Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 and Subtractive Retcons (Spoiler Warning)

Captain_America_Steve_Rogers_1_CoverAs long as there have been comic books, there have been retcons. For all that they have acquired a bad reputation, retcons can be an incredibly useful tool in comics writing and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Done right, retcons can add an enormous amount of depth and breadth to a character, making their worlds far richer than they were before. Instead, I would argue that retcons should be judged on the basis of whether they’re additive (bringing something new to the character by showing us a previously unknown aspect of their lives we never knew existed before) or subtractive (taking away something from the character that had previously been an important part of their identity), and how well those changes suit the character.

To give some Captain America-based examples: Ed Brubaker’s “Winter Soldier” storyline was a great use of additive retconning, turning Bucky Barnes from a rather mawkish attempt to ape the popularity of teen sidekicks in the 1940s into a compelling Manchurian Candidate-inspired anti-hero who has become the dominant vision of the character to this day. And it works incredibly well in no small part because of how it uses the silences in the text, the white space in between the panels if you will, to explain why a twelve-year-old was allowed to hang around a US Army Base and to show us what could have happened while Captain America was frozen in the ice.

Unfortunately, Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 is one of the worst examples of subtractive retconning imaginable. In this comic, we learnt that Steve Rogers is a HYDRA agent and has always been one (indeed, the comic goes out of its way to say that it was HYDRA that inspired Steve Rogers from the beginning):

cap retcon 1And lest anyone be confused about what’s going on, the comic makes very clear what this revelation entails – not only is the Red Skull going around recruiting HYDRA suicide bombers using real-world white nationalist rhetoric about the refugee crisis in Europe, in case anyone was confused whether HYDRA is a racist organization or just generically totalitarian, but we see Steve Rogers cold-bloodedly murder a fellow super-hero and SHIELD operative in the furtherance of HYDRA’s agenda.

Now, the comic does go out of its way to provide some background here – many pages go into exploring how Steve and his mother joined the organization back in the early 30s when a HYDRA recruiter rescued his mother from her abusive husband, how the organization used the social and economic dislocations of the Great Depression to recruit desperate people and give them a sense of purpose. (There’s a slight problem about all of this in that this is basically Red Skull’s origin story, as set out in Tales of Suspense #66) On the surface, this seems like a rather slick and cynical way to grab the readers’ attention and make us wonder what we really know about Steve Rogers. Phrased less politely, this is trolling meant to serve as click-bait.

Because the problem with this reading is that it undoes everything that comes before it. If you enjoyed watching Steve Rogers fight to his very last breath to protect Kobik from Crossbones, only to be brought back to his youthful prime just in the nick of time? Too bad, Steve Rogers is a Nazi. If you’re now wondering why a HYDRA agent would spend 75 years stopping every last HYDRA plan for world domination and/or destruction, that cognitive dissonance is the price paid for this kind of subtractive retconning. And if you’re wondering why Marvel would decide to turn their billion-dollar-grossing hero into a Nazi, so am I.

And this is my problem with Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 – this retcon works against the very concept of the character. Ever since 1940 when Jack Kirby and Joe Simon dreamed him up, Steve Rogers has been an anti-fascist, someone who was so convinced that fascism was an existential threat to his ideals that he signed himself up for a dangerous experiment that could have easily killed him in order to fight back:

cap retcon 2Turning Steve Rogers into a fascist shorts out the character by negating his origin story, his entire back catalogue, and his political ideology – essentially telling the reader that the Captain America they’ve been reading about for 75 years never existed. In the same way that turning Superman into a villain sounds like a clever concept on paper but doesn’t work as a long-term story vehicle, because once he’s a villain there’s only one story left to tell, this kind of storyline just isn’t going to work.

Now, it may be the case – as many fans have already speculated – that HYDRA Steve Rogers is in fact a false memory implanted in his brain as part of some sinister plot. If that’s the case, it’s still not a very good idea. To begin with, it means starting off a new series with your protagonist acting like a Nazi until the reveal, at which point both Rogers and the readers will be stuck with the memories – not a very promising foundation for getting your audience to root for their hero.

Moreover, there’s still a bunch of plot holes that are still there even if you pull off the reveal: why didn’t any HYDRA agent use these embedded memories before, in any of the myriad scenarios in which doing so could have won them the entire world? If Steve Rogers’ body (which includes his brain) was essentially re-created by Kobik, why did the HYDRA conditioning stick? Given that Steve Rogers has spent quite a bit of time around telepaths, why didn’t any of them notice that the Sentinel of Liberty was thinking like a fascist? Unless Rogers is also a world-class actor, how exactly did he maintain a close friendship with a politically-engaged black man like Sam Wilson without slipping up?

But most importantly, it’s still a twist that doesn’t fit the character. In the comics, Captain America has repeatedly fought off false memories and other forms of mental conditioning implanted in him by HYDRA agents like Doctor Faustus. It’s part of his character – the same sheer determination that made him keep fighting the Red Skull even when the Cosmic Cube gave the Red Skull the powers of God allows Captain America to resist psychological stresses that would break anyone else.

So yeah…if Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson are supposed to be the new Peter Parker and Miles Morales, this is an incredible misstep. I don’t think I’ll be picking up any more issues of Captain America: Steve Rogers, and I’d recommend the reader pick up Captain America: Madbomb instead.

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5 comments

  • I think the number of good retcons are very few in number and most of them were done by Alan Moore.

    But…yeeks, making Captain America a Hydra agent. Might as well make Bruce Wayne the guy who ordered the hit on his parents instead. Yes Pat Mills’ Marshal Law did that but that was satire dammit.

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    • I can think of some others – Claremont’s work on Magneto, Busiek’s retcon on Jean Grey gave us Inferno, Wolverine’s claws being natural, etc.

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      • Well, i never read the early pre-Claremont issues so I didn’t know how much Claremont changed the stories. But you know, Alan Moore probably had an “anxiety of influence” with Claremont. Like his Miracleman, the climax of the story with this evil Kid Miracleman character is quite similar to the Dark Phoenix Saga.

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  • It may be that I will not like this story (much like I did not like the poor direction of Sam Wilson: Captain America, so I dropped that title), but I also think that it is too early to see what the events as shown in one issue really mean. It is kind of like looking at the cover on one of those dickish Superman covers from the Silver Age and just announcing that since Superman would never let Jimmy Olsen die of thirst or whatever you won’t read Superman anymore. The pleasure (or displeasure) is in how it works out (or doesn’t).

    More specifically I wonder how much this may tie into the whole Civil War II event and the recent intimations that Maria Hill and SHIELD were using Cosmic Cube technology to alter reality – not sure if those two are related (I don’t read enough connected books, but I can imagine that they are). In which case, I have to wonder if the echo with Red Skull’s origin is a hint at the unintended consequences of altering reality? I know that is just empty speculation, but I figure if I can work something out, surely someone like Nick Spencer can, too.

    I actually wasn’t going to buy Steve Rogers: Captain America because I dislike the idea of undermining Sam Wilson as Captain America even further – but now I am not so sure. I am curious of how it will work out.

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  • Major alterations to Cap’s history right after a huge interaction with a cosmic cube? The two couldn’t possibly be related.

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