I’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.
In 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.
Captain 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.