Last week, issue 1 of Nick Spencer and Jesus Sais’ new comic series Captain America: Steve Rogers hit the shelves of comic stores everywhere and shocked fans across the nation when, in the final panel, Captain America utters two chilling words: “Hail Hydra.”
Now, in case you’re not up to date on your fictional terrorist organizations (or are one of the few people on Earth who hasn’t seen 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Hydra is Marvel Comics’ Third Reich 2.0, often led by either Baron von Strucker or the Red Skull, both of whom are genetically enhanced former high-ranking Nazi officers from Adolf Hitler’s inner circle. “Hail Hydra,” obviously, is a comic-friendly, thinly veiled euphemism for “Heil Hitler.”
According to the new backstory introduced in Captain America: Steve Rogers, Steve’s mother Sarah is saved from her husband’s abuse by a Hydra agent named Elisa Sinclair. Elisa later invites Sarah and little Steve out for dinner, leaving them with a pamphlet encouraging them to attend the Brooklyn chapter meeting of Hydra. And, having being imprinted from that meeting on, Steve Rogers—Captain America, champion of World War II, the moral compass of the Marvel Universe—is, and has always been, an undercover agent for Hydra—the organization he has been seemingly “fighting” since WWII.
Many have taken to the interwebs to decry the bizarre dismantling of this icon. Some protest that it simply makes no sense in Marvel continuity. Others have taken a much more sober approach to why the twist is so cutting, particularly to Jews.
After all, it was two Jewish comic writers, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, who created the Captain America character. To turn around and establish that Steve Rogers—a golem-like symbol of Jewish strength not unlike Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman over at DC Comics—has essentially been a Nazi this entire time seems like a betrayal of his creators and a slap in the face to Jewish fans and creativity.
But … what if it isn’t?
I say that not only as a Jew, but also as a Black man, and a comic reader, and someone who worked in a comic and video-game shop from high school through college. And from that vantage point comes the knowledge that video games and comics share a toxic core demographic of entitled, misogynist, and racist white males.
For video games, it’s things like attacking female game developers and their sex lives.
For comics? Heh.
In one of his final interviews, the late, great Dwayne McDuffie, comic writer and producer of such quality superhero cartoons as Justice League, introduced us to the “Rule of Three”: In popular entertainment, if there are three or more Black people in it, it is then labeled a “Black” product. And so, when McDuffie added four Black characters to the Justice League of America comic, fandom flipped out and began foaming that it was “statistically impossible” to have so many Black heroes on a superhero team, and that this was only a stunt to “fill quotas.” To which McDuffie wryly replied, “The quota arguments on fictional teams crack me up. Is someone losing a job here? Which fictional character is losing a job?”
Video games and comics share a toxic core demographic of entitled, misogynist, and racist white males.
Now, what does that have to do with Captain America being a Nazi? In 2000, Marvel Comics introduced its Ultimate Marvel line, an imprint that featured re-imagined and updated versions of the regular Marvel Comics characters, working off the concept of “What if the Marvel Universe had been created in the present day instead of 1962?” Launching with Ultimate SpiderMan it followed up with Ultimate X-Men in 2001.
People were eating it up. The storylines were fresh and new, untethered to 40 years of continuity, and the characters were now accessible. So, the bigwigs decided it was time to roll out the big guns: The Avengers. But how were they going to update the team? What risks were they going to take? Ultimate Marvel Team-Up and Ultimate X-Men had already made the ballsy choice of switching out the white grizzly commander Nick Fury portrayed by David Hasselhoff and replace him with the black grizzly-yet-smooth commander modeled after and portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson. So, the idea got tossed around that maybe, just maybe, the Ultimate Universe version of Captain America should be Black.
And fans did not take that well.
The change never happened, but it set into motion a series of events and ideas that culminated in Truth: Red, White & Black, a canonical storyline that established that Steve Rogers, in fact, was not the first Captain America. Inspired by the infamous Tuskegee Experiments, the series follows a WWII regiment of Black soldiers forced to act as test subjects for the Super Soldier serum that eventually transforms Steve Rogers into Captain America. These experiments lead to horrific mutations and painful death until only one remains, Isaiah Bradley, who steals a costume and shield intended for the white product of the refined serum and embarks on a suicide mission to destroy the Super Soldier serum efforts of the Nazis. Bradley survives the mission but is then court-martialed and imprisoned, and the Steve Rogers Captain America takes the public spotlight.
Despite garnering critical acclaim, there was outrage from the Komics Kontinuity Klan about the “tarnishing” of Captain America’s legacy, a contention that a Marvel editor-in-chief dismissed in Entertainment Weekly as “outright racists who just don’t like the idea of a black man in the Cap uniform.”
Fast forward to 2014. In a battle with a villain called The Iron Nail, the Super Soldier serum that bestows Captain America’s enhanced abilities—including retarding his aging—is drained from Steve’s system, causing him to rapidly age to his chronological age of 90-plus years old. No longer able to function as Captain America, he steps down from the uniform and appoints a successor.
This is where the fun begins. Marvel Comics—already under fire for making the new Thor a woman—announces that the “Captain America” mantle will be passed to Sam Wilson, Steve’s African-American sidekick/partner formerly known as The Falcon. And Holy SpiderMan’s Webbing, did things get nasty real quick.
There were the blogs criticizing Marvel’s push for diversity and inclusion. Blogs eye-rolling at Sam Wilson’s villains and the “liberal agenda.” And, best of all, the ever-reliable toxic fandom, making their mark on any and every forum and article they could find:
“So Captain America is on welfare and sucker punches old white people…Nice wholesome reading. Good bye comic books. You will never enter my home.”
“Unless the New Captain America is now a pro athlete, then he’s on food stamps.”
“This is another way to indoctrinate our youth to believe everyone is equal. … I think it is wrong for kids to think of black men as heroes as most of them do not even support their own kids nor hold a job.”
That’s right. People can accept a 90-plus-year-old WWII veteran kicking and punching everything into submission just because he was frozen in a block of ice, or that men completely naked from head to toe—and silver—can traverse the universe on a surfboard, but let a Black guy become Captain America? Pandemonium ensues.
And so, after a year and a half of rage, Marvel finally capitulated and canceled the main Captain America series and created two new ones: Captain America: Sam Wilson and Captain America: Steve Rogers, both written by Nick Spencer. So, separate but equal comic series.
And just like that, White Captain America was back. And to make Steve Rogers a Nazi was an excellent commentary not only on the fandom, but on the country itself.
See, the only reason there is a Captain America: Steve Rogers series is that the fandom wanted Steve Rogers back. And the reasons they wanted him back were the same kind of motivations and ideologies that are currently wreaking havoc with our election season. The fandom wanted to Make Captain America White (Great) Again. They were full of racist indignation at seeing a Black person take on the mantle of Captain America, one of the most venerated comic-book heroes. They wanted a return to the status quo. And when they got their wish, they’re dismayed that he’s kind of a fascist. Sound familiar?
And Nick Spencer, clever, clever Nick Spencer, was thumbing his nose at that fandom and the country the whole time. Just look at his quote announcing the two different titles:
If you’re liking what we’re doing in Captain America: Sam Wilson, with a more topical, of-the-moment take, we’ve got a lot more of that coming your way; but if you’re looking for that classic, timeless version, the one that’s steeped in the Greatest Generation with Cap fighting the face of true evil, now we’ve got that for you as well. … The country is as divided as it’s ever been, and Steve is one of a kind; he’s a unifying figure, someone we can all look up to, [and] someone we can all put our faith in.
In hindsight, what originally came off as “Don’t worry guys, the real Captain America is coming back,” really is just dripping with pointed sarcasm and commentary. It’s saying, “Hey, if you want to live in the modern world, here’s Sam Wilson. But if you’re one of those people ‘steeped’ in the past, don’t worry, we’ve got Steve Rogers. But you’re kind of a racist bigot. So here’s the Nazi Captain America you deserve.”
One of the many missions of the Jews is to be “a light to the nations.” And that’s what Simon and Kirby did when they created Captain America. While America was debating its involvement in the war, and almost a full year before the Pearl Harbor attacks, Captain America burst into his first appearance punching Hitler in the face. While his country was playing catch-up, Captain America was standing up against injustice. Being a figure of inspiration, rallying his country to do the right thing. And in those years, Steve Rogers was most definitely a beacon of everything good and right with America. But sometimes being a light means shining that light on the festering ugly things that lurk in the shadows and exposing them.
This Hydra Captain America does just that.
To see a collection of vintage comics featuring Nazis, click here.
MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.