Saturday, May 28, 2016

Thoughts on the Whole Cap/Hydra Thing

This post contains spoilers for Steve Rogers: Captain America #1. If you haven't read it and want to be surprised (I encourage you to do that!) then come back after you've done so. If not, proceed. This is your

spoiler warning


My reaction to the news that Cap was now and always has been an agent for Hydra was one of disbelief and shock. "What? That's stupid, lazy writing. It's disrespectful of the original creators!"

That feeling hasn't changed. Well, not much any way. But now that I've read the book (my copy has the sweet Steranko variant cover) I can say that the reporting on the twist ending is misleading at best and fanning the flames of outrage for the sake of creating controversy at worst.

So Nick Spencer and Jesus Saiz have written and drawn a fine comic book. It has a look and feel like some of the classic Cap books of old. The dialogue is pretty snappy and the visual storytelling moves right along. These two creators do, indeed, know what they're doing.

From the "what has come before" description on the very first page, we are reminded that this is a comic book. SHIELD has a 'reality-bending small-town super prison' and in previous issues Steve has been de-powered and aged. He's returned to fighting firm by a 'sentient Cosmic Cube named Kobik' which means that the world now has TWO Captain Americas in Steve and his partner Sam Wilson, who most know as The Falcon. 

So now we're caught up. And see? With a sentient Cosmic Cube involved, it's a comic book story. I'm glad all that was in there up front because I haven't read Cap for a long, long time. Already, given what I've read on the Internet about the book and knowing how the episodic storytelling of comics works, I'm intrigued and ready to see what's coming.

But here's the real problem: articles that have direct quotes from Tom Brevoort, the editor of the book, have enlightened me to the fact that this is the real Steve Rogers and not a clone or anything like that. I'm aware this is happening in the reality of the comics. So when we get to the end, well --- hang on, I'm rushing a bit.

Through some flashbacks we learn that Steve's mother was approached by Hydra early on, when Steve's abusive father was around. We all know how much Steve reveres his mom, so it's shocking to think that she was susceptible to the subtle suggestions of Hydra. But that's how these things work. You don't know you're being indoctrinated until it's too late. That story is paralleled by Cap chasing an American kid who's been brainwashed to become a suicide bomber for present day Hydra. It's all reenforced by Cap's narration about being a hero.

Nicely done by Spencer and Saiz. They've done everything a storyteller is supposed to do. 

We're introduced to Free Spirit and Jack Flag (who are apparently from a period of time in Cap's history when I wasn't reading him). Cap's narration continues about all it takes to be a hero when the three of them chase after Baron Zemo. Jack sees that Cap may need some help so he jumps in and Cap is saved and everything is normal. Until Cap pushes Jack out the open emergency cargo door, high over the city. Jack doesn't fly so it seems that Cap has just murdered a hero and that's when he says "Hail Hydra."

Still with me?

As noted above, Spencer, Saiz and company have created a fine comic book. It ends on a cliffhanger and Marvel wants us to come back next month to find out what happens next.

Being an experienced reader of comics, I'm reasonably sure that Steve Rogers will not be an agent of Hydra forever. In one notable story from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's run on TALES OF SUSPENSE, the Red Skull (who is also currently on the loose and recruiting for Hydra) brainwashes Cap during WWII and even gets him to salute Hitler. This story was reprinted in the 70s in a collection called BRING ON THE BAD GUYS and the panel of Hitler cowering behind a chair while the Skull watches with glee as Cap salutes is being circulated as proof that he's been a Nazi before.

The deal with that particular story is that for ten or eleven pages over the course of three months, Cap was under the influence of a Nazi chemical compound that eventually wore off. Comics storytelling now is very different and much more decompressed. This tale being told but Spencer and Saiz will likely run at least six entire issues and maybe longer. Another story involving Spider-Man being displaced from his body took 33 issues.

I've wandered a bit. Sorry. Being an experienced comic book reader and having seen the key term 'reality-bending' and knowing what a Cosmic Cube can do, I have to wonder if this isn't all within the reality of the Cube. It's also possible that Steve and SHIELD are playing a long game of undercover infiltration to finally cripple Hydra in a way that would make them irrelevant in the future. There are other possible story thread to follow too. That's why I'm confident this won't be forever, but it's bothersome that Brevoort has given an interview that sounds a lot like this is a permanent retconning of Cap's history. That he was raised by a mother who was under the direction of Hydra. 

That would be disrespectful of the original creators in the extremes. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Cap to exhort America to join in WWII. They were both Jewish and the things that were going on in Europe disturbed them. If this is a true retcon and Cap's history is changed in this fundamental way, it's awful and I would be hard pressed to spend any money on any Marvel product in the future.

But that's not clear yet, so I'll reserve judgment until it is.

In this interview over at Comic Book Resources, Brevoort says:
This is very, similar, in a sense, to the kerfuffle a couple of years ago around one of Rick Remender's "Captain America" issues, where there was a lot of outcry stirred up by people who insisted Sam Wilson had sex with an underaged character, despite the fact that the character's age was given in the comic. That was a case where somebody was very upset with what they thought it was, or had an agenda and put that view out there and was loud enough about it, about an issue that is very close to a lot of people, and struck a nerve and they responded in kind, without actually having all of the information of what the story was about. When you actually went and looked at the story in question, it wasn't at all the thing that was being talked about.

I get this response. I totally understand it. I can't say I was specifically ready for it -- I don't think it particularly crossed our minds that people would say that this issue of "Captain America" contains anti-Semitic undertones. But again, I can see how people get to that conclusion, and I can totally understand how people would be upset about it. That said, these charges are based on huge intuitive leaps concerning the material. Marvel would, under no circumstances, condone anti-Semitism. If people want to conclude that this is what we’re doing, that's their prerogative, but there's a story to be told that will challenge that assumption.

All right, in this day and age, not being ready for the response that's been generated (and one person even burned a copy of the comic) is irresponsible. It's showing a depth of ignorance of the world or a disregard for others that's staggering. I don't know Tom Brevoort personally, nor Spencer or Saiz, but I find it difficult to believe they are so  walled off from the world they didn't anticipate this. Further, when Brevoort says that someone 'had an agenda' he's diminishing those who have issues with the stories that Marvel is telling.

The privilege of Tom Brevoort is showing.

One would have hoped that someone in the office brought up all the possibilities that this one issue of a larger story would have raised amongst the fans and the Internet. If Marvel doesn't have those people in the office they need to, right away.

I think the real problem is in the way that Marvel is promoting this series. Here's a quote from writer Nick Spencer, again from Comic Book Resources:

"[T]he one thing we can say unequivocally is: This is not a clone, not an imposter, not mind control, not someone else acting through Steve," said Spencer. "This really is Steve Rogers, Captain America himself."
...While this is definitely Steve Rogers, as Spencer says, it's still possible that this is a different Steve Rogers than we've seen before.

I get that you're telling an episodic comic book story, but maybe you should have given us the story in a different format, a longer one that told more of the story. Unless you're seeking the controversy and acting like you're not. Then that's manipulative and dishonorable.

The privilege of Marvel comics is showing if that's the case. They greenlit a story last year knowing full well that there would be a lot of attention toward Steve and Cap after the blockbuster Civil War film. Then Marvel, which knows how to run PR well, doesn't appeal to the casual fans generated by the films. I'm aware that the films don't translate into big comic book sales but when the comics do things that the mainstream media will notice unfavorably, then Marvel is acting dishonorably. Is the office full of white men chortling to themselves about the ruckus they've caused?

One more quote. This one from Vox:

Then there's the possibility that Marvel is using this reveal as a cliffhanger of sorts, and that Captain America might not be a Nazi Hydra agent after all. We won't know until the end of this arc. But no matter what happens in future issues, it's easy to see why fans could be hurt by this twist (especially if this turns out to be more of a stunt than a methodical editorial decision).

 If this is a stunt, and Marvel is famous for stunts, it's certainly in bad taste. Again, more privilege.

Yes, Captain America hasn't been himself 100% of the time throughout his 70 year history. All the tropes have already been done and recycled at least once. Hell, he was a werewolf for a time. Marvel calculates all their moves. They released this book the week of Memorial Day, when there will be a lot of remembrance of WWII. They released this book after Civil War had a successful run in theaters. All eyes are on them right now. And there's nothing wrong with that.

But implying that this is a full on retcon in the way you're promoting the book is stupid and disrespectful. With your editor-in-chief having degrees in sociology and politics, as well as a Masters in journalism, I am convinced that Marvel knows exactly what they're doing.

So I have to change my thought that it's 'lazy' to do what they're doing to Steve Rogers. No, they're working hard at it.

But that doesn't mean any of them deserve death threats and abuse. We don't know what's coming up, and boy will we look foolish if Spencer is a talented writer who confounds our expectations.

This book is part one of a story. We don't have all the information yet but we're talking and acting like we do. I hope that Spencer, Saiz, Brevoort and Marvel are going to prove all these thoughts wrong. I wish the Internet didn't automatically go into overdrive on things like this. It's stupid to not promote your 'controversial' books a little better given the way things work now.  Be respectful of the history you're the caretakers of.

But overreacting is just as stupid and it's lazy too. Make a note that you're watching what's happening at Marvel, talk about your fears rationally rather than assuming it's going to go the way you think it will. Don't give them the attention they're shooting for by being negative in response; measure your words carefully. Be on the right side.

That's my takeaway from all this: be respectful and be on the right side. Don't give in to the hate, don't be ignorant, don't presume that everything you read is true. Don't criticize something you've never experienced. Slow down, take a breath.

And wait to see what happens next.