Some thoughts on Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 by Nick Spencer & Jesus Saiz
When Nick Spencer took over the writing of Captain America, with Sam Wilson: Captain America #1, he gave Sam Wilson a definitive and clear identity as the new Cap, something that had been missing until that point. Sam Wilson’s background as a social worker from Harlem lent itself to a hero that would empathise with and defend migrants, which also offered the opportunity for Spencer to directly critique the racist rhetoric of Donald Trump. Over the course of the first arc the comic developed into a sustained engagement with racism, white supremacism and eugenics (a discussion of issue 1 and what Steve Rogers’s Cap meant to me is here – https://multiframe.wordpress.com/2015/10/22/who-is-captain-america/). I loved this new Cap and was troubled to here that Steve Rogers was to be brought back. What better stand could be made against racism and white supremacism, and what better homage to the creators of the character on the 75th anniversary than having a black Captain America as the only Cap? But that wasn’t to be.
Consequently I picked up Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 with some reluctance. I have always loved Steve Rogers, but I thought it really was time to pass on the shield. That said, I’m very glad I did pick up what I think is a brave & bold, albeit problematic comic. Given the themes of the Sam Wilson story the image of Steve Rogers pledging allegiance to Hydra seemed logical, almost natural. As I’ve said, Spencer was already working on the themes of racism, white supremacism and eugenics, but he clearly wanted to make a much starker statement about the current condition of America. Let us not kid ourselves, over the course of the US primaries a businessman has used the fascist rhetoric of racism and white supremacism to place himself one step away from the White House. I won’t go into a discussion of Trump’s brand of fascism now (I have discussed it here – https://discrepancie.wordpress.com/2015/12/01/the-comfort-of-hate-and-the-fascistic-turn/), but the language of violence, discrimination, prejudice, and hate fits very easily with that politics.
So what are we to do? Should we continue to portray fascism as something external and alien to the US that Cap has to take down or are we going to face the fact that fascism has arrived at the very heart of the US body politic? What is so brave about the comic is that Spencer chose to address this, rather than shy away from it. In Sam Wilson: Captain America, the bad guys are “over there” still. In Steve Rogers: Captain America Spencer is saying “the fascists are here. The US itself is harbouring fascism. Look!” This is why, when I read the comic on Wednesday I put out this adaptation of that infamous panel with the tag “If it’s #SayNoToHydraCap it has to be #SayNoToFascistTrump”. Hydra Cap is an allegory for the fascism that resides within US society. It is no longer the foreign bogeyman. Fascism now wears a spray tan and a red baseball cap saying “Make America Great Again”. Fascism now says “I’m gonna build a wall” in response to every question asked, and shouts “Look at my African-American over here!” while campaigning for the most powerful office on the planet.
Despite the aftermath I am sticking with this interpretation because it must no longer be denied. We cannot pretend it isn’t happening. But certain things followed amongst the impassioned responses that are also extremely important and mustn’t be overlooked. The day after I posted this I began seeing accusations of anti-semitism against Marvel & Nick Spencer. The charge of corporate cynicism isn’t hard to make stick, but I think it is more difficult to make against Spencer. At the time, my response was frustration, and, to be honest, I was also angry. I felt the accusation was simply shutting down what to me was clearly a critical engagement with fascism, and as such it seemed self-defeating and contradictory.
The charge kept coming, however. It grew to such an extent that by Friday, I believe, even the US Holocaust Museum was receiving donations via #SayNoToHydraCap. The argument was that Cap’s change of allegiance was an affront to the Jewish creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who had created the character to fight Nazism and it was a terrible betrayal of all the Jews that died during the Final Solution. It appeared to be a slight, a trivialisation of the greatest horror. To me, this was rather what Spencer thought he was defending. Captain America as a comic was still fighting fascism, as far as I could see. Fascism doesn’t arise as a fully formed movement, but begins with the legitimation of low level acts of violence and persecution; precisely the sort of politics that Trump represents. In my reading, Spencer was trying to address the nascent fascism that Trump is channelling, and in that he was doing incredibly important work.
By Matt Stefani, http://comicbook.com/2015/12/12/artist-recreates-captain-america-punching-hitler-with-ms-marvel-/
On the subject of anti-semitism it was the tweets of one woman that most affected me. I didn’t understand them at first, but I made myself look at what she was saying and eventually came to understand that my reading of Steve Rogers: Captain America was a privileged one. Twitter has been very good at teaching me about privilege and here was another example. When a creator posted a flippant tweet about what Steve Rogers would be shown doing in the next issue she tagged him into numerous pictures of holocaust victims to try and get him to understand that the pictures related to real events that affected her family in real life. Indeed, how could you be flippant or joke about what Cap might be shown doing next? It was wrong, and it became very evident how taking this subject lightly quite easily descends into a lack of respect that verges on racism. Or, indeed how flippancy is potentially just another form of racism.
Her tweets were angry, visceral and moving. My frustration about the charge of anti-semitism was now irrelevant. It became painfully clear that I can make the reading I have offered here because I do not have a family history drenched in persecution and mass murder. I am not part of an ethnic group whose maltreatment and violation goes back millennia in the history of Europe. I am not of an ethnic group where a family in 2016 can talk about its missing members who were brutalised, tortured, dehumanised and then erased only a couple of generations back. I am privileged to be able to read the comic the way I do. Thanks to her I slowly understood what the complaint was about. It is imperative to remember the suffering and the crime, and that it started with small gestures like ethnic registration and the marking of groups as different.
There then followed the “fandom is broken” article which added nothing to the discussion apart from more anger. From the arguments that ensued I took away the idea that no creator should be beholden to “common sense” or dictated to by popular tastes, but no artist can hide behind some transcendent idea of art as an excuse for insulting people or encouraging race hate. Initially, for me, the article was evidence that #SayNoToHydraCap was a seriously flawed campaign. The article carried a letter that didn’t just threaten Spencer but actually promised to kill him. It seemed outrageous. But quickly this became another education in privilege, one that I am getting better at recognising, but of which I still need reminding. It was quickly commented upon that women receive these kinds of threats all of the time. Constantly. Perpetually. Here was a threat against a male creator and there is outrage and condemnation, but threats of violence, rape and murder against female fans and critics that happen thousands of time a day across a range of popular culture platforms are not noteworthy. They are unremarkable. Why is that? More privilege. More lack of thought. More lack of care on my part.
Unfortunately, though, there remains a lot more privilege to unpack in the story of Hydra Cap and the responses to it. Doubly unfortunate is the fact that I’m not the person to do it. I would, however, like to raise some questions that I hope I will get some answers to. The first, of course is Captain America’s whiteness. Although Cap’s biography tells us he’s from an Irish immigrant family–as if every white person in the US is not an immigrant!!–he is remarkably Aryan looking: the white skin, the blonde hair, the blue eyes. Also, and this is something of an aside, if we are to interrogate fascism seriously we have to seriously consider our fascination with the ideology of eugenics such that even two Jewish creators trying to resist Nazism are still drawn to the language of the “unfit” and the “weakling” as if it is a disease that needs “innoculation”. My point is that Cap’s whiteness is certainly a form of privilege. Perhaps, and this is beyond my knowledge, a white Captain America has always represented something akin to Hydra for members of black communities in the US. I would imagine, and this need not be wild speculation, that a white man being held up as an avatar for the essential goodness of American society is even more problematic for Native Americans. I know that when Kirby wrote his bi-centennial battles he included a story in which Cap and Geronimo saw they shared the same spirit, but very clearly they don’t. This representation of sameness arises from the incredible privilege that enables and advances the erasure of white colonial history and the founding of the USA in the dual acts of revolution and genocide.
Another aspect of privilege that needs unpacking is one that assumes a continuity between the good that Captain America defended in World War II and the good that he continues to defend today. This is related to the complaint that making Cap a bad guy completely destroys the character, but again, if we are talking perspective and point of view, if we’re talking personal history as means for talking about privilege then we have to understand just how privileged this unblemished view of Captain America is. I have always argued he is the antithesis of the zealous, right-wing patriot. Any sustained analysis of the comics supports this, and yet this does not prevent Captain America being used by or inspiring people who are. Something I had to come to terms with in the wake of the Hydra Cap issue, and something that became abundantly clear from the responses I got to the altered panel I posted, was that he remains an icon for American militarism and American empire.
I write from the political left, and in my writing on Captain America I have worked against left-wing criticisms that the ideological role of Captain America is to provide a veil of virtue for America’s military-economic ambition. I kept arguing that the comics do something else. Cap is a liberal, a New Deal democrat often at odds with US foreign policy, but the unadulterated celebration of Captain America as absolutely good and by association America itself as incontestably right was very disturbing, because only by separating out the ideological work done by Captain America in support of numerous unjust and often catastrophic US military adventures can his name be kept clean. Only by denying the link between such comic book heroes and the violence in both the idea and practice of US manifest destiny can we really keep the image of Captain America pure. And doesn’t such a defence of a sacred political icon itself raise a whole set of other issues about the nature of whiteness and nationalism in America?
I suddenly felt I couldn’t wear my Cap t-shirt anymore, not because he’s now Hydra, but because he really is a lightning road for blind nationalism. No matter what the comics do to show he is NOT a nationalist nut job, he remains available for advocates of the creed, and this is dispiriting.
Let’s also imagine for a moment that we’ve been on the receiving end of a US politico-military intervention, that we’ve received America’s boot or the butt of its gun. Wouldn’t Captain America have looked a lot like Hydra then? Hasn’t Captain America existed for a long time as an avatar for a violent, militaristic cult if you live in parts of Central or South America, or certain countries in the Middle East? Looking back through history, the US has been responsible for the instigation of extraordinary levels of destabilization and violence. From the coup it arranged in Iran in 1953 that ousted a democratically elected government and installed a dictator, to the coup it organised in Chile in 1973 that ousted a democratically elected government and installed a dictator. From Vietnam to Nicaragua to Iraq to Saudi Arabia, America has sponsored or personally delivered brutality, mayhem and death. It is unpalatable, but it is true. It remains invisible to us only because we’ve had the privilege of not living under Manuel Noriega or Augusto Pinochet or Mohammed Reza Pahlavi or Saddam Hussein. Perhaps I, in turn, will be accused of anti-Americanism, but I am simply making the point that if one places oneself as an Afghani or Iraqi it is not difficult to see Captain America as an avatar for something very dark indeed.
Artwork by Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff
Anyway, in light of all this I still maintain that the comic is doing important work interrogating the violence that rests at the heart of the US. If Marvel and Nick Spencer can reflect on how they could have done things differently so as to not cause so much justified pain amongst Jewish readers, this will also be of great service. In the end, though, the comic demonstrates what remains great about America such that its popular culture is able to produce intelligent critiques of its own flirtation with fascism, to which, come November, I am sure the country will deliver a resounding no!