Patrick: The most troubling thing about any inspirational figure is that they are necessarily mutable. Human beings are never only one thing, but we often reduce them to a single trait or value so that we may incorporate that into our own view of the world. John Lennon believed in peace, Martin Luther King Jr. believed in equality, Steve Jobs believed in innovation. Those are all trite reductions of fantastically complicated people, but it is useful to have avatars of these qualities and principals. Nick Spencer and Jesus Saiz’ Steve Rogers Captain America 1 sets out to complicate one of the most inspirational figures in comics — which I feel is a necessary exploration of the Greatest Generation — but the issue is almost more interested in the concepts of inspiration and legacy than the specific twist deployed on the final splash page.
And that twist should be no surprise to anyone that’s stumbled onto this piece: Steve Rogers hails Hydra and everyone on the internet loses their goddamn minds. If you’ve been on Twitter or Tumblr or comic sites the last week, you’ve seen this reaction. A creation of Jewish storytellers that advocated for intervention in World War II turned into a Nazi! Those words are (mostly) accurate, and the implied outrage (mostly) makes sense, but complaining about that development displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how conflict works in storytelling. The beginning of a story should introduce a threat that makes the audience unhappy – otherwise, what are we sticking around for the resolution of?
Also, it’s immediately obvious that Spencer and Saiz are aware of the inspirational power of the figure they’re wielding in this issue. Cap’s opening voiceover is singularly focused on the idea that inspiration is a powerful, even dangerous concept. We’re literally in the middle of an all-out-brawl in a train car when the narrative cuts away to detail the history of suicide bomber Robbie Dean. Saiz and Spencer don’t offer us a page-turn as a segue to this backstory either – one panel, we’re enjoying some superhero punch-ups, the next we’re getting into the head of a man at the end of his rope.
That sets some interesting priorities, doesn’t it? Rather than staying with the action-packed fun-times, we’re interrupted with the story of a character we’ve never met before and who isn’t long for this world. Robbie had a tough life, but Spencer’s narrative is careful not to overly villainize or victimize him. The kid makes mistakes, he makes bad choices, but he also falls into groups and patterns that are arguably beyond his control. Even joining up with Hydra demonstrates a mixed bag of agency and a lack thereof. We’re not letting Robbie off the hook for falling for Red Skull’s speech, but we’re also not downplaying Skull’s persuasive powers either. In fact, that page of Red Skull in the basement is amazing for how much every other element of the story takes a backseat to the one charismatic dude with compelling talking points. Steve’s voiceover, which had been driving the story up to that point, gets cut off, and even Robbie fades away as Red Skull (and his tirade) occupy every single panel.
Of course, it’s not just the bad guys that inspire people to action. We’re here to discuss Captain America, right? Obviously, the character has inspired others to take up this specific mantle — Sam is still Cap as you’re reading this — but there are also examples of less-direct legacy-continuations playing out here in the form of Jack Flag and Free Spirit. Both of these heroes are decked out in red, white, and blue, and much of their mid-battle banter has to do with wanting to live up to the example set by Cap. Jack Flag even mentions that he can’t wait to tell his grandchildren someday that he fought alongside Captain America. That’d be a good story for him to tell – a clear and easy one, based on a series of oversimplifications.
There’s a curious scene back at S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters where Jack Flag, Free Spirit, and The Whisperer are all bragging about how instrumental they are to the mission of Captain America. They joke about seeing him through the werewolf era or the armor era, and even have to reflect on their own shortcomings. Jack Flag — the big lame-o — used to bring a boombox into battle, and Free Spirit was originally designed to KILL ALL MEN. But they’re both so excited to be both heroic and relevant now. They’re people, so they change, just as the values or traits we ascribe to them can change.
That leaves the audience primed to embrace the twist at the end of the issue. And don’t be fooled: everyone that’s threatening Nick Spencer’s life, or burning his book, or accusing editor Tom Brevoort of antisemitism is embracing the twist. You don’t have those passionate reactions without believing it on some level. Spencer is artfully leveraging nearly a century of sentiment against us and it is working.
Spencer, I’m sure we could each fill a thousand words with explorations of what this development says about America or Donald Trump or Globalization or Terrorism or Nationalism or WHATEVER, but I’m mostly tickled that this comic forces conversation. I’m not totally convinced that conversation is complete just yet (y’know: after one issue), but I look forward to seeing how Nick Spencer continues to use the office of Captain America to ask hard questions.
Spencer: Patrick, to say this issue spawned a lot of discussion is one helluva understatement, and there’s no way to fully dissect this issue in the space we have; I mean, I’d love to dig into the “Hydra as the Republican party” theory Patrick, Drew, and I tossed around a few days ago (Red Skull is Trump, the huckster bending Hydra/the party’s interests to his whims while alienating the more traditional members of the organization, such as Baron Zemo, who I deem to be Ted Cruz simply because it makes me laugh), but there’s simply bigger fish to fry.
What I know for sure is that, 1. by dropping this bomb on Marvel fans knowing full well the kind of heat he’d take, Nick Spencer has shown more guts than just about anybody I’ve ever seen, and 2. that I kinda resent Spencer for doing it. It’ll probably take me a while to fully unpack that second point, but for starters, I’m frustrated because, up until that last page, I was fully enjoying this issue, and was ready to start recommending it to every casual Captain America fan I knew. Now those same fans are condemning the issue sight unseen, and I don’t feel like I have enough leverage to talk them out of that stance, nor do I even know if I want to in the first place.
Seriously, though, there’s so much to love in Steve Rogers Captain America 1 that’s been completely ignored because of all the discussion of the “twist.” Patrick’s already done an excellent job of exploring much of the politics and thematic stuff Spencer’s got in play, but even the smaller details like characterization and interplay are tremendously on point. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve read a comic with Sharon Carter in it, but Spencer immediately sells me on her and Steve’s relationship.
That same sense of closeness and camaraderie extends to Jack Flag, Free Spirit, and Rick Jones, all of whom are allowed to bounce off each other and seem genuinely fond of each other, and whose various quirks make them feel like fully-dimensional characters even if we ultimately see very little of them (and I’d never heard of Flag or Spirit before this issue, making this an even greater feat). Ultimately, most of the “hurt” I feel over Jack Flag’s death is due to Steve being the one to kill him (that betrayal hurt far more than the “Hail Hydra,” actually), but I had still grown to like Flag just enough in this brief period that the loss of him as a specific character hurt as well, and that’s a sign of good writing.
Jesus Saiz is pretty astounding throughout the issue as well — his facial expressions capture the emotion of each character perfectly, and Saiz’s focus on the lines on many of his characters’ faces emphasizes the toll the threats they face put on them. This is most prominent in Sharon Carter — which is refreshing, as she’s allowed to show her age and is never disrespected by the narrative or the characters within it for it — but also evident in Robbie Tomlin, who looks far older than he should be thanks to his hard, rough life.
Saiz also impresses with his color choices: the sunset from the helicarrier is dazzling, while his nearly-monochrome take on the flashback scenes is smart and intuitive (especially the rare splashes of red — they usually represent violence or danger in these scenes, but are also used to accent Elisa Sinclair, thus serving as subtle foreshadowing of her true allegiance to Hydra).
Yet nobody’s talking about any of this; Steve’s “Hail Hydra” moment is getting all the buzz/outrage, and I expect that was always the intention. I can deal with that; the problem is that this moment’s cliffhanger status leaves very little to actually discuss other than our feelings about the idea. That way, sadly, lies madness.
If you spent even five minutes online this past week, you were probably overwhelmed by the sheer outrage over this issue; God, I know I was. I usually hate the word “outrage,” as it’s generally used to minimize the pain of people legitimately hurt or upset, but that also depends on the context; I’m far more dismissive of the (ridiculous) “outrage” over a female Thor or a black Cap than I am the (somewhat founded?) cries of anti-semitism surrounding this issue. But justified or not, the outrage over “Hydra Cap” went too far — sending death threats to Nick Spencer is pure evil, and I’m amazed by the lack of awareness of fans actually burning these comics (if for no other reason than they likely had to pay for them).
What’s interesting to me is that Spencer seems to be predicting these reactions within the issue itself. That page Patrick posted of Red Skull’s speech, for example, is all about outrage. His audience — like Spencer’s — feels hurt and hopeless and needs something to rail against, but are completely misguided in their target and methods. Then there’s the matter of empathy.
Maria Hill sees Hydra agents and can only focus on what they’ve done wrong; Sharon acknowledges that, but can sympathize with where they came from and what drove them to crime. She sees even her enemies as people, and that’s something the “fans” harassing/threatening Nick Spencer have woefully overlooked.
For people who supposedly emulate Cap, they’ve sure misunderstood what he stands (stood?) for. I’ve seen a lot of people I respect take some rash, puzzling, sometimes even troubling stances this week (creators patronizing fans who are legitimately upset by the twist/the ethics surrounding it, online friends badgering Spencer or claiming that “even writing a story where Cap is mind-controlled by Nazis is anti-semitic” when Jack Kirby himself wrote at least one story with that plot). I suppose that’s fitting, as the ultimate purpose of this issue is revealing the dark secrets of Marvel’s patron saint himself. It hurts seeing people you respect screw up, fictional or otherwise.
While upsetting readers is a fundamental part of storytelling, though — nothing hurts as good as a brilliantly executed twist or character death — there’s a difference between that and alienating readers by fundamentally changing who a character is. A Steve Rogers who secretly serves his greatest enemy (and a Nazi organization at that) is my equivalent of Superman snapping necks in Man of Steel or Batman nearly murdering Superman in cold blood in Batman v. Superman — it’s a betrayal of everything the character’s ever stood for.
With that in mind, I’m curious to see what the legacy of this storyline eventually ends up being. I’ve seen very few people actually enthusiastic about this concept — some are outraged, most of my friends simply dismissed the idea as “stupid” and moved on, and the few actually interested in reading the book seem more curious than anything. Will all this buzz actually have any impact on sales or reception, for good or for bad? Hell, will the quality of the book even make a difference? Who knows at this point.
So, can a Captain America who serves Hydra make a good story? Probably — if anybody can do it, Spencer can, and if it bombs, it will be easy enough to reverse (Kobik is still in play, after all). Is it a story that should be told, though? I’m honestly leaning towards “no,” and Spencer’s gonna have a lot of people to convince otherwise.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?