Yes, this post contains spoilers for Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. And DC Universe Rebirth. Sorry.
Poor DC Comics—even bringing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal, standalone Watchmen into the same continuity as Batman failed to overshadow their corporate rival Marvel Comics for a single Wednesday news cycle. While #Rebirth had a healthy (and mostly positive) trending moment, #SayNoToHYDRACap and the less specific #CaptainAmerica trended well into the night, as news of Steve Rogers’ newly revealed—and apparently life-long—allegiance to Nazi-affiliated terrorist organization, Hydra, was disseminated by major news outlets including Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, TIME and even Breitbart News (we won’t be linking to that one—read our coverage instead).
Attention-grabbing cliffhangers are as old as serialized storytelling itself, but writer Nick Spencer made it clear to EW that this controversial new side of the original Captain America is “not a clone, not an imposter, not mind control, not someone else acting through Steve. This really is Steve Rogers, Captain America himself.”
And people are pissed.
Comic readers are possessive of fictional characters as a default. Superhero publishing, particularly at the “Big Two” of Marvel Comics and DC Comics, is heavily driven by nostalgia: you loved Character X as a child, now please continue buying his adventures as you age into your forties. Even if someone lacks an actual history of readership, the sheer public presence of icons like Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and Superman engenders a sort of protectiveness in many fans.
This possessiveness has evolved (or devolved) into a tug-of-war with the very concept of change serving as the rope. On one side, a regressive, toxic segment of the existing readership has dug trenches against inclusiveness, decrying each new queer character, hero of color or female lead as “politically correct pandering” and an imagined insult to characters created decades ago when “straight white male” was the only available flavor of hero. On the far opposite side of the spectrum is a contingent of new fans vocally upset over each new development that doesn’t push for inclusion, such as when Marvel relaunched Hercules but declined to pursue a brief suggestion that the bear-ish Greek demigod may be bisexual. Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 seems to have united both camps in outrage and disappointment.
If you’ve yet to read the issue or one of the many, many recaps elsewhere on the web, the first installment of the relaunched Rogers-starring series weaves together two chronologically distant stories of terrorist recruitment, ending with beloved hero, Avenger and American icon Steve Rogers kicking a c-list patriotic hero to his apparent death and uttering the now-famous “Hail Hydra” motto—the Marvel Universe’s fictional “Sieg heil” equivalent.
Captain America Interior Art by Jesus Saiz
Or at least, that’s what “Hail Hydra” means today. When Jack Kirby and Stan Lee first created Hydra in 1965, the organization wasn’t such a direct stand-in for Nazis, until an early retcon (that’s a retroactive change to continuity—ask Dr. Manhattan for more info) established the group’s ties to former Nazis and remnants of Nazi-allied Japan. For decades, Hydra and similar groups like A.I.M. and the Secret Empire flitted in and out of fictional prominence, serving interchangeably when heroes needed fascist cannon fodder to beat up. Hydra’s Nazi ties were never rebuked, but eugenics and religious persecution were swapped out for generic world domination. Hydra and its ilk were safe stand-ins for the very real atrocities of the Nazi party: uncomplicated evil in the place of unflinching human horror.
It wasn’t until 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger that the Marvel Cinematic Universe cemented Hydra and the Nazi ideology as a one-to-one parallel. In the film, the villainous Red Skull is Adolf Hitler’s trusted head of advanced weaponry, and Hydra is an active (if rogue) arm of the Nazi party. While subsequent films and comics have still resisted explicitly equating Hydra with racist genocide (opting instead for equal-opportunity genocide for all), it’s this balancing act—between Hydra’s existence as a clearly fictional super-terrorist organization and its evocation of the very real Nazi party—that has many readers dismayed over Marvel’s latest “twist.” As has been pointed out quickly and often, Captain America was created in 1941 by two Jewish boys, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, as a jingoistic retort against the Axis forces. The very first issue sported a cover of Cap punching Adolph Hitler in the face, a full year before the attacks on Pearl Harbor. And while DC has published both Communist Superman and Nazi Superman, neither were the “real” Superman, as this is said to be the “real” Steve Rogers.
Hydra Poster Art by Eric Tan
Still, any longtime follower of the Big Two can attest that this change, no matter how “earth-shattering,” will be reversed or overturned with time. Just as the Punisher is no longer an angel or Frankenstein’s monster, Peter Parker does not possess an excess of clones and Cap himself is not a werewolf, Steve Rogers will not always be a Hydra plant. (Heck, the other major comic out this week is essentially an illustrated apology for—and reset of—the last five years of DC publishing.) As Spencer and editor Tom Brevoort indicated in the EW interview, this plot development has been in the works since before former writer Rick Remender’s departure, and it’s unlikely that Marvel has painted itself into a creative corner with one of its most timeless heroes. If Spider-Man can recover from a deal with Satan’s proxy, Captain America will eventually bounce back from getting into bed with fake Nazis.
But will Hydra?
The insidiousness of Nazi ideology comes not just from the reprehensible beliefs held by adherents, but also from the public platform from which these beliefs are espoused. It is not particularly shocking that an individual might be full of hate—it is horrifying that the majority of a country can rationalize rallying behind such an individual. During an era in which the GOP has resigned itself to a presidential candidate whose sole tangible platform proposals seem to be ethnic and religious discrimination, and who bizarrely resists outright rejecting support from white nationalists, do readers want surrogate Nazis as a driving antagonistic force in their escapist superhero fiction?
A year ago, writer Steve Orlando spoke to Paste about the launch of Midnighter, DC’s first solo series headlined by a gay protagonist. When asked about the globetrotting character’s relationship to aggressively homophobic countries like Russia, Orlando responded: “I think it’s a slippery slope to have him be an easy answer. You have a character who could just walk into the Kremlin and beat up Putin and that would be great, but it wouldn’t solve any real problems. It might be cathartic for 20 pages, but then you’ve also kind of dumped on the real struggles that these people are having.”
Hank Johnson, Agent of Hydra Cover Art by Amanda Conner
For many fans, having the flag-bearing symbol of patriotic heroism revealed as a double agent for a Nazi-related terrorist organization falls far short of catharsis. The final survivors of WWII-era Nazi violence may be passing away, but the family-rending impact of the Holocaust will continue to reverberate for generations to come. Even setting aside the long shadow of that unfathomable tragedy, Spencer evokes ISIS and the rise of homegrown white terrorism in a desire for Hydra’s recruiting practices to reflect terrorism in the modern day—a ripped-from-the-headlines realness that seems at odds with Hydra’s place in the larger Marvel U. Just last year, Marvel published Hank Johnson, Agent of Hydra, an irreverent Secret Wars tie-in that played out like a super-terrorist workplace comedy. In the pages of fan-favorite all-ages breakout The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, the titular character has some bushy-tailed fun fighting Swarm, a running joke of a Spider-foe who is literally a Nazi made out of bees. With Hydra and even outright Nazism treated with such tonal inconsistency, is it any surprise that many fans are unwilling to give Spencer and artist Jesus Saiz the benefit of the doubt via monthly payments of $3.99 to discover just how this reveal will play out?
Captain America #1 Cover Art by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Conversely, a much fouler side of fandom is convinced that this is yet another ploy by Disney/“The Media” to vilify straight white men like Rogers while promoting diverse heroes like Sam Wilson. Wilson, the former Falcon, took up the mantle of Captain America in 2014 after Steve Rogers was rapidly aged, and continues to headline his own Captain America series, also written by Spencer. The “reasoning” (if you can call it that) of this GamerGate-esque crowd is that developments like a female Thor, Asian-American Hulk or black Captain America serve not to reflect the changing demographics of America and its comic readers, but to denigrate the straight white male. It’s hard to tell how many of these “fans” are actually buying comics and how many are just sad, sick puppies with too much time on their hands, but it’s still fascinating to see diametrically opposed sides of fandom find a shared source of unease—if for starkly different reasons.
As with any “shocking” comic twist, the ultimate proof will be in the telling, not in the headlines. If Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 sold an issue for every heated tweet it inspired, it’d be the best-selling comic of the year. Still, there may already be one lesson to take away from the passionate response this development has stirred: after years of flippant use in comics and video games, Nazi surrogates are no longer consequence-free antagonists. When the historical atrocities of the actual Nazis have so many modern-day echoes, 20 pages of mainstream, action-driven sequential art can’t hope to meaningfully address such a shameful legacy, and it may be time for publishers to develop a new stand-in for generic world-dominating evil.