“Do not question what I believe…It is not a matter of conjecture, but of knowledge.”
– Elisa Sinclair, Captain America: Steve Rogers #8
“Sorry, Uh–Hail Hydra, Boss. That’s never not gonna be weird.”
– Taskmaster, Captain America: Steve Rogers #16
Note: This should go without saying, but…
Hey everyone! Up front I want to say thank you for checking out this article about the backstory behind Secret Empire. In case you didn’t know: Secret Empire is Marvel Entertainment’s summer blockbuster series and with three issues released by the time this article goes live (issue #0, Free Comic Book Day Special and issue #1), and with an ambitious release schedule its first month (the first three issues launch May 3rd, 17th, and 31st respectfully) it promises to be one of the most talked about events in recent comic history. But how did with get here? With Steve Rogers, Captain America, as both the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Supreme Leader of Hydra declaring himself and the High Council of Hydra rulers of the United States.
The purpose of this piece, ideally, is to operate as a brief overview of the events that paved the way for Secret Empire and a general appreciation of Nick Spencer’s work on the character and which particular parts of the story stood out to me. I also want to address why this particular story–at this particular moment in our culture–might have been seen as a touch controversial. Personally, I don’t want my forthcoming reviews of Secret Empire to get bogged down by a continuous need to address some of those issues (although I can’t promise that will be unavoidable). I really don’t think that’s gonna be fun for anyone. I want my reviews to be based on the merits of the story being told and not on what I think will ultimately be a passing moment of internet outrage. But that doesn’t mean I think some of the controversy is not worth discussing. To put it in wrestling parlance, this book has a lotta heat!
So I figured I would write this introductory piece addressing the controversy as reasonably as I can and along the way I’ll give my take on Nick Spencer’s work on Captain America: Steve Rogers and shed light on Hydra’s history and its place within Marvel continuity. As fairly as I can, I want to briefly present some of the frustrations I’ve seen expressed by some fans. This is not meant to be an exhaustive examination, just my observations on this moment in fandom and an attempt to cut through the fog. And if there’s anyone here in our growing community that has their own grievances with the story’s subject matter, I hope this is somewhat helpful in explaining what, at the very least, I think is going on. And hopefully it’s done in a way that is not too nerdsplaining.
However, I am not going to conceal or be coy about what I think. To pretend that I take certain grievances seriously would be dishonest. I believe facts are more important, and more valuable, than feelings. At the end of the day, I believe all stories have a right to be told. Regardless if the content of the narrative speaks to me–inspires or challenges me–I believe they all have a right to be told. And if there is a segment of fandom that wants to pretend to be some kind of modern Comics Code Authority trying to argue what stories and themes are appropriate for comics, I’m going to have no patience for that perspective.
As a comic book fan–as a person–I can see the growing weight and authority given to uncritical thoughts and impulsive, under-informed feelings on platforms like Twitter. I see numerous articles by reviewers and critics who ought to know better give legitimacy to those voices. This is something I find very disturbing. I value clear thinking and conversations that are open and challenging. Unfortunately, one side in particular in the discussion about Steve Rogers, Nick Spencer, Marvel and the depiction of fascism in popular culture is uniquely becoming more and more unmoored from reality. There’s a general tone of mean-spiritedness and snark, which, I know, it’s the common tongue of the internet, but it’s abhorrent. A person surrenders all high ground and decency when they engage in personal attacks. and sadly, we don’t have the excuse of having a cosmic cube.
As I write this, Marvel released a statement to ABC News on May 2, 2017, asking readers, fans and just random people on Twitter to be patient as the story unfolds. Their attempt to explain how sequential storytelling works to a world where more and more people are binge-watching their favorite TV shows is becoming an increasingly more challenging endeavor. I am not sure where I stand on Marvel’s choice to release this statement, but I think it’s going to be lost on those who are riding the rage wagon.
Nick Spencer’s run on both of the Captain America titles is about fascism. It’s about how subtly a person can be coerced into embracing extreme ideologies. It’s about alternate histories and cosmic cubes. It’s about fighting fascism. It’s about a reality-warped Steve Rogers being the bad guy. Obviously there has been passionate discourse coming from all quadrants of the internet, particularly from Twitter and websites like Bleeding Cool and the now defunct Comics Alliance (R.I.P.). Several voices on Twitter have accused the story of being, at worst, anti-Semitic or at the very least that its core premise was insensitive and inappropriate. It got to the point where shortly after Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 launched on May 25, 2016 the writer, Nick Spencer, began receiving death threats for the now infamous “Hail Hydra” reveal. And that criticism hasn’t let up. Pretty much daily, if you run a hashtag search on Twitter you’ll find people calling for Nick Spencer to be fired and accusing Marvel for spoiling the dreams of young children and desecrating an essential American symbol. It’s to the point now where, bizarrely, Nick Spencer is being called a Nazi sympathizer…mainly on Twitter…at odd hours of the day. Honestly, considering the tone of some of these folks on Twitter, I’m surprised we haven’t gotten to comic book burnings being uploaded across Twitterdom.
On the other side of the reaction wheel was the slightly jaded, slightly less enthused, response that insisted that when all was said and done Captain America would be restored to his state of grace. That that’s nature of comics: the toys go back in the toy box. We’d get some comic book explanation for the change in Steve’s history and all would eventually be set to rights. And still others claimed that when the story is all said and done and Captain America was returned to his status quo, that this story would be a mark of Cain on the character, that he couldn’t fully be restored or redeemed at the end of this arc. It would be his own personal “One More Day” or “Sins Past.” Is everything really so bleak and terrible as all that? How exactly did we get here storywise?
When Captain America: Steve Rogers #2 came out, we got the explanation of what the flark was going on with everyone’s favorite super-soldier. Towards the conclusion of Rick Remender’s run on Captain America, Steve Rogers had his super-soldier serum neutralized by the Iron Nail. It caused Steve to instantly become his elderly self sans serum. Then, jumping ahead a bit, at the end of Avengers: Standoff, a sentient Cosmic Cube (an artifact in the Marvel Universe that has the power to alter reality) in the form of a young girl named Kobik, undid the loss of the super-soldier serum and had Steve Rogers rejuvenated. But unfortunately for the Sentinel of Liberty (and a portion of Twitter) that wasn’t all she did.
In the Marvel Universe, one person has sought and desired the cosmic cube more than anyone, Johann Shmidt, the Red Skull. Kobik, having memories of being valued and wanted by the Red Skull found him and soon he had taken Kobik under his wing and was teaching her in the ways of his version of Hydra. And it was through her that the Red Skull would plan hisultimate revenge on Steve Rogers.
Kobik had been taught by the Red Skull that the perfected state of man was order and strength through Hydra. When she gave Steve back his youth and his strength, she also made him a more perfect version of himself, an agent of Hydra. Effectively, she changes his reality so that ever since his childhood he had been associated with Hydra.
During the first Uncanny Avengers series, the Red Skull Professor Xavier’s mind grafted onto his own, making him the most powerful telepath in the Marvel Universe. While he could have easily brainwashed Captain America (again) into thinking he was Hydra, such things could be easily undone. The Red Skull needed a more permanent solution. If he changed Steve Roger’s reality by means of a cosmic cube, a cosmic cube completely devoted to the Red Skull and Hydra, he could finally destroy everything that was Steve Rogers. This was the Red Skull’s final solution for the Rogers problem.
So that is how we ended up with the “Hail Hydra” panel that broke the internet. And it’s how Nick Spencer got death threats, and Marvel was besieged with cries and complaints that they were allowing the ruination of a beloved American symbol just when America needed him most.
As mentioned above, there were accusations that the story’s very premise was anti-Semitic, and those making this claim often invoke the original creators, Jack “Comic Book God-King” Kirby and Joe Simon, both Jewish and both World War 2 veterans. For the record, there is something incredibly gross and disingenuous in claiming knowledge of what a creator would think of a given storyline , especially when they are no longer here themselves. A person would find themselves having to say that maybe the “Judas Contract” should never have been written because maybe–maybe–Bob Haney would never have told that story. I know it’s a debate class 101 routine to supplement a weak argument, but in this case it’s pretty terrible. It even got to the point where some on Twitter were incorrectly identifying Steve Rogers as a Jewish character. He is in fact an Irish-American Catholic.
The accusation that this storyline goes against the original intent of the creators arrives dead on arrival and can be dismissed outright. Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America, illustrated a two-part story that appeared in Tales of Suspense #66 and #67 where Captain America is drugged and brainwashed by the Red Skull and joins the Nazis. The literal Nazis. Not an allegorical group, but the Nazis. There are panels depicting Captain America Seig Heil-ing multiple times, including one given to Adolf Hitler. And I want to be clear, because it deserves repeating, Jack Kirby illustrated those issues.
I’ve seen some people argue that this was a small, finite story that doesn’t compare in scope to the current story. It’s true they don’t really compare in story length, but at the end of the day they are both finite stories. The important context to keep in mind is that comics were written differently back then. There wasn’t a graphic novel market that was being supported by the monthly floppies. Most story lines of that era were told over one or maybe two issues. “The Coming of Galactus” in the Fantastic Four only ran over the course of one and a half issues.
The more problematic claim made by some is that this story is sympathetic to Nazis, and that Nick Spencer himself is, whether it’s said implicitly or explicitly, is a Nazi sympathizer. Personally, I don’t know how someone could reasonably reach that conclusion unless they aren’t reading the comics or there’s a deeper problem that has nothing to do with comics, Marvel or Nick Spencer. It’s the core job of a writer to be empathetic and imaginative, to get inside the head and world of a character that they in all likelihood have very little in common with. That includes the villains. Unless you want superheroes to exist in a morally simplistic, infantilized world where the villains are comically two-dimensional and are not fully formed, complex characters in their own right. If Nick Spencer and his team have made you feel sympathy for Steve Rogers in his current state, that’s not him giving a stamp of approval to the actions Steve is taking. It’s him doing his job as a writer. It’s an uncomfortable idea for some–clearly too uncomfortable–that the worst among us are still us.
For the sake of clarity, I want to give an overview of the history of Hydra in the Marvel Universe. A lot of the outrage and hurt feelings I suspect stems from people confusing Hydra for Nazis, or assuming there is a 1:1 ratio between them. Strictly speaking, according to Marvel history, Hydra are not the Nazi Party. To claim that Hydra are Nazis is short-circuited thinking that ignores contextual input. It’s quite simply more complicated than that. And not for nothing, but if someone were interested in Marvel’s actual allegorical Nazi group, they’d be looking for the National Force.
Have Nazis such as the Red Skull and Baron Wolfgang von Strucker been members of Hydra? Yes. Did some Nazis ever used the apparatus of Hydra for their own means, such as the aforementioned Red Skull and Baron von Strucker? Yes.
There can be little doubt, Hydra are definitely villains. They’re an ancient secret society built upon the philosophy of order through strength and the collective before the individual. In DC Comics terms, they have more in common, in terms of scope and mission, to Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Assassins. To be clear, Ra’s al Ghul is a genocidal, maniacal terrorist bent on world domination and yet the internet doesn’t collectively lose its mind and accuse Batman of pallin’ around with terrorists every time they put aside their differences and team up. Nor are they freaking out about the story being told in Injustice where a fascist Superman has attempted to take over the world (granted that’s an alternate timeline…so who cares).
When Hydra first appeared in Strange Tales #135 (Publication date: August 10th 1965) they were introduced as the primary antagonists to Nick Fury and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. And that’s more or less it. They were a fairly basic, cookie-cutter secret society cult that went green where Brother Blood and the Church of Blood went red. It isn’t until 1972’s April issue of Captain America #148 that the Red Skull is revealed as the leader of the Las Vegas cell of Hydra. But in that very issue the Red Skull declares that he has merely been using Hydra as a smokescreen to conceal his true purpose: the spread and influence of Nazism. It’s interesting that Nick Spencer calls back to this–whether intentional or not–when he has Elisa Sinclair (more on her later) foreshadow this exact thing happening: If Hydra sides with Hitler and the Nazis during the War, Hydra’s true purpose could be consumed and discarded by them. She advises against such an alliance, but is out voted by the other members of the High Council.
Since 2009, in series like Secret Warriors and Shield Marvel, primarily through the work of Jonathan Hickman, has been fleshing out the history of Hydra. And it’s important to keep in mind that the current Captain America: Steve Rogers series and Secret Empire take place with these stories as its backdrop. According to these series Hydra’s origins can be traced back to the Third Dynasty in Egypt where the earliest mentions of it are recorded. At some point in the nebulous past a race of humanoid reptiles (Hey, comics!) infiltrated an Asian secret society known as The Brotherhood of the Spear. From there the secret society embedded itself in all areas of human expertise: magic and science; economics and politics, eventually becoming Hydra.
Again, referring to Secret Warriors, Hydra does end up making an alliance with the Nazis for their own purposes during World War Two. After the Axis’ defeat former members of the Nazi Party and the Hand are brought into the Hydra fold. Shortly upon joining Hydra, Baron von Strucker kills the reigning leader, the Hydra Supreme, and installs himself as the new Supreme Leader.
I hope this bit of background information is useful. A part of me feels it’s cumbersome and a little silly to go into this much detail on Hydra all for the simple point of saying: Are Hydra and the Nazis one in the same? Well…no, they’re not. They’ve worked together and, particularly through the Red Skull, some Hydra factions have been influenced by it. However, like the creature of myth, although the Beast has made heads, they don’t all think the same. For some, this might seem like a distinction without a difference. A fascist is a fascist is a fascist. And that’s fine. I’m not going to begrudge someone that view. I would only remind them that in this story Steve Rogers is the bad guy and there is an in-story reason why that is the case. However, when a segment of fandom are accusing the publisher and the writer of anti-Semitism, I think it’s worth providing a brief examination of Hydra’s history.
I’m not immune to my own personal fan outrages. I too have been struck by the desire to write a sternly worded letter of fan disappointment or to send a passive aggressive tweet. Don’t get me started on the New 52! There were moments during those dark years of exile where it felt like I had done something personal and unforgivable to Dan Didio and he was taking it out on all my favorite DC characters. But all that does is poison the well. It makes our fandom more toxic, less welcoming, less willing to be challenged by new ideas and generally unpleasant. However I also think we as a community can right this ship. Where I draw the line, and where I hope more people will draw the line, is on personal attacks–demonizing and shaming individuals–and misrepresenting facts. Ideas are fair game. Criticize and attack those all day long. Critique a story, challenge the legitimacy of choices made within it, but be fair. Read the story. Then we’re all playing on the same field. The reality is Nick Spencer and Marvel have been unfairly maligned across various social media platforms and in some critical articles.
I think in this case we are dealing with a growing and evolving fandom, many of whom probably first got introduced to these characters from the films and TV shows. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I think it’s pretty awesome. I’m glad we are living in a time when there are so many avenues to get into these characters. I’m sure there are many nineties kids out there that can relate to getting introduced to the world of comics through show like the X-Men animated series, Batman: the Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series or the Justice League series. It’s good for us as a community that comic book fandom is growing and diversifying, more voices are being heard and hopefully more honest stories are being told because it. But still, coming into comics from the films and TV comes with its own separate baggage. For one, in the films, you’re getting these characters in a very distilled and iconic form.
Aside from that, there’s something more pervasive happening. There’s a disturbing trend not just in fandom, but it’s happening across college campuses and in society at large that seems to encourage a sort of groupthink and self-identifying as a victim. There’s an embrace of the errant belief that a person’s feelings are absolute. That they are enshrined in amber, engraved in stone or written on golden tablets. That they are automatically deserving of respect and consideration. I disagree. People’s feelings deserve to be heard and recognized. They don’t automatically earn the right to be respected.
Personally, I think, as comic book fans, we should stand up against those that seek to publicly shame or harass a creator. The people who are in effect saying only certain types of stories should be told in superhero comics. Because that’s ultimately what this controversy is about. To be clear, it’s about a small segment of fans and critics who are using their platforms to shame Marvel–or any future publisher–from telling this type of story again. They’re arguing like they ultimately think superhero stories shouldn’t be allowed to make the reader uncomfortable, they shouldn’t challenge a reader’s assumptions and worldviews, and that every hero gets to be safe. I hope that’s not their endgame. It would be a dark reign indeed if that was the case.
To be as generous as I can, for some this outrage comes from a genuinely good place. They’re devoted fans of these characters. We all want the best for our favorite characters. Or, at the very least, that’s what we tell ourselves. For myself, I would love nothing more than for Tim Drake to be happy all the time and make out constantly with Bart Allen. But that’s really not why most of us read superhero fiction. There’s what fan fiction is for. Whether we know it or not at the time, we want a story where the hero is imperiled, and sent through seemingly impossible hardships. And maybe, during that time, as they go through those trials, our hero might let us down. They might make decisions we disagree with and perhaps even become unrecognizable to us; entirely disparate from the character we know and love.
After the “Dark Phoenix Saga,”Chris Claremont and John Bryne received death threats through the mail for killing Jean Grey. It’s kind of a cliche at this point, but the stories that have stuck with us, that have remained relevant years–and decades–afterwards were the ones that garnered the most vacuous and vociferous response at the time of their original publication. Recent titles that have become seminal classics, like Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-Man or Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s run on Captain America which brought back Bucky as the Winter Soldier were bemoaned and decried in their time by certain corners of fandom as acts of sacrilege. And let’s not spend too much digital ink on those H.E.A.T. guys. Kyle Rayner didn’t deserve that.
But still, through it all, the hero persists, and eventually overcomes. But if the stakes don’t seem real and insurmountable, if you see the marionette’s strings, if at no point you think, “This could be it…this could really be the point of no return,” there would be no drama. And without drama and pathos there would be no emotional investment in these characters in the first place.
I’m a cynical person. That’s why I will always love and need Superman and Captain Marvel (Billy Batson) more than Batman. I need the aspirational vision that those characters represent. A vision of the world and a belief in people’s best potential that says, “You’re okay.” Whoever you are, wherever you are, you’re okay and Superman thinks the world of you. He thinks you’re worth fighting for every single day.
If you begin to view the world as an inherently malignant place you will see malignancy wherever you look and you will ascribe it to people’s intentions either fairly or undue. You will allow two words from a comic book superhero to threaten you and break your heart. And, you know, it probably was supposed to break your heart a little. We need Captain America more than ever now. What he stands for, what he represents: Kindness, decency, doing your part and lending a hand. We need those things more than ever now.
We need Steve Rogers. Maybe we just didn’t realize it until his world had changed.
Getting back to Nick Spencer’s run on Captain America. The story is incredibly ambitious, and in an age of decompressed storytelling, there’s not a wasted scene in Captain America: Steve Rogers. Spencer is managing to do not just the main story arc, which by itself is captivating enough, but then he has a variety of B-plots that are funny, tragic and at times surprisingly heart-warming where Nick Spencer’s incredible range as a writer are on full display. There’s palace intrigue in both S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra, there’s the second superhero Civil War, the trial of Maria Hill (BUILD THE SHIELD!! BUILD THE SHIELD!!), there’s the mentor-protégé relationship between Wendell Vaughn and the new Quasar, Agent Avril Kincaid, and all the while the most trusted man in America can’t be trusted and nobody knows. Through all this Nick Spencer is also crafting an all-new, all-different origin for this reality altered Steve Rogers. The way I view this story is that it’s more or less an old school What If? story, but instead of being an isolated one-shot or an Elseworlds, like Superman: Red Son, they are dropping it right in the middle of the 616 (Sorry, Tom. I know you hate that term.). Captain America: Green Son, if you will. Serpent Son?
Among my favorite scenes spread throughout the series have been the flashbacks, rendered so beautifully by Jesus Saiz, where you see Steve’s altered history starting with his childhood. It’s in this altered history that we are introduced to Elisa Sinclair and his childhood friendship with Helmut Zemo. Elisa Sinclair is probably my favorite part of the series. She’s been a revelation. I hope she sticks around post-Secret Empire. In whatever world is to come, I think she could be a very interesting player. I’ve been trying to find out why she appeals to me so much, and I finally figured it out. She reminds me of Melisandre, the red priestess of R’hllor, Lord Stannis Baratheon’s adviser in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. A zealot with a clear purpose of cosmic significance is one of my favorite tropes in fiction and it is put to amazing use in this series.
Elisa like all good characters is complex. In her own way she is a woman out of time, much like Steve Rogers is a man out of time. She doesn’t tolerate men who abuse their privilege, she is often the voice of temperance and reason among the High Council and doesn’t have a lot of time for belligerence and shortsightedness. Again, she was the sole voice that advised against allying with the Nazis. Hers is an older, grander Hydra that doesn’t bother with the squabbles of temporal nation-states.
The thing that I was most taken aback by was how much I’ve actually come to enjoy this version of Steve Rogers for what he is. Being able to see him grow up, there’s still a fair amount of the pre-cube Steve still in there. There are shards of his decency that seem immutable. He feels genuine remorse over needing to remove Jack Flag from the board. In another flashback that plays over the course of issues nine through eleven, Steve is sent by Daniel Whitehall and Sebastian Fenhoff to infiltrate the United States military and assassinate Dr. Abraham Erskine, but when the moment comes he is unable to do it and Helmut Zemo, Steve’s handler on the mission, must pull the trigger himself. And there there are his scenes with Sharon. He genuinely loves her, or at the very least, cares for her. In deep cover missions it’s common to form true bonds with the people you’ll inevitable need to betray. And when that moment eventually comes in Secret Empire #0 it hits hard.
Nick Spencer is especially good at allowing characters to have little comedic asides. Especially in a series that can be as dire as this one, having those little humorous moments or digressions breaks up the tone keeping the book from getting too tragic or self-indulgent. Once again Nick Spencer’s proves throughout the narrative that his mastery of one-liners and a solid gag are delightfully Whedonian. In particular are the meta-comments of Rick Jones and the issues where Taskmaster and Black Ant discover Steve’s secret and all they want to do is sell it for some good-good cash. Maria Hill is a scene-stealin’, scenery-chewin’, walkin’ one-woman show. Please, please, please, I hope Nick Spencer will one day write a Maria Hill centric ongoing just about all the zany ways she tries reclaiming the directorship of S.H.I.E.L.D.
I know I rambled quite a bit about all the noise surrounding these series. Apparently, I had some things to say. So, if you haven’t felt like reading Nick Spencer’s run yet, if the controversy and heat around the series gave you pause–and even though I’ve Stephanie Brown’ed a lot of the plot–I would say give it a read. It really is a turbulent, phenomenal ride. Captain America: Steve Rogers, along with Captain America: Sam Wilson (also written by Nick Spencer) is an indictment of extremism on both sides of the political spectrum. And while I don’t think this was the world Nick Spencer or Marvel editorial thought we would be in at the time this series was pitched by Spencer in January 2015, this book is incredibly timely and relevant. The examination of how poverty, desperation and grooming can lead an individual down a dark path now seem very prescient in light of the rise of the alt-right and the regressive left. I’m not an alarmist. I don’t think the Hydra helicarriers are filling our skies any time soon, but this story still has a lot to offer in terms of political allegory, you know, if you’re into that kinda thing. If not, there’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. That’s a fun book that could use a boost in sales.
We can never forget amid all the noise, when it comes to politically fraught territory, comics have always been in the vanguard leading the charge. Never forget: the superheroes were fighting the Nazis before we were.
Suggested Further Readings and Listenings: