Marvel Comics recently tried to claim that their sales slump was due to increase in diversity in their work, a defence that rightfully saw them dragged to hell and back by fans. It never seemed to cross their minds that perhaps readers were turned off by price increases or the sheer glut of cross-overs and events that made keeping up with the narrative near impossible. It’s more convenient to just lay the blame at the easy targets, ignoring that young women are still the fastest growing demographic in the market. That all pales in comparison to their recent developments, wherein Captain America, the iconic hero of idealism created by two Jewish men, is now a Nazi.
Well, okay, he’s a Hydra agent, indoctrinated into the group as a child and set up to be their ultimate spy amongst the Allies of World War II. Due to a few “only in comics” plot twists, it turned out the Allies didn’t win World War II, but they managed to create a false history where they did and where Steve Rogers was their hero. That’s all gone now, and the new reality is that Captain America was always with Hydra, even if he didn’t know it. But that’s not a Nazi, right? Just because he’s part of a fascist organization that’s always been a direct parallel for the Nazi party and were referred to directly as such on Agents of SHIELD, surely he’s not a Nazi?
No. He’s a Nazi.
Nick Spencer, the current writer of Captain America, continues to insist that Steve isn’t a Nazi, and Hydra have nothing to do with the group they’re constantly compared to and based on. Recently, his PR strategy seems to be belittling fans on Twitter, mocking the concept of using comics as escapism, diminishing the impact the character has had on fans for decades, and rallying against the concept of characters as symbols. It turns out he’s as good a cultural critic as he is a writer. At one point, he used an Alan Moore quote to defend himself, which proved especially hilarious given that even Moore himself regretted some of his more controversial work, most notably Barbara Gordon’s fate in The Killing Joke.
Many have written about the flagrant disrespect this change to Steve is to his Jewish creators, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, not to mention the character’s own Nazi punching past, a potent symbol for Wartime America. Still, it bears repeating — one of the great figures of American pop culture and bastion of optimism, one created by two Jewish men, is now a Nazi. That’s made all the more shocking by the claims of Marvel’s editor-in-chief Axel Alonso that Nazi Cap has nothing to do with contemporary politics.
And in case you haven’t noticed, Nazis are having a moment right now. Aggressively right-wing violence in politics, often clouded in the euphemistic term “alt-right,” has become a disheartening norm. A Klan-endorsed President refused to directly reference Jews and antisemitism in a Holocaust remembrance statement in January, saying they “took into account all of those who suffered”; Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s “Holocaust centers” comment led to the Anne Frank Center calling for his firing; and Marine Le Pen is closer to the Presidency of France than any of us would like to believe. Anti-Semitic incidents are up an unforgivable 86% compared to this time last year. Nazism is not an abstract threat to be appropriated for video game fodder. Indeed, it never was, and it’s pretty sad that we ever allowed ourselves to be so distant from history that such ideas seemed fun.
What Nick Spencer is doing is nothing new, which is a whole issue unto itself, but the more he digs his heels in and insists his ideas are devoid of real world comparisons, the more it highlights another issue — he’s not a good writer. That may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of making a great hero a Nazi, but it’s emblematic of why bad storytelling happens. Spencer insists that characters like Steve shouldn’t be kept in glass cages, prized only as symbols and unable to be more complex characters. It’s true that for many years Steve was something of a two-dimensional goody two-shoes, but that can be said about pretty much every comic book character at some point in their past. The superhero medium was one mostly for children in its origins, after all, and broad strokes that told a simple good versus evil story were perfect for that audience. That evolved into something more ambitious as time passed, and some reinterpretations have been better than others. It’s telling that Spencer’s solution to adding new shades of Captain America is just to make him a Nazi - why bother developing further complexities to a decades old character beloved by millions when you can just spoil it for everyone?
Generally in the movie world, Marvel has been the brighter, more vibrant expanded universe of the two superhero franchises. DC, under the ceaselessly grey palate of Zack Snyder, has leaned heavily into “dark and edgy.” Of course, what they’re doing isn’t really that dark or edgy. It’s the kind of stylizing that teenage boys imagine counts as adult entertainment: Perpetual misery, muted colours to convey the utmost seriousness, murder on every corner, and massacres of concrete in the aftermath of “epic” battles, shamelessly evoking 9/11 for maximum manipulation. It’s why we have a Superman who straight up breaks Zod’s neck; it’s why we have him die two movies into the supposed saga and have poor Ben Affleck in Crossfit mode with muscles that look hard to walk with; it’s why we have a Juggalo Joker and so-called “comedy” where two women being punched in the face, one by freaking Batman, is a joke. The whole practice is almost beyond parody. For a sadly large number of hacks, the only way to make something worthwhile is to make it as humourless and off-putting as possible. Nick Spencer, who thinks making Steve a Nazi is no big deal but draws the line at punching actual Nazis, seems desperate to make the DCU look like My Little Pony.
It’s not all his doing, obviously. He’s hardly the lone wolf goose-stepping to sanctimony. Marvel Comics have leaned in hard to this event, inviting comics sellers to help them promote the Nazi fun. This month, they invited retailers to get in on the action, offering shirts with the Hydra logo for staff to wear, and that some shops and comics oriented sites would have the opportunity to make physical changes to the store fronts to fit the theming. Just what fans want to see when they come to a safe space for geek community - Totally Not Nazi iconography everywhere! Unsurprisingly, many stores declined.
We've also been asked to change our store logos to Hydra symbols. My staff are LGBTQ, Jewish, or both. We are no longer hand-selling Marvel. https://t.co/gQnBfBZC8L— Glamour Toad 🌈🐸🌈 (@NickiColey) April 20, 2017
There are enough awful things going on in the world without seeing pop culture, a possible escape from it all, being used to prop up fascistic bullshit under the guise of hackwork metaphors and infantile attempts at edgy sensationalism. There is no shame in reading Steve Rogers as the beacon of hope in a dark world. Frankly, we could use a few more of them these days. While audiences diversify and the most coveted demographics no longer pack the profit power they once did, fans are turning away to new creators and sources for stories that speak to them, and that can only be a good thing. There will always be room for the big players like Marvel, and I’m sure somewhere down the line a new writer will take on the mantle of Captain America and return him to the state we know and love. Sadly, it can’t come soon enough, and for now, one of the most powerful companies in modern entertainment seems happy to denigrate the legacy of one of their icons, and his creators, all for 4Chan-level shock value. There has never been a time in our history where punching Nazis was a bad idea. Perhaps soon we’ll see Steve back to his roots.