Thursday Comics Hangover: Coming back to Captain America

Last week, Marvel Comics published the first issue of a comic book titled Captain America: Steve Rogers by writer Nick Spencer and artist Jesus Saiz. At the end of the comic — uh, spoilers, I guess — the superhero Captain America is revealed to have always been a double-agent of Hydra, a super-villain analog to the Nazis. (You can read an explainer here.) People on the internet wrote a lot of posts and tweets and Facebook updates expressing their dismay about the reveal. Also last week, I wrote a flippant post on this site telling people not to get upset about it, that it was just a comic book and that there was no point in being outraged.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have written that post, because it was a bad post. It was flip and unthoughtful, which are two qualities I dislike when they appear in my writing. What I was doing there was applying my own experience — both as a lifelong superhero comics fan who has become jaded about plot twists, and as a white guy — to a situation without any consideration of what someone else’s experience might be. A couple of our readers alerted me to some writing which helped me realize that I was being boorish and insensitive to these other experiences. I particularly learned from a post by Megan Purdy at Women Write About Comics and a pair of posts on the Tumblr Tea Berry-Blue.

Another post that helped me realize I was being a jackass was Devin Faraci’s rant on Birth.Movies.Death about so-called “fan entitlement.” Faraci’s post reeked of establishmentarianism; he was defending the poor, put-upon corporate entertainment from the mean old fans in a way that instantly made me realize how dumb I had been. I reject Faraci’s claims that “fandom is broken.” I dislike the idea that there are good fans and bad fans, or that you need a certain level of understanding to truly enjoy a piece of entertainment. By railing against the responses to a piece of art, you are actually taking a stand against cultural criticism. And I am all for cultural criticism in all its forms; it’s why I co-founded this site. (That said, some basic points about fan responses must be made: death threats are absolutely never okay, and burning a book to protest a character’s Nazism is unbelievably stupid.)

Recognizing my worst traits in others is a theme in my life right now. As a straight white guy of a certain age — I turned 40 last week — I’m very sensitive to the predictable ways in which my generation is becoming terrible. People I went to high school with are now writing outraged Facebook posts complaining about PC culture, vocal fry, and coddled millennials, and it makes my fucking skin crawl. I do not want to be one of those people who reflexively assumes that The Kids Are Up to No Good simply because I’m not one of the kids anymore. I do not believe that my youth was the Good Old Days, or any kind of a golden age. That is a cheap and easy worldview. It’s lazy and self-affirming, and it’s anti-empathy.

As a writer, my deal should always be that even if I don’t agree with you, I should always make an effort to at least understand where you’re coming from. I did not do that in my post last week. That was a mistake, and I regret it. And I certainly am in no place to pass judgement on people who regard this story (and Marvel's promotion of the story) as anti-Semitic or cavalier about the perception that it might be anti-Semitic. My insensitivity on that last point, in particular, is especially egregious; it's not my place to dictate to any other group how they respond to art.

That said, as a book critic — and as someone who reviews comics in this space every Thursday — I do have some thoughts on the story that might be relevant. Reviewing ongoing comics is a tricky business, because you’re basically reviewing a book one chapter at a time. And it’s perfectly within your right to abandon a book because something in the first chapter offends you. But here’s why I think this storyline might be worth reinvestigation later on down the line: Between this Captain America comic and its sister title, Captain America: Sam Wilson, Nick Spencer is writing a comic series that is very much centered around the America of today. His comics are very overtly responding to the racist insanity of the Republican presidential primaries and the unhinged anti-immigrant sentiment on the right and the rise of Donald Trump.

Captain America has, through the years, always embodied America’s self-regard: in the Watergate era he abandoned the name of Captain America; during the amoral, business-friendly Reagan Administration he was forced out of his job due to a copyright dispute that eventually led to a murderous maniac taking on the Captain America title; the steroidal Bush/Clinton years saw Captain America becoming a tool of excess, wearing gaudy armor and having ridiculous adventures; the shameful conclusion of the George W. Bush presidency saw Captain America bound in chains and assassinated. Is it too much to consider that perhaps in a time when the Republican presidential candidate is a buffoonish reality TV candidate preaching fascism to packed stadiums of howling, fearful Americans that a story about the moral corruption of Captain America might be worth telling right now?

When Spencer finishes telling his story, it might be worth reinvestigating to see how successful he was. But if the ham-handed way Marvel Comics handled the publicity for the story made a reinvestigation impossible for you, that’s totally understandable. If you dislike or are offended by the premise so much that you simply can’t stomach the book, that’s okay, too. You can respond to the story however you choose — you can write about it, boycott it, tweet your opinions. It doesn’t make you a bad fan, or a symptom of a broken fandom. It means that you care, and that you’re responding to your culture as a fully empowered human being. It is your right, and that right is something to be celebrated.