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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On Canon II

the flash jay garrick teddy sears henry allen john wesley shipp season 2 zoom hunter zolomon mark waid canon pissing on a legacy greg berlanti

So, we’ll consider this to be something of a sequel to my previous post On Canon, because I’ve been having some more thoughts about it. This time, though, rather than Arrow and Marc Guggenheim, it’s Mark Waid and The Flash.

There’s spoilers, incidentally, for The Flash past… episode 18, I think it is? There’s discussion of the identity of Zoom, in any case, so if you’re not caught up and you’d like to preserve the surprise, this is your opportunity to jump ship.

Mark Waid, if you’ve not heard of him, is a comics writer. Predominantly, he’s known for having written for the Flash, and also Superman; certainly that’s where I know him from, anyway. A quick glance at his Wikipedia page reveals that he’s also spent some time doing Captain America for Marvel, and also apparently did Kingdom Come, which is quite a well respected comic story.

I haven’t ever actually read any of his work; that is worth stating upfront, I think. As will become apparent, as much as I like comic characters and their stories, I’ve read very few comics. But, even so, Mark Waid is a big enough “name”, as it were, that I’ve still heard of him and know good things about him.

But he recently tweeted these, and I have had some thoughts.

mark waid twitter the flash jay garrick man in the iron mask pissing on a legacy greg berlanti

Probably there is a lot to be said about why a creative individual considers things like this to be “pissing on legacy”; surely he knows that stories grow and develop and as part of this change over time? Similarly, I take issue with the idea that someone is “actively punished for being a fan” if a comic story isn’t adapted to the letter.

But I don’t want this post to be a criticism of Mark Waid; frankly, that’s unfair. He apologised to Greg Berlanti about an hour afterwards, so that’s that, and I think more important is the fact that he likes just doesn’t want or need some random blogger on the internet harassing him and trying to provide some psychological profile.

I do want to talk about the idea he’s put forward, though, which is somewhat linked to the idea of the spirit of the source material that I mentioned in the previous On Canon post.

This is, I think, actually quite a complicated issue, largely because different characters mean different things to different people – all interpretations are valid, right? It’s difficult to put a pin in something as nebulous as the “spirit” of a character, because you’re not really going to get one single cohesive vision of this. Sure, the author will have one idea, and sure, there might be a majority view… but that doesn’t mean it’s the view that everyone shares.

For example! Man of Steel, as well as Batman vs Superman, and indeed the DCEU as a whole, is presenting their timeless and well loved characters through a “gritty” and “dark” veneer, one which is proving to be quite controversial. Personally, I hate it; I hate the fact that Zack Snyder has rejected the idea that Superman can be a symbol of hope, or a character motivated by compassion. I wrote about it at length here, actually, in what I think is one of my better pieces of writing. There are plenty of other people who have spoken out against it – the aforementioned Mr Mark Waid wasn’t a fan of Man of Steel at the time, and there are plenty of people who are decrying the fact that Batman killed people in Dawn of Justice when he really, really (probably maybe) shouldn’t actually ever do that.

But, of course, as soon as the detractors spring up, the counter detractors (attractors?) rise up in full force as well. And that’s where it gets difficult, really. Because these characters are nearly 70 years old, and they’ve been through so many different iterations, that it is actually not very difficult for people to pull out a variety of different comic panels wherein Batman has, in fact, shot someone.

Don’t get me wrong, I do this too, though somewhat in reverse. Whenever I’m arguing about the possibility of a gay Spider-Man or whatever, and someone tells me that’s not “in the spirit of the stories”, my favourite thing to do is pull out a list of things Spider-Man has done that don’t fit the spirit of the character.

You’ve got Spider-Man eating someone’s face. You’ve got Peter Parker revealed to actually have been a clone, except maybe not. You’ve got Peter Parker fighting mystical omnipotent travellers, rather than petty crooks and mad scientists. There’s Peter Parker backhanding MJ.

And, you know, those are just the weird ones; I pull those out because of how absurd they are, and how well they highlight what I’m getting at. Even the sort of thing that people now accept to be a fairly standard part of the Spider-Man mythos, like Venom, would at one point have been unthinkable. It wasn’t even Uncle Ben who said “with great power comes great responsibility” in the first place, you know?

But then, does it break the spirit of the thing? If we stick with Spider-Man for a moment, consider the implications of “with great power comes great responsibility”: Spidey has always been a pretty normal guy, who ended up with superpowers through a freak accident, and because of that he has a responsibility to do the right thing. To be a hero.

Does that not then mean the Andrew Garfield movies, which have a pretty substantial role for Peter’s parents, and posit that he was genetically modified as a young child to allow him to gain powers, breaks the spirit of Spider-Man? That’s not a normal guy rising to meet his responsibilities, but someone confronting their destiny. It’s a fundamentally different story.

Likely you can make similar arguments about the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi movies to some extent, though; with their slavish devotion to the early Lee/Ditko stories, there’s plenty that they don’t pay heed to. They are, after all, just one interpretation of a character.

This is true of any character that has existed for this long. It’s not just a matter of creator (with Stan Lee’s Daredevil and Frank Miller’s Daredevil being pretty different), of course, but also of time; the Adam West Batman is rather distinct from Alan Moore’s iteration, after all.

So what is consistent? What can you consider your throughline here? What is the spirit of these characters?

I have literally no idea, to be honest. That’s quite a copout answer, isn’t it? But yeah, I have literally no idea. There is likely an idea literary study to be done here; what remains consistent about these characters across time, and what doesn’t? Does it even matter?

How can you respect the spirit when there isn’t really any one, single, coherent spirit to respect? We’ll go back to Jay Garrick, since that’s where this all started. He’s a decent example, really. Does the existence of Barry Allen piss on the legacy of Jay Garrick? Barry was a replacement Flash, after all.

Does the existence of the speedforce, and the idea it comes from Barry, piss on the legacy of Jay Garrick? Some depictions of Jay Garrick posit he’s from Earth-2. Others suggest he’s from Earth-1, but in the 40s, so he’s a true golden age hero. Who’s pissing on who here? The one that came first? The one that was commonly accepted for longer? Where’s the piss, guys?

(Lex Luthor probably knows. But only the Eisenberg version, Spacey and Hackman and Rosenbaum have nothing to do with that.)

At this point, it’s easy to just say you have to ignore all of that, and just tell good stories.

That’s the conclusion I reached with the former Arrow post, after all. Fridging Black Canary, regardless of the comics, was an utterly terrible choice; it was banal writing in the truest sense of the word, and continues a worrying trend of Arrow doing a disservice to its female characters. To decry that because of the comics is to miss the point – this isn’t bad because it doesn’t follow the letter of the source material, it’s bad because it’s lazy and even offensive writing.

But that’s an easy conclusion to make. It’s ignoring the subtleties and nuances of all this. I mean, I thought Batman vs Superman was awful, and although it wasn’t my sole problem, the fact that it wasn’t true to the spirit of the characters was indeed part of my complaint. So clearly on some level I think this is a valid criticism.

Similarly, it’d be easy to dismiss it as good stories/bad stories, but even then, that’s not quite right. I mean, the current Jay Garrick/Hunter Zolomon arc on The Flash isn’t really doing anything for me – not because I think it disrespects the legacy of the comics, but because I just think it’s kinda crap. There are a large number of people who disagree with me, and love it!

By the same measure, one of my… more unique opinions, I guess, is the fact that I actually quite liked the most recent Fantastic Four movie. I thought the body horror angle was an awesome idea… but I’ll freely acknowledge that it isn’t really in the “spirit” of the original characters. (Or isn’t it? Certainly it’s not the traditional view, but equally, I don’t know that much was ever made of the experience of getting their powers in the originals, so is there room for the body horror, as well as the fun and the humour of the originals? Perhaps.)

So again, we’re getting back to a place where I don’t really have any useful concluding points to make, and this whole post has gotten far too long for anyone to actually read it.

Let us say this, then.

When telling a story, the utmost aim is to tell a good story. When telling a story based on an archetype, it is worth considering what has made the original so enduring – be it a nebulously defined “spirit”, or a truly innovative concept, you should at least attempt to understand what makes something so good in the first place.

From there, feel free to remix or invert that which is in front of you; add to it, take things away, or shift focus. But be certain that your vision is one worth presenting; be certain you’re telling a good story. Consider whether you need this archetype to tell your story – are you better off approaching this from a different angle entirely, with your own original creations?

After that…

… well, after that, there’s no accounting for taste.

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On Canon

arrow black canary laurel lance katie cassidy caity lotz superhero fight club cw canon killed marc guggenheim felicity smoak dinah drake juliana harkavy cw arrowverse

Just something I’ve been thinking about recently, what with the whole Arrow fiasco; for those of who aren’t in the know, the show has recently departed fairly significantly from comics canon, and then earlier today Marc Guggenheim tweeted an article about how we should all just forget about canon. As with most things Arrow related these days, people are angry, as ever.

So anyway, it’s kinda got me thinking about canon.

Part of me loves canon, and always will. I genuinely find it fun – the mental arithmetic of trying to keep everything in track, squaring away any inconsistencies, resolving plot holes – all of that is the sort of thing my nebbish fan side gets a great deal of enjoyment from.

(Incidentally, one of my favourite attempts to make everything canon is the idea that the Peter Cushing Doctor, who’s a human inventor literally named Dr. Who, came from Pete’s World, which was the parallel universe where the New Who Cybermen came from.)

But I’ll freely acknowledge that is as restrictive as hell; to adhere to canon is to impose an extreme number of limitations upon a story. It’d be awful if Doctor Who threw out a great idea for a story, because it would contradict one line from the 80s. That’s just not worth it.

So, really I tend to just dismiss it entirely. They’re all stories, in the end – just make it a good one! Yes, it’s fun to try and match it up, but that doesn’t make it anywhere near a priority. Typically, my approach to canon is well articulated here, in this particular article; it sums up quite well how we all need to just relax and focus on more important things, and certainly shouldn’t be focused on limits and constraints and suchlike.

But! That’s Doctor Who canon, which is one thing. The issue with Arrow is that of comics canon, and that’s… something else entirely.

Arrow is functioning as an adaptation of another story, the same way the Harry Potter movies were adaptations of books and suchlike. There’s a source material here, and people are angry at the manner in which it’s been diverted from.

And I dismiss those concerns! I dismiss them entirely. Arrow doesn’t need to be a slavish adaptation of the comics; it never has been. The Flash isn’t a slavish adaptation of the comics; it never has been. Very, very few of the mainstream superhero movies adapt single comic storylines – the upcoming Civil War movie, which I’m really looking forward to, is very clearly taking the Civil War comic as an inspiration and a starting point, rather than the be all and end all of the movie.

I’ve written before about the benefits of adapting source material, rather than translating it straight to the screen; the comics act as an inspiration, and something to build from, rather than being the purest form of the story than we have to adhere to. (Though it is worth noting that the question of the spirit of the source material is something entirely different, and presents some unique concerns of its own.)

To make the complaint that something isn’t respecting the canon is… often missing the point, I feel. It obscures the real issues, and makes it very easy to dismiss complaints.

There isn’t a problem, in theory, with killing the Black Canary. There is a problem with Arrow fridging a female character, again, and that needs to be the focus of our ire.

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