If you’ve been paying any amount of attention to the Marvel universe this past week, you’re already aware of the backlash surrounding Nick Spencer’s reveal regarding Steve Rogers at the end of the first issue of “Captain America: Steve Rogers.” For those of you not in the know, the final page of the comic is a full-page splash of Cap uttering that wonderful catchphrase that’s been bandied about by villains in the MCU and its fandom for the past couple years: “Hail Hydra.”
Responses to the First Avenger’s betrayal have been, in a word, heated. It’s clear that Spencer is playing up the shock factor in order to get readers, just like comics have done since their inception, but there’s an important angle to this that many Marvel fans picked up on, namely the erasure of Steve Rogers’ creation by two Jewish men at a time when anti-Semitic sentiment in the states was at alarming levels. His new affiliation with Hydra essentially posits Cap as a neo-Nazi. Sleeper agent or no, there’s no getting around the fact that the current iteration of Hydra exists as a thinly veiled metaphor for the Third Reich.
Pushback to this argument has ranged from defending the shock tactics in order to boost sales to highlighting the fact that Hydra’s history in the comics hasn’t always included Nazi overtones, and while there is vitriol being thrown by both sides, there are some important facts to consider.
First off, the outcry from members of the Jewish community is valid, and deserves to be heard, and not silenced or waved away. The Holocaust happened just over 71 years ago. 71. Not a century, not two centuries, but a span of time that’s about a handful of years less than the expected lifespan in the US. That’s 6 million Jewish deaths that are only one or two generations away. For perspective, that would be as if the population of Washington D.C. had been completely eradicated. Roughly 2% of the population of the U.S. That means that statistically one out of every 50 people you had ever met while living here would be dead. The sheer numbers are staggering, and something that absolutely must be taken into account when comic fans rush to defend this decision. If a tragedy on that scale had a direct effect on you, and was exploited as a last-page stinger in order to sell issues of a book, odds are you wouldn’t take it lying down. I’m certainly not.
it’s the responsibility of the artist to acknowledge the pain of marginalized groups, and not to attempt to dictate to them what is and isn’t oppression or exploitation.
Second, the argument that Hydra hasn’t always been associated with Nazism is a flimsy one at best. Worse, it’s elitist because it supposes that the anger surrounding the reveal is carried by bandwagoners who have only seen the movies or don’t have as deep an understanding of the comics as the Hydra apologists feel that they should. Art does not exist in a vacuum, and popular perception of Hydra thanks to the MCU is that it’s a branch of the Third Reich. Comic book heroes are mainstream now, and as such they now have popular perceptions surrounding them. The Hydra most new fans know is one founded by the Red Skull, with deep ties to fascism. Their mannerisms, their salute, their uniforms, their aesthetic, all of it is crafted with the intention of evoking that gut familiarity, that unease that comes with watching newsreels from the 30’s and watching ranks of goose-stepping SS, and it works. It works very well, but when it crosses the line it’s the responsibility of the artist to acknowledge the pain of the marginalized groups, and not to attempt to dictate to them what is and isn’t oppression or exploitation.
The deeper problem is that this isn’t the first time Marvel has exhibited callous disregard for the Jewish community, nor is it the first time that there’s been pushback against it. The whitewashing of Pietro and Wanda Maximoff in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was only made worse by the fact that their powers were no longer natural mutations, but the result of Hydra’s medical experiments, experiments that they volunteered for. If the fact that two canonically Jewish Roma would sign on with neo-Nazis doesn’t set off enough alarm bells, consider doing research on Mengele and the actual medical experiments carried out on Jewish prisoners.
At the end of the day, comics will move on. Steve Rogers will probably be back to his regular self in a few months time, but the shadow of what Marvel has done will still be there. Every single comic fan who tried to shout down those upset by this reveal will still be there, and the next time something like this happens, there will be fewer who speak out against it. That scares me. The possibility that I might one day not say anything because I know nobody will take it seriously, or that they’ll deem it unimportant. The comic book community as a whole seems to have a massive empathy problem, and with the increasingly mainstream nature of comics, it’s not something we can afford to ignore any longer.