75 years a hero. 75 years an icon. 75 years an emblem of all that was good and just and noble about America. About the American Dream. About the American people.
75 years a traitor.
This past Wednesday, Marvel Comics revealed in the pages of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 that Captain America has been an undercover agent for Hydra—a terrorist organization hell-bent on world domination with Nazi origins—since his childhood.
And he’s not a clone. He’s not a robot. He’s not an imposter or shapeshifting alien or brainwashed pawn. This is the authentic Steve Rogers. In an interview with Time Magazine, Marvel’s executive editor Tom Brevoort has confirmed that this has been a twist several years in the making. And more importantly, it isn’t a gimmick:
“Every single month whether it’s a run of the mill month for Captain America or an extraordinary month, our job is to put him in situations that place that character under some degree of pressure and see how he reacts to that. And hopefully our readers are surprised, shocked, elated, see something of themselves, learn something about themselves. To say it’s a gimmick implies that it’s done heedlessly just to shock. The proof is always going to be in the execution. So you’ll have to read the rest of the story to see.”
“But I certainly believe it’s not a gimmick. It’s a story that we spent a long time on, that’s compelling and captures the zeitgeist of the world. It will make readers wonder how the heck we’ll get out of this.”
Needless to say, the outcry was swift and overwhelming. Fans flooded forums, flattened social media, and dominated twitter with the hashtag #SayNoToHYDRACap which garnered over a hundred thousand tweets. I can say with no exaggeration that this has been one of the most immediately reviled plot twists in modern comics since Spider-Man’s deal with Mephisto to erase his marriage with Mary Jane Watson in One More Day.
Something about this Captain America twist really hit a nerve with comic fans. And it’s a nerve I think worth exploring.
But first, let’s get something out of the way.
We shouldn’t get upset that Captain America is a Nazi.
I don’t mean that in a callous, nihilistic way. I’m not trying to say that fans shouldn’t get upset or hurt when something tragic or stupid happens to their favorite characters. I’m not saying that the idea of Captain America, a hero explicitly created by two Jewish-American World War Two veterans as a power fantasy against genocidal tyrants like Adolf Hitler, isn’t abhorrent. What I am saying is that there is no way in hell this story is going to stick. Cap might be a Nazi now, but he won’t be one in the long run.
Comic books are cyclical in nature—the almighty status quo reigns supreme. A reader who picks up a Superman comic book should be able to follow along, enjoy it, and instantly recognize the characters regardless of whether it was made in the 30s, 50s, 70s, 90s, or just last week. Spider-Man must always be a down-on-his-luck outsider propelled by his innate goodness to help others. Batman must always be a street level vigilante fighting to protect Gotham City from criminals. Captain America has always fought against fascists, he always will. It’s just that an editorial decision has inexplicably pigeon-holed him on the other side for the time being. But this will pass.
We’ve seen things like this happen before time and again. Characters die and come back to life at the drop of a hat—Jean Grey of the X-Men has died a staggering 20 times! Marvel’s crosstown rivals DC Comics were able to focus a nearly year-long crossover event on a storyline where every one of their characters who had ever died became space zombies! Spoiler: almost all of DC’s major and supporting characters were possessed.
Marvel Comics are also no stranger to seeing their characters switch sides. In 1995 Marvel revealed that Iron Man had been a traitor working for the time-traveling super-villain Kang the Conqueror (it didn’t sit well with fans). After being de-aged in 2011, Loki tried to abandon his villainous ways, even briefly joining the superhero team the Young Avengers. In 2013 Spider-Man was possessed and taken over by Doctor Octopus who, after deleting Peter Parker’s memories and personality, committed himself to heroism.
Oh, and there was also that one time Captain America was a Nazi.
In the pages of Tales of Suspense #66-68, Captain America was captured by his arch-enemy Red Skull, brainwashed, and forced to help the Nazis try and assassinate the Allies high command.
And remember, this was Jack Kirby doing this comic. The same Jack Kirby who invented the character. The same Jack Kirby who fought his way against the Nazis across Europe as a soldier. The same Jack Kirby who created a fictional character whose first appearance has him punching Adolf Hitler in the face.
So what made this particular heel-turn such a contentious issue among fans? Perhaps it’s partly due to the highly decompressed nature of modern cape comics—twists that would have normally lasted for only an issue or two in the days of Jack Kirby can now drag along for over a year. When a character dies or becomes evil, it usually means that fans will have to wait for some considerable time for them to get back to normal. So maybe fans aren’t just upset that Cap’s a Nazi. Maybe they’re also upset that they know that they’ll have to put up with this bullsh!t for quite some time.
Second, Marvel’s timing couldn’t have been worse. I’m not just referring to the fact that the reveal came the same week as #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend went viral. As many people on twitter pointed out this seemed like a callous, even sociopathic response.
Fans: Hi, can you give Cap a boyfriend please Marvel?
Marvel: Woah that’s a bit far…..we’ll make him a nazi though #SayNoToHYDRACap
— Steven (@Kylodameron) May 25, 2016
(This, of course, is preposterous. Marvel’s books are planned out and written months in advance, so this is all just a matter of hilariously awful coincidence.)
But this is more than just a social media flub. This story was a bad decision concerning the current American political zeitgeist. We live in a time when one of the major candidates for the presidency has been gathering support from White Nationalists and White Supremacists, been spouting racially charged nonsense about ethnic and religious minorities, and caused a new wave of hate crimes. Many Americans are legitimately afraid that his rise signals the birth of a new wave of Western fascism—the kind of fascism that Captain America was created to fight.
Captain America has never been more necessary in decades. People need his reassurance that America is still a country, is still an idea worth fighting for. Making Cap the very thing so many Americans are terrified of is the height of bad taste. What would have happened if Iron Man had been revealed as a sleeper agent for Al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11? What if Storm had been shown to have been responsible for Hurricane Katrina? If Black Panther showed up as a member of Boko Harma immediately after the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping? People would have lost their damn minds. And rightfully so.
The third reason came to my attention thanks to my friends on tumblr. Many of them have pointed out that making Cap a Nazi is just the latest in a long line of white-washing Jews and Jewish contributions to the comic book medium. As user nativehueofresolution explained:
And that is the problem, isn’t it? For many fans it feels like Marvel Comics is doing just that—ignoring “it”: ignoring their fans, ignoring their characters, their characters’ histories, what their characters stand for, and the shifting arena of public opinion. As comics continue their march out of niche markets and into pop culture ubiquity, they must become more responsive to demands for greater representation and racial sensitivity. If anything, this debacle can be a learning opportunity for fans and comic book creators alike.