For the last year, Captain America has been either a Nazi, a cruelly-manipulated tool in the service of comical-book type entertainment, or a weird allegory. Possibly all three. Perhaps you’ve heard about it.
The comic-book-storytelling shenanigans that have brought Steve Rogers into this harsh, bizarre light are, as succinctly as possible, the following: Red Skull raised a little girl, who is actually a thing called a Cosmic Cube 1, so that he could indoctrinate her that she should believe that HYDRA is good, so she can dream up a reality where HYDRA takes over the world 2, and where Captain America is one of their leaders, which is, obviously, pretty much the precise opposite of what he is usually.
The “Captain America is HYDRA now” reveal was a year ago, which means that the outrage started about a year ago, and the other denizens of the Marvel Earth found out about it much more recently, which means that the in-universe justification begins roughly now 3.
To understand the outrage (and the aforementioned Nazi thing), there has to be a little bit more comic book talk. HYDRA was created, in opposition to Captain America, as a specifically Nazi-allied organization. In the several decades since, Marvel has moved away from its temporally-rooted origins, and made it a sort of mystically-oriented, super-ancient sect of people that want to take over the world 4. The movies, which are obviously much more recent, re-aligned HYDRA with its Nazi roots in Captain America: The First Avenger, in which it is more a splinter group than a direct outgrowth 5, and so the idea that HYDRA = Nazi is especially prominent to anyone whose ideas of their origins starts at or includes CA:TFA.
This, then, is outrageous because a group of worldwide supervillainy was specifically created by its Jewish creators to be a part of the story they were telling about their specifically anti-Nazi superhero, and to then take that same superhero and ally him, specifically and assuredly, with the Nazi-derived group, was taken by a large portion of the public as a deeply-insulting maneuver.
Captain America was created to be explicitly political (i.e. anti-Nazi), and it’s this portion of his origins that has, for the last dozen or so years, made him a useful stand-in for writers that want to use him allegorically 6, as he has been now. Nick Spencer, the current writer, has not been shy about using his platform in a monthly comic book to make all sorts of commentary on the political environment in which he is writing, using the language of anti-immigration and “disintegrating borders,” and weathering complaints that he’s turned Republicans into supervillains 7.
Spencer, then, is the first of the people involved to insist that everyone just needed to be patient. He’s also been very adamant that the events of Secret Empire 8 are going to have long-term ramifications, that they are going to be permanent, and that there’s definitely not going to be some reset button at the far end of the storyline. When the “Hail Hydra!” moment happened, we were assured that it was “just sort of an opening chapter,” and that he was permitted to write the story because when he pitched the idea to Marvel, he “was able to kind of explain the whole thing and put it all into context.” The implication here being, of course, that there is a context to put it all into, and that it was enough to satisfy the brass at Marvel, with Spencer specifically claiming the support of Tom Brevoort, the Executive Editor at Marvel and Senior VP of Publishing, who has long ties to Captain America and who is characterized by Spencer as being particularly protective of Captain America’s legacy.
While Brevoort spoke briefly in praise of Spencer, it seems there was still some backdoor damage control that was deemed necessary, with Editor-in-Cheif Axel Alonso giving a long-ish interview in conjunction with Spencer, where things were a bit more muddled. Spencer talked about taking his inspiration from current events – specifically in the rise of hate groups in national prominence, and what drives people to join them – and reiterating his position that “Lots of people keep asking if it’s a gimmick and guess it’ll be over soon, and [Spencer keeps] saying ‘nope, nope, nopers.” Truly, two “nopes” and a “nopers” is the highest of denial.
Alonso, then, also explained that this was a “point where the heroes have to rally…It’s all black and white, not shades of gray,” which is a super weird stance to take when, in fact, the whole point of the story is that anything can be co-opted or taken over, especially when a magic cube (which is actually a little girl raised by Red Skull) is able to rewrite all of time and space in Red Skull’s image 9) is involved. Alonso would also go on to be a part of a press statement issued through ABC News 10, in which they “politely ask you to allow the story to unfold before coming to any conclusion”, and also, and perhaps most tellingly, asking that readers “in the meantime, keep buying the book.”
Now, seeing the public reaction to the events set in motion by Spencer and saying “these people should not be met, they should instead be shouted down and told to keep sending us money in the blind hope that we aren’t actually insulting their sensibilities” is pretty solidly on the side of overwhelming hubris. People that are upset over the allying of (what they know to be) Captain America with (what they know to be) a set of postmodern Nazis is the entirety of the problem and telling people “wait hold on it’s not really the problem because you haven’t read enough of the saga of the postmodern Nazis” is like telling a choking victim that they shouldn’t stop eating because they don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the choking.
The things required to give Marvel the benefit of the doubt are either two- or three-fold: first, one has to be able to believe that Nick Spencer, the writer, is a person who can be trusted to not just turn heroes into Nazis willy-nilly 11. Two, one has to believe that Nick Spencer/Marvel’s editorial staff can be trusted to handle all of this in a way that isn’t ultimately demeaning to the audience and/or the characters that the audience is invested in, not to mention the spirit of the initial creators, who form a part of the crux of this one. The sort-of third (I leave it up to the reader to decide if it warrants inclusion as its own categorical point or not) is that one has to have a great deal of patience for the sort of “item of great power manipulates time and space to make things cuckoo crazy” comic storytelling that is, frankly, the kind of thing that turns people off of this kind of storytelling to begin with.
In the controversial would-be performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, we had a producer trying to create an opportunity by altering the form of the content in a way that ran counter to the interests of the original creator. In the controversial current storyline of Captain America we have a set of executives not exactly defending the creative impulse of one of their writers over the objections of an audience that is sensitive to the biographical realities of the original creators of the character (especially as concerns that character’s historical roots), in favor of protecting the sales of their properties in the most brute-force way possible, by literally trying to instruct the audience to just keep buying it, because the audience should value the opportunity to get to read new Captain America stories more than it values anything qualitative about those stories.
Even if that were not so, there would still be little to gain by insisting that the audience agree blindly when they don’t already know. Nobody that reads comics isn’t familiar with the idea that you have to keep reading them to see how the story ends, and while it’s true that there are a lot of people who are reading comics now to whom this alternate-reality nonsense isn’t as familiar as it is to others of us 12, it’s also the case that it’s not like it’s hard to figure out.
So rather than this being a case of a creative complaining that the creator – who is onto exactly what he’s trying to do and is objecting to it specifically – is unwilling morally to do the thing he wants, this is an example of a corporation telling an audience that they cannot possibly understand the basics of the medium they are consuming the story in, and have to be instructed that “reading to the middle” is not the same as “reading to the end,” because obviously watching a superhero become a HYDRA agent isn’t the same as watching a superhero become a HYDRA agent and then….watching it some more.
Once again, I err on the side of letting the writer do his dumb thing, but lordy do I understand not actually wanting to read it. The best-case scenario is that this thing blows through, turns out to be something more interesting than Captain Americapilgrim’s Progress mit Exposions 13 , and gets adapted for film in a decade, but that’s because one of the key players in the story as written so far is the super-rad Taskmaster, who has never been represented on screen 14 (or at least not directly, he’s often speculated to be Grant Ward on Agents of SHIELD, but as of this writing that’s unconfirmed), and really should. His face is a skull! His superpower is that he can instantly learn how to do anything just by watching somebody do it once! He’s so cool!
In any event, it’s obvious that no audience is obligated to keep following these people down this dumb road – people drop in and out of comic books all the time. There are sort of over-arching things to say about the state of Marvel’s book sales and their executive response to this 15, but really you’ve got it all right there: a writer has done an audacious, upsetting thing, and people have become upset, and the executives have said “you’re not really upset, you just don’t have all of it yet, so give us your money.”
That’s the trade-off that Marvel has made – Spencer decided to tell the story with a decades-old character that people feel a great deal of personal investment toward, and Marvel elected to let him use this decades-old character that people feel a great deal of personal investment toward to tell his story that trades in on Captain America’s symbolic value in order to tell this story, and people, ostensibly the people for whom this story is being told, have reacted in part by saying “we do not accept this usage of this character that we feel a great deal of personal investment toward.” We yet again find ourselves in a situation where a trade-off was made, but the downside of that trade-off is considered unacknowledgable by people who were in a position only to choose or not choose to continue being a part of the agreement 16. All audience relationships are one-way and binary: they are either on or they are not on. And when the decision, which was made with the idea of there being an effect as a fully-known condition, is something that results in people – who have no control other than to stop reading the book – getting mad and not reading the book, then even if the creatives disagree, they probably shouldn’t act like it’s a surprise, or completely out of the purview of the audience in the first place.
- it’s a thing that warps reality to fit the mind of the person wielding it, and its entire history as an object of “dumb shit catalyst and/or generator” would take a really long time to explain, but this is not the first time one has turned up in a story and made a bunch of people mad, albeit not usually on this sort of scale. ↩
- but also the Cosmic Cube/Little Girl, named Kobik (I do not name comic book characters, don’t blame me), came up with this world, but not a world where HYDRA ran shit without the internecine strife that causes most of the plot to come to fruition, because, seriously, I could just fill each of these footnotes with words about how dumb the cosmic cube stuff is and it still wouldn’t be enough words. ↩
- which is also why I’m writing it now, and as a part of a series about creators, rightsholders, and their audiences, because it’s now inclusive of all three groups. ↩
- It currently – although, again, using words like “currently” is made slippery by the timey-wimey nature of the whole thing – traces its roots back to The Order of the Spear, which is credited with repelling the first invasion of The Brood (which are basically Marvel’s version of the xenomorphs from the Alien movies with the serial numbers filed off), and which was the partner organization to The Order of the Shield, which would become, perhaps predictably, SHIELD. ↩
- a development that the comics rolled with by once again retconning the whole thing and making it so that the HYDRA folks were basically press-ganged into their Nazi affiliation by circumstance. Or something. I’m a little fuzzy on how all of that worked. ↩
- the current characterization of Captain America – as a sort of rebellious patriot idealist, that carries over into the movies and his depiction in the comics for all but the past year or so – was largely codified by Ed Brubaker in the first Civil War storyline. ↩
- although one of the things that Captain America has always had in place was a healthy appreciation for immigrants, which makes perfect sense, given that some of his best friends are Asgardian/Atlantean/Wakandan/People from the Moon/etc. ↩
- a title that the current storyline shares with a past storyline – the first Secret Empire was also allegorical, and was published immediately following the Watergate scandal. ↩
- I mean, I get that it’s all allegorical or whatever, but the real-world parallelism is not really helped by all of the cosmic cube stuff. This is what kept me out of the Avengers continuity when I was a comic-book-reading lad. ↩
- Which the eagle-eyed among you will notice is the news arm of Disney, the overcorporation that owns Marvel as well, which ties into the peculiar focus of the press release itself, to wit: it appears to be concerned that this storyline is going to cost them revenue. ↩
- this is a point where, for whatever it’s worth, I have little problem – Spencer is pretty good about discussing publicly the near- (or actually-)fascistic nature of a lot of superhero stories, and grappling with them in an interesting way, and his work on Morning Glories especially belies that, whatever else he believes, he’s definitely not coming down on the side of HYDRA here. ↩
- Nick Spencer and I are close to the same age, and so probably have many of the same formative Marvel stories in our heads, he just clearly felt differently than I did about some of them, but this sort of thing is pretty commonplace in Marveldom – all of time and space is rewritten with so much regularity that you start to think that all of time and space must be on a giant cosmic whiteboard. ↩
- that’s not exactly a fair joke. Editorially, the setup is as dumb as cosmic cube stuff always is, but as such things go it’s a firecracker of a story – it’s at least paced well, and doesn’t spend much time steepling it’s fingers and cackling maniacally about its evil plans, which is something that often plagues stories that have a cosmic cube in them. It’s not an unentertaining run of comics, all told, and it may even be the case that when it all shakes out it will seem like a less dire, less offensive bit of storytelling. ↩
- Although if I may take some time at the end of this piece to pitch a thing: his finest hour is a run of Daredevil comics in which he and Tombstone (also a villain vacationing in Daredevil from the pages of Captain America) got into a murdering-people contest that Daredevil eventually caught onto and had to stop, and that would be super awesome to see guys. ↩
- namely that sales might be down (it sort of depends on how you count/look at the numbers, and also with Marvel’s cockamamie publishing shenanigans), and also there is some dumb stuff that Marvel is on the record about w/r/t diversity, all of which is sort of happening as part of the backdrop for the specific case I’m talking about here. ↩
- nobody has ever asked the readers if it would be ok if something like this happens, after all ↩