A great critic of the American Dream prepares to write the greatest defender of that Dream

By Christian Holub
June 29, 2018 at 03:34 PM EDT
Paul Marotta/Getty Images; Marvel Entertainment

Over the past few years, Ta-Nehisi Coates has proved himself to be one of the most vital American writers working today. Between his journalism about the living legacy of racism and his award-winning book Between the World and Me, Coates has radically interrogated common assumptions about the American dream. That makes him a fascinating choice to write Marvel’s new Captain America comic (the first issue, illustrated by Leinil Yu, hits stores July 4).

Invariably draped in the stars and stripes of his flag, Cap is often used as a punching personification of the U.S.A.—for good or bad—but Coates doesn’t intend to use the comic as his political soapbox. Instead, the writer says he’s most interested in finding connectivity between himself and the character.

“My job as a writer is to get into Cap’s head, not to put myself as Ta-Nehisi Coates behind the shield,” Coates says. “Steve is not from West Baltimore, Steve did not grow up in the crack era, Steve’s dad was not a Black Panther, so there can be very little use in writing as though that were true. This is a chance to go back in time and envision myself as this kid, subjecting myself to this super-soldier process but remembering deep inside that once I was that weak kid.”

Coates is taking on Cap at a turbulent point in the character’s history. The 2017 Marvel event series Secret Empire saw an alternate version of Steve Rogers take over the world as an authoritarian dictator. Now that the real Cap is back, having deposed his fascist doppelgänger, he’ll be fighting on behalf of people who saw him as the literal face of evil. If Cap’s heroism has always been fueled by his memories of being weak, it will now also be tinged by the knowledge of how easily his power and image can be corrupted.

“How does the world feel about Steve?” Coates says. “Who trusts him to be Captain America now? It’s an existential crisis.”

Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

For better or worse, Captain America is no stranger to existential crises. Last year’s Secret Empire wasn’t even the first comic storyline to go by that name. The first, published in 1974 in the shadow of Watergate, featured Cap battling an intricate political conspiracy that ultimately led all the way up to the White House, where the ultimate villain was Richard Nixon himself. On top of that, the Captain America run that Coates cites as his inspiration — writer Ed Brubaker’s run from 2004-2012 — drew storytelling inspiration from the shadow of the Cold War and America’s growing surveillance state. In bringing Cap’s long-lost partner Bucky Barnes back from the dead as a cyborg assassin, Brubaker’s run also provided the basis for one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most acclaimed movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

“I think the cool thing about those 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,” Coates says. “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.”

As iconic comics artist Alex Ross (who will be painting several covers for the series) points out, Cap has been reckoning with the political zeitgeist of his day since his very beginnings.

“That’s actually been the history of the character,” Ross says. “In the ’60s, the attitude of Cap was not just the man-out-of-time thing, but that he was experiencing PTSD before it even had a name. Even in 1941, when he first appeared as that flag-clad hero, he’s punching Hitler before we joined the Allies. He was pointing the way to us getting involved in the needs of the time and the serious call to action. Coates is joining in a legacy that should be a good fit for him.”

Though Coates is keeping specifics under wraps, a short preview issue teases Cap wrestling with America’s recent failures and his own. An enigmatic blond woman derisively refers to him as “captain of nothing,” while Cap looks on at Hydra supporters clashing with anti-fascists dressed in black in scenes reminiscent of real-life Charlottesville.

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