Spoilers below for Steve Rogers: Captain America #1
Before this week, the world understood one definite truth about Captain America: he’s a good guy. Character reversals in superheros are rare. There are good guys and there are bad guys. Sometime that gets more complicated of course. The X-Men have a slew of team members who were baddies before they were not. Or who were good before they were bad. But in the comics, these words still generally apply. Good, bad, some where in the middle. And when it comes to Captain America, there’s very little room for the middle.
Cap’s very creation requires this.
Steve Rogers: Captain America #1, is Marvel’s All New, All Different take on Captain America. The book is written by Nick Spencer, with Jesus Saiz as artist and Joe Caramagna as letterer. Issue 1 is out this week, and it contains a splash page twist to close the book that purports to shake up that fundamental truth about Cap. For one-month, at least.
The preceding story interweaves Steve Rogers’ return to the role of Captain America (Rogers had lost his powers and passed the part of Cap on to Sam Wilson. Now that Rogers is back, there will be two Captain Americas in the Marvel Comics) with flashbacks to Rogers’ childhood. In the flashback, to the 1920s, Steve and his mother are shown great kindness by a woman who eventually recruits the Rogers’ to a Hydra gathering. Which, for this first issue, at least, provides readers an understanding of how Rogers got inculcated to Hydra
The reaction to Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 has been pretty dramatic, but there are two arguments that warrant attention. The first comes as a condemnation of a gimmick. Many have condemned Marvel’s Cap-as-Hydra move as a shameless, shock-and-awe ploy to sell comics. @markpopham summed that argument up well in a series of tweets.
It’s not too much to ask to stories to come with purpose beyond sales. We should not judge a story arc by Issue 1, true. But Issue 1 provides a window into the machinations of a creative team. Hanging a new series run on character reversal of this magnitude feels exploitative. As James Whitbook at Io9 writes, “this is a gimmick with no shame.”
Whether that turns out to be the case remains to be seen, of course. Reading monthly comics can, from time to time, be dreadful. This kind of issue 1 argues against the monthly purchase model. Am I being exploited cheaply? Yes. Do these guys have plan that warrants this kind of drama? The only way to find out is buy the book, or wait it out.
For the record, Joe Caramagna, letterer on Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 addressed this criticism on twitter.
The strangest criticism I've seen so far: "They're only doing this to sell comics!"
What other reason is there?!
— Joe Caramagna (@JoeCaramagna) May 27, 2016
We all sympathize with Caramagna, I assume. The business model for creators in comics leaves much to be desired. It’s nice to sell books.
The other reaction, and the far more important one to consider, is that no matter what happens later in Steve Rogers: Captain America, this issue is a betrayal. The best take I’ve seen on this comes from Jessica Plummer, writing at Panels. Her piece, On Steve Rogers #1, Antisemitism, and Publicity Stunts, Plummer argues that the historical importance of Steve Rogers’ fight against the Nazis makes a stunt like this one simply unacceptable.
While acknowledging that Steve Rogers is not now and never will be an actual Hydra agent (“Steve Rogers is not going to stay Hydra any more than Superman stayed dead,” she writes), Plummer also expresses her real pain at the undercutting of Captain America’s history of combatting Nazis.
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.
Whatever response one has, many comics readers understand that having Captain America utter the words “Hail Hydra” is a big deal. It would have been a big deal in the past, for comics readers, too. But given the popularity of Captain American in the cultural consciousness at this moment (not accidental, of course), Cap’s Hail Hydra moment is finding its way beyond the confines of the comics reading community.
Steve Rogers, you might be aware, just had a little movie come out: Captain America: Civil War. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has understood Captain America better than any of its heroes. The character is built fundamentally on an old-fashioned patriotism and pride in country. He was created, literally, to fight the Nazis, which he did through his long-time nemesis: Nazi leader The Red Skull.
After helping the allies defeat the Nazis, Rogers became a man out of time, frozen in suspended animation for decades before waking up in a new world. His story ever since has been an attempt to uphold the values of the Greatest Generation in an era when the threats are unclear and the problems cannot be punched away.
Cap’s story packs an outsized punch in our current culture, an era of terrorism, nationalism, political unrest. Marvel Studios has crafted a 21st century Captain America to slide powerfully into this dynamic.
Recall the first team-up MCU picture, 2012’s The Avengers, and Steve’s attempt to find his place in the modern world. “Aren’t the stars and stripes a little old fashioned,” Rogers asks Agent Coulson, who responds with a bit of dialogue that encapsulates the 21st century appeal of an 80 year old superhero relic: “Everything that’s happening, the things are about to come to light. People might just need a little old fashioned.”
In the battle against the Nazis, in the battle against Hydra, in his constant defense of freedom and democracy, Steve Rogers always stands for the right side. He is earnest, always. That is what it means to be Captain America.
The A-plot of Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 follows Captain America searching for a young man who has strapped a bomb to his chest and is flying a plane into a city. This young man comes from hard times. He was raised by the television. He stole cars, went to prison, got mixed up with white-power groups. And on his release, he is radicalized by Red Skull, who gives an impassioned speech to a group of young white men. He rails against refugees and the politicians who provide asylum.
The very first pages of Captain America reflected a world facing nationalism and hatred that spurned white men to great violence. In human culture, it seems, nothing changes. Red Skull rallies his modern charges with that same impulse: “These so called refugees…,” he bemoans, “millions of them marching across the continent, bringing their fanatical beliefs and their crime with them, they attack our women and bomb our cities.” That’s not the talk of supervillains. That’s what we here from the Republican Presidential Nominee.
Today are different in details, but in kind, they’re pretty much the same. The refugee crisis rages, and white men are rallying against those refugees. They are making speeches meant to inspire anger, and in doing so are provoking violence.
One function of comics is escapism, and that escapism of fun fantasy matters. But comics serve other functions, too. Why else include a political speech about the refugee crisis? To claim such stories are about magic people in tights, carrying no more importance than childhood fantasies, as some–even some creators–do undermines the threat these books are actually engaging with.
I don’t particularly care about the “Hail Hydra” moment in this average issue of Captain America. It might pan out, it might not; time will tell. What matters in this issue, though, is the same thing that mattered in those first days of Captain America.
The world is place of hatred and violence, and that world is reflected in these pages. That Cap is a good guy, that he always and without irony fights for freedom on behalf of the oppressed, has come to define a value that is simultaneously old fashioned and always in short supply.