Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates & Leinil Francis Yu
Artist: Gerry Alanguilan, Leinil Francis Yu
Colors: Sunny Gho
Cover: Alex Ross
Published: July 4 + August 1, 2018
The first two issue of Captain America rely heavily on the fact that you, the reader, are aware of what has been going on in the wider Marvel comicsverse. In this discussion of the first two issues I will do my best to contextualize events when necessary, but I would urge anyone who is picking up Captain America because of Ta-Nehisi Coates to read about the comic event Secret Empire. Specifically the wikipedia entries about where it starts, and the aftermath (knowing who Kobik is will also be helpful). The short summary is that Kobik is powerful being who offered Steve (who had begun aging normally and was now an old man) the chance to be restored to his younger self. Steve accepted this offer. Kobik ‘restored’ Steve but also turned him into a Hydra sleeper agent. When the time was right this mind controlled/changed Steve (also referred to as Hydra Supreme) began a plan to take over the world. When Kobik changed Steve’s mind and body, they also created a temporal rift of sorts (called the vanishing point) that brought WWII Steve Rodgers to the present day where he ultimately defeated Hydra Supreme. Kobik restored history to it’s previous state by returning WWII Steve to the past and bring prime Captain America Steve Rodgers to the present day by manifesting him out of the mind of Hydra Supreme. Hydra Supreme was captured and sent to a secret prison (Shadow Pillar). That’s the short of it and that should be enough for these two issues, if subsequent issues need explainers at the top like this I will do those where necessary. Enjoy!
Very early in Captain America #1, Steve says that he is a “man loyal to nothing except the dream.” That’s a really provocative statement to make in 2018 when the American dream and the idea of America (such as they are or ever were) are/have been exposed to a harsh light of truth. For over two-hundred years America (we) deluded itself into a myth of moral and principled superiority. But the ruse is up, it has been revealed that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, and the emperor isn’t an emperor, but a fraud. It’s a similar state to the U.S. that Steve Rodgers finds himself back in. Hydra used Steve’s image and the U.S. institutions he supports to take control of the country and nearly the entire world. Fact and falsehood (there is literally a radio station called the FACT Network that deals in conspiracy theories) have become intermingled, and people have lost faith. The two central actions pieces in these issues (there’s one in each) center around large muscular blond cyborg men, modeled after Steve’s previous enemy Nuke, attacking large American cities. These men, as Nuke was before them, are the result of continued efforts to recreate the super soldier experiments that created Captain America back in WWII. These men, with American flags painted on their faces, are the direct product of the same process and the same intention that produced Steve all those years ago. To take up the fight for freedom was to enter the domain of men, and leave boyhood and childish dreams behind. The cyborg nukes claim to protect the same flag as Captain America which leaves two sides, both bearing symbol the flag, fighting it out in the streets. Because this is a comic book the conflict happens on a more epic scale (a terrorist attack in D.C. and a helicarrier crash in Chicago) but the ideas and rhetoric swirling around the conflict, the revealed brokenness of the American Dream and the loss of imagination are very much grounded in our time.
Near the end of issue #1 Steve says that Hydra broke America. That by twisting his image and rendering many of the people and institutions that average citizens rely on to protect them inert, they broke something intangible. But maybe that intangible thing broke long ago? Was it broken when Steve, believing that he was most useful as a warrior, accepted Kubik’s offer to return to his younger self? Was it broken in ’68 when Martin Luther King was assassinated or in ’65 when Malcom X was. Was it broken when Steve, so desperate to pick up a gun and fight, entered the super soldier program during WWII. Was it broken while the U.S. government enslaved, forcefully dispossessed, destroyed the property of, and removed first nation peoples from their land? Or did it break when the Thomas Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence despite the fact that he himself upheld the institution of slavery, an institution which would continue explicitly for the next ninety years before giving way to institutionalized racism thats continues into the 21st century. Faith in ideals, in words written over two-hundred years ago, has maintained America and belief in the dream, but Hydra stripped all of that from everyone. A harsh reality was revealed and now that faith is gone, or what they had faith in has been forgotten, fear has settled in. There’s a scene near the end of the issue #2 where Captain America prevents a woman from getting mugged, but you can see from her face that she distrusts him as much as she distrusts the muggers. But does Steve deserve her, and more broadly the general publics’, trust?
That isn’t an easy question to answer as Steve says that he too forgot. Forgot that freedom, the dream, isn’t a promise but a challenge. A challenge to not rest only on what came before, but to dream bigger. To dream a dream big enough so that every American, every person is included, a dream so big and inclusive that in it all people are truly created equal. Steve accepted Kubik’s offer to ‘never be weak again’ because he believed that progress, that maintenance of the dream, will be done with fists and shields and guns. That has always been the way America secured the dream, with violence, and Steve did not imagine a better way forward. A way where people are not motivated by fear, clinging desperately to broken pieces of the dream, but they are motivated by the challenge of freedom. Hydra punished him, the U.S., the world for their failings and Steve’s inability to imagine a different way forward. Captain America is a product of WWII and his experience in that war, his need to be strong, was undoubtedly a motivation in accepting Kubik’s offer. Steve does not get a pass for this and the question must be asked whether or not the U.S. needs Captain America right now, or do they need Steve Rodgers?
To summarize briefly (before we get to the art) where we are at the end of issue #2, Steve is on the outs with the public and the U.S. government. He stopped the two terror attacks by the nuke cyborgs, but the government is afraid of the optics of Captain America fighting (just generally, but also) men with American flags on their face. Steve is rebuilding his relationship with Peggy Carter who is working with Bucky Barnes and for General Ross and the U.S. government. On the final page of issue #2 we see Steve communicating with T’Challa, beginning work on some new plan.
The art and colors in this book are fantastic. The art has a lot of detail, but also this rather scratchy quality. Shadows and lines in faces or clothes or on background buildings are made up of a lot of short parallel, or mostly parallel, lines that give each of these things are really great ‘rough’ texture. This isn’t to say that it has minimal details or looks messy in any way, but it’s creates a roughness and intensity that pairs really well with the action and the themes. The other things that complements the serious nature of the writing is the use of black. There are lots of rich black shadows cast by furrowed brows or bodies in action, or billowing flames. It’s not a dark book as it uses a lot of oranges and blues, but the shadows cast by an arm or a face or a vehicle are long and they cover all within range. In conjunction the art and colors are really complementary and feel really appropriate for the heavy subject matter. The writing and the art are asking the reader to look and consider and think, because they have a lot to offer if you will.
* I did some research on contemporary ideas surrounding the American dream for this discussion. No direct quotes made it into the the piece but they all informed my thinking about how to break these issues down. From The Atlantic. From n+1 Magazine. From howardzinn.org.
(Subjective) Score out of 10 (for both issues): 7