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.

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

Patriotism, the old saying goes, is the last refuge of scoundrels, but I dunno — these days it just might be the first. From Donald Trump to Alex Jones to Larry Elder to Ben Shapiro to the rapidly-growing list of right-wing “shock jocks” dropping over from COVID at a steady clip (hey, who says all the news is bad?), the media landscape is utterly polluted by scurrilous grifters dry-humping Old Glory for a quick buck and tossing her aside until it’s time to milk their audience of lemmings for even more of their hard-earned (unless it was given to them by means of one of those dastardly “gub’mint handouts” they oppose for other people) cash. The ringleaders of this shell game writ large don’t care about America any more than they care about you, of course, but it seems there will always be a ready and willing audience for the most ostentatious displays of mile-wide, inch-deep nationalistic political performance “art” that never have, will, or even can prove a goddamn thing about sincerity of the person putting them on. Hell, even a confirmed non-patriot and absolutely strident anti-nationalist such as myself could place the biggest and most garish flag, a cheesy bald eagle velvet tapestry, and a red, white, and blue backdrop of some sort behind me tomorrow, go on YouTube and declare myself a “Super-Patriot,” and guess what? Somebody, somewhere would believe me. To dust off another moldy oldie, “what do you get when you cross a patriarch and an idiot?” actually seems as accurate today as it was when it was first coined, especially now that the entirety of the “patriot community” is a racket consisting of a handful of hucksters and a whole lot of suckers — and if you aren’t wise to that, then you’re just not wise, period.

Predictably, when Marvel announced that respected academic and public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates would be taking over writing the adventures of the patriot to end all patriots, Captain America, in 2018, the just-referenced “performative patriots” — most notably the full-time aggrieved whiners associated with the right-wing “comicsgate” pseudo-“movement” — blew a gasket for their cell-phone cameras. Why, here’s a guy who’s a lib’rul! An avowed “small d” democratic socialist! A supporter of Bernie Sanders! And to top it all off, he’s bla — wait, they didn’t say that part out loud, but did they really even need to? In any case, the song remains the same — the “performative patriot” crowd never shies away from positing that folks like them and only folks like them are the real ‘Murcans, and anybody who thinks, lives or, crucially, looks different is somehow out of step with what this country stands for/was built on/represents in the world, etc. These “uber-patriots” (emphasis on the uber) weren’t just aghast at the idea of Coates writing Cap, though — they were decrying the book itself as an abomination before it even came out.

Needless to say but I’m saying it anyway, to proclaim that someone’s no fucking good at a particular job before they’ve even started doing it is about as dumb as things get, even for people who consider a six-times-bankrupt, syphilitic game show host who doesn’t even bother hiding the fact he’s got the hots for his own daughter not just the greatest president ever, but some sort of living demi-god. Wanna say Coates’ version of Cap sucks? Okay, but at least wait for the first issue to hit the comic shops and read the damn thing — then, hey, have it. After all, it’s not like it would be in any way unusual for a Marvel comic to suck — they’ve been churning out an endless slew of garbage for the entirety of the post-Kirby/post-Ditko era, and exceptions (like, say, Frank Miller’s Daredevil run or the current The Immortal Hulk) are few and far between enough that you can count ’em on no more than two hands, perhaps even one.

Add to this the fact that Coates himself maybe wasn’t inspiring a ton of confidence in readers pre-disposed toward liking him going in, either. Having latched on with Marvel a couple years prior in hopes of doing a Spider-Man project, he was instead assigned King T’Challa to develop his comics-scripting chops on, and while his Black Panther was given a heavy publicity push, such “buzz” as it generated faded in due course and the comic itself was met with rather middling reviews. By the time the blockbuster film came out, in fact, despite all the “world-building” Coates and artist Brian Stelfreeze had done, it was clear that director Ryan Coogler had opted to draw most of his inspiration from earlier iterations of the Panther and his kingdom of Wakanda as envisioned by the likes of Don McGregor, Billy Graham, and of course the character’s creator, Jack Kirby. Coates’ run muddled along, was rebooted about halfway through, and eventually petered out — like, in fairness, almost all “Big Two” comics these days. For my own part, I claim no particular expertise on the overall quality of the book, having read just the first couple of issues before deciding it was dour, pompous, self-serious drivel that had its heart in the right place, but its head stuck back in 1990s “dark age”-style comics storytelling.

Some of Coates’ own comments when he was announced as Cap’s new scribe were perhaps a little less than what his corporate bosses may have hoped for, as well. In The Atlantic, for instance — the writer’s own “home turf” — he flat-out stated “I’m not convinced I can tell a great Captain America story — which is why I want so bad to try,” and while that kind of honesty is refreshing in today’s hype-dominated comics marketplace, it’s gotta be said that handing your critics metaphorical “ammo” like that maybe isn’t the wisest course of action. And yet, it can’t really be denied, at least on a conceptual level, that the idea of somebody who perhaps has a nuanced — even conflicted — relationship with the symbols and trappings, if not the ideals, of a character turning around and writing that character is an inherently interesting one. And Coates was taking the mantle at an interesting time for Cap, one rife with inner and outer turmoil for the character given that his evil, Hydra-aligned doppleganger had just been de-throned as de facto emperor of the world in the sprawling (and, for the record, stupid) Secret Empire crossover saga. If ever there was a “natural” point to look at Steve Rogers through a fresh set of eyes, this was it, given that Rogers wasn’t even necessarily sure what to make of himself anymore.

Marvel, to their credit — a phrase I don’t use often — also seemed bound and determined to set Coates up for success with this title, assigning (for the first six issues, at any rate) the top-flight Filipino creative team of penciller Leinil Francis Yu and inker Gerry Alanguilan to the book, along with bona fide “superstar” cover artist Alex Ross. Given the publisher’s sorry treatment of Filipino talent in the past (and probably present), one hopes Coates took his own politics to heart and prevailed upon them the need to pay these guys fairly (likewise for the comic’s Indonesian colorist, Sunny Gho), but I’m not privy to the behind-the-scenes machinations of what went down there — I will say definitively that these artists more than earned their page rates, though, whatever they were. There’s one more thing Coates had going in his favor, though, as well —

Simply put, history was on his side. I can only claim intimate familiarity with Jack Kirby’s second stint with the character of Captain America in the late 1970s — a run which has only in recent years begun to get anything like the recognition it deserves — but even a casual “pop in and pop back out” reader such as myself knows that lesser talents than The King ranging from Steve Englehart to Roger McKenzie to Don Glut to Mark Gruenwald to Sal Buscema to Mike Zeck to Kieron Dwyer to Ed Brubaker all “punched above their weight class,” so to speak, writing and/or illustrating memorable takes on America’s very own super-soldier that stand as high-points in their creative careers. For whatever reason, it seems that Cap brings out the best in many a comic-book freelancer — and a few of these now-legendary runs centered on themes that saw the character becoming disillusioned with America at the very least, at times even engaging in open conflict with his nation’s policies, leadership, or both. More than once, in fact, he even quit the job and assumed new super-hero identities in keeping with his (always temporary) “man without a country” mindset. So if Coates was going to go down that road, as early indications seemed, he’d be in very good company, indeed.

With all that preamble out of the way, then, I’ll confess to having quickly forgotten that this comic was even a going concern myself, the extent to which I follow the comings and goings of the funnybook mainstream being, to put it bluntly, minimal at best. Its very existence seemed to piss off a lot of people I thoroughly enjoy seeing pissed off, it’s true, but beyond that, I didn’t know a damn thing about it until finding the deluxe hardback collection Captain America By Ta-Nehisi Coates Vol. 1 (the title of which, sadly, continues the recent trend of giving short shrift to a book’s artists) at a rock-bottom bargain price last week. The volume collects the first 12 issues of the series’ still-ongoing run and, now that the the table is set, we’ll delve into its various and sundry highs and lows in our next installment tomorrow, when this decidedly “outside the norm for this blog” series continues.