Fighting for Optimism in a Cynical World: Captain America by Ta-Nehisi Coates

What do I love about Captain America? For one, he is a moral compass whose virtue extends beyond the confines of his book.  Like all boy scout heroes, one can usually find their way if they’re willing to ask themselves, “What would Steve Rogers do?”  It may seem a little naïve and childish, but having these paragons of virtue teach us what to do when the path forward is not so easy are instrumental in shaping our moral compasses.  In this way, Cap has historically been a good barometer for what the American people are feeling.

It’s so easy to write the good captain off as simply a puppet of the American government, but any Cap fan worth his salt knows that couldn’t be further from the truth.  As Cap has told his enemies and his readers, he stands for the will of the people, and also the best that America can be, from its mindsets to its principles.  Symbolically, his shield was meant to be a commentary on the American attitude during World War II.  The unbreakable shield represented the American spirit, and when he threw it, he was extending America’s protection against those who would do harm to the innocent.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Captain America in March 1941, 9 months before America entered into World War II.  The cover of his premiere issue showed the patriotic hero punching Adolf Hitler on the jaw; a clear declaration of how Americans viewed the Nazi leader.  

On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was shot in a presidential motorcade in Dallas, TX.  By this time, America had already been embroiled in the civil rights movement and bogged down in the Vietnam War for years.  4 months after the assassination in March 1964, Captain America was reintroduced into comics as a reminder of the ideals of America in a time where those ideals were tested.  During the confusion and cynicism of the Watergate Scandal, Captain America discovers that a high-ranking government official is part of a conspiracy to dominate the people and Steve gives up his identity of Captain America out of a moral quandary.  In May 2016, a few short months after an election that left Americans harshly divided, Captain America was revealed to be an agent of Hydra for years (more on this later).

This was the intellectual context in which I was excited to hear that Ta-Nehisi Coates would take a run on Captain America.  If you’re not familiar with Coates’s work outside of the comic realm, he has been a contributor to The Atlantic for years on matters of race relations in the United States, written several award-winning and highly lauded books on the subject, and has been described as “an eternal pessimist.”  So, the friction comes into play: what story would a person who’s well-acquainted with the worst that America can offer tell, using the character that represents the best that America could be?

Coates’s story picks up after the events of Secret Empire in 2017, in which a double of Steve Rogers tried to take over the world with Hydra.  He is stopped by the real Steve Rogers, who by now has lost the trust of the people.  What follows is a conspiracy to further discredit Steve by framing him for a high-profile murder, and the lengths he’ll have to go to prove his innocence.

Metaphors and allegories abound in this comic run, which I think is Coates’s strong suit.  He has plenty to say when it comes to the corruption of American ideals and has found a perfect parallel in the comics status quo.  Coates creates a perfect enemy against which the greatest optimistic force has to battle against; a cynical world that he can’t punch in the jaw to fix.

One of the things I really love about Coates is that he’s purposeful with every word he puts on the page.  The narration he’s written for Captain America holds an elegiac gravity that is juxtaposed against Leinil Yu’s action scenes.  The result is that every fight and battle hold a deeper meaning and everything becomes visual symbolism.  The action drives home what the real star of the book, the narration, is saying.

The art goes further to reinforce the change of pace the story will take.  The high contrast lighting, muted colors and the (for lack of a better word) grit that the characters are rendered with bestow a harshness onto Steve that isn’t normally found in his stories.  This is no longer the star of a spy thriller or the bright and colorful symbol of hope that we have become accustomed to seeing.  This is a man conflicted, and it’s written all over his face.  The artist changes throughout the run, but to me Yu’s artistry was a perfect match for Coates’s writing.

Speaking of art, another big draw to the run are the covers done by the legendary Alex Ross.  As always, his covers are stunning, each worthy of being hung on the wall as an art piece in their own right.

Coates’s pacing, like his Black Panther run, is such that it works better when read all at once.  He clearly had a big picture in mind for the entire story, and it’s best consumed in as few sittings as possible to really grasp the scope of it all.

There’s an exchange that really stands out to me that could apply to so many things at the time of writing this.  It speaks to the optimist and hero that Steve Rogers is.  In a meeting with Bernie, an ex-girlfriend and his current defense lawyer, she tells Steve of someone who asked for his help.  And then they have this exchange.

There is so much lying underneath the surface of this run.  It’s not high-flying escapism or a battle against a larger-than-life villain, but a way to take a fresh look at our country through the eyes of metaphor and allegory.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ CAPTAIN AMERICA is available in both softcover and hardcover, and digitally on Comixology.

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