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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Captain America Isn't Real

So, something pretty huge happened in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 today. While this isn't a review and I won't be discussing the issue in much depth, I still can't really write this without spoiling the issue's big twist. So, if you care about preserving the twist, I recommend that you bookmark this now and come back to it after you've read the issue.


Okay. So, in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, writer Nick Spencer and artist Jesus Saiz reveal that Steve Rogers - the great, gung-ho hero who has spearheaded three immensely successful modern blockbusters and means a lot to a lot of people - was recruited by longtime nemeses/Nazi allies Hydra as a child. The issue literally ends with him seemingly killing another hero and saying, "Hail Hydra."

The internet freaked the fuck out. Freaked waaaaaay out*. Which, okay, that's what the internet does on a pretty basic level, but over something like this...? As I read the issue and the response to the issue, I began to realize something: We've seen all this before.

We saw it when Thor was replaced by a woman. When Cap was replaced by Sam Wilson. When Batman was replaced by Dick Grayson. Whenever there's a new Robin, or an old Flash returns. Every single time, people get up in arms over the fact that something is ruining their character. They say this despite the fact that this is a cycle that happens over and over and over again in comics: Something big changes, the writer and artist use that to explore some facet of the character, then they build the character back up to his or her familiar status quo just in time for a new team to take over.

It's the illusion of change, not real change -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing. As I wrote in this extensive article back when Thor became a woman, many of your favorite runs of comics came about because of this illusion, because creative people came along who challenged the way we look at a character and what we take for granted about them. That illusion of change is, in the right hands, actually a cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction that allows us to experiment and keep characters fresh and modern. It's something that's happened for decades in comics, and will continue to happen for as long as the industry continues.

So, why are fans so upset by this? I'm beginning to think it has to do with something deeper about how they read and interact with these characters.

My argument: A lot of people can't separate fantasy from reality. I don't mean that in some preposterous, condescending way where they think Batman is really out there or they are really the star of their favorite video game. What I mean is, they want their fiction to be, for lack of a better term, invisibly fictional - to them Superman killed Zod in Man of Steel because he had to, not because the writer and director chose to make him. They want it to emulate real life as they see it. That's why things like narrative experimentation, perceived tonal inconsistencies, resurrections, etc... end up frustrating some readers. They highlight the fictional nature of the story. They make it clear that this isn't real.

And that's a problem, because a lot of comics culture - from gatekeeping to continuity porn - is built around the idea of what's real. After all, not all of Batman's stories can be 'real', there's too many of them, too many iterations of too many characters making too many different decisions. But if Batman speaks to me on a fundamental level, some of those iterations will be more 'real' than others, and if the comics dismiss that iteration... aren't they dismissing me?**

Of course not! But we build so much of ourselves around these characters - our weekly schedules, our regular online avatars, even some of our core values - that it feels personal. Is gatekeeping necessarily about racism and sexism, or is it about tribalism, about dismissing people whose 'real' Batman or Cap is different so that my identity can remain unchallenged? I have the gospel of my crew, and no one wants apocrypha infecting that gospel, because then I lose that shared language, that common, understood underpinning of the character's reality that allows me to channel my thoughts and feelings more smoothly.

It's not, again, that fans think that these characters are real. It's that the characters, or a specific iteration of them at least, feel real, and that feeling is incredibly powerful. The feeling of having this character with a decades-long legacy speak directly to you in a profound way... there's little else like it in the world.

The flip side of that, of course, are the people who are often being, well, gatekept. Queer readers, people of color, women - the people these stories traditionally were not written 'for'. They've created their own homes in the margins of the stories, with fan fiction culture***. There, subtext is far more important than text, because that's where they could recognize themselves, that's how the stories spoke to them. I rarely see this crowd flip out as much when the text deviates from their vision, since they are basically just repurposing the text anyway. Because they don't have a single core principle or unifying canon, the fanfic crowd can often be more comfortable being confronted with the fictionality of the story. There's less disconnect between something being fake but still feeling real.

We badly need to stop worrying about what's real and start worrying about what makes the best story right now. Because comics are not a single, decades-spanning saga. They are, for lack of a better phrase, short story collections. Those collections share characters, sure, but each story has different authors pulling from different influences and trying to say different things. None of them are concerned with how every other writer told their story, just the ones that are meaningful to the way they want to tell it.

And that's part of what's so beautiful about them. The fact that Batman: Year One is just as 'real' as "Batman - The Superman of Planet X!" and The Dark Knight is just as 'real' as Batman '66 means that there is something fundamentally powerful about the character, no matter how silly or serious the story. The fact that Captain America can stand for all that's good about America's self-image... and function as a savage critique of American nationalism, depending on who is writing him? That's not a bug, it's a feature. In a time when America is increasingly tempted by authoritarianism and xenophobia, aligning Captain America with a history of authoritarianism and xenophobia may very well be purposeful, particularly given Spencer's other politically-driven Cap book, Sam Wilson: Captain America.

I don't know what Nick Spencer and Jesus Saiz will end up saying about Cap by aligning him with Hydra. Maybe it'll be insightful, maybe it'll be trite. Maybe it'll be retconned, maybe it's not what you think it is from this first issue. Maybe it'll be a powerful refutation of what Spencer and Saiz see as a creeping sickness, or maybe it'll accidentally help normalize a 'sympathetic' portrayal of Nazi ideology****. I legitimately don't know whether this will be any good.

What we can know is this: It's just another short story, and any change it foists upon the character will be temporary. To deride it as simply a 'publicity stunt' is to ignore the fact that this is a work by a writer who has been telling expressly political Captain America stories for some time, and you have no idea yet what he's trying to say with this. Remember: Captain America isn't in Hydra; a writer is telling a story about what it would mean if he were. It might not work - Spencer and Saiz have their flaws, and this topic is a minefield - but that doesn't mean it's a story that can't be told. And, more importantly, it doesn't reflect on who you are at all. The lessons you gleaned from Cap's books and films are still valid. Your Cap is still yours, and he'll be back for you again soon enough.

As a great writer once said shortly before 'killing' Superman and huge swaths of his supporting cast: "This is an imaginary story. Aren't they all?"


*(edited to add)There are two distinct issues here: People who oppose major changes like this to a character because they feel it ruins them permanently, isn't true to the character, etc... and people who are concerned by the potential anti-Semitism. This article is aimed squarely at the first group, and is intended to address the separation between reality and 'realistic' fiction.

**For more on this idea, read Glen Weldon's The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, as he does a phenomenal job of illustrating how 'grim and gritty' Batman became the default to appease fans who felt that people laughing at Batman were really laughing at them.

***This idea was given to me by a brilliant friend of mine, who has opted to be identified only as 'some queer on Facebook'. He's a much better writer than I am, but, sadly, you're stuck with me.

It should - it doesn't in comic circles, but it should - go without saying that you always have a right not to read a comic you don't want to read, to feel uncomfortable by things that trip your warning signs or trigger you. I totally get that, but that's a different discussion entirely. I'm sympathetic to people who are uncomfortable by Nazis, period, and doubly so when the person tied to that ideology is a supposed hero. There's a very real discussion that's worth having about Marvel's obsession with or fetishization of Hydra, and the politics of using this twist on a hero created by World War II era Jewish kids. This article, however, is not about that, and that's not a discussion I necessarily think that I myself am qualified to lead.
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