Would Captain America Approve of Punching Nazis? (YES.)
As would surprise absolutely no one who’s followed my People’s History of the Marvel Universe series, I’m a strong believer in the idea that our pop culture is both influenced by our political culture and can have a strong influence on that political culture. Thus, it’s a major problem when the author of both of Marvel’s current Captain America comics gets all pearls-clutchy about whether it’s ok to punch Nazis.
(credit to Shop5)
While people who’ve followed this spat on comic book twitter are familiar with this particular debate, allow me to clarify for everyone else: Captain America, as a pop culture icon, was designed to punch Nazis. And not merely in a cheeky, subversive symbolic, let’s-make-fun-of-Hitler way; the first Captain America comics were very clear in their argument that Nazis were a real threat to the United States both abroad and at home (with Jack Kirby and Joe Simon calling out real organizations like the German-American Bund, the Silver Shirts, and the America First Committee), and that we should go and fight them now (a year before Pearl Harbor). Nazis didn’t like this argument and they didn’t like Captain America as a pop culture icon – hence why they sent death threats to Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, threats that Jack Kirby met by being ready to punch Nazis at a moment’s notice.
Current Cap writer Nick Spencer’s stance doesn’t show a great understanding of the characters he’s working with or the spirit in which they were created, but that wouldn’t be so much of a problem…except that Spencer’s online conflicts with critics and fans are starting to bleed over into his comics, denying people a useful symbol for resistance in an era in which we really need them.
NaziCap and the “Alt-Righting” of HYDRA
Now, I’ve already talked about why NaziCap is a terrible idea – not only is it deeply insulting to the creators of Captain America and the various writers and artists who worked for decades to establish Steve Rogers as a consistent character, not only does the whole story only work by leaning on played-out non-mind control mind control gimmicks that relied on outright lying to your customers, but so far the only up-side is that Nick Spencer gets to write stories for months on end where Steve Rogers becomes a straight up supervillain:
Now, it would be bad enough if Spencer’s problematic story resulted only in bad writing. But the problems go far beyond that, because Spencer’s Steve Rogers has an undeniable and inescapable political line. Take for example, Cap’s extended speech in Civil War II: The Oath:
Let’s be clear: this is not just a comment on Marvel’s Civil War II; this is a blatant copying of post-2016 election hot takes blaming liberal coastal elites for the election of Donald Trump due to their lack of empathy for Trump voters in the heartland, bootstrapped into an anti-superhero and pro-HYDRA rant. Now, leave aside for the moment that this whole scene is jarring and awkward in the extreme in that Captain America is completely contradicting himself from Marvel’s first Civil War event – and remember, Nick Spencer’s non-mind control mind control retcon means that Cap still did and thought everything he did and thought in that series. (After all, Civil War II is absolutely cluttered with examples of characters from Tony Stark to Carol Danvers forgetting what they thought and did during Civil War I and before.)
The bigger problem is that Spencer is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, he’s constantly riffing off of the rhetoric and imagery of present-day white nationalist and neo-Nazi movements to elicit controversy and give his story some “subversive” heft. On the other hand, Spencer constantly runs away from the implications of his own ideas by trying to de-Nazify HYDRA (which not-coincidentally prevents Steve Rogers from crossing a line that might harm his value as a brand):
Once again, let clarify the comic book history: HYDRA was created as a Nazi organization, as part of an argument by Jack Kirby that the true believers in the Third Reich were still out there, ready to strike back against their enemies in the name of Nazism. HYDRA’s leader, the Red Skull, isn’t just a COBRA villain who hates freedom, equality, puppies, and sunshine in a generic Saturday morning cartoon way. From the beginning, the Red Skull has been not just a Nazi but a personal acolyte of Adolf Hitler:
Indeed, the Red Skull is such a massive racist that he was once successfully distracted from his master plans by the fact that Peggy Carter was in an interracial relationship with another SHIELD agent:
Likewise, the Red Skull’s chief subordinates in HYDRA were quite emphatic about the fact that they were actual and current believers in Nazi political ideology.
Now, Spencer isn’t the first person at Marvel to try to de-Nazify HYDRA – Brian Michael Bendis and Jonathan Hickman’s Secret Warriors story about HYDRA being an ancient organization that dates back to the Third Dynasty in Ancient Egypt set the pattern for fandom arguments that HYDRA wasn’t “really” fascist. But in the current political environment, it is especially tin-eared for Nick Spencer to “alt-right” HYDRA: we live at a time when we have actual Neo-Nazis in the White House working references to America First into Inaugural Addresses and dog-whistling to their fanbase by removing references to Jews and anti-Semitism from Holocaust Memorial addresses, all the while trying to use weasel-words to rebrand themselves as members of the “alt-right” so that they can normalize themselves in the media and the broader political culture. Indeed, Richard Spencer (who led crowds in throwing Nazi salutes at the alt-right’s election celebrations in D.C) was giving an TV interview about how the “alt-right” weren’t neo-Nazis when he got punched.
Sam Wilson as Sockpuppet and SJWs Are the Real Threat:
At the same time that Spencer has mired himself in a political quagmire in Captain America: Steve Rogers, we’re starting to see some of the same problems crop up in Captain America: Sam Wilson, which I used to enjoy because the book seemed to be grounded in a sincere love of Captain America comics from the 70s through 90s, what with Cap-Wolf and the Serpent Society showing up almost immediately. But given the tight-rope walk that always comes when a white writer is writing a highly political comic by speaking through a character who’s a black man, it’s a very bad sign when Nick Spencer’s twitter fights over the right and wrong ways to protest start coming out of Sam Wilson’s mouth:
Leave aside that portraying Sam Wilson as the “both-sides-do-it” moderate clashes with the book’s raison d’être of Sam Wilson as the more militant political version of Captain America. Far worse is the actual content of the issue, which presents as its villains a group of campus left terrorists who use bombs to enforce “safe spaces:”
Now, all of this would in normal times be painfully awkward, what with the white guy in his late 30s trying to do Tumblr-speak. But to push the idea that campus leftists are the real danger at a time when anti-fascist protesters have been shot by fans of neo-Nazi Milo Yiannopoulos, who deliberately targets critics for harassment and deportation, and when campus recruiters for the “alt-right” turn out to have past form for burning down black churches, comes across as pushing “alternative facts.”
So why should we care, why does all of this comic book stuff matter when compared to the real-world political side of things?
As I said at the time, the “subversive” reimagining of Steve Rogers as a fascist was never ok, but there is far less leeway for it in a world in which Donald Trump is president. We have actual Neo-Nazis at the very top of the Federal government, directing government policy to enforce religious bans on Muslim immigrants, refugees, and permanent residents, to build border walls and prepare new offensives against young formerly undocumented immigrants given legal status and low-income immigrants. The “contrarian” fantasy of NaziCap has been lapped by reality and thus no longer serves any satirical purpose.
But on a more serious note: far from being emboldened by being punched in the face, Neo-Nazis are already emboldened by the fact that they have one of their own in the White House. Hence the burning of mosques in Texas and the Quebec mass-shooting , hence the constant drum-beat of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers, hence the rise of hate crimes and random incidents of aggression from racist assholes who think that Trump has legalized bigotry.
A small part of this is an attempt by Neo-Nazis to claim cultural spaces and symbols, whether we’re talking about fights over Twitter access, the appropriation of memes like Pepe the Frog, the appropriation of language from sexual subcultures, attempts to recruit right-wing anime fans, Gamergaters, and furries, and most worrying of all, the attempt to reframe anti-corporate works like They Live to fit anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. And it’s not like Marvel has been immune to this: “Hail HYDRA” and HYDRA iconography has been a favorite of Neo-Nazis online as a way to get around bans on outright Nazi imagery, and defenses of the HYDRA secret agent Grant Ward on ABC’s “Agents of SHIELD” have sometimes blended into defenses of fascism more generally.
In the face of all of these, people really need anti-Nazi symbols to inspire and rally them. Captain America ought to be one of these symbols, but he can’t be as long as Steve Rogers is a HYDRA agent and Sam Wilson is more worried about the campus left – i.e, as long as Nick Spencer is the lead writer of all of Marvel’s Captain America comics. So here’s my pitch to Marvel Comics: hire Brubaker, hire Rucka, hire G. Willow Wilson, all writers who’ve shown a grasp on both storytelling and politics, or hire someone new with fire in the belly, and give us a Cap who will fight for us.