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Why Captain America, Watchmen and Corporate-Owned Characters Promise Us Nothing

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Why Captain America, Watchmen and Corporate-Owned Characters Promise Us Nothing

“The coming into being of the notion of the author constitutes the privileged moment of individuation,” wrote French philosopher Michel Foucault in his influential 1969 lecture, “What is an Author?” Foucault expounds on the problematic notion of authorship, explaining that the proper name of an author has a function far beyond simple attribution. He indicates that the role—and, more pressingly, the ownership that author has over their text—was only confirmed “once a system of ownership for texts came into being, once strict rules concerning author’s rights, author-publisher relations, rights of reproduction, and related matters were enacted…” Under this analysis, authorship ceased to be “an act placed in the bipolar field of the sacred and the profane,” instead becoming “a product, a thing, a kind of goods…” It became a guarantee and a brand, too. It is a function, however, far less prominent in superhero comics, and the absence of that function culminated in last week’s controversial “Captain America is and always has been a metaphorical, secret Nazi” reveal.

Premiering in Captain America Comics #1, Marvel’s patriotic superhero debuted in a now-iconic image of the character tossing a haymaker across Adolf Hitler’s jaw. But with a publication date of March 1941, the issue hit newsstands months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which forced American involvement in World War II. And at a time when countless Americans (including automobile icon Henry Ford and famed aviator Charles Lindbergh) accepted and spread the same anti-Semitic ideology as the Nazis in Germany, Captain America punching Hitler was more controversial than we may think today. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Captain America’s creators, were Jewish, and the death threats were numerous and credible enough that New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had to assure the men that they had his full support and protection.

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Captain America Comics #1 Cove Art by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Unfortunately, Simon and Kirby left the title with issue #10, only a year later. By 1954 the once-popular series had waned enough to necessitate a cancellation, but the damage to the character had been done in that first year. Simon and Kirby had sold the character to Marvel (then Timely Publications) in a deal typical of most negotiations between creators and superhero publishers of the era—pay young creators who are just trying to feed themselves very, very low fees for complete ownership of their creations. The character was owned by a corporation, and once Simon and Kirby removed themselves from the actual production of the book, Captain America (the icon) was thrust into a limbo of suspended animation, mirroring Captain America’s icy stasis for most of the 20th century. Other writers, pencilers, inkers, colorists, letterers (all creators with valid claims to at least partial authorship) took control of the character, crafting stories that expanded upon, preceded and contradicted one another. Cap appeared in solo adventures and he served as a member of several teams; he was even shot “dead,” later revealed to be dangling in space and time. In fact, Steve Rogers, the “original” Captain America, has ditched his alter-ego on at least two occasions, and has been replaced nearly a dozen times. He’s appeared in a handful of cartoons this decade alone, and Captain America: Civil War marks actor Chris Evans’ fifth turn as the character. A cartoonist or team of creators may be said to author a specific comic or series of comics, but the character now principally belongs to no one person in particular.

But the First Avenger certainly isn’t the only property thrust into this ambiguous creative purgatory; the same is true of every other character owned by a corporation. A few weeks ago, DC Universe Rebirth introduced its characters to Dr. Manhattan, a player from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen —largely regarded as one of the most literary, beloved superhero comics in the medium. Prior to 2012’s Before Watchmen prequel miniseries, Dr. Manhattan’s only comic appearance was in the original 1986 miniseries. On the eve of Before Watchmen’s debut, outlets that rarely covered comics chimed in, asking whether or not a comic that borrows characters from an established creative team should—ethically speaking—even exist. But it does, and its production broke the floodgates. Now the tinkering and appropriation of Watchmen is justified with, “I know it’s crazy but he felt like the right character to use” and defended by, “But who cares, really?”

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DC Universe Rebirth #1 Cover Art by Gary Frank

The characters who populate Watchmen no longer have owners (at least not human ones), so their story and history can be written, re-written and written over. They have creators, but not authors. They proceed like Jean Baudrillard described in Simulacra and Simulation: beginning as meaningful signs until pliability depletes their essence. Which is why Captain America lives outside the comics—in film, in cartoons, on TV, in video games. He lives on as a mascot of cereal, adorning bedsheets, baby onesies, sneakers and t-shirts. And the same can be said of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and other popular characters. The Man of Tomorrow in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s landmark All-Star Superman may resonate with readers, it may evoke passions and excite aesthetically, but that Superman does not exist outside of that story. The Superman that exists outside of that story is a flat nothing without a core. The property’s lack of authorship prevents it from definition; tomorrow may kill, resurrect and recast Superman within one panel. The character is inherently without an identity; it has no politics or aesthetics or ethics.

It’s easy to understand the decision behind writer Nick Spencer, artist Jesus Saiz and Marvel editorial’s decision to reveal that Captain America—who debuted punching Hitler—as a secret agent of Hydra, the Marvel Universe’s premier Nazi equivalent. Make no mistake: this is tragic, but it’s the former and not the latter that’s tragic. It is not simply that a fictional character was revealed to observe a thin stand-in for a materially harmful ideology. That character is a Jewish-created confrontation of anti-Semitism writ large, and that legacy has not been considered. Functionally, Cap begins as a metaphor for the rage of two young Jewish cartoonists, but through decades of dispossession divorced from a particular vision, he no longer performs that function. This process thrives by people who sell fans their fandom. As Tucker Stone noted all the way back in 2009 in response to a new Batman universe:

The easy response to that negativity is to immediately blame those who feel “betrayed” as acting like children, and part of that ease comes from accuracy, because, well, it is childish to want things to never change. But while some of those feelings of betrayal may be deserving of ridicule, it’s worth recalling that much of the source for that feeling stems from the fashion in which both DC & Marvel constructed their fan-dependent publishing model. Both of the Big Two expect, need and crave company-focused consumers, an audience that gets all of their comics needs met by the products they have to offer.

Hence, crypto-Nazi. That process of making icons so malleable almost necessitates stunt storytelling. In her impassioned criticism of the decision, Jessica Plummer precludes the argument that Cap will once more don his stars and stripes:

Look, this isn’t my first rodeo. I know how comics work. He’s a Skrull, or a triple agent, or these are implanted memories, or it’s a time travel switcheroo, or, or, or. There are a thousand ways Marvel can undo this reveal—and they will, of course, because they’re not about to just throw away a multi-billion dollar piece of IP. Steve Rogers is not going to stay Hydra any more than Superman stayed dead.

It stands to reason that Steve Rogers, if he is truly a Nazi, won’t stay one for long. Something will be changed or erased or explained so that his new identity was just a ruse, and this shocker will be nothing more than that—a shocker, an excuse to gasp. This is not unusual in comics, and it is a trope of superhero comics in particular, so the surprise cannot be the root of people’s (oft very, very inappropriate) anger. If not that, then what? “But Nazis […]”, Plummer continues, “are not a wacky pretend bad guy, something I think geek media and pop culture too often forgets.” Nazis and Naziism are something that needs to be taken seriously, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be addressed.

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Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 Interior Art by Jesus Saiz

For its entire history, art has transgressed taboos and broached subjects that many thought unapproachable. Even our cultural relationship to World War II and the Holocaust has an artistic component, and films like Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Orson WellesThe Stranger helped inform and educate on what the concentration camps entailed. But in these works, Naziism and its effects were imbued with the gravitas they deserved, and its atrocities weren’t flattened to the same level as escapist genre fiction.

As Paste’s own Steve Foxe writes, “after years of flippant use in comics and video games, Nazi surrogates are no longer consequence-free antagonists.” The problem isn’t that Captain America won’t eventually return to his anti-Fascist, all-American roots—it’s that he will be. It’s that “Captain America: Secret Nazi?” punctures those for whom Naziism and anti-Semitism are not simply a thing from the past, and that this plot development will eventually end with a “just kidding.”

Captain America is no longer Captain America. Afloat in a state of authorship that existed before Foucault’s definition, Steve Rogers has become a Byzantine icon—a recurring image that belongs to no one, that may be transformed into anything, defined only briefly by its immediate context. Hollowed out, Captain America means nothing on his own. “It made something new and unexpected…” says editor Tom Brevoort of the recent revelation, emphasizing excitement over character.

And that’s the real tragedy: it’s not that Captain America is a Nazi. It’s that the icon has been robbed of an author. His purpose for being has been replaced with the urgent need to sell Hostess fruit pies or workout shirts. Similarly degraded, Nazis have been shrunken down to a cheap marketing ploy—and their actions have been robbed of their vehemence and tragedy. Captain America means nothing; his anti-Fascist, anti-Nazi origins overwritten into obscurity, a copy of a copy of a copy that no longer resembles the original.

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