Today, Marvel Comics released Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 and the internet went wild! For the last couple of years, Steve Rogers's body has been its correct age, so he handed over the shield to the more able-bodied Sam Wilson. However, the "Avengers: Standoff!" event restored our beloved Steve's youth, so he and Sam are now sharing the title, and we now have a new, ongoing series for Steve Rogers: Captain America.
And then the issue ended like this:
In case you're thinking he's just going undercover or something, know that this scene comes immediately after he's actually killed a fellow superhero, Jack Flag, by throwing him out of a plane. Without a parachute. There's really no going back on this. My fellow creator Mark has already expressed his disbelief, but the kind of reaction they're getting is just what Marvel wanted. As Marvel's executive editor Tom Brevoort told USA Today:
“We knew it would be like slapping people in the face. The idea of Captain America means something very primal and very strong to the people of this nation, and they have a very visceral reaction when you get to something like that. You want people to feel and react to your story. So far, so good.”
So, Why Is Marvel Doing This?
The answer is that they feel this is a story people will react to — one that has real value (and not just in cash terms). The book is written by Nick Spencer, who also pens the other Captain America book, Sam Wilson: Captain America. In that series, it's become clear that Spencer is unafraid to take on modern-day political themes. After all, when your central character is called Captain America, you kind of have to get political!
The first issue of Sam Wilson: Captain America featured the central character battling against extreme right-wingers who were leading illegal immigrants into the US in order to kill them. Their rhetoric was visibly reminiscent of present-day concerns; they even talked about their dream of when "the wall" would be built to keep immigrants out. Essentially, Sam Wilson was fighting Donald Trump supporters whose concerns (and sometimes prejudices) had been amplified a hundred times over.
Fox News Was Outraged
I think Salon.com had the best response to Fox, though:
It’s… more than a little weird to see all these outlets describe the bad guys in this comic as mere conservatives. If you find yourself relating to a group of murderers who threaten anyone who crosses the border with death, you’ve crossed the line from “conservative” into something far more frightening.
Under Spencer's pen, Sam Wilson has essentially become a champion of liberal, left-wing democracy — willing to compromise, but seriously disliking it, and even coming into conflict with Steve on occasion. Now, Spencer is taking Steve Rogers in the opposite direction, turning Marvel's symbol of American self-identity into a Nazi.
When Spencer wrote the first issue of Sam Wilson: Captain America, he was bold. To turn Steve Rogers into a Nazi (let's not pretend, that's what #Hydra is comprised of), in an election year, is boldness almost beyond belief. Ensuring you get the political parallels, Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 features two intriguing subplots. The first is a historical flashback to Steve Rogers's indoctrination into HYDRA as a child. The second is the Red Skull presenting his message to those who are willing to listen.
It's a fascinating diatribe, with the Red Skull channelling the same kind of anger and frustration that's driving the Trump campaign. (Of course, in the comics the Red Skull currently has the stolen powers of Charles Xavier, so his arguments have an extra layer of persuasive power...)
Marvel, of course, had planed this months before Trump's competitors dropped out of the Republican race. They've been lucky. As Brevoort commented:
“Having this go on in the middle of this odd and offbeat and contentious presidential primary process — and all of the stuff going on in the world right now — we guessed right. This in a sense feels more relevant right now than it would have a year ago.”
It's a bold move, setting the two Captain Americas on the most extreme poles of the left-right debate, exaggerating both positions in order to drive this politically-aware plot. Steve Rogers's idealistic America, one that doesn't really exist any more, is perverted by darker forces for their own purposes. Sam Wilson represents a liberal future, one of tolerance and acceptance, a future not everyone is sure they want. In the grand tradition of comics, Marvel has made the subtext literal by turning Steve Rogers into a villain. In an election year, that will define American self-identity for generations to come, the comics are using these two Captain Americas to explore the question of American self-identity.
Comic Books Have Always Been Political
Fans have always been uncomfortable when comics do politics. Often serious politicians have rankled at it, telling comics to stick to entertainment. The truth is, though, that comics have always been political. Martin Luther used an early form of comic books — sequential images, which Scott McCloud would define as comics — as part of the Reformation. Captain America started out socking Adolf Hitler in the jaw. The X-Men stood for tolerance, with early parallels to the quest for racial equality, and later extensions of the theme to homosexual rights. Art Spiegelman’s Maus explored the horrors of the Holocaust and was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. Captain America #1 was initially published in order to both reflect and influence the public consciousness, and showed a symbol of the United States at war with the Nazis months before the US joined World War II.
That said, to enter into the modern-day political arena in this way is a tremendously bold move on Marvel's part. They're using comics to shine a light on modern politics, by exaggerating the stances of both left and right-wingers in order to tell a powerful and evocative story. It's a move that risks alienating as many readers as it gains, but Marvel has evidently decided that the risk is worth taking.
As Nick Spencer told Entertainment Weekly:
"This is not a clone, not an imposter, not mind control, not someone else acting through Steve. This really is Steve Rogers, Captain America himself.”
Just what will come next?