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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Captain America’ Reconsiders The American Dream in a Dangerous New Age

How will the Black Panther writer, known for his landmark critical assessments of race, take on the quintessential symbol of Americana?

From the opening panels of Captain America #1 (2018), written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and illustrated by Leinil Francis Yu, the warning that you can ‘never trust the official story’ establishes yet another challenge for Marvel’s most patriotic hero. If you are an ardent reader of contemporary comics, you might assume that this is a reference to the controversy created by last year’s Captain America storyline written by Nick Spencer, titled Secret Empire. Invoking the 1974 story of the same name that mirrored Watergate-era suspicions of power – which closes with Captain America unmasking the supervillain in the Oval Office – the 2017 version differed by turning patriot Steve Rogers into a fascist leader. Not only does the corrupted hero successfully take over the world, the twisted worldview he expresses echoed, in the minds of some, the emergent alt-right of Trump’s America. While the original story is considered a ‘classic,’ Spencer’s timely tale led to death threats.

If you are not a fan of comics, the clue to crisis might be that Coates was approached to write for a quintessential symbol of Americana in the first place. Coates is an established comic writer, taking on the writing duties for Black Panther in 2016 to great acclaim. In hindsight, it is easy to see why both critics and the public were intrigued to see what a writer so well known for his critical assessment of race, could do with the first black superhero. After all, Coates uses, as he puts it, ‘the lens of personal experience and nuanced historical analysis’ to interpret ‘complex and challenging issues around race and racism’ in the United States. The decision to give Captain America to Coates for a time, then, might seem like an attempt to re-imagine the trope of the patriotic superhero for a Trumpian age.

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Captain America #1, 2018. Courtesy: Marvel

Captain America #1, 2018. Courtesy: Marvel

Yet we shouldn’t accept that story. While a compelling read, Coates’s Black Panther was more evolutionary than revolutionary. With writers from previous decades, Black Panther has always reflected how activism has changed blackness and contemporary black thought in the United States. Written for an era of #BlackLivesMatter, Coates’s humanized Black Panther made clear the link between injustice and unchecked power. Will a similar interrogation of the system and its abuses enliven Captain America? Reflecting recently in The Atlantic, Coates argued that the best thing about writing Captain America was the ‘implicit irony’ of in the character. Coates sees Steve Rogers as presenting a ‘personification’ of ‘egalitarian ideals’ in the United States.

In identifying an imagined America at the root of the character, Coates is excavating Captain America’s origins. Cartoonists Jack Kirby and Joe Simons created the comic in 1941. Like many Jewish-American comic artists of the time, they sought to make a living doing something they loved. Yet, their love of the United States was not made easy. The discrimination that Jews faced in the United States at the time, made them no less hated than African-Americans in many quarters. Their creation reflected a contested Jewish identity.

The shared experience of discrimination forged alliances in the Civil Rights movement. We can read Captain America’s introduction in 1941, famously seen punching Adolf Hitler, through that lens: a longing for an America that would embrace and protect, more so than a promotion of simple nationalism. Steve Rogers’s physical transformation, from a weakling to anti-fascist hero, was a panacea for two Jewish Americans who had witnessed anti-Semitism prevent their country from accepting Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. The superheroes of that time, from Superman to Captain America, were often created by Jewish Americans who longed to realize their place in the ‘melting pot’ of America.

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Captain America #2, 2018. Courtesy: Marvel

Captain America #2, 2018. Courtesy: Marvel

From the opening pages of Coates’ Captain America, the tension between the real and imagined America is made clear. As terrorists with American flag tattoos attack, Rogers reflects that ‘Somehow the front always comes back home. That’s where I come in. These men brought terror to the capital of the free world. But they found me. A soldier at home or away. A man loyal to nothing … except the dream.’ While Steve Rogers promises he ‘took an oath to the flag’ and he would ‘die’ before betraying it, it is impossible to ignore the sense that the dream and the government he serves are no longer aligned. For fans of Coates’s keen analysis of power, the question the Captain asks himself, ‘What words can explain how our government allowed this?’ resonate with his essays on structural racism in the United States, most recently collected in his book We Were Eight Years in Power (2017). 

As the action unfolds, Coates makes it clear to the reader the challenge facing Captain America goes deeper than simply villainy. As the hero learns that his help is not needed or wanted by a government that employs men and women with ‘shady pasts’ to restore order, he realizes Americans have lost faith. The stakes in the first issue feel intertwined with Coates’s investigative critiques of power. Captain America’s realization that, ‘Hydra didn’t just conquer ... but broke’ his country, is as much Coates’s lament as the hero’s. As Captain America comes to realize that fear and the concessions to liberty that grow from it are the greater challenge, the hero realizes Americans have forgotten how ‘true freedom is a problem.’ (The question: ‘freedom from what? for what?’ is not asked.)

With this statement Coates takes this patriotic character on a personal journey the reader cannot ignore. As Captain America proclaims in the final panels, ‘The people forgot. We forgot. I forgot. And then we conquered ourselves.’ Questions of freedom, citizenship, and power are left for the reader to ponder. In Coates’s Captain America, how we remember the American Dream – and if it can endure – will be the greatest challenge the hero must confront. It is a clever turn, in our contested political landscape: the battle for hearts and minds defines more than just comic book adventure.  

Main image: Captain America #1 (detail), 2018. Courtesy: Marvel

Julian Chambliss is Professor of English and History at Michigan State University (MSU), in East Lansing, MI.

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