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On Nazi Captain America and My Jewlessness

Captain America Steve RogersI’m Jewish. I don’t look it and I don’t practice much, but I was raised Jewish. I had my Bar Mitzvah. I was even Confirmed. Yet if you met me, or even knew me for some time, you probably wouldn’t know it. That’s because I learned to hide it due to Antisemitism I experienced growing up. This was the 1990s, not some long time ago. Living in a suburb of Buffalo I was called “tacky” due to my religion (I still can’t figure that insult out 30 years later), or blamed for ruining Christmas because of changes to the school’s holiday program, or had pennies thrown at me and told to go fetch. You can understand why I exchanged my Jewishness with Jewlessness after a regular barrage of what can be only summed up as abuse by my “peers.”

And being a Jewish kid, I found my connection with comics, an industry built my the hard work of Jews (and women and African-Americans) who couldn’t find work elsewhere due to antisemitic (and racist and misogynistic) quotas. You can read the history here and here, and there are dozens of books that can walk you through even more. The industry’s original greats such as Will Eisner, Bill Finger, Max Gaines, Bob Kane (born Robert Kahn), Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber), Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, Joe Simon (born Hymie Simon), and so many more were Jewish. And that Jewish tradition continues today with Neal Adams, Brian Michael Bendis, Roz Chast, Howard Chaykin, Peter David, the Kuberts, Jeph Loeb, Marv Wolfman, and seriously too many creators to name. Comics are not just an American art form, but also a Jewish one. Consciously, or unconsciously, I found my connection and community.

And then yesterday I received a punch to the gut that took me right back to the 90s.

cap retcon 1In Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 written by Nick Spencer it’s revealed that Steve Rogers may in fact be a deep cover Hydra operative/sleeper agent when at the end of the comic he proclaims “Hail Hydra” after he throws an ally of his to his apparent death (Superman and Batman doesn’t kill, but Captain America certainly does). This is juxtaposed with Steve growing up and it turning out he and his mother were recruited by Hydra in the 1930s.

Hydra is Marvel’s version of the Nazis, having worked with them in World War II, and much like real world Neo-Nazi’s are doing today, the Red Skull and today’s Hydra are stoking fears of refugees and immigrants to bolster their numbers. While in the Marvel Cinematic Universe they’ve been shifted to an Inhuman worshiping cult, in comics they are more along the line of real Neo-Nazis and white supremacists mixed in with a bit of ISIS for good measure.

I’m not naive. This won’t last forever. In a year or two an out will be found, or if sales tank, even quicker. Comics are built on the shock value of cliffhanger endings, bait and switch, and fake out deaths. Superhero comics are soap operas in spandex. Executive Editor Tom Brevoort hints at this in an interview with Time where Marvel spoils their clickbait gimmick:

But I certainly believe it’s not a gimmick. It’s a story that we spent a long time on, that’s compelling and captures the zeitgeist of the world. It will make readers wonder how the heck we’ll get out of this.

We’ve been assured this isn’t mind control or some sort of clone, this is in fact the real Steve Rogers. We can, and should, absolutely debate if this is the best way to “capture the zeitgeist.” I’ll admit I’m intrigued by the twist, but I’m also disgusted by it too. I’m disgusted by how it craps on the legacy of the character and his creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and those Jewish creators who found refuge in comics.

captainamericacomics01Captain America was created in 1940 and debuted in Captain America Comics #1 on December 20, 1940 (the cover date is March 1941). To understand his creation, one has to understand the time.

World War II began September 1, 1939 with the United States not entering the war until December 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Opposition to the United States entering the war existed and war high. There are many arguments and beliefs as to why the United States stayed neutral, but one can’t deny the support of the Nazi party in the United States at the time. In 1936 The Bund was founded in the United States (ironically in Buffalo) to help promote Germany and the Nazi party with their most well-known activity being a 1939 pro-Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden which around 22,000 individuals attended. They rallied against “Frank D. Rosenfeld” and his New Deal which they dubbed “the Jew Deal.” It wasn’t until after the United States entered the war was the Bund clamped down with arrests for everything from “subversive activities” to violating the 1940 Selective Service Act. It wasn’t the antisemitism they spewed that got them in trouble with the law, it’s the fact they supported someone we were at war with that was the problem.

Enter Kirby and Simon. Simon has said the creation of Captain America was a consciously political one spurred by their repulsion to the actions of Nazi Germany in the lead up to the United States entering World War II. They felt that war was inevitable. In Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, Simon is quoted as saying:

The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.

Captain America famously debuted with his punching Hitler a year before the United States entered the war. And while the comic sold nearly one million copies and most responded favorably to it, some objected. It was provocative. In Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed, Simon is quoted as saying:

When the first issue came out we got a lot of … threatening letters and hate mail. Some people really opposed what Cap stood for.

People protested and loitered outside their office. The threats proved so serious that police protection was ordered and New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia personally contacted Simon and Kirby to voice his support.

As recounted by friends and family in Marvel’s Captain America 75 Heroic Years Special, Kirby and Simon specifically created Steve Rogers/Captain America as a response to the bullying they themselves experienced growing up, he was a direct response to the atrocities, the genocide, being committed to the Jewish people and others an ocean away. This was their way of taking on the Nazi empire and they received real threats for that stance. Simon and Kirby are the definition of heroes, standing up for what they believe and standing against injustice. They believed in this so much, they signed up to fight in the war. They saw combat, they were Steve Rogers in many ways.

But, to boost sales, to up chatter Marvel has decided to stomp on that history, even if it’s just one issue (though comments by Spencer and Brevoort indicate it’ll be much longer). They have made this symbol of justice that fought the Nazis into everything he stood against, siding and in league with xenophobic racists. He is tainted now and forever just by the fact we can now utter “remember that time Cap was a Nazi?” By making something “new and unexpected” Brevoort, Spencer, and Marvel have insulted his real world origin and made light that he was in fact created in response to genocide. A genocide perpetrated by those he is now in cahoots with, and apparently has always been.

This is clickbait as a story. It’s devoid of any moral obligation. It’s devoid of any sense of history. It’s an empty corporate decision that shows Marvel is only chasing dollars and begs me to question “progressive” moves and decisions they’ve done as just that, a sense of dollars instead of what’s right when it comes to history or the industry. My cynical nature should have known better.

This is an insult to Simon and Kirby, this is an insult to every Jewish creator who found refuge in the comic industry. And all of it to sell some comics, make some short-term money, and get articles like this written to “advertise it” even more.

10 comments

  • I apologize in advance for the long comment, but couldn’t resist here.

    I just wanted to say thank you for writing this. I’m Jewish and have also learned to hide it due to a crazy amount of antisemitism. I grew up in Miami where everyone I knew was, but as part of my chosen creative career and living in the south I now have to be almost careful not to expose it because I know my peers would think differently of me (or if they say they wouldn’t, judging from their Facebook feeds they clearly would).I’ve actually been asked before where my horns are. Yep.

    Growing up it was always inspiring to me knowing that so many of the legendary comic book creators were Jewish. In addition to reading comics in general, I also loved reading about how the creation of some of the greatest superheroes applied to being Jewish. We all know this is a money grab/shock value from Marvel, and some of Nick Spencer’s other works are some of my current favorites, but this feels kind of wrong. It’s also interesting to see on social media how some of the current Jewish creators are feeling about it.

    • Not a long post and thank you for the comment. I actually expected the worse in responses, so to see this is unexpected and quite nice. Yeah, the reaction by creators has generally been disappointing.

  • I’m guessing it won’t be long until they work there way out of it. However, the buzz worked. I have people who know nothing about and hate
    comics telling me they saw on CNN that Captain America is now Hydra and I’m like “wow they are making this a monumental deal.”

  • I’m surprised there is no mention of the Kirby-penned story in which it is revealed that Rogers is a Nazi. Not hating on the author in any way, but I know my comics. This story does nothing to his or their legacy. There is a cosmic cube at play, which means it’s false memory or an alternate timeline or some other twist. Because that is what comics do. That is what they have always done.

    • It wasn’t mentioned because it is a false equivalency. In the comic you mentioned (if it’s the one I’m thinking of), he’s brainwashed/mind controlled. In other words, it does not fundamentally change his nature/history. The difference here is that both the writer and editor have stated that this is NOT brainswashing, clone, alternate version. This is indeed Steve Rogers and it goes back years and will “fit” in his history. This DOES change his fundamental nature and as far as we know now, and based on the writer and editor’s statements, this isn’t the same sort of short term gimmick.

      • And you really don’t think the same is true now? There’s a cosmic cube in play here. But thank you for demonstrating you don’t know the very story you’re complaining about.

        • You mean the cosmic cube Kobik that was manipulated by the Red Skull at Pleasant Hill and turned Steve young again? Nope, no idea what I’m talking about…. but lets go off of how that’s an idiotic story point and makes no sense.

          During Remender’s he was laying the groundwork that Hydra had plants all over. In fact Marvel had mentioned this was going to be a big storyline and there’d be Hydra members on all sorts of teams, the X-Men, SHIELD, Avengers, etc. It was basically a combo of Secret Invasion and Hickman’s Secret Warriors run.

          But, Spencer in an interview said that they jettisoned that, instead just making Cap Hydra. Now, that makes absolutely no sense with what Remender had set up since Kobik hadn’t happened, so it’s hard to jive Cap was the plant Remender was setting up.

          When talking to Entertainment Weekly Spencer also said:
          “Issue 2 will lay a lot of our cards on the table in terms of what the new status quo is, but the one thing we can say unequivocally is: This is not a clone, not an imposter, not mind control, not someone else acting through Steve. This really is Steve Rogers, Captain America himself.”

          Which jives with people like myself who think this is a bullshit story for many reasons and betrays Caps history, both real world and imaginary.

          So, let me recap:
          1) If it’s “mind control,” then it’s a lazy story
          2) If it’s what Remender was building towards, then it doesn’t fit with the theory Kobik changed Steve this way (the reveal in All-New Captain America #2)
          3) We can go into the history of Hydra itself and that though Marvel has rectonned its origin a few times, classically it rose during/out of WWII, so the organization being in the US pre-WWII isn’t likely and itself a retcon
          4) You have addressed little in my original article

          But, please tell me again I don’t know what I’m talking about….

  • Thanks for writing this, Brett. Well thought out, and as a Jewish Girl myself, you capture my feelings on it as well.

    I’m voting with my dollars on it. I won’t be reading the title. I have no interest in seeing one of my favorite Marvel characters in this light, I’ve stayed away from “rage-reading” for a while now, where I know I’ll be unhappy, but I read it anyways. It’s not worth it.

    One of the big reasons the storyline strikes such a sour note for me is that it doesn’t just ignore the creation of the character, or the character’s previous superhero history, but it also throws out the circumstances in which the character came of age before becoming a superhero (an amazing article about this is located here: http://http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2014/04/steven-attewell-abraham-riesman-doesnt-know-jack-captain-america).

    Historically, because of where he grew up, who is parents were, where he went to school, when he grew up, this current storyline makes very little sense.

    Personally, I’m hoping it’s over quick, and they tell a story I’d enjoy reading next.