Home / General / What We Talk About When We Talk About HYDRA (x-posted from Graphic Policy)

What We Talk About When We Talk About HYDRA (x-posted from Graphic Policy)

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CASR2

About a month ago, there was a huge controversy when Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 revealed that Steve Rogers was a HYDRA agent and had always been one. A lot of people, myself included, really didn’t like this retcon. Some other people rather condescendingly said that this was just comic books, it was clearly mind control, or false memories, or some other trick, it’s all been done before, and you’re all getting mad over nothing. Now, that kind of missed the point – that Nazism is maybe something more serious that shouldn’t be handled like a Silver Age Superman story where Jimmy Olson is forced to marry a gorilla – but now Issue #2 is out…

…and lo and behold, the Red Skull did indeed use the Cosmic Cube to rewrite Steve Rogers’ memories. So were all us who didn’t like the change a bunch of SJWs who need to Get Good at comics?

Good Magicians Never Reveal Their Secrets

No. Because the fact that an obvious stunt turned out to be a stunt doesn’t actually answer any of the criticisms made of the content of the stunt, and it doesn’t make it good writing. It’s not a good sign that Issue #2 stops the forward momentum of the plot completely to spend the entire issue showing how the big reveal from Issue #1 worked. And as with any other magic trick, it’s a lot less impressive when you see how it was done: through a rather convoluted series of manipulations involving the Red Skull appearing as a kindly priest aiding Cap in the assault on Pleasant Hills and using the child form of the Cosmic Cube to re-write Steve Rogers’ memories, as a lot of people were predicting.

Part of why this feels deflating stems from a meta-texual issue with how Issue #1 was discussed by the creators in the press which I’ll discuss in the minute, but part of it comes from the fact that once you strip out the shock factor, having Steve Rogers be mind-controlled by the Red Skull isn’t that innovative. There’s a moment in the issue that rises almost to the level of instant self-critique:

CASR21

An army of mind-controlled HYDRA agents, doomsday machines, and infiltrating SHIELD might be played out, but so is the Red Skull trying to break Steve Rogers’ to his will and/or break his mind, whether he’s using brain-washing drugs (Tales of Suspense #66-68), the Cosmic Cube (Tales of Suspense #81, and then again in Cap #115-119 when he bodyswapped with Rogers), using a major American city as a hostage (NYC in Tales of Suspense #90, Washington DC in Cap #104, Vegas in #148), or using Doctor Faustus to try to break his mind (Cap #107, #112, #162, et al.), or taking over Steve Rogers’ body again (during Brubaker’s run), and so on and so on. Now, Nick Spencer clearly thinks that this is can be justified as ironic nostalgia – see his comment that “this is actually very familiar in some ways. The Skull’s general M.O. is like this. On multiple occasions he’s tried to use a Cosmic Cube to shape Steve’s perceptions or to get Steve on his side.” (source) – it doesn’t wear any better than most forms of hipster irony.

The rather played-out mechanism by which the big reveal from Issue #1 was accomplished throws a harsher light on the content. Making a culturally and politically significant symbol into a Nazi (and given the Red Skull’s straightforward racist discourse in both issues, there really can’t be any question that his version of HYDRA is a Nazi organization, no matter that previous writers tried to de-Nazify the Red Skull for reasons that escape me) is a big deal, and something that shouldn’t be done lightly, let alone as a stunt.

Here’s where we get into the meta-textual issue, because it’s impossible to separate the audience’s reaction to the comics themselves from the full-court media press that Marvel and Nick Spencer did shortly before the book’s launch. Remember that a month ago, Spencer said that “this is not a clone, not an imposter, not mind control, not someone else acting through Steve. This really is Steve Rogers, Captain America himself,” (source) going out of his way to portray this event as genuine. Many people, including a lot of people who aren’t veteran comic book readers, took Spencer at his word that the news that Steve Rogers was now a Nazi. Indeed, unless you caught some really subtle color motifs (that a lot of the “flashback” scenes had a red background or tint, suggesting the Red Skull), Issue #1 didn’t give the reader any expectation that Spencer was lying.

And unless you’re willing to be very generous with the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t actually mention false memories (more on that in a bit), you really shouldn’t extend that benefit. Because Spencer knew exactly what he was doing, as this followup interview makes clear: “for me the worst thing would have been it not generating a massive fury. It’s perfectly natural and normal for people to be upset about it. That was our intention, again we asked for it.” (source) To me, this is different from the somewhat P.T Barnumesque world of classic comics – when Lee and Kirby or later writers had a plot about Captain America being mind-controlled into being a bad guy, they were always very clear both in text and imagery that this was happening, because they didn’t want the reader to think that Steve Rogers was actually a Nazi. Partially this was out of a pragmatic desire to maintain the integrity of their brand, but partially it was also because the creators involved understood the seriousness of that kind of symbolism.

And today, it’s equally true that Nazism is not something to be cavalier about. Nick Spencer should know this, since a lot of his work on Sam Wilson is based on the reality of the rise of hard-right white nationalism and the real-world reactions to a black Captain America. So however much he might think it’s interesting to explore Cap’s “the moral authority…in this story by showing you the mirror opposite,” there is a certain danger in having Steve Rogers acting as a HYDRA agent until the story is finished – and that might take some time.

All Retcons Are Not Created Equal

Moreover, and this is a more important point, the fact that the retcon turns out to be a Cosmic Cube stunt doesn’t make it immune from critique either aesthetically or politically. As I said last time, there are good retcons and good retcons and this retcon reminds me a lot of when the Falcon’s backstory was retconned back in the 1970s. See, in 1969 when Sam Wilson was introduced in Cap #117 as a freedom fighter, working to liberate a Caribbean island from Nazi domination, his secret identity was as a progressive social worker from Harlem. In his day job, Sam Wilson worked with at-risk youth and occasionally clashed with more militant political groups in his community over how best to fight for the community, but who at night was a vigilante fighting back against drug dealers and gangsters exploiting the youth he worked with.

As I’ll explain in an upcoming People’s History of the Marvel Universe, this was a pairing that worked well with Captain America: Steve and Sam shared enough of a similar political outlook to explain why they would become partners, while having enough difference to have episodes of friction that was fertile ground for new stories. And then in Cap #186 in 1975, Steve Englehart retconned all of that, as the Red Skull revealed that he had used the Cosmic Cube to construct a false memory for Sam Wilson. Rather than being a politically-engaged social worker, the Falcon was actually “Snap” Wilson, a gangster:

SamWilsonRetcon

Needless to say, this retcon was (and is) hugely problematic. On a political level, Sam Wilson was one of the few educated professional African-Americans in superhero comics, “Snap” was a jive-talking criminal stock character; Sam Wilson had a political agenda and outlook, “Snap” was largely ignorant of and apathetic about current events. And on top of that, Englehart essentially argued, through the Red Skull, that anyone who disagreed was in the grips of liberal racial guilt. On an aesthetic level, the retcon stretched believability, because we’d seen Sam Wilson working for the New York City Department of Social Work, we’d met family members and neighbors who had all interacted with Sam Wilson the social worker – did any of that happen?

And (what is especially relevant for the subject at hand) bad retcons can stick for a long time – while later writers found different stories to tell about Sam Wilson, the “Snap” backstory remained Falcon’s official “real” identity until **2015**, when Rick Remender retconned it so that the Red Skull had actually invented the “Snap” Wilson identity, along the lines that a bigot like the Red Skull would think that all black men are criminals.

And from everything we’ve seen from Nick Spencer, regardless of the fact that we know that it’s a Cosmic Cube trick, HYDRA Cap is going to be the “new status quo.” In his follow-up interviews, where Spencer has tried to argue that he wasn’t actually lying in his first interviews – saying that “Steve is not brainwashed. He’s not remembering things that didn’t happen in that sense. This is Steve’s reality…the term “false memories” doesn’t apply here” – Spencer has also said that “this is not something that Steve can willpower his way through. This is not something that Steve can fight back against. The reality of the Steve Rogers we know and love has essentially been wiped out. That is not a person that ever existed.” (source)

Given the disjuncture between his previous and current statements, it’s hard to know whether we can trust what Nick Spencer is saying, but it looks like Steve Rogers is going to be a HYDRA agent, killing people on behalf of HYDRA’s ideals, for some time to come. And the fact that it’s all because of a Cosmic Cube doesn’t change that.

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  • I’d just like to add, one of the many problems with the “people who got mad about Hydra!Cap just don’t understand how comics work” meme (which is now being repeated by Spencer and other Marvel people talking about the latest twist) is that just about everyone who wrote about this a month ago acknowledged that a retcon was inevitable. Most of us even realized that Spencer et al were lying (though personally I was hoping it would turn out to be a cleverer lie; as it is it’s just pathetic). People know how comics work. They were making the point that that knowledge actually makes the whole situation worse, because it means that Marvel decided to drag its most prominent anti-fascist character through Nazi mud for little more than a gimmick.

    I think it’s pretty clear that the problem here has a lot to do with how Marvel (and other owners of corporate entertainment properties) relate to their audience. Of course Marvel wanted readers to be mad. But they wanted a particular kind of mad, a passive kind, a “save us, Marvel!” kind. Instead they got a possessive kind of anger, a “how dare you” anger. They’re now trying to spin the latter kind as the former and pretend this story has been a great success.

    • Very well said.

    • Sly

      I think the thing that rankles me the most about this is that I thought we were done with all the bullshit edgy/grimdark, flash-over-substance, shock-value nonsense that characterized so much 90s-Era comics (and, let’s be fair, 90s-Era pop culture in general). To me, this looks like something straight out of the minds that produced the Spider-Clone debacle or, heaven help us, The Punisher: Purgatory.

      • Marvel events have been like this for a long time, since the mid-00s.

    • Bruce B.

      I really like that last paragraph in particular, Abigail.

    • Halloween Jack

      It reminds me very much of Dan Slott taking over writing Spider-Man after his marriage to Mary Jane Watson was retconned away; that’s not an especially auspicious beginning, but it got worse with a series of increasingly-desperate gimmicks–Obama on the cover, new costumes, a new girlfriend who was not only not that great of a character* but actually endorsed in-comic by Mary Jane, and the ultimate in desperation, Peter getting possessed by Doctor Octopus’ mind, which Slott swore was a permanent change (sound familiar?). And, just to add insult to injury, Slott started baiting fans in various forums, aided by Marvel editor Steve Wacker.

      And it’s really a damn shame, because Slott has done superlative work in the past; he’s pretty much responsible for reviving Squirrel Girl (who had previously been a one-off Ditko character), and he also had a good run on She-Hulk. He had a light, deft comic touch, which often made fun of the sort of comics that he ended up writing. So, too, with Spencer, who did a short series on some of Spider-Man’s second-string villains that I liked a lot. It’s sad when you can point to the exact point in an artist’s career when they become yet another cynical hack.

  • Manny Kant

    I’m not sure how Spencer’s interviews are really any different from the old “Not a Dream! Not an Imaginary Story!” business we used to get on ridiculous Silver Age DC covers.

    Also, you kind of (but not really) admit to being fooled by that stuff last time, and now you’re again using Spencer interviews to predict that Hydra Cap is going to stick around for a while! Don’t listen to anything Nick Spencer says! Nick Spencer is a liar! The whole point of comic book creator interviews about ongoing storylines is to lie to you!

    • Got you covered there:

      1. “Nazism is maybe something more serious that shouldn’t be handled like a Silver Age Superman story where Jimmy Olson is forced to marry a gorilla.”

      2. “Given the disjuncture between his previous and current statements, it’s hard to know whether we can trust what Nick Spencer is saying.”

      As to how long it’s going to take, it’s not something that’s going to be reversed in a couple issues, because we’ve just barely established the setup and haven’t really gone through any kind of arc yet. So I’d say at a minimum, it’s going to be like this for a year at least as the original story gets worked out.

      • Manny Kant

        Nazism (or Hydra, certainly) has been handled like Silver Age Superman stories where Jimmy Olson is forced to marry a gorilla since, well, the Silver Age.

        Yeah, a year probably. Although a year of current comic book storylines is like three issues worth of traditional comic book storytelling, in terms of actual plot advancement.

        • Manny Kant

          To expandon this, the whole reason to have Hydra be a thing was so that you could have Nazis without all the baggage of the Holocaust.

          • pseudalicious

            Yep. Don’t get me wrong, I like this post and find it very well-written, but… yeah.

          • Dunno if I agree – Hydra in the Tales of Suspense/early Cap comics is pretty explicitly Nazi. Strucker describes himself as a fascist, the Red Skull uses racist language towards black people and freaks out when Peggy Carter is in an interracial relationship, etc.

        • In reading classic Cap comics for my People’s History series, I haven’t found that to be the case, actually. Substantially more sensitivity than you’d expect in the 60s and 70s.

    • Murc

      Let’s be a little bit fair here; there are editorial diktats involved.

      I guarantee you that Nick Spencer, much like Dan Slott before him, have been given talking points by Marvel editorial and have been told “hew to these or your career will suffer.” Nick Spencer deserves opprobrium for coming up with this story, but once it was come up with Marvel was never going to let him elide or undercut it in public, any more than they would let Slott say “Of course Superior Spider-Man isn’t the new status quo, are you fucking nuts? This is a story with a beginning, middle, and end.”

      (Disclaimer: I loved Superior Spider-Man. I thought it was damn good.)

      So while I may not believe a damn word that comes out of Spensers mouth, I’m prepared to cut him some slack here.

      • I loved Superior Spider-Man.

        As a born and bred Clevelander, I’m holding out for Erie Spider-Man.

        • wjts

          I never read Great Lakes Avengers. (Yes, that was a real thing.)

      • Actually, Slott’s a good example. Yes, there was editorial diktat, but he was the one who decided how to react on Twitter.

        I didn’t get into this, but the social media reaction from Marvel employees has not been good.

        • LapsedLawyer

          Which deserves a blog post of its own (seriously, do it if it hasn’t already been done, and if it has, link(s) please!)

      • Halloween Jack

        Huh. Didn’t see this when I made the connection between Slott and Spencer above. And I’d think that there would be any number of ways for Slott (or Spencer) to promote the book without, you know, flat-out lying about it.

    • medrawt

      Also, the Silver Age comics were written for kids (however enjoyable some adults might find them), and modern comics often seem to be written for 40 year old men to whom it’s important that superhero comics aren’t just “kid stuff” (and then if teenagers also find it appealing, so much the better).

    • Halloween Jack

      The whole point of comic book creator interviews about ongoing storylines is to lie to you!

      Oh, bullshit.

  • this is not something that Steve can willpower his way through. This is not something that Steve can fight back against. The reality of the Steve Rogers we know and love has essentially been wiped out. That is not a person that ever existed.

    This would seem to (quite carefully) avoid remarking on whether the same force that made this reality can change it back. Which it certainly can, and probably will.

    • Although why you’d want to foreclose your protagonist being active in their own defensive is strange to me as a writing decision.

  • Murc

    You know, this strikes me as a good example of the monthly format working against itself.

    If someone handed me a graphic novel and said “Here you go, this is a twelve-issue arc where Red Skull uses the Cosmic Cube to make Cap think he’s been a Hydra mole all his life” I would be all “Okay. That has potential.”

    Because it does have potential. It’s been done a lot, of course, but it’s not an inherently bad idea. You can do a thing where Cap’s inherent Cap-ness allows him to overcome the cosmic cheat code with pure willpower.

    You can get all post-modern and do a thing where reality starts breaking down around the sheer inconsistency of what’s trying to be written into it. Or you can do a thing where Hydra-Cap, himself, realizes something is wrong (“Huh. I… remember stopping Hydra from taking over the world. Why did I do that again?”) and sort of do like a reverse-detective thing, where indoctrinating Cap as a Hydra goon backfires immensely because it turns out members of Hydra have boundless personal ambition and take everything personally, so Hydra-Cap overthrows the Red Skull from the inside, and either Skull is forced to turn him back to save himself, or Cap turns himself back on some sort of self-actualization grounds.

    There’s a ton of potential there. But it’s potential as a coherent whole. We don’t GET it as a coherent whole, we get it in bite-sized morsels that they’re deliberately constructing for maximum disparate impact. I wish writers would stop doing that, because if you’re going to plot out long-form story arcs, you have to consider “how is this going to play when someone isn’t stewing in their own juices for a month to get to the next part? How is this going to play when they simply turn the page?”

    • Surely part of the problem is that this isn’t being presented as a self-contained, out-of-continuity story. Whether or not we’re meant to take it seriously, Marvel is at least making noises as if this is going to be part of the Captain America continuity from now on.

      • Murc

        Well… yes? I mean… all the other times the Red Skull brainwashed Cap are also part of continuity.

    • Manny Kant

      This is why I have no interest in following comic books on a month to month basis.

    • I still wouldn’t be super-thrilled because of how played out it’s been – even the post-modern spin has been done before – but I will say that I think the loss of the old Marvel Graphic Novels imprint was a big missed step for Marvel as a company.

      • Murc

        Oh, no question it is played out. I am just saying the core idea isn’t irredeemably awful, as “No, this is real, this is happening, no mind control required” would have been.

    • CP

      You know, this strikes me as a good example of the monthly format working against itself.

      That’s exactly what I thought as soon as I heard about the second issue.

      I don’t read comics as they come out either – I usually wait until they’ve been collected into one volume, so I can read the whole story in one go. No need to deal with all this crap when you can just turn the page and immediately find out that, oh yes, it was all a gimmick, of course. This whole thing has convinced me that I should continue to do that, even if it does mean I’m a year or half a year behind the times.

  • We used to think English Tories were patriots.

    • max

      +1

      max
      [‘Correction: +10.’]

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    I read comics back in the 80s and one of the things that kind of stopped me was retcons. I didn’t like it when things I had been led to believe were integral parts of the characters turned out to be more or less disposable to whatever whim of the current creative team. part of me thinks we aren’t meant to spend a lot of years reading the same comic books, any more than we should spend years watching the same soap operas

  • Russell Arben Fox

    All Retcons Are Not Created Equal

    Truer words were never spoken. So, let’s ask: what’s the worst retcon ever, objectively speaking? “Snap” Wilson is bad, but it’s not as bad as “Norman Osborne is still alive” (which I realize is water long under the bridge by now, but I’m still bitter over it).

    • “Worst retcon ever”: I have to say the last season of Mad About You. If we’re talking about still being bitter.

    • Murc

      Ahem. Peter Parker making a deal with the devil to violate the minds of… basically everyone in the universe.

      • Russell Arben Fox

        Yeah, Spider-Man has been forced to carry some truly horrible retcons. But I am willing to give the One More Day retcon a tiny bit of credit because writers have been able to do interesting things with a single Peter Parker; it’s still hateful, but it wasn’t without some kind of useful purpose. Whereas what did “Norman Osborne has been alive and manipulating things all along” give us expect some new, random, unimpressive big bad guy?

        • Manny Kant

          Dark Avengers?`

        • Halloween Jack

          writers have been able to do interesting things with a single Peter Parker

          Such as what? Carli Cooper?

      • rachelmap

        Yes. Grrr…

        Although I’ll go back farther and say that whole Civil War event…

        Grr…

    • snarkout

      After my teens I was more of a fan of the Distinguished Competition, so I’m going to say Parallax. (I mean, in point of fact it was probably Mopee the Fifth Dimensional Imp, but that one was bad enough that it was discarded instantly and only ever mentioned again in Ambush Bug.)

    • “Gwen Stacy had a secret baby with Norman Osborne” has got to be the very worst.

      • Manny Kant

        That is remarkably awful.

    • Sly

      So, let’s ask: what’s the worst retcon ever, objectively speaking?

      I’ve never been that that big a fan of Spider-Man, so I think I can objectively say that Sins Past, a.k.a. “Gwen Stacy boned Norman Osborne,” is the worst.

    • JMP

      Of course that one itself came out as part of undoing the retcon of “Peter Parker has actually been a clone for the past twenty years, this new guy is the real Spider-Man”.

      There was also the undoing of the end of Grant Morrison’s excellent X-Men run, with deciding to make Xorn actually real and say that he was posing as Magneto instead, all because people were pissed that he went back to full-on villainy without realizing that it was because he was being influenced by Sublime.

      There was also the revelation that Nightcrawler’s father was an actual demon, as part of a plot involving making him Pope and then faking the rapture in Catholic churches across the world – even though the rapture is a doctrine of a small subset of fundamentalist American Protestant sects. Luckily at least everyone seems to have forgotten that one, and the movies even used Azazel but made him just a mutant who happened to look demon-ish like Kurt.

      I’d also put bringing back Hal Jordan and saying that he was just possessed and never really went crazy and murdered most of the rest of the Green Lantern Corps, that time he actually became an interesting character, and then Kyle Raynor actually proved not to be a dull slab of wood like Jordan, and we can’t have that.

      • snarkout

        (Parallax!)

    • There have been a lot, and the competition would be very heated indeed. One More Day, Xornneto, Gwen sleeping with Osborne, Wolverine being an actual wolverine, Nightcrawler’s dad being the actual devil, etc.

    • NonyNony

      Doctor Light is a rapist, and the Justice League used magical brainwashing to mind wipe him into an ineffectual goof and also to mind wipe Batman because he found out and objected to it.

      I count it as the worst because it’s cynically crass, it involves both literal and metaphoric rape, it turned a minor villain who was probably best known from his appearances in the children’s caroom Teen Titans into a rapist, it was a driving event for a story that was god awful bad even ignoring the inciting incident, and nothing positive came out of it.

    • Bruce B.

      My poor Legion of Super-Heroes may belong here, for having gotten undermined from within by Keith Griffen’s worser impulses and then just slammed through a decade-plus of meat grinders, continuity-wise. There’s no one moment as bad as, say, Identity Crisis, but the cumulative impact…oof.

    • the ordinary fool

      I know it’s not a comic book, but my personal choice has got to be when Arthur Conan Doyle caved to public pressure and said, “Ha ha, just kidding, Sherlock Holmes survived that whole Reichenbach Falls incident.”

      It didn’t help that most of the stories that followed were markedly worse than Doyle’s earlier work.

      • Woah there. Not only do the post-Reichenback stories include such classics as “The Bruce-Partington Plans”, “The Dancing Men”, “The Illustrious Client”, and “Charles Augustus Milverton”, but the first first Holmes story published after Doyle decided to bring Holmes back is The Hound of the Baskervilles, easily the best Holmes story ever.

  • In light of yesterday’s announcement about the upcoming “U.S. Avengers” series, could I say I hope this all ends with Squirrel Girl kicking Steve’s ass a bit and then talking him out of his mind control?

    • That is an extremely Red, White, and Blue team.

      • heckblazer

        Amusingly, half the team isn’t American.

        • Downpuppy

          Squirrel Girl is a New Avenger, on a team that is 100% different from these loosers. Apparently “New Avenger” is something different every day.

          This stupid group belongs in the Kra-Van.

          • Murc

            You’d better not be fucking insulting the Kra-Van, the best thing to happen to Kraven since… really, the best thing to happen to Kraven.

            • wjts

              This is the first I’ve heard of it, but I heartily agree.

          • heckblazer

            Kra-Van? Geez, I really need to pick up some Squirrel Girl.

            • Murc

              The three best books Marvel is putting out right now are Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, and Thor.

              • I read a piece on io9 the other day that was very complimentary to The Vision, and made it sound quite interesting.

    • Halloween Jack

      Al Ewing hasn’t let me down, so far. Rulk is looking very Axe Cop here.

  • Owlbear1

    Marvel should totally turn Cap into a “Liberal Nazi“. Cap needs to be dangling CEO’s over vats of their own toxic waste. Trashing soldiers trying to break picket lines. Sinking Whaling ships and humiliating MRAs everywhere he goes.

  • JonH

    Marvel actually used “strapping young buck” to refer to a black character.

    • Yep. Yes, it was a Nazi saying it, but Marvel in the 70s was really uneven on race. The stuff I’m collecting for my People’s History on the Falcon…whooboy.

      • Halloween Jack

        Engelhart did some really good work in the seventies, but yeah, a lot of it has aged badly.

    • Manny Kant

      So did, you know, the president of the United States.

  • max

    Moreover, and this is a more important point, the fact that the retcon turns out to be a Cosmic Cube stunt doesn’t make it immune from critique either aesthetically or politically.

    1) As soon as you brought up the ‘Captain America is a Nazi’ storyline my very first thought was ‘oh, this is some Cosmic Cube bullshit’.

    2) Which explains how this is going to work – the entire sequence will be wiped out using (No! How Amazing! I Never Would Have Thought of That!) – TAH-DAH! the Cosmic Cube. And then everything will go back to being exactly like it was previously except with some things (supposedly) different. All of which will be wiped out later when a different writer gets bored and sets it back the way it was.

    3) Saw the exact same thing with Secret Wars (which I mentioned on the previous thread) when all the hype and redirected story lines and wasted time resulted in… a new Spider-Man costume, a change they never had the balls to make permanent. (Which made me tired.)

    4) Once a character passes from its creators’ hands and become simply an copyrighted ‘intellectual property’ changes can never stick and the character can never evolve. Once you insert things like time travel, alternate histories, multiple universes and the like, you have created the mechanism for constant but utterly meaningless change. Each new stunt must be topped by the next stunt so on down the line until the whole thing winds up an empty blur.

    How many times have entire universes been wiped, wiped out and then completely recreated as almost exactly the same old thing? Why not make Steve Rogers a Nazi? Sheesh, why not make Jack Kirby a Nazi while you’re at it? “Nothing’s shocking”.

    To me, this is different from the somewhat P.T Barnumesque world of classic comics – when Lee and Kirby or later writers had a plot about Captain America being mind-controlled into being a bad guy, they were always very clear both in text and imagery that this was happening, because they didn’t want the reader to think that Steve Rogers was actually a Nazi.

    Yes. Because I remember reading those as a child back when the tribolites ruled the earth. Those were always one or two issue stunts. (But even then the one or two issue stunt keeps repeating until someone comes up with the idea of a twelve issue stunt, the thirty issue stunt, the entire universe stunt…maybe someday they’ll come up with the stunt of eliminating all the stunts as if they never happened. AKA ‘mutating to stability’.)

    Partially this was out of a pragmatic desire to maintain the integrity of their brand, but partially it was also because the creators involved understood the seriousness of that kind of symbolism.

    Well, yeah, they had lived through the war. Which is almost ancient history now and thus incomprehensible. (Ancient history being history no one alive has lived through.)

    Because Spencer knew exactly what he was doing, as this followup interview makes clear: “for me the worst thing would have been it not generating a massive fury. It’s perfectly natural and normal for people to be upset about it. That was our intention, again we asked for it.”

    They should do ‘Steve Rogers found in a motel room with a wetsuit and double-dildo’ because at least that would be funny.

    max
    [‘This ‘We will annoy fans to get attention’ media thing is a piece with the Age of Trump but it is surely damned annoying.’]

    • Manny Kant

      Two issues in the 60s, to be fair, had as much story as at least six issues now, and probably more like seven or eight.

      Secret Wars did result in some significant changes beyond Spider-Man’s new costume – Thing left and She-Hulk joined the Fantastic Four (temporary, but significant, I think); Colossus dumped Kitty as a result of his stupid experiences there. It introduced Titania and Volcana and the second Spider-Woman. Not a huge amount of status quo change, but a fair bit of stuff to come out of one comic book story.

      More broadly, I guess I don’t understand very much the idea of complaining about corporate comic book characters because they don’t change or develop in a rational way. That’s how the medium works; if you can’t deal with that, there’s plenty of other media you can consume instead. Other things – totally inconsistent characters, narrative decompression, over-complicated continuity, etc. etc. etc., I can see being worth complaining about. But “there’s always a big reset button available” is kind of a part of the medium that you’re just going to have to accept if you want to partake in it.

    • 1. Yep.

      2. Good point. I mean, I’ve always thought that the rule that Macguffins should get the characters into trouble, not out of trouble was a good one for drama, unless your writing is so good that you can pull off Casabalanca.

      3. Honestly, I was trying to think of the last event I actually liked, and I think it was Infinity Gauntlet.

      4. I don’t know if I’d be that pessemistic. I think good writers can come up with interesting ideas from good concepts no matter what.

    • Murc

      As soon as you brought up the ‘Captain America is a Nazi’ storyline my very first thought was ‘oh, this is some Cosmic Cube bullshit’.

      This was, by far, the most common piece of speculation, and the fact that it was correct is pretty damning.

      The Cube needs to be retired for a period of not less than a decade. Period.

  • CP

    and given the Red Skull’s straightforward racist discourse in both issues, there really can’t be any question that his version of HYDRA is a Nazi organization, no matter that previous writers tried to de-Nazify the Red Skull for reasons that escape me

    The in-universe explanation was that the Skull felt that Nazi ideology painted him as a relic of a past time. Wouldn’t be surprised if that was the out-of-universe explanation, too.

    (In-universe, it probably also didn’t hurt that his Nazi ideology meant that a good amount of even the supervillain community found him too disgusting to touch).

    Needless to say, this retcon was (and is) hugely problematic. On a political level, Sam Wilson was one of the few educated professional African-Americans in superhero comics, “Snap” was a jive-talking criminal stock character; Sam Wilson had a political agenda and outlook, “Snap” was largely ignorant of and apathetic about current events. And on top of that, Englehart essentially argued, through the Red Skull, that anyone who disagreed was in the grips of liberal racial guilt. On an aesthetic level, the retcon stretched believability, because we’d seen Sam Wilson working for the New York City Department of Social Work, we’d met family members and neighbors who had all interacted with Sam Wilson the social worker – did any of that happen?

    Another thing that’s unfortunate about that is that the original backstory takes a day job that’s not exactly held in high regard and certainly not associated with superheroics (as opposed to, say, soldier or cop) and makes it awesome by giving it to an action hero. It also addresses the whole “but what are you actually doing to address the problems of the crime-ridden inner city apart from punching them in the face?” Yeah, no, the original story was just way better.

  • LapsedLawyer

    This really cements why the emphasis should be on the second syllable in “retcon”.

  • tsam

    This article is fantastic, Steve. Well done.

    I like the point about Marvel creating this anger, and as usual, responding in the worst way possible–insulting the readers.

  • If I were the Red Skull– or Voldemort– I would spend a lot more effort on acquiring a nose.

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