Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

My late Fourth of July post: Captain America in the Age of Trump

What do you do with a symbol of America in an American era like the one we have now?

I give Ta-Nehisi Coates credit for trying to tackle that question in Captain America: Winter In America, but I don’t think it entirely works. However I don’t think it’s entirely his fault.

Coates is writing in a tradition that goes back to the Bronze Age and Steve Englehart’s Secret Empire storyline. In the Silver Age, Cap was definitely meant to represent the best of America (as Stan saw it, being a committed anti-communist and a believer in racial equality) but Englehart took it a step further: how does Cap deal with the idea he’s also defending the worst of America?

As most of you readers probably know (but just in case), the sinister Committee to Regain America’s Principles (obviously riffing on C.R.E.E.P., a Nixon re-election group) bombards the airwaves with anti-Cap messages (if he’s the symbol of America, why does he wear a mask?), then frames him for murder. It’s Phase One of a scheme to take over the country, culminating in Cap unmasking Nixon as the mastermind behind everything. Shell-shocked by the idea the government could be that corrupt, he hangs up his shield. Later on, of course, he regains his faith in the American dream, but it doesn’t come easy.

Later we have Mark Gruenwald pitting Cap against John Walker, AKA the Super-Patriot (and later the USAgent), a representation of Reagan-era American swagger in contrast to Cap’s more New Deal view of things. Steve walked away that time too, becoming “the Captain” for a while before resuming his old identity.

Winter in America is the first TPB of Coates’ run. He doesn’t deal directly with what Cap would be doing in a Trump presidency, but tries to capture the country’s mood: angry people across America’s rural areas seething with resentment that the government’s forgotten them; a Russian schemer stirring things up (that she’s working under Rasputin makes me think this should have a Hellboy crossover), everyone looking for answers. Including Cap: after that big event in which he became Supreme Hydra and conquered the world, nobody in authority trusts him. Ordinary Americans don’t like him much either. At the same time, the men fighting him in Nuke outfits genuinely seem to be fighting for America. How should he respond?

It’s definitely got potential (judging it now would be like judging Englehart’s run by the moment Cap quits and not by his return) but like Coates’ Black Panther run it’s bogged down by launching off a status quo that stinks.

I hated the idea of Wakanda as a failed state. I hate the idea of Captain America, Supreme Hydra even more. I wish once the regular reality got restored, everyone had just forgotten about it forever. Instead, everyone remembers and that memory infuses Coates’ story. This provides the sense of everyone being alienated and shell-shocked that he’s shooting for, but at the same time … I wish he’d found an alternative.

Since he didn’t, I also wish we’d gotten one of those Previously In Captain America text pages. How exactly were these Hydra resistance fighters forgotten? Or is it just a metaphor for the rural economy or neglect of veterans? Why are they running around with Nuke facepaint? If I’d read the stupid event would I understand this, or is this stuff Coates came up with? Lord knows what people who aren’t aware of Hydra-Cap make of it.

I’ll definitely pick up the next volume when it arrives at the library. But I wish there was some way Coates could just have started from scratch.

#SFWApro. Images, top to bottom, by Alex Ross, Sal Buscema, Paul Neary and Leinil Francis Yu

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