(and Steve Rogers: Captain America #16)
Put briefly, this is a very well done story that suffers from bewildering tone-deafness. It’s the start to an event that, if it didn’t repel people with the implications of its events and the treatment of the cultural icons involved, would likely have readers excited for whatever happens next. But, because this is a Captain America story, and because Captain America was created by two Jewish men during the Third Reich, and because – no matter how much Spencer tries to distance the two – HYDRA is a Nazi analogue; this story becomes unpalatable despite any narrative integrity.
Almost a year ago now, I defended Nick Spencer when issue #1 of his current Captain America series caused quite the internet shitstorm, and I do still believe that there is a version of the Captain America was a HYDRA agent all along story that works. In many ways, Secret Empire is that story. And the biggest problems I’m having with the story as is isn’t that it’s too politically infused, but rather, that it shies away from the sort of political associations that would help the story construct a way for readers to engage with it as commentary rather than just endorsement.
It’s difficult to try to untangle just one knot of what went wrong because they’re all tied together, but let’s try to start with distancing HYDRA from the Nazis. This is a dumb thing to attempt for many reasons, like the fact that the members of HYDRA go around shouting “hail HYRDA” while throwing their arm in the air, they were most famously led by the Red Skull – a white supremacist bent on world domination, and that they allied themselves with Hitler’s German forces during World War II. And, were you to remove all of that, it would completely erase HYDRA’s identity. The reason that HYDRA is the most well-known of Captain America’s enemies is because they are against all the ideals that America – the idea of the country – proclaims to uphold. They work like an infestation, trying to reveal the heroes’ weaknesses and hypocrisies in order to convince them that their ideals are worthless. They believe not just in domination of their enemies, but that their rule is the right and natural order of things – that American ideals like self-determination and equality – represent weakness and a straying from that order. Their goal is inherently and intentionally reminiscent of that of the Third Reich; and those analogies are a big part of what makes HYDRA effective as villains. And if Spencer were successful in completely denazifying HYRDA, what would that leave us? What does HYDRA believe in if it doesn’t believe in their natural birthright to rule through purity of strength? What then, does a HYDRA Captain America fight for?
Which brings us to making Captain America an agent of HYDRA. I still believe this could have been done effectively, but again, wasn’t in this case. First, yes, there is a humungous hurdle of taking a character created by two Jewish men to oppose Nazis and turning him into a Nazi. And I can see how Spencer hoped to lower that hurdle by trying to distance HYDRA from the Nazis. But, in my opinion, it would have been better to try and go the other direction, so to speak: reinforce Steve Rogers as the American ideal, and then use that to tell a story about America’s relationship to the Nazis.
What might be most important about Captain America’s creation was that he was created at a time before America joined World War II. By having their creation punch Hitler on the cover of their first issue, they were protesting American apathy towards the Nazis by proclaiming that America should be anti-Nazi before this was a particularly popular idea. Adding to this act of protest is America’s own history of eugenics, “science”-based and enabled racism, and white supremacy that influenced Nazi scientists and thought leaders. Many of the ideas that were acted on by Nazi Germany started in the heads of American thinkers. In many ways, Nazi ideals were American ideals, and Simon and Kirby wrote their character explicitly to say that was not how things should be in this country.
If Spencer had fully acknowledged this, then him making Steve Rogers – the blond-haired, blue-eyed paragon of America’s virtue – secretly have been an agent of Nazi ideals, would have been an interesting commentary on America’s once and continued hypocrisy regarding Nazi ideology. This would have been even more poignant in the shadow of the alt-right movement, the backlash towards Black Lives Matter, battles over immigration and prisoners’ rights, and other current events. Even before Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States, using Steve Roger’s turn to darkness as a way to express that “America was never great” would have been an incredibly strong thing to do with the character – especially as he had Sam Wilson present a modern alternative idea of what America could be.
Instead, Spencer decided to try his best to erase any politics from what should have been an overtly political story, and in doing so, ruined any chance of having Steve’s turn into a fascist mean anything more than a stunt. A symbol of America suddenly embracing fascism doesn’t represent a failing of society’s tolerance of bigotry and the elimination of freedoms for safety. The protest creation of two Jewish men isn’t being used to reflect upon how America at the time did popularly feel about the Nazis as a way to reveal our past hypocrisies in order to prevent further mistakes. Rather, it’s just a superhero turning bad for however long this story will last.
And that’s why I’m really upset with how this has all turned out; not because Spencer has tipped over any number of sacred cows, but because he did so without having the wherewithal to prop up something else instead. He aimed to divorce his story from any real-world meaning, and so made of mess of things just to shake things up.
And then some of the plot details of these two issues create even more unfortunate implications. The set-up for a lot of this story comes from the reveal that, in the Marvel Universe, the allied powers lost World War II, but used the cosmic cube to change history so that they win it instead. This means that with the power to create a better history, the allies decided that the war – including the Holocaust – still should have happened. Given the chance to “fix” that history, the ostensible “good guys” still allowed for the genocide of over eleven million people, including six million Jews.
Frankly, as a Jew myself, that’s what most upsets me about this story. Not so much that Spencer perverted the creation of two Jewish sons of immigrants; but that he would use that character to tell a story where America, the same country those two men created this character to embody the best virtues of, would choose to let the Holocaust happen.
But the worst part about all of this is, despite all of that – there is an amazing plot buried underneath everything. This is a story a year in the making about the world’s superpowers being slowly and surgically handicapped from the inside so that when the evil mastermind finally revealed himself, everyone else was stretched too thin to fight back. A large part of enjoying this comic does come from watching that years’ worth of dominoes fall perfectly into place, and then asking how anyone could possibly put them back. It’s a story that clearly warns about the risks of the consolidation of power, and of the people who would tell you that they alone can protect you from a world they promise is scarier than you know, and shows the type of harm those people are capable of. And as the opening issues of a serialized story, they do a great job of setting huge stakes and presenting interesting conflicts and problems for the heroes to solve. But by actively refusing to acknowledge its real-world antecedents, the whole thing shoots itself in the foot, and transforms itself from an event into a stunt.
The rest of this week’s comic reviews will be posted as their own article. I just figured some 1000 words into this review, that it was big enough to stand alone.