Last weekend, Free Comic Book Day gave us our first real look at the highly anticipated Captain America run by author and current Black Panther scribe Ta-Nehisi Coates and artist Leinil Francis Yu. Despite the teaser's short length and cliffhanger ending, readers were able to form some idea of what to expect from Coates and Yu's first arc on the book -- and it looks like things are able to take an about face from the current tone and direction of Marvel's current ongoing helmed by Chris Samnee and Mark Waid.
Even fans who haven't made much time for Captain America comics over the last several years will have no doubt heard of the controversy revolving around the 2015-2016 event Secret Empire which rendered Steve Rogers cosmically brainwashed, his history literally changed at the behest of a sentient Cosmic Cube named Kobik to be aligned with the proto-Nazi organization Hydra ever since he was a child. Secret Empire had the dubious honor of being one of the rare comics events that actually caught the attention of major mainstream media outlets, making it pretty difficult to ignore. Strangely -- though maybe not that unexpectedly -- however, that's exactly what the immediate Captain America stories following the event intended to do.
In the wake of "Marvel Legacy" and the final issue of Secret Empire, Cap's creative team was switched out and the Avenger's story made a hard pivot away from the contentious identity-crisis-meets-socio political-commentary and into pulp-flavored tales of time travel and alternate futures. Of course, neither genre has ever been particularly outside of Cap's wheelhouse, but the feeling that Cap's new team was very consciously trying to move away from Secret Empire by more or less pretending it had never actually happened at all was pretty difficult to ignore.
Now, however, as we look at the FCBD preview, it seems as though the exact opposite is true. Coates and Yu have selected their villain (villains?) carefully and for maximum effect. Cap is dealing with a veritable army of Nuke clones, unleashed upon the unsuspecting American public with a chorus of "our boys," repeated over and over.
It's been a while since Steve has come face-to-face with Nuke, even though the "villain" has been active elsewhere in the Marvel Universe -- but that's largely because Secret Empire cast Captain America in the role of the uncompromising zealot rather than externalizing that fear. One of Cap's most frequently repeated narrative motifs is the idea of a conflict of identity -- Steve Rogers coming up against something that, in so many words, represents the ultimate corruption of his own self. Generally, these corruptions come in two distinct forms. The first is more through literal imitators: The Red Skull's various attempts at clones, William Burnside in the 1950s, and so on. The second is through more twisted mirrors: The giant, freakish Ameridroid, or Nuke with his American flag tattooed face. Unfortunately, however, Steve's latest identity crisis came without those clear delineation -- he was his enemy, he was the imitation -- which made things a bit... well, harder to process and even more challenging to tie-up in the end.
Thankfully, it looks as though this new arc is poised to hit the ground running in a way that seeks to directly answer Secret Empire's twist on the formula, rather than avoiding it entirely. Nuke, inherently, is an answer to Steve's perpetual hypothetical question -- the anxiety as to whether or not Cap is a symbol for the good of everyone, or for the good of the loudest voice in the proverbial governmental room -- and he's a bad one. He's the answer that nobody wants to hear. But he's also the stress test, the palette cleanser, that Captain America desperately needs right now.
Obviously, we don't have enough information or enough context to really predict exactly how long the Nuke clones will last, what the end result of the conflict will be, or how the lasting consequences might manifest. What we can tell, however, is that we're about to head straight into an arc that will, ultimately, wind up as one piece of a much bigger, much more historied line of Cap stories.
With Coates and Yu at the helm, Captain America comics are on the verge of having something to say again, not just about the amorphous shade of current world events, but about Steve Rogers himself. Here's hoping it delivers with the same explosive self awareness we see in these first few pages.