Hate and outrage have defeated love and optimism yet again.
On Monday it was suggested that Marvel had a story trick up their sleeve that would steal the spotlight from DC’s ramming-speed publicity blitz for its revamped universe and Rebirth #1.
A shocking!!! plot twist in Captain America Steve Rogers #1 that revealed Steve was really a Hydra agent all along seemed unlikely to unseat a wholesale rewriting of ten years of DC history, along with a shocking Alan Moore related plot twist.
But, today we have a genuine tweet storm and think piece blitz, all wrapped in a bow. The Geoff Johns-inspired return to hope, optimism and love has been blown away by the winds of antisemitism, insensitivity, destroying the legacy of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and every other sin modern comics can commit. The Marvel offices have been inundated with complaints including at least one (pretty vague) death threat, and other outraged reactions, as this tweet from assistant editor Alanna Smith reveals:
You know you have the moral high ground when you send holocaust pictures to people who edited a comic you don't like
— Alanna Smith (@AlannaWrites) May 26, 2016
As a long time comics reader, of course the idea of a shocking!!!twist in a comic is so old hat that I can’t even waste the energy for a thumbs up or thumbs down on it. But it is always someones first rodeo, even when it isn’t. While most readers seem to know that comics storys are transitive things (and Steve Rogers has worked for Hydra before!) but the outcry this time surrounds the publicity blitz, which was designed to make people buy the comics, as Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort states more than once.
Among the many stated objections to the story is that it shits on the real feelings behind the creation of Captain America, the product, like most early comics, of Jewish creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Writer Nick Spencer, who, at least you gotta give it to him that he’s no dummy, is well aware of this history but the Hydra of today is “torn from the headlines” of reality with a slant more towards the terrorism and intolerance of current political groups as this Time magazine interview with Brevoort makes clear
Q: In the comic the Red Skull of Hydra talks about “criminal trespassers” who “make a mockery” of America’s borders and calls the refugees in Germany an “invading army” bringing “fanatical beliefs and crime” to Europe. Obviously, this hate speech is nothing new for the organization, but it sounds like rhetoric we’ve been hearing this election. Is that purposeful?
A: We try to write comics in 2016 that are about the world and the zeitgeist of 2016, particularly in Captain America. Nick Spencer, the writer, is very politically active. He’s a Capitol Hill head and following this election very closely. So we can talk about political issues in a metaphoric way. That’s what gives our stories weight and meat to them. Any parallels you have seen to situations real or imagined, living or dead, is probably intentional but metaphorically not literally. What are we supposed to think about the fact that someone literally named Captain America now supports these beliefs? Again, I don’t want to say anything too definitively because we’re laying out the story. But we want to push that button. There should be a feeling of horror or unsettledness at the idea that somebody like this can secretly be part of this organization. There are perfectly normal people in the world who you would interact with on a professional level or personal level, and they seem like the salt of the earth but then it turns out they have some horrible secret — whether it’s that they don’t like a certain group of people or have bodies buried in their basement.
This issue also introduces us to a new generation of Hydra fighters, who resemble ISIS and white supremacist organizations. What were your influences there?
SPENCER: That’s exactly right. Those are the two things that are being conflated here to some extent. The Red Skull obviously has a lot of experience with fascism and Nazism and white supremacy movements. What we’re seeing here is an adoption of modern-day terror tactics. For me, those were an interesting couple of components to put together. What we see throughout the world right now is that these kinds of movements are heavily resurgent and seeing record-breaking recruitment numbers. So some of this is trying to be a little forward-thinking in picturing what the world might look like if these kinds of organizations decide to adopt these kinds of tactics.
What kind of relationship will Cap have with this new generation of Hydra?
SPENCER: It’s a big part of our story, what Steve’s beliefs are about what Hydra should be, where it should go, what it should focus on. To me, I always get really fascinated by this kind of thing. Any World War II history buff can talk your ear off about the internal power struggles of the Nazi Party. There were some fun parallels to play with here. There’s also a little bit of The Man in the High Castle here. It’s a difficult challenge to get people invested in Hydra characters because their ideology is so repugnant, but what The Man in the High Castle did so well was get you to pull for the lesser of the evils. You might be seeing some similar things here.
Both these interviews seem to have ignited more outrage than the story itself. At Panels, Jessica Plummer draws the line straight to outright antisemitism: On Steve Rogers #1, Antisemitism, and Publicity Stunts:
But Nazis (yes, yes, I know 616 Hydra doesn’t have the same 1:1 relationship with Nazism that MCU Hydra does) are not a wacky pretend bad guy, something I think geek media and pop culture too often forgets. They were a very real threat that existed in living memory. They are the reason I can’t go back to the villages my great-grandparents are from, because those communities were murdered. They are the reason I find my family name on Holocaust memorials. They are the perpetrators of unspeakable, uncountable, very real atrocities.
It’s easy, especially if you’re not Jewish, to think that anti-semitism is a thing of the past. It’s not. It flies under the radar, mostly, until suddenly it doesn’t: with graffiti in Spain, hateful party games in American high schools, vicious threats being flung at Jewish journalists for criticizing Trump. With physical attacks—with deaths—in France. Nor is neo-Nazi rhetoric, which hews closer to 616 Hydra’s shtick, a goofy make-believe thing. Not when the Republican presidential nominee spouts fascist ideology that echoes Hitler’s rise to power and spurs a literal rise in hate crimes against Muslims.
But writer Nick Spencer and editor Tom Brevoort are more concerned with making this “something new and unexpected”; with having “fun” and getting readers “invested in Hydra characters.” Because what’s more fun than downplaying genocide?
I’m not going to pretend to be cool here. I’m emotional. This is emotional. Captain America isn’t even my usual guy to get incandescently angry over the erasure of his coded Jewish history— that’s Kal-El, the Moses of Krypton—but reading this comic made me feel sick to my stomach. Reading the flippant responses of many non-Jewish readers—including friends—has brought me to tears. Somehow a community that gets up in arms about whether or not Batman has a yellow circle behind his logo seems to think that being angry about this is stupid, or indicative of a lack of experience with comics.
Another Jewish comics commentator, Brett Schenker, looks at the history of the character and finds the current storyline offensive to the origin of Cap:
And Simon and Kirby—born Hymie Simon and Jacob Kurtzberg—were not making it lightly. Like most of the biggest names in the Golden Age of comics, they were Jewish. They had family and friends back in Europe who were losing their homes, their freedom, and eventually their lives to the Holocaust. The creation of Captain America was deeply personal and deeply political.
Ever since, Steve Rogers has stood in opposition to tyranny, prejudice, and genocide. While other characters have their backstories rolled up behind them as the decades march on to keep them young and relevant, Cap is never removed from his original context. He can’t be. To do so would empty the character of all meaning.
But yesterday, that’s what Marvel did.
Schenker also points out that the creation of Cap, at a time when the US itself was dealing with isolationist factions with Nazi ties, drew a chillingly similar reaction to today’s story:
Captain America famously debuted with his punching Hitler a year before the United States entered the war. And while the comic sold nearly one million copies and most responded favorably to it, some objected. It was provocative. In Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed,
Simon is quoted as saying:
When the first issue came out we got a lot of … threatening letters and hate mail. Some people really opposed what Cap stood for.
History has repeated itself in an even more recent times. In 2010, a lettering shortcut led to the portrayal of an actual Tea Party banner in a Captain America story written by Ed Brubaker. The panel drew fire from right wing websites and Brubaker received so many death threats he was forced to take down his public email. Marvel writers were subsequently forbidden from discussing any kind of politics publicly.
As someone who comes from a mixed family of Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics and Buddhists, I’m certainly aware that antisemitism is a real and current thing, and that 11 million people died in the Holocaust when the most civilized nation on earth designed the most efficient way possible to burn people in ovens. But I’m not convinced that this Steve Rogers story is advocating that, or that a story that deals with the current iteration of Hydra is negating the ideals of Cap’s creation. If anything, the above story from 1979 that shows cap with an actual Swastika shows that this idea is not new.
Or how about this actual panel drawn by Jack Kirby that shows Cap saluting Hitler. A real person who killed 11 million people. Not a fictional hate group. Of course mind control was to blame..and we didn’t have Twitter. (Both images courtesy of Justin Jordan.)
No matter what the precedents, this is all certainly a publicity stunt to get people to think about all the above, however, and cynicism at that is a natural reaction. Teaberry Blue, who works in the comics industry has a long tumblr piece that pretty much deals with all my reactions and finds the toxic hand of while male privilege behind it:
4) One of the biggest problems I see is that while the comic itself says a lot of really interesting things about recruitment to hate groups, and Nick Spencer has actually been quite eloquent on this point in his interviews (it’s by far the best part of most of his interviews), they are still being presented from a very privileged perspective. There is an attitude inherent, also in the interviews, that speaks to that privileged perspective of someone who has the luxury of not expecting people to be hateful. There’s quite a bit of dialogue about being surprised at finding out that otherwise good people are white supremacists. It feels a lot like, for Brevoort and Spencer, they want to talk about the horror of finding out their friends on Facebook are Trump supporters, but don’t realize that for the vast majority of us, we can’t live in a world where we are blissfully unaware of hatred until someone is really overt about it. They seem to think they’re telling their audiences something new with this message, without realizing how it comes across to people who DO deal with hatred steeped in identity politics.
5) Yes, there have been other stories where Steve has been evil. There’ve been other stories where he’s been a Nazi/Hydra agent. On one hand, it’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t exactly new, but on the other, the particular fanfare around this event is pretty distasteful. And those were not attempted at a time when racial hatred were already at a recent high, specificlly in the context of addressing that heightened racial hatred. There are people in the US dealing with real repercussions of real hate groups right now, and who very validly are having an emotional and visceral reaction to this. They have a right to. It’s great when privileged people who recognize a problem want to use their platform to educate other privileged people, but they need to think about how that deeply affects the disprivileged people who are also part of their audience and who cannot escape those things in reality. Again, presentation is key.
While this is an important notion to consider, Spencer’s statements seem to indicate that he’s at least aware of current events and the “real repercussions of real hate groups right now.” As a cynical viewer of comics history, I confess, I didn’t see this as anything but the latest shocking!!! story line. Cap has
been appeared to be evil before and he’ll appear to be evil again. And then he’ll be the good guy we all love in between. Conflict is the basis of all storytelling. I’m guessing Spencer and Brevoort saw it as the same thing, and weren’t aware how deep and wide current comics fandom’s focus on the politics of identity runs.
At the same time, when advocates of inclusion are adopting the same tactics as the Tea Party, maybe it’s time to step back and think a little. Did Marvel do something dumb? Maybe. Until the entire idea is explored in more than a single shocking!!! panel, I’m not going to judge it.
On a larger level, Marvel is totally winning! They’re getting the kind of publicity and attention that a million dollars can’t buy. They won. Hate and Hydra beat hope and optimism yet again. I’ve expressed this opinion in the past and been told I’m trying to “silence voices.” I’m certainly not. You can be as upset, outraged or offended as you want and the quality of the think pieces written about this is already impressive. But I also have the right to express my opinion and to find fault with the actual, as opposed to ideal, outcome. Or at least, I think I do.
And by trend reports, outrage over Marvel has totally beaten DC’s turn to hope love and optimism. So the one tangible result of all of this will be that Marvel and DC go right back to hate, shock and pain. You voted with your attention and hate won.
My suggestion? Boycott Marvel AND DC and go read Love and Rockets instead. You’ll be glad.
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.