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