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What an African-American Captain America means for Marvel

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Superheroes are meant to represent the best of us. And for a long period of time, "the best of us" were straight white guys. At Marvel, this norm is changing.

In November, Sam Wilson, the African-American hero known as Falcon, was chosen to take on the title of Captain America in his own comic book.

"You're starting to see characters who can reflect other parts of our culture," Rick Remender, the writer of the series, told me. Remender is one of the comic book industry's biggest names, and has worked on titles like X-Men, Uncanny X-Force, and Punisher. "That reflection is important. It's important to feel like you live in a culture where you are a part of it, and that you can see yourself in your heroes. "

Over the past few years, more and more people have been able to see themselves in Marvel's heroes. Captain Marvel and Thor are now womenMs. Marvel, one of the company's best selling comics, is a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenage girl. Superhero teams like the Ultimates and the Mighty Avengers are featuring more women and nonwhite heroes. And Marvel Studios has followed suit, with Captain Marvel and Black Panther movies coming in a few years.

Wilson becoming a character that's as iconic as Captain America is Marvel's biggest move toward inclusion. Wilson isn't perfect, and his story — a hero exposed to racism and violence  — couldn't be more different from his predecessor's.

I talked to Remender about what we can expect from Wilson's Captain America, what Marvel's diversity means for readers, and how Wilson's race affects his heroism.

Alex Abad-Santos: Back in the '70s, we saw comic books try to include women and nonwhite characters, but it sometimes felt like prescriptivism or tokenism — resulting in hollow characters who felt more like PSAs than actual heroes. How important is it to you to avoid writing Sam as a "perfect" Captain America?

All New Captain America No. 1. (Marvel)

Rick Remender: In terms of avoiding tokenism, and treating characters like characters, I stomp around the Marvel Universe and I kill and maim and damage and I twist the characters, and I put them through hell whether they be man or woman, black or white — they all get to experience the same cruel hand of my writer's pen.

Sam's not going on a pedestal. He's getting his ass kicked. There's a huge test coming up here. He's also not neutered. There's an instinct to be fearful as a white man writing an African-American character in such a prominent position. And you could talk yourself out of making bold decisions out of that fear. I have a responsibility to present Sam and the character that he is in a way that makes him feel three-dimensional — that means all of his positive attributes as well as his negative attributes — and to allow myself to tell a big, super-exciting story with him in it that doesn't approach him or what happens to him in a different way I would any other character.

I treat all my characters just as God does [laughs] — they all get to suffer the same wrath.

AAS: Unlike Steve Rogers, Wilson comes from a place where he witnesses an imperfect America that can be ugly and racist. How does this affect his empathy and his heroism?

RR: One of the reasons I was drawn to writing him, and one of the reasons I wanted to do this, is if you look at Marvel history where he would land right now, that would make him Generation X.

A variant cover of All New Captain America No. 1. (Marvel)

He grew up when I grew up, and he grew up at a time that was increasingly more violent from the late '80s into the mid-'90s.

Sam's story reflects that era, in that he was a kid who was disenfranchised and dealing with racism. He didn't have a lot of hope. But he's got a father who's a minister and, in the Marvel Universe, one of the most prominent popular ministers in Harlem. People come from miles around to listen to his sermon. He preaches about his American dream of tolerance and standing up against oppression, and these concepts that Sam can't buy into because he's not necessarily apathetic, as much as he is a jaded teenager.

His father is killed trying to stop a fight. And Sam becomes untethered. He's spiraling. And things get worse when his mother is gunned down by a mugger not long after his father's death.

I'm using this to build the character quite a bit. It's his origin. It's what was set up way back when. But it's not something we've seen examined a lot of. What [these events] end up giving us is this kid who's disenfranchised, jaded, and cynical listening to his whole life and his father and mother, trying to teach him to choose his own path but also absorb the dream that they are presenting. He doesn't get it until they are both dead. And he recognizes the gap they've left — the hole they've left in the community.

He has to then rise, rise in the same way Steve Rogers had to rise after the Great Depression. And he has to make a promise that he will do everything he can to make sure that people have a defender. He believes in solving the community's problems from the inside.

AAS: Going back to characters like Wally West as the Flash, and now with characters like Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel, you see heroes who take on those iconic titles struggle with defining the character and living up to its expectations. How is Sam going to react to that?

A Variant cover of All New Captain America No.1.  (Marvel)

RR: That's the fun of it — Sam's wearing the American flag. That means he represents all of America. And not just that, but the spirit of the character is that he tries to represent all of the world. (But he's walking around in an American flag, so it pretty well means you're representing America. And, well, your name's Captain America.)

He's a different person than Steve and as the Falcon, he was more free to listen to his heart without the same sort of repercussions on such a stage as Captain America.

Without giving away what we have coming up, Sam is going to learn in a number of difficult ways that he now represents all of America. And the challenge before him is to take on a polarized nation of people who have drawn a line in the sand and have decided there is no middle. They're just going to throw things at each other, they're not going to cooperate, and they're not going to find common ground.

Instead they're going to villainize one another and endlessly chase this adversarial relationship into the country's decline. And Sam is going to try represent something that both sides and hopefully inspire people.

AAS: What does being Captain America mean to Sam? And how is that vision different from Steve's?

RR: I think what a lot of what I'm doing in this series is putting Sam and Steve at odds. I don't want to say Steve is a rigid character, but he's somebody who follows his heart; he's a patriot; he does what he knows to be right. But at the same time, he comes from a place of military experience — he's a soldier, he understands the importance of following orders.

Sam is a little more reflective of myself and my friends growing up. He is a little bit more wary of authority — a little more questioning of what is being handed down and the motives of the people at the very top.

Obviously, this isn't to say that Steve hasn't dealt with corruption in the government. And it isn't to say that Steve hasn't dealt with his own  anti-authoritarian feelings.

Sam's not less hopeful, but he's a little more pragmatic. And he's a lot less likely to take orders from S.H.I.E.L.D. than he is to make his own mind up and do what he thinks is right.

AAS: We see a little of that pushback with S.H.I.E.L.D. in the AXIS comic book event. He doesn't seem to be as trusting of the government. Do you think that speaks to something bigger, and reflects a cultural feeling right now?

Avengers and X-Men Axis No. 4. (Marvel)

RR: In AXIS, early in Sam's career as Captain America, he's drawn into this event. And his polarity is inverted. He basically is evil when you see him do that. But even a Sam Wilson who isn't inverted and evil, as we see him in AXIS, is going to be a lot less likely, a lot less prone to following the order laid out by a large institution as maybe Steve would be.

Sam's questioning of the system in place, and the motives of the people who are running it, will feed into a larger story that we're telling with the rise of HYDRA. And it's a HYDRA story that will take place over the first year or two of Captain America — it's unlike anything we've ever seen from HYDRA. And I will definitely be reflecting some of my own feelings and some of what I perceive to be the character's feelings about certain institutions and the way they are being run.

I think it's a much more interesting perspective especially from somebody who doesn't feel like he's a man out of time. Steve is a man out of time, he's an FDR child of the Great Depression, he fought in World War II — he's many generations behind us now. And the ideals of who he is and what he stands for are wonderful, and he's still a wonderful character. But Sam is somebody who's a little more pragmatic, and a little more cooked in the same soup that the readers are.

AAS: Over the last couple of years, we've seen Marvel show heroes of different genders, sexualities, and skin color. What has the change been like since you started working with the company?

A variant cover to All New Captain America No. 1. (Marvel)

RR: I was just talking to someone about how when I started reading comics in 1984, Iron Man was African-American. James Rhodes was Iron Man for a number of years when I was growing up. In fact, when Tony Stark became Iron Man, I was flummoxed.

The first book I ever pitched — I was a skate punk in the '80s — I had an idea to take a really ridiculous character Rocket Racer and infuse him with the lead singer of Bad Brains and turn him into this incredibly cool skate punk who was like the Silver Surfer riding up building and all these things. That was the first book I tried to get in at Marvel.

The diversity at that point, in terms of the general line, it was predominantly white. One of my goals coming into the company was to do different things, and do diverse things.

We then turned Brother Voodoo into the Sorcerer Supreme. And we tried a number of things along the way. I think the good thing we've seen is that it's starting to happen more and more down the line now. You're starting to see characters who can reflect other parts of our culture.

And that gives every kid somebody to look up to. It's nice when there's a number of options out there that different kinds of kids can apply to themselves. It's important to be able to see yourself in your heroes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Captain America No. 1 will be released on Wednesday.

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