“To someone this man isn’t Piledriver. He’s Brian”
Tanehisi Coates’ ‘Captain of Nothing’ arc brings Steve Rogers into the Myramidion, a privately owned prison designed to hold America’s super-villains and run by Baron Von Strucker after he’s framed for the murder of Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross. The ‘hero enters prison surrounded by villains’ premise isn’t particularly new, but what makes this arc particularly novel is the way in which the supervillains are continually humanised by Coates, Adam Kubert, Frank Martin and Joe Caramagna. Counter to what would perhaps be expected, the convicts are rendered as full and individual humans, each with their own behaviours and internal lives, like how ‘Bulldozer’ and ‘Piledriver’ are shown playing Uno, and how ‘Thunderball’ constantly asserts that he is ‘Doctor Franklin’, this is then aided by how Kubert and Martin make all of these prisoners demonstrably aesthetically different. Each and every one of them feels like someone who made a series of bad choices in difficult situations, like how Bulldozer is a veteran ‘whose buddies got blown to pieces for a lie’, instead of just being terrible people who could never have been anything other than that. This humanisation is especially relevant and powerful given the way in which punitive attitudes in the US (and other nations) allow systemic abuses not wholly dissimilar to those that Strucker inflicts on these inmates.
All of this serves to challenge a particular kind of moral absolutism which is endemic to nations like the USA and the UK, where morality is owned by rich white people. In this system, the unlawful actions of the marginalised and disenfranchised are horrible people deserving to be isolated from society for the rest of their lives, whereas those who were directly responsible for the financial crash of 2008 or the atrocities committed in the Iraq war are blameless. What makes this challenge even more powerful is the way in which even the superheroes buy into this ideology, without consciously thinking about it. Invisible Woman refuses to call Dr.Franklin by his title in spite of him pointing out that ‘You used to be “Invisible Girl”, until you weren’t’, highlighting the way in which for many feminism only extends as far as their own class and/or race. At first, Steve Rogers echoes this sentiments, initially being indifferent to the complications in the ‘badness’ of these supervillains and obnoxiously stating ‘Rules aren’t rules if you only follow them when you feel like it’. Only after two months in the Myramidion does he appreciate that ‘there are levels to this’, understanding these convicts as people rather than just vessels for villainy, and even then he still slips into calling Dr.Franklin ‘Thunderball’.
Whilst Coates creates a complex landscape of greys (a feeling furthered by Martin’s grim and effective colours), there are always definitively different shades of grey. The book never falls into a realm of false equivalences where throwing a milkshake at a neo-nazi is treated as being ‘just as bad’ as being a neo-nazi and propagating that degree of hatred. There is never a secession of ground to the compromise made by far too many ostensibly open-minded white people, where violence is only condoned when they can easily ignore it due to its systematisation and bureaucratisation in the form of well-dressed fascists like the Baron Von Struckers of our world.. In fact, Steve Rogers punches the actual Nazi of the book, Von Strucker, several times – a point made even more blatant in narration where he says ‘Nazis. And how much I like punching them’. There’s a clear recognition of the difference between twisted people who have made bad choices and deeply evil and irredeemable figures that is crucial – especially in our current political (and societal) moment.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Captain America run is sketching out the blueprint for a hero in the 21st century, one who understands the greys and complications of the world and the people within it, whilst still recognising true evil and fighting it head on.