Ta-Nehisi Coates Tackles Captain America

In Captain America #1, the premier of the new reboot of the iconic character, our hero describes himself as “a man loyal to nothing except the dream.”

It’s a revealing phrase. Captain America is now being written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the celebrated liberal journalist whose writings in the Atlantic, the New York Times, and elsewhere highlight America’s racial history and political problems—problems that for Coates stem entirely from racism and Donald Trump. For Coates, as for the Left of which he is a prominent part, this comic strip wouldn’t be about enforcing our God-given and constitutionally secured rights—freedom of speech, self-defense, religious expression. He comes at his task armed with only a vague, slippery notion of an elusive dream (and not the American Dream). The dramatic consequences of thus placing Cap somewhere up in the ether of postmodern abstraction are that we can’t expect him to rouse himself for a defense of such real things as free speech or the protections afforded by the Second or Fourth Amendments, or to defend his countrymen against villains who would threaten their freedoms.

Stricken with guilt and eager to dole out punitive liberalism, this new Cap is like a red, white, and blue Bernie Sanders supporter.

Not that the new strip is altogether devoid of drama. Coates has created what one might consider a soap-opera-storyline-by-way-of-MSNBC for the First Avenger, who was invented by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in 1941. In the 2017 Marvel event series Secret Empire, Cap (a.k.a. Steve Rogers) has had his identity stolen by the totalitarian group Hydra and, in that guise, attempts to take over the world as an authoritarian dictator. The American people have come to hate and mistrust Captain America in Secret Empire (which was written by Nick Spencer). Coates, who first got involved in comics in 2016 by writing Black Panther, uses this mistrust to channel his own qualms about whether or not Steve Rogers, or America for that matter, have any cultural identity at all. This Captain America is a man clouded by doubt—a dreamy, guilt-ridden philosopher.

What animates Coates in writing the strip can be gleaned from an article he wrote for the Atlantic early this year. “Writing, for me, is about questions—not answers,” he wrote. “And Captain America, the embodiment of a kind of Lincolnesque optimism, poses a direct question for me: Why would anyone believe in The Dream?”

He went on to say:

I think the cool thing about those [Marvel] movies is they got across how Cap can be a defender of American ideals, and yet so often find himself in opposition to his own government. In two out of his three movies, he’s on the run from the American government, even though he’s Captain America! That is a very consistent theme in Captain America’s history, and one of the things people miss. You see the flag, and if you don’t think too hard about it, you just assume he’s a flag-waving defender of the American government. In fact, he’s a defender of American ideals, which is a very different thing. So those moments where the government doesn’t live up to those ideals, he finds himself in conflict with them.

He concluded: “This will be an exploration of what it means to be Captain America in a time when people are questioning what America itself is.”

Yet there are countless concrete and daily events that define what America is, and why Captain America defends her. People live the 1787 Constitution every single day. I’m currently assessing, in my work as a music critic, an all-girl pop band called the Aces, a group that could not exist in Saudi Arabia or North Korea. Whenever an activist takes to the Internet to post a video or write about which political party is the worst, that is the First Amendment in action—as when an artists creates art, something with which the Left is increasingly uncomfortable. When an American defends the home with a gun, the Second Amendment is not an abstraction but a reality. Citizens demand to see a warrant when the police arrive at the front door because of the ink and paper law laid out in the U.S. Constitution. Steve Rogers, the Sentinel of Liberty, knows that. Or rather, knew that.

True, disillusionment has expressed itself in comic strips before Coates. In the 1960s, when Americans began to turn against the Vietnam War, and picking up steam by the mid-1970s with the unfolding of the Watergate scandal, the comics kept pace. Marvel writer Steve Englehart had Cap become bitter after uncovering a Watergate-style conspiracy in the White House. Cap defeats the Committee to Regain America’s Principles (CRAP) and unmasks its leader, a Richard Nixon lookalike.

According to Marvel editor Tom Brevoort, the Watergate-era Cap story, which was also called “Secret Empire,” has a direct lineal relationship to today’s Secret Empire. Englehart was “a young guy at this point, in his early 20s, and he was plugged into the counterculture,” Brevoort told the Washington Post. “And so he set about trying to make Captain America relevant to the times.”

The 1970s Cap was even reluctant to be known as Captain America. As Brevoort recalls, it was a story “in which Steve Rogers went through some ’70s-style soul-searching and search for self, adopting the identity of Nomad—the man without a country—along the way, before finally returning as a Captain America, who was loyal to and motivated by the America dream rather than any particular party or government office.”

Once it became culturally cool to have a self-doubting Captain America, it was hard to go back to Jack Kirby’s forward-charging hero, who seemed too unselfconscious in the doubting 1970s. In the Reagan years, Cap began choosing to fight for “the American dream” as opposed to official U.S. policy. Legendary comic creator Frank Miller introduced the character Nuke, a psychotic super soldier amped up on drugs and with an American flag tattooed on his face—a warped version of Steve Rogers. In 2004, writer Ed Brubaker’s reintroduced Cap’s partner Bucky Barnes, formerly a sunny and patriotic sidekick but now a brainwashed government assassin, the Winter Soldier.

The message of all of this: America is a malevolent, racist, war-mongering country that destroys its own soldiers and is a danger to minorities, small animals, and the general peace. Coates, finding the 1970s mood congenial, has brought back Nuke, the crazy military berserker who represented raging America jingoism. Nuke is now one of many clones who were born out of the same super serum that transformed Steve Rogers into Captain America. “When I see them I see me,” Cap says.

No one would begrudge Marvel the use of dark or self-critical storylines. It’s fine to highlight the puerile tweets of President Trump, or wail at the separation of families at the Mexican border. Too many police officers (including war veterans who may be suffering from PTSD issues) seem too eager to pull the trigger. We need to find a solution to mentally ill people’s easy access to guns. And as irritating as it can be, football players kneeling during the national anthem are making an authentic protest about conditions in black America.

Should Captain America be involved in such issues? Sure. Yet there is never any mention of the Left’s potentially threatening the Republic or its values. There aren’t any Marvel storylines about conservative speakers getting shut down on college campuses, or religious bakers getting sued, or of liberals making draconian moves to censor art—including comic books themselves. Interestingly, Fredric Wertham, the psychiatrist and anti-comic book crusader of the 1950s, was scorned by comic fans as a reactionary, rightwing scold but was in actual fact a Marxist. It’s unlikely that Wertham or the repressive progressives who have come along in his wake will be addressed in Coates’s Captain America. Such impertinence is not allowed in hard core liberal sectors of America.

After all, Coates is the man who poleaxed musician Kanye West when West had the gall to compliment Trump. Coates claimed, once again in the Atlantic, that the rapper “wants freedom—white freedom.” He then listed the crimes that West was condoning:

The planks of Trumpism are clear—the better banning of Muslims, the improved scapegoating of Latinos, the endorsement of racist conspiracy, the denialism of science, the cheering of economic charlatans, the urging on of barbarian cops and barbarian bosses, the cheering of torture, and the condemnation of whole countries. The pain of these policies is not equally distributed. Indeed the rule of Donald Trump is predicated on the infliction of maximum misery on West’s most ardent parishioners, the portions of America, the muck, that made the god Kanye possible.

It’s ironic. The man now writing Captain America echoes the monologuing of a deranged Marvel villain.