The following post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the recent first issue of Nick Spencer’s Captain America: Steve Rogers comic series. Presumably, though, you already know what I’m about to talk on.
As per usual, a superhero comic book has stoked controversy. Of course, I’m talking about this moment:
Yup. It appears, for all intents and purposes, that Steve Rogers, the Marvel Universe’s favoured patriotic son and symbol of ultimate incorruptibility, is and has been a secret Hydra agent all this time.
Except, maybe not really. But we’ll come back to that.
Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 is a fine comic book issue. Not a fine example the way an exquisite chardonnay might be, but just plain fine. Functional. Serviceable. It follows Steve fighting a new incarnation of Hydra, run by a populist new version of Red Skull whose motivation of underground crowds perturbs the more comically exaggerated Baron Zemo. Besides the ending, the issue pushes no envelopes, breaches no borders, tempts no fate. It gets the job done; the job, in this case, being to simultaneously reboot Steve Rogers in the Stars and Stripes and garner enough hype that people care about the comic again. In those respects, it accomplishes the task admirably.
Let me back up a second. Ever since Ed Brubaker’s superlative run on the book ended several years ago, the Captain America comic has lagged behind as the greater Marvel juggernaut advances. Rick Remender offered a paltry follow-up to Brubaker’s classic, in much the same way that both Kieron Gillen and Tom Taylor respectively failed to follow in the footsteps of Matt Fraction’s sterling time with Invincible Iron Man. I term these runs as ‘palate-cleanser arcs’, operating between major and more well-received runs from notable creators where the follow-up ends up setting the high bar much lower in order for the next big creator to raise it once more (see also things like Andy Diggle’s Daredevil as a bridge between the Bendis/Brubaker and Waid years, or Tony Daniel’s poor stewardship of Batman between Grant Morrison’s and Scott Snyder’s respective storylines). The weight of subsequent expectation on popular comics is crippling, and so someone has to be called in to produce work that can range from markedly poor to adequately functional. For post-Brubaker Captain America that person was Remender, and his run was, by most accounts, not a very good one.
So here comes Nick Spencer, fresh from his turns on Secret Avengers and the outstanding Superior Foes of Spider-Man. Between this book and its sister series, Captain America: Sam Wilson, Spencer seems keen to make a big mark on the Star-Spangled Man (Men?). He’s a great writer, and given what came before him it wouldn’t be hard for his work to subsequently top Remender’s. Also keep in mind that a new Captain America film has recently come out to rave reviews and insane box office returns, so Marvel might be keen to get some groundswell going for what was once one of the most popular ongoing comics they had in publication.
To accomplish this, they make Steve Rogers a secret member of Hydra. Stun. Shock. Horror.
To dispel the idea of my dismissal of the issues at hand as being down to a lack of love for Marvel’s favourite patriot, I want to state unequivocally that I hold Cap very close to my heart. While not having the same personal weight as Batman, the Captain is nonetheless hugely important to me. Hell, my Honours thesis compared him to the Bat as contemporary, slightly more realistic superheroes. The influence of Winter Solder and The Death of Captain America, the latter being one of my best comics I’ve ever read, cannot be overstated in terms of my development as both a comic reader and reviewer. Cap means a lot, and I certainly understand – to a point – why others are up in arms over this perceived betrayal regarding his new origin.
And if simple disagreement over this retcon was the end of the story, I wouldn’t be writing this diatribe. Of course, this situation eclipsed simple disagreement a while ago.
As of the time of writing, Nick Spencer’s received a slew of death threats over the issue. Social media is in a frenzy over this perceived egregious mishandling of an iconic character; hashtags like #SayNoToHYDRACap have been trending like crazy. Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort had to defend the issue during an interview with TIME Magazine, explaining that this was part of a much longer storytelling decision. The general consensus from the overreactive beast that is the online comics community has been ferocious, undiscerning and damn near farcical. (I should stress here that not all people in the community are as pissed off about this as the majority – just that said majority is currently turned to a much higher volume.)
My reaction to this boils down to two things. Neither are intended to entirely dismiss the critical feedback the issue has received (except those who criticise with death threats, which, come on guys), but rather to provide context as to why this isn’t the catastrophic alteration many mistakenly believe it is. Also that word, context, is going to be very important here.
So let’s start with the obvious thing: this is a move done in a superhero comic. Superhero comics get changed all the time.
One of the hallmarks of capebooks is that their canon changes at the drop of a hat (or, usually, the clink of company coin). Very little that occurs within a superhero story is something that stays for life; Grant Morrison had fun with this during his Batman days, where he implied that every event of Bruce’s life that had to be retconned was explained as Batman being insanely high at the time. Apart from most of the key essentials of origin stories – the death of the Waynes, Tony Stark’s heart shrapnel, Steve getting the super-serum, Uncle Ben’s death – exceedingly few character changes are ones that are maintained forever without some alteration or outright excision.
That fact results in two possibilities for Cap going forward. One is that the Hydra change is intended as a temporary thing from the start; perhaps this shocking moment now will be recontextualised later on, showing that Steve’s actually a triple agent. Maybe he’s trying for a deep cover thing with Hydra for some other purpose. Right now we have very little context to go on for this reveal (an issue I’ll talk more about in a moment). All we know is that Cap has uttered Hydra’s infamously memetic catch-cry, and that he and his mother had a woman try to convince them to come to a clandestine Hydra meeting back in the 1940s. That is literally all we know for certain, no matter what Brevoort or Spencer himself might say.
The second possibility is that this change will itself be retconned if it proves to be so unpopular. Remember what Morrison did with the infamous ‘Magneto is Xorn’ reveal in New X-Men? Marvel kicked that to the curb not long afterwards with a subsequent retcon that dismissed the reveal entirely as Xorn being some crazy guy who thought he was Magneto. Sure, said retcon was hamfisted and poorly executed, but, much like the Captain America issue itself, it accomplished the task the publishers wanted. Superhero aspects are as fluid and transient as they are subject to continued company approval, especially when new movies are on the horizon. I have no doubt, should Spencer’s storytelling prove long-term to be irksome to Marvel’s accountants, that a mandate will result in Steve saying, ‘No, what I actually said was “Snail Hydra”, because Baron Zemo was so slimy he left a trail behind him to follow!’
The other thing, which I alluded to earlier, is that this is only the first issue of the story. Traditionally, superhero arcs consist of a good five or six issues that make up a whole story. As it stands we have only one issue, and the context it alone provides (again, disregarding statements by Spencer and Brevoort – comic creators like to lie with Moffat-level conviction). We don’t know if Steve isn’t a triple agent. We don’t know if he and his mother went to that Hydra meeting. We do not know anything besides what we’ve seen in this issue – and let’s face it, what we saw wasn’t much.
Steve and his mother are offered the Hydra pamphlet – what if they turned down the invitation to go to the meeting? Steve throws his ally Jack Flag out of a jet before Hailing Hydra – since fellow ally Free Spirit was flying around on a ReBoot-style hoverboard outside, how do we know she doesn’t catch him in midair immediately afterwards? Steve utters Hydra’s line to the captured Dr. Selvig – do we know whether this was an ironic utterance, or an affirmation that the two of them are involved in this false flag operation together?
The answer to all of the above is that we simply do not know, and we won’t know until subsequent issues provide further context. Knee-jerking to a last page reveal is exactly what Marvel would’ve had in mind when Spencer pitched this idea to them: let’s drum up some controversy and convince people to come back next month to see what happens next. In that respect, I’d say they’ve undoubtedly succeeded.
I think io9’s James Whitbrook sums up my reaction to all this quite neatly:
“To be fair, I’m certain Marvel will do something fun with [the reveal]—this is hardly the first example of comics doing something inexplicably goofy for the sake of catchy headlines, and had a ball with the aftermath. Comics are built on gimmicks like this and playing with them. I’m looking forward to seeing where Nick Spencer and [artist] Jesus Saiz take this plot line. It’s always exciting to be at the start of something completely ludicrous, and just see where it goes—because this is definitely right up there in the “ludicrous comics nonsense” category. I look forward to Steve Rogers eventually being revealed as a quintuple agent or something. But please, let’s not pretend this is real, or permanent, or won’t be utterly undone in a storyarc or two.”
I said earlier I’m almost completely unfazed by this issue. I’m fazed in that it’s piqued my curiosity to see where Spencer is going with this. If the issue’s intent was to make me interested in Steve Rogers as Cap again, it’s nailed that to a tee. I want to see what happens next, whether it lasts for a handful of issues or a hundred.
I’m not about to say those who are pissed aren’t entitled to being strongly against this change – you most certainly are. I was infuriated when Morrison “killed” Batman back in 2008, a fury that lessened as context was provided by the subsequent story. If you’re upset at this, you have every right to express your discontent or disagreement with Spencer and Marvel itself. I won’t even criticise most of the reviewers who are currently slaying the issue on Goodreads, though I’d guess a decent percentage of them probably haven’t even read the book itself – hurray for bandwagons!
No, I won’t say you shouldn’t like the issue. But let’s get real here. This is, one way or another, a temporary thing. This is a thing currently lacking appropriate context. This is a thing that has not yet been fully unfurled. This is a thing that should not precipitate death threats.
(I imagine Spencer’s probably off having a few stiff drinks with Superior Spider-Man‘s Dan Slott right now, taking pointers from the latter on how to deal with irate fans who jeopardise writerly mortality when their favourite character goes through a change they abhor.)
Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 is a serviceable, visually decent and adequately scripted comic with a gimmicky ending, no more, no less. Can we stop treating it as if it’s the most heinous betrayal of a loyal fandom since this one, please?
PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS