Captain America Vol. 9 — The Ta-Nehisi Coates Run: Review by James Bacon

By James Bacon: It was big news, proper news when Ta-Nehisi Coates took on Captain America, this was the successful Black Panther writer, and well known thinker, journalist and author taking on one of the most iconic Marvel characters, hugely popular and immediately recognizable, and also one of the trickier characters to get right.

Ta-Nehisi Coates himself wrote about it in The Atlantic (“Why I’m Writing Captain America And why it scares the hell out of me”). I reread the article, thinking about it with excitement, phrases sticking with me “…would be forgiven for thinking of Captain America as an unblinking mascot for American nationalism. In fact, the best thing about the story of Captain America is the implicit irony.” And “Rogers becomes the personification of his country’s egalitarian ideals.” And “Why would anyone believe in The Dream? What is exciting here is not some didactic act of putting my words in Captain America’s head, but attempting to put Captain America’s words in my head. What is exciting is the possibility of exploration, of avoiding the repetition of a voice I’ve tired of.”

The Free Comic Book Day in May 2018  featured a primer story, Cap taking on Nuke clones and we have a voice-over from Alexa Lukin who says: “Like you we rebelled against the old-world elites, like you we embraced revolution, you and I were allies once, revolutionary allies”… “I am told the Super Soldier still calls himself ‘Captain.’ But Captain of what?” She continues “It was all so simple, Captain America was right because America was right and Captain America was good because America was good.” A great start to a fabulous run.  

It’s been an interesting few Captain America years. The Ed Brubaker run on Captain America was phenomenal in 2005. I cannot adequately explain, there had been good moments, great moments of art and writing, but suddenly, we had a phenomenal run, Steve Epting’s and Mike Perkins’ art was so good — but the story. Creating Winter Soldier and then seeing Bucky become Captain America. A great seven years on the title, not without controversy, Brubaker got death threats because anti-tax protestors were characterized as “racists” by the Falcon and this upset Tea Party people no end, a placard had “Tea Bag The Libs Before They Tea Bag YOU!” and you know, apologies ensued and Brubaker well, as he said himself to io9 at the time: “I had to shut down my public email because I started getting death threats from, y’know, peaceful protesters.”

You see. Captain America is tricky.

In the intervening years, we had a series of writers, and a number of new issues 1’s and for me, while Sam Wilson Captain America by Nick Spencer was nice enough, overall, it had been only OK, I did like Spencer’s and Waid’s writing.

There had been huge fuss over Captain America being Hydra, although this was a ruse, it was someone looking like Steve Rogers.  The concept of a fake Captain America doing heinous things is not exactly new, indeed Stan Lee used the concept in Strange Tales 114 (Nov 1963) to revive Captain America, having the Acrobat pretend to be Cap and first fight with and then get uncovered by the Human Torch. The end left a question for readers “This story was really a test! to see if you too would like Captain America to return! As usual your letters will give us the answer” and so we got Cap in  Avengers #4 in 1964, in Tales of Suspense 58, and then in Captain America 117, where we meet Sam Wilson for the first time, the Red Skull is masquerading as Captain America. A well-used theme concept, a trope even.

And so here we were. July 4, 2018 and Ta-Nehisi Coates was writing, Lenil Franci Yu on pencils and a number of covers, although the Alex Ross one being quite amazing*.  And we meet our main protagonists Alexa Lukin neé Volkoff and the mystically powerful Selene Gallio. The stresses of the previous stories are all apparent, people have lost faith in Captain America, and indeed there is considerable change. Men once jailed are now in leadership roles, because they opposed Hydra. The Power Elite are a new group trying to usurp power and Captain America has lost trust, and is expected to sit out incidents. While all this is going on, the time and space given to the relationship between Sharon Carter and Steve Rogers is brilliant, allowing reflection and there is a lot of that in these comics. Steve gets ample chance to engage with others or observe, to see what Hydra did, and how the bad guys fixed problems for people…

There are some lovely twists and turns, Sharon gets part of her soul stolen, Selene helps Alexa Lukin to resurrect her husband, Alexander but he has the mind of the Red Skull. Steve gets stitched up for killing Thaddeaus Ross and is imprisoned and Sharon calls upon The Dryad and the Daughters of Liberty, who are pretty fabulous.

First formed in the 18th century, they predate Captain America and the first Dryad was Harriet Tubman. The Daughters of Liberty are, Agatha Harkness, Aja-Adanna as Shuri, Ava Ayala as White Tiger, Bobbi Morse as Mockingbird, Jessica Drew as Spider-Woman, Maya Lopez as Echo, Misty Knight, Sue Richards as Invisible Woman, Toni Ho and the Dryad who is someone else and has a wonderful history.

After prison, we see Captain America on the run and portrayed as actually the Hydra Supreme commander, meanwhile Sharon is trying to figure out what is going on, and at the same time helping Steve come to terms with where he is, and there are some great interactions about what law and order is with Ava as they go on their first mission, to take on a Militia who are hunting illegal immigrants. Steve wondering if it ‘was it ever as simple as I remembered, was it me and Bucky versus Hitler and Zemo? or was it a Jim Crow Army making common cause with Stalin?’

Here we meet the “Watchdogs” masked militia, who wear a red mask with a line of the Bars and Stars at an obtuse angle. While Nick Fury has decided to track down Steve and soon we have Sin and Crossbones and John Walker showing up, as Steve and the Daughters of Liberty go from the Watchdogs on to seek out the Cop Killing Scourge which presents some interesting moments of further thoughtfulness. Linking the Confederate Battle Flag to an armed Militia targeting immigrants where police do not seem to care and through inaction endorse or condone the action, made one think of MAGA aspects in the USA, and the inherent link between the Confederacy, racism and violence and hatred against immigrants. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates takes us on quite a series of adventures full of excitement and action, meanwhile weaving the story cleverly, and the concept of idealism, dreams and Captain America himself is well explored. Scourge is not just a criminal but an idea, and as we wheel around following the story, it feels like to so many current issues in the USA, are deftly and gently looked at. This ranged from recognition of Harriet Tubman, to the powerfulness of the Daughters of Liberty to the nature of power, powerful criminals, business people and politicians, sometimes changing role to suit their own egotistical greedy motives we see the, jailed going to jail keeper, and corruption and brutality 

Adamsville, a Christian town refuge where down-on-their-luck men can find work and welcome, is in reality where Selene has been vampirically feeding off their souls, and its thanks to Sharon the battle is won, and in a really impressive way. This brought in an interesting religious aspect and one that I recognized, the church that offers with one hand, utterly brutalising with the other. 

As I reflected on the second reading, I realized, that one of the best things about this whole run, is that really, it is Sharon Carter’s story. While yes, we follow Steve Rogers who is Captain America around a lot, it really felt like Sharon’s story and a chance for Steve to take things in, to contemplate as well and fight, while her actions and decisions lead a lot of the route of this journey, Captain America relied upon Sharon, and at times she had to work around or behind him, this was her story, and it’s a good one.  The art is amazing. Straight away having Alex Ross on covers, was fabulous, his painted work is incredible in its realism, and he really can capture a moment of action and movement, while there were a number of variant covers, for those preferring a different style. I thought Leinil Francis Yu and then Adam Kubert did fabulous pencil work, and I was so impressed and Leonard Kirk likewise finished the run off in style. The action scenes and portrayals of characters were great, all the time it all worked to complement the other components of the comics. Again touching current events, the May cover of Captain America featured the Capitol Building, Ross neatly repossessing the important building that had been stormed earlier that year. 

In the last issue, Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke of “a great honour to fulfil a childhood dream — writing for Marvel comics”…. “was more than a childhood fantasy. Grappling with Steve and T’Challa, trying to understand them as people” and ended the piece by saying “And thank you to the fans for reading. I tried to stay true to nothing — except the dream.”

Well in many regards, Ta-Nehisi Coates worked exceptionally hard for the fans, the history of Captain America was well utilized, it’s hard to know if he researched the hell out of it, or is just a very serious fan, I suspect the later. Nuke who debuted in Daredevil was first out of the traps, we also had The Watchdogs from issue 335 (Nov 1987), who then were right wing radical extremist militia, who wanted to hang Lemar Hoskins who was at the time Bucky to his friend John Walker who was Captain America at the time, and of course Ta-Nehisi Coates had John Walker as the Secret Agent appearing in this run. Yet whether it be Bucky Barnes, Peggy Carter, Agatha Harkness, Bulldozer, Misty Knight, Wrecker, they are all portrayed well and with what I felt was a total understanding of the characters and history. 

 I had hoped that the systematic problems that America has would be addressed, and in many respects, I felt they were, maybe it was hints, immigration, police issues, police getting killed, the blue line, political expedience, sometimes it was oblique in nature, but in many instances, not only were bigger issues looked at, but also the issues of the moment, seeped in, but were delicately fictionalized or portrayed, so as to gently encourage what I consider proper thinking, without causing a huge fuss. Throughout the time, America was challenged, but those of us reading Captain America, saw that here at least, in a fantastical world, Captain America was a fighter for those who needed defending, who stood against racism, fought for all, even if he had to question it, who relied on brilliant women, were guided by them even, and who happy to reflect, question and develop himself, and egalitarian. 

The story came together well and in the last number of issues as matters get resolved, there is a lovely tension and heightening and one knows that we will be presented with an ending, and indeed we were, but with lots of potential. As if Coates knew that he had to do more than just end, he left some beautiful aspects that future writers can really work with, and I would like to see The Daughters of Liberty in their own title.

One of the great things about Coates is that he spoke to Evan Narcisse about his run (“The writer reflects on his half-decade run in the Marvel universe and the choices he made along the way” at Polygon.) I held off reading until I was finished my own full second read of the run. He defended comic book creatives. He took the industry to task. He said: “I’m talking very specifically here, I wish they found ways to compensate the author of the greatest Winter Soldier stories that you’re ever going to read. I don’t love that there’s a Falcon and Winter Soldier show on TV and I’m hearing from Ed [Brubaker] that he can’t even get in contact with … I just don’t love that. I don’t love that. Look, I had a great time. I had a tremendous, tremendous time writing for Marvel. I am indebted to Marvel.”  he continued later and said  “’The Death of Captain America’ is just one of the greatest stories I’ve ever read. I’m talking about the volumes. It is fucking incredible, ridiculously good. When I was going on Captain America, I thought about that. I was like, if I could get anywhere near this, I might have done something. I didn’t. I didn’t, by the way. But to have that, and to have him bleed into that book, to have Steve Epting bleed into that book the way he did, to see folks making billions over top of billions, and for my man to say he can’t get a phone call returned. I don’t know what the relationship will be like in the future, but as a creator, you think about that. You think about how people treat other people. You think about how corporations treat other people. And I just don’t love it, dude.”

He also spoke about Captain America; “He is inherently political from jump. There’s never a point where he’s not speaking to the real world. And you do take some amount of inspiration from what’s going on around you. I think Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and everyone else advanced the Steve Rogers myth in the moment they had him coming out of the ice, in the ’60s. It made him timeless. It’s probably one of the most brilliant tropes I’ve ever seen. Because it’s ultimately a commentary on the Greatest Generation, and the idea of the Greatest Generation literally being the ‘Greatest Generation.’ This guy’s an embodiment of the Greatest Generation faced with a postmodern world. It is such an incredible setup, and he’s constantly disappointed. Because who can live up to that? Who can live up to that?”

I just love it when we get to hear writers on comics, and the industry, it’s just so very welcome, and he spoke with such integrity and insight, honesty. That is real honesty.

I felt that throughout his run on Captain America. He was working hard and being honest to the characters, story and to the fans, who want an enjoyable and good read and yet he was also doing as he set out. Now he is off to write the Superman movie for J.J. Abrams, but I do hope we can get him back to comic books. As issue 30 approached, I had hoped that that the United States of Captain America would start after, but comics schedules are hard and there was a bit of overlap, so I decided to reread Captain America 1 to 29 to refresh for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ final issue — it’s a good run.   He addressed so many issues in a gentle thoughtful, allegorical or metaphorical way, like — it musta been hard to find that balance but it’s been really good Captain America. Tricky to get right, but really very good.

6 thoughts on “Captain America Vol. 9 — The Ta-Nehisi Coates Run: Review by James Bacon

  1. I’ve read up to issue 25 of Coates’ run on Captain America so far. I tend to lag behind a bit on his comics because I find them unsatisfying as single issues – I have to save up a few so I can have a back-to-back session. He tells a good story but he has that ‘decompressed’ style which is probably more suited to reading as a graphic novel.

  2. rob_matic says I’ve read up to issue 25 of Coates’ run on Captain America so far. I tend to lag behind a bit on his comics because I find them unsatisfying as single issues – I have to save up a few so I can have a back-to-back session. He tells a good story but he has that ‘decompressed’ style which is probably more suited to reading as a graphic novel.

    I read everything as GNs these days as I positively hate waiting a whole month to find out what happens. (Decades back I had a huge pull list at a local comics shop.) And GNs tend to be a lot cheaper overall than buying a story single issue by single issue.

  3. I’m in the same boat. I thought for years that I had stopped liking comics, but in fact I had stopped enjoying the monthly structure and the periodic crossover mega-events. Graphic novels and omnibus editions of key arcs remain enjoyable, and it was great to rediscover that.

  4. @Cat E and Chris R: Re Graphic novels, Omnibus editions – also, price and convenience wise (vs timeliness), book versions (hardcover, softcover, trade), unlike magazines (and some other stuff) are products that public libraries can buy (yes, I know that most libraries, including mine, have heaps of physical magazines). Somebody — probably a librarian — once told me this was because books have ISBNs, which in turn lets them be part of some info-ecosystem. So you can, increasingly, borrow these books from your public library (who in turn might be procuring them through interlibrary loan rather than buying/owning). (Our library has lots of its own by now, ballpark, well over 100 linear feet.)

    Digitally, lots of these GNs, omnibuses, etc became available via (you get an account, free, through your/a participating public library). Usually not added to Hoopla until at least six months after initial paper comic release. For example, I’ve just hoopla’d the first 4 collections of DC’s recent Future State [event/series/whatever].

  5. We review a lot of GNs over at Green Man and fifteen years back Top Cow sent us two massive ones to review, one being the Tomb Raider Compendium which I reviewed here. I can’t imagine how long it took to come out as floppies as it was thirteen hundred pages thick. It goes for nine hundred dollars on Amazon these days but my copy I long since passed on to a Tombraider fan as, like Lazarus Long, I don’t keep all the fiction that comes in.

    The other GN? It was the Witchblade Compendium Volume 1, equally massive. They were both quite entertaining in a pulpish, slightly sexist manner.

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