The Crew #5 is a comic that gave me life. It’s a remix of history, a superhero genre work that seethes with spiritual energy. Reading it feels like, no lie, going to church.
This is one of the blackest things that Marvel Comics has ever put out into the world. It’s not just super-black because of the cast and the story it tells. It’s super-black because of how it uses blackness to tell its story, peeling back layers of erased and redacted history to generate a fuller portrait of black humanity in the Marvel Universe.
Thought up during a now-legendary run on Black Panther, The Crew was a labor of love spearheaded by Christopher Priest, the man who was the first black writer and editor at Marvel Comics. Priest wanted to create a book that would speak to the urban readers that he knew Marvel wasn’t reaching. It focused on four unlikely heroes jostling against each other’s competing agendas and dissonant methods. The series starts with James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine at his lowest ebb. He’s the anti-Tony Stark here, bankrupt, delusional and grieving, using pieces of old War Machine armor to grasp at justice for the drug overdose death of his sister. As more issues came out readers were re-introduced to Kasper Cole/White Tiger, a biracial twentysomething cop eager to make busts in his day job as a cop while learning to master the sensory powers he gets an acolyte of the Black Panther. Danny Vicente/Junta was another character from Priest’s Panther run, a freelance intelligence operative with gravity-distortion powers. The team would be rounded out by new character Josiah X, a black Muslim minister. The Crew were all introduced in solo spotlight issues, which revealed that they were all trying to uproot a politically powerful criminal organization called 66 Bridges out of the blighted Little Mogadishu neighborhood. Josiah X gets his backstory spotlight in issue #5.
The Crew #5 is like a Negro spiritual in comic book form. The old worksongs and liturgical music of America’s slave-holding centuries served multiple purposes. They pointed at higher meanings and rewards in the hereafter to a people who had no choice but to adapt to Christianity after being broken away from their own faith practices. But ‘“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and its ilk were also signals to the escape routes of the Underground Railroad and freedom in the here and now.
This 2003 Marvel comic also plays multiple roles. On its face, the fifth issue of the urban super-team series continues the assemblage of its titular motley squad. Beneath the surface, though, it’s a remembrance of mothers and children forcibly removed from each other. It riffs off of the biblical saga of Moses, telling the tale of a baby boy borne down a river of secrets that swirled around the woman who birthed him and his biological mother. It’s the story of the son of a hero ignored by history books, coming to grips with the idea that the best way to save his community is donning the standard and shield of a country that did his family wrong.
The Crew #5 expands the story of the two black Captain Americas who preceded Sam Wilson via a tour through grim American historical moments seen from an African-American point-of-view. Maybe it makes sense that The Crew didn’t last too long, canceled after only seven issues. Maybe the world wasn’t ready.
All the Priest quirks showed up in spades in The Crew, which to this day is a master class in character sketching, dynamics, and chemistry. It’s got flashbacks and stylized pacing galore, along with a labyrinthine plot and an emotionally bruised cast. But James Rhodes’ stealth tech subterfuge was derailed by the White Tiger’s cat-suited, careerist-cop gunplay and Junta’s black-ops anti-gravity powers. Their personalities just didn’t mesh. These guys weren’t going to work out as a team. At all. Not without some sort of a symbol to focus on.
The symbol needed to help take out 66 Bridges was in hiding, a bulletproof chainmail Captain America shirt worn under a Muslim minister’s garb. To understand how it got there, you need to know that The Crew #5 is the spiritual sequel to a 2003 miniseries called Truth: Red, White, & Black. That project told the tale of secret government experiments on black soldiers using the Super Soldier Serum. The core premise of Truth: Red, White, & Black invokes the Tuskegee Experiments, where poor black sharecroppers with syphilis were denied treatment as part of a U.S. Public Health Service study that began in 1932. Creators Robert Morales and Kyle Baker took that painful real-life instance of black history and fused it to the origins of Marvel’s most patriotic icon. Pretty ballsy.
After hundreds of test subjects die from experiments, combat or their own dysfunction, Pvt. Isaiah Bradley is the sole survivor of the secret serum trials, eventually donning a Captain America costume and going AWOL to destroy a Nazi lab where German scientists were trying to create their own super-soldier.
He probably saved the world and won the war, all in the shadows. His reward? Court-martial and imprisonment for 17 years.
After revealing that the prototype Super-Soldier Serum left Isaiah Bradley with diminished brain function, Red, White, & Black ends by showing how he became an urban myth. He’s a shadow celebrity, the Captain America that pretty much only black folks remembered.
When Steve Rogers finally hears the tale of Bradley’s life from wife Faith and meets his heretofore unknown brother-in-arms, he offers what little recompense he can: acknowledgment and the costume Bradley wore on that fateful day in 1942.
The bitter ending of Truth: Red, White, & Black echoes the discrimination and mistreatment many black veterans faced after coming home from WWII. After fighting for freedom abroad, they came home to Jim Crow discrimination and disenfranchisement that left them unable to work or vote. When The Crew #5 picks up the thread, we see how the Bradley family has borne the brunt of neglect in secrecy. A presidential pardon freed Isaiah from a lifetime in jail but they must stay quiet about the uglier truths of Operation: Rebirth. They live in a bubble of suburban paranoia, knowing that the government is still watching them.
A woman visits them with an infant boy she says belongs to the Bradleys. She winds up learning that he’s the result of government-harvested sperm and eggs from Isaiah and Faith, another attempt to make more super-soldiers.
But keeping the child would shatter the fragile life the Bradleys have and Faith sends him wending out on the railroads her forebears probably helped build.
After that scene that couples the Moses story to an inversion of the John Henry folktale—here, the railway offers life, not death—the plot beats come hot and heavy, each landing like a heavyweight champion knockout punch. Flashbacks show Josiah as Project Super Soldier’s tragic orphan, punished for not blindly believing Jesus, mom, and apple pie.
We see him fighting through the Vietnam War battles that Steve Rogers slept through and locked in a military prison like his father before him.
He’s freed by his government-selected surrogate mother and later joins up with a Black Panthers-style militant movement, striking a Malcolm X-with-assault-rifle pose while peering out a window.
The signifying code isn’t heavily encrypted here: the Old Testament liberator, black bodies as cannon fodder for wars in foreign lands, mistreatment back at the homefront, the husk of Power-to-the-People resistance, a man reuniting with the shell of his father, discarded after service to his country hollowed him. You’re supposed to understand what every damn panel of The Crew #5 means.
This is a comic book that speaks for black people, saying that we have been here all along contributing to the structures and glories of America’s collective enterprises. We are here now and choose to participate despite inequalities and misgivings about our lot in this land, it says. When Josiah X finally suits up in the red-white-and-blue and wields his father’s Double V shield in The Crew #6-7, he’s simultaneously accepting the intertwining of his and America’s pasts and shrugging off the willful ignorance of his comfortable status quo. His battered history gives him no reason to believe in Sentinel of Liberty ideals but he does it anyway, for his own redemption and that of his community.
The construction of Josiah X’s character isn’t like that of Luke Cage or the Falcon or any of Marvel’s other stalwart black heroes. It’s not shot through with well-meaning but wince-inducing jive-talk backstory or blaxploitation relevance-grabs. It’s full of purpose. In this work, Priest is writing black people into a fictional history that pandered to them and then ignored them when it couldn’t get their dollar. He’s also offering up an origin-story template for a more nuanced kind of black superhero than the jive-bound characters he’d redeemed before. That lifting of voice may not have been intentional but he still winds up speaking for creators and fans who’ve felt taken for granted for too long.
There’s so much more I could say about The Crew. Its portrayal of Rhodey is stunning. This take on the character got ignored but it’s one of the reasons I’m so mad that he died as a plot device because The Crew showed him as a survivor. It’s a comic about faith, written by a trailblazer who became a minister. It’s about the belief in things unseen, the hope that your existence will eventually mean something to the institutions you love. Best of all, it works without any of this interpretative meaning. It’s just a damn good comic book series.
If I recall correctly, I’ve never seen Josiah X used again, ever since The Crew’s premature cancellation. Marvel’s got a lot of good things going on with its diversification of characters and creators in print and on screen but I don’t think Josiah X is ever showing up in a Marvel movie or TV show. I’m okay with that. I’ll always have him in his best form: an unapologetically black, historically grounded, film-negative version of Captain America, summoned up from a reservoir of black nerd yearning.
[Correction: A previous version of this article said that the sharecroppers in the Tuskegee Experiment were injected with syphilis. Some members of the control group had it already. The denial of treatment was universal, though.]
You’ve just read an entry in The Comics That Gave Me Life, an irregular series on the comics experiences that helped form my identity as a black nerd. There’s going to be more of these.