I’ve been having trouble with the “Cap is a Nazi” story. Not the in-comics story itself, really, but the real-world response to it. I started writing this post a while back but got derailed by life. With the release of Secret Empire #0 and a few prologue tie-ins today, it seemed like an apt time to revisit. In addition to the zero issue kicking off the big event, I also bought and read Captain America: Steve Rogers #16, Thunderbolts #12, and U.S.Avengers #5.
There are some spoilers for those books below (including the seemingly major revelation from the prologue to Secret Empire #0 which I spoil in the very next paragraph), but the main point is me trying to grasp the reaction to the overall event.
Also, a caveat: with the exception of those four comics, I’m six months behind on the story, because I’ve been following via Marvel Unlimited. So I may well be literally missing something crucial that appeared clearly on-panel in a comic from that six-month gap.
The recap as I understand it goes something like this: when Kobik, the child-like personification of the Cosmic Cube, rejuvenated an elderly Steve Rogers, she actually rewrote his entire history in a way that was shaped (unbeknownst to Cap) by the Red Skull. The crucial What If…? deviation sees Rogers’ mother brought into a Hydra cell in World War 2, which in turn puts young Steve into their clutches and lets them shape him as the ultimate sleeper agent. Secret Empire #0 further clarifies that in 1945, Hydra hid Steve–by then established as Captain America, pretty much the ultimate sleeper agent–in a magic pool to protect him when the Allies (allegedly) used a crude Cosmic Cube to rewrite reality so they, not Hydra, won the war. (The main point of that reveal SEEMS to be, as far as I can tell, to explain how Cap has completely different memories from everyone else in the Marvel Universe.)
Secret Empire, it appears, will be the story of what happens when Cap reveals his true allegiance to the Marvel Universe of 2017.
I’ve mentioned on here a few times (I think, though of course I can’t find any now) that my introduction to regularly buying Captain America comics was somewhere around issue #332, the dramatic “CAPTAIN AMERICA NO MORE” cover with Cap standing helpless in the bleeding (weeping?) stripes of the American flag. This was the storyline where Steve Rogers, disillusioned with the government and unwilling to become their lackey, turns in his shield and uniform and wanders America for awhile before, inevitably, retaking the mantle of Cap in, inevitably, issue #350.
Steve is replaced by John Walker, a bit of a good ol’ boy who starts out as a much more Reagan’s-80s Cap before becoming an unhinged lunatic when his parents are murdered by a bunch of white supremacists. Somewhere in the first few issues of that changeover, someone wrote in a letter that’s stuck in my head for 30-odd years–a fairly generic LOC, as I remember–that ended with “Keep Cap Cap!” The editors responded, “Oops! Cap isn’t Cap anymore! Hope you’re still reading!” (or something to that effect–I think it’s in issue #334 on Marvel Unlimited if you’re really interested).
Maybe that’s why I find myself completely unfazed by the current HydraCap storyline: because I started reading Cap when Cap wasn’t Cap anymore, and when he was, in fact, a mildly rednecky psychopath doing the bidding (wittingly) of a shady government subcommittee, which was controlled (unbeknownst to Cap) by the Red Skull. Maybe, in my mind, this is just the sort of thing that happens every now and then.
What I do know is that a lot of comic-critic types that I generally consider smart and interesting–not least our own Mr. Graeme McMillan and ex-Comics Alliance head honcho Andrew Wheeler–find Cap’s current status quo an appalling affront to the ideals of the character, and his creators, and…well, a whole bunch of other things that I quite literally don’t quite understand.
It’s a weird feeling–I don’t want to disagree with these folks, because I know very well that they’re smarter than me. I also know that I am still working to not be the callous jerk that I was for much of my twenties (and probably into my thirties). But I cannot for the life of me understand how the current Cap storyline is any different than that 1980’s story, or the more recent Superior Spider-Man story (or Superior Iron Man, for that matter), or any of a dozen other stories where the hero winds up being replaced by some corrupted version of himself for some reason.
Net result is that current Cap has “always” been a Hydra agent, at least in the same way that Tim Drake was “never” Robin and Blue Beetle was “always” part of the DC Universe.
(And make no mistake: Hydra here is a 100% clear in-story substitute for Nazi. Whether the change is because they’re trying to soften it, or trying to tie it more closely to the movie continuity, or whatever, the intention is clear. Mrs. Rogers is suborned by a fifth column in America, in a strategy that clearly mirrors what American Nazis did at the time. It doesn’t matter how hard the comics work to separate out the Red Skull’s Hydra faction from the other Hydra factions or whatever–Cap, for the moment at least, is a Nazi. I’m not arguing against that at all.)
Most of the storyline until this week has been Cap biding his time, waiting to make his move, trying to keep the whole thing from unraveling on him. Pretty standard double-agent stuff. It seems clear, this being comics, that we are heading toward the inevitable moment when Steve Rogers somehow rewrites his own timeline, possibly by talking to Kobik or maybe by saving his own mother from ever encountering the Hydra cell–but one way or another that we’re heading toward the dramatic return of The Real Steve Rogers.
So…what’s the big deal? I’ve asked both Wheeler and Graeme this directly (on Twitter and via email, respectively), and received a few different answers, none of which fully make sense to me. So instead I’m putting it out as a general question: please, help me understand what’s worse here. Here, let me lay out the criticisms as I understand them, along with my explanation for why those things don’t bother me. (And let me be very clear: I’m not trying to knock down straw-men–I am genuinely looking to understand why this isn’t bothering me more.)
Captain America has forsaken his ideals and is now forever compromised. If they tried a storyline where Steve Rogers (as we knew him in the core Marvel timeline) deliberately and actively said “Hey, I think America has lost its way and I’m turning toward a more anti-immigrant ideology” or something similar, I’d buy this. As it stands, this is basically alternate-universe Steve Rogers, and has no more lasting impact on the character to me than, I dunno, the Red Son version had on the main Superman.
Captain America’s iconography can no longer be held up as firmly anti-fascist. This falls under some of the same thinking as the above–Superman’s iconography is in no way damaged by him becoming a dictator in the Injustice books or wherever–but also under a realistic assessment of the cultural impact of comics.
Current Marvel mainstream superhero comics generally sell, let’s say, 50K copies in the U.S. But, heck, let’s be charitable and say that this is a major storyline that’s touched a lot of books and take the high-end sales number of Civil War II #1, which was apparently 391, 526. That number is ludicrous enough that it probably includes every person who read the book in any format in any country (the next highest-selling issue of that series was at 190K; by the end it had drifted down to 105,658). Meanwhile, Captain America: Civil War sold 1,970,338 Blu-Rays in its FIRST WEEK of release. and had settled out at 2.7M by the end of last year. So it seems pretty safe to say that this is the iconography that the popular culture associates with Cap:
(Not to mention that Cap actor Chris Evans is an incredibly vocal defender of general goodness and civility on Twitter, which helps the brand as well.)
I guess, in summary: my kids still uniformly play Captain American as the good-est of good guys, no matter what’s up in the comics.
Making him a Nazi is worse than making him generically bad (a la Superior Spider-Man). Eh, I dunno. The Nazis are pretty uniformly being held up as bad guys, and … well, Nazis have always been acceptable bad guys in pop culture. The Indiana Jones films are no less populist entertainment for being splashed with swastikas throughout, because they’re attached to the bad guys.
But his creators are Jewish, and this is disrespectful to them. Sort of the same thing again: if you took this avatar of immigrant hope and had him undergo a genuine, deeply-felt, ideological conversion to fascism, racism, and hatred, yes, that would be a slap in the face of the creators. But showing what happens when the proper ideals are perverted? That seems like fair play.
(Also–it’s not exactly relevant but just to be clear on where I come at this: I’m Jewish. I have dear family friends who are Holocaust survivors, and family members who were lost to the Holocaust. I studied the Holocaust extensively in school, starting in first grade where my teacher was a survivor who told us her stories–you can hear some of them here. I’ve visited concentration camps, as well as Holocaust memorials of varying sizes in Israel, Poland, Germany, and D.C. I’m literally in the process of rereading Elie Wiesel’s Night. So it’s not like I have any patience with Nazis, nor like I’m uneducated about their level of evil. And the current wave of anti-semitism has included evacuations at community centers I used to go to for afterschool stuff, and a lockdown at the school where my mother teaches. I do not feel particularly safe or insulated right now.)
With America in the shape it’s in, this is a horrible time for Marvel to be doing this. This is the only one I really strongly disagree with. If there was ever a time to remind people that even pleasant-faced American icons could be hiding hearts of evil; that fascism can indeed be alive and well in America; that things are not at all okay … it’s now. There’s a reason Steve Englehart wanted to tell the original Secret Empire story when Nixon was in power. (And Marvel tried to distance themselves from the political implications back then, also.)
So, then: those are the objections I’ve seen, and explanations of where I’m not fully aligned with them. Please help me understand what I’m missing–and, basically, help me be a better person. One thing I am definitely missing, which may make all the difference, is the apparently-detestable behind-the-scenes comments by the writer, editors, etc. I don’t generally read those sort of interviews, and also–having worked in media relations–assume that everything anyone says in one of them is a half-truth at best, an outright lie at worst. It may be that that’s the crucial difference.
From a story standpoint, the actual opening salvo of Secret Empire was fine–a pretty typical Marvel event book with a well-defined peril and a clearly-laid out enemy attack. (The enemy, of course, being Cap.) If you are the sort of person who claims to see and enjoy Palpatine’s planned rise to power across the Star Wars prequels, you’ll probably admire Cap’s plan here. It’s fairly similar stuff. The pre-zero-issue crossovers were variable: Thunderbolts felt absolutely crucial to the plot but was crippled by its 90’s pastiche art. Captain America: Steve Rogers fleshed the zero issue out a bit, but didn’t feel particularly essential. And U.S.Avengers was great in all the ways Al Ewing-written Marvel books have been for a few years now, and it left me hoping that its story is crucial to the plot’s eventual resolution.
It probably won’t be, though, because the resolution will almost certainly involve the “real” Steve Rogers and/or a time-travelling Bucky Barnes having an extended fistfight in a magic pool of water. If only the real-life fascist presence in American government could be eliminated the same way–but, then, isn’t the point of portraying these things in fiction to eventually give us something resembling a cathartic end? I hope so, anyhow.