Since the mid-sixties, Captain America was the “hero’s hero”, a character whom the rest of the Marvel Universe treated with reverence and the utmost respect. He was a symbol of all that is right with heroism and stood as the “American Ideal”, valuing freedom, justice, and liberty. So, when writer Nick Spencer decided to recast this totem to American Exceptionalism into a Hydra agent, fandom went insane.
Comic book acolytes have a rich history of losing their collective minds over any change great or small, but Cap as a Hydra agent received a visceral hatred beyond the usual “how dare you change Thor’s costume!” rhetoric. Left-leaning fans have decided to make Cap’s current comic book melodramatics into a contemporary allegory that supports our current hateful political and social climate. Ironically, in the months prior to Captain America’s new allegiance to Hydra, right-wing fans were foaming over Nick Spencer’s “leftist” attitudes toward Marvel’s premiere shield-slinger. The tide has turned, as bloggers and columnists lob their two cents on this story arc: Aliza Weinberger at mashable.com declared, “…Marvel has, in effect, made Captain America a Nazi.” Nivrata Bharwani of femmagazine.com stated, “As a Jewish woman, reading Steve Rogers (Captain America), the “Star Spangled Man with a Plan,” utter the words ‘Hail Hydra’ is extremely traumatizing”. Oliver Sava at the A.V.Club declared, “…the story feels even more like overt disrespect of the character’s creators, an opportunity to change everything Captain America stands for because it would be cool to see him fight everyone in the Marvel Universe.” This is a small sampling of the fury that comic fans have unleashed regarding Captain America’s current plotline and Nick Spencer’s creative impetus in writing it. In point of fact, this sampling is some of the more levelheaded rage.
As a middle-aged liberal white dude, I do make attempts at cultural sensitivity, and more importantly, I try to quell any kneejerk reactions I may have, as I realize I might be behind the times. Add to that, I've been a comic fan for most of my life, and as such, I have become callused to fans going batshit over the slightest change to character’s identity. I don’t claim to be perfect; I know I’m not always right.
With that caveat in place, I feel compelled to ask: what the shit is up with this mishigosh? I've not read one criticism of the “Hydra Cap” story that either negatively or positively reviews Spencer on the basis of craft, nor have I read a level social criticism to the effect of “in a international climate that seems to embrace fascism, a story in which Captain America is fundamentally corrupted is not a story I want to read”. Instead, the critiques seem to be that "Hydra Cap" is terrible because:
1-Hydra are Nazis, therefore
2-Cap is a Nazi, and so
3-this is an insult to Jack Kirby as he was Jewish and mistreated by Marvel, as such
4-it's socially irresponsible to “denigrate” Captain America in this way.
All of these arguments are all incredibly fallacious.
To begin, Hydra are not Nazis. If I wore a Hydra t-shirt to a synagogue, it would not be a hate crime. If I wore a swastika t-shirt virtually anywhere, there would be problems (and rightfully so). Hydra is a fictional organization that has been bumping around the Marvel Universe since 1965. Yes, “Nazis” have been members of Hydra, notably Red Skull and Baron Von Strucker, however, these are not real people (hence “Nazi” being in quotes). Perhaps we, as a society, have grown to a point where portraying Nazis as cartoon villains is unacceptable, but can we, as a society also allow that there are some characters who might be “grandfathered in”? If Batman can beat up the mentally ill without examination, can’t Captain America smack around the Red Skull? What disgusts me about the one-to-one equation of Hydra to the Nazi party is that by aiming your ire at a cartoon organization, one trivializes the actual Holocaust. Nazis were real, Nazis were horrifying, Nazis are a blight on history, arguably the most singular example of humanity’s capacity for evil, and the most chilling example of humanity’s ability to use their collective capacity for industrial ingenuity to the most disgusting of ends. Hydra once fought Magneto. That’s an important difference.
One more note about Hydra: this outrage seems insincere. As of this writing, Hydra have been in comic books (obviously), cartoons, TV shows, movies, on t-shirts, modeled into action figures, have been featured in video games, and even been a part of Lego play-sets. If Hydra were tantamount to Nazis, why did it take over fifty years for fans to be filled with indignant rage?
Operating under the thesis that Hydra and the National Socialist Party are two different things (one an despicable reality, the other imaginary), I am led to the conclusion that if Hydra are not Nazis, then Captain America, reconstituted into a Hydra agent, is also not a literal Nazi. This incarnation of the character has not launched into hate-fueled oration. I will concede that even in fictionalized terms, having a blonde, blue-eyed man wearing what amounts to an American flag denounce the Civil Rights movement would be incredibly socially irresponsible and offensive. Were Captain America to opine on his 9/11-truther theories, it would be repugnant. But Steve Rogers has not had stump speeches where he spews offensive garbage, he has never questioned whether or not jet-fuel can melt steel beams, he has just covertly schemed against SHIELD.
On Jack Kirby: I have no idea of the terms of Marvel and the Kirby estate’s financial agreement, but whatever compensation the Kirby family receives, it could never be enough. Marvel would not be Marvel without Jack Kirby’s contribution, and throughout his life and well after his death, Marvel Comics shabby treatment of Jack Kirby as an artist, creator, and a person was shameful. Still, implying— or directly stating— that “Hydra Cap” is an insult to Kirby’s memory is just as shameful; it’s a cheap ploy to strengthen an argument built on sand, trivializing Kirby’s real-life struggles. All we can do is speculate on Jack Kirby’s opinion of this story. Most critics do not seem to have the historical understanding to even do that. If Kirby were alive today, I'm sure seeing that he and his family were well-compensated for his work and creations would be far higher a priority than what a drawing is doing.
The major elements of this story: Captain America, The Red Skull, The Cosmic Cube, Hydra, and SHIELD are all Kirby creations (or co-creations). These creations are being used, despite fan outrage, exactly how Kirby designed. Cap (a noble hero) is corrupted by The Red Skull (an unrepentant villain) via The Cosmic Cube (an all-powerful but vaguely defined device) to turn the tide of the eternal battle between Hydra (an evil organization) and SHIELD (a usually heroic organization). Nick Spencer is not twisting Kirby's ideas/characters, he's attempting to weave a compelling story with them. One may not like the story he’s telling, but it does not come from a place of malevolence, it comes from doing what every mainstream comic writer does: rejiggering the elements of the mythos to try to make something new.
As for the question of social responsibility, I'll admit, this is a tough one. What does it say that Captain America has aligned with Hydra? Oh wait, that's not the story-- let's rephrase: what does it say that Red Skull manipulated a sentient Cosmic Cube to reweave the fabric of time in order to make Steve Rogers indoctrinated from childhood into a Hydra sleeper agent? To this author, it says, “comics are goofy”; that it says something else to anyone makes me question their grip on reality. Cap didn’t happen to pick up a copy of Mein Kampf and decide there were some good ideas worth exploring in those pages; Cap’s evil arch-nemesis has temporarily outwitted him. It’s a conflict, all right— that’s how drama works. I will concede that elements of Spencer's story are reflective of the real world, but that's what art- even corporate escapist art- does; it reflects the times, one way or another.
Captain America has been a werewolf, a crack addict, a steroid fueled sadist, deknighted, de-aged, re-aged, brainwashed, and everything else one can imagine. As comics are comics, he always returns to the status quo. This is no different, it just happens to be somewhat socially relevant. Except for the ageless fictional Nazi with a skull-head, a magical, otherworldly device turned into a young child, and an enhanced soldier who has been alive since the Roosevelt administration. This is a superhero comic, which is to say it is preposterous fiction. It’s nice that we live in a world where an audience can interpret subtext into a story about good vs. evil, that even traditionally middle-of-the-road superhero titles have “grown up” enough that they are worth some cultural debate. This is not debate, however. This is outrage because a writer (with a pretty good fan track-record) created a story that, for the sake of drama, challenged the standard Captain America formula. Readers are allowed not to like it, they are allowed to critique it, but to demand the author’s head on a pike and to assume his political and social motivation behind his story is far more fascistic than anything Hydra could ever do (because Hydra does not exist).