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A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 3

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People's History Week 3

Face front, true believers!

Welcome back to A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, where I explore how real-world politics (and weird bits of pop culture) was presented in some of my favorite bits of classic Marvel comics. In this issue, I’ll be discussing how Captain America made the transition from his Timely Comics incarnation to the Marvel era.

capinice

Timely Comics’s version of Captain America was (to be kind) rather crude, still in that stage where superheroes as a genre are still emerging from pulp, so there’s a lot of repetitious scenes where Cap and/or Bucky get tied to chairs because that’s the only way the author can think of to get to the plot exposition, most of the villains are pretty generic mobster types, and so on. However, Kirby and Lee were able to go back and sift through the old material to find the stuff that worked – Steve Rogers as Captain America, the uniform and the mighty shield, the Red Skull, Agent 13 – while ditching the stuff that didn’t work (the secret identity, Bucky to an extent, etc.).

manoutoftime1

At the same time, there were a number of strategies that Marvel used to make the transition work. First, in the very act of updating Captain America from the 1940s to the 1960s, Kirby and Lee made Steve Rogers a man out of time, giving a previously rather thinly-sketched individual a rich source of Marvel-style pathos and interiority. The Steve Rogers who emerged in the pages of the Avengers, Tales of Suspense, and Captain America is a veteran haunted by the memory of his losses during WWII, a rare example in which PTSD is given its place in that conflict. (Indeed, a lot of stories from this era involve Cap having vivid flashbacks or hallucinations that make him question his sanity.)

However, with Kirby there as the keeper of the sacred flame to ensure that the original spirit of Captain America wasn’t lost, Steve Rogers’ status as a man out of time was never an excuse to position him as a conservative or reactionary figure. Rather, Captain America’s position was that he would embrace these changes and fight for the same progressive change that he had back in the New Deal:

manoutoftimecombined

manoutoftime5

And that’s what I think people often get wrong about Captain America: while he was born into the “Greatest Generation,” he’s not an old man. Rather, because of his variable number of decades frozen in the ice, he’s a young man who’s traveled through time, bringing the passion and idealism of youth into a new era.

Second, Kirby and Lee kept much of the political edge of the original comics by making a foundational element of the new Cap comics that Nazism was not dead, but had continued into the present day as a hostile force that threatened liberal values, often hidden beneath reactionary causes and movements (hence the usefulness of HYDRA as a dark mirror through which to question and explore the national security state in Captain America: Winter Soldier). For example, early on in Tales of Suspense, they posited that Nazi agents were at work in modern Germany:

sleeperagents2

To argue that Nazis were hidden in German society, as if Himmler’s Operation Werwolf had really come to pass, was a pretty bold political statement in a Cold War world only five years past the construction of the Berlin Wall and in which the Western German government had yet to publicly grapple with the legacy of the Holocaust. But Kirby’s political acumen shines in these issues, grounding these stories in contemporary politics, as with this reference to West German laws banning the display of Nazi iconography:

sleeperagents1

Third, another thing that Marvel could bring to the table is a fully matured Jack Kirby. As I mentioned above, the Timely Captain America comics were too close to the pulp era to really be distinctively superheroic. But by the 1960s, Kirby was Kirby. And so what the Red Skull’s sleeper agents were out to awaken was not merely a coup against the Federal Republic of Germany, but a giant Nazi robot:

kirbyism1

The Timely Comics version of the Red Skull had been a petty saboteur and sometimes assassin, very much within the wheelhouse of pulp antagonists. The new Red Skull (who’ll be explored in future installments) was reimagined as a full-on supervillain with a flair for giant robots, doomsday devices, world conquest, and grandiloquent speeches complete with cigarette holder. And so Kirby gave the world not just a giant robot menacing the free world, but a Nazi Voltron:

KirbyCap

kirbyism2

This was the secret alchemy that brought Captain America into the contemporary world of Mighty Marvel Comics: on the one hand, Jack Kirby’s larger-than-life visuals and Marvel’s attention to interiority gave Captain America new life, but on the other, the original political spirit of the Timely Comics was carefully preserved, so that what made Captain America unique is a superhero is that his power is essentially weaponized progressive ideology:

Capideology2

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  • Late-breaking update: because of course he is, Bernie has endorsed TeamCap in opposing the Superhuman Registration Act.

    • Matt McIrvin

      On the face of it, I’m not at all sure that letting superpowered vigilantes operate without oversight is the good liberal position here. But, on the other hand, if you’ve got Steve Rogers and Tony Stark on opposite sides of any fraught moral issue, Steve’s side is probably the better bet.

      • Well, as I’ll talk about in my future installment on the SRA, ultimately the problem is one of inconsistency. Within Civil War, the actual content of the SRA varied wildly between gun control for superheroes and slavery for superheroes.

        And given the earlier context of the Mutant Registration Acts and the fact that the people running the SRA turned over the government’s military to Norman Osborn and essentially legalized licensed supervillainy, I’m not inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt.

        • Murc

          The movie version of the SRA is likely to be significantly different from the comics one. Among other things, it takes place in a universe that’s never had a superpowered race war, and from a meta perspective I can’t see them making Iron Man go full supervillain.

          I’m really hoping that the next Cap movie is more nuanced than “Cap good, Iron Man bad.” Among other things, I think that “you can’t just fly around the world wrecking cities and punching people with no accountability or oversight from legitimate governments” is a reasonable position to take and should be treated as a serious and morally grounded viewpoint.

          • medrawt

            It would have to be pretty different for the reasons you stated. But I still think it’s a massive challenge, probably the biggest hurdle for Marvel Studios since the original Avengers (where people were wondering if the thing would even work as a movie; as a Joss Whedon fan I was afraid the unwieldiness of what he’d been handed would tank his career!)

            Among other basic problems with the comics Civil War (inconsistency, not understanding the damage they were doing to some of the pro-registration heroes’ character), I think it just betrays a fundamental incapacity to think seriously and consistently about its own premise. And that may be on the sandbox more than it’s on the creators. Just as you can’t say “I want to write a more realistic take on Marvel” without thinking really precisely about what “realism” means TO YOU in THIS CONTEXT, and then you’d still have to tear down an enormous part of the edifice Marvel built, it’s enormously difficult to come up with a viable proposal for the SRA given everything Marvel fans have been reading about and rooting for for the entire history of the company.

            (“Maybe Batman isn’t good for Gotham” is good meta; it’s not good Batman, because I’m reading a fucking Batman story.)

            • snarkout

              But even this can be handled well without breaking the genre fun of the story — it just requires some cleverness on the writers’ part. Think about Dr. Thompkins’ line during, IIRC, the “Bruce Wayne: Fugitive” storyline (or possibly during the much worse “No Man’s Land” arc) when Bats asks how he can help her: “Bruce Wayne could, but Batman can’t.”

            • Halloween Jack

              I can’t find the scan now, but there was an older comics storyline that featured a proposed Superhuman Registration Act in which Reed Richards laid out very good reasons why it didn’t make sense and would fail. Of course, in Mark Millar’s version, Richards would be one of the main proponents of the Act, because he took up psychohistory.

              • If you could send that scan my way, I would be appreciative.

                • Halloween Jack

                  Here’s an article that has a couple of pages, and puts it in the context of Civil War. It includes the citation, so if you or someone you know has one of those digital subscriptions that basically gives you all of Marvel’s archives, you should be able to get the whole issue. There are another couple of pages here and here. (P.S. Here’s a synopsis of the issue.)

          • JMP

            It’ll also have to be different since, as it seems the movie will be sticking to the theatrical characters and ignoring the ones from the television shows, it’s a Civil “War” of about ten or twelve people. And even though the MCU now does have a race of super-powered people that are totally not mutants, even as almost all the ones with significant roles so far have the same powers as various X-Men, it seems that won’t play into the Registration Act here.

            • Murc

              Here’s the thing about the MCU. So far, it always flows down, never up. The movies flow down to the network TV shows flow down to the Netflix shows, but the connection becomes more tenuous every time and doesn’t go in reverse.

              My read on this is that it is a deliberate effort on their part to not build a vast interconnected web of things that becomes impenetrable to new viewers, like the comics are. Like, we’re probably never going to see Phil Coulson walk into a movie again, because that would mean everyone who took a pass on Agents of SHIELD is going to go “wait… what? Isn’t he dead?”

              The Netflix series especially shy away from this sort of thing. Like, Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter at least acknowledge that the rest of the MCU exists. Jessica Jones and Daredevil seem kind of embarrassed about that fact. I mean, I’m pretty sure we got all the way through a series whose major plot point is the reconstruction of Hell’s Kitchen after it was leveled without anyone having a conversation about that or acknowledging it. Jessica Jones sort vaguely alludes to the fact that Hulk and Iron Man exist but otherwise completely ignores the fact that NYC has a giant tower filled with city-wreckers sitting in the middle of it, and that it was just attacked by aliens streaming out of a portal, and so maybe the populace at large and the NYPD will take the idea that there’s a dude out there with mind control perhaps a bit seriously.

              On the one hand, I’m a little annoyed by their efforts to have their cake and eat it to. On the other hand, I have a friend who is invested in this sort of thing, a guy who has wanted to be Tony Stark since he was ten, and when Age of Ultron came he said to me “Ugh. I don’t want to have watch two seasons of Agents of SHIELD to catch up. I might just give this a pass.” And I had to go, you haven’t missed anything, so he bought a ticket.

              With regard to the registration act, that will probably be a big deal on Agents of SHIELD, but whatever they do with it will more than likely not show up in the movie itself.

              And even though the MCU now does have a race of super-powered people that are totally not mutants

              This is bleeding into the comics, where Marvel is under orders to not introduce any more new mutants at all. I’m reading the new Patsy Walker series, and they go out of there way with one of the new guys to make it VERY VERY clear that he got his powers from the terrigen mists, not a genetic anomaly.

              • Matt McIrvin

                “Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” has a hilarious passage that both upholds this and hangs a funny lampshade on it: Squirrel Girl’s mother recalls a talk with a doctor who announced that “she is medically and legally distinct from being a mutant, and I can never take this back.”

                • Murc

                  Ryan North and Kate Leth need to collaborate on a Squirrel Girl/Hellcat miniseries, I’ll tell you what. Or even just a basic crossover.

                • JMP

                  I’m glad we’re getting more Squirrel Girl these days; my favorite bit from has the total mockery of Speedball’s change into Penance during Civil War, “I’m deep now!”

                  http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/penance5.jpg

              • junker

                I’ll be interested to see how the no new mutants turn continues. I’ve been reading all the new x books and the primary source of tension for all of them is the fact that there aren’t supposed to be any new mutants.

              • On one level, I think that the Netflix shows’ approach works. They take the attitude that they’re showing us the ground level reaction to a world that suddenly has superheroes and aliens in it, where most people’s lives are unchanged, and they’d honestly much rather not think about how much weirder and scarier the world has become. Arguably, this is a better way of doing things than the ABC shows, where our heroes are supposedly working at a level that affects the entire planet, but can never actually face up against an enemy so dangerous that there’s no excuse not to call in the Avengers to deal with the problem. And it gives you scenes like the one in the Jessica Jones S1 finale, where Jessica brings Luke into the emergency room, and the doctor, realizing she can’t pierce his skin with needles or scalpels, quietly says “he’s one of those.” You can hear a whole wealth of exasperation, bewilderment, and even fear in that one line reading.

                But at the same time, as you say, it’s an approach that leaves you with the unresolvable plot hole of Jessica being disbelieved by the authorities when she claims that Kilgrave exists and has the powers he has. I found that particularly frustrating because it would have been so easy to fix: simply have the police and DA respond “yeah, ever since the battle of New York, every criminal to come through these courts has blamed their crime on aliens and supervillains. We have no way of knowing who’s lying and who’s telling the truth, and since the law hasn’t caught up with the reality yet, we’re treating everyone like they’re lying.”

                (Another big problem with how Jessica Jones doesn’t reconcile with the rest of the MCU is that it’s simply unbelievable that Kilgrave – who lacks even the slightest degree of self-control – could have been operating for decades, leaving a trail of bodies and ruined lives behind him a mile wide, without arousing SHIELD’s attention. I mean, in principle I’m in favor of anything that reinforces my belief that SHIELD were incompetent idiots, but I don’t think that’s the conclusion Feige et al want me to reach.)

                • That’s a good fix.

                • Gareth

                  Yeah, that’s pretty bad. Kilgrave might not have any current interest in taking over the world or causing mass destruction, but you’d think someone would realise the potential danger there.

                  “Let me into the West Wing… let me into the Oval Office… come with me to the Situation Room…”

                • Murc

                  I found that particularly frustrating because it would have been so easy to fix: simply have the police and DA respond “yeah, ever since the battle of New York, every criminal to come through these courts has blamed their crime on aliens and supervillains. We have no way of knowing who’s lying and who’s telling the truth, and since the law hasn’t caught up with the reality yet, we’re treating everyone like they’re lying.”

                  You know, I wanted to make an argument against this, because there’s a difference between a criminal saying “Wasn’t me Y’honor, it were aliens” and between victims of crimes saying the same thing, and you’d think the police would acknowledge that if for no other reason than that they know superhumans exist and so those avenues of investigation could potentially lead to arrests and convictions.

                  Then I realized that would be really hard and risky, and the NYPD will probably seize on any opportunity to not do hard and risky things if they don’t gotta.

                  That said… Kilgrave victimized a cop. It seems like that should have been an enormous potential “in”. The NYPD doesn’t like it if you make eye contact with them in an insolent way. Actually suborning a police office with superpowers as an accessory to murder? They’d have been pissed. They’d have turned the city upside down and then Kilgrave would have died “while resisting arrest.”

                  Another big problem with how Jessica Jones doesn’t reconcile with the rest of the MCU is that it’s simply unbelievable that Kilgrave – who lacks even the slightest degree of self-control – could have been operating for decades, leaving a trail of bodies and ruined lives behind him a mile wide, without arousing SHIELD’s attention.

                  This is something I can actually kinda-sorta buy, because pre-Avengers, SHIELD seems like it was very heavily focused on paramilitary operations and solutions to problems with a sidebar in intelligence gathering, rather than acting as an actual law enforcement organization. I mean… look at the helicarriers. You don’t need a helicarrier if you’re a LEO. You need it if you’re an intelligence organization. You need it if you’re an army.

                  Really, the organization had very NWO-conspiracy vibes. Like, they were backed by a shadowy council of global elites with only tenuous connections to legitimate governments, they had their own private armies and arsenals, control of their own nuclear stockpile, etc. They had the authority to green light a nuclear strike on the continental US without getting the President involved, and nobody involved in that suffered the slightest degree of blowback. It was like those aspects of it were written by a paranoid Bircher.

                  They seemed like they were focused very much on stability, on maintaining order and the status quo, and doing it with… I don’t want to say “blunt instruments” but with a real focus on direct action. Their enhanced personnel were much in the vein of Cap, owing to their roots in WWII; guys whose primary use was as force multipliers, kicking the shit out of people using the aforementioned direct action. The most high-profile examples we see of Ant-Man and Wasp aren’t of them as subtle spies, they’re of them kicking the shit out of people and knocking missiles from the sky.

                  So I can absolutely buy that Kilgrave never would have pinged their radar, because I don’t think their intelligence gathering apparatus was set up to drag in guys like him. If Kilgrave had started some kind of cult, started suborning captains of industry, decided he wanted to start Kilgrave Industries and be the next Steve Jobs? They’d have noticed then, because Kilgrave would have been a threat to established, powerful interests of the global order. SHIELD didn’t give a shit about Tony Stark, death merchant and son of one of their biggest backers, because Tony was part of the status quo; they gave an enormous shit about Tony Stark, inventor of an amazing flying suit of superpowered armor that has massive destablization potential on a global level and the will to use it like that.

                  But Kilgrave didn’t care about global geopolitics. Kilgrave cared about living well, fucking, and enacting petty revenge on those who he felt had wronged him. He is no threat to stability at all. SHIELD’s intelligence setup probably isn’t at all equipped to spot guys like that. Sure, if they’d heard of him, they’d likely have done something, but… eh.

                  As for Kilgrave having no self-control, I’m not sure that’s true. Bugs like Kilgrave only act like they don’t have self-control. What they really have is a finally-tuned sense of what they can get away with. They’re like an abusive spouse who seems like they’re out of control, but when you think about it the household items they smash in their “uncontrolled rages” are never anything that belongs to or is important to them, and they never seem to make enough noise that the neighbors hear or call the cops, or act out in front of people who could make life hard for them socially.

                  Kilgrave is really, really good at that kind of self-control. He’s not perfect at it; he gets overconfident in his ability to move unseen because he’s really fucking angry at Jessica and that does legitimately cloud his judgment. But he definitely does have self-control and is good at exercising it, because like I said; he’s a worm, and worms are great at sensing when they’re about to get squashed.

                • Murc:

                  pre-Avengers, SHIELD seems like it was very heavily focused on paramilitary operations and solutions to problems with a sidebar in intelligence gathering, rather than acting as an actual law enforcement organization.

                  Yes and no? First-season AoS had multiple stories that revolved around its characters showing up to investigate weird happenings, and even more importantly, you had characters like Coulson and May repeatedly stressing that this was a core component of SHIELD’s mission statement, the “welcome wagon” with which they help people with powers live their lives and/or lock them in a dark cell from which they’ll never emerge. Hell, May’s tragic backstory comes down to being sent out to investigate rumors of an “enhanced” with mind control powers.

                  As I understand it, the later seasons have moved away from that premise, but I think a bigger issue is that the MCU as a whole has always been frustratingly and self-destructively vague about what SHIELD does and how it does it. You say, for example, that intelligence-gathering was an important part of SHIELD’s operations, and realistically how could it not have been. But not only do we only rarely see SHIELD do anything even close to that kind of work, when we do see its agents engage in it, they’re incredibly bad at it. Apparently a late S2 story revealed that Bobbie Morse once maintained her cover with Hydra by handing over a handful of SHIELD agents to be tortured and murdered; that’s not so much “being undercover” as “being an enemy agent.” I mean, fuck, I could undercover work if materially aiding the enemy was something you were allowed to do. Nor does Coulson seem to have any network of informants who might clue him in to what Hydra is doing, or any interest in developing the assets he actually has (see, for example, not even trying to turn Ward, surely one of the easiest flips in the history of intelligence work, and instead sending his least-trained and most emotionally compromised agent to deal with him).

                  That kind of vague, self-contradictory worldbuilding rebounds most severely on AoS, but it affects the movies as well. In Avengers, as you say, SHIELD is a shadowy, secret agency with the power to unilaterally launch nuclear strikes on American cities. But in Winter Soldier they’re an agency of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people, with a 30-story headquarters on the banks of the Potomac. Nothing about SHIELD makes the least bit of sense from one bit of the MCU to another.

                • CP

                  As I understand it, the later seasons have moved away from that premise, but I think a bigger issue is that the MCU as a whole has always been frustratingly and self-destructively vague about what SHIELD does and how it does it.

                  This. I think we’re probably among the very few who notice or care about these sorts of things, but it’s always bugged me too.

                  It specifically bugs me that they can’t decide whether SHIELD was a police or an intelligence agency (given how much of both they do on screen). One of these is supposed to enforce the law, the other is essentially a licensed crime syndicate which breaks the law for a living, albeit other people’s laws in other people’s jurisdictions (and I don’t mean that as a diss on them, believe it or not). This is actually a huge deal in real life. Most liberal democracies keep the two functions separate (CIA/FBI, MI6/MI5, DGSE/DCRI, Mossad/Shin Beth), because integrating professional cops and professional criminals into the same body is a really fucking bad idea, and if your agency’s mission statement and jurisdiction are broad enough to cover both, you should be worried.

                  (Some agencies that do/did combine the two functions: the SS, the KGB, the Guoanbu… very much not the sort of company you want to be in).

                  Muddying the waters further is that it’s still not entirely clear whether SHIELD is supposed to be an American or an international agency. And muddying it still more is the backstory with the SSR, which starts out as the Marvel Manhattan Project and inexplicably becomes the Marvel NCIS overnight.

                • integrating professional cops and professional criminals into the same body is a really fucking bad idea

                  It might, for example, lead to your organization becoming a corrupt, violent police state with global reach, rife with internal disputes between warring fiefdoms, and completely unaware of the fact that it is now serving the purposes of its oldest enemies…

                  As with so much about how the MCU depicts SHIELD, there’s the potential here to make a powerful, subversive statement about the inherent dangers of the security state, and the need for accountability and transparency in all such bodies. If only I believed for a minute that anyone involved actually intended for us to see what we’re seeing.

                • Murc

                  First-season AoS had multiple stories that revolved around its characters showing up to investigate weird happenings, and even more importantly, you had characters like Coulson and May repeatedly stressing that this was a core component of SHIELD’s mission statement, the “welcome wagon” with which they help people with powers live their lives and/or lock them in a dark cell from which they’ll never emerge.

                  First-season AoS takes place in a post-Avengers world, where you get the feeling SHIELD has restructured itself somewhat to operate a bit differently than it did in a pre-Avengers world.

                  And yeah, May’s backstory does involve looking into an enhanced person with mind control… who was making a lot of noise.

                  Kilgrave didn’t really make a lot of noise. I’m sure SHIELD would have sent dudes after him had they been aware, but I can also see them absolutely not catching him.

                  Apparently a late S2 story revealed that Bobbie Morse once maintained her cover with Hydra by handing over a handful of SHIELD agents to be tortured and murdered; that’s not so much “being undercover” as “being an enemy agent.”

                  That’s absolutely not what happened.

                  What happened was that in order to maintain her cover, she handed over the location of a disused safe house that as far as she knew had been decommissioned in the wake of SHIELD’s implosion and was no longer in use. It turns out she was wrong about that; some ex-SHIELD agents who were on the run in the wake of said implosion were holed up there, and Hydra grabbed them.

                  I would characterize that as “not her fault.”

                • Halloween Jack

                  I think that the elephant in the living room here is Joss Whedon, who is so bad at worldbuilding that he seems to have a sort of active contempt for it (see Firefly). Now that he’s out, it will be interesting to see if some of this stuff gets retconned.

                • Murc:

                  OK, that’s pretty different from how I heard it described elsewhere. (And you have to admit, it’s not as if my version would be out of character for SHIELD as the show has built them up.)

                  That said, I’d still call that a major fuck-up. It does nothing for my observation that SHIELD appears to be total shit at the whole spy thing.

                  HW:

                  I wouldn’t go to bat for Whedon’s worldbuilding abilities – his shows worked for other reasons. But one thing he was good at, which AoS completely lacks, is specificity. He’s the guy who comes up with an oracle masquerading as an drive-in dummy shaped like an anthropomorphic hamburger, or a vampire-demon poker game where the chips are live kittens. That specificity is completely missing from AoS – my first reaction to the pilot was that it felt like Firefly with all the personality filed off. The Bus was Serenity, except without the lived-in feeling, and the show’s world never grew the sense of weirdness and complexity that was almost second nature to all his other shows.

                  (This is leaving aside, for the moment, how much AoS is a Whedon show. I don’t think he had much to do with it past the pilot.)

              • I don’t necessarily agree with that characterization of the MNU vis-a-vis the MCU.

                • Murc

                  I find the fact that you demarcate them so strongly interesting in and of itself.

                  (I’m anticipating a major continuity breach when they haul Spider-Man into the MCU, namely that I expect “Ben Urich” to be a living white guy.)

                • Well, the MNU certainly exists within the MCU – the events of the Avengers happened which is why Hell’s Kitchen de-gentrified, people know who Hulk and Cap are, etc. However, as people have happened, a lot of the institutions within the MCU haven’t being paying attention to events in the MNU. To an extent, this is a deliberate choice – the MNU are street-level superheroes fighting the fights that the Avengers are too focused on the global level to notice. (OTHO, it also suggests that Agents of SHIELD might have been something of a creative problem, given that they’re supposed to be doing a similar thing and yet don’t seem to exist in the MNU.)

                  Actually, Ben Urich is a great example of some missed steps when it comes to worldbuilding, both within the MNU and between the MNU and the MCU. If Ben Urich had been allowed to stay alive, he would have been a great figure to link the different Netflix shows, but also be there for major MCU events.

                • Murc

                  Well, the MNU certainly exists within the MCU – the events of the Avengers happened which is why Hell’s Kitchen de-gentrified, people know who Hulk and Cap are, etc.

                  I would characterize this as the other way around; the MCU certainly exists within the MNU, but it’s far from clear if the MNU exists within the MCU.

                  Like I said. So far, it flows down, never up.

                  I’m really hoping this changes when the Luke Cage series hits. Like, spend the money for five minutes of RDJ’s screen time to give Misty her motherfuckin’ arm.

                  OTHO, it also suggests that Agents of SHIELD might have been something of a creative problem, given that they’re supposed to be doing a similar thing and yet don’t seem to exist in the MNU.

                  To be fair, all of the MNU shows so far take place post-Winter Soldier, where as far as anyone on the street knows SHIELD doesn’t exist anymore.

                  I don’t think the “underground” incarnation of SHIELD has ever supposed to have been about fighting the smaller, local fights that the Avengers are too focused on the global level to notice. Or if it was, it was something the writers immediately grew frustrated with and abandoned. SHIELD has been doing “shadow war” stuff, where the threats they take on are equally as global in nature as the Avengers, just hidden inside “Spy World.” I mean, SHIELD just crammed some sort of world-wrecking god inside Grant Ward and made him one of the two biggest remaining leaders of HYDRA, you don’t get much more global in scope than that.

                  Ironically, it was the S1 incarnation of AoS, which had a ton of monster of the week bullshit while they marked time until Winter Soldier came out, that would have been best positioned to showcase smaller, more local stuff. Like when they investigated the mysterious goings-on at a firehouse where some of the first responders had taken Chitauri war gear as trophies. (That episode was shit, but you take my point.)

                  Actually, Ben Urich is a great example of some missed steps when it comes to worldbuilding, both within the MNU and between the MNU and the MCU. If Ben Urich had been allowed to stay alive, he would have been a great figure to link the different Netflix shows, but also be there for major MCU events.

                  You kinda make my point for me. I don’t think the MNU shows, thus far, even want more than the most tenuous connection to each other, let alone the larger MCU. (Again, something I’m hoping the Luke Cage series fixes; I don’t see how you can make a Luke Cage series at this point without Jessica being a prominent character in it.) But… I dunno. This is just my gut feeling, but it seems like “hey, lets make some connection here” is not only on the bottom of their priority list, but something they’re actively allergic to.

              • Hob

                Jessica Jones sort vaguely alludes to the fact that Hulk and Iron Man exist but otherwise completely ignores the fact that NYC has a giant tower filled with city-wreckers sitting in the middle of it, and that it was just attacked by aliens streaming out of a portal

                There are multiple mentions of the alien attacks (which at that point are a couple years in the past, I think). It’s kept in the background, but it’s there. Jessica also encounters several civilians who are clearly pretty paranoid about having some unknown but steadily increasing number of superhumans in their midst; two of those try to kill her because as far as they’re concerned, the super-weirdos are responsible for the alien attacks and other destructive chaos.

          • Well, to begin with, it’s not a Superhuman Registration Act. It’s the Sokovia Accords.

            And if the trailers are any judge, General Thunderbolt Ross is enforcing them. And if General Thunderbolt Ross, walking embodiment of irrational militarism, is behind something, you know it’s a bad idea.

            Also, given that they cast Daniel Bruhl as Baron Zemo, I’m guessing that it’s all HYDRA’s fault.

            • Murc

              And if the trailers are any judge, General Thunderbolt Ross is enforcing them. And if General Thunderbolt Ross, walking embodiment of irrational militarism, is behind something, you know it’s a bad idea.

              There’s a difference between “this is a bad idea” and “this is cartoonishly evil” though. I feel like lining up Iron Man and Black Widow on the side of “cartoonishly evil” would be a bad move.

              • I think they’ll avoid cartoonishly evil. But then again, I also think some people will be switching sides in the movie. Black Widow has such a stronger connection with Cap, Scarlet Witch historically has a strong connection with the Vision, etc.

            • Murc

              And if the trailers are any judge, General Thunderbolt Ross is enforcing them.

              Tangent: women in the MCU have been critically underused in general, and I feel like completely writing Betty Ross out, especially in favor of that godawful Black Widow romance, has done her an enormous disservice.

              (I would pay a lot of money for an MCU movie with Gwyneth Paltrow in the lead, co-starring Natalie Portman, Cobie Smulders, Liv Tyler, and Evangeline Lilly. Maybe get some Kat Dennings all up in there as well.)

              • Srsly Dad Y

                Yeah but I mean, who would even care what that movie was about. Put all those women in it and I would pay to watch Ayn Rand scripts.

  • ajay

    To argue that Nazis were hidden in German society, as if Himmler’s Operation Werwolf had really come to pass, was a pretty bold political statement in a Cold War world only five years past the construction of the Berlin Wall and in which the Western German government had yet to publicly grapple with the legacy of the Holocaust.

    Not far off. For a while after the war, “Hitler was a well-intentioned guy but the war was a big mistake” was a widely-held view among West Germans, according to opinion polls.

    John Le Carre wrote A Small Town in Germany in 1968, and the plot centred around Germans still being largely pro-Nazi and supporting a crypto-Nazi politician called Karfeld. “They don’t blame their parents for starting the war, they blame them for losing it” one character remarks. (And Le Carre of course was in the SIS station in Bonn in the early 60s.)

    And, of course, it would be inevitably true that there would be a lot of ex-Nazis in senior positions in 1960s Germany. A junior but ambitious and promising engineer (doctor, lawyer, civil servant) in 1945 would probably have been a Party member, but too junior to be de-Nazified after the war. By 1965 he would be a senior engineer (doctor, lawyer etc). There was a tacit agreement to pretend that they had all stopped being Nazis punctually on 8 May 1945 but you have to wonder…

    • Sheesh. If you were looking for Nazi boogeymen in the 1960s, you didn’t have to go all the way to Germany, you could just go to Huntsville Alabama, or any other place the people brought over via operation paperclip were working. Or any place that the unreconstructed Nazis fled to, like Argentina. There may even have been a few of the ones captured by the Soviets still alive and working in their research institutes or less glamorously in the gulags.

      • ajay

        you didn’t have to go all the way to Germany, you could just go to Huntsville Alabama

        Did you read that NYT article about how von Braun and his colleagues quite liked Huntsville, except that they couldn’t stand how racist everyone was there?

    • Sorry, that should have said Nazi *agents*.

      But yes, excellent point.

      • CP

        What pretty much every “let’s save the world from evil ex-Nazis!” story in fiction gets wrong is to imagine a world where ex-Nazis are still conveniently plotting the downfall of the West, and Western spies and cops have to stop them. As opposed to ex-Nazis having accepted defeat and been warmly embraced in the postwar West’s power structure, which was much more common. The Werwolf units didn’t have much future in them; Reinhard Gehlen on the other hand got to build West German intelligence back up from scratch with the approval of his American friends.

        (Wasn’t just the West, of course).

        • I don’t know if it’s one or the other. Winter Soldier, for example, had Arnim Zola get picked up as part of Operation Paperclip AND be infiltrating SHIELD from within.

          Likewise, there’s a bunch of comics where Cap wants to beat down on Nazis but Nick Fury insists on espionage instead, which I think is a subtextual way of getting at the same thing.

          • CP

            I don’t know if it’s one or the other. Winter Soldier, for example, had Arnim Zola get picked up as part of Operation Paperclip AND be infiltrating SHIELD from within.

            True. I just think the Operation Paperclip guilt is something that tends to come out in more modern works when compared with the decades right after WW2 when the mythology was originally constructed. Should’ve specified that.

            Likewise, there’s a bunch of comics where Cap wants to beat down on Nazis but Nick Fury insists on espionage instead, which I think is a subtextual way of getting at the same thing.

            Well… “do we do something now or let the bad guys get away with it until we know enough to do some real damage” is a common thing in that fiction, but was Fury actually advocating recruiting ex-Nazis to help out?

            • More the former, but I think the subtext is there when you have Cap wanting to beat down the “Butcher of Lichtengarden” and a G-Man stops him.

          • Murc

            I don’t know if it’s one or the other. Winter Soldier, for example, had Arnim Zola get picked up as part of Operation Paperclip AND be infiltrating SHIELD from within.

            It’s worth noting that in the context of the MCU, Red Skull and Hydra are explicitly and adamantly not a group of Nazis, because these are international blockbusters and not a niche American entertainment format, and making them Nazis makes their international marketing really really fucking hard. Hydra is just sort of generically fascist.

            • CP

              IIRC, HYDRA’s been through several retcons. When originally created, it was made up of former Axis war criminals trying to reconquer the world. Eventually it was retconned into a League-Of-Shadows-ish conspiracy from the dawn of mankind that was responsible for all the cliched bad things in history, fascism being only the latest.

              From what I understand the MCU version went through the same thing: originally invented as the Red Skull’s private army, and retconned in Agents of SHIELD into something older (though I haven’t watched since season 1 so maybe I misheard).

              • Sly

                From what I understand the MCU version went through the same thing: originally invented as the Red Skull’s private army, and retconned in Agents of SHIELD into something older (though I haven’t watched since season 1 so maybe I misheard).

                Pretty much.

              • Hob

                Yeah, I don’t think you can say this was about “international marketing” when the original 1950s context of the villains is already long gone. And even in the earlier stories, Hydra had to be portrayed as somewhat separate from the Nazis per se, because people were fairly familiar with the actual World War II in which Hitler did not have super-mad-science weapons. And it’s a pretty standard pulp shortcut for indicating that your villains are the most fearsome villains ever: they’re working for Hitler, but they’re even crazier than Hitler!

            • Matt McIrvin

              I think of them as the Nazis’ Nazis, who were energetically trying to be even worse than the actual Nazis.

              • CP

                I think it works really well with the Red Skull in the first movie because the guy clearly IS a super-Nazi – he’s got the whole ideology down, except that instead of identifying with a master race, he goes the extra step of creating/becoming his OWN master race, leaving all the other Nazis behind. It’s actually a fairly believable development for a Nazi Germany in which superhero powers were actually possible.

                Less so in the sequel, where HYDRA is guided by generic Bad Guy principles, like “mankind cannot be trusted with its own freedom.”

                • Hob

                  I know what you mean about that coming across as more generic, but on the other hand I think it’s kind of a logical way for the next generation to evolve. The Red Skull is gone, and Arnim Zola (as portrayed in Cap I), while he was generally cool with the whole conquering-the-world project, always seemed skeptical about the Skull’s grandiose mystical shit. He was more of a technocrat, and his henchmen no longer had a whole country devoted to racist fascism behind them. It makes sense that his version of Hydra would have different rationalizations for what they were doing.

                • CP

                  That actually makes sense, now that you put it that way. Well spotted!

            • I agree with Matt. Given the whole super-science and the Red Skull’s interest in Norse magic, it’s more like Himmler launching a coup.

            • cpinva

              “Hydra is just sort of generically fascist.”

              so he’s actually Italian?

              • Matt McIrvin

                In the terrible Albert Pyun Captain America movie from the 1990s, Red Skull actually was an Italian fascist.

    • CP

      National memory and mythology in post-WW2 Europe is a hell of a topic.

      It’s not just Germany and Nazis. For French people of a certain age and background (and that can be younger than you’d expect), it’s still an uncomfortably common opinion, albeit behind closed doors, that Marshall Petain was a very nice guy who just did what he had to do to spare France the horrors of war. I’ve had the conversation a couple times myself and the level of willful delusion (“all right, he may have turned Jews over to the Nazis, but I’m sure he didn’t think they were going to kill them!”) is something you have to hear to believe. Apparently, it’s another one of these things we young people Just Don’t Understand.

      (Edited so the second half went into a response to Steve’s comment).

      • Yeah, I took a couple courses on French history in grad school, and one of the things we looked at in depth was Vichy and the national silence after the war, the way that the trials of Klaus Barbie and Maurice Papon intertwined WWII and Algeria, etc.

        • CP

          I think national silence on one’s own guilt is pretty universal, both in general and specifically in re WW2, unfortunately. It’s all over the place – you could make a pretty good case that even Britain and America, which never had either fascist or collaborator regimes, have this to some extent too, crafting a national mythology that emphasizes the war but downplayed the sympathy for fascism in its early years from many elite parts of society.

          • ajay

            It’s all over the place – you could make a pretty good case that even Britain and America, which never had either fascist or collaborator regimes, have this to some extent too, crafting a national mythology that emphasizes the war but downplayed the sympathy for fascism in its early years from many elite parts of society.

            Also, of course, Russia. The war very definitely started on 22 June 1941, not 17 September 1939, and eastern Poland and the Baltic republics were just… pre-emptively liberated from fascism, yeah, that sounds good.

        • Murc

          And of course, there were a shit-ton of quiet extrajudicial murders of collaborators. Some of whom may have not actually been collaborators but who had made the wrong sorts of enemies.

          • And not-so-quiet, given the scale of the revolutionary tribunals in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of France.

            • Murc

              Those weren’t really extrajudicial per se, but yes.

              • I don’t think they would have exactly stood up to any serious scrutiny on due process grounds, for example.

            • CP

              For all that, it’s noteworthy that the big guy himself, Petain, was eventually pardoned in the name of some truth and reconciliation bullshit. And that at least one other highly placed collaborator, Papon, whom you mentioned above, continued to serve in the highest levels of the French government for years, wasn’t brought to trial until the end of the century, and was also promptly released from prison on account of age or ill health or whatever.

    • sharculese

      I’ve had A Small Town in Germany sitting on my shelf for a while and you’ve probably inspired me to pick it up. Last Le Carre novel I tried to read was The Looking-Glass War which was so fucking grim I just gave up, but this has me intrigued.

      • medrawt

        I’ve read maybe … half? … of Le Carre, and The Looking-Glass War is by far the grimmest – even though various of his most famous books have cynical or depressing endings, I remember that one being a grind all the way through.

        • sharculese

          I don’t doubt it. Other than that I’ve read the Smiley trilogy and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and while all have their moments of bleakness, none even come close to the unmitigated unhappiness of everyone in Looking-Glass.

    • cpinva

      you didn’t even have to wait too long after the surrender, there were Nazi guerillas operating all over Germany. one of the lesser known facts of the war is the hunting down and exterminating of them, extra-juridicially, by the allied militaries. you never, ever, read about this in school history text books. and, of course, there are books/movies, such as The Odessa Files and The Boys From Brazil, whose plots centered around the continued Nazi influence in German society and politics. Le Carre wasn’t the only one who saw this.

      • ajay

        “The Great Escape” is a famous war movie for good reason, but the book it was based on was written by one of the men in the camp, and the last chapter or two are a description of how the British hunted down, tried and hanged most of the Germans responsible for the murder of the 50 escapers. A few of them escaped into the Soviet zone and the Soviets refused to hand them over, because they had found good use for Germans who were prepared to murder on command. The final line of the book describes the sentencing to prison of one of the conspirators: “He is due to be released in 1960. They say there will be an amnesty long before then, and I expect they are probably right.”

  • NonyNony

    If you want to support the thesis that it’s mostly Kirby who is the driving force behind Cap keeping his New Deal idealism, you could look back to Stan Lee’s aborted attempt to revive the Timely superheroes back in 1953 (Young Men Comics). It’s been a while since I read them, but if I’m remembering correctly his Steve Rogers was basically a cardboard anti-communist square-jawed hero with little to no political content beyond “commies bad”.

    (In fact I’d love to hear your commentary on those issues as compared to what Lee and Kirby later did with the character. Lee’s anti-communist text in his 1950s and early 60s comics is so blunt and obvious that it kind of puts his later collaborations with Kirby and Ditko into perspective.)

    • That’s a very good point. The interactions between Kirby and Lee are quite complex and often contentious – to whit the excellent blog Kirby Without Words.

    • gurkle2

      Whenever Lee wrote Cap without Kirby he tended to drop the social issues and emphasize the idea of him as an angsty middle-aged man out of time. That worked sometimes. The Avengers was actually better without Kirby (a rare thing for a Marvel book of that era) because Lee and artist Don Heck had the book revolve around three young ex-villains who, in their different ways, did not respect Cap’s authority at first.

      One problem Kirby had with Cap when he returned to the character in the ’70s (as both writer and artist) is he seemed to have no interest in the angst and self-pity, which was much more Lee’s thing than Kirby’s. That run is well-liked among many Kirby fans, but I think it points up what Lee brought to the collaboration (more as an editor than a writer, I’m sure), specifically the love of self-pitying, navel-gazing heroes.

      The anti-Communist stuff is all over Marvel in the ’50s and ’60s and Lee would shove it in whenever he could, probably just because it was a topical thing – “beating the Commies into space” and so on. He eventually dropped it when the Vietnam war became so unpopular that it was seen as a partisan thing.

      • Too much angst and self-pity gets boring.

        Which is why I’ve really been enjoying the MCU’s Cap. Yes, he’s got his issues, but he’s also learning and making friends and caring about people and enjoying the best the modern world has to offer.

        • Matt McIrvin

          It’s too bad he won’t live, but then, who does? I imagine it’ll be revocable comic-book death anyway.

        • David Hunt

          Yeah, although that scene with Peggy Carter in Winter Soldier was such a gut-punch. They have a conversation that’s as relatively normal that is possible for their situation, then you find out that’s she’s got some form of dementia and that Steve is constantly going through the same tearful, bittersweet reunion every time that he visits and opens up the old wounds again. Of course, being Steve Rogers, he visits her anyway because it’s the decent thing to do…

          I heard somewhere that scene was originally filmed to be placed early in the Avengers film and was cut for some reason. I think I can see how that fits fit Cap more thematically than Winter Soldier.

          • It was a similar but different scene that was supposed to talk more about what happened to all the post-war promises of social and economic security. I talked about it in my first Cap essay.

            • Murc

              It was a similar but different scene that was supposed to talk more about what happened to all the post-war promises of social and economic security.

              I feel like in order for those discussions to pack a real punch someone, probably but not necessarily Falcon, would have to bluntly state to Cap “even at the time, those promises were made to white folks living in America, not to everyone. You should be proud of having been a New Dealer, Steve, but let’s ain’t pretend that the apple wasn’t rotten right out of the barrel.”

              Would never happen in an MCU movie, which can’t even show a brief discussion of the enormously heavy lift it must have been for Cap to lead a multigendered, multiethnic squad during WWII.

              • CP

                I feel like in order for those discussions to pack a real punch someone, probably but not necessarily Falcon, would have to bluntly state to Cap “even at the time, those promises were made to white folks living in America, not to everyone. You should be proud of having been a New Dealer, Steve, but let’s ain’t pretend that the apple wasn’t rotten right out of the barrel.”

                There was a moment sort of like this in one of Brubaker’s comics. After Cap’s death when Bucky’s taken over his role, they run into Fifties-Cap who’s now leading a right wing militia and planning a terrorist attack. Bucky and Sam Wilson bring him down, but Bucky keeps feeling some kind of sadness/nostalgic connection to Fifties-Cap, thinking that they’re both alike, men out of time who both signed up to serve their country and are feeling out of place in the new world, and if only he could bring the other guy back to his senses. Sam isn’t having any of it and ends the comic by telling Bucky “that man was not like you. Remember that.”

                It’s implied rather than explicit, but fairly obvious that Bucky can afford to feel nostalgic for the past and have some empathy for Fifties-Cap because he’s white, whereas Sam, for obvious reasons, doesn’t. And that last line from him feels like a reminder to Bucky that thinking that way leads to dangerous places.

      • JMP

        Though the Kirby return in the 70s also turned away from the more explicitly political works of Steve Englehart that proceeded it, which including bringing back Lee’s 50s version of Cap as a McCarthyite villain, and the Secret Empire storyline which ended with the reveal that the offshoot of Hydra trying to take over the United States was secretly lead by President Nixon.

    • Matt McIrvin

      And they even later decided that that guy was an impostor, didn’t they?

      • gurkle2

        When Roy Thomas took over from Lee as editor, one of his first acts was to order the Captain America writer to explain who the ’50s Cap was. (Lee and Kirby just ignored those stories entirely, but Thomas was from a new era of continuity-obsessed superhero fans who became writers and editors, and they had to explain every story, no matter how stupid.)

      • NonyNony

        Yeah – actually not an “imposter” but a government-sponsored replacement for Cap and Bucky after they disappeared. They were driven insane by the formula that was supposed to give them superpowers, put into suspended animation, and revived in the 1970s with a compulsion to kill Captain America (That was because Steve Englehart loved to find obscure bits of continuity and figure out ways to make them work in new stories).

        The 1950s Captain America eventually became the fascist leader of a neo-Nazi group out to break the government, and the 1950s Bucky eventually took another name (Nomad) and was eventually killed (dying the way many D-list superheroes and villains die in comics – to show that some other character is a badass).

      • While I agree with gurkle2 that you don’t need to explain every piece of continuity, the value of the retcon they did was that it set up this perennial story about Cap fighting over the meaning of his own symbolism – whether vs. anti-Communist Cap or U.S Secret Agent or Nuke.

  • Srsly Dad Y

    “What supreme irony!” I may have to make this my go-to epithet.

  • junker

    I got a Marvel Unlimited subscription last year for father’s day and have been really enjoying getting immersed in the Marvel milieu. Thus, it’s been great to read these posts from someone who has clearly put a lot of thought into them. Can’t wait to read more!

  • Bruce B.

    Nothing much to say/add, but I enjoyed this post a lot. :)

  • junker

    One more thing! At Comic Book Herald they’re doing a book club where they read ten comics from one year of Marvel each week, and discussing the issues. The idea is to try and pick ten comics or short runs that encapsulate everything important about developments in Marvel that year. They’re close to finishing out the 60s. If you have Marvel unlimited or just access to older comics I recommend it, it is great fun getting a snapshot of the big moments in Marvel history.

    Link here.

  • David Hunt

    Dammit, Steven! You linked to one of those two Cap articles you wrote a couple years back. I can’t afford to lose the obligatory 20 minutes re-reading and thinking about those things right now!

    Seriously, great work. Glad to see you still writing about this stuff (The Sleeper Wakes!)

    • Hehe.

      Yeah, the Sleepers are awesome. And you can tell that Kirby thinks so too, because the moment that Cap gets his own book, they gin up a Fourth Sleeper so he can keep drawing giant robots.

  • JMV Pyro

    Really loving this so far.

    Any chance you’ll eventually get to What If? #44? That’s the story that really made me fall in love with Cap.

    • That’s an excellent topic for a future PHOMU.

      • CP

        Just please tell me this eventually culminates in talking about the Winter Soldier/Death of Captain America comics? Recent history, but technically history.

        • Those are good enough and important enough to talk about, so yeah, I’ll cover those.

          And I’ll cover Capwolf, because of nostalgia.

          But I’m not covering Rob Liefeld.

    • I think that one’s the best What If story ever. The monologue at the end is just amazing.

  • Hob

    Especially when talking about Captain America, it’s worth keeping in mind that the “Marvel revolution” of the early ’60s was led by a couple of middle-aged guys. Lee and Kirby had started working in comics as teenagers, but when they launched the work that made Marvel what it would be from then on, Lee was 39 and Kirby was 44. For Lee at least, the years in between hadn’t been particularly successful, and much of the publishing landscape they knew had been wiped out recently by the Comics Code.

    So when they were given the task of coming up with a new and distinctive bunch of superheroes, for an audience who could now be their kids rather than their peers, I think it’s not surprising that the results had a relatively neurotic and bittersweet tone compared to earlier pulp traditions. The Fantastic Four were a bickering family; Spider-Man was a loser; the Hulk was a monster; and Captain America was a guy who got into the hero business in his youth, fell into obscurity, and then found himself in a strange new world. And it turned out that that fit really well with early ’60s youth culture… which then resulted in the bizarre spectacle of Stan Lee assuming the persona of a manic impresario of hipness for kids, when a few years earlier he’d been this jaded veteran who was trying to get out of comics.

    (Apologies if I’ve fudged some of the dates– this was written hastily)

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