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

What impresses most in the early going of Marvel’s deluxe hardback Captain America By Ta-Nehisi Coates Vol. 1 is that Coates seems to have a clear and distinct vision for what he wants to do with the character — and it’s clearly not to make him a mouthpiece for his own ideas and opinions, much to the probable consternation of those who assumed that was exactly what he had in mind.

On the contrary, when a battle-scarred and psychologically adrift Steve Rogers engages in combat with an army of cloned copies of his old villain Nuke (a fight which began in the pages of a Free Comic Book Day giveaway number that is presented as an introduction here and continues in earnest in the first issue proper), his one anchor is his resolute belief in his country not as it is — divided after Hydra occupation and ideologically, economically, and culturally up for grabs — but as it should be. This is a guy who knows the US constitution like the back of his hand, and still believes in his ongoing mission to uphold both it and the people who live by it at all costs. Yes, even those who are nostalgic for the Hydra “glory days.” It’s a tough spot to be in, sure, but he’s unwavering.

If there’s one thing about the first six-issue arc, latterly titled “Winter In America,” that fails to impress, though, it’s the lack of any direct physical threat to Cap, his love interest Sharon Carter, and their various and sundry allies. Behind-the-scenes machinations are the order of the day, and while this “intrigue-centric” plotline is certainly involving, the fact that the Nukes and, later, Taskmaster don’t present our hero with much of a challenge as far as open fisticuffs go rather undercuts the inspired, near-balletic action sequence illustration by Leinil Francis Yu and Gerry Alanguilan. Simply put, these guys stage a fight scene like nobody’s business, emphasizing Cap’s lithe motions, precise on-the-fly strategizing, and the impact of his expertly-delivered blows with a tremendous finesse that is thematically right in line with the character they’re drawing — but Coates’ story never gives you the idea that Cap might be in any kind of real danger from these foes, instead trotting them out like the pawns in a larger game that they so obviously are from the outset.

In short, then, he’s still pretty clearly learning on the job as far as this whole comics writing gig goes, and would do well to study the work of old pros like Archie Goodwin who were expert at shifting the tone, style, and even substance of their stories to not just play to the strengths of their artistic collaborators, but to “up their game,” as the kids say. Yu, Alanguilan, and colorist Sunny Gho (whose intentionally subdued palette stands well above much of today’s wretched and lifeless computerized coloring) do a superb job with what they’re given, no question, but it would be so much better if Coates had given them more — instead, what we’ve got are six issues that allow them to showcase their skills just fine, but that never push them to expand their horizons.

Back on the plus side of the ledger, however, Coates is at least smart enough to get out of the way and let the artists to what they do so well, even if he’s not nudging them toward the fullest expression of their capabilities. Both his caption boxed interior monologue for Cap himself and his characters’ dialogue across the board are uniformly crisp, economical, and fluid, engaging readers in the situations as they play out while never stepping on Yu and Alanguilan’s toes. Spoiler alert : this goes from advantage to disadvantage quickly when new artists less capable of doing the bulk of the heavy lifting are brought on board the title, but in this opening storyline, Coates’ authorial unobtrusiveness is very welcome, indeed.

Most of the time, at any rate. Occasionally his sparse scripting actually blunts the impact of key moments, such as at the end of the fifth issue when a major baddie is revealed to actually be an even more major baddie (a revelation which, frustratingly, is never followed up on in any appreciable way by the end of this book — I get that Coates is playing a proverbial “long game” here, but come on), but on the whole his narrative and pacing sensibilities are pretty well spot-on in terms of letting the pictures well and truly say a thousand words.

All told, then, yes, this is not an “arc” without flaws both major and minor, but judged within the context of modern mainstream comics’ admittedly ridiculously “decompressed” storytelling paradigm, it not only does its job of setting both the tone and the stage for the series is a whole, it does it pretty damn well all things considered. It’s topical in such a way that may drive MAGA die-hards a bit batty, but the parallels to life as it actually is today aren’t so heavy-handed that one can’t simply ignore them if they choose to, as well — in other words, the Trumpian figure of “Kingpin of Crime” Wilson Fisk as mayor of New York, the QAnon-ish conspiracy sweeping the land which posits that the “Hydra Cap” of Secret Empire and “our” Cap are one and the same, the shadowy “Power Elite” making a play to re-write America’s social hegemony in their own image by appealing to a combination of populist economics and nativist resentment? These things are hardly subtle, but their real-world implications can be dispensed with more or less instantaneously by anybody who just wants to read a fun comic book story for purely escapist purposes. Coates in no way demands that you accept his worldview in order to enjoy his story, and again, said worldview really doesn’t seep into his characterization of his protagonist in any appreciable way.

By the end of the sixth issue, Cap’s in a tight spot — framed for murder, fallen from grace, headed for the big house — but all is not lost, both because he’s been down this road before, and because he has just as many friends operating in the shadows as he does enemies. But we’ll get into all that in part three. Suffice to say, while these first six issues didn’t knock my socks off, they definitely left me wanting more, and in the mainstream comics racket, that’s the working definition of “mission accomplished” right there.

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

      1. Ryan C. (fourcolorapocalypse)

        I think I touch on it in my reviews, actually. He’s still figuring out how to play to the strengths of his artists and his sparse scripting style, while usually pretty effective, at times has its drawbacks. This series seems like a BIG step forward from what little I read of his “Black Panther,” though, so I’m pretty confident his comics writing will continue to improve. I don’t know why they don’t just give him “Spider-Man” at this point, he’s been wanting a shot at it for a long time.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah, of course, sorry. I thought you meant something like he was becoming frustrated with working within the constraints of a corporate media company while being a creative artist. I’d be comfortable if they gave him any series in the catalog. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning author. What’s the worst that could happen? Give him Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four while they’re at it.

        Like

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