily. I like the character a lot—he’s sort of an everyman, he’s got a good sense of humor. But really, the appeal was in getting to do the story of Sam as Cap. It’s a very big deal, just the idea of an African-American Captain America, and how that affects the public at large and how that very different perspective on what the country is all about would shape how he did the job. Getting to tell part of that story was a huge thrill for me—and I’ll always owe Rick Remender, the previous writer, big-time for coming up with the idea in the first place, and making it happen.
In the first issue, Sam feels moved to publicly declare his own deep-held beliefs after seeing how politically divided the country has become. Why did it feel important for him to do that?
Sam and Steve are very different guys. Steve has always been very invested in the idea of Captain America as a symbol, as something bigger than himself. He also became Cap at a time when the country was strongly united against a common enemy. Sam, on the other hand, has always been about direct involvement in people’s lives and the issues—he’s very much of the “Why We Can’t Wait” school. He has a background in social work—community organizing, if you will. As Marvel’s first African-American superhero, he’s been at the forefront of a lot of stories about one of the most divisive issues in the country: race relations. He even ran for office at one point. So it seemed clear to me that Sam would, especially over time, come to view the nature of the job differently.
In the scene, we skip right past his actual statement and straight to the reactionary headlines—which makes for great comedic effect, but I also wondered if you ever considered including part of what he said?
Not really, no. [Marvel SVP, Executive Editor] Tom Brevoort and I talked a lot about that, in fact—to me, it’s just unnecessary. What matters is the decision he makes—to get down in the muck a little bit, to speak to the issues of the day in hopes of bringing people together—and the media circus that follows that. Because I really do think you could do this story about someone from any political persuasion. The fact is we say we want candor and strong stances from our leaders, but everything is filtered through “gotcha” journalism and so much is twisted and manipulated by outlets and individuals who have vested interests not in telling the truth, but in making the news of the day fit certain worldviews.
What has been funny is what a Rorschach test it’s been, though. People think they know exactly what Sam said at this press conference. The projection is fascinating. And in addition to that—we haven’t made any kind of statement yet on whether or not what Sam did here was a good thing! As in, whether or not this is something a Captain America should do in the first place. I think the jury is very much out on that, and it’s a big part of our story moving forward.
Sam mentions that Steve Rogers kept his personal political beliefs close to the vest. Though Sam’s intentions are admirable, do you think it might have been a bit naive to believe that taking a strong public stance would create more unity?
It was naive in some way, but I think that makes sense when you look at the role of Captain America and how it’s perceived in the Marvel Universe. The person who carries that shield is a larger-than-life figure to the average Joe on the street, and seen as above the fray. So it’s easy to see how the person in that costume might believe they could move the needle on some pressing issues without getting submerged in the politics. But clearly, he underestimated just how powerful partisanship and opportunistic journalism are as forces in our culture right now.
Look at this way—if Abraham Lincoln or George Washington came back to life and decided they needed to speak up on a certain issue, how long would it take before their approval ratings dropped? That’s kinda what Cap is in the Marvel Universe, on a level with the most venerated American heroes. But it probably still wouldn’t be enough to overcome the toxicity of the culture.
I was just reading this study about what drives partisanship, even in an era of deep disillusionment with political parties. And the evidence is pretty overwhelming—it’s not belief in one’s own ideas, it’s fear of the other side. That’s really what motivates people to vote, it seems—not “We’re going to fix this” but rather, “We can’t let the other team win.” That’s what Sam runs directly into—an entire political structure that really has no interest in coming together. Moderation and compromise might poll well, but they are terrible for that business.
OK, the Fox and Friends segment—what were your initial thoughts on it? They seem to think the Sons of the Serpent are a new adversary for Captain America. And that he should be fighting ISIS instead... or Hitler.
Look, as a writer of fiction that’s somewhat speculative in nature at times, there is nothing better than being proven right. I mean, what’s on the page is exactly how they reacted to the story. Sam does not take any position on immigration in the issue. He does not say undocumented immigrants should get Obamacare benefits or student loans—he says armed vigilantes can’t violently attack, abduct, or kill border crossers. That would seem to me to be a position we can all agree on.
So to see that twisted and manipulated and turned into “Captain America Attacks Illegal Immigration Opponents” was pretty amazing thing to watch. I mean, I don’t know if there will ever be a more surreal moment in my life than watching Tucker Carlson defend the Sons of the Serpent. That’s something, if I put it in a book, people would say it was over the top. It was through the black mirror stuff.
What does it say to you that they saw the Sons of the Serpent as ordinary Americans?
Well, I think the first question is one of sincerity. That’s not something you can speak to with certainty, but it seems to me you have a lot of media outlets today—on both sides of the political divide—that pay the bills by scaring people, making them feel like they’re under attack, like they’re being persecuted. And saying “subversive popular culture is corrupting everything around you and aiding your enemies” is a favorite for those folks.
But beyond that, again, we were very clear in the book—these were not peaceful protesters of border policy. So when you see people saying, “He’s talking about me!” well, unless you’re going down and kidnapping or murdering border crossers, no, we weren’t. I am a pretty staunch environmentalist, but I do not look at Poison Ivy as an indictment of my beliefs.
What I will say is I think we touched a nerve because it’s a hot-button issue of the moment right now. And this goes back to that culture of getting people fired up and scared and divided—we have this sad history of taking groups and turning them into boogeymen. And once that takes hold, a lot of folks will just immediately and automatically reject any story that portrays that group in a positive/sympathetic light. And my hope is, we can use stories to counter-effect that, to show that even these folks you don’t agree with, there are certain basic values that should be upheld no matter what. That you can’t just put them in a “villain” box and be done with them. It’s sort of empathy force-feeding, and it’s something you’ll see applied to both sides in this book. This is just a first example. I fully expect to get it from the other side at some point.
It’s funny that some of the reaction to the issue mirrors the headlines depicted in the issue. Did you know it would provoke that kind of reaction?
I have to be honest—I thought maybe there would be a little bit of this, but within the comics community. Like the odd Twitter comment or wherever. Beyond that, hand to God, it came as a total surprise to me. It’s like we keep talking about—I just didn’t really think anyone was gonna get caught up in defending the de facto white supremacist terrorist group of the Marvel Universe since 1966.
What was funny was, the day the book came out I didn’t hear any of this. In fact, it wasn’t until later in the week, once certain web sites started running stories on it. From there it just snowballed. For about 48 hours I was getting non-stop hate mail, really ugly stuff. The Fox & Friends thing happened, and a lot of outlets picked that up—and that really set off a much bigger wave of very supportive messages, which was very nice.
And then once it got to The Daily Show, I just thought, Wow, this really is something people are talking about, you know? It’s in the broader conversation. It can be hard to tell that when you’re in the middle of it, but once Trevor Noah’s making jokes about it, you know it broke through. And as a writer, that’s just enormously gratifying. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better start for this book.
I’ve also seen some outlets assume that since your public persona tends to skew a certain way, your beliefs and Sam’s must be the same. How would you respond to that?
Yeah, that’s pretty silly to me. I write a lot of characters, all with different views on the world and different politics. It’s not hard for me to make that distinction. Sam and I do not have identical politics. I am not Sam. I have absolutely no desire to simply confirm my own beliefs and write a book that only appeals to people who agree with me.
There will be villains in this book that have left-wing ideologies. There will be conservatives portrayed in a positive light in the book. I want to write a book that examines modern-day America through a superhero comic book lens—Cap comics have a long tradition of that. That’s all.
At the end of the issue, we see ex-partners Sam and Steve Rogers at odds--what is their relationship going to be like going forward?
This is really the ground we cover in the second issue. My hope is that we’ve created a point of disagreement between the two of them that speaks to their individual beliefs and doesn’t paint either of them as the bad guy. That’s what gets me excited about this part of the story: we tried to insert a little nuance in the debate, to illustrate how sticky some of these tough political issues are. Fingers crossed we pulled it off.
I imagine that writing an issue like Captain America comes with a little more oversight from Marvel than there was when you started writing Ant-Man, who was a little more obscure, at least before the movie came out. What's it been like with a headlining character like Captain America?
Marvel has been amazingly supportive—they have a great culture in place, of letting creative people run free as much as possible. I’m always a little surprised by it, but happily so. There hasn’t been anything yet that they’ve told me I couldn’t do. It really hasn’t felt much different than any other assignment in that regard. Obviously with the 75th Anniversary and the Captain America: Civil War movie out next year, the book is in something of a spotlight—but at the end of the day, the work feels pretty much the same.
What's your vision for Sam Wilson: Captain America going forward and what are themes you hope to address?
I just hope we tell an entertaining story. It’s been an amazing thing, seeing people talking like this about a comic I was a part of, and I love the conversation. But at the end of the day, I don’t want people picking the book up and expecting a political screed—or avoiding it for the same reason. People with differing views or zero interest in politics still watched The West Wing, right? Because it was a good story, with characters you cared about and conflicts you were invested in. That’s my top priority.