Why I'm Writing Captain America
And why it scares the hell out of me
Two years ago I began taking up the childhood dream of writing comics. To say it is more difficult than it looks is to commit oneself to criminal understatement. Writers don’t write comics so much as they draw them with words. Everything has to be shown, a fact I knew going into the work, but could not truly know until I had actually done it. For two years I’ve lived in the world of Wakanda, writing the title Black Panther. I’ll continue working in that world. This summer, I’m entering a new one—the world of Captain America.
There’s a lot to unpack here. 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.
Rogers’s transformation into Captain America is underwritten by the military. 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. At the end of World War II, Captain America is frozen in ice and awakens in our time—and this, too, distances him from his country and its ideals. He is “a man out of time,” a walking emblem of greatest-generation propaganda brought to life in this splintered postmodern time. Thus, Captain America is not so much tied to America as it is, but to an America of the imagined past. In one famous scene, flattered by a treacherous general for his “loyalty,” Rogers—grasping the American flag—retorts, “I’m loyal to nothing, general … except the dream.”
I confess to having a conflicted history with this kind of proclamation—which is precisely why I am so excited to take on Captain America. I have my share of strong opinions about the world. But one reason that I chose the practice of opinion journalism—which is to say a mix of reporting and opinion—is because understanding how those opinions fit in with the perspectives of others has always been more interesting to me than repeatedly restating my own. Writing, for me, is about questions—not answers. And 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. What is exciting is the possibility of exploration, of avoiding the repetition of a voice I’ve tired of.
And then there is the basic challenge of drawing with words—the fear that accompanies every effort. And the fear is part of the attraction because, if I am honest, the “opinion” part of opinion-journalism is no longer as scary it once was. Reporting—another word for discovery—will always be scary. Opining, less so. And nothing should really scare a writer more than the moment when they are no longer scared. I think it’s then that one might begin to lapse into self-caricature, endlessly repeating the same insights and the same opinions over and over. I’m not convinced I can tell a great Captain America story—which is precisely why I want so bad to try.
In this endeavor, I’ll be joined—hopefully for all my time doing it—by the incredible Leinil Yu on interior panels and Alex Ross on covers. Both Leinil and Alex are legends. Even if you don’t consider yourself a comics-head, you should check out their work to see what the best of the form has to offer. I’m lucky to have them—and have been luckier still to have a community of comic creators (Matt Fraction, Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Ed Brubaker, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Chip Zdarsky, and Warren Ellis, among others) who’ve embraced me and helped me learn the form. And I’ve been lucky in my editors—Sana Amanat, who brought me on; Wil Moss, who edits Black Panther; Tom Brevoort, who’s editing Captain America; C.B. Cebulski, who just helped me refashion the script to the first issue; and Axel Alonso, who first broached the idea of me writing Cap.
Finally, but most importantly, I have to thank the black comic creators I admired as a youth, often without even knowing they were black—Christopher Priest, Denys Cowan, Dwayne McDuffie, specifically—without whom none of this would be possible. There has long been a complaint among black comic creators that they are 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. I have not forgotten this.
Captain America #1 drops on the Fourth of July. Excelsior, family.