Marvel Entertainment would like you to know that Captain America is not a Nazi. Well, not officially, anyway.
On the face of it, this seems obvious. After all, the character — a superhero so patriotic that his name literally includes the word “America” — was created by two Jewish comic book artists, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, ahead of the United States entering the Second World War.
The iconic cover of the December 1940 first issue of Captain America Comics saw him socking Hitler square on the jaw. Inside the comics themselves, Cap was dealing with the Nazi menace on a regular basis. He continued the fight after he was revived as a Marvel Comics character and member of the Avengers in the 1960s. Those Nazis appeared both in flashback and those who had survived the fall of the Third Reich and come to America to become supervillains. Of course Captain America is not a Nazi.
Since last May, a number of comic book fans have been openly wondering about Cap’s National Socialist leanings after a plotline started in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. But now it peaks in the first issue of Secret Empire, Marvel’s big comic book storyline for this year, which hits comic book stores today. (Because of the way the comics work, it’s actually Secret Empire #0; the issue numbered “one” will actually be the second issue of the series. Don’t ask.)
In the controversial storyline, history has been rewritten so that Captain America isn’t just working for terrorist organization Hydra today, he’s always been working for Hydra. This includes a series of undercover operations during World War II where he attempted to undermine Allied efforts to defeat the Nazis. In fact, the storyline argues, Captain America has just been pretending to be a good guy for decades now, while manipulating events behind the scenes to enable a Hydra takeover of America.
To emphasize his heel turn, last year’s first issue of the Captain America: Steve Rogers series saw him attempt to murder a fellow superhero, before turning to sneer at the audience with a sinister “Hail Hydra.”
Fan response was swift and loudly negative, with the obligatory online petition asking for the storyline to be reversed as quickly as possible and Twitter hashtag, #SayNoToHYDRACap. In an interview during the reveal, Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort talked about the way in which the story was intended as commentary on the then-current political climate.
“We try to write comics in 2016 that are about the world and the zeitgeist of 2016, particularly in Captain America,” he said. “Nick Spencer, the writer, is very politically active. He’s a Capitol Hill head and following this election very closely. So we can talk about political issues in a metaphoric way. That’s what gives our stories weight and meat to them. Any parallels you have seen to situations real or imagined, living or dead, is probably intentional but metaphorically not literally.”
Nick Spencer himself agreed with that idea in a separate interview.
“We’ve obviously seen a lot of growth in white supremacist organizations and extreme nationalist groups in the U.S., certainly over the last eight years. And so I had to do the ugly research of what’s drawing folks into those groups,’” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s been a little interesting hearing people say, ‘Oh, he’s taking political shots.’ We’ve done that kind of thing, where we used a lot of topical language in stories with varying degrees of sincerity. This was a little different. I was looking at something else when I came to this. If people see those things as similar, it’s not my place to say. (Laughs.)”
The storyline to date has unfolded over both Captain America: Steve Rogers and its companion title Captain America: Sam Wilson. Wilson features former sidekick Wilson as a second Captain America, navigating a world not quite ready for a black man holding the shield. Both serires have been unsubtle in referencing current events, whether they be race riots after a black superhero is mistreated or a superhero team called the Bombshells, a thin-skinned parody of Spencer’s online critics.
(“Consider this your trigger warning!” one of the Bombshells yells as they throw a grenade; on Twitter, Spencer wrote, “'I am good and right, therefore I can never be the subject of parody’ is… quite a position to take, I guess” when accused of punching down with the characters.)
All storylines have been building, slowly to Secret Empire. The ten issue series sees the Captain America-led Hydra taking over the world, creating a new world order where the fascist organization reigns supreme. In today’s political reality, that idea feels oddly timely… which makes it particularly strange that Marvel is pushing its previous embrace of real world parallels as far away as possible.
“This is a rallying point for the Marvel Universe,” Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso told Entertainment Weekly about the new series. “This is very much a point where the heroes have to rally, get past minor differences, and deal with a real relevant threat. It’s all black and white, no shades of gray.”
He and Spencer emphasized that the series was not based in contemporary politics, according to the outlet.
The relationship between Hydra and the Nazis is a long and confusing one. The two groups have been affiliated since the second time Hydra appeared. For decades, Hydra’s origins were simply that it was a terrorist group created out of the ashes of the Nazis, funded by Nazi gold. That history would later get revised a number of times in an attempt to make them seem more insidious a threat. (In current Marvel history, Hydra actually got started in Ancient Egypt, inspired by prehistoric alien lizards. No, that’s not a joke.)
Traditionally, Hydra has been led by one of two types of figures. The first is a femme fatale using the pseudonym “Madame Hydra.” There have been multiple Madames Hydra throughout the years, all with long green hair and oft-problematic Asian “Dragon Lady” stereotypes. The other is, well, a Nazi. The Red Skull has led Hydra. The none-more-Nazi-named Baron Von Strucker has led Nazi. And now, Captain America is leading Hydra, just as it takes over the world.
However, those responsible for Secret Empire have proven to be very uncomfortable with any suggestion that Captain America is a Nazi these days. Writer Spencer has taken to Twitter to argue that Hydra isn’t actually a Nazi organization.
“There’s not a race/religion component to their theology,” he’s said. Months earlier, he’d outright said, “Steve is not a Nazi.”
Neither of these statements are exactly backed up by what’s on the page, but we’ll come to that soon enough.
He tried to further his argument inside the storyline himself, with the recent Captain America: Steve Rogers #15 seeing Cap fight the Red Skull for leadership of the organization, telling him the entire time how disgusted he was by the Nazi ideal.
“You took [Hydra] and twisted it and poisoned it to suit your sick aims,” he says at one point. See? the comic book seems to be saying, Captain America definitely isn’t a Nazi, he just beat the Nazi up and told him that Nazis are sick and twisted!
If that is the message of the comic, it’s surrounded by, to be polite, countless contradictions: Captain America might not be a Nazi but he is still someone who collaborated with the Nazis. He heads a terrorist organization that has explicitly fascist aims. January’s Civil War II: The Oath featured a flash-forward to Cap’s perfect Hydra-dominated future, including children giving raised-arm-salutes at the Hydra flag, aliens in barbed-wire fenced concentration camps and an African-American kid running in terror from three white kids wearing Hydra t-shirts.
Indeed, The Oath, which was also written by Nick Spencer, shows that if Cap isn’t a Nazi it’s only a matter of semantics. Captain America explains the need for Hydra in an expository monologue to a comatose Iron Man.
People in the world, he says, “felt afraid when a neighbor they knew and trusted revealed that above their country and communities, they now pledged allegience to an alien race — a race with a history of brutal violence against humanity — but they got angry when you called them intolerant for not wanting to sleep next to that.”
The issue made clear that Hydra, as Captain America believed in it, was all for intolerance and bigotry as long as it served his purpose. Sounds Nazi enough to us.
Captain America isn’t a Nazi in the strictest definition of the term: he literally doesn’t belong to the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. Any defense beyond that is, at best, unaware of the implications of what is actually appearing on the page. At worst, Spencer is dissembling in the hopes that the Captain America comic book brand isn’t dead forever.
Secret Empire #0 opens with a scene suggesting that, in the Marvel Universe, the Nazis won World War II only for history to be rewritten by the Allies. That’s either a comment on the international rise of extreme right-wing political figures or a tone deaf move. Their audience is already upset about Captain America going bad. The company is already dealing with a PR nightmare after an executive told an interviewer that audiences didn’t want to see diversity, nor female characters. Does Marvel really want to be known as the company that only wants to feature white male characters and believes that the Nazis should have won World War II?
Still. If Secret Empire has an upside to its corruption of a patriotic icon, it’s this: Captain America will at least be recognized as a bad guy, and the blind ideal of patriotism lends itself to valid criticism. And, despite Spencer’s feelings towards real world violence against fascists, genre convention demands that we’ll get to see at least one scene that looks like this before the story’s over:
Let’s be honest: It’s what the old Cap would’ve wanted.
Secret Empire #0 is in comic book stores now.