Brow Beat

Ta-Nehisi Coates Takes On Another Superhero

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 15:  Ta-Nehisi Coates attends Art & Social Activism, a discussion on Broadway with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison and Sonia Sanchez on June 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The Stella Adler Studio of Acting)
Craig Barritt/Getty Images

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of Marvel’s latest series of Black Panther comics (and a few other books and essays you may have heard of), announced on Wednesday that he will this year be taking on another superhero’s story: a new Captain America comic, due for release on the Fourth of July.

In his column at the Atlantic, Coates acknowledged how strange his decision—to write a story for Marvel’s most all-American, nationalist-sounding hero—might seem, especially to those unfamiliar with the character’s complex relationship with America:

Those of you who’ve never read a Captain America comic book or seen him in the Marvel movies 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. Captain America begins as Steve Rogers—a man with the heart of a god and the body of a wimp. The heart and body are brought into alignment through the Super Soldier Serum, which transforms Rogers into a peak human physical specimen. Dubbed Captain America, Rogers becomes the personification of his country’s egalitarian ideals—an anatomical Horatio Alger who through sheer grit and the wonders of science rises to become a national hero. …

But, perhaps haunted by his own roots in powerlessness, he is a dissident just as likely to be feuding with his superiors in civilian and military governance as he is to be fighting with the supervillain Red Skull. Conspirators against him rank all the way up to the White House, causing Rogers to, at one point, reject the very title of Captain America.

Writing, Coates added, is about questions, not answers.

Captain America, the embodiment of a kind of Lincolnesque optimism, poses a direct question for me: 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.

Coates, for whom comic book-writing was a childhood dream, wrote that he finds the style difficult and terrifying, especially when compared to opinion writing. But it’s the accompanying anxiety, which he no longer feels when opining in his non-fiction books and essays, that makes up a large part of its appeal. “I’m not convinced I can tell a great Captain America story—which is precisely why I want so bad to try,” he wrote.

Coates credited the black comic writers who had come before him, specifically Christopher Priest, Denys Cowan, and Dwayne McDuffie, for the fact that he is able to write a Captain America comic, when so many of them were 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,” he concluded. “I have not forgotten this.”