Marvel’s annual comic event this year, ‘Secret Empire’, has created a lot of controversy. You can find a…strong opinion on it here. Polygon also has a more complete explainer, though it’s no less bias: here. Since I’m a person on the internet that reads comics, I have opinions of my own on Secret Empire. And as a writer with an average of three whole page views per post I am duty bound to share those opinions.
The whole story and controversy of Secret Empire started when the Red Skull used the cosmic cube to alter reality. He turned Captain America into a Hydra sleeper agent, one who believed he had always been part of Hydra. The changed Cap hatches a complicated plan that ends with him in control of both Hydra and the Untied States with all his former super hero allies trapped or defeated. As Secret Empire begins Captain America becomes the thing he’s always fought against, the fascist leader of Hydra.
You can understand why this would upset people. Taking a beloved symbol of America and revealing that he’s secretly been a fascist sleeper agent says something about the U.S. Also the event shares the same name of a 1970s Captain America story arc which highly suggests that Richard Nixon was really a super villain. The event seems tailored made to piss off the political right, but they’re not the ones who are mad, or if they are they’re being drowned out by the left. I don’t really get the outrage though, there’s always been something kind of fascist about Captain America.
Now, before you send hate mail to a complete nobody on the internet, let me explain. I love Captain America. Ed Brubaker’s run was incredible and his death of Captain America issue was tragic and damn near perfect. Chris Evan’s Captain America is everything I ever wanted the character to be. But still, Captain America is a blue eye, blonde, super solider in the most powerful military on the planet. And he solves problems by punching people in the face.
There are some fascist undertones in all that and saying so used to not be so controversial, (look for Michael Chabon at the 19 minute mark here). Past Captain American writers have explored this conflict by pitting cap against more hardline or disturbed versions of himself like U.S. Agent, or the insane Captain America from the 50s, or that random time in the 90s or 00s when the Navy made an evil Captain America. These struggles represent the conflict inherent to the character, the shadow of authoritarianism lurking in his make up. Now the conflict is more personal with an evil Steve Rogers pitted against Sam Wilson’s Captain America.
The argument that this all offensive though, is less on Captain America acting fascist and more on him being the head of Hydra. As the book riot article states:
“Captain America, a hero created by two Jewish men on the eve of World War II to fight Nazis, is revealed to be an agent of Hydra, a terrorist organization which essentially serves as Nazi proxies in Marvel Comics”
So, Captain America is the head of Hydra, are Hydra Nazis? Short answer: no, but there’s an * there. Let’s talk about Hydra.
A lot of the internet is arguing that Hydra is a metaphor for Nazis. And Hydra was…kinda. The 1940s Captain America comics had no problem with Cap fighting actual Nazis with swastikas and all, (as well as fanged and bucked tooth Japanese soldiers, do you want unpack that part of the character’s legacy?). Hydra was Nazis in an insultingly cartoonish way that was all about mad scientists and death machines not about war atrocities and holocausts. And they didn’t stay Nazis for long.
Hydra has existed in print for over 50 years. They are Marvel comics chief ‘bad guy organization’ and main rival to Shield. They have been a stand in for every single ‘evil henchmen’ organization in pop culture. They were ‘Spectre’ to Nick Fury’s James bond in the 60s. They were ‘COBRA’ to the Avenger’s G.I Joe in the 80s (and probably a source of inspiration for Hasbro’s COBRA as well)
If Hydra was a metaphor for Nazis, they’ve also been a metaphor for every group or nation that America has feared in the past half century. There are multiple ‘red scare’ style stories of Hydra infiltrating the American government. And since the early 2000s comics have featured Hydra suicide bombers that scream ‘Hail Hydra!’ before blowing themselves up (yes, it’s uncomfortable.)
Having been around forever in comics Hydra has also been responsible for creating a ton of characters, none of which people have called Nazis in the past. For example, would someone really call Deadpool’s comic sidekick ‘Bob from Hydra’ a Nazi? No, Bob is a joke about how cartoony and weird henchmen are. And he’s from Hydra because that’s where the majority of Marvel’s henchmen come from.
Barron Zemo started out as a member of Hydra and then became an anti-hero, then a member again, and then left and then came back; rinse and repeat depending on the writer. When reading Fabian Nicieza’s run on Thunderbolts with a heroic Barron Zemo were readers rooting for a former Nazi who was destined to become a Nazi again? No, they were reading the adventures of reformed villain who was going to break bad again. Or how about Wolverine? He dated Viper, a high ranking Hydra agent, and killed a bunch of people for Hydra. Nobody thought he was involved with Nazis during those stories.
The book riot article even suggests:
“Perhaps worst of all, Marvel decides to drum up excitement over Secret Empire with a “fun” marketing campaign wherein comic book store employees wear exclusive Hydra shirts. Because who doesn’t love being blindsided by low-key Nazi cosplay on a Wednesday afternoon?”
To equate wearing a Hydra t-shirt to ‘low-key Nazi cosplay’ is downright insulting.
When ‘Winter Solider’ came out and people bought Hydra t-shirts and passed around ‘Hail Hydra’ memes where they sending out coded Nazi propaganda? If someone cosplays as ‘Bob from Hydra’ is it a hate crime, the same as wearing a Nazi officer’s uniform? Saying Hydra and the Nazis are the same thing is either turning Nazis into a jokey caricature of stock bad guys or it’s making thousands of comics, decades of storytelling, into questionable Nazi literature.
In another baffling move this controversy also involves Magneto, who showed up on a variant cover. The idea is that since Hydra are Nazis, saying that Magneto would join up with them is super offensive because he’s Jewish and a holocaust survivor. (It’s worth pointing out that Variant covers rarely have anything to do with the actual story in the book) But joining Hydra would be one of the least offensive things Magneto has done.
My dad is Jewish and grew up around holocaust survivors and he hates Magneto. He finds the character to be extremely offensive. And there’s a lot of reasons to agree with that. Did you see the second X-men movie? The one where at the end Magneto targets all humans to suddenly die? That’s genocide, and he’s been trying to do stuff like that for decades. He’s blown up cities, switched magnet poles, and kills a lot of people. The guy is a holocaust survivor that decides that genocide is good thing, that is an extremely controversial character. And yet people are trying to defend him against becoming a Nazi thanks to a variant cover for a book he has yet to show up in?
Now I’m not trying to say that people should be outraged over Magneto and call him an anti-semitic character. I have Jewish cousins who love him. And I think he’s been a tragic anti-hero as well as a complex, if not vicious, villain. But his history is complicated and at times problematic, which is true of a lot of stuff in Marvel’s fifty year history. Those controversial elements can help characters grow and evolve when a writer explores them and tries to confront them. And I think, in some ways, that’s what Nick Spencer is trying to do in Secret Empire.
But I do get some of the criticism of the event. I find Spencer prickly on twitter and thought his ‘Bombshell’ jab was immature. Also Marvel releasing an ‘apology’ while still asking people to buy the book, seems like a move designed to tick everyone off. And it’s hard to be sympathetic to Marvel when they keep releasing events like this that could cost you hundreds of dollars to follow in its entirety (seriously, five books for a single issue?!).
Even so I find the outrage in the Book Riot piece to be disingenuous and reaching. And I also can’t help but, feel disappointed by it. I remember outbursts like this over Miles Morales, over Thor becoming a woman, or that time Captain America dared to get political and add a minor arc about the T-party. The people mad right now, probably supported those other moves. Now they think a story about a hero becoming the thing he fought against is anti-semitic and are demanding the same thing that purists of the past called for, for the characters to return to what they were.
Super hero comics will always snap back to the ‘norm’ like rubber-bands. Captain America won’t stay evil, just as he didn’t stay Nomad and didn’t stay dead. But by demanding that he always be the thing he was originally convinced as, without any critical look at him as a character, prevents him from growing, from continuing to be relevant or challenging the darker themes that make up his history.
I read issue 0 (I hate how they do that) and issue 1 of Secret Empire. It’s a decent event comic, a bit stuffed and some off characterization, but it’s not ‘immoral’. I didn’t like ‘Morning Glories’, but people shouldn’t be burning Nick Spencer’s work. His story about a fascist takeover of America, thanks to a nostalgic icon that represents America’s fabled ‘great’ past, is supposed to be disturbing. It’s not in support of Nazis or fascism. If you want to rally against a comic book writer who creates pro-fascist work, take your anger out on Frank Miller.