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Review: Captain America #1 Mixes Ripped from the Headlines Relevance with Old School Marvel Action

On 4th of July aka Captain America’s birthday, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Leinil Yu began a new era for Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and Sharon Carter in Captain America #1.  There’s a lot of plates to spin in Coates’ opening storyline from Russia-based vampires interfering in American politics to Cap trying to balance being an inspirational figure while being confronted by a horde of men dressed like Nuke and his relationship with Bucky, Sharon, and the flag on his shield and chest. However, the comic keeps from being overwhelmed by these things by leaning on action with gritty work from Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, and Sunny Gho. The clean art and lantern jaws of Chris Samnee’s run are replaced by pained face, sharp edges, and a muted, shadow filled and it fits a story where Thunderbolt Ross (Who is still a buzzkill). There’s even a well-placed use of a nine panel grid, which I hear is all the rage these days and kudos to Coates and Yu for using for a difficult interpersonal scene between Steve and Sharon and not just a knife fight or something. (Not that there’s anything wrong with knife fights.)

Probably, the boldest decision that Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in Captain America #1 is facing Secret Empire head on and having Steve still fighting to clear his name while also re-casting that whole debacle of an event in the real world light of the election of Donald Trump, Russian tampering of that election, and the increased boldness and acceptance of fascists and white supremacists, who have been here all along. The United States didn’t fight a war against Russia or an army of fascists and lose: they lost at the ballot box and have been losing since 1492, 1607, or 1619 when the first African slaves were transported to Jamestown. Coates and Leinil Yu deal with these real world issues and complicated nature of patriotic iconography through an icon himself: Captain America and explores how problematic he has become in-universe like when Thaddeus Ross benches him for a mission to see who is behind the opening attack of New York City. But somehow guys like Baron Strucker are okay because they helped lead the resistance against HYDRA.

Steve’s struggles with his iconography being co-opted first by HYDRA Cap and then in this issue, by the Nuke wannabes attacking Washington DC, is the emotional heart of Captain America #1. Yu and Gerry Alanguilan give readers plenty of prototypical Captain America shots like throwing his shield into battle, using the shield to protect an injured dad and his son, and then Coates gets to write a great Cap speech. But, then, the narration undermines these moments as Cap wonders what to say to a woman who has lost her daughters and looks around at the collateral damage surrounding the National Mall. And, after the battle, he is immediately undermined by Ross because “appearances matter” and the cloak and dagger spy and assassin skills of Bucky and Sharon are more useful than a guy running around in an American flag costume. A symbol is useful to any resistance, but not a tarnished one, and Yu eschews the heroic poses for middle distance disappointed faces.

But Captain America #1 isn’t all about Steve and his feeble attempts at restoring his legacy. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Leinil Yu using the opening and closing moments of the comics to set up a compelling villain: Selena, a millennia old mutant with “psychic vampire” abilities. She both uses her powers and a mysterious protege, Alexa, to take down HYDRA cells in Russia and to also influence the American government as the head of Faith Based Initiatives in a blink or miss TV screen cameo. In Captain America #1’s cold open, Selena and Alexa prove to be a formidable threat to a group of HYDRA soldiers with plenty of pyrotechnics and snow from Yu, Alanguilan, and Sunny Gho. Coates doesn’t go the secret villain cliche route and immediately introduces the threat while promising to unpack her connection to the U.S. government and finding some way for Steve to confront her in subsequent issues. Having a powerful Russian force interfere with the American government is compelling in light of current events, but that having that threat be a New Mutants villain with vampire-like abilities is a very Marvel way to go about it.

Playing off the classic Captain America quote from Frank Miler and David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again “I’m loyal to nothing except the dream”, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Leinil Yu unpack the role of Cap as an icon and hero in Captain America #1 while kicking off an action conspiracy storyline that is like our current reality, but draped in Marvel Comics lore.  There is a questioning aspect to this story as Steve, Bucky, and Sharon are consumed with doubt and separated by their new roles in this ever shifting new status quo. Also, it’s kind of sad that the weapon that Steve uses to finally take down the Nukes could also incapacitate his best friend.

Captain America #1 is thrilling, thought provoking stuff and hasn’t been this meaty and compelling since Ed Brubaker’s run on the title.

Story: Ta-Nehisi Coates Pencils: Leinil Yu Inks: Gerry Alanguilan
Colors: Sunny Gho Letters: Joe Caramagna 
Story: 9.2 Art: 8.4 Overall: 8.8 Recommendation: Buy

Marvel Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Coming This Winter from Diamond Select: Justice League, Spider-Man, X-Men & Thor!

It’s Marvel vs. DC in this month’s Previews catalog! With a new bust, bank and Vinimates from DC, and new Minimates action figures, statues and bottle openers from Marvel, this is one that’s gonna get settled at retail! Read on to see what’s scheduled to ship in late 2017/early 2018 from Diamond Select Toys!

Batman Beyond Bruce Wayne Resin Bust

A Diamond Select Toys Release! Time to go back to the future… the future of Gotham City! Not long from now, Gotham has transformed into a high-tech town, and a high-tech Batman has risen to fight the criminal element. Bruce Wayne is retired, but he mentors the new Batman and keeps him informed on old threats when they resurface. This approximately 6-inch resin bust of Bruce Wayne depicts him as he appears in Batman Beyond, and sits on top of a pedestal base inspired by the city’s ultra-modern architecture. Limited to only 3,000 pieces, it comes packaged in a hand-numbered, full-color box with a certificate of authenticity. Sculpted by Varner Studios! (Item # JUL172790, SRP: $59.99)

Justice League Movie Vinimates Vinyl Figures

A Diamond Select Toys Release! Complete the League with this all-new assortment of Vinimates vinyl figures based on the new Justice League feature film! Superman, Aquaman and Cyborg team up to take on the forces of evil in this new batch of figures from the highly anticipated movie. Each 4-inch vinyl figure is sculpted in a block-figure style, striking a pose straight from the movie. Each comes packaged in a full-color window box.

Superman Vinyl Figure (Item # JUL172792, SRP: $9.99)

Aquaman Vinyl Figure (Item # JUL172793, SRP: $9.99)

Cyborg Vinyl Figure (Item # JUL172794, SRP: $9.99)

Marvel Minimates X-Men vs. Brotherhood Box Set

A Diamond Select Toys Release! It’s the 15th anniversary of the Marvel Minimates line, and to celebrate, we’re going back to where it all began! This four-pack of Minimates captures two classic X-Men and two classic Evil Mutants in the 2-inch mini-figure form. A classically-styled Marvel Girl and Professor X team up to take on Quicksilver (in his green costume) and Toad – one of the first Marvel Minimates ever designed, in his first-ever release! Each Minimates mini-figure features 14 points of articulation and fully interchangeable parts, including unmasked hair for Jean Grey, a Cerebro helmet for Professor X, and alternate parts to turn Professor X into Mastermind! Packaged on a full-color blister card. (Item #JUL172800, SRP: $24.99)

Marvel Minimates Thor: Ragnarok Movie Box Set

A Diamond Select Toys release! Get ready for Ragnarok! The third Thor movie, Thor: Ragnarok, will hit theaters this fall, and DST is celebrating with a new box set of Marvel Minimates based on the film! This 4-pack includes four all-new mini-figures, including Gladiator Thor, villainess Hela, Asgardian Loki and Bruce Banner! Each 2-inch Minimates mini-figure features approximately 14 points of articulation and fully interchangeable parts and accessories. Packaged in a full-color window box. (Item # JUL172801, SRP: $24.99)

Marvel Hydra Symbol Metal Bottle Opener

A Diamond Select Toys release! Hail Hydra! Ever feel like every time you open a bottle, two more take its place? Well you’ll be able to make short of those pesky bottles with this solid metal bottle opener in the shape of a Hydra logo! With powerful magnets on the back, it will hang on your refrigerator, waiting, until it is activated to fulfill its purpose – opening bottles! Packaged in a full-color slipcase. (Item #JUL172796, SRP: $18.00)

Marvel Gallery Netflix Jessica Jones PVC Diorama

A Diamond Select Toys release! Defenders Assemble! Joining Luke Cage and Daredevil, Jessica ones is the third member of the Defenders to join the Marvel Gallery PVC Diorama line-up! Measuring approximately 11 inches tall atop a New York City-inspired diorama base, Jessica Jones wears her trademark scarf and jacket, and features the likeness of actress Krysten Ritter from the Jessica Jones Netflix TV series. She is in scale to other Marvel Gallery and Femme Fatales PVC Dioramas, and comes packaged in a full-color window box. Sculpted by Varner Studios! (Item #JUL172795, SRP: $45.00)

Marvel Premier Collection Venom Statue

A Diamond Select Toys release! Brains! Venom is back, and DST is celebrating his rebrth with this approximately 12-inch resin statue of the original symbiote! Breaking out of a glass tank, Venom is at his full power here, and is a must-have item for any Venom fan. Limited to only 3,000 pieces, it comes packaged in a full-color window box with a certificate of authenticity. Sculpted by Alejandro Pereira! (Item # JUL172797, SRP: $150.00)

Marvel Select Thor Ragnarok Movie Action Figures

A Diamond Select Toys release! They’re friends from work! Send your Marvel Select collection to the distant reaches of the galaxy with these two new 7-inch scale action figures based on the new Marvel Studios film, Thor: Ragnarok! Depicting Thor and the Hulk in their gladiator gear, each figure features 16 points of articulation and includes weapons seen in the film. Each figure comes packaged in the famous Select action figure packaging, with side panel artwork for shelf reference. Sculpted by Gentle Giant!

Gladiator Thor Figure (Item # JUL172802, SRP: $24.99)

Gladiator Hulk Figure (Item # JUL172803, SRP: $24.99)

Marvel Spider-Man Homecoming Movie Resin Busts

A Diamond Select Toys release! It’s almost time for Homecoming! The first Spider-Man film to be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is almost here, and DST is commemorating the occasion with to resin busts based on the film! One depicts Spidey in his high-tech suit, with web wings, while the other shows him in his homemade suit. Each measures approximately 6 inches tall and sits atop a pedestal inspired by New York architecture. Each comes packaged in a hand-numbered, full-color box with a certificate of authenticity. Sculpted by Gentle Giant!

Web Glider Spider-Man Bust  (Item # JUL172798, SRP: $59.99)

Homemade Spider-Man Bust (Item # JUL172799, SRP: $59.99)

Superman The Animated Series Vinyl Bust Bank

A Diamond Select Toys Release! It’s a bust, it’s a bank, it’s Superman! The Man of Steel joins DST’s line of vinyl banks based on the DC Animated Universe, with this approximately 7-inch-tall portrait of Superman as he appeared in Superman: The Animated Series! With a coin slot on the back and an access door in the base, you’ll be able to save some dough even as you save the day! Packaged in a clear polybag. Sculpted by Varner Studios. (Item # JUL172791, SRP: $22.99)

C2E2 2017: Secret Empire is Footloose and Context Free

 

Thanks to the clutchness of my former podcast co-host and current Comicosity writer, Terrence Sage, I got a front row seat to the Secret Empire panel at C2E2 on Saturday where editors Christina Harrington, Nick Lowe, and Wil Moss discussed Marvel‘s summer event with writers Nick Spencer and Margaret Stohl in addition to PR guy, Chris D’Lando. The panel solidified my idea that Secret Empire is a series that will be filled with twists, turns, and various summer blockbuster flourishes, but is unaware of the context or larger world around. Throughout the panel, Spencer stressed the fact that Secret Empire is apolitical even though it is clearly about the secret rise of fascism in the Marvel Universe with references to the Axis Powers starting on page one of issue zero. This is pretty painful because both Captain America’s co-creator Jack Kirby fought in World War II and the cover of Captain America Comics #1 famously featured Cap punching Adolf Hitler although the United States was still neutral.

But the panel wasn’t all negatives. Thanks to Steve McNiven and Andrea SorrentinoSecret Empire is going to have some glorious artwork. On the tie-in front, there was talk about the rise of the Blue team of X-Men and Matthew Rosenberg and Javier Garron’s Secret Warriors as the de facto antifa resistance. Mighty Captain Marvel writer Margaret Stohl was the hero of the panel as she redeems Carol Danvers from being an authoritarian herself in Civil War Ii and back to being one of the Marvel Universe’s greatest soldiers in the upcoming “Band of Sisters” storyline. In keeping with its name, this storyline was inspired by watching documentary footage of World War II, including the Battle of Midway and the D-Day landing.

Andrea Sorrentino art from Secret Empire #3.

The panel kicked off with Chris D’Lando and Nick Spencer doing a two man PR spiel for Secret Empire and its core tie-ins, Captain America Sam Wilson and Captain America Steve Rogers. Spencer stressed that this story was his own idea that he came up with in early 2015. Secret Empire didn’t come out of Marvel editorial retreat, and Spencer pitched it personally to Tom Brevoort. I can definitely respect Secret Empire coming organically from Nick Spencer’s work on the Captain America titles and Avengers: Standoff. However, he use our favorite magical MacGuffin, the Cosmic Cube quite a lot. This reality warping thingamabob could offer an instant reset with its cosmic abilities although Spencer stressed to fans that he wouldn’t “walk back” anything in this storyline.

Divorced from any kind of historical or sociopolitical context, Secret Empire has some cool things going for it with a two front war with Captain Marvel, Alpha Flight, and the Guardians of the Galaxy taking on the Chitauri,  heroes like the Defenders, Dr. Strange, and Cloak and Dagger, battling in the Dark Dimension, and the rest of the heroes fighting HYDRA in Washington DC. Secret Empire #2 will contain the reveal that Steve Rogers is evil in the form of a beautiful mosaic double page spread from Andrea Sorrentino while issue 3 will take place in space. It’s the big heroes vs villain event that many fans have been looking for, but the biggest villain of them all happens to be the former moral center of the Marvel Universe. Oh, and there’s going to be mini Cosmic Cubes to promote the event that look kind of cute and are better than comic book store employees dressing up like mythological creature themed Nazis.

Spencer, D’Lando, and Marvel executive editor Nick Lowe teased some of the tie-ins too. Captain America Steve

Captain America Steve Rogers #18 Cover

Rogers will focus on Cap as basically dictator of the United States and feature guest appearances from the journalists of Civil War: Frontline and Namor. Two of those three things are excellent, and the friendship between Namor and Steve as members of the Invaders in World War II has always fascinated me. Doctor Strange #21 marks the debut of a new creative team of Dennis Hopeless and Nico Henrichon, artist of Pride of Baghdad as well as lots of monsters in the Dark Dimension. I haven’t followed the new Doctor Strange series, but the combination of excellent art and guest appearances by cast members from the late, great Spider-Woman means I’ll give the new run a shot.

Lowe also mentioned Amazing Spider-Man #29, which stars the Superior Octopus, or Dr. Octopus in a new body working for HYDRA. It looked like Richard Spencer’s ultimate wet dream as drawn by the talented Stuart Immonen. There will also be an anthology series called Secret Empire: Brave New World starring obscure, yet insanely awesome Marvel characters, like Blade, Domino, and of course, Bob, Agent of HYDRA from Deadpool. Some highlights of Brave New World‘s creative team included Ethan Sacks (Formerly of the New York Daily News) writing a story from the POV of the Daily Bugle and Kim and Kim creator Magdalene Visaggio doing a Starbrand one.

Editor Christina Harrington cheered up some of the X-Men fans in the room by teasing X-Men Blue #7 and the first look at #8 and #9, which will focus on the return of Emma Frost and Polaris. In the Q and A, she said that Emma will be “back in white” and hinted at her having her diamond form too and also hinted at other guest stars in the run. Nothing was mentioned about Holocaust survivor Magneto’s role in the fight against HYDRA, and hopefully as the secret team leader of the X-Men’s Blue team, he will be beating them up with magnetic things.

Wil Moss followed up with Secret Warriors #1, which will be written by Matthew Rosenberg, drawn by Javier Garron, and have one of the most stacked non-Avengers/X-Men team lineups, including Quake, Ms. Marvel, Moon Girl, Devil Dinosaur, Karnak, and Inferno. It has a fun, yet highly problematic premise of the Secret Warriors traveling across the US and liberating Inhumans from internment camps that are scarily like the ones in Chechnya for gay men. (I discuss this troubling fact with Matthew Rosenberg in an upcoming interview.)  Rosenberg has shown a knack for comedy with Rocket Raccoon and We Can Never Go Home was a great road trip story so I have high hopes for this series, which could make fetch, er, Inhumans happen. Also, the X-Men are popping up in Secret Warriors #3

The highlight of the Secret Empire panel was Margaret Stohl’s enthusiasm for Captain Marvel, and hopefully she has a long run with the character like Kelly Sue DeConnick. Stohl that the upcoming arc of Mighty Captain Marvel would get back to what Carol does best “kick ass in space” and set her up as the ultimate soldier of the Marvel Universe like Steve Rogers used to be. But the book won’t just be rah rah and punching as she will also focus on young people’s first experience in combat through the Alpha Flight cadets, including the Wakandan Aki and Dante, who appeared in the YA novel Black Widow: Forever Red that Stohl also wrote. Margaret Stohl’s take on Secret Empire seems more grounded than Nick Spencer’s with her focus on things like the horrors of war and resisting authoritarianism instead of sensationalism and retconning iconic characters.

Usually, the Q&A sessions of most panels are filled with stuttering and long self-serving fan monologues, but the one for the Secret Empire was quite amusing. I did a Storify of my live tweets of it here, but some of the highlights were Nick Spencer’s edgy love Carol Danvers’ idea for a surveillance state, saying that tearing down an iconic character is a “redemption story” and a kid (Possibly a Marvel plant) ripping off a Superman t-shirt so he could read an early copy of Secret Empire #1.

On a more serious note, I was kind of saddened when a veteran told Spencer and the panel that Secret Empire had angered some veterans who look up to Captain America and his service as a soldier. Let’s just say there was much back pedaling involved in Spencer’s response to her showing that Spencer uses the trappings of fascism in his loud, quippy action driven stories like Michael Bay uses American nationalism in his. At least, Spencer has jokes as evidenced by Superior Foes, The Fix, and the Guardians of the Galaxy’s dialogue in Secret Empire #0.

My main takeaways from Secret Empire is that it has some exciting elements, including mass superhero battles, Carol Danvers being a hero again, and Andrea Sorrentino artwork, but it seems divorced from any kind of nuance and real-world relevance. This is troubling when the bad guys are Neo-Nazis and not just “for the evulz” supervillains. But Mighty Captain Marvel, Secret Warriors, and Secret Empire: Brave New World should be fun reads.

(Plot twist: I hadn’t even read Secret Empire #0 when I attended this panel…)

Physical proof that I was at this panel, and this isn’t fake news.

Listen to The Problem with HydraCap: Secret Empire and the Truth about Hydra on Demand

On demand: iTunes ¦ Sound Cloud ¦ Stitcher ¦ Listed on podcastdirectory.com

This past week the first issue of Marvel‘s Secret Empire was released bringing together a year of build up revolving around Captain America actually being an agent of Hydra. On this episode of Graphic Policy Radio, we discuss the history of Captain America, the connection between Hydra and Nazism and what this comic storyline all means in the age of Trump.

Joining hosts Elana and Brett are Steven Attewell and J. A. Micheline.

Steven Attewell wrote that article everyone quotes about Captain America being a New Deal Democrat and can tell you which specific New Deal jobs program Steve Rogers worked for before he joined Project Rebirth. Attewell also pens the “People’s History of the Marvel Universe” column for Graphic Policy. He teaches public policy at CUNY’s Murphy Institute for Labor Studies. He is the founder of Race for the Iron Throne.

J. A. Micheline is a writer and critic who often writes about comics, particularly from a race and gender perspective. She is an Editor at Comics Bulletin. She has also contributed to VICE, The Guardian, and The AV Club.

The Problem with HydraCap: Secret Empire and the Truth about Hydra LIVE this Monday at 10pm ET

This past week the first issue of Marvel‘s Secret Empire was released bringing together a year of build up revolving around Captain America actually being an agent of Hydra. On this episode of Graphic Policy Radio, we discuss the history of Captain America, the connection between Hydra and Nazism and what this comic storyline all means in the age of Trump.

Joining hosts Elana and Brett are Steven Attewell and J. A. Micheline.

The show airs LIVE this Monday at 10pm ET.

Steven Attewell wrote that article everyone quotes about Captain America being a New Deal Democrat and can tell you which specific New Deal jobs program Steve Rogers worked for before he joined Project Rebirth. Attewell also pens the “People’s History of the Marvel Universe” column for Graphic Policy. He teaches public policy at CUNY’s Murphy Institute for Labor Studies. He is the founder of Race for the Iron Throne.

J. A. Micheline is a writer and critic who often writes about comics, particularly from a race and gender perspective. She is an Editor at Comics Bulletin. She has also contributed to VICE, The Guardian, and The AVClub.

Tweet us your thoughts and questions @graphicpolicy.

Listen to the show live this Monday.

Around the Tubes

It’s new comic book day tomorrow. What’s everyone excited for? Sound off in the comments below.

While you decide on that, here’s some comic news from around the web in our morning roundup.

Around the Tubes

ICv2 – Marvel’s Problem Isn’t Diversity — It’s Much Bigger (And It’s Not Just Marvel’s Problem) – An interesting read.

CBR – Batman & Harley Quinn Animated Film’s Voice Cast, Villains Revealed – Solid cast.

Tabletop Gaming News – Mantic Running The Walking Dead Special April Offer – A pretty great offer for Walking Dead and board game fans.

Kotaku – In Their War With The Wall Street Journal, Top YouTubers Just Played Themselves – Sigh. People will ignore reality and create their own.

Newsarama – What Exactly Is Marvel’s Secret Empire ‘Hydra Takeover?’ – Both intriguing and disturbing.

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.

would-cap-approve-of-punching-nazis-1

(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:

would-cap-approve-of-punching-nazis-2

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:

would-cap-approve-of-punching-nazis-3

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):

would-cap-approve-of-punching-nazis-4

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:

would-cap-approve-of-punching-nazis-5

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:

would-cap-approve-of-punching-nazis-6

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:

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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:”

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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.”

Conclusion:

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.

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Jim Lee CoverIt’s new comic book day! What are folks excited for? What do you plan on getting? Sound off in the comments below!

While you await the shops to open, here’s some comic news and reviews from around the web.

Around the Tubes

ICv2 – Captain America’s Hydra Problem – A very interesting read and take on the recent Cap issue.

CNET – ‘Top Gear’ fans go full speed with hate for the wrong Chris Evans – You’d expect better from stupid?

The Daily Dot – Geek culture isn’t ‘broken,’ but it does have a harassment problem  – A very good read.

Bibliodaze – From Hydra to Ghostbusters: The False Equivalences of Fan Culture – Another great read on the subject.

 

Around the Tubes Reviews

The Beat – Lou

The Beat – Scooby Apocalypse #1

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 5: Captain America vs. the 60s

Face front, true believers!

As I mentioned in Week 3, Marvel had a lot of work to do to update Captain America for the 1960s. That was true enough for the early 60s, when the U.S Army was the undisputed good guy in the comics, when Professor X worked with the FBI to track down mutants (more on that in a future issue), and when beatniks were an easy comedy bit. By 1968, when Captain America graduated from Tales of Suspense (where he double-billed with Iron Man) and got his own book, things had changed even more so. The comics industry had to deal with the counter-culture’s influence on visual media (both through hiring a new generation of writers and artists influenced by the counter-culture, but also as older creators like Jack Kirby got interested in surrealism, mixed-media, and other trends), and at the same time the counter-culture started to show an interest in comics.

And what was true for the industry and Marvel as a whole was even more so for Captain America; as the super-soldierly representation of all that’s best in the U.S, Cap had to respond to changes in America’s political culture. So how did Cap face the 60s?

To begin with, by experimenting artistically so that Cap’s image kept pace with the times. Jack Kirby continued to draw giant robots and intricate machines, but he also pushed his art to become ever more elaborate and strange – the Cosmic Cube allowed him to bring in some of the cosmic weirdness that we associate more with his run on Fantastic Four and MODOK (more on that in a future issue as well) continued his interest in giant Olmec heads. In addition, Jim Steranko was brought in as a regular artist and brought with him a new interest in psychedelic art and surrealism, an emphasis on flowing and contorting movement, and experimental paneling:

Counter-cultural art can only get you so far when that art is depicting a man literally dressed as the American flag in the midst of the Vietnam war (more on which in future installments). So Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and Jim Steranko, and so on) had to deal directly with how Captain America was viewed by the new generation:

Between Captain America #120 and #130, Steve Rogers is suddenly made aware of the generation gap, the counter-culture, and that he himself is viewed as a giant square. But where most people opining on Captain America go wrong is that Marvel didn’t have Cap respond to this by becoming a reactionary, lashing out at the damned hippies. Rather, Lee et al. leaned into their already-established trope as Cap as a man out of time in a different way, as Steve Rogers takes the critique seriously:

This is how Captain America engages in political analysis. Rather than writing off the baby boom generation, he draws a direct link between the “injustice, greed, and endless war” that he has observed in this new world and the rise of the “rebel and the dissenter,” taking their complaints seriously. Moreover, as a good ally should, Steve Rogers doesn’t stop at the structural level but also absorbs the counter-cultural critique on a personal level, asking himself why he hasn’t been more of an individualist and a dissenter rather than just a soldier.

On a meta-level, I think we can also see this as a kind of generational reckoning as well, with Steve Rogers standing in for the Marvel staff in their 40s who had spent their youth in the U.S Army in WWII, confronting a new culture that valorized the “anti-hero” rather than Marvel’s more straightforwardly earnest style of protagonist. Without backing down on his insistence that the values he believes in are timeless and that there is important things that his generation has to offer the youth – in #122, Rogers will namedrop Martin Luther King Jr., JRR Tolkien, the Kennedy brothers, and Marshall McLuhan as examples of “establishment” types who have influenced the youth movement – Cap nonetheless starts to experiment with a more counter-cultural way of life, suggesting that the counter-culture might be right about his generation.

Not only will Captain America begin questioning authority (usually in the form of Nick Fury of SHIELD) more, but he’ll also take to the road on a motorcycle to carve out an identity as Steve Rogers apart from the mantle of Captain America, setting up a big part of his Easy Rider-inspired Nomad persona in the 1970s:

When Steve Rogers rides off into his bike, looking for the Real America, he finds not just open road and existential quandary but the radical student movement of the 1960s. And both Rogers himself and his creators interact with the student movement much in the way that mainstream liberals at the time did, sympathizing with student demands but viewing radical direct action as dangerous and illiberal:

Thus, Steve Rogers in his civilian guise goes into action to protect a professor from being kidnapped by dangerous radicals, but also takes the campus administration to task for not listening to their students. Meanwhile, Stan Lee and Gene Colan depict student radicals as unrepresentative of their peers and threatening the destruction of the larger institution. At the same time, however, when it comes down to a clash between campus protesters and the police, we know which side Captain America will come down on, and it’s not the police:

While this might not rise to the level of Denny O’Neill on Green Lantern and Green Arrow, it’s still an important symbolic statement. Despite how wildly unpopular the New Left had made itself by the late 1960s (71% of Americans believed that the “country would be better off if there was less protest and dissatisfaction coming from college campuses” in 1968) here’s Captain America siding with the kids against the cops – as we’ll see, an association that will be enduring across issues.

At the same time though, Marvel also finessed this potential controversy with some rather strange symbolic politics. That long-haired, pink-panted gentlemen standing next to Mart Baker and the megaphone isn’t actually a bona-fide student…he’s an undercover agent of AIM. AIM is secretly infiltrating the student movement and deliberately intensifying conflict in order both to weaken American society, but also as a cover for the abduction of various professors in the sciences whose research AIM wants to steal:

If you strip out the inherent Marvel wackiness of MODOK’s giant baby head and AIM’s beekeeper helmets, this isn’t too different from contemporary conservative arguments that the student movement had been infiltrated by Soviet agents. At the same time, though, Lee and Colan frame the situation as AIM having seized upon “legitimate grievances” and show the students as unwitting tools rather than actively disloyal, and when AIM’s involvement is unmasked, Cap and student radicals team up to take them down:

It’s hard to look at this particular storyline and not see the whole thing as condescending at best, but Marvel Comics didn’t leave it at that. Hot off the heels of his intervention in campus politics, Steve Rogers gets approached to become the TV pitchman for a “law and order” backlash against the New Left that’s hiding sinister motives:

And because he’s Captain America, and Captain America’s secret super-power is weaponized morality, Cap sees right through the slogans of “law and order” to the sinister plot of men wearing white hoods over their faces (not hugely subtle symbolism there, but some anvils needed to be dropped in 1968):

This is what I mean when I say that Captain America is a progressive: he’s reframing patriotism and American national traditions as inherently radical and de-linking the defense of the status quo from the defense of the values that the status quo supposedly embodies, while taking a strong pro-non-violence line with regards to protest.

So in the 1960s, Captain America becomes the defender of youth (in a future issue, I’ll discuss how Captain America saved rock music by fighting the Hells Angels at Altamont). And it’s just in the nick of time too, because as it turns out, the man in the white hood pushing for “law and order” backlash politics is none other than actual, factual Nazi, Baron Strucker of HYDRA:

So there you have it, folks. The political movement behind Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan is secretly being run by a Nazi cabal, MODOK is heightening the contradictions, and Cap says the kids are all right. However, we really can’t talk about Ca in the 1960s without talking about one Sam Wilson, better known as the Falcon, which we will tackle the next time A People’s History of the Marvel Universe covers Captain America…

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