Just about two years ago, I wrote a blog post about how I didn’t really like the idea of making Sam Wilson, the Falcon, into the new Captain America. I actually stand by that. My reasoning at the time (and now) wasn’t the typical geek reasoning which basically boils down to a fear of change and it certainly wasn’t the racist idea that Captain America can’t be black. It was more that I didn’t like using Sam Wilson’s blackness as a marketing ploy. By Marvel’s own admission, the idea of the change was predicated on diversifying the line and creating a superhero for black kids to look up to. My problem with it was that he wasn’t a new hero. He had been created in 1969. Changing Sam into the Falcon didn’t increase the number of African American heroes in Marvel’s stable; I had been looking up to him since the 70s. Instead it implicitly argued that for the last four decades Falcon wasn’t a hero at all, but instead was something lesser that than the real hero, Captain America. It meant that as a black man, Wilson could only be relevant by following in the footsteps of his white friend, something he was only able to do with the REAL Captain America’s blessing. And I especially hated it because it seemed to be done more as a sales ploy than anything else. That is not to say that the stories of Sam Wilson: Captain America couldn’t be enjoyed. My problem was that making Captain America black was the primary goal. Story came second.
Today, the geek.web is full of people complaining about the first issue of the new comic Steve Rogers: Captain America where it is revealed that Rogers is a member of Hydra and therefore (at least theoretically, since the reveal comes on the last page and we must wait til next issue for clarification) a nazi. And apparently, at least according to press statements, Nick Spencer, the current writer, says he has always been all along.
Believe it or not. I’m actually in pretty ok with this one.
In fact I’m actually even a little excited about it. See, it’s not that I like the idea of Cap being a nazi because I think young Nazi children need someone to look up to. Fuck the Nazi children; they have Prussian Blue for that, or at least they used to (and yes, I did just do an 11 year old callback to my own blog, because that’s how I roll)1. It’s more that I like that the comic is dealing with the question of what is a nazi anyway –or really, what is a fascist and frankly, Spencer is right. Captain America was a fascist all along. And It’s probably good to acknowledge that because its something that we’re still dealing with.
Obviously this was meant to be shocking. Marvel had to know that there would be some pushback on it. They probably weren’t expecting the writer to get death threats. But they probably should have. Clearly they failed to understand the Internet. Or did they? Obviously this was going to be controversial. Obviously it was going to piss people off. Maybe… just maybe…Nick Spencer was counting on getting people so riled up that they threaten his life. Why? Because maybe, Nick Spencer is a patriot. Maybe not. But he’s damn sure a good writer. And he seems to be proud of what he has accomplished.
I can't respond to 9000 tweets per second, but if I could, I would say I admire your passion
— Nick Spencer (@nickspencer) May 25, 2016
See the things that a lot of geeks miss, for all their posturing about being taken seriously, is that literature is supposed to be difficult. Art is supposed to be difficult. Uncomfortable. Unpleasant. It is is supposed to both reflect and challenge society and, more importantly, it is supposed to reflect and challenge us. Captain America is an avatar of American Ideology. This comic is supposed to make us wonder “If Cap has been hydra all along, maybe we all are too!” It’s supposed to make you ask some really hard questions about your politics, your culture, your country and yourself.
Spencer isn’t too far off. A lot of Cap’s current “politics” were set by Mark Gruenwald, one of my all time favorite comic writers, and to me still the man who defines Captain America (and yes, that includes CapWolf, goddammit!). By Grue’s own admission, a lot of what went into how he was writing Cap in the 80s and 90s was working through issues he was thinking about in his own life. Judging by other stuff Grue was writing at the time, it’s fair to guess that he saw the American ideology of the time as progressive and liberal and he wrote Cap to reflect that. He gave up the book over twenty years ago (and then died) but the character has more or less moved on the same course ever since.
But that’s not where he started. Captain America used to be a ruthless bastard. He’s a product of 1941. Pretty much his entire brand of patriotism was to go out and beat the crap out of (and often kill) anyone who didn’t agree with his take on the American way. By 2016 standards, he was sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and racist — in many ways, much like a prototype of the Comedian from Watchmen. It’s not that he was a bad guy… he was just a guy from 1941. You know how you love your 90-year-old grandfather but every once in a while he says some crazy racist shit that reminds you “oh yeah, gramps was born in 1920!” Captain America was that guy.This story seems to be an attempt to reconcile that.
It makes sense that his moral compass would be steeped in that time. Much like my comments on Airboy and his transphobia last year, Spencer is attempting to paint a portrait of what Captain America realistically would be, not what we would expect him to be.2 Raised in that time period, there’s a high likelihood that he (and his mother, as the story suggests) would have been seduced by an organization like Hydra, especially if, as the narrative goes, they were trying to find solace against an abusive father/husband. There’s a famous story about Lucille Ball being discovered as communist in the 1950s during the McCarthy era. It turned out that she and her mother had registered in the 1930s as members of the communist party in order to make her grandfather happy. She simply was a communist because being a communist was what the family did. In Lucy’s case, she didn’t even really know what it meant. When you think about it, this makes sense. Sometimes people choose their own political parties, but maybe people — maybe even most people — simply carry on with what their parents believed. How often do you hear someone vaguely (and loudly) expressing political beliefs that they clearly don’t actually understand? I once had a student write a paper where he vehemently declared that he is a proud conservative and NRA member and that we needed looser and not tighter gun control regulations. Then he went on to explain his ideal world which included mandatory gun training, psychological and criminal background checks. It wasn’t clear what part of that he considered looser. What was clear was that his personal ideology didn’t matter when choosing a label for himself. Certainly his views are a product of his environment and upbringing. Certainly they are affected by what he sees and hears in the news and the world around him. Certainly they are ultimately regulated by his own brain and moral compass. But being a “proud conservative and NRA member” is so steeped in his identity that he feels the need to announce it, even when the effect is to make it seem as though he is arguing against himself. This is the power of organizations like this. What the message was didn’t matter. It gave him a sense of belonging. It comforts him. In a way, it became his religion.
And that really is the key to this story. Most of the complaints I’ve seen so far aren’t about the story, per se. They’re about the idea of Cap being a nazi. People simply aren’t into the idea of Cap as a nazi. No one is really taking into account how he got there. What makes the story work for me, however is the parallel narrative. Not only do we see how Cap’s mother (and transitively Steve Rogers himself) became a member of Hydra in 1926, Spencer plays it against the story of a young man named Robbie be seduced to the organization in 2016. Robbie is down on his luck. He’s had legal and substance abuse problems. He has a hard time holding a job. His girlfriend died of an overdose. He feels as though the system has abandoned him. And so he is primed to be taken in by a grassroots organization a fired introduces him to. An organization that talks of “taking our country back. Getting rid of this political-correctness bull–.” He attends the meeting to find a speaker warning of the dangers of “these so-called ‘refugees’ — millions of them — marching across the continent. Bringing their fanatical beliefs and their crime with them. They attack our women, and bomb our cities.” The speaker is the Red Skull, but message, at least in the beginning is a clear analog of the words of Donald Trump throughout this presidential campaign. As his speech goes on, the rhetoric becomes more intense as he warns that “your religion, your beliefs, your sense of community — all tossed aside like trash. And you cannot even speak out against it, lest you be called a bigot!” Robbie finds himself drawn in to the fervor and despite having reservations about some of the platforms becomes a believer because it has given him something he needs in his destitution, a sense of belonging and place.
But again, the strength of the story is in the parallels, Robbie perhaps ends up as a terrorist (and in fact becomes a suicide bomber) but he wasn’t seduced by the idea of an ISIS-like jihad; he’s not looking for 30 virgins in the afterlife. He’s affected by a grassroots campaign. He just wants to belong. He wants to believe in something larger than himself. Something that will address the failings of the country and make his life better. And even before the final page reveal, the story goes far out of its way to show you just how similar Robbie and Cap are. They specifics of the message they believe in might appear to be different, but the pathway to arriving there is the same.
The Red Skull’s message is xenophobic. It is a Donald Trump speech with the volume turned up. And because Robbie so desperately needs something to believe in, he is easily receptive to the group’s mission. But he would have been receptive to any group that accepted him. Anyone who was willing to “watch his back.” But for a different turn he could have ended up in the tent of Bernie Sanders, another grass roots campaign. One that espouses a different message but uses the same tactics to draw its members in. The politics don’t matter; Robbie isn’t political. He just wants to belong.
I’ve been reading comics for a long time. I don’t for a moment believe this is permanent and if you do… well, then you haven’t been paying attention that long. This is like the superior Spiderman or the Superior Ironman. A chance to play with the character and examine the world, in a way that will undoubtedly be reset before his next big film appearance, exactly like what happened with those last two.
In the meantime, this is a chance for Spencer to examine the fabric of the ideology behind Steve Rogers. By removing one aspect long assumed to be tautological to the character, he is playing at deconstructing the essence of Steve Rogers. Will he be able to pull this off? Who knows, there’s been one issue. I liked it. The rest of it could very well go on to suck, but so far I am intrigued and I want to see what happens when he strips down Captain America and the ideology he represents. And when you strip away the politics… when you strip away the ideologies… when you strip away the moralities… when you strip away the message and focus only on the messengers, it becomes somewhat difficult to tell the messengers apart. Spencer is making a statement. Maybe Captain America and the Red Skull never wear all that different after all. And if that’s the case then as readers, we may have to deal with the fact that maybe Donald Trump and the Red Skull aren’t all that different. Or Bernie Sanders and Captain America. And when we strip all of that away and really read into the allegory… maybe Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders aren’t all that different either. And that means, maybe… just maybe… you aren’t all that different than your 90-year-old racist grandfather.
1: I just want to point out that way back when I initially wrote about Prussian Blue I predicted that their lives would totally be changed as soon as Lynx started experimenting with weed. I chose Lynx because I randomly decided that she was “the hot one.” Since no one ever paid attention to Prussian Blue ever again, I just feel like I need to point out that a few years later that is literally EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED. Lynx became a pot smoking hippie and dragged her sister along for the ride. I’m a visionary like that. The article does not say whether or not either of them ever fucked any members of the Wu-Tang clan as I predicted they would… but I mean, we can just assume, right?
Angry White Men, by Michael Kimmel
Captain America: Masculinity & Violence, by J. Richard Stevens
Captain America: Man Without a Country, by Mark Waid
Captain America: Society of Serpents, by Mark Gruenwald
Captain America: Man & Wolf, by Mark Gruenwald
Captain America: Nomad, by Steve Englehart