After a fun (but a little uneven) run with Mark Waid at the helm, Captain America is now in the creative hands of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Atlantic columnist, Black Panther writer, and popular left-wing commentator. Although I don’t agree much with Coates’ politics, I think that putting him in the writer’s chair for Cap was the right move. I say this because Cap works best––at least for me––when his foes are ideological enemies and not just supervillains, and Coates seems to understand this very well. Most of the greatest Captain America stories––the Simon-Kirby original; Gruenwald’s, Englehart’s, and Brubaker’s runs; Civil War; Secret Empire, and several others––pit Cap against people who are not only physical threats, but also who represent ideological challenges to his virtue, morality, and principles.* Each of these stories forces Cap to face a threat that calls into question his most important values and to reevaluate and defend those values in a world that grows increasingly hostile to those values.
Two issues into Coates’ run, we have seen Cap face a number of challenges to the things that he holds dear. In the aftermath of Secret Empire, people in power seem to distrust him and exclude him while at the same time claiming to “honor” his “service.” Cap wants to help fight a group of cybernetic clones of the supervillain Nuke who have been committing terrorist acts on American soil, but General Ross has pushed him out, citing the Secret Empire incident and “appearances” as his reasons.
On the one hand, Cap worries about what it means that he’s fighting a group of terrorists who wear and the salute the same flag that he does. What does it mean that two people can pledge their allegiance to the same symbol and the values that it represents while at the same time being so different? How is it that patriotism can inspire Captain America to give his whole life to the good of others, but it can also inspire people like Nuke to terrorize and kill? Well, when we’re talking about Cap and Nuke (or a cybernetic Nuke-clone––ah, comics), that’s an easy question to answer: Nuke and people like him are corruptions of the values, not products of it. But since comics represent the things of the real world in “large and startling images”** and mythologically encode what it means to be human, Cap and Nuke invite us to ask ourselves the same kinds of questions that Cap asks. What does it mean to be an American, really? Are American values best embodied by progressives? Libertarians? Conservatives? The Alt-Right? Antifa? Barack Obama? Donald Trump? Is there some core set of American values that most of us embrace even while we disagree on peripheral questions?
On the other hand, Cap has to accept the distrust of Ross and others––while at the same time contending with the likelihood that there is more to Ross excluding Cap from the Nuke investigation than simply “appearances.” Here, Coates gets a little more partisan than some people will be comfortable with. Ross, who works directly for President Trump (who is never named, but it’s clearly him), has a checkered past. Meanwhile, the Marvel Trump Administration is working with others who are even worse––Baron Von Strucker, for example, and Selene Gallio. The real-world political commentary here is a bit on-the-nose, but the book doesn’t really suffer for it. And more importantly, all of this puts Cap into a difficult place philosophically. What are the limits of his patriotism? What does it mean to pledge allegiance to one’s country while at the same time opposing those who run it? Is America embodied by those who have the power to make decisions for her? Or is America something else? Is it the people? The ideals represented by the flag?
One thing that strikes me as important: when we see Cap interacting with normal people in these issues, we don’t see the kind of distrust that you might expect following the events of Secret Empire. We’re told that people distrust him––but it’s Ross who says it, and Ross clearly has some agenda that is served by keeping Cap out of the loop.
I admit that I felt some initial trepidation when Marvel announced Coates as the new Captain America writer, but that trepidation was short lived. Coates said at the time that he wasn’t interested in putting his own words in Cap’s mouth, but in trying to see the world through Cap’s eyes. And so far, he has done just that. The book has been respectful of Cap’s values while at the same time showing what those values look like in the divided and disheartening world around us.
••Here I quote Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite fiction writers.