By Zack Quaintance — Ta-Nehisi Coates is most well-known for Between the World and Me, a heartrending book about racist violence in America, written as a letter from Coates’ to his teenage son. It came out in July 2015, raising Coates literary profile to nigh-mainstream levels and giving the author his pick of follow up projects...which he used to start writing comics.
A lifelong comics fan, Coates launched a new Black Panther book for Marvel in March 2016, even going so far as to answer letters and construct maps of Wakanda for the book’s back matter. There were hiccups in his first arc, times when Coates mishandled T’Challa’s characterization, overwrote captions, didn’t consider visuals, etc. Eventually though, Coates grew into the work, learning quickly, and ultimately combining his love of the medium with his abilities as a writer. And this week Coates has written his best comic yet: Captain America #1, illustrated by Leinil Francis Yu, with Gerry Alanguilan and Sunny Cho.
Captain America #1’s art shines, starting with an action-heavy intro that returns an old villain for Cap to presumably later battle. Throughout, the book features large panels allowing its artists to play up Cap’s iconic visage, winged cowl, flag shield, and grave focus. We see Cap charge into battle on a full page, stand over a foe who subverted his values, and carry a first responder, the two of them laid over Americans working together following an outbreak of random violence (an all too common real world image these days).
Coates plotting is expert, building on ideas left dangling after Nick Spencer’s recent event Secret Empire, in which a Steve Rogers imposter joins Hydra and torments the planet. I’ve complained elsewhere that Marvel glazed over that fallout, but I was too hasty—we get it here from Coates, who uses those threads, making this comic relevant to our national climate without feeling too heavy-handed (a complaint I had with Spencer’s recently-concluded run). Make no mistake, this comic is foremost an entertaining read.
Take the intro, for example: a convoy of Hydra henchmen transport a woman and are ambushed by Russian partisans as said woman cooly remarks This is Russia. Graveyard of Hitler’s horde. Bane of Napoleon and his imperial French. You can read deeply into that, or you can hurry to the next panel and watch a Hydra henchman's skeletal corpse crack the windshield of the prison truck. This is a layered story that gives its readers both options.
And that’s a challenge at the heart of all narrative writing: how to share intriguing nuanced ideas while also telling a well-paced and entertaining story. Whereas Coates may have leaned too far toward the former on his early Black Panther run, he’s obviously learned and improved. The result is a new Captain America arc that has me excited about the character in a way I haven’t been since Ed Brubaker concluded the most recent all-time great Cap run a few years back.
Overall: This is Ta-Nehisi Coates' best comic yet, layered and nuanced, but also well-paced and entertaining. This book plays up Captain America as a former icon while addressing his tarnished status following Secret Empire. It’s so good that one issue in, this run already has must-read status. 9.5/10
SPECIAL NOTE: Listen to our friends WMQ Comics discuss all things Cap on this week's WMQ&A Podcast!