As I write this, Marvel is a little under a week away from releasing Secret Empire #1, their big summer event series for 2017. The storyline for this event revolves around what may be the most controversial story Marvel has published in years; the revelation from last year that Steve Rogers, Captain America, is in actuality an agent of HYDRA, and he always has been. Secret Empire follows Rogers after he steps out of the shadows and leads HYDRA to world domination. From the start, this revelation was met with controversy in fandom, and the hostility in some corners hasn’t cooled over the course of a year. In fact, on the eve of Secret Empire, which looks to resolve the storyline, some fans are calling for a boycott of Marvel’s line of books, accusing the company and writer Nick Spencer of everything from unchecked progressivism to supporting and enabling white supremacism. So, with this opinion piece, I’d like to ask whether or not those fans have a point to their claims, what Spencer and Marvel are culpable for, whether or not this level of outrage and hostility is warranted, and what it means in the larger context of creators and their fans.
First off, there isn’t any doubt that, if controversy was something Marvel wanted to avoid, they could have handled the press rollout of the storyline better. It’s a tricky thing, because a shocking revelation like the fact that Captain America is a double-agent is a big fat juicy headline not just for industry-related publications, but one with the potential to cross over into mainstream ones like Entertainment Weekly who boast a much broader audience. And, sure enough, this story did. And if you’re looking to achieve that, the more shocking and bold the better. Comics are a business as well as an art, after all. So, if you’re trying to drive readers to pick up a book, especially casual or new one, you want to give them just enough to pique their interest. In this case it involved Spencer and editor Tom Brevoort assuring readers that this wasn’t a clone or mind control, that this was actually Steve Rogers, and he is actually with HYDRA.
But, this leaves out the fact that Steve is HYDRA agent because the Red Skull uses a sentient cosmic cube (Tesseract for Marvel Cinematic Universe fans) to alter reality so that Steve was always a double agent (because this is comics, you guys). In effect, this change is the result of a master plan by a bad guy to corrupt his nemesis. So, yeah, technically this is Steve and he’s really a villain, but also it isn’t Steve, and there’s great big whopping back door to make sure that Steve and Marvel history will be put to rights when needed. If Marvel had said that they were launching a new storyline where the Red Skull alters reality to make Steve Rogers into a villain, then perhaps outcry would have been tamped down, but one could also definitely argue that interest wouldn’t have been as high as it became after suggesting that Steve had been a double agent all along. And frankly, this outcry and controversy will probably make the books sell better. Who knows by how much, but Marvel could argue, and I’m not sure they wouldn’t be right, that even this kind of controversy is good for a title. That might be cynical, but it’s also true.
But what motivated the outcry? It wasn’t just that Marvel was implying a fundamental alteration to a popular and long-standing favorite with devoted fans. It was also the fact that Marvel was making Steve an agent of HYDRA, which many fans see as a modern analog to Nazism, the same real-world malevolent force that drove the creation of the character in 1941. Captain America represented a sincere and desperate power fantasy to a fearful nation and in particular to the two Jewish-American men (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) who created him during a time when it was in no way certain the world would defeat a hateful, racist, genocidal regime. To many, altering Steve into what was basically a Nazi was a desecration of everything the character was meant to stand for, an insult to the legacies of his creators, and unacceptably crass and insensitive.
UNDERSTANDING HYDRA: ARE THEY NAZI STAND-INS?
For Marvel’s part, they stressed that, unlike the film continuity, HYDRA’s connection to Nazism is far more tenuous and nowhere near direct, that the group is not a stand-in for National Socialism, but rather a generic evil organization like SPECTRE in the James Bond series? But does that hold up to scrutiny? Not really, and this represents another significant error on Marvel’s part. HYDRA first appeared in 1965 as part of the “Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD” feature in Strange Tales. Though it was originally heard by a fairly bland businessman, it really caught on once it was revealed that its new head was Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker. Von Strucker was known to readers as Nick Fury’s main foe in the WWII-set Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos title. And yeah, he was a Nazi. And, yes, HYDRA was designed to emulate the threat posed by Nazis, as countless other world dominating organizations in fiction have in the years since WWII. The reason why Stan Lee and Kirby, who created HYDRA, probably pulled Strucker into the mix was because they knew having Fury’s old nemesis return form the dead would give the SHIELD strip some punch. And it worked, because HYDRA remains a thing in Marvel comics and movies to this day. But it also inextricably linked HYDRA with Nazism, and Marvel’s attempts to put some distance between them is disingenuous at best.
So, is part of the outrage over the HYDRACap situation the fact that people believe it’s inappropriate to use Nazis and Nazi analogs as the bad guys in a comic book? I don’t think that’s the main argument, but let’s look at that for minute. Is it wrong to use a movement that was responsible for appalling, monstrous acts of genocide and barbarism for adventure fiction? I have no doubt there are people, particularly those whose families were decimated or otherwise affected by the Holocaust, that do take offence at Nazis and Nazi-esque stand-ins being used as moustache-twirling villains, and certainly I have no place questioning that. But that is a personal stance,and if we insist that adventure stories must only utilize sanitized antagonists for fear of offending or upsetting people, we’re going to get some pretty boring stories. If you are an adult, you are always free to choose not to partake in any entertainment you wish. And I would point out that Lee and Kirby and Simon, Jewish-Americans all, weren’t afraid to use Nazis as their baddies. Lee and Kirby even created a Fantastic Four story where the bad guy was apparently Hitler, even giving him a costume and code-name of the Hate-Monger. It’s just as cringe-worthy and ill-thought as it sounds. My point here is that I don’t think the objection comes from utilizing Nazism or Nazi analogs for sensational effect in a frivolous adventure story.
THE ROOTS OF OUTRAGE
The outrage on social media appears to stem from two areas. The first is the assertion that Nick Spencer and Marvel are desecrating the character of Steve Rogers, the symbol of the best ideals and spirit of the United States of America, by reimagining him as an eager and willing participant in a Nazi-linked evil organization. And that changing the character in that way is offensive and insulting to the Jewish-American creators who imagined him as standing for everything against the Nazi system. The second assertion is that by making Steve in a HYDRA agent, Marvel is somehow endorsing Nazi ideals, or at the very least giving Neo-Nazis and white supremacists a heroic figure to rally behind. And while I’m not insensitive to those points of view, and while I would wholeheartedly and vociferously echo them if they were in fact true, having read the titles in question (Steve Rogers: Captain America, Sam Wilson: Captain America and the related Secret Empire lead-ins) I can’t find any actual evidence to support those trains of thought.
Let’s take the first assertion, that Spencer and Marvel are desecrating the character. There have turned the character into everything he stood against; bigotry, fascism, hatred. Spencer’s approach to both the Sam Wilson title and the Steve Rogers title has been overtly political in tone. The Sam Wilson book has concerned itself with race, corporatism, immigration, purity tests, self-righteousness on both right and left, and the increasing polarization of the country. You may not like political overtones in comics, you may think that Spencer’s work lacks subtlety, but there’s no denying that he’s pursuing those themes in the book. And on the Steve Rogers book, Spencer is taking a symbol of the best of America and exploring what happens when a vision of America embraces what it has previously stood against. We live in a country that is divided more than ever before, and a great number of people are having trouble reconciling the fact that a person they view as a misogynist, habitually untruthful, unethical man who has voiced problematic if not racist views and who surrounds himself with people who could be considered white nationalists has been elected president. This may be the perfect time for a story that asks, through an allegorical figure who has represented America, if we are really the country we think we are. And if people have lost faith in America as an idea, then who is to blame for that? If you are on the other side of the aisle, politically, that kind of left-leaning viewpoint might anger you, and accusing these titles of egregiously skewing to the left actually is a fair criticism, if you are right of center.
But given as how this development in the character was created by fantastical means (a sentient Cosmic Cube, people!), it’s by no means a permanent one, nor does it require you to reevaluate the Steve Rogers you read as a kid. Though technically, he’s the same Steve Rogers, this is in effect a different character. And the reaction to seeing Steve espouse the ideas and commit the actions he’s committed in the story is not incidental. Steve Rogers has a 75 year history of ideals that mean something, and they are important. And if seeing him twisted into something else angers you, that’s not an accident or unintentional on the creator’s part. It’s the point of the story. It’s the only reason to write this story. You are supposed to be angered at seeing the best of America put in the service of these ideals. And Spencer has stated in interviews that he hopes this will clarify the ideals and beliefs that Steve had always believed in:
“But what I think I can say with confidence is that with this story, our intention and our hope is that in its own unique way, it reinforces what everybody already knows about Captain America, which is his power as a symbol and what that means. We are approaching it from a different angle, but I think it illuminates the character in a way that we’ve never seen before.”
Which brings me to the second assertion. Is this story some kind of rallying cry for white supremacists or neo-Nazis? Does the story try to make HYDRACap the hero? If that’s what you get out of the story, I defy you to point it out to me, because what I’m reading is the story of a manipulative, duplicitous villain with a master plan. Steve Rogers in this current state is the bad guy of the story. He is not someone to root for. We don’t want him to succeed. He may be the main character of the story, but that doesn’t make him the hero. And there are plenty of antecedents in storytelling that have a morally monstrous character at the center. “Richard III,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “House of Cards,” “Breaking Bad,” “Blood Meridian,” “American Psycho”; all have very bad people at their centres and all rely to some degree on the reader recognizing that. Spencer and Marvel have never been ambiguous on the point that HYDRACap is not a hero. HYDRA are villains, and Steve Rogers is the evil mastermind of this piece. In a recent Tumblr post, responding to this very question from a reader about whether neo-Nazis could use the comic for inspiration, Marvel editor Jordan D. White made the company’s approach to Steve’s villainy explicit:
“Now…I have not heard anything about actual white supremacists using Hydra to celebrate their own beliefs. If this is actually true…yeah, of course, that is horrible. It also makes them pretty foolish, because again…it’s pretty clear to me Hydra are the bad guys in this story. The story judges them harshly and invites the reader to do so as well. So…to point to them and hold them up as your ideal is a poor choice for a lot of reasons…not the least of which is that the good guys tend to win in comics, the vast majority of the time.”
In the same post, White also appears to refute a troubling rumour around the web, namely that Magneto, Holocaust survivor, is going to join HYDRA, by saying, “I don’t believe there is any comic where Magneto joins Hydra.” That not the most definitive denial, but I hope it’s true, because unless handled in a way I can’t imagine that would be pretty hard to get behind. White’s Tumblr post was retweeted by Captain America editor Tom Brevoort as well, confirming that this approach seems to be the company line.
So, if Marvel doesn’t want to position this version of Steve Rogers as a good guy, if they instead are temporarily redefining him for the purpose of exploring a thematic concept, one that is fairly anchored in exploring and castigating those who believe the things that HYDRA believes, then why all the outrage? I think it’s likely that most people read a headline and an article and made their mind up from there. If you have read some of Spencer’s time on the books, have not enjoyed them, and dropped off or found them objectionable, then that’s an informed opinion and I can’t really argue with that. But if you think that this is permanent change that is supposed to supplant nearly a century of stories, that Marvel wants Captain America to be a Nazi forever, then yes, that would be troubling. But it would involve reaching a conclusion based on incomplete information. And that’s not that big a deal. Usually.
But what has happened is that, through the incredible power social media has to reinforce any idea no matter how misinformed or surface-level, the outrage has grown to the point where Nick Spencer has received death threats. Where he has been labelled an anti-semite. A white supremacist. People have publicly advocated assaulting him. Over a story. To some degree, Spencer’s online presence hasn’t exactly cooled things down. He’s a confrontational force on Twitter, and he often, like all of us, has difficulty in just walking away from the keyboard. But it’s hard not to be defensive when you’re being attacked. It’s really, really difficult. And social media has made fans ever more comfortable with extrapolating an author’s morality and guilt/innocence based on their own subjective experience. Could Spencer and Marvel maybe simply quiet down and ask readers to see the whole story instead of doubling down and shouting back? Sure, that would help. Spencer has had a few troubling twitter exchanges that come off as shrill and deliberately provocative, other times his points have been willfully twisted. When white nationalist Richard Spencer was punched on live television, Nick Spencer (no relation) made a point that assaulting someone just because they have views you disagree with, even ones as vile and hate-filled as Spencer’s, may not be the best way to go. It may not be a point I agree with on a gut level, but taking the moral high road for freedom of speech isn’t the same thing as being a Nazi sympathizer, and implying otherwise is just dumb.
There are massive problems facing the world, and serious ones facing the comics industry. We still need greater diversity at DC in Marvel in their creators and staff, even with the strides they’ve admittedly made. The big two publishers still have a ways to go in improving compensation and profit participation for creators. And they still need to find a better balance between sales concerns and story quality, a problem that will always be difficult to solve. And Nick Spencer’s time on Captain America may wind up being a mess and unsatisfying and a failure. We may come to regard it as little more than a gimmick, a hackneyed trick to gin up buzz. But even if all that is true, there is nothing in the story that suggests to me that Spencer or anyone at Marvel believes or sympathizes with hate, and as such, casually labelling someone a white supremacist, issuing death threats, or advocating or even playfully encouraging acts of violence is wrong. And it’s indefensible if you do that without even having read the creator in question’s work.
From what I’ve read of Spencer’s work, I think he has more talent that that. And I certainly haven’t read anything in his Captain America titles that make me think of him as sympathizing with the views that HYDRACap or any evil character holds. For that reason, I can continue to enjoy his books. And even if you can’t, then you should still reject the level of animosity being hurled his way. Because if creators and companies feel that their books can’t try new, risky, even controversial things, we’re just going to get Civil War over and over and over again (you know, that event where Tony Stark and Reed Richards created a weapon that murdered a person and then locked up people without due process in a secret prison? And they hadn’t even been altered by cosmic cube, they just decided to do it, and paid no price at all. No one wanted to send death threats to Mark Millar).
And I’m going to look forward to HYDRACap’s eventual comeuppance in Secret Empire and to whatever ingenuous solution Marvel comes up with to bring the real Steve Rogers back to the Marvel Universe. Because, and this always important to remember when reading super-hero comics, the good guys tend to win.