This post is full of spoilers regarding the most recent Captain America comic (#1) and its revelations. There are also Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (TOS) and Star Trek II: Into Darkness (Reboot) spoilers. If that’s a problem, please stop reading now.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the revelation that Captain America is, somehow, a long-term sleeper agent for Hydra. Now, I usually take a live and let live approach to Internet discussions because I don’t have a great deal of free time. But this one went somewhere strange and I wanted to talk about it.
There are (roughly) two main camps. There are those who are offended, outraged or upset that Captain America, a character created as the anti-Nazi, is now aligned with an organisation that is a Nazi proxy. There are those who are saying “Eh, it’s comics, they’ll be some big reveal that it’s a parallel universe or a dream. It doesn’t matter. Chill out.”
Look to Twitter, under #SayNoToHYDRACap to see the responses from various participants. (Both Chris Evans and Clark Gregg have, bless them, expressed their surprise, probably to the degree that their delicate relationship with Marvel allows. To two actors who are core to portrayals in the MCU that frame Cap’s movie identity, the Hydra storyline makes no sense.)
The existence of a number of schools of thought is no surprise. Had it stopped there, I wouldn’t be writing this. But the “hey, no problem” camp started to tell the “we’re upset” camp that they shouldn’t be making a big deal of this. Vocally. Repeatedly. Dismissively.
(There’s also been some bad blood coming back the other way, which is unnecessary, but most of what I’ve seen has been ‘hey, chill out’ in a far less friendly manner.)
When you start to tell someone what they can or can’t believe over matters that are effectively perceptual or opinion-based, and how they can and can’t feel about those things? You know, I think we’re going to have a problem. And we can say “it was only a discussion” but the language has been pretty patronising and dismissive.
I wrote to a friend who Facebooked “don’t act like someone crapped in your cornflakes” to say that I was glad his cornflakes were fine but mine didn’t appreciate Nazi imagery being dropped in them.
There are many people out there who have a relationship to Captain America beyond his comic existence. The MCU movies have brought Cap to a lot of people at a time in our world when things are a bit dim. The movie of Civil War took the really rather badly characterised comic series and drew upon the deep relationships that everyone has been building with the screen characters and managed to present a situation where two people who were both right were still at odds. We used to have to read Greek plays to see this, now we can watch it with popcorn and a large Mountain Dew.
It’s a little strange to think that most people’s most extensive exposure to the discussion of ethics and morality is more likely to be on the silver screen than in other places but it’s a fact. Fewer people are reading and studying philosophy. There’s less room for the liberal arts in many curricula. Heck, I’ve assigned “Winter Soldier” as a study of virtue ethics for my students, because there’s enough there for some solid discussion.
There are a number of people on the “it’s ok” side telling people that anyone who hasn’t read the comic can’t have an opinion. And that’s baloney. Apart from the final panels and the pre-release stuff, we have the writer, in this interview, who lays everything out for anyone who hasn’t read it. Here are some quotes:
Spencer says outrage is exactly what he wanted.
“When you decide to do something like this, you understand obviously that people aren’t gonna throw you a party for it,” he says. “You understand that this is the kind of story designed to upset people and shock people and worry people. That’s the response you’re supposed to have to something like this, when you’re seeing a bad thing.”
“This is something that is gonna have a profound effect on the Marvel universe,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of people say things like, ‘Oh, it’ll be wrapped up in the arc,’ or ‘Give it six months.’ And I can tell you, that’s not the case. This has real lasting repercussions that are gonna be with us for a while.”
“The story is not Steve’s past, it’s Steve’s future.
So we’ve established that Captain America is Hydra.”
As I’ve noted elsewhere, the writer was expecting people to be outraged because he knew he was attacking one of the most important symbols in the Marvel universe. Anyone who’s asking “Why are these people upset” is missing the point that this is exactly what the creators wanted. Anyone who is saying “oh, it’ll be wrapped up soon” should read that second quote. And then the third. And ask if they want this to be the new forever.
The writer dodges the question about the creators of Cap and how they’d feel, which is understandable as it’s a giant question of how much influence a creator should have on their work if it continues to develop but, at the same time, I think it’s a telling omission. In my opinion, he would have appeared braver had he taken this issue head-on. Cap was created as a symbol of something that perhaps isn’t very realistic but he’s part of a new mythology that is replacing many of our story telling forms. You’re taking something that’s edging dangerously close to a god-myth and making him the adversary. Saying “Hey, people might be upset” could be underestimating what you’re doing with an important symbol.
The first time we see Cap, he’s punching Hitler. It’s 1941, the Nazis are rampaging through Europe and the Nazi’s targets were already being menaced, deported, ghettoised and killed. Cap’s first cover was a message from his creators that Hitler needed to be stopped. Cap was many things but he was not in league with the Nazis.
Why does it matter if reality is so mutable in comics? Look, I know comics love to do this. I chased X-series across the 80s and 90s as people shifted, changed, became other people, lost their skeletons, got turned into cyborgs, got turned back into people, time travelled inside their own son’s fantasy universe under cosmic power, and I know that there’s a DC universe where the Fantastic Four are sentient bananas. I can handle all of that. I read Grendel. I can quote Doctor Manhattan. I know what’s so unfair and infuriating about the depiction of Storm. I can identify most forms of the Beast. I knew Northstar before he came out. I can tell you what killed the evil Clark Kent in the Universe where Lex was Superman. I was deeply saddened by the flower opening power conveyed by the Morituri process. I nearly bit through my tongue at what they did to Cyclops in the movies. I was riding with Judge Dredd from prog 1. I was delighted by the weirdness of Supergod. I read enough of Crossed to know why I didn’t have to read anymore, ever. I understand the medium. I know that the movies are different and there’s a lot of wrong and right in there.
I even know how many weird things have happened to Steve Rogers, the Captain America we currently know in the MCU. Leaving the role, ageing, dying, many others stepping in, and, of course, the one that everyone loves to bring up in this discussion, the time Cap was brainwashed into becoming a Nazi and had a swastika on his shield (Vol 1, National Force storyline, issues 231-234). (Hatemonger also put a swastika on the shield but he was a clone of Hitler, so we’re not surprised. Bad Hatemonger.)
Why is this different?
Firstly, Cap is much bigger than the comics now. That’s not to say that there’s a ‘canon’ Cap either way (not falling into that trap) but there are millions of people who know who Cap is from watching the movies and he is the little man who didn’t like bullies, Steve Rogers. That’s who they see in the role of Cap. And, because this is what Marvel has chosen to do, these people are not wrong. When they see the image of “Hail Hydra”, this is at odds with everything they know about the character. This makes everything a lie. This makes Coulson’s sacrifice and suffering meaningless. This makes the torture Bucky suffered for decades something Cap knew about. Check the Twitter feed. There are some sad people out there.
This makes one of the most good and decent figures in contemporary culture a monster: the friend of five years who slips something into your drink after convincing you to leave your car at his place. The whole time, it’s been an act, to conceal treachery and evil.
Secondly, it’s really not clear if this is brainwashing or Steve Rogers is actually Hydra, ergo evil. If he genuinely believed, the whole time, that being Hydra was the thing to do, then no-one is incorruptible. Yes, this is all make-believe but some symbols are important. You don’t have to believe that the gods are real to take solace from their stories.
Thirdly, this is obviously all to sell comics. Let’s not pretend that a shock like this is anything other than that. There are many ways to explore this storyline for the same artistic value but this one will bring buzz and buzz means sales. But let’s pretend that it’s actually about the art for the purposes of discussion.
I believe that the role of art is to make meaning. I believe that good comics, like any narrative form, are legitimate expressions of art as they bring us new things to consider and new meaning to existing entities in our life. Construction, modification, destruction and rebuilding all have a place in art. Am I saying that Cap is sacred? No. (He may be to some people soon enough, as noted, but right now I think we can agree that a comic-book character can be altered without reality collapsing.)
As an artist, I accept that nothing is sacred in terms of what we can change in order to produce art but I also believe that the benefit must outweigh the cost. Yes, we could have a storyline like this but it requires careful thought on the part of the artist as to what will be achieved through an act of alteration such as this. (Daubism, Dada, and so many other movements have alteration at their core but to do it without sufficient thought is to be a vandal rather than an artist.) We have to think about the implicit contract between artists and the public. We have to think about what art is.
Imagine a time where the Louvre and its collection lose all artistic meaning. Nobody goes to enjoy the art, they only go to say “I’ve been there.” Is there a point where the artistic statement that must be made is to destroy the building and its collection, filming it as it burns and thus turning it back into a form of art? It would be one of the most extreme acts of destruction and, therefore, the artistic merit of the act of destruction must have incredible benefit. (Nobody do this, please, as the Louvre is still widely perceived as being full of art. Think again in ten thousand years.)
A lot of what I see in the alteration, rebooting and re-evaluation of older pieces of culture is a resort to shock and confrontation to try and drive an emotional response. Art can often be shocking but we must remember that a shock is not guaranteed to be art. Comics are serial offenders at the shock game, to the extent that the jaded response to “Hail Hydra” is “Meh, come back next week.” At the same time, there is a deep conservatism that limits some character development. Just before the Hydra story broke, there was a movement to have Cap form a romantic relationship with Bucky. It quickly became apparent that wasn’t on the cards.
Cap is allowed to be a Nazi proxy before he’s allowed to be bi- or gay. That’s actually shocking but not in a good or artistic way. It’s just repulsive.
When all that an art movement has left is shock, it’s probably dead. This is not where want comics to end up. As it stands, this reaction may have had its bluff called in this work. If sensation-seeking is to have sensation, then it cannot be ignored. All those “meh-“sayers may have pushed Marvel to do something drastic to provide real shock and try to awaken tired limbs with a lightning strike instead of a 240V twitch.
One day, someone will really and finally destroy a major franchise and I actually have no idea how everyone will react. But I think that bad reboots will continue to try and prop up income streams, and I also doubt that many people have the moral courage to be a franchise killer in the 21st Century. (Alan Moore is an obvious outlier here. His thoughts on people continuing to stir up his old properties are quite illuminating.)
I remember the end of Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, where we all thought that Spock had died. For good! Noooooo! (KHHHAAAANNNN!) Yet the anaemic and confusing remake sabotaged any genuine emotion in their pastiche by transferring the act to someone it was hard to care about and then making it so short an event that you could have had a long blink and miss the time the character was dead. Bathetic nonsense that put on borrowed clothes to enact a story badly. There was no art here, just someone trying to make money. Comics can be, and often are, so much better than this, as are their associated properties.
We can revive and alter properties and do it well. There have been three Sherlock Holmes franchises in operation in recent years and none of them are that bad. No-one has to choose between them because they have explored the old stories and the character in different ways. It can be done! Yet, far too often, it is done so terribly badly and we end up with a shock machine that delivers more and more painful shocks to a body that responds less and less, from creeping boredom.
This should be a really positive time for everyone who loves comics. Why? Everyone is talking about a comic character.
This is an incredible time for the comic community and it makes it even sadder how many people are being dismissive of those who fail a worthiness test or who are being judged for, God help us, taking it too seriously. If comics are valid art then people will and must care about what happens. This is a validation of the power of graphic story-telling! Now is not the time to close the clubhouse until someone recites every line of Cap #87, page 7, to prove their ability to hold an opinion on something that they have actually seen with their own eyes.
There could be great art coming from an act such as the “Hail Hydra” storyline but, well, I’m not convinced that it’s worth it. I’ve been promised so much by alternative universe reboots and re-reboots and it has so rarely delivered. I fly a lot and I’ve reached a point where I have no idea where a movie with the word “Spider-Man” in the title fits. I don’t know who I’m going to see or the extent and origin of the powers. The contract between creator and reader is delicate and important. And it has been absolutely stomped on by recent re-re-reboots, ham-fisted attempts to jam new stories into old suits, and shock after shock after shock that ultimately means nothing.
I’ll invoke Chekov. Guns that are present should be fired and that action should be essential.
Although the author ducked the question, my opinion is that the creators would be horrified at this direction, because they sought a hero to take on Hitler and his bullies. They’re on record as seeing Cap as a political creation because they were repulsed by what the Nazis were doing. Even from the first, Cap has been more than a strong man with a shiny shield. He’s been a symbol of good, of freedom and of being against everything that the Nazis stood for. This is never more evident than in the characterisation provided for Steve Rogers by Chris Evans. Watch Steve in Winter Soldier, struggling between orders and rules, as he does what he does best: he tries to be the best man he can be and places himself as a shield between the bullies and their victims. Even when his life is ebbing away, his principles burn as brightly as they ever did.
Now, it appears that Cap is a secret thug and, through his deceit, he has been in support of the bullies all along. For many of us, this is a betrayal of everything Cap meant to his creators and what he has come to mean to so many people through comics and the recent movies. I am not saying that anyone is wrong in saying “I don’t think it’s a big deal” – you’re entitled to your opinion. I am saying that limiting those who can have an opinion to those who read comics is ignoring the larger Captain America mythos and the stellar work that has been going on in the MCU. Telling people how they should feel about an act deliberately designed to shock and offend because it is an attack on a beloved symbol, to be patronising and condescending in the process, is not something that you’re entitled to do, even if you’ve read every single comic and spend the night in a Captain America onesie signed by Simon and Kirby.
Everyone owns a piece of Cap’s myth now. Some of us are upset about the latest direction and we don’t think it was necessary for the storytelling, nor appropriate given the origins. What we perceive, what we feel, and what we think is legitimate.
Your cornflakes may be fine but mine have a giant ass in them. Please don’t tell me to simply eat around it.