The Captain America Loves Hydra kerfuffle survived a three day holiday weekend filled with barbecues and hotdogs. I was a little surprised, but not entirely, because the whole matter (described here and here) touched all the nerves on an already uneasy populace. The incident ignited an ideological brush fire over identity, diversity in the comics industry, pro privilege, and fan entitlement. Many people argued about whether the latter even exists in the hierarchy we now have.
I myself have many complicated and warring thoughts – so many that I’m going to resort to the last refuge of the confused: bullet points.
• Founder’s Intent. Before we get rolling on this, one thing you need to bear in mind: I am, by nature, inquisitive. I try not to take things at face value, but prefer to follow the trails left behind by pissing contests, money, or even stolen honey if we’re talking about Winnie the Pooh. Thus, one of the first things that set off my “You are jumping to an unfounded conclusion” alarm was when people claimed that a storyline where Captain America appears to be a Hydra agent was an offense against the creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who created the character specifically as a champion against the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism.
I debated this issue with someone in DMs and we both agreed that at the very least Stan Lee, who is also Jewish and was responsible for Cap’s resurrection in the ’60s, would definitely have no such qualms. As the above video from MegaCon shows, we were right on the money there! Stan was asked about the storyline and thought it was clever and could be the basis of a movie!
Now, Kirby and Simon aren’t here to tell their side of the story, and evidence that would indicate their approval or disdain for this storyline is mixed. As I wrote before, Kirby drew (and if you asked him about it, probably wrote) a story where Cap is mind controlled into becoming a Nazi (All the internal story evidence is that 2016 Cap is also being mind controlled with implanted memories, but that doesn’t negate offense at the whole concept.) Unless he drew the story under duress, it’s fair to assume that Kirby did not think that portraying Cap as evil in an 8 page story — the 1964 equivalent of one year of periodical comics — was an affront to the integrity of the character. That’s still only a guess, however. We’ll probably never know the truth.
I reached out to the Kirby family for comment on the matter, but they quite sensibly did not reply. However, Jim Simon, the son of Joe, did Twitter endorse Jessica Plummer’s essay detailing how the Cap-Hydra story offended her and the memory of the Holocaust.
— Jim Simon (@TheSimonStudio) May 26, 2016
Anyway, in regards to that Cap-salutes-Hitler story, it was pointed out by many that Jack Kirby was a WWII veteran who was well aware of the ramifications of the story, and thus was allowed to play with the tropes.
aside from being the co-creator, kirby was a jewish world war 2 vet. he knew what he was playing with better than anyone.
— ts punk (@EmmaHouxbois) May 27, 2016
Chris Evans, the actor who portrays Captain America on screen and has admitted to many anxiety issues, posted his own tweet on the matter that was tabula rasa for projections of whatever you want to think. Some said it was outrage and anger. Others, including Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, said it was just a joke. I’m going to link to the Screen Rant summation of Gunn’s comments because it’s all buried in Facebook comments. Even as an inquisitive person, digging around social media for smoking guns is tiring stuff.
— Chris Evans (@ChrisEvans) May 26, 2016
If anything sums up my attitude to the anti-Semitic aspects of the Cap/Hydra storyline it’s this comment from TCJ’s Tim Hodler:
Finally, this whole Captain America thing has really been a clarifying moment. Could this be the stupidest comics controversy yet? Not that the people complaining don’t have a certain point; it’s true that the new storyline (Captain America is revealed as a secret member of the evil terrorist organization Hydra) trivializes real-world problems such as white supremacists, fascist paramilitary groups, and anti-Semitism. But that criticism holds for any story featuring Hydra, regardless of whether or not Captain American is a secret member. And once you go that far, pretty much every colorfully costumed supervillain trivializes terroristic violence and every superhero is a travesty on vigilante justice and/or the police state. The genre is inherently messed up, politically speaking. So if you’re a fully grown adult morally offended by this latest plot twist, maybe it’s time to give up superhero comics — or at least broaden the critique?
X-Men Apocalypse contains a scene where the Catholic-raised, German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender plays Jewish Holocaust victim Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto and has a fight scene in Auschwitz. The trivialization runs deep.
• A contest to go the lowest. When Gunn commented that:
If you’re a forty-year-old dude claiming a comics company ruined your childhood because of a plot twist, you might consider that your childhood really wasn’t that great to begin with.
he got a tiny bit of blowback, including one comment that suggested that his cat be put into a wood chipper. I’m not going to get into the human vs animal thing that’s going around, but that’s a seriously fucked up idea. However, it was far from the only grossly inappropriate response. Or even the first.
Marvel’s executive editor Tom Brevoort is often a target of fan ire because if you read his ongoing tumblr and interview comments you’ll see that he is, to be charitable, far from the most articulate advocate of progressive ideals. However, as far as I can tell, he is also a fairly what you see is what you get type guy. Given the firestorm of hate about the Cap/Hydra story, Brevoort admitted that perhaps the story was not for everyone, and he recalled earlier responses to controversial stories:
Brevoort: No. Not every story is for every reader. This situation surprises me – and it really shouldn’t because I’ve lived through this sort of thing with Captain America at least twice before. We’re on the anniversary of Civil WarCivil War II #1. This is what it was like when we had Captain America killed at the end of Civil War. It’s just in 2006, the internet wasn’t quite the presence it is now. Even then, while it was a factor, it wasn’t what it is today. But the reactions here, and a lot of the letters I’m getting, could have been written about Cap’s death. You cross out “killed” and you write “Hydra” and it’s the same basic message, the same basic sentiment.
The other more recent one that this is reminiscent of, at least in my eyes, is the brouhaha a couple of years ago when some folks online took umbrage with an issue of Captain America written by Rick Remender that they said showed Sam Wilson – the former Falcon, and current Captain America – sleeping with an underage girl despite the fact that the comic gave her age. And they stirred up a whole hornet’s nest of trouble by misrepresenting the comic, and going to places where people were not familiar with the story and hadn’t read it, and misrepresenting the contents of it. So people would hear about this situation, without knowing the facts, and become outraged. “How dare Marvel publish a comic that’s promoting underage sexual activity?” But I agree with them – Marvel wouldn’t do that – and we didn’t! That was such a raw subject for so many people, they were just so outraged about it, they didn’t want to hear any of the explanation, or any of the facts. They just wanted to tell you how upset it made them.
And once again, as he has been many times before, Brevoort became the target of at least one very specific and disturbing death threat because of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, which he reproduced on Tumblr:
Now a little flashback from me: in 1999 or so I worked at DC Comics. My office was next to that of editor Kevin Dooley, who had just killed off Hal Jordan after turning him evil in a Green Lantern storyline known as Emerald Twilight. I personally never cared for Green Lantern as a character, so I thought Kevin was rightfully tweeking a bunch of fans (mostly male) who took Green Lantern a bit too seriously. The fan outrage of the time, as expressed via written out letters and the primitive, hamster-powered internet of the day, was overwhelming outrage. Both Dooley and writer Ron Marz got death threats. As I started at DC, Kevin was actually on his way to leaving comics entirely (I believe he’s a school teacher now.) I’m sure there were many reasons for this, but I got the impression that the immense hatred for him created by Emerald Twilight storyline didn’t exactly make him want to stick around. The irony, as he told me, was that sales had dramatically improved over the course of the storyline (Just so you know that writers not liking dark storylines isn’t a new thing, there was a huge controversy at the time with writer Gerard Jones leaving the book over the plot.)
A pattern was born.
Now I know what you’re thinking. A cishetwhiteman leaves comics, not exactly cause for mourning. But there’s a larger meta here. I’m not sure when “death threats for unpopular comic book storylines” became a thing, but the proud tradition continued, as Brevoort suggested, with Ed Brubaker’s “Death of Cap” storyline. Brubaker also got death threats over the tea party banner in an issue of Cap. Dan Slott got death threats for doing things to Spider-Man. I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of an ugly trend perpetrated by troubled people.
Of course no ethical, sane person condones death threats. Plummer herself denounced them:
1. Don't send death threats to creators.
2. Don't conflate criticism with jackasses who just want an excuse to send death threats.
— Jess Plummer (@Jess_Plummer) May 26, 2016
Some, however, expressed a certain “so what?” attitude:
Wah Wah Men got death threats on the internet. Also if you think fan input is new than go crack a book. https://t.co/GaR3dLWO6C
— DC Women Kicking Ass (@dcwomenkicknass) May 31, 2016
Now, imagine that Alanna Smith, the female assistant editor on Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, had been the recipient of the death threat that Tom Brevoort received. It’s probably fair to say that we’d see an outpouring of think pieces about the very real fact that the internet and the world are immensely hostile for anyone who is not a cishetwhiteman. I understand the lack of outrage over privileged people being subjected to the same level of abuse many disenfranchised people regularly experience, but given my own history and exposure to the toxic reaches of fandom, I find the phenomenon deeply troubling no matter who the target is.
And that brings us to…
• Fandom is broken…or the only thing that will save us. When I woke up Tuesday morning, I think every male comics pro that I’m friends with on FB had shared Devin Faraci’s think piece suggesting that fandom has gone too far with its sense of entitlement. And here is where the battle really began!
The old fan entitlement has been soldered onto the ‘customer is always right’ mindset that seems to motivate the people who make Yelp so shitty. I’m spending a dollar here, which makes me the lord and master of all, is the reasoning (I don’t even want to speculate about whether or not modern fans spend their dollars on licensed, legal products – that’s an essay for another weary day). It’s what makes people act like assholes to servers, and somehow it’s become the way ever-growing segments of fans are behaving towards creators. It’s been interesting watching so many people bring up Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in the Captain America fracas; one of part of it is that their Jewishness allows angry, petulant fans to throw down a social justice bomb but it also speaks to how modern fans see many modern creators. They’re nobody compared to the ones who invented this stuff. The modern creator is the server, and they should be going back into the kitchen and bringing back a Captain America cooked to their exact specifications, and without any sort of complications or surprises. This is what fans have always wanted, but the idea of being consumers – people who are offering money for services rendered – only reinforces the entitlement.
Faraci’s own spotty history as a troll made it hard to take him too seriously, but his piece touched a nerve in a Marathon Man way (since we’ve been talking about Nazis.) Faraci’s claims were hardly a new idea. In fact, before the Cap thing kicked off, Jesse Hassenger wrote a piece for the AV Club called Ghostbusters, Frozen, and the strange entitlement of fan culture which covers much of the same territory, including female Ghostbusters backlash and the fan led #GiveElsaAGirlfriend movement, the alpha and omega of fannish demands:
Look, we all feel gratified when a movie, book, or TV show gives us what we want in the deepest recesses of our hearts. As a Girls fan who ships Marnie and Ray, believe me, I understand this. This is why artists, especially genre artists, like to tell fans that they’re the lifeblood of the operation—that they’re the reason these movies get made, that these shows stay on the air, that these books keep getting published. This kind of PR line is its own, almost insultingly direct form of fan service. Moreover, it also provides a kind of false empowerment, which in turn can lead to a very real sense of entitlement. James Rolfe didn’t see the 2016 Ghostbusters and share his opinion about how it works (or doesn’t work) as a film, or even as a remake. Instead, he thinks it’s reportable news that he doesn’t want to see it, because it presumably shocked his system a little to realize that maybe this movie wasn’t being produced with his particular wants and needs in mind.
Now we begin to get to what I see as the ideological fallacy that seems to have sparked all out war between creators and consumers. A significant and vocal segment of modern comics fandom is 100% invested in the idea that the US comics industry should produce stories that reflect the real world, where not every one is a cishetwhiteman. This is a laudable and necessary goal– an unstoppable movement that every comics publisher needs to take seriously. Advocates of this viewpoint quite rightly pointed out that equating death threats with calls for a gay Elsa is a false equivalence. But so is conflating discussions about suppressing the disenfranchised with discussions about fan entitlement, as they are not the same thing either. It is possible to examine the limits of fan entitlement without silencing much needed voices of representation.
“Fan entitlement” is a concept that goes back to the oldest, mostly privileged male roots of Science Fiction and Comics fandom. It has been discussed as a guy thing long before guys even admitted that women were part of fandom. The male pros who related to Faraci’s essay were responding to this long running phenomenon and not to Elsa’s sexuality or “coffee shop fanfiction.” The fact that Faraci muddied the waters with these examples make it harder to unpack, but there are many discussions of entitlement – an exaggerated expression of ownership of corporate culture by fans of any gender who insist that the creative act exists only to service their fandom – long before pop culture went co-ed. Here’s Neil Gaiman’s classic “Entitlement Issues” from 2009 on fans who were mad that George R. R. Martin did not spend his every waking hour chained to a typewriter.:
2) Yes, it’s unrealistic of you to think George is “letting you down”.
Look, this may not be palatable, Gareth, and I keep trying to come up with a better way to put it, but the simplicity of things, at least from my perspective is this:
George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.
This is a useful thing to know, perhaps a useful thing to point out when you find yourself thinking that possibly George is, indeed, your bitch, and should be out there typing what you want to read right now.
People are not machines. Writers and artists aren’t machines.
You’re complaining about George doing other things than writing the books you want to read as if your buying the first book in the series was a contract with him: that you would pay over your ten dollars, and George for his part would spend every waking hour until the series was done, writing the rest of the books for you.
No such contract existed. You were paying your ten dollars for the book you were reading, and I assume that you enjoyed it because you want to know what happens next.
Bruce Campbell made a documentary called Fanalysis in 2002. Harlan Ellison wrote something called Xenogenesis about rude fans in 1990 (Ellison being Ellison, that piece created a lot of controversy similar to the one we’re seeing now.) Here’s a whole paper on fan entitlement.
I’m sure some people are rolling their eyes now because nothing defines privilege like Neil Gaiman, Bruce Campbell and Harlan Ellison. However the idea of what creators owe their fans is an ongoing issue that has been heated up to the approximate temperature of the heart of the sun by the real and imagined intimacy of social media. Over the last few days I’ve seen a lot of hostile Twitter behavior by fans and pros alike. There has been very little middle ground, or even civility. The discussion makes talking about gun control seem relaxing.
I understand why many comics readers want more representation in comics to create a more humane industry, but I’ve also seen some who seemed willfully dismissive of the idea that a male comics pro can have legitimate feelings of anxiety. Being told that you should not be upset about something that is upsetting is not a good vehicle for pointing out privilege. Your friends and peers just got death threats; this could be a rattling experience. The notion that no one should be told how to feel is, ideally, a two-way street. Even male comics pros have reasons to be insecure. On the overall scale of cishetwhiteman, comic book professionals are mid-ladder at best. They’re underpaid, overworked and toil in an industry where basic creative rights are constantly in retreat. Also, to be blunt, many of them suffer from depression and other mental issues on the spectrum. Do they deserve a cookie? No. Empathy? Maybe once in a while.
I understand that motivated fans are tired of being told they must listen to more privileged people. But is there no common ground here?
One of the traditionally attractive thing about comics is that the line between professionals and fans is so often blurred. You can go up and meet the greatest creators of all times many times a year, separated by only a narrow wooden table. Because comics creators are so accessible, they don’t seem much removed from their readers. I’m sure Chris Evans has lots of crazy fans and gets all kinds of weird threats. His character is also the subject of fanfic that depicts him in explicit sexual situations that he never consented to. No one ever questions that because he’s paid millions of dollars to look amazing and fuel those fantasies. He’s probably got a pretty good life, aside from when he has issues of anxiety. When he mentions those issues, he’s praised as a role model for being honest. However, whoever the real Chris Evans is is none of our business, really.
For better or worse, comics creators are not insulated from fandom in that way. We live in an industry where direct interaction with your fan base is seen as an utter necessity for having a successful career. THAT is why pros confront issues of fan entitlement more directly and take it more seriously, and to not even consider reflecting on this phenomenon is a form of entitlement in itself.
• The mop-up. OKAY I’m running out of steam here. There were several very thoughtful responses to Faraci’s piece that refuted his false equivalencies while acknowledging some of the dark side of fandom. At the Daily Dot, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw wrote that Geek culture isn’t ‘broken,’ but it does have a harassment problem.
Fans and creators are still negotiating their boundaries online .
Fan entitlement, or something like it, can be hurtful—especially for creators who work on beloved franchises like Doctor Who or Star Wars, where fans feel a strong sense of ownership of long-running characters. But fan entitlement is an attitude problem, brought on by a lack of thoughtfulness and empathy. It’s not an umbrella term for every fandom reaction, from death threats to hashtag activism.
With social media increasing consumers’ access to producers, fans and creators are still negotiating their boundaries online. Sometimes, a handful of fans will wildly overreact to a creative decision and behave like immature dicks. Sometimes, a creator will misinterpret a piece of constructive criticism as a personal attack and freak out. Occasionally, a hashtag campaign like #OscarsSoWhite or The 100’s lesbian death backlash will start a productive conversation that might inspire real, positive change.
Women Write About Comics’ Megan Purdy responded with This Song Was Written By a Committee: What Devin Faraci Gets Wrong About Audience, Ownership and Power that gave more context to the power dynamics at play.
Social media is democratizing in that it amplifies the possibilities of disruptive speech. But it does not give material power to those who previously had none and it does not, by function, dissolve traditional power structures. Social media amplifies, it does not imbue.
Circling back to fandom: social media does not give over the means of production to fans; rather, it makes fans harder to ignore. GamerGate used social media to harass women. Frozen fans used social media to advocate for queer representation in children’s media. This is not a case of “both sides” using one neutral tool, or even a case of “two sides of the same coin.” #GiveElsaAGirlfriend is not the opposite of GamerGate; it’s not the good fans to GamerGate’s bad. The difference is not manners, it is power and violence.
When #GiveElsaAGirlfriend trended on Twitter, that was democratic disruption. The campaign shone a light on the lack of representation and toxic misrepresentation of queer people in children’s media, and it suggested a path forward. When GamerGate trended it was a terrifying reflection of what marginalized people have always seen in the internet: that we are not safe. That harassers and abusers too easily find support from the “reasonable.” That standing up for ourselves too often means painting a target on our backs.
Looking at Twitter over the last few days, one might come to the conclusion that NO ONE is “safe” on the internet, whatever that means. For someone, like me, who was raised on an egalitarian “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” model, the importance of power dynamics can be hard to parse. Two wrongs don’t make a right…but maybe they do? If a privileged person said something shitty once, is it okay to be shitty to them forever after? I don’t know where I stand on that. Our heroic fiction is based on trials and redemption, so it’s hard not to apply that narrative to real life, too.
Some folks out there are noticing that the pain on all sides has overflowed the banks of the original affront, as these tweets from Femmes in the Fridge’s El Anderson demonstrate:
Oh bless, this just keeps getting worse for comics twitter, doesn't it? Okay:
— Femmes in the Fridge (@FemmesinFridges) June 1, 2016
If you click through you’ll see the entire conversation, and it’s a clear call for a cease fire.
A pretty good introduction to the development of intersectional thinking can be found in the New Yorker’s THE BIG UNEASY which looks at activism at Oberlin College. It’s hard for many well meaning people to understand that the goal of today’s social change is not “giving access” to the system, but establishing a whole new system.
It is sometimes said that the new activists are naïve about the demands of the real world. But as I talked with Eosphoros and Bautista and other students I began to wonder whether they were noticing an ideological incongruity some older people weren’t. A school like Oberlin, which prides itself on being the first to have regularly admitted women and black students, explicitly values diversity. But it’s also supposed to lift students out of their circumstances, diminishing difference. Under a previous ideal, one that drew on terms such as “affirmative action,” students like Eosphoros and Bautista would have been made to feel lucky just to be in school. Today, they are told that they belong there, but they also must take on an extracurricular responsibility: doing the work of diversity. They move their lives to rural Ohio and perform their identities, whatever that might mean. They bear out the school’s vision. In exchange, they’re groomed for old-school entry into the liberal upper middle class. An irony surrounds the whole endeavor, and a lot of students seemed to see it.
All of these ongoing conflicts in comics are part of the larger cultural ideological shift we’re undergoing. I think they’re amplified in comics by the looser boundaries of class, and some will find Purdy’s vision of an ongoing struggle of power dynamics so scary that they run away from it completely, thereby upholding the power dynamic of people who can run away and people who are stuck in a place without privilege forever. Anyone who is sick of listening to all of this is in for a looooooong slog. It ain’t going away, people. Even the concept of being nice is under review.
But maybe we can lower the flame a bit. A lot of mistakes have been made on all sides in the last few days. Some of them willful, some of them honest misunderstandings. A lot of them have been triggered blurts that a more mature outlook might have avoided. Just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should, and that’s a lifehack everyone should at least consider as we navigate the stormy seas of change.
AND FINALLY: since this all started with concerns over anti-Semitism, perhaps some would be interested in exploring the Jewish roots of the US comics industry. Several books have been written about this, if you want to learn more.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.