This is getting a little bit ridiculous. (Have I said that before?)
Look, I like Mark Waid. If I see that a book has him at the helm, I’m interested. Kingdom Come and his most recent Daredevil run are some of my favorite comics. And even though I’m about to complain about it a little, I actually like his current run on Captain America. But at this point it would be nice to read a Captain America comic that . . . well, that is about America.
What do you mean? you ask. The current storyline is set in a dystopian near-future in which a terrorist organization called Rampart has usurped the U.S. government. Now the country, or what is left of it after a nuclear disaster, is ruled by King Babbington, who strongly resembles . . . well, you tell me who he looks like:
Captain America, who recently was frozen in ice (again) by Rampart, has awakened in this future and joined forces with an underground resistance to Babbington’s rule. How can you get more “relevant” than that?! you ask. Babbington is Trump! And Babbington’s America is Trump’s America! Okay, okay—I get it.
The problem is that this future America is merely a caricature of the real America. It’s what a teenager obsessed with conspiracy theories imagines America to be. We have an evil dictator, and we have the heroic #Resistance.
Now, I know that many people will protest at this point that comics are cartoons, so it’s no surprise that their depiction of politics is cartoonish. In answer I hold up such books as Civil War, Waid’s own Kingdom Come, and Watchmen. (Heck, even Secret Empire didn’t descent to this level of cartoonishness.) Because they are first and foremost mythology, superhero comics are very good at telling thoughtful and illuminating stories about politics. Civil War is perhaps the supreme example. Since it creates a political conflict in the Marvel Universe and then allows the characters themselves decide how to deal with it in terms of their own political principles, Civil War manages to tell a story that has depth and sophistication—and surprising real-world relevance. It doesn’t dictate to readers what they should think either about the politics of the Marvel Universe or in the real world. But Waid’s current Captain America story, with its barely-disguised Trump analogue, just comes across as lazy, and as a consequence has little actual relevance to the real world.
To be honest, it would be nice to read a Captain America comic that isn’t about Trump at all. (We just survived over a year of Hydra Cap, after all.) Yes, he looms large in political discourse right now, but in many ways, Trump is the least important thing happening at the moment. The debates over gun rights, abortion, free speech, drug legalization; our relations with Russia, China, and North Korea; the insanely high national debt; the fact that there is now little important difference between the two political parties; the fact that Americans increasingly hold little in common with one another—each of these problems or questions is far more important than the person who sits in the Oval Office, and yet comics writers can’t seem to see past Trump the man, who is often merely a distraction.
Imagine a Captain America story in which Cap responds to a mass shooting and has to comfort victims and families of victims. Imagine that the killer gets away before he can get caught. Imagine that in his search for the killer, Cap talks to both Second Amendment supporters and gun control activists who present the best possible arguments for their positions (the Netflix Punisher series did this very well). Imagine Cap finally catching up with the killer and having to confront not only the killer’s guns, but also the nihilism and pessimism that seems to characterize all of these mass shooters. Such a story would be timely, “relevant,” and could present a balanced view of a topic that has obvious national importance––as long as the writers weren’t ideologues or hyper-partisans who wanted to impose their own views on readers.
Similarly, one could imagine all sorts of Cap stories that confronted him with other questions, problems, and issues that are important to Americans today. He’s uniquely suited for telling stories that examine controversial or polarizing topics with sensitivity and thoughtfulness. (Of course, sensitivity and thoughtfulness are in short supply these days, so . . .)
Note that I’m not asking for comics writers to use their books in order to lecture their audiences. But Captain America is a uniquely political superhero. His very existence is a political statement. And it is certainly possible to tell stories about him that deal with topical issues in a balanced and nuanced way. Other writers have done this (Englehart and Brubaker come to mind immediately, but I’m sure that there are more).
Ta-Nehisi Coates will take over Captain America this summer, and because Coates is firmly leftist, I’ll admit that I found myself a little worried at first about what he’ll do with the character. But the more I think about it, the more intrigued I am at the idea of Coates writing about a character like Cap, who represents much of what Coates seems to reject in his politics. And when I recently heard a conservative podcaster interview him, I was struck by how gracious and civil Coates can be when talking to someone who disagrees with his views.
So in spite of my early trepidation, I’m excited about Coates writing Captain America, especially after reading what Coates has to say about his new assignment at Marvel. He seems to get what Cap means and to respect him, and more importantly, he seems to want to get inside Cap’s head, to see things through the eyes of Steve Rogers, and that impresses me a great deal. The world is too full of people who are incapable of seeing through the eyes of others, especially of people who disagree with them politically or morally.
Here’s hoping that Coates will trust Cap to do what he does best: embody both the goodness and also the complexity and paradoxes of the country that he represents.