Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.
This week, it is Captain America #11. Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Black Panther, Between The World And Me) with art by Adam Kubert (All-New, All-Different Avengers, Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man), colors by Matt Milla (Daredevil, X-Men Blue), and lettered by Joe Caramagna (The Amazing Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel), this issue’s exhilarating jailbreak highlights how Coates has grown as a superhero writer. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
There have been many writers of Captain America in the character’s nearly 80-year history, but Ta-Nehisi Coates is the first to go to Capitol Hill and call out the Senate Majority Leader during his comic-book run. Coates was in the national spotlight this week when he spoke at a hearing for H.R.40, which would create a commission to study and develop reparations proposals for black Americans whose ancestors were exploited under slavery, Jim Crow, and decades of legalized discrimination.
In response to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s claim that reparations are being sought for “something that happened 150 years ago when none of us currently living are responsible,” Coates pointed out that McConnell has been alive to witness numerous institutional injustices endured by black citizens before, during, and after the passing of civil rights legislation. “Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores,” said Coates. “When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to all regardless of color, but America had other principles in mind. And so for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror. A campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.”
Coates has been very open about how he views the United States’ legacy, and when he looks back he sees the ugliness that is so often erased by revisionist history. He’s written extensively about the sins of America’s past and present in his novels and pieces for The Atlantic, but with Steve Rogers, Coates gets the opportunity to step into a new perspective and examine what it means to still be devoted to the idea of what this country could be if it truly stood for the ideals it proclaims in the Declaration of Independence. In his Atlantic essay, “Why I’m Writing Captain America,” Coates writes about the personal appeal of the character: “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.”
To understand Rogers’ dedication, Coates would test it by having the hero’s country turn against him. It’s not the first time he’s been painted as a villain, and after Secret Empire, it’s not very hard to turn public opinion against Captain America. As misguided and sloppy as Secret Empire was, it did introduce a compelling character dynamic for Coates to explore in Captain America as Steve Rogers faced a country that could no longer trust his face. His doppelganger took over the world in Hydra’s name, and even though Hydra-Cap was a completely different person, people still see him when they look at Steve Rogers. His reputation is tarnished, and his enemies take advantage of that to instigate a total fall from grace.
A prologue to this run appeared in the Avengers/Captain America one-shot Marvel released for last year’s Free Comic Book Day, ending with two words that have major significance when it comes to storylines tearing down Marvel heroes: “Born again.” The legendary Daredevil storyline by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli dismantled Matt Murdock’s life to drag him to new lows, and Coates kicks off his Captain America story by pitting the hero against a squadron of Nukes, new models of the flag-faced super-soldier introduced in “Born Again.”
The Kingpin played a key role in that Daredevil story, and he also appears in Captain America as a member of the Power Elite, an international group of wealthy white people who see Steve Rogers as a threat to their world domination, working together to destroy his reputation and eventually the idea of Captain America. This arc is titled “Captain Of Nothing,” an insult that Captain America’s opponents have been hurling at him since the first chapter. Killing Steve Rogers will only make him a martyr, and he doesn’t stay dead anyway. They need to kill what he stands for; they need to kill The Dream. They frame Steve for murder and put him in prison, and then kill Steve’s doppelganger and force the press to run totally false stories claiming that Hydra’s Supreme Commander was actually just Steve Rogers all along.
Captain America is a symbol, but he is also a man. He feels shame and guilt and anger, and Coates uses the Secret Empire fallout to bring these emotions to the forefront of Steve’s character. He’s not responsible for the Hydra takeover, but he still carries it as a burden. When he’s framed for murder, he knows that fleeing will be seen as an admission of guilt, so he turns himself in because he’s already so concerned about how the world views him. But then the Power Elite goes too far. The lies grow and now the world thinks that there was no doppelganger, that Steve was responsible for everything. The scope of this plot has become clear, and now he knows that he needs to fight to keep The Dream alive. Luckily, there are other heroes who feel the same way, and they’re here to save him.
Coates’ first year on Black Panther was full of big ideas for the future of Wakanda, but the execution was sluggish and failed to tap into the dynamism of the superhero genre. The second year was a major improvement, with Coates bringing more excitement to his scripting with a better balance of action, character drama, and political intrigue. Black Panther #169 was a major step forward for Coates. The issue primarily focused on a silent fight scene masterfully depicted by artist Leonard Kirk and colorist Laura Martin, giving Coates a new challenge as he stopped relying on dialogue to drive the storytelling and trusted his artists with an action-heavy narrative. Eventually Coates realized he was writing superhero books where he didn’t have to sacrifice thrills to further character and plot, and his scripts for the latest volumes of Black Panther and Captain America are full of spectacular moments that energize these thematically rich narratives.
Captain America #11 is a prime example of this dynamic, staging a prison break instigated by the Daughters of Liberty, a group of female superheroes who believe in Steve Rogers’ innocence and refuse to see him imprisoned. Sharon Carter, Invisible Woman, Misty Knight, Echo, Toni Ho, White Tiger, Mockingbird, Spider-Woman, and the mysterious Dryad have started a riot by spreading a chaos virus among the inmates, and Steve Rogers becomes a general leading his supervillain soldiers against jetpack-riding armed guards, drones, and robotic Americops. This is a book that tackles serious topics like white supremacy, toxic masculinity, private prisons, U.S. collusion with Russia, and Russian manipulation of American media, but it’s also a rousing superhero story full of twists that make it succeed as popcorn entertainment.
It helps that Coates is paired with artists who have a strong grip on superhero fundamentals, working with Leinil Yu on the first arc and Adam Kubert on the second. This arc has Kubert digitally inking his pencils for the first time, and it’s a transition that simultaneously sharpens and loosens his linework. With digital technology he can zoom in on panels to add more detail, and the size of the toolkit creates new drawing opportunities because it’s so easy to change brushes and line weights. In the panel below, Steve’s body in motion is drawn with a sketchier line, adding a sense of life to his silhouette that isn’t present in the crisp, solid inks of the sink falling through the air beside him. Matt Milla fills in for regular colorist Frank Martin on this week’s issue, and while Milla doesn’t go as hard as Martin with the shading, his flatter colors bring more attention to Kubert’s linework.
Yu’s art has a lot of intensity but is very cold, and it can be hard to connect with his characters on a deeper emotional level. His Captain America is especially distant, largely because he whites out the hero’s pupils. I did a little experiment on my Twitter to see what Yu’s Cap would look like with pupils, and it completely changes the character’s presence on the page. Eyes are the window to the soul, and when Steve Rogers is in his Captain America costume during the first arc, his eyes are usually whited out or hidden in shadows. It makes the superhero alter ego come across as a hollow shell, which works well when Steve Rogers is uncertain about what Captain America means in the current world order. Adam Kubert hasn’t drawn Steve Rogers in costume at all during his Captain America arc, and the animated aspects of his art style give Steve a lot more personality. Kubert’s characters have much more vitality to them compared to Yu’s scowling statues, and this week’s issue hammers that home.
Yu’s issues are heavy on widescreen panels that give the book a more expansive scope, matching the look of big-screen blockbusters as Rogers travels the country to take out leftover factions of Hydra. That scope narrows significantly for Adam Kubert’s story, which traps Steve in a private prison owned by a government-pardoned supervillain. Kubert embraces the vertical to make his pages feel confined. The most fascinating thing about his page design is his use of black rectangles across the length of the page in the background of his layouts. The thickness of the rectangle changes, but it always accomplishes the same effect, adding two vertical borders that create the illusion of a tighter space on the page.
By putting this simple graphic element behind the panels, Kubert alters the entire ambiance of the page and ties the visuals to the narrative in a more figurative way. Kubert confirms the intent behind these rectangles in this week’s issue. When Steve fully commits to fighting in the riot, he throws a sink through his cell wall and jumps through the hole. There’s a thin black rectangle across the right side of the page, and when Steve breaks through the wall, he shatters the border of the rectangle. For the rest of the riot, there are no more black rectangles in the background because Steve is no longer confined. But the rectangles don’t disappear for the full issue. They come back once Steve has full escaped, but the shapes don’t run the full length of the page anymore. Now there’s a white border around the rectangle, which gets smaller as the page turns. Steve is out of prison but he isn’t free, and as a fugitive, he’ll now have forces closing in on him from all sides.