So, if you’re a denizen of the internet and up on the current media trends, you’ve probably seen the recent outrage generated by a move that Marvel Comics took with its May 25th debut of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT
In this issue, written by Nick Spencer, Steve Rogers is revealed to be an agent of HYDRA, the evil organization du jour of the Marvel universe. No one knows anything but that fact, given that it was a splash page reveal at the end of the book.
But that fact is enough to set the internet ablaze. There has been plenty of invective tossed both ways about this reveal, both at Marvel and at those who have been outraged and angry about the reveal.
I’m not going to openly take sides, but I’ll slowly reveal my biases over the course of this, so take from it what you will. I just want those of you out there who maybe don’t have the firmest understanding of comic books as a medium or are curious what the hell this is all about to have some understanding of the discussion taking place.
WAIT. So Captain America is a Nazi now?
Who are you?
I’m the cutesy fake person who is intended to ask leading questions so that the writer can pretend this isn’t just a manifesto, but rather a discussion.
Got it. Carry on.
So, Captain America is a Nazi now?
Well, no…not particularly.
First, let’s clarify some basic characterization. The 1:1 relationship between HYDRA and World War II Nazis comes largely from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s often a good idea for international releases to dance around using Nazi imagery in films that are more fantastic or science fiction-y, so Marvel Studios took the tack of turning HYDRA into the Nazi substitute for Captain America to fight. They’re Diet Nazi, if you will.
In the comics, they’re something much more bizarre. An organization that dates back thousands of years and seeks ultimate power. They’re less Nazi and more generic world-conquering evil with a dose of colorful costumes and strange leaders and various insane schemes. Yes, they’re still associated with the Nazis. Red Skull was a leader. But they’ve moved past that.
In both cases, HYDRA are Nazis pretty much incidentally. They hook onto them as part of their rise to power, never a part of their specific ideology besides the will-to-power, and abandon them once they’re no longer useful. HYDRA is whatever it needs to be to gain power, and is largely divorced in the COMIC BOOK CONTINUITY from Nazism.
Still Cap is evil now. That’s pretty messed up for someone who was so unabashedly good.
Here’s the hardest thing to explain in this whole mess.
Most people are used to what I like to call “Rigid Continuity” narrative media. When you watch an event happen on Breaking Bad, it can be generally assumed that for that episode and for every episode after, that event has happened. Even if they found a way to go back on the event or alter things further, what you saw is something that happened within the narrative and will continue to have an effect on the characters from there on.
Comic books, especially superhero books, are a “Loose Continuity” form of narrative media. There is no guarantee that the events of one issue will matter in the next issue, much less in the next year. Comic books are about constantly returning to stasis and making only gradual changes that don’t affect the overall character. There are major things that are just never referenced again.
Remember, basically every major superhero has died at one point or another and are constantly in various stages of dying, being mourned, or coming back in a five-issue crossover.
This means that no matter what, there’s no guarantee that this arc will have any effect on the character overall. In fact, there’s almost all the guarantee that it won’t. It’s kind of the beauty of the medium, that creators constantly have new ways to explore and understand a character.
Plus, the evil storyline is one of the best ways to really help get to the core of a character. Spider-Man had his body taken over by Doc Ock’s brain for a year, and that is probably the best modern story about what being Spider-Man means.
Okay, fine. But right NOW Captain America is evil, and why is that okay?
Is he evil though?
There’s been one issue and comic books pull crazy shit all the time. We have no idea what this story is and we’re rushing to judge it because we almost never allow storytellers to tell their whole story before we rush into judgement. It’s the same thing that plagues TV criticism, the idea that because we can snap to judgement now, we must. Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. Let it play through them.
Personally, I’m guessing that the whole storyline is going to end up being that Captain America was the first Winter Soldier. They showed his mom being contacted by Hydra in the 20s and it’ll turn out that they programmed him with a prototype version of the program that would eventually create Bucky, and slowly nudged him towards going through the Super Soldier program in the hopes that they would be able to turn him into their greatest weapon. And they finally figured out how to trigger him and he’s going to have to fight his programming like Bucky did and come to grips with who he is as a hero and if it’s who he is or what he does that defines him.
I guess that would be pretty cool.
Thank you, self-validating figment of my imagination.
But wait, so none of this will actually matter. Marvel’s just trying to stir up controversy for attention?!
…yes. Marvel’s not a charity. I don’t know if you’ve looked at comic book sales figures recently, but they’re not exactly shining. Unfortunately, it’s been quite a while since people have talked about comic books without adding movie to the end and talked about Marvel without meaning Marvel Studios. Any attention works, and nothing sells quite like controversy.
It’s a tactic that goes all the way back to the Silver Age. DC has a ton of ape villains because they found out their comics sold better with an ape on the cover. Don’t know why, they just did. True story.
So we’ll boycott them!
That doesn’t really help. Marvel’s controversial and big comics are what help fund the other ones. Besides, if you do, it doesn’t mean other people will stop buying the big and scary books. Marvel has said the reason that they stir up controversy is because it gets more sales than making the fans happy.
The best way to handle this is to get the books from Marvel that you want to support. Show them the storytelling that you like through your dollars. May I recommend the wonderful Black Panther run by Ta-Nehisi Coates?
And that should go in general. I just bought my first comic in 8 years because I wanted to support what DC Comics is doing with DC Rebirth. The best way to change media is through your dollars.
So there’s no reason to be angry?
And this is why I told you to watch out for my bias. Just because I don’t see a reason to be angry doesn’t mean there isn’t one. There are legitimate concerns with making a hero who has become a progressive icon through the Marvel Cinematic Universe into an agent of an organization that has flirted with some of the most evil regimes of our time. And yes, the HYDRA:Nazi association is much closer in the modern mind than it should be and that has some very difficult implications for a character created by Jewish creators.
Though if we’re gonna talk about Judaism and comics, this weekend featured a movie where a Holocaust survivor, granted enhancements by a misanthropic tyrant espousing the will-to-power, uses his abilities to completely destroy Auschwitz. Seriously, I would to love to see someone write about that.
But yes, it’s okay that people are angry. There’s debates to be had about what is appropriate to use in genre storytelling and what rests in the implications of different modes of storytelling. Plus, no matter what’s textual, stories exist in a larger context. What different groups take away from them cannot and should not be denied.
So, don’t think that whatever I say is denying them their right to anger and to speak out. Even if I disagree, I understand and I’m listening.
What does this all come down to?
For the first time in a long time, comics are grappling again with cultural relevancy. That means they’re going to have to enter a wider level of cultural conversation that the medium has been largely having internally for a few years.
And I want to always make sure that that conversation is grounded in an understanding of comics as a medium and how we can understand their storytelling styles and their practices in order to best know what exactly we’re dealing with.
Art and storytelling are challenging. Understand the challenge they present.