The current story line in Marvel Comics’ “Secret Empire” has taken the comics world by storm, and not totally in a positive way. Professor Andy Lockley joined Geek Tank Radio to discuss his feelings about this controversial topic.
The Professor is not alone in his strong feelings, but there are also feelings on the other side. The CineMasoCast’s Wayne Camp joined Andy and the rest of the Geek Patrol to speak to the other side of the controversy.
The CineMasoCast has invited a new correspondent, an old correspondent, and a good friend to share their opinions. The debate rages on!
I have been a fan of comics since I first learned to read. I had often dreamed of writing stories involving my favorite characters and then later doing stories about original ones of my own creation. As I grew older I developed a more refined sense of characterization and plot development. Admittedly, I also developed a bit of a jaded streak as well. I went through a period wherein I held what I had once cherished was now trite and overly commercialized. The self-same stories I had marveled at had dulled into recycled rehashed ideas torn and twisted in the whims of whatever new author’s “take” on any given character or a retelling of past stories disguised as new ones. I have since grown again to look with fresh eyes and judge not on the merits of the old but to grant every new story as a whole unto itself. So in this fashion I comment upon the events of Secret Empire and the on-going series Captain America: Steve Rogers.
To summarize, a clone of The Red Skull, long-standing villain in the Marvel Universe, uses a Cosmic Cube to “reinvent” Captain America as an agent for the criminal organization known as Hydra. The “new and improved” captain America then goes forth as a sleeper agent bent on furthering Hydra’s agenda of world domination.
This has been an excellently written and drawn story. It has a sharp pacing and flows very nicely. What I enjoy most is the characterization of Captain America as a villain. Aside from his physical ability he is one of the most tactical thinkers in comic books on par with Batman. Going head to head against Cap is the equivalent of playing a steroid enhanced Bobby Fisher at chess. What also makes for good storytelling is the honest reactions of his friends upon the Revelation of his “truer”self. Keep in mind this is not the real Captain America; having been redone by the Red Skull’s vision of how he should think and feel. It’s a tricky game to meddle with established characters and their paradigms. Nick Spencer has handled the job very well.
There are only so many stories that can be told. The use of the Cosmic Cube is a go to trope which has been used numerous times over the course of Marvel Comics history since the item was first introduced. Marvel is no stranger to alternate story lines. It’s What If series tackled alternate histories masterfully, albeit some were more absurd than others with a fair mention of just badly written narratives. The thing I question most is making this change a regular on-going story itself. As I have said, Cap joining the dark side is horrifying in a stimulating way but as a matter of canon? To me it will eventually belittle the character. I still have reservations about how the Spider-Clone story played out in the Spider-Man books. Or the Superior Spider man debacle. It’s just too easy to make a good hero go bad. I will watch and see how they smooth over the transformation without resorting to using the Cube once again.
The rampant fanboy rage that Nick Spencer and Marvel has received over this story is insane. Yes, reality-warping is a shortcut trick to establish major changes to any universe but to go as far as making death threats (and they do exist) is inexcusable. If you don’t like the book, don’t buy it! Boycotts speak so much louder than half-assed tough guy antics. It’s a comic book, people. A work of fiction. I have noticed over the years how strongly to the negative popular opinion has become. It’s not enough to just entertain the masses; they want things a certain way and they don’t stand for artistic compromise. “That’s not my captain America!” they scream. Really? You honestly think he should be portrayed in only one light then you’re limiting him to only be a one sided cut-out. What makes a really good character is depth. Everyone, except perhaps those who throw shade at made-up people, have a wide array of shades to their personalities.
In conclusion, Captain America: Steve Rogers and Secret Empire are fascinating and engaging reads. Despite the negative reactions and overblown hype it is everything Marvel is great at producing. Bold epics with rich characters and over-the-top thrills and suspense. Summer blockbusters for the brain. If you still hold to this not being your Cap, then write your own script and send it in. It is easier to destroy than create. I may not like everything Marvel does but I’m at least willing to buy the ticket and take the ride.
I feel compelled to state and explain unambiguously my most sincere disgust for what Marvel has done to its most foundational character. Captain America not only grounded the Marvel age of heroes in the solid bedrock of historical narrative, he provided the moral axis around which their whole fictional world turned. Super soldier serum and indestructible shield not withstanding, Steve Rogers’ true strength was his strength of character and his true power was the ability to inspire with moral certainty. Throughout the whole, long history of the character (one of the oldest figures in the industry) he has been reduced to near-helpless weakness on several occasions, but in every case his pure strength of character has allowed him to overcome even the worst predicaments.
Steve Rogers’ stainless moral reputation was a very uncommon thing in today’s comics, his virtue made precious by shear rarity. He was one of the most admired figures in a few comic book universes. He commanded respect from most mortal heroes and gods. But his greatest treasure has been squandered. Steve Rogers lost his villain virginity, and that’s a one-way trip.
In order to understand the importance of this change, it is helpful to look at how similar shifts have affected other characters and changed the way they now relate to their own respective universes. DC Comics has shown us how changes of various degrees in story narrative effect the moral development of several of its core characters. For example, most alternate timelines or “other worlds” (not even including the ElseWorlds stories) versions of DC’s central mainstream story produce an evil version of Wonder Woman, whereas The Flash (be it Barry or Wally) has been demonstrated throughout the many alterations to be the most morally stable core character and is almost always essentially good. This proves to the readership that Wonder Woman is not necessarily, in principle, a good person and that it just happens that the current iteration of her character is circumstantially good. But The Flash is a nearly universal champion of moral virtue, not just in his home dimension, but across most of DC’s multiverse. Writers actually avoid doing injury to Flash’s moral reputation out of a sense of admiration for a truly heroic figure.
And so it was with Steve Rogers. Never, before the current Hydra-centric story arch, had Roger’s moral compass been upset by changes in circumstance. Indeed, Captain America has historically railed against the moral opportunism of doing convenient good and strongly defended the position that morality should compel truly good people to right action even when it is difficult or dangerous.
Not so with Captain Hydra. It turns out that an attractive woman, his father’s killer, can also kill his own mother right in front of him and he will still grow up seeking that woman’s attention and affirmation. He will perfectly assimilate into a draconian authoritative society which kills its own members and even threatens to kill him. He will remain loyal to this group identity and willingly serve its interests even when they affiliate with Nazis (his leadership even acknowledging the error of this) and even when the whole of the organization is subverted to the selfish interests of the Red Skull (again, everyone else in Hydra tells him that allowing this is a mistake). No ethical development affects Rogers’ moral estimation of Hydra because he doesn’t have one. This version of Steve Rogers is perfectly amoral and blind to wrong-doing while also simulating the appearance of virtue with the cunning of a high-functioning sociopath. This iteration of the character is so different because his circumstances were different, thereby proving, to my everlasting sorrow, that Captain America was only ever circumstantially good. Steve Rogers, it is revealed, was never essentially good after all.
The discontinuity between the treatment of Wonder Woman and The Flash mirrors the division between natural instinct and nurturing influence. The Flash is shown to be naturally good, whilst Wonder Woman is revealed to merely be the product of her environment. I had always assumed that Steve Rogers was also a natural hero. I had always believed that was the ACTUAL POINT OF HIS CHARACTER – a weakling and perpetual victim of bullying being given great strength, having only his own moral compass to guide him, his own ethical constraints to restrain him. But thanks to Marvel’s pursuit of a weird political agenda we can know say with certitude that Captain America was only ever an accidental hero, a winner of life’s lottery, and now that is all he will ever be because, even when he is eventually restored, we will still know the truth about his character.
I was asked the question recently: Hydra Captain America – good or bad? As a lifelong comic book fan and a long time Captain America fan I have a lot to say about this.
First, let me set the stage properly… I’ve been a comic book reader for over 40 years. I’ve been a Captain America fan for almost that long. Captain America issue 193, “Madbomb”, was my first Captain America comic. A copy of that issue hangs on my office wall today beside a Captain America shield. I’ve gone on to become a collector of Captain America merchandise and memorabilia, particularly Jack Kirby and John Byrne Captain America art. But I’m not just a fan of the artwork, I’ve read the Captain America series on and off for those last 40 years. I think my favorite run was the run with DeMatteis writing and Mike Zeck on art. That run gave us the return of Barron’s email, the return of death lock, the introduction to vermin, who would go on to become a substantial villain… It was a great one! Or maybe my favorite run was Mark Waid writing and Ron Garney on art… or was it the team of Roger Stern and John Byrne, Either way, those artists were born to draw Captain America. I would dare say there are really only four artists in comics history who draw Captain America better than anybody else: Jack Kirby, John Byrne, Ron Garney, and Mike Zeck.
However, beyond the comic book series I’m a huge fan of the movies. And not just the recent MCU movies mind you. I own the Blu-ray of the Reb Brown Captain America television movies from the 70s and 80s, the Salinger Captain America feature film from the late 1980s, and of course the more recent trilogy with Chris Evans as the titular hero. As a matter fact, Captain America: The First Avenger, is one of my top 10 favorite Dieselpunk movies. Further, Captain America: Winter Soldier is in my opinion the gold standard for comic book adaptation films. It is a near perfect superhero movie. It doesn’t get finer than that.
That brings us to the most recent Captain America comic book series written by Nick Spencer, in which the Cosmic Cube has become sentient and has reshaped reality into a world where Captain America has been a Hydra agent his entire life. Without giving away major plot points, this series leads into the newest Marvel event, Secret Empire, in which Captain America is no longer secretly a Hydra agent, but has elevated himself to Supreme Leader of Hydra and has succeeded where other Hydra leaders have failed, taking over the world. Some of the Marvel heroes stand beside Captain America in his effort to bring peace to the world, but many oppose him. At least, that’s where we are with Secret Empire number #1.
So, it brings us to the question asked; is Hydra Captain America good or bad?
As a lifetime lifelong Captain America fan it may surprise you when I tell you that ultimately I think this is good. You might ask why? That’s a good question, I’m glad you asked.
To give you context, I believe that story is king. If it’s not a good story, it doesn’t matter what is happening. In this case though, Nick Spencer has crafted one of the best comic book stories in the last decade. Over the last 16 issues of Captain America, he has managed to weave a tale that is not only plausible but, entirely possible. We’ve seen that although Captain America has been a part of Hydra from his youth, he is not an evil person. He is fighting for the same virtues that Captain America has always fought for. In this case, he’s fighting for the virtues of truth and freedom, peace and love, on behalf of Hydra. In Steve’s mind the Nazi Hydra, the Hydra of the Red Skull, is a Hydra that has been usurped and corrupted and perverted for evil ends. In his effort to correct that wrong he is become the Supreme Leader, with the goal to restore Hydra to the honorable and good organization he believes it to be. This story is strong. The story is very very good.
But, good storytelling aside… anytime people are talking about what’s happening in the Marvel Comics, I believe it’s good. Anytime people are talking about comics in general, it’s good. To be sure, people certainly are talking about Captain America. They are talking about the implications, they are talking about the ramifications, they are expressing their anger and outrage, and lending their support, but most importantly they are talking. For the first time in many many years I find myself second-guessing this story. I find myself wondering where is this going and how will this end? I can’t see the future on this one and that thrills me. I have to hold the line with Marvel on this and ask that fans be patient and ride this story out. Nick Spencer has said that it will be well worth the wait and asked fans to be patient. I for one, am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The real issue however, is not the story being told on the page, but the story unfolding in real life, off the comic book page. Nick Spencer has been reviled for making a character that was created by a Jewish creator into an agent of Hydra. He’s had death threats. People have said online and in forums, that they can’t do this to MY Captain America. And isn’t that really the issue? This perceived sense of ownership among fandom? Captain America may have been co-created by a Jewish creator, but that creator does not own Captain America. He created Captain America for Timely comics under contract and sold the rights of the character to the publisher. The publisher owns this character. Further, the fans have no ownership in this character. They may love the character and they may purchase the adventures, and buy the comics, but they do not own the character of captain America. Certainly, they can shape the future of story lines by voting with their wallet but to insinuate that they have some kind of ownership and say over what Nick Spencer or any other writer writes, is purely ludicrous. We as fandom, have got to get over this ridiculous false sense of ownership of these characters. We do not own them, we do not control them. The publishers do, and the only responsibility a publisher has is to tell a good story. Whether you like the story or not, is irrelevant. Whether it’s the story you would tell or not, is irrelevant. It is the story that the owners of the character have chosen to tell. I back Marvel in their desire in their request that fans be patient, and ride this out till the end.
John Pyka is also known as the magical dieselpunk variety artist “Big Daddy Cool,” and aside from appearing live on stage around the country, John is also the author of Tales From The Flip-Side and producer and host of The Dieselpunk Podcast!
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“Big Daddy Cool” John Pyka
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