Captain America 1 Addresses the Change We Wish We Didn’t See

by Drew Baumgartner

Captain America 1

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. […] We need not wait to see what others do.

Mahatma Gandhi

You might be more familiar with this quote as it is often paraphrased, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” It’s a (hilariously self-actualized) misquote that kinda sorta captures the sentiment of the original, paring a nuanced sentiment down to something that could fit on a bumper sticker. But we only need to think about the cheery optimism of that bumper sticker for a moment to see the pessimism inherent in it. We can be the solution to the world’s problems, sure, but only because we’re already the cause of them. We need to change because we are what the world is — any problems in it are caused by us (whether by malice, ignorance, or complacency).

It’s a lesson many Americans learned (too late) after Donald Trump was elected. Not because we voted for him, but because we thought not voting for him was enough. We thought we were the solution to the problems we saw in the world, but didn’t appreciate how we were also the problem. We saw the battle over the future of this country as an “us vs. them,” failing to understand that there is only an “us,” that we can only be the solution when we accept that we are the problem. We thought fascism was a thing that happened in other countries, and that America would band together to reject it. We were wrong. Few people understand this (or have articulated it quite as clearly) as Ta-Nehisi Coates, which makes him the ideal writer to tackle Captain America, a series also coming to terms with its own in-universe convulsions of fascism.

At least, Coates’ insights on American socio-politics is part of what makes him an ideal fit for this series. We might be quibble about when exactly in his Black Panther run that he came into his own as a comics writer, but there’s no debate that he’s on solid footing here. It helps that he’s working with Leinil Francis Yu, a seasoned storyteller who can make even the most perfunctory talking heads sequences enthralling. Check out this short scene between Steve and Sharon:

Steve and Sharon

On the surface, it’s easy to recognize these shots as basic coverage: we’ve got closeups of both characters, along with a two-shot to break things up. But Yu is selecting these shots deliberately, and intensifying them throughout the sequence. It’s not just that he’s catching all of Steve’s reactions, check out how the second row there repeats the shot structure of the first, but with tighter shots. By the end of this sequence, we’re inside the conversation. We’re not watching Steve wonder who was behind the attack — he’s straight-up asking us.

In this way, Yu’s shot choices can tell us any story, highlighting the richness of Coates’ subtext. But the real message here isn’t subtext — Coates has Steve articulate it in no uncertain terms: it’s not that America was conquered by fascist forces, it’s that we were tempted by the easy answers of fascism and conquered ourselves. Obviously, there’s more nuance to the story than that (certainly more nuance than my intro really leaves room for), and this is certainly the creative team for nuanced political takes, but there’s something thrilling about seeing Captain America come to terms with the thought that America’s worst enemy is itself. Or, more precisely, that the greatest threat to “America” as an idea isn’t some cackling supervillain, but the worst impulses of the American public run amok. There may be hints of “Nomad, the man without a country” in this “Captain America vs. America” premise, but there’s no doubt that this creative team will bring a fresh perspective to that idea. This is Captain America like we’ve never seen him before, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

6 comments on “Captain America 1 Addresses the Change We Wish We Didn’t See

  1. I also really like the idea that Ross recruits Sharon to be on his taskforce and not Cap, explaining that “appearances matter.” It’s an outright rejection of the old power structure because it’s the old power structure. That’s scary, because we see what kind of awful opportunists rush in to fill a power vacuum, but it’s also necessary. We just have to make sure that there’s a Sharon Carter and a Thaddeus Ross on the other side of that vacuum to put the pieces together in a way that’s just and empathetic.

    I’m interested to see where Coates drives this one – is keeping Rogers out of the spotlight enough to save face and fight off the real enemy? ALSO, I think Coates choice for where the “real enemy” comes from is fascinating and bold as fuck: it’s the Russians.

    • It’s even more pointed than that: it’s the Russians by way of our own worst fears. This is social commentary at its most apt. Coates is the perfect writer for this series right now.

      • Totally agree that Coates is exactly who I want on this series. His We were Eight Years in Power is unnaturally moving and devastating, illustrative of a lot of things that are wrong with this country. But I don’t necessarily see him as a standard bearer against Russian interference and meddling in US elections and politics. I’ve always seen him as a “call is coming from inside the house” kind of guy, and I’ll be fascinated to see what it looks like when he turns is attentions outward. Again, not that Americans are being used by a cackling supervillain, but that they were so eager and ready to be used.

        • “not that Americans are being used by a cackling supervillain”

          If Donald Trump isn’t a cackling supervillain, nobody in this world is.

          Otherwise I agree with you guys. Although I find it weird for fucking General Ross to be the bastion of “We need the new guard!!!” when he’s about as old guard as it gets. Has something changed with him? I haven’t read much about him since the end of the Red Hulk comic. I didn’t read any of the team books he was in. Is he secretly a red hulk still?

        • Right, I guess the only distinction I’d make is that there seem to be people that actually want that cackling supervillain to be in power – a segment of the population that’s all in on authoritarian white-nationalism.

          And that’s a good point about Ross. I haven’t read anything with him since… must be Soule’s Thunderbolts, which was like 5 fucking years ago. Maybe that’s a comment in and of itself – even when it looks like a changing of the guard, there’s always the guiding hand of the goddamn man behind it all.

  2. Coates wrote an amazing article about his fear around writing Captain America, and his wish to get to the root of why someone would say things like “I’m loyal to nothing except the dream.” And I love how Coates is constantly challenging this. It is easy to make a brave speech to the kid who needs to wait for his father to get better, much harder for the mother who just lost two daughters.

    I also love Bucky’s role, reflecting a more pragmatic version of patriotism. He’s there to get things done. It is reflective of Sam WIlson’s role in Spencer’s run. Someone who notices the problems and is actively working to fix them instead of trying to be the inspiration. Just replace Sam Wilson’s struggles with activism with a wish to act in combat (if you really wanted to go far, you could say Bucky is antifa, though I think the way Coates is leaning on the espionage elements of Captain America to build his metaphors means going to far into activist language feels like a mistake. But it is worth noting that Bucky’s response to an army of far-right terrorists isn’t to appeal to higher principles, but to stop them before they do any damage).

    And having the first villain be an army of clones of a far right extremist is fantastic. The concept of clones in particular really gets the cultish aspect of the alt-right perfect. And fits the underlying goals of the alt-right. It is more than just creating a white ethnostate, but a world where everyone is like them.

    It is also amazing just how fiery and political it is. You expect a Coates book to be political, but you don’t expect it to be so political that the villains are literally the Republican Party. The villains are basically their donor class. I think the idea of Coates just looking at Russia is a gross simplification, though Coates uses this as a starting point.

    But if you look at the FCBD issue, it really makes clear how the villains of the book are less about Putin specifically and more about the intricate web that has been pushing far right sentiment around the world. Thaddeus Ross isn’t Russian, but he is part of this villainous conspiracy, representing ‘Defence’. Nor is Osborne (whatever role he will have goign forward). And it is important to note that this isn’t Russia puppeteering events from Russia, but that our villains are in positions of power in Washington. Ross, Selene, Von Strucker are already in high level positions of the current presidential administration. In fact, I think it is worth saying that Russia isn’t the bad guy, but conquered the bad guy. The real bad guy is the far right ecosystem that includes but is not limited to Putin.

    This is going to be a fascinating book going forward

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