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.
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:
THERE IS NO CONCEIVABLE EXCUSE FOR THREATENING OR ABUSING THE CREATORS OF THIS . . . OR ANYONE ELSE, FOR THAT MATTER.
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.
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?
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.
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/