Home / General / People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 18: the Social Worker and the Cop

People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 18: the Social Worker and the Cop


When we last left our heroes, Captain America and the Falcon had returned to New York City after liberating a Caribbean island from Nazis and once again foiling the Red Skull’s Cosmic Cube machinations. Upon their return in #120, the question became what the status quo would be for the new partnership in their new environment.

(Pictured: two bros just broing around, casually shirtless.
It’s not like they do this all the time or anything.)

The new status quo would take a few issues to show up, but starting with #139, for almost two years – two years which saw Captain America and the Falcon handed off from Stan Lee[1] to Steve Englehart (by way of Gary Friedrich and Gerry Conway)[2] – Cap writers went back to one of the oldest scenarios in comics.

By night, Captain America and the Falcon would patrol New York City as vigilante superheroes. By day, they would adopt civilian identities that spoke to their ideas of civic engagement: Sam Wilson returned to his job as a social worker, Steve Rogers took up a new job as a cop. Both worked the Harlem beat.[3]

These are their stories.  

The “Silent Majority” Social Worker vs. Harlem’s Hero

Superhero day jobs often have overlapping features: they’re rarely nine-to-five or even more time-intensive positions (because it’s hard to find the time to patrol the city at night or respond to emergencies or engage in adventures in outer space when you’re on the clock), they’re often independent professionals (because it’s hard to sneak off and change into your costume when you have a boss who’s hovering over your shoulder) or wealthy dilettantes, and they often give the protagonist storytelling hooks for finding out about crimes or natural disasters (hence why you see so many intrepid reporters, dogged private eyes, crusading lawyers, and attorneys).

You don’t see a lot of social worker alter-egos, despite the fact that they often work odd hours, spend a lot of time out of the office doing field visits, and their case work brings them in contact with some of the most vulnerable people in society. Perhaps it’s because social work is seen as a feminized profession and is thought of too nurturing for hard-fisted heroes. Perhaps it’s because social work often leads people to see “street-level” criminals as people in need of help rather than punishment. Perhaps it’s because social work forces both the characters and the readers to confront social injustices that can’t be fixed by punching Hitler in the jaw.

As the “Social Administrator” for “District 1” in Harlem, Sam Wilson deals with many of these social injustices on a daily basis. His caseload is rather diverse: helping people in his community return to education or find employment, investigating abuse in the prison system, and providing cash assistance to people in need. But most of all, Sam Wilson works with at-risk youth who have “lost faith in the law – in the world around them – and in themselves! Kids with no one to turn to – no one to trust – with nothing but bitterness and contempt for the system.” As someone with family in the neighborhood, this cause is particularly personal for him:

As someone who tends more towards a client-centric model of social work than the radical model than was sweeping through New York City’s Welfare Department at the time, there is something of an overlap between Sam’s work and his politics, which heavily emphasize non-violence, investment in the ghetto, and personal uplift through education and employment – a particular school of thought that certainly was present in more moderate and conservative circles in the black community in the 1970s:

Without any leavening, this could all come across as wildly patronizing respectability politics, especially coming from an all-white creative team. (It certainly didn’t help that Sam’s character model in this period was often based on photo-references of Sidney Poitier, an actor known for his clean-cut appeal to white audiences.) However, Lee et al. consistently have Sam’s social work and his political views be challenged by black militants in his community:

The reference to Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech might fly over the heads of modern audiences, but contemporary readers would have grasped the comparison of Sam Wilson to figures like Sammy Davis Jr. or James Brown who had endorsed the first “law and order” Republican president at a time of increased urban protest. When Leila Taylor later calls him an “Uncle Tom” to his face, the message is unmistakable. However couched in inflammatory language, Leila’s challenge that “our people need heroes not handouts” and her argument that “fighters” rather than “a job – and…savin’ some bread” are the way to pride in the black community would likewise have been familiar to people who’d seen or heard intra-community debates between militants and moderates.

While Captain America and the Falcon depicted black militants as ultimately misguided (much more on this later), their critique was never dismissed outright in a simplistic equation of “moderation = good, militancy = bad.” Rather, Wilson is depicted as someone who takes on board the radical critique of his work and his politics because he himself is internally divided as to whether moderation or militancy is the right path for his community or himself:

(See what I mean about the shirtlessness?)

For all his more conservative views about the work ethic or protest tactics, Sam is still a proud black man whose superheroic exploits are at least in part rooted in a desire to demonstrate and be recognized for his worth. (This comes up a lot when, after Captain America first develops super-strength, the Falcon turns to T’challa’s Wakandan technology rather than the white science of Hank Pym or Tony Stark to develop the wingsuit that will bring him back to parity with his partner in crime-fighting.)

This aspect of his character is why, rather than Sam and Leila’s relationship stopping at disdain, they instead get into a classic Lois Lane/Clark Kent/Superman “love triangle” where the Pam Grier-inspired militant sees the Falcon as a superior example of black masculinity, but still feels drawn to the man behind the civilian identity. It’s a tale as old as time, or at least 1938:

(As you might have guessed, these panels are followed by a scene of Captain America watching Sam make out with Leila while angsting about Sam choosing Leila over him.)

Moving from the personal back to the political, Sam’s vigilantism is connected to his social work on both a plot and thematic level. In no small part, the Falcon is an expression of frustration at the broader forces that seem impossible to tackle, a way for him to go after the mafia and other gangs who he (and the authors blame for putting youth at-risk and profiting off and exacerbating systemic oppression and inequality: 

While the popularity of blaxploitation films in the early 1970s made urban vigilante vs. gangs storylines popular, one the dangers of leaning into this trend in a high-minded book like Captain America and the Falcon (as opposed to a more tailored vehicle like Power Man or Blade) was that it could come off as replicating the racial frames of the War on Crime. To square this circle, the liberal creative team was careful to depict crime as a multi-racial affair with black people as the primary victims, with an emphasis of the role of white criminal syndicates as the masterminds of Harlem’s misery:

Thus, the scene of two hoods threatening a Jewish-coded merchant – an especially fraught topic amid the fraying of the black-Jewish alliance in the wake of the 1968 teacher’s strike – is made somewhat more nuanced by the revelation that the Diamondheads were actually a front for the white “maggia” (Marvel’s non-copyright-fringing name for the Mafia). Similarly, artist Gene Colan complicates the rather hamfisted speech by the merchant that “how do you bring prosperity to your neighborhood if you keep business out” by contrasting it with the “No Credit Today” sign in front of the register. In this fashion, the creative team hoped to cover their political bases while still putting out saleable product.  

(Yet more shirtless angsting, now with added racial commentary.)

At the end of the day, this “social justice warrior” approach to costumed crimefighting proved to be the synthesis between Sam Wilson’s warring halves. By violently striking back at the white gangs and drug pushers who preyed upon his neighborhood, the Falcon could protect Sam Wilson’s community while gaining their trust as the “Hero of Harlem.” In this fashion, too, Stan Lee et al. could have their cake and eat it too when it came to high-minded social commentary and hard-fisted crime-fighting.

Captain Community Policing

The decision to make Steve Rogers a cop – at a time when the police weren’t that popular with the youth audiences that Marvel prized, when they’d just invested quite a bit of effort to establish his anti-establishment credentials – was only slightly less fraught than his partner’s new direction.

Thus, the creative team behind Captain America and the Falcon went to demonstrate that Officer Steve Rogers was “one of the good ones.” On a visual and thematic level, it was crucial that at no point did Captain America ever use a gun while he walked the Harlem beat. (Indeed, I’d argue that unlike some other characters, shooting someone even in the most justified of circumstances would completely destroy him as a viable character.) Indeed, in one of the few times when Steve got into a fight in uniform, he reverted to his (MCU) roots by instinctively picking up the shield instead of the sword:

Moving beyond this bare minimum, Lee and John Romita Sr. used the (somewhat strawmannish) character of Reverend Garcia to testify to Officer Rogers’ sincerity of purpose. More importantly, Steve’s participation in Garcia’s Boys Club establishes his credentials as someone who walks the walk of community policing, which Lee et al. positioned as a parallel to Sam’s work as a social worker:

(For clarification, this is the same police commissioner who shows up later,
the colorist just changed his hair from white to red.)

At the same time, as Leila’s challenge to the very idea that there is such a thing as a good cop suggests, the creative team was not telling a story wherein the NYPD would be uncritically represented as a purely benevolent force. (This becomes more clear when one compares it to Stan Lee’s fairly uniformly positive depiction of the U.S military in most Silver Age Marvel books.) Instead, the NYPD is presented as a potentially obstructive and dangerous institution, requiring Captain America’s costumed intervention to say the day:

Sometimes, Cap had to save the day from the police. Here, we see Sam Wilson first donning the mantle of Captain America and he does at Steve’s behest to prevent trigger-happy cops from shooting an unarmed black man who’s been framed for a crime he didn’t commit. While the Lee-to-Englehart era was deeply imperfect (and I’m about to get into the more imperfect side in the next section), it’s surprising how much more forthright and forward-looking the politics of Cap comics from the 1970s were, compared to Rick Remender’s All-New Captain America or Nick Spencer’s initially-promising-yet-ultimately-execrable Captain America: Sam Wilson.

A much more load-bearing part of Steve Rogers’ character arc was the introduction of Sergeant Muldoon, a “tough guy” cop who disapproved of his rookie’s community-oriented approach. Although initially intended largely as an in-joke within the Marvel bull-pen[4] who was supposed to be a gruff but ultimately loveable character, Lee et al. repurposed Muldoon to be the spokesman for gun-toting, billy-club-swinging “law and order” policing that was only gaining in political strength due to the backlash against urban unrest of the 1960s and 1970s.

At the same time, I don’t think a narrative of “community policing = good, law-and-order policing = bad” would have cut it, even in 1971. Thus, Stan Lee and Steve Englehart had to concoct an additional reason to justify why Steve Rogers would join the NYPD. But before we get into it, we have to cover…

Fear of Black Protest

These storylines and themes of Sam Wilson the Social Worker and Steve Rogers the Cop came to a head in issue #143. While writer Gary Friedrich only wrote six issues during a brief interregnum between Stan Lee and Steve Englehart’s much longer runs, this particular comic is probably the most memorable of any that he’d penned, because it entirely devotes itself to a race riot in Harlem only a few years after the “long hot summer” of 1967 and the post-King-assassination riots of 1968. If any issue of Captain America and the Falcon was going to be a Statement About Race, this was the one:

As much as I’ve been trying to tease out the more subversive elements of these comics, as I have said before, the fact that all of the writers and artists involved were middle-aged white dudes couldn’t help but have an impact on the kind of stories being told. And as liberal as these guys liked to think of themselves as, the reality was that the Black Panthers scared the shit out of a lot of putatively progressive white folks at the time (hence why they’re still used by Fox News to target many of the same people now in their retirements).

Even before this issue, Stan Lee had something of a penchant for storylines in which protest movements were shown to be co-opted by supervillains. The same approach that was used for campus protests was used in “Madness in the Slums!” (Captain America #133) to show how AIM used “slums…poverty…racism” as a “breeding ground for [MODOK’s] form of evil”: 

While the political analogy breaks down somewhat – there hadn’t been popular support for “slum renewal” in New York’s black community for more than a decade, thanks in no small part to Robert Moses’ use of Title I of the Housing Act of 1949 to wipe out black neighborhoods in the name of gentrification – the sheer goofiness of a giant yellow automaton in pink shorts doing the nefarious bidding of an Olmec-headed baby assassin renders it inoffensive.

In “Power to the People,” however, the antagonists are the People’s Militia, a non-copyright-infringing version of the Black Panthers, complete with afros, dark glasses, armbands, and black power fist logos:

Throughout the issue, the People’s Militia – with the partial exception of Leila Taylor, who shows herself to be cool in a crisis with a gift for political rhetoric – are portrayed as irrational slogan-spouters constantly one second from violence. Their leadership is even worse, deliberately setting out to see “Harlem burned to the ground” so that whites (presumably the small part of Italian Harlem that persisted around Pleasant Avenue) “won’t be able to live in this slum any more,” starting with burning down Reverend Garcia’s Boys Club.

While enough of the slogans are ripped from the headlines to suggest that Friedrich was reading the newspapers at the time, there’s other places (“function at the junction,” “let’s get jivin,” and the People’s Milita leader being known as “the Man” when that was a term only ever used to describe the white power structure) where the dialogue is embarrassingly tin-eared to the point where I’m not sure the author spent much time actually listening to Black Panthers. In a similar vein, the themes of the issue really start pushing their way to the forefront when Sam Wilson is beaten to a pulp for daring to question “the Man,” while Steve Rogers battles to save the Boys’ Club, all the white spouting platitudes about “you should be the first to know you can’t judge a man by his color.” It all comes across as incredibly out-of-touch:

There’s really no escaping the paternalistic cringe factor here, and it’s only going to get worse.

In contrast to the over-the-top violence of the People’s Militia, the NYPD are shown in a much more nuanced fashion. Sergeant Muldoon wants to mount a hardline response (and even throws in a little subtle racism on the side), but he’s shown as being kept in check by the liberal police commissioner who keeps a tight control over his (carefully drawn to be multi-racial) force to “avoid bloodshed” and a “potential race war.” (This is less than convincing to anyone who’s ever attended a protest in New York City or who’s seen footage on social media from same.)

In a replay of Issue #120, when Cap intervened in a melee between campus protestors and police, Captain America and the Falcon leap into no-man’s-land between “the cats and the cops” in a bid to de-escalate the situation. Breaking with the previously-established model, Friedrich and Romita Sr. stage the scene rather differently to Lee and Colan:

In the earlier scene, Cap had unambiguously sided with the protestors against police violence, reasoning that “the cops don’t need my help, but these kids do.” In a scenario that’s almost identical on paper, Friedrich and Romita Sr. take a “both sides” approach whose facial neutrality is betrayed by both dialogue and art. The People’s Militia are depicted as the clear aggressors, brandishing a fearsome array of torches, clubs, bottles, and garbage cans – presumably the riot store was fresh out of pitchforks – while the police cower in fear, lamenting that “we’re not to fight back until ordered to.” For their part, Captain America raises his mighty shield to protect the police from a Molotov cocktail while earnestly encourage them to give them “a chance to resolve [things] peacefully,” while Sam takes a much more active stance against club-wielding rioters, telling them that if they “mix it with the law…you’re gonna bleed, baby.”

The denouement is similarly anvilicious. Having tracked down the masked “The Man” to his secret lair, a classic Scooby-Doo unmasking sequence follows, showing his uniformed bodyguards to be “honkey” imposters and “The Man” himself to be none other than that actual, factual Nazi the Red Skull. The whole thing turns out to have been a plan to incite a race war between whites and blacks as cover for his assassination of Captain America.

Short of actually calling the People’s Militia reverse-racists (which, given the earlier description of the Diamondheads as “a black version of the Klan,” wasn’t out of the realm of possibility), it’s hard to think of a more thorough fictional deconstruction of the black radical agenda.

And yet…black militancy wasn’t totally dismissed either. As we’ve already discussed above, the Falcon’s newfound embrace of militancy proves to be the last piece of political cover the creators needed. Rather than disbanding in disgrace, the People’s Militia respond that “just because we got lead in the wrong direction, doesn’t mean there’s no more people’s militia,” and remind the police commissioner that future non-violence will be conditioned on how the police respond to future protests. More importantly, the Falcon gets the final word, pushing back on Cap’s micro-aggression and confirming that he will continue to walk the militant path:

Viewed in the broader context of the storyline as a whole, the message about black militancy changes from one of outright condemnation to more of a statement that there’s a wrong way to do militancy and a right way to do militancy: the Marvel Way!

(All?) Cops Are Supervillains

Ending it there, however, would still have left Marvel uncomfortably up to its knees in the shallow end of “law and order” politics. To balance the thematic scales, we have to go back to that dangling question about why Steve Rogers becomes a cop in the first place. In a rather deft turn, Stan Lee justifies the shift in status quo by having Cap become an undercover agent at the behest of that same liberal police commissioner, thus explaining why he has to be in uniform in order to draw out “a deadly mystery hanging over the city.”

While this reason turned out to be a rather unmemorable storyline about the Grey Gargoyle (a minor Thor and Iron Man villain) experimenting with his powers by turning cops into living statues, it provided just enough of a plot hook for Steve Englehart to cap off this two-year-long storyline in Captain America and the Falcon #159. After several issues in which a number of seemingly unconnected minor villains – Eel, Plant Man, Porcupine, Scarecrow, and the Viper – cause havoc in Harlem as a new team called “the Crime Wave” as tensions build within the NYPD over police corruption, Captain America is once again summoned by the police commissioner to a secret meeting, and thus unveils a sinister conspiracy headed up by “the Cowled Commissioner: 

Here, Englehart anticipates the 1973 film Serpico – although the real-life Frank Serpico had already testified in front of the Knapp Commission in 1971 [5] – by transforming Cap’s undercover mission from anodyne superheroics to an investigation into police corruption that involves “payoffs” as well as “spies” within the department working hand-in-glove with the “Cowled Commissioner” and his stooges. Making a clear statement about a link between police corruption and hardline tactics, the commissioner names the same Sergeant Muldoon who wanted to use violence to put down the People’s Militia as one of the targets of the Knapp Commission stand-in’s investigations. But no sooner has the liberal reformer police commissioner enlisted Captain America in the fight against “the Cowled Commisioner” than he’s assassinated by those same corrupt forces within the Department:

Captain America – who now views his police cover as “interfer[ing] with my life as Captain America,” a sign of the changing politics on the book – takes up the cause and, with the help of the Falcon, tracks down the Cowled Commissioner. For the first but not the last time in Captain America and the Falcon, a supervillain in pointy purple robes reveals a sinister conspiracy at work, this one involving both corrupt elements within the NYPD, street-level gangsters, and the Crime Wave working together to create the appearance that police reforms had caused a breakdown in law and order – and if you’ve spent any time living in New York City since the late 80s, you’ve heard this particular narrative from the New York Post, Republican mayors, and the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association – to force a rollback:

This Scooby-Doo reveal functions as Englehart’s commentary on the whole CapCop storyline; while previously Muldoon had been shown as misguided but not ill-intentioned, now he’s revealed to have been a murderous supervillain, “us[ing] the crime techniques I had learned” on the force in the service of the underworld. More significantly, Muldoon is not motivated by petty financial motives, but by hatred of “a new breed” of “cops who coddle criminals.” You cannot get a better example of the 70s Left political imagination than a scenario in which the law-and-order backlash and the crime wave were secretly a conspiracy by radicalized conservative cops rather than broad socio-political forces on the verge of mounting a successful counter-offensive against the “Movement of Movements.”

With his mission complete and the NYPD shown to be corrupt root-and-branch, Steve Rogers turns in his badge for good. And if Captain America couldn’t reform the police from the inside, who could?

In our next installment of the People’s History of the Marvel Universe, we’ll look at how Steve Englehart put his stamp on Captain America comics-ology in “Cap and Anti-Cap!” Until then, nuff said, true believers…

[1] In recent years, a lot of comics writers have tended to downplay Stan Lee’s creative contributions to Marvel, as part of a general effort to push back on several decades of official myth-making that saw artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko denied full credit for their work.

While most of this revisionism is fully justified, one of the things that becomes very clear in looking back at classic Cap comics of the late 60s and early 70s is that Stan Lee was also a keen observer of American culture who strove to keep in touch with the zeitgeist (albeit for the purposes of keeping Marvel Comics relevant to teenage audiences). Both in these Cap comics and the “Stan’s Soapbox” letter pages that were reprinted after his death, one can’t help but note a certain liberal sensibility that was baked into Captain America comics in this formative period.

[2] Artists tended to swap off more frequently in this period, with John Romita Sr., Gene Colan, and Sal Buscema being most frequently tapped for the book.

[3] The strong homoerotic themes that had marked the beginning of Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson’s partnership would continue throughout this period. In addition to spending a lot of time shirtless around one another and repeatedly “breaking up” their partnership and then getting back together by the end of the issue or the beginning of the next, both Cap and the Falcon had something of a penchant for spying from afar on their partner with their girlfriends while angsting about how this might spell the end of their superhero team-up. Still, by the standards of late Silver Age/early Bronze Age comics, a dysfunctional co-dependent bi ship is a ship nonetheless.  

[4] Muldoon was largely based on Drill Sergeant Duffy, who played the bumbling antagonist to Captain America’s secret identity of Private Steve Rogers in the Timely comics of the 1940s, and John Romita Sr. based his character design on Jack Kirby (which is pretty wild, given Kirby’s pro-hippie, anti-establishment politics).

[5] While “law and order” politics were nationally quite effective in the 70’s backlash, their effectiveness in New York City was blunted by a series of investigations and criminal cases that revealed systematic corruption from low-level protection rackets to working hand-in-glove with the Mafia. My personal favorite example involves the Drug Squad, led by one of the police sources for The French Connection, stealing 100 pounds of French Connection heroin out of the NYPD Property Clerk’s office on behalf of the Lucchese crime family, before abruptly “committing suicide” while under investigation for corruption and drugs charges. 

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