I’ve been a Marvel fan over DC since I started reading comics—the first single issues I ever bought were the starts of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel run and Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye. Marvel continues to put out some amazing, progressive, and inclusive stories from its B-list characters, but at the same time it’s also putting out some of the most tone-deaf unpleasantness I’ve ever seen from a major media company in its flagship titles. What’s most frustrating in this whole complex fiasco is that, in making these terrible writing choices, Marvel is not just being problematic and offensive, but is actually dramatically undermining the entire history of the characters they’re messing with.
If I had to pick a hard starting point for this, I’d point to Hydra!Cap. Sure, before that there was Hank Johnson: Agent of Hydra and Sam Wilson being accused of statutory rape, but those seemed like isolated badness that died down quickly enough when the series in question ended. So yeah: Hydra!Cap. A quick intro for those who aren’t aware of this mess: Steve was old for a while, but then he met a person who was also a cosmic cube and she de-aged him back to regular Steve-age. (*jazz hands* Comics!). In his triumphant return to a Steve-centric book (Captain America: Steve Rogers, to differentiate between him and Captain America: Sam Wilson), Steve revealed that he is and has always been a member of Hydra—even as a child, long before he became Captain America.
In response to the immediate outrage against the idea that Steve goddamn Rogers, a character who was created by Jewish men to punch Hitler in the face, was suddenly a forever Nazi, the minds behind the comic, including writer Nick Spencer, took to social media to rub salt in the wound. They insisted that this was absolutely not a misdirect or mind control or some other kind of fakeout—Steve was definitely Hydra now and that was that. Frankly, even if #2 of Captain America: Steve Rogers had turned right around and reassured us that Steve was being mind-controlled or something, the month between issue releases meant that fans of the character were forced to grapple with the idea that their previously unproblematic fave, the banner-bearer for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, was suddenly the worst kind of villain, and that was not respectful at all of the audience or what Cap has historically stood for.
And while series like the aforementioned Hank Johnson have tried so hard to insist that Hydra is not Nazis anymore, just generic supervillains, the first issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers explicitly tied the modern organization to white supremacy. Plus, even if you were to argue that Hydra are no longer Nazis, if Steve’s been one since he was a kid, he was definitely one when Hydra was unarguably a Nazi organization. This not only undermines the real-world history of Steve’s creation, it also throws him out of sync with his previous characterization, including prior actions like making the Howling Commandoes a racially-integrated strike force, or honoring the history of Isaiah Bradley, the first Captain America, by caring for his predecessor’s family and making sure his legacy was not forgotten.
A year later, this particular nonsense has still not been unraveled—Steve is still unapologetically devoted to Hydra—and now it’s actually gotten worse. As part of the lead-up to the Secret Empire event that will apparently be the cap (ha, puns) on this storyline, Marvel released a series of tasteless variant covers reimagining both heroes and villains as members of Hydra. On the villain side, these solicits included a Hydra!Magneto variant cover.
Let that sink in for a second. Magneto, one of the most well-known Jewish characters in comics, whose origin story is literally “I survived the goddamn Holocaust”, portrayed as an agent of Hydra. While it’s unclear whether this was just part of the variant covers and will have no part in the actual story, or whether he’s actually involved in the plotline, it’s still a slap in the face. However, with solicit copy like this, it’s hard not to assume he’s going to play some role:
With an army of deadly villains assembled, the next phase of their plan can begin! Even united, the heroes may not be strong enough to overcome an army of the most dangerous villains ever assembled. (via io9)
Either way, the cover is enough to get pissed about, in my opinion. In a world where the executive branch of the US government has been staffed with Real Life Neo-Nazis and has engaged in genuine Holocaust denial, this is… not a good look for Marvel, to say the least. As a media company, they have to be aware more than anyone that the stories people tell have real-world effects, and we are not in a timeline where “we turned Captain America and a Holocaust survivor into Neo-Nazis” is without consequences. Not to mention that the “Hydras not Nazis” thing smacks of the discourse surrounding the use of the term “alt-right” to avoid calling a spade a spade in real life.
And then there’s Sam Wilson. In a recent issue of Captain America: Sam Wilson, Sam, while trying to moderate a Trevor Noah/Tomi Lahren-esque “reasonable discussion” between the new Falcon (who’s Latino) and an Ann Coulter type, is interrupted by a group of college student “supervillains” calling themselves “the Bombshells”. This group of misguided millennial activists challenge Sam and the Falcon for allowing fake-Coulter to violate the “safe space” of their campus, hollering things like “Your silent acquiescence is what empowers abusers and the culture of hate”, “You should be an ally, not helping to defend oppression culture!”, and my most cringeworthy fave, “Consider this your trigger warning”—yelled while throwing some kind of grenade.
These painfully stereotypical SJWs are defeated and arrested, and Sam tells us how important it is to compromise with the enemy and find common ground. Sam goddamn Wilson, who historically has taken even Steve Rogers himself to task for casual racism, is telling us we should be nice to the people who are in the business of normalizing hatred against us.
Sam then apologizes for any times where he ever sounded like that, i.e., if he ever used the language of activism to speak truth to power. In essence: “Sorry if my wanting to be treated as an equal ever made anyone feel uncomfortable.” Yikes. The Daily Dot sums up the problem perfectly:
In a rather preachy tone, the comic presents a judgmental divide between two versions of anti-racist activism: wholesome heroes like Sam Wilson, and laughable weirdos who use words like “patriarchy” and try to blow people up. It echoes the common misconception that social justice terminology belongs to a realm of Tumblr teens who get “outraged” as a kind of hobby, while reasonable adults provide practical solutions in the real world.
The mastermind behind all of this nonsense is one Nick Spencer, who’s been writing both Caps for some time now and was the immediate subject of virulent criticism following the release of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. He has demonstrated a genuine inability to take any constructive criticism for his work, and seems to feel that his ongoing outbursts of creative idiocy are actually inspired writing that “triggered” SJWs like me just don’t have the capacity to understand. He brushed off critique of the Bombshells incident, for example, by suggesting that readers misread what was intended as “lighthearted satire” and that the so-called tolerant left was unable to accept even the slightest criticism about their behavior. Oh, the irony, Nick. It’s been mansplained to me by someone in my life that Spencer doesn’t get to write whatever he wants without editorial approval, and like, fucking duh. Obviously anyone involved in the creation of any of these storylines is complicit in the anti-Semitism, racism, and anti-feminism these comics routinely indulge in. However, neither was anyone holding a gun to Spencer’s head and telling him he had to write these storylines in this particular way. Equal shame goes to the editorial staff who proposed these plotlines and approved what Spencer wrote, but he is an adult human with free will, and could have walked off this project at any time if he didn’t think editorial was on the right track.
Unfortunately, Marvel is a business, and they want the money of as many people as they can get it from—including MRAs, “meninists”, people who genuinely think Nick Spencer is a good writer, and other folks of poor taste. They’re also, notably, a business run by a dude spending way more time chucklebuddying it up with the Asshole-in-Chief than I feel is particularly necessary, so I doubt that their supreme powers-that-be have any plans to take a stand on who they want in their customer base. Clearly the major and well-publicized backlash against these storylines is being considered under the “any publicity is good publicity” banner, because they’ve kept marching right along in publishing these garbage premises for over a year and, with an event in the works, seem to be doubling down on their shock-jock-y storylines. Because of this, I’m honestly uncertain how we can go about getting them to realize the errors of their ways. If a campaign to boycott your comic and donate the money you’d have spent on it to Holocaust remembrance isn’t enough to make you realize you might be on the wrong track, I don’t know what will.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!