Writer Tini Howard takes Captain America and Bucky back to their origins with a World War II story in Captain America Annual #1. The story involves Cap and Bucky protecting World War II concentration camp escapees, an element of World War II that many Cap stories have shied away from. It’s a dark time in our history and certainly not an easy topic to approach from any angle, but Howard isn’t afraid to take the reins on this story.
In the Marvel press release, Howard said, “We’re working with a time period that’s been often distilled into action stories that fail to recognize some of the realities. One of the great things about historical fiction is the ability to go back and amplify perspectives that may have been silenced—everyone deserves stories.”
As a fan of historical fiction and raised as a history nerd, Howard is not unfamiliar with writing period pieces and has already done that with her creator-owned series, The Skeptics, a political adventure that takes place in the 1960s. For Captain America Annual #1, Howard said,”It was important to me to show that the people who Cap and Bucky rescue weren’t just props or statistics, they were people. And they were people that might have personality traits that make them feel like complex, real individuals that we might know, even now. Marta has a story, Iskra has a story, Volya has a story. I could write each of them a whole issue about how they got to be who they are.”
Howard’s relationship with the history behind this Cap story gets a little personal. She herself is descended from European Romani people who lived in Austria, Germany, and the former Czechoslovakian areas, and she was surprised by the coincidence of artist Chris Sprouse’s wife sharing a similar family history. Howard went so far as to name one of the protagonists, Marta Pryzbyzla, after her own Romani ancestor.
Writing historical fiction, for Howard, isn’t just about unearthing lost facts. It’s also about giving context to those facts and making them relatable to the here and now. “I was really inspired by the work of documentarian Ken Burns,” Howard explained, “whose most recent documentary on the Vietnam War interviewed Vietnamese citizens and soldiers from all sides of the conflict and really gave incredible context and human feeling to something that it’s all too easy to simplify.”
“It’s a fine line to walk, making historical characters feel relatable without feeling too modern, but it’s also not a new thing to have people be aware of their own right to liberty. Go read Mary Wollstonecraft writing in 1780 and tell me parts of that don’t sound like something you could read online today, you know? Support for the marginalized is not a new idea, we just have the ability to communicate it now in the 21st century more efficiently than ever before. It was fun to take the historical media we have from that era, the sort of Nazi-Punching-Jee-Willikers-ness of it all, and combine it with truth to make these people feel modern and real.”
The opportunity to write about this time in history is a pretty big deal, as is the opportunity to write Captain America himself. Howard is a long time fan of the character and has a firm grasp of who he is.
“Cap is a guy who wishes so badly that the law was righteous enough to let him be Lawful Good, but the law is made by people, who are pretty selfish, so he’s actually forced to be Chaotic Good. ‘Captain America’ is a name that was given to him, you know? At his core he’s Steve Rogers, a skinny cartoonist from the city who was granted the power to be a big buff bully—and then decided NOT to be. Cap’s urges to intimidate and strongarm don’t come out when he feels threatened, because he realizes he’s a big buff dude now, and those threats don’t scare him. He uses his strength and intimidation for others, when he needs to get up in the face of the law or the bad guy and say ‘you may have forgotten how to treat people, but I haven’t. And I’ll help you remember by any means necessary.’”
Moreover, writing for one of the many male superheroes is something of a self fulfilling prophecy for Howard. In her 2016 Paste article she wrote, “But I’ve never seen women write those popular guy-centric titles, and I wonder if, in my career, I ever will. And if I did…would the old guard of these characters’ fans be willing to read it?” She describes her experience as “incredible,” and has come to realize that the so-called “old guard” is not at all what she had expected it to be.
“Some of the kindest and most welcoming and supportive folks I’ve met have been reading comics their whole lives, people who have been reading for 50+ years, and some of the meanest vitriol I’ve gotten is from people who can’t even be bothered to Google me or my work first. So honestly, I’ve learned that there are a lot of older fans who are really kind and wonderful and grateful for my work because they genuinely love these characters as much as I do.”
As for the detractors? Howard laughs. “I’m not sure what their deal is, hah.”
Howard’s Cap story debuted in September this year and runs alongside the ongoing Captain America series penned by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Howard did not have the opportunity to chat with Coates about the character, though she confesses that she’d probably have embarrassed herself if she had. Working with her on the book are artists Chris Sprouse, who was later joined by Ron Lim.
“I think once I knew Christopher Sprouse and then later, Ron Lim were involved, I sort of exhaled? Like, they’re such good artists, such legends, that it was like ‘well okay, even if I completely eat pavement on this one, it’ll look beautiful.’ Which is a nice thought, you know? Even if I get the worst reviews ever, it’ll look nice hanging on my wall, the time I got to write Captain America and screwed it up completely.”
Howard is joking, but she is very thankful to her editors, Alanna Smith and Tom Brevoort, who helped her stay on track despite the grueling pace at Marvel. The end result is a solid entry in Cap’s long history, and her own personal satisfaction of watching it all come together, start to finish. “…[T]hat feeling of watching legendary artists turn in pages of work that you wrote. Never gets old. Ever.