Avengers… Hail Hydra!

So, it’s been about a week since the revelation that Captain America (the honest to goodness, original, Earth-616, Marvel comics Captain America, Sentinel of Liberty and Man Out of Time) is apparently a Hydra agent and has been since the beginning.

Well, balls.

Now, what exactly that comic was telling us or what the implications are, we can’t say for sure. I’m sure Marvel has a plan, and I’m sure they’ll come up with some interesting way to redeem the character. That wasn’t really my issue. if it was, the whole thing would have rolled off my back as easily as any other fleeting change to the status quo (Wolverine’s dead! Peter Parker switched minds with Dr. Octopus! Etc!). This . . . this is something much different.

My evolution on this issue over the past week has involved a great many discussions with friends–be they fellow writers, fans, or otherwise–and a number of articles I’ve read both supporting and condemning the decision. I’ve attached further reading below. Unless I specifically call out someone else, all ideas presented here represent my own thinking on the issue, influenced by those discussions.

And before I go on, let me state something flatly for the record:


If you’re one of the assholes doing that, knock it off right now. You are worse than Hydra.

Now then. Let’s get into it.


From Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, Copyright (c) Marvel Comics

The Public’s Response

As far as I’ve seen, the response to this twist has been mostly negative from the audience. I haven’t seen a single person excited about the possibility that Captain America might be a racist supervillain, though I’m sure there’s someone out there somewhere who is.

There are plenty of people urging “well, wait and see,” and “you’re being overly emotional about this,” and “it’s just a comic book.” And we’re getting plenty of Gamergate-style trolling from would-be geek cultural gatekeepers. (If that’s you? Knock it off.)

I am particularly sympathetic toward my Jewish friends and others whose families and lives have been directly or indirectly shaped by the Nazis and Neo-Nazis. Nazism wasn’t just some fun comic book pretend villainy–it was a real thing that produced oceans of harassment, assault, abuse, murder, and corpses, and is still around in various states and forms today. It is irresponsible in the extreme to pretend it’s just some plaything to be used to make a story “edgy”–just as reprehensible as the worst exploitation of sexual assault or racism or homophobia in fiction.

Let me say this:

If you don’t think Marvel could create a character as anti-Nazi propaganda 75 years ago, called him CAPTAIN AMERICA, put the Stars and Stripes on his uniform and unbreakable shield–a character who has stood the test of time, starred in multiple TV shows and multiple blockbuster hit movies, and has legions of fans who grew up believing that he (and America) by association stood up for them, and people would NOT be irrevocably emotionally invested in him, then you don’t know shit about people or art.

It is NOT a surprise that there are so many people upset about this horrendous inversion of the character, and to cast aspersions upon what they love and cherish is not only insanely rude, extremely privileged, and incredibly insensitive, but it also fundamentally misunderstands the very concept of art* or why people love it.

(And before you say “but comics aren’t art,” check yourself. Comic writers and artists and fans have been pushing for comics to be taken seriously as art for decades. WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS came out thirty years ago. Comics have won Hugo awards. Comics push the limits of storytelling by leaps and bounds, and they are getting better every year. If TV shows or films or paintings or drawings or stories or poetry or photography are art forms, comics are art, because they combine any or all those things.Comics are never more respected or admired as they are today. Comics are art. And you can’t demand comics be taken seriously one day and then pretend “they’re just comics” the next. They’re always art, whether you personally understand them or not.)

Art is *designed* to evoke an emotional reaction as well as an intellectual one. That’s how it works. Pretending that we should or even *can* be strictly intellectual in our discussions of comics in general, let alone something like HydraCap in particular, is intensely dishonest and disingenuous and reeks of the worst kind of snobby elitist privilege.

Maybe you didn’t have an emotional reaction to this. Maybe your family wasn’t persecuted by Nazis. Maybe you don’t live in America. Maybe you weren’t bullied as a child. Maybe you didn’t grow up reading Captain America, or any comics at all. Maybe you never reassured yourself that things would be ok, because heroes could exist in this world. Maybe you did all these things and you STILL didn’t much care about Hydra Cap.

That still doesn’t give you the right or moral high ground to deny other people’s feelings or reactions.

Symbols have power. Captain America is our symbol, and has been for 75 years.

And now not only is it stripped from us–not just taken but suborned into something truly evil–but the rug has been yanked out from under us and that symbol has been something horrifically evil all along? And we have been evil by association for supporting it?

You can bet people are upset.

Nick Spencer’s Commentary

You can read the Spencer interview in the Further Reading links section, below.

I gotta admit, the first time I read Spencer’s interview–where he talks blithely about “feeding” on controversy and being pumped about all the rage, where he wears the badge “most hated man in America” with pride–it made me more upset. Mostly, because I compare how he’s handling this to how I would handle it, as an author who has worked with other long-established intellectual properties (the Forgotten Realms, for instance). I like to think I would never do something like this–never destroy a character hundreds have worked on before me because I thought I could do something clever with the story, never outright insult millions of fans and make thousands of little kids cry and then be not only not apologetic, but actually proud. That seems beyond the pale to me.

Reading his interview again, however, I wonder if that’s really what’s going on. I start to see an author who is a little rocked by the impact of what he’s done, and he’s just trying to roll with it as best he can. Will he be able to salvage it? Perhaps. Will it matter? That remains to be seen.

Marvel Doubles Down

Marvel seems to be 100% behind Spencer and seems pretty confident that not only is this a good idea, but everyone will agree once they see where it’s going.

The logical question there, of course, is whether that’s worth making your shining hero a a member of the closest thing we have to a universally despised group: the Nazis. Which is basically a massive insult not only to entire subgroups of people (the Nazis’ victims and their families) but to everyone who has ever loved or identified with this character.

And yes, as a comics reader I recognize that Hydra and the Nazis are not exactly identical, but it’s either naive or disingenuous to assert that there isn’t SIGNIFICANT cross-over, thematically and in terms of some of Hydra’s most powerful villains (Baron Strucker, Red Skull, Baron Zemo, etc). In the Earth-616 universe, Hydra is basically Marvel’s stand-in for the Nazis. They were initially that, they are still that. And the significantly more popular MCU makes almost zero distinction.

Really? You’re going to tell me that “Heil Hitler” and “Hail Hydra”–whilst raising your right hand in a salute–aren’t related?

Nazis and Hydra: thematically occupying the same place, alike in all the ways that matter.

(More about this in the Further Reading links.)

And anyway, even if one was to grant that “well, Captain America isn’t a Nazi, exactly . . .” that boils down to “he’s not exactly the worst villain ever–just close to it” which earns, what, exactly?

Captain America is a supervillain, and has been since the beginning–a member of an organization dedicated to world domination and stomping out all who oppose it. The exact opposite of everything the character is supposed to stand for.

Maybe my problem with this is that it hits too close to home.

The Cancer of the American Dream

So here’s the thing. Here in America we live in an increasingly divided country–politically, culturally, philosophically, etc. The state of our discourse grows worse by the day, and what might have been a peaceful, civil discussion as little as a year ago is much more likely to turn into a heated argument where aspersions of an opponent’s character are casually thrown around, and even threats of violence (particularly if your opponent happens to be a woman, a person of color, LGBTQ, etc.). We’ve lost the art of discussion through the rancorous noise that surrounds it, and we start looking at every counterpoint as a personal attack.

This is harmful to our society, our governmental structure, and our way of life.

In a way, we live in a country that is built on hate.

Captain America is a symbol that we can all share. He’s good. He’s decent. He’s strong. He’s sensitive. He cares about people. He’s moral. He’s ethical. He cares enough about freedom and doing what’s right to stand up to his friends and superiors even when the whole world tells him to move.

He is, in a sense, how we Americans like to see ourselves–the shining hero in the shining city on the hill, keeping the rest of the world safe.

And he’s a villain. Not only that, he has been a villain all this time. And not just a villain, but one of the worst villains imaginable: a double agent for the Nazis, who are the closest we come in today’s society to a universally reviled group.

Because America . . . we are not the shining beacon to the world that we like to think we are. We murder thousands of innocent people in foreign wars drummed up to further our financial and imperial interests. We shovel money at an elite upper class and continually swallow their lies about personal responsibility. We normalize rape culture and seek to oppress the rights of people of different sexualities, genders, or even just appearance that’s outside our strict heteronormative norm. We tolerate a police force that brutalizes, incarcerates, or murders black people at astronomically higher rates than white people. We send thousands of our own men and women to die overseas, and don’t bother caring for those who come back. We enslaved a whole group of people for centuries and continue to exploit poor people and immigrants. And maybe worst of all, America is built upon the shallow graves of millions of people who were here before us, who we casually trampled over because they were in the way.

And this year, a substantial minority of us supports a presidential candidate that wants to blame our cultural and economic problems on an entire ethnic group–who openly supports camps and denied immigration and in all the ways that matter parallels the rise to power of Nazism in 1920s Germany.

Hydra is the gross, rotting, noxious underbelly of America, and what Marvel has done with this revelation about Captain America is knock America over and bring the cancer into the light.

I don’t call things “cancer” lightly. I’ve had many friends and family members succumb to cancer over the years, and I am a cancer survivor myself. I know how insidious and awful it is. How you can go day by day, not knowing it’s there, explaining away the symptoms as something else–a flash in the pan, someone else’s problem, consequence of something you ate or too much to drink or too little water or whatever. And all the while it is eating you, growing worse and more damaging and more toxic until finally you can’t ignore it any more, and by then it’s too late.

(Christ. Maybe Mark Millar was right to make Ultimate Cap such an asshole.)

Captain America is a symbol of our patriotism–our nationalism–and some of that is bullshit. “Our Country, Right or Wrong” leads to a lot of wrong. We might do some things right, but we do a lot of things wrong. We’re not just kinda evil, racist, and misogynist–we’re a LOT those things. It’s a problem.

And the first step in solving a problem? Admitting that it’s there.

Maybe that’s what Marvel has done. Maybe they are making a bold statement in an election year when one party is running a fascist who wants to round up an entire ethnic group he blames for the problems in his country. (Instead of Hail Hydra, Cap could easily have said “Trump 2016.”) Marvel is trying to point out the problem–make us stop pretending its not there and rise up to do something about it.

Maybe Marvel isn’t the enemy.

Maybe we are the enemy.

What are you going to do about it?

In Conclusion

Ultimately, you should make up your own mind about this, as you should with any piece of art. Art is supposed to challenge us, to make us uncomfortable, to force us out of ourselves and explore possibilities. This could be a brilliant commentary on the state of our nation and politics. It could be a performance piece about outrage culture. It could be a blistering mistake that brings down the character and profoundly taints Spencer’s career. All of these things could be true, and they could all be true at the same time.

If you’re upset about Hydra Cap, I’m sorry on behalf of the universe for what you’re going through. Gods and Goddesses know Marvel isn’t going to apologize, and neither is Nick Spencer. I don’t think you were the target of this, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t hit you. Maybe this conversation will prove useful and we can start addressing some of the very real ways in which we in America are Hydra.

If you’re not upset about Hydra Cap, well, I’m jealous. I wish I could let this just roll off me and come out the other side unaffected. Please try to have some patience for those who ARE upset, and don’t be dicks about how it’s just a comic. Maybe take a look at yourselves, too. Because if we’re Hydra, then you certainly are too.

And anyone who is harassing, abusing, or threatening any creators involved in this, or doing anything typically moronic and sociopathic (rape threats, badgering on social media, calling people SJWs, etc), knock if right the fuck off. You’re being worse than Hydra, all right? You’re being A.I.M. right now, and no one wants to be those assholes. Be a little better, for the Watcher’s sake.

As for me, I don’t really know what to think about the comic. It’s going to take me a long time to figure out what to do from here–whether I’m going to read it or not. I may never read a Marvel comic again. I’m certainly going to be depressed for a while. (As someone who struggles with chronic depression, I don’t use that term lightly either.)

Time will tell.

Happy reading and writing, all.


Captain Hydra

OMG STEVE WHY. (Credit unknown)


The basics of HydraCap: http://www.dailydot.com/geek/captain-america-comic-steve-rogers-hydra-twist/

Nick Spencer on turning Cap “green”: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/05/25/captain-america-writer-nick-spencer-why-i-turned-steve-rogers-into-a-supervillain.html

Marvel people talk about HydraCap: http://moviepilot.com/posts/3941853

On Whether Hydra are Nazis (spoiler alert: they are): https://shoshanakessock.com/2016/05/29/yes-hydra-were-nazis-and-no-i-will-not-forget-it/

On whether HydraCap is antisemitic: http://panels.net/2016/05/26/on-steve-rogers-1-antisemitism-and-publicity-stunts/

On fan entitlement: http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2016/05/30/fandom-is-broken

On false equivalences (partly a rebuttal of the previous piece): http://bibliodaze.com/2016/05/from-hydra-to-ghostbusters-the-false-equivalences-of-fan-culture/


Why be Inclusive in Games?

I often hear the argument (as came up with the recent rigamarole over the inclusion of a trans character in Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear) that trans characters don’t belong in video games unless there’s a particular *reason* for them. Otherwise it feels “forced” or “breaks the immersion” or “insert excuse here.”

Now, aside from the obvious:

1) Not everything in a video game has to be for you–sometimes it’s for other people, and

2) You’re ok with elves, dwarves, dragons, boob plate, and fireballs, but not trans people? WTF? . . .

There IS a reason to put transgender characters in a game: namely, to be inclusive to trans members of the audience.

And maybe (just maybe!) it’ll teach something to those of us who aren’t trans: specifically, that it’s ok to have trans people in the game.

Not sure you buy it? Here’s an analogy:

Say all the games you had ever played starred lesbian Asian women. * And not just games, but movies, books, TV shows, etc.

All their major supporting characters were also lesbian Asian women.

Occasionally you’d see an Asian man, but mostly only in a minor role and then his stories were often caricatures of what it’s like to be manly. They all pretty much focus on one thing men do, say, play basketball. Pretty much all male characters you see play basketball, and no acts like that’s weird.

Occasionally you see white people too, but again, their stories are very one-note and all about one particular thing white people do–say, listen to Walkmans. Every white person (male or female) has headphones for an outdated music technology around their neck at all times.

You basically never see straight characters, and when you do, they’re always shouting about being straight and generally making fools of themselves.

And what you basically never EVER see is a straight white male. In fact, people in your games and movies are always talking about how gross straight white males are–constantly demeaning them, taunting others by calling them straight white males, and even threatening to murder them for being not lesbian Asian women. And those times a game or film tries to be “edgy” by starring a straight white male character? They cast a lesbian Asian woman in the role.

Meanwhile, the lesbian female Asian characters are varied. Some are super strong and tough, some are super smart and witty, some are malevolent and unpredictable. They have nuance. They have depth. They explore the corners of human nature.

Everyone else? They’re pretty one note. They show that the writers didn’t even try to be sensitive to their cultures, but just went with stereotypes. Because that was easier.

Your characters in Baldur’s Gate? 90% lesbian Asian women, a couple black people (one male, one female) and a gay white dude. No straight white males. Because why would the game include straight white males? They have to be in there for a REASON, right?

Now say a Baldur’s Gate expansion comes along where LO-and-BEHOLD, there’s a straight white dude. He’s not obviously a straight white dude–you only realize he’s straight if you go into his dialogue tree–but he’s there. Living his life. Being who he is.

Finally, a character who looks like you. You, who haven’t had any characters who look like you in a D&D game before, and few anywhere at all.

Haven’t you earned that, at last? You, who’ve been playing these games loyally for years. Wouldn’t it be meaningful to you to see the designers and developers FINALLY try to include you in a meaningful way? To acknowledge you and your way of life–to embrace you as a worthwhile part of the audience?

That’s the reason to include trans characters. Because trans people play the game, and it’s not fair that you and I get to be the vast majority of the heroes and NPCs and villains, and they get no one.

Particularly when we’re talking about the Realms is a big sandbox. It’s big enough for everyone. We can share it.

* Note that I have absolutely nothing against lesbian Asian women. That was just the analogy I picked. It could be orcs, it could be dwarves, whatever.


Roll for Intimacy!

This is a neat little piece about sex and intimacy in RPGs.


My first major D&D character was a female elf rogue, who gladly charmed her way out of situations, though never actually had any sex on-screen in the campaign (to be fair, I started playing her at age 12, and that game went through age about age 15-16). She ended up married to one of the other PCs (a male human fighter/mage), somewhere toward the end of the campaign, and they formed a pretty tight bond going forward (or at least, so it seemed to me). This formed a basis for most of my future characters and storylines, especially my work in the World of Ruin setting and my novel SCOURGE OF THE REALM, which stars a priestess of the goddess of intimacy/love/sex in her world.


Scourge of the Realm (cover art by Emma Rios)

While I have come to understand its role as a core part of my writing aesthetic, when I was young, my interest in playing female characters and establishing/playing around with relationships and sex in RPGs struck me as a bit odd. I was a bit of an awkward kid who never really had any experience with girls until I realized I could befriend them late in high school (that was really cool, btw), and I didn’t have a real girlfriend until my sophomore year of college. (And I’m married to her now.)

In my personal life as a white straight cis-male, I’m about as straight-laced as they come–even *quaint* by today’s standards of relationships and sexual ethics–and I think part of it is that gaming and fiction have given me so much room to explore and experiment in a virtual, safe way.

I think the inclusion of romance, relationships, and sex is not only good and healthy in a game, but often times extremely important. It opens up doors to understanding and shifts of perspective that can be quite powerful when applied to real life.

Caveat: When it’s done well, of course. If sex in your games translates to “f*** the wenches” or involves rape or other dehumanizing shit, you should probably reconsider. 🙂