Marvel Comics’ 2017 event, Secret Empire, is not a series I like. It’s not even a series I dislike. It’s a series I loathe. I’ll freely admit that when I first heard of the plot: “Captain America, having been revealed as a Hydra sleeper agent, takes control of the Nazi-stand in organization and overthrows the United States, installing himself as the supreme leader, must now face down the heroes of the Marvel Universe who face the daunting task of defeating their iconic leader who knows everything about them”, I thought, there’s an idea that could work there. Absolute power corrupting. Cap being swayed to the darkside. What if our icons turned on us? Should we have heroes? Should anyone be granted so much implicit trust and power? There are some interesting questions in the premise that could have been asked. Nick Spencer’s mini series failed to deliver on any of the aforementioned potential themes.
One huge problem with the series from the jump was the idea of taking Captain America, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby–TWO JEWISH MEN–and not just corrupting him, but turning him into a Nazi. Some people argued that Hydra isn’t a Nazi organization and yet, when you look at the Hydra on the ABC show Agents of Shield, or when you look at how they are presented in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they are very clearly Marvel’s Nazi stand in. For crying out loud, the Red Skull, who has long been associated with (if not the leader of) Hydra, came to power under Hitler. The argument that Hydra isn’t meant to be a Nazi analog doesn’t fly. To have Cap not just turned into a Nazi but, as Secret Empire revealed, always having been a Nazi (a reality transforming weapon retroactively changed Cap’s past so that he was always a sleeper agent for Hydra), was a change that was beyond acceptable by many. Even if Marvel’s intent was to redeem him, to show how great a character he was, to highlight his morality, his integrity, or to show why he’s one of their greatest heroes (which, by the way, they totally failed at if indeed it was ever the goal), the optics of it were just horrible. Critics of social justice advocates often claim we’re censoring others. In point of fact, we don’t censor anyone. We ask people to consider their words, actions, and deeds, within the context of the society they exist in and to speak or take action in a way that does not perpetuate bigotry or injustice. Criticizing Marvel for putting out Secret Empire was not done bc we think Marvel shouldn’t have the right to put out the book. Criticizing them for putting our Secret Empire was done bc many people felt like the way in which the story was told dishonored the Jewish creators of Captain America. In addition, making the fictional symbol of the United States into a white extremist was so poorly timed it’s almost laughable (coming as it did at a time when the United States was seeing a resurgence in white male extremist groups who felt emboldened by the win of POTUS45, himself an authoritarian leaning bigot bearing many qualities in common with white supremacists and Nazis, which is one reason he saw so much support from them).
In the wake of Secret Empire, the “real” Captain America was brought back, but NaziCap wasn’t undone. In fact, he was kept around, with his history intact. The “real” Cap that is currently running around is literally the memory of good Cap made flesh. You’d think the comic book company that faced so much backlash from the 90’s Clone Saga (summed up nicely in this, umm 35 part series that does much more than cover the Clone Saga, it also offers up perspectives of writers and editors involved in that controversial story; if you want a shorter summary of the Clone Saga, read this) that they had to reverse course would have learned their lesson. But no, NaziCap is holed up somewhere while Memory Cap is wandering around the Marvel Universe on a goodwill tour. I’m all for continuity, and I even love it when writers reference stories or events that are little more than footnotes, but I’d like it if that era were never referenced again. Hell, I’d rather Marvel reference this era
over anything Secret Empire related (thanks ever so much for tainting a great character Nick Spencer. I look forward to seeing how much you’ll mess up everyone’s favorite webhead when you relaunch Amazing Spider-Man this summer and I mean that with a great deal of contempt, not anticipation)
Anyways, as mentioned, Memory Cap is back in the saddle (after having been gone for the entire publication history of Captain America–thanks retcon which could have and should have been undone), but try as I might, I just can’t shake the ill feelings I have regarding his recent history. I want to buy the book again, bc when Cap is done right (see JMS’s treatment of him; a treatment I appreciate bc it cemeted Cap’s character, not bc it is without problem), he’s a great character. But now he feels tainted. Less great. Less heroic. Less inspirational. Less iconic.
To get him back to that status is going to take some work. I’m not sure who is up to the task. Mark Waid, who wrote some really, really great stories with Captain America in the past, is the current writer, but a cursory read (I’ll admit I’ve not given his current, short run, a fair shake; ill feelings about Cap, remember?) doesn’t provide the shot in the arm…the booster I feel the character needs. Someone else needs to step up to the plate. I guess it’s a good thing then, that someone else will be:
Ta-Nehisi Coates is the new writer of the ongoing Captain America comic, to be relaunched with a new #1 on July 4, 2018.
Coates has already proven his mettle to me, with his work on Black Panther. It is with a tremendous thrill and breathless anticipation that I await his work on Cap, bc for the first time in the history of ever (and I’m pretty sure I’m correct on this), the Sentinel of Liberty, the man out of time, the man who is meant as the embodiment of USAmerican egalitarianism (at least as seen through lens of more privileged, less, colored eyes), the man who is meant to embody the ideals of this country (ideals that the nation has hardly reached for, let alone come close to achieving), will be WRITTEN BY A BLACK MAN. This has as much symbolism as transforming that Sentinel into a Black man (perhaps more bc so much more could have been done with Sam Wilson, and I’m more than a little irritated at Marvel for not allowing Sam to remain as Cap alongside Steve. DC can have 7200 Green Lanterns and a gaggle of Flash’s, but Marvel can’t have two Captains America?!). In The Atlantic piece linked to above, Coates doesn’t say much about his run, but he touches upon why he’s writing the book:
I have my share of strong opinions about the world. But one reason that I chose the practice of opinion journalism—which is to say a mix of reporting and opinion—is because understanding how those opinions fit in with the perspectives of others has always been more interesting to me than repeatedly restating my own. Writing, for me, is about questions—not answers. And Captain America, the embodiment of a kind of Lincolnesque optimism, poses a direct question for me: Why would anyone believe in The Dream? What is exciting here is not some didactic act of putting my words in Captain America’s head, but attempting to put Captain America’s words in my head. What is exciting is the possibility of exploration, of avoiding the repetition of a voice I’ve tired of.
And then there is the basic challenge of drawing with words—the fear that accompanies every effort. And the fear is part of the attraction because, if I am honest, the “opinion” part of opinion-journalism is no longer as scary it once was. Reporting—another word for discovery—will always be scary. Opining, less so. And nothing should really scare a writer more than the moment when they are no longer scared. I think it’s then that one might begin to lapse into self-caricature, endlessly repeating the same insights and the same opinions over and over. I’m not convinced I can tell a great Captain America story—which is precisely why I want so bad to try.
I look forward to reading his attempts to write a great Captain America story. In the process, hopefully I’ll find that antidote I’m looking for.