Right Man At The Right Time? On “Captain America By Ta-Nehisi Coates Vol. 1” : Part Three Of A Three-Part Series

You know the drill — the comics gods giveth, but they also taketh away. And so it is that the back half of the deluxe hardback Captain America By Ta-Nehisi Coates Vol. 1 — a six-part storyline titled “Captain Of Nothing” that ran in issues 7-12 of the still-current volume of the monthly Captain America series — offers some significant steps forward, but also some irritating steps back.

For one thing, Cap spends nearly the entirety of this “arc” in prison, awaiting trial for a murder he didn’t commit, but it is, as you’d likely expect, not just any prison — no, The Myrmidon (Coates’ love for mythological names really comes to the fore as this series goes on) is a “big house” for super-powered inmates run by one of Cap’s most notorious nemeses, Baron Von Strucker, who was “gifted” with the job of warden of his very own “superjail” in exchange for snitching out his former Hydra buddies after the fall of their short-lived global fascist regime. Some people, it would seem, always land on their feet.

Certainly one of them is Adam Kubert, who’s been drawing comics for at least as long as I’ve been reading them, and always does competent and serviceable work — but “competent” and “serviceable” are a sizable step down from Leinil Frnacis Yu and Gerry Alanguilan, who provided the art on this series’ opening story. Kubet does a fine job illustrating the inner and outer turmoil of both Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter as they struggle with the decision of whether or not the former should turn himself over to the authorities, but once the action shifts inside the joint, it becomes rather flat and lifeless in terms of both its affect and impact. Coates’ scripting certainly serves up some nice double-page splashes for his artist to have some fun with — many of them purely location scene-setters in a manner not unlike Frank Miller’s Ronin — but let’s be honest here : when the artistic highlight of any given issue is a big exterior shot of a prison, well, something’s not quite clicking.

Speaking of, the color duties on this leg of Coates’ long-form epic are split between Frank Martin and Matt Milla, and neither does much to distinguish themselves from either their colleagues in the field of computerized comics coloring or from each other — which is fine as far as uniformity of the book’s appearance goes, but again represents a fairly significant step down from Sunny Gho’s “huesmanship” of earlier issues. No bold choices here, no interesting new shades to spend any extra time “oohing” or “aahing” over, just workmanlike competence. Things could be worse, sure, but damn — they could also be a lot better.

Interestingly, Coates has Cap “narrate” this run of issues via past-tense interior monologue, which doesn’t so much grate as it does nullify any sort of threat he might be facing just as a matter of course, but less-than-awe-inspiring dangers were a problem over the course of the first six “chapters” as well, and for all I know may well represent an overall pattern of the weaknesses of the Marvel cinematic universe “infecting” their print comics. I really don’t read enough of ’em these days to say. To Coates’ credit, however, he greatly expands both the scope and the stakes of the “4-D chess match” playing out not just behind the scenes but over, above, and beneath them, and that goes some way toward ameliorating the sense that, hey, everything’s gonna work out fine. Even Von Strucker is just one more piece on the metaphorical board, a face and a name to distract from the actual conspirators looking to shut down Cap permanently. Getting out of this fix alone is, of course, impossible — but fortunately, our hero doesn’t need to do anything of the sort.

Enter a rather impressive and dare I say intriguing bit of on-the-fly “retconning” as Sharon Carter is revealed to be part of a group known has The Daughters Of Liberty, who have not only always been fighting on America’s behalf throughout its history, but have pretty much every female Marvel “A-lister” (Sue Storm, Spider-Woman, Misty Knight, Mockingbird, etc.) included in their ranks — we’d just never been aware of the outfit’s existence before. Add to the mystery of just what this sisterhood (think The Daughters of The American revolution, only with super-powers) has been up all this time the further mystery of who their cloaked operative known as The Dryad (told you about those mythological names!) really is, and you’ve got a juicy enough enigma to suck in even a reader like myself, who barely pays attention to the capes-n’-tights game. Coates hit it out of the park with this hiding-in-plain-sight idea.

The other, final “double-plus” as far as this “arc” is concerned is its dual cliffhanger. Yeah, it’s frustrating to read 12 issues of a comic collected in a $35 (but who pays cover price these days?) hardcover and not come to anything like an actual resolution, but when Steve Rogers ditches his Captain America identity for the umpteenth time for reasons that actually make coherent sense and takes on a mantle that really makes sense (speaking of hiding in plain sight), then Coates follows this up with the revelation of The Dryad’s identity, the combined effect is a one-two punch that left this reader, at least, very much looking forward to the second volume of this series in spite of the flaws and weaknesses of this first one.

Okay, sure — there have been better Cap runs than this one. And, perhaps surprisingly, there have been far more overtly political ones — certainly Steve Englehart’s original “Secret Empire” and Mark Gruenwald’s “Captain America No More” were more informed by Watergate and Iran-Contra, respectively, than Coates’ story (at least to the point this book leaves off on) is informed by Trumpian neo-fascism. And the shifting art teams, while a fixture of contemporary “Big Two” comics, don’t seem to be doing this series any favors on the whole. But as volume one closed, I was left with a very definite sense that enough key elements are in place for Coates to craft the Captain America storyline the world needs now and that, to answer my own question, he may just be the right man at the right time for the job.

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