The Atlantic just published a feature from Ta-Nehisi Coates, talking about his excitement and fear over his next writing job for Marvel Comics. After two years of writing about Wakanda and the adventures of Black Panther, Coates is taking on the Star-Spangled Avenger himself: Captain America. And he’s doing it for all the right reasons.
At the end of World War II, Captain America is frozen in ice and awakens in our time — and this, too, distances him from his country and its ideals. He is “a man out of time,” a walking emblem of greatest-generation propaganda brought to life in this splintered postmodern time. Thus, Captain America is not so much tied to America as it is, but to an America of the imagined past. In one famous scene, flattered by a treacherous general for his “loyalty,” Rogers—grasping the American flag—retorts, “I’m loyal to nothing, general … except the dream.”
I confess to having a conflicted history with this kind of proclamation—which is precisely why I am so excited to take on Captain America. I have my share of strong opinions about the world. But one reason why I chose the practice of opinion journalism — which is to say a mix of reporting and opinion — is because understanding how those opinions fit in with the perspectives of others has always been more interesting to me than repeatedly restating my own. Writing is about questions for me — not answers. And Captain America, the embodiment of a kind of Lincolnesque optimism, poses a direct question for me: Why would anyone believe in The Dream?
Marvel may be getting a lot of flack at the moment, for staging its fourth company-wide relaunch since 2015 and for hiring a new Editor-In-Chief who previously wrote for the company under a pseudonym (and, uh, pretended to be an Asian man…). But the decision to hand Coates the reins to one of their flagship characters is smart on so many levels. In the current political climate, it feels like we’re all questioning “The Dream” — what it means to be American, and if it’s possible to be proud to be an American anymore. Coates seems poised to tackle that head-on, through the lens of the most American hero in comics.
But more than that, we’re seeing an onslaught (not to be confused with Marvel’s Onslaught, obviously) against journalism right now, with our own president being guided by cable news while at the same time trying to undermine the very institution that keeps citizens informed. So there is a kind of sweet justice to hiring a journalist to write Captain America right now. It’s a stretch to view this as a wholly new outlet for the Fourth Estate, but I do think that Coates has the chance to exercise his very unique perspective on the perfect character right now — while still crafting some entertaining stories.
There has also been a lot of discussion about the importance of representation and having diverse creators who can bring authenticity to a diverse set of characters — as well as the danger that creators can then be restricted by that very same diversity. Coates addresses it beautifully at the close of his piece:
Finally, but most importantly, I have to thank the black comic creators I admired as a youth, often without even knowing they were black — Christopher Priest, Denys Cowan, Dwayne McDuffie, specifically — without whom none of this would be possible. There has long been a complaint among black comic creators that they are restricted to black characters. I don’t know what it means to live in a world where people restrict what you write, and the reason I don’t know is largely because of the sacrifices of all those who were forced to know before me. I have not forgotten this.
Steve Rogers may be a blond-haired, blue-eyed Brooklyn boy, but he’s defined by his devotion to that American Dream — a dream that so many people have a stake in. The mantle has passed to different characters over the years, and likewise, the duty of writing for Captain American has also shifted. For the first time in awhile, I’m genuinely excited to see what’s in store for Captain America… without just being excited to see more Chris Evans (#BestChris5Eva).
Captain America #1, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is coming out on the Fourth of July. Naturally.
*Header image is part of the cover art for the Captain America #1 — see the full image at The Atlantic