Last month, the geek commentariat blew up over a single panel of a Captain America comic. In Captain America: Steve Rogers No. 1, America’s most beloved non-Crunch Captain intoned the slogan of his longtime foes, the terrorist network/hate group Hydra: “Hail Hydra.” Marvel Comics could never have anticipated the subsequent vitriolic fights between people who saw the move as a betrayal of the Jewish men who created the character (Hydra is Nazi-affiliated) and defenders of the comic’s writer, Nick Spencer. Debates raged about what’s appropriate for fans of a character to expect from that character’s stewards. A tiny, non-representative contingent of folks even sent out death threats. Now, a month later, the twist has finally been explained in the follow-up issue, but the critical battle is wholly unresolved.
The big reveal actually came a day early, when Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso gave an interview to comicbook.com about what readers could expect today. The short version: Steve Rogers is under the influence of some sci-fi mishegoss. Classic Cap villain (and big-time Nazi) Red Skull used a sentient piece of a reality-warping MacGuffin called the Cosmic Cube to change the past and make Steve a secret Hydra agent (as well as make him young again, because he’d recently gotten old and passed the shield to his friend Sam Wilson, who is now also Captain America … look, comics are complicated). Ergo, the past 75 years of Captain America stories aren’t exactly invalidated — the good guys will inevitably beat the Skull and the status quo will return.
Alonso’s reasoning for the move’s thematic relevance was a bit specious. “You don’t have to search far and wide to start seeing the topical things we’re dealing with right now in this post-9/11 world,” he said, though there was no explanation of how 9/11 has anything to do with what’s going on. He also didn’t address the accusations of ethnic insensitivity that come with the Nazi-ish turn, and was more than a little dismissive of the critics, saying, “I think a lot of the people reacting most violently aren’t people that go to the comic-book stores every Wednesday and are trained to understand the way the comics work and the rhythms and how we could do this kind of thing with our heroes.”
As you might expect, the interview and today’s in-text explanation didn’t really satisfy anyone who was already upset. Some criticisms have stemmed from anger over Spencer’s claim last month that mind-control wasn’t involved in Cap’s sinister turn — after all, it’s a blurry line between controlling someone’s brain and altering their past. Some folks pointed out that the explanation does nothing to confront the Jewish identity-politics problem. Others just think it’s bad storytelling.
Then there are the story’s defenders, who have dug in their heels. There’s a fair amount of gloating about the fact that the story says Cap isn’t really a Nazi, just (presumably) temporarily altered into one. As Twitter user Marshall Lush put it, “Every person who got butt hurt over #hydracap now should feel ashamed of themselves. Obviously @Marvel had a story to tell. People suck man.” Spencer, meanwhile, is putting his deriders on blast on his feed.
Paste Magazine made the situation worse by putting up a post headlined, “Marvel Backtracks on Captain America Revelation After Just One Issue.” The actual text of the post doesn’t claim Marvel changed the second issue after the backlash over the first, but the use of the word “backtracks” irked creators like David Marquez and pundits like Devin Faraci, who thought it implied such a ludicrous thing (comics, after all, are made months in advance).
Blessedly, the fracas is significantly quieter than it was a few weeks ago, most likely because the new comic doesn’t add offensive elements, opting merely to give background on what we already saw. But the reverberations of the battle cries over the first issue still linger in the air. It’s certainly possible that Marvel’s higher-ups will take this as a lesson and think twice about how their brand’s fans might be offended by future stories they hype up. But given Alonso’s and Spencer’s words — as well as the unrelated criticisms over the company’s recent choice to kill off a famous black character — it seems far more likely that they’re more concerned with artistic freedom. The Cap fight was largely unprecedented, but it may well be remembered as just the first of its kind.