On Canon III

captain america hydra nazi nick spencer secret empire red skull on canon jack kirby

Note: Given that, since writing this, a lot more is known about Nick Spencer’s politics, I’d be less inclined to write it exactly as is. 

In something of a bizarre, yet oddly fitting, turn of events, I am now finding myself writing another post about comics, and canon. You can find the original two here; the debate as to the merits of sequels is one for another time, probably.

So, anyway. This one has been prompted by Marvel, rather than DC (though I was tempted to talk about the Rebirth comics, this one is a little more in my wheelhouse), which makes a change after the last two. There will be spoilers here for the new Captain America: Steve Rogers comic, which was published a couple of days ago… but if you’re at all active in comic-y, cult-y circle online, you’ve likely heard about this. (I mean, it was trending on twitter the other day, so it’s clearly reached a fair amount of people.)

At the end of the issue, there’s a shock twist reveal that Steve Rogers – patriot, symbol of hope, the original Captain America – has in fact been an agent of Hydra his entire life, predating his becoming Captain America. It was understandably controversial, for a variety of different reasons. (The panel in question is the one on pictured below, on the right.)

captain america nazi red skull nick spencer jack kirby hydra marvel

Quite apart from how ridiculous his ear looks (I, admittedly, seem to be the only person bothered by this), the most immediately apparent problem is that… well, Captain America is a Nazi. There’s no two ways about that – Hydra is a Nazi group, no matter what Agents of SHIELD says, and there are definitely problems and consequences inherent in depicting Steve as a Hydra member.

(Well, actually, before I go further – do we still take Hydra as being unambiguously a Nazi group? I am, as ever, unfamiliar exactly with the comics, and was under the impression that Hydra had shifted away from that somewhat, but I suppose if you’ve got Steve Rogers, WW2 flashbacks, and Red Skull running around in the background… then, yeah, they’re Nazis.)

The first, and most obvious, point regarding this change is the fact that Steve and Hydra have pretty much always been diametrically opposed to one another. I’ve seen this compared to a story where an 8 year old Bruce Wayne hires Joe Chill to kill his parents; while I’m not wholly convinced that the specifics of that are right, I do think it captures the same sort of absurdity that prompts an immediate and visceral reaction from people.

I mean, this is a character whose origins are framed explicitly in terms of fighting Nazis. He’s always been about freedom, and tolerance, and hope and optimism. (I say always; I mean “always, apart from when he’s not”.) It’s not for nothing that Captain America is described as akin to Marvel’s Superman, because he fits into that same mould – the hero motivated by compassion and idealism, striving for a better world.

So to turn him into a Nazi is… Well, in previous On Canon posts, I struggled to properly define “going against the spirit” of a character, but it is probably fair to say that this is a pretty good example of that.

And yet, I am not feeling quite so… condemning of Nick Spencer and Marvel. At least, not yet.

It does seem quite clear to me that this was probably written with one eye on the headlines. Something like this – particularly in structuring it as a cliffhanger reveal, rather than putting it in the middle with a bit more explanation at the end – does suggest that it’s very much got elements of shock value. And, while that’s arguably a little crass, these things do still have to sell.

I also think it’s worth bearing in mind that this is the first issue of an ongoing story. This is like, say, judging the entire morality of the Doctor in terms of the Time War based only on Rose. To say the least, there’s not exactly a full picture here. There are a lot more details – and presumably a resolution – which is yet to be revealed. (The prevailing theory currently that has emerged is positing that Red Skull is using the cosmic cube to change time. This is as good an explanation as any, really, and could be quite interesting if done well.)

More to the point, though… obviously, it’s entirely possible this could be awful. Disrespectful and offensive, or even just plain bad. But I don’t think we’ve seen anywhere near enough to dismiss it out of hand – Captain America as a Hydra agent is not an idea that is immediately inherently devoid of value.

Today more than ever, I think there’s a value to this story – though Captain America is a symbol of hope and idealism and justice, he’s also inextricably linked to… well, to America, obviously. That puts him in an interesting position in terms of providing commentary on America, and indeed American society. To my mind, there is a real and genuine chance for this story to do something really important; with the rise of certain individuals dominating American politics, now is a particularly apt time to use a popular archetype to deconstruct the manner in which fascism can take root, and the manner in which it co-opts symbols which previously represented something else.

What I’m seeing, I suppose, is this story being a new way for Captain America comics to combat fascism, in the form it takes in the 21st century – much like how Jack Kirby and Stan Lee wrote the character to challenge fascism in the 1930s.

That, quite neatly I suppose, brings me onto the other main complaint which is being levelled at the new Captain America comic – that it’s anti-semitic, and inherently disrespectful to the two Jewish writers who originated the characters, Stan Lee (Stanley Lieber) & Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg).

It’s difficult to unpack this one. That is mostly on account of the fact that I’m not Jewish, and as such my perspective on things is not going to be informed by any first hand experiences of anti-semitism. (Or, indeed, discrimination of any kind.)

The argument thus far has essentially been “a character, created by Jewish writers as a challenge to Nazism, is now a Nazi, and that’s hella messed up”. And obviously on the one hand, yes. On the other hand… well, it gets a little bit death of the author, doesn’t it? How often do we ever hold these characters to the original interpretations as set out by their creators?

Rarely, really. As established in On Canon II, I suppose. Like I said last time, it’s very easy to find a panel from a comic that’ll support any point you want – pictured above is an example of a comic where Captain America is saluting Hitler. It was written/drawn by Jack Kirby. That’s not the only one, of course; there’s an image of Steve with a swastika on his shield rather than a star here.

So, you know, applying Nazi iconography to Captain America is not a new thing per se. Nor is using Captain America to address and combat fascism and racism – it’s something that writer Nick Spencer is apparently deliberately considerate of, building in parallels to modern day white supremacists and Daesh and so on. Ultimately, I am not sure that there is anything here that does really disrespect the legacy of the creators – or at least, nothing immediately evident from a single line, given the potential for it still to be handled in quite a nuanced fashion.

(But! These things don’t exist in a vacuum, and the general trend of whitewashing characters has lead to a lot of Jewish erasure. Even though I am inclined to take the approach of “wait and see” with regards to this specific instance, the general erasure of Jewish identities should still be addressed. This is a really fascinating article I read recently about Superman and Jewish traditions, which I’m linking to… just because it’s interesting, really.)

Anyway, to conclude:

Steve Rogers as a Hydra agent is not necessarily the worst choice in the world. As with every avenue a story explores, there is potential for it to be compelling and worthwhile; it’s ultimately too early to judge just what this story will be like.

And, I mean, it’s not like it won’t all be undone soon anyway.

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