Secret Empire #0

Captain America is a Tool.

Giant-Sized Invaders #1 (1975) Bill Everett & Frank Robbins
Giant-Sized Invaders #1 (1975) Bill Everett & Frank Robbins

The first comic book I ever purchased at above cover price, the first “wall comic” as some might call it, was Giant-Sized Invaders #1.  I think I paid five bucks for it which at the time, in 1982, was a crazy amount of cash for a comic book especially for an eleven year-old me.

“68 BIG PAGES” of Cap, Bucky, Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and Toro defending the planet from the evil Nazi Horde of Adolf Hitler was too much for me to resist. Even at 5000 times the cover price.

It was not my first Captain America comic but the Invaders always held a special place in my heart. The Simple Good vs. Evil dichotomy of Cap and the boys fighting the greatest evil the world has ever known was easy for me to digest.

Captain America was the epitome of freedom and justice battling facism and hatred. He was a symbol of a generation of men who sacrificed everything so that I could grow up in a world free of Hitler’s horrific fantasies and self-delusions. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. But we all know that the real world is never as elementary as the 4-color pages in our favorite comic books.

Over the next 30 years I’ve watched Cap become many things. He’s punched Hitler in the jaw, he fought against Communism, he’s fought for Civil Rights, he’s been a spy, a man with no country, he’s given up his shield multiple times, was impersonated by the Red Skull, and died at least eight times that I can remember. Cap has evolved over the years to be many things to many people.

Most recently, thanks in large part to writer Nick Spencer,  Captain America is a Nazi and has been secretly planning the takeover of America while lying to our faces for decades.

Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 by Nick Spencer and Jesus Saiz
Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 by Nick Spencer and Jesus Saiz

That may be an oversimplification of the most recent storyline currently played out in the new Marvel mega-crossover Secret Empire, but if you ask many a Captain America fan, that is exactly how they feel; Along with betrayal, disbelief and a burning hatred for everyone involved in this national tragedy. Personally I think it’s damn fine comic book writing and exactly how Captain America should be used.

Before you start typing your hate-filled tweets (send to @Marvel, @nickspencer) let me explain:

Captain America is not a person. He isn’t an actor, he’s not a writer, or artist or editor, or screenwriter, or producer, or the voice of one of the millions of fans he has enthralled with patriotism, bravery, and morality from the 1940’s to today. Nor is he the voice of the 300 million Americans that live in this country or the Government that serves it. He is a tool. A symbol. An analogy of the times we find ourselves dealing with in this strange social experiment we call American life. At his best, as with all stories, he is an examination of how to live.

His very first appearance tells us that. When Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had Cap punching Hitler in the Jaw in 1940 it was a full year before the United States would eventually go to war against the Axis of Evil. Regardless of what we know now, going to war with Germany, Italy, and Japan was not the most popular of opinions at the time. Polls showed 80% of Americans were not in favor of going to war. Yet Kirby and Simon felt the need to express their political opinions with the best tools they had at their disposal.

Captain America #1 - Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Captain America #1 – Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Captain America’s first appearance would prove to be controversial. As Joe Simon noted in his memoir The Comic Book Makers:

We were inundated with a torrent of raging hate mail and vicious, obscene telephone calls. The theme was “death to the Jews.” At first we were inclined to laugh off their threats, but then, people in the office reported seeing menacing-looking groups of strange men in front of the building on Forty Second Street and some of the employees were fearful of leaving the office for lunch. Finally, we reported the threats to the police department. The result was a police guard on regular shifts patrolling the halls and office.

From the beginning Captain America has always been a tool to express opinions about the American existence and our place in the world. No matter how unpopular those opinions might have been, Kirby and Simon trusted what they were doing was right and as history has shown, it was a powerful message that Americans needed to hear.

That would not be the last time Cap has found himself in both the middle of controversy and the subject of heated debates regarding his importance as a symbol. The many writers and artists that have contributed to his legacy over the decades have always found a way to use Cap as his creators intended. Not as the ultimate symbol of American righteousness, but as a way to spark debate and shed light on controversial moments of the American existence.

Whether it was his disillusionment of the government after Nixon’s Watergate, his examination of Civil Rights and his own treatment of minorities, his abandonment of the mantle and shield, his support of the cold war, his battle against terrorists, him going to war with his closest allies,  his infiltration of the Tea Party, or one of his many, many deaths – Captain America has always been used not as a shining example of American greatness, but as an examination of American behavior.

Daredevil #233 - Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Daredevil #233 – Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli

Some argue that making Captain America a Hydra agent is crossing a line that should never be crossed and associating the creation of two Jewish men with the Nazi Party is a disgrace.

To argue that Kirby and Simon would never consider this same use of Captain America and any suggestion of such is tantamount to sacrilege is not only melodramatic but literally wrong. These two legendary creators had Captain America not only join Hydra at a time when that group’s relationship with the Nazis was less convoluted, but actually had Cap give the Red Skull a Nazi salute.

Jack Kirby and Joe Simon
Jack Kirby and Joe Simon

Or how about that other time beloved Stan Lee (another Jew) and Jack Kirby had Cap salute Hitler?

Tales of Suspense #67 - Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Tales of Suspense #67 – Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Let’s not even get into the fact that Hydra was not originally created with any association to the Nazi’s and has changed over time to be many different incarnations. To automatically associate Hydra with the Nazi party lacks any real knowledge of comic book history or how comic storytelling works.

Things change to best fit the story the authors are trying to tell. While fans constantly try to preserve their favorite characters in cardboard boxes and plastic sheets so they can cherish them forever, it is not possible to do with properties that exist over decades. Characters evolve and change to be whatever storytellers need them to be.

Captain America himself was the first retcon, brought back to life with a new history that fundamentally changed the character so Stan and Jack could make him an Avenger. His entire existence is in flux, to be molded into whatever tool the current creators need him to be.

Avengers #4 (1963) - Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
Avengers #4 (1963) – Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

In a world where a billionaire reality tv star with little qualifications has been elected President of the United States, Captain America could not possibly be the same man that punched Hitler in the jaw in 1940. To remain frozen in nostalgia, preserved like a mummy in a museum, would be a great disservice to Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and every other creator that has helped Cap maintain his popularity and cultural importance for over 75 years.

We live in tumultuous times where perceptions change at the speed of thought. Reality is a fragile existence where fake news and fear define the zeitgeist faster than scientific fact and logic. There is a large, establishment of Americans – mostly white males – that for the first time in their existence feel marginalized and afraid that their divine rights to ultimate achievement and power are at risk. They feel betrayed and assaulted and nostalgic for a time that only existed in the rose colored glasses that were handed out to white middle class Americans. They are angry and irrational. They want “their” country back and are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure a future where their supremacy is ensured. These are not a secretive group of cultists hiding away in the shadows. They are your neighbors and coworkers, your friends and family. They are America, as much as we may not want to accept that. They are fueled by the same American Spirit that believes we have an inalienable right to live free of tyranny and oppression, twisted by fear and anxiety into a funhouse mirror version of itself.

In this world, in these times, how could we possibly expect Captain America to be anything but a reflection of the society we have created?

After reading fifteen issues of Captain America: Steve Rogers and two issues of Secret Empire, I’m convinced that Spencer and company are attempting to do exactly what Captain America was created to do – examine the current state of American society and possibly show us an example of how to better live in it.  Even though Spencer and editor Axel Alonso insist the story has nothing to do with current political climate, I see a clear parallel between current event and Secret Empire.

We see Steve Rogers remade into a cold, calculating monster willing to do whatever it takes to reclaim the world in the vision of Hydra. His beliefs are forged by a sentient Cosmic Cube and implanted by the Red Skull to not simply brainwash or control Captain America, but to rewrite him completely so that his alliance to all things Hydra is unshakable. What is most unsettling however is that he is still Steve Rogers in so many ways. He is still moral and has a sense of justice. He believes in what he is doing is for all for a better world. He sounds like the Captain America we have always known but there is a dark core that he has kept hidden for so long.

It is an interesting take on an old trope. It isn’t the first time we have seen Cap become an agent of evil, but by completely engulfing Steve’s history in lies while fostering a sense of paranoia that his “reality” has been stolen from him it creates a glimpse into the possible state of mind of that friend or coworker or (gasp!) family member you were suddenly surprised to find out voted for Trump.

Secret Empire #1 - Nick Spencer and Steve McNiven
Secret Empire #1 – Nick Spencer and Steve McNiven

There are other parallels I see but I’m not here to recap the book for you. Read it yourself and decide if it’s an unspeakable travesty and an attack on freedom, or if it’s simply a writer looking to use a powerful symbol to tackle a complex world.

My guess is that at the end of it Steve Rogers will make a choice that will return him and the Marvel Universe back to where it began. That’s how comics work. You play in the sandbox but at the end of the day you put everything back so the next guy or girl can pick up a bucket and shovel and tell their story. Could Spencer and Marvel decide to fundamentally change Cap into something they believe is necessary to survive the future, completely destroying his history and smashing a legacy built over nearly a century? Sure. They could, but ultimately it can all be changed again, and again, and again as we need it to.

Captain America is a tool. Whether he is a hammer, a blowtorch or a scalpel is all up to the imagination of men like Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Stan Lee, Mark Gruenwald, Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema, Frank Miller, Roger Stern, John Byrne, Ed Brubaker and yes even Nick Spencer.

If we don’t allow Captain America to evolve with the changing attitudes and perspectives of our country, how can he truly be the symbol of this great nation? The United States was built on the foundation of a Constitution that allows our laws to change as the country does. We must allow our symbols to do the same. These tools must be molded and bent, twisted and shaped to reflect both our greatest achievements and our darkest fears. If we don’t allow Steve Rogers to be more than simply a blue-eyed, blonde-haired, muscle-bound man in tights fighting imaginary foes, we might as well of left him frozen in ice.

Brion Salazar is a comic book podcaster, pundit, and loudmouth. He has been talking about comic books and comic book culture for over a decade on shows like Around Comics, The Big Geek Show, and others. In his real life he is a father of two, the occasional writer, and enjoys strangling people in Jiu-Jitsu class.

He is often found ranting on twitter @brionsalazar

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