This article originally ran in June 2017.
In an age of superhero movies and TV anti-heroes, fictional villains are more complex than ever before. This week, Vulture examines villainous entertainment in all its forms.
Superman debuted in Action Comics No. 1 in 1938, and I’m willing to bet that before No. 2 came out, some reader had already started wondering, Yeah, but what if that good guy turned into a bad guy? That narrative question has fueled a dizzying array of stories since Supes kicked off the era of the superhero eight decades ago. Over and over again, we’ve seen our spandex-clad saviors become menaces to society due to mind control, body swapping, alternate realities, or what have you. Watch as Batman threatens to kill Robin and Superboy! Tremble as Green Lantern transforms into a mass-murdering jerk! Duck and cover, everybody — Spider-Man’s trying to take over the world!
Of course, sooner or later, the virtuous status quo is restored. These are valuable pieces of intellectual property, after all, and you can’t sell tickets to a franchise about, like, Iron Man killing innocents in cold blood. However, that moral restoration isn’t always instantaneous, and during the period when the Manichean balance is off-kilter, comics readers have a tendency to get testy about their favorite characters being tinkered with. Surely, writer Nick Spencer and his bosses at Marvel Comics anticipated some degree of that kind of dissatisfaction last spring when they went to the good-gone-bad well and made Captain America a supervillain.
That said, they couldn’t have anticipated the degree to which that story would tear apart the discourse about American superhero comics for more than a year. Indeed, the still-ongoing story line in which Cap turns into a baddie has become the single most radioactive topic for the comic-book commentariat. Hardly a week goes by without some kind of fight between Spencer and his critics, usually in the highly flammable environment of Twitter. No matter what side you take, the debate over this villainous turn has been fascinating to watch — and it has raised serious questions about how brands and creators can healthily interact with the fandoms that fund them.
Two words began the whole melee: “Hail Hydra.” At the end of last year’s Captain America: Steve Rogers No. 1 — with art from Jesus Saiz and Joe Caramagna — the titular Sentinel of Liberty pushed a superhero out of an airborne vehicle, frowned, and uttered those three syllables as thunderclouds loomed behind him. Any serious Marvel fan knew what he meant, even if they couldn’t believe he was saying it: Cap was working with the sinister fascist network known as Hydra, and was uttering their Nazi-esque salute. It was a surprise, though not exactly an original one. You could be forgiven for thinking this cliffhanger was a little boilerplate.
Or you could think it was downright offensive. That was the stance taken by legions of Marvelheads in the immediate aftermath of the comic’s release, and the first few weeks of the so-called #HydraCap fight were truly bonkers. The basic critique was that Spencer and Marvel had perverted a beloved character for (in critics’ eyes) the shallow purpose of drumming up shock. There were variants on that critique, such as the accusation that turning a character created by Jews (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) into a member of a fascist group was tantamount to anti-Semitism, or that Marvel was moving away from what some fans perceive as the character’s queer subtext.
Most of the criticism was civil, if heated, but a frightening handful of people went so far as to send death threats to Spencer and those who defended his story decision. Culture writer Devin Faraci, witnessing all this, wrote a much-discussed essay, inspired by the affair and endorsed by Spencer, entitled “Fandom Is Broken.” If it wasn’t actually broken, it was certainly shaken. Within a week or so, tempers cooled a bit — but although the death threats subsided, the discourse was only beginning. Within a few months, it would become hard to remember a time when people weren’t angry at Nick Spencer.
Prior to l’affaire HydraCap, Spencer was regarded as one of the industry’s rising stars. He was a relative latecomer to comics as a career, having spent much of his 20s involved in the civic life of his native Cincinnati. He founded an organization called Cincinnati Tomorrow, aimed at fighting local brain drain; he and a handful of partners opened up a live-event venue called Alchemize; and he worked extensively in local politics, even making city council bids in 2003 and 2005 on a pro-business, anti-crime platform. That first act in Spencer’s career didn’t pan out — he lost in both his electoral runs and, by the end of 2007, he was no longer working with Alchemize.
Spencer departed Cincinnati altogether and tried his luck at the funny books. He’d unsuccessfully attempted to break in around the turn of the millennium, but this time around, he had better luck and landed gigs at indie publisher Image. His work caught fire, especially a long-running drama about a mysterious boarding school called Morning Glories. In 2011, he scored gigs at industry titans Marvel and DC, then became one of the most beloved writers in comics for his action-comedy Marvel series with artist Steve Lieber, Superior Foes of Spider-Man.
It was hardly surprising, then, that Marvel would choose him as their next golden boy. He was given the writing reins of the Captain America franchise after the departure of Rick Remender in 2015. At the time, the original Cap — near-immortal super-soldier Steve Rogers — had just been de-powered and gave his shield up to his on-again, off-again partner, Sam Wilson. Along with artist Daniel Acuña, Spencer mapped out a new direction for the Cap legacy, and even became a liberal hero when Fox & Friends attacked him for lampooning anti-immigration radicalism. He ascended to new heights when he was put in charge of a crossover event called Avengers: Standoff! and when Steve got his powers back, Spencer was at the helm of not one but two Cap titles: Captain America: Sam Wilson and Captain America: Steve Rogers.
Then came that shocking page with those two little words. As Steve Rogers went on, readers learned what had happened to the Star-Spangled Avenger, and if they were upset at the very notion of his perversion, they were even more upset at the narrative circumstances surrounding it. This being superhero comics, it’s all a little wonky, but the simple version is this: Hydra appears to have used a nigh-omnipotent MacGuffin called the Cosmic Cube to rewrite reality and make it so Steve had always been a covert agent for their megalomaniacal agenda. He has subsequently subverted his heroic allies and engineered a Hydra takeover of the United States, with himself installed as its dictator. The climax of the story line is currently underway in a massive, Marvel-wide crossover event called Secret Empire, whose core story is being written by Spencer.
Reading the tale, one is struck less by the plot details than by the way this altered Steve has talked about the sinister organization to which he has devoted himself. Rather than depicting him as a hypnotized sleeper agent following someone else’s orders, Spencer has given us a Captain America who is a true believer. He may have been initially manipulated, but after that reality-tweaking, he’s come up with very deliberate reasoning for the horrors he is carrying out.
“This world is in dire need of saving,” Cap tells a fellow Hydra agent in a Steve Rogers issue. “I look around at the corruption, the weakness, the fear — and of course I have my moments of doubt. I wonder if things are too far gone. But this is a war we have to win. … The true Hydra isn’t a collection of marauding thugs, preaching blind hatred and intolerance. It isn’t conquest for conquest’s sake.”
So what is it? The answer comes in one of the story line’s periodic flashbacks to Steve’s newly rewritten childhood, wherein he was trained by pre-WWII Hydra leaders. In a chillingly calm scene, one of those baddies tells the boy, “I believe we are only strong when we act together, as one. For a cause much greater than ourselves. That is mankind’s destiny. Not to be shackled in bureaucracies that work to maintain the corrupt order, but led by the strongest and most tested among us. Those willing to purge us of the parasites that drag us down, and eager to strike at all those who would do us harm.”
In other words, Spencer has created a story in which a somewhat compelling, non-mustache-twirling case is made for fascism. Not one that Spencer actually agrees with, of course — anyone who takes a look at the man’s Twitter feed can see he’s a die-hard liberal and fervent opponent of the Trump agenda. Nevertheless, it’s been deeply disconcerting for some of his readers to see such a tried-and-true paragon of American goodness suddenly spouting rhetoric that would’ve sounded natural in the mouth of a Nazi.
The story “feels … like overt disrespect of the character’s creators, an opportunity to change everything Captain America stands for because it would be cool to see him fight everyone in the Marvel Universe,” wrote the A.V. Club’s comics expert Oliver Sava when Secret Empire began. It’s just as upsetting for the story’s detractors to see characters from groups exterminated by the Nazis, like Magneto (a Jew) and Scarlet Witch (a Romani person), either appease or join Evil Cap’s cause. “#Marvel has no dignity. They took the one group wiped out by the Nazis and turned them into Nazis. #shameonmarvel,” wrote Twitter user @lastalas, echoing a common sentiment. “The house of #hydracap is having a field day exploiting the deaths of millions for publicity.”
All of this would be enough to spark and stoke fires of anger among comics fans, but the flames have been made hotter by Spencer’s willingness to engage with those who attack him. “I’m the most hated man in America today,” he told the Daily Beast last year, and though he was being cheekily hyperbolic, his words since then have done little to tamp down the rage directed against him. For months after the story began, he was unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie, and regularly got into fights with his detractors on Twitter. A cursory visit to controversial comics tabloid Bleeding Cool will allow you to stumble across post after post embedding the latest Spencer spat.
The fights always circle around his take on Captain America, but are often set off by something extraneous to comics. Take, for example, the brawl that broke out when the early-2017 debate about the ethics of punching Nazis came to Comics Twitter. After months of arguing with detractors about the specifics of the Hydra story line, he’d gained a lot of ill will, and things turned ugly. “Today is difficult, but cheering violence against speech, even of the most detestable, disgusting variety, is not a look that will age well,” Spencer tweeted after video of white nationalist Richard Spencer (no relation) went viral. An avalanche of anti–Nick Spencer tweets came tumbling down:
Spencer responded, and the threads only got longer:
By early May, it got to the point where people started burning copies of Spencer’s comics:
Spencer, of course, weighed in on that:
The hatred never really died down. It’s somewhat exhausting. One fight began over a Captain America: Sam Wilson story that lampooned progressive language politics. Another came when it looked like Magneto might straight-up join Hydra (he didn’t). Some of the worst tussles came over the course of many weeks in which Marvel argued that Hydra, despite allying themselves with Nazis in the past, were not actual Nazis themselves. Time and again, Spencer didn’t hesitate to say his critics just didn’t know what they were talking about.
Whether or not you agree with the merits of Spencer’s points in the ongoing feud, it’s hard to dispute the fact that he’s gone from being comics’ “It” boy to being one of its most hated firebrands in a very short period of time. Even some fellow comic-book creators have taken him to task, with writer Alex de Campi tweeting this April that “if you’re wondering why Team Comics isn’t going after him, fam, we all have him on mute.”
That said, Spencer’s employers at Marvel have been nothing but supportive of Spencer the whole way through. That’s understandable, or at least unsurprising: Secret Empire is pulling great retailer-order numbers at a time when the company is struggling in its eternal fight against DC. What’s more, Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso — despite leading a push for greater diversity in the lineup of top-tier Marvel characters — has been dismissive of his company’s most progressive critics, telling an audience at New York Comic-Con last year that he is “the last thing from a social justice warrior.” There seems to be little corporate inclination to apologize to, much less side with, the detractors.
However, there’s an argument to be made that it’s in their own best business interests to listen a little more closely, even if they don’t agree with what’s being said. To be sure, some of the anti-Spencer voices in the fight have gone to extremes, and others seem to just relish having a punching bag. But my pet theory is that the battle is ultimately about who, exactly, cares about superheroes these days.
Just 15 years ago, there was another much-discussed story in which Captain America was made an asshole, an alternate-reality tale called The Ultimates. In it, Cap was reimagined as a scowling and jingoistic hard-ass, and not only did folks barely get upset about it, they ate it up. It was one of the biggest hits of its time, and it was a huge boon for Captain America’s prominence: At that time, despite many creators’ best efforts, no one had been able to make Cap truly relevant in a long time. He was not a widely beloved character, so turning him into a jerk was not only not a big deal, it was a step up for his visibility.
Flash-forward to today, and you’ll find a very different set of attitudes toward the character. When #HydraCap came, people were furious that someone they cared about so much had been distorted. I saw this fervent reverence just a few years before, when I wrote an article about how Cap is only interesting in his more prick-ish portrayals and was eviscerated online by his defenders. Two little words that aren’t “hail” or “Hydra” are responsible for that massive shift over the past decade and a half: “Chris Evans.”
When 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger first hit theaters, it brought a new vision of its title character to the world. Though he’d always been a profoundly good dude, Cap had also usually been portrayed as more than a little cold. He was a professional, a soldier, and a father figure. But Evans made him into a delightful and compassionately charming teddy bear. All of a sudden, not only was Captain America good, he was also nice. He was easy to fall passionately in love with.
He was also suddenly really, really popular. A whole generation of superhero fans was forged in the filmic crucible of the incalculably successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, and they became a fandom as doggedly devoted to the Marvel pantheon as any longtime comics-shop dweller — but separate and apart from the world of those dwellers. These are new fans, often brought into comics buyer-dom by their insatiable hunger for more Steve Rogers. And what do they find when they pick up a comic about their beloved Steve? A story in which he’s a fascist asshole.
That’s not to say the story isn’t interesting. It is, and it’s especially interesting to read in an era when neo-fascist ideology has somehow found a home in the highest echelons of American politics. But the fact that Marvel jumped into the story line perhaps demonstrates that they don’t totally understand who loves their characters most these days. Sure, the old soldiers who come to the store every week to pick up new issues have to be taken into account, but so do the people who are newer to the medium and came in through the MCU.
There’s precious little in the way of publicly available, comprehensive market data about comics readership, but in my anecdotal experience, the MCU generation, in addition to being passionately attached to Cap, are also relatively young. If Marvel disregards their concerns, it runs the risk of losing a wide swath of people who desperately want to be lifelong comics readers, but who are only just now gaining a foothold. They might not be a consumer force yet, but that doesn’t mean their potential to be one should be discounted. If someone says they love your product, it’s generally wise to figure out why and try to appeal to them in the future.
Whatever lessons there are to be learned on either side of the #HydraCap debate, they can’t be fully learned until the story concludes later this year. Secret Empire has revealed a spoiler-y plot twist that implies all may not be as it seems, and Marvel released a statement in May assuring fans that Cap’s good side will win out in the end. Who knows — perhaps something will happen in the story that flips detractors into fans as quickly as the “Hail Hydra” page did the opposite. Perhaps the more extreme wings of the anti-Spencer faction will realize that burning comics and issuing death threats only serve to undermine their own arguments.
But the main people to watch here aren’t the critics, or even Spencer — it’s Marvel’s leadership. As comics commentator Kieran Shiach put it in a recent tweet, Marvel will eventually have to ask itself, “Was this worth the pain? The controversy? The offense?” If they figure out how to embrace a group of people who care enough about their properties to get furious about them, it might have been.