Friday, May 19, 2017

In Defense of Both the HydraCap Storyline and Its Detractors

The HydraCap story is one of the most divisive storylines in comics that I've ever seen, even spilling out into the regular press. After a long conversation with a friend who is a more casual Captain America fan, I'm getting a better view of where the divisions are happening and why. I do think it's partially on Spencer, but it's also because comics fans these days tend to be more fans of what they think characters are (which often includes cinematic versions, cartoon versions, and just wider pop culture symbolism versions) than fans of the past stories about characters. 

I'm a big fan of the HydraCap storyline. I think, if he can stick the landing, it will have turned out to be potentially the best Cap story since the 80s. Yes, better than any of Brubaker's; Brubaker told a lot of good stories, but they were good Brubaker stories with Cap in them, not good Captain America stories, if that makes sense. In the same way that Warren Ellis writes good stories, but they're Ellis stories with X in them, instead of them being X stories.

Sharp dressed reference
The first problem is that Spencer is doing deep cuts and callbacks that are decades years old, remixed for modern sensibilities. The Sam Wilson Captain America story is like someone took Gruenwald's "The Captain" and then changed out the who (Sam) and the why (racial tensions in the US instead of government corruption) while maintaining a lot of the other story components, down to bringing back Demolition Man, a small team of support personnel, and something that is basically the Captain America Hotline updated for 2017. Next month's cover has Sam in a red, white and black version of his Captain America costume, another callback, and I fully expect by the end of this we'll have Sam back in the Cap costume.

Where he is subverting story elements from the past, it is also intentional and thoughtful. When Steve Rogers came back, a lot of old-school Cap fans railed against Cap's shield having a laser sword in it, because that explicitly went against what Kirby wanted of the character when he created him; that he should carry a shield because he was a soldier that purely defended and didn't kill. It took me months after the unveil to say, "... Oh, you clever bastard. Not only is it a sword because this Cap kills, but it's hidden because his evil exists in secret for now."

Second, there are two things that I think Spencer is trying to push people to examine about Steve Rogers Cap with this story, but they are both ones that younger/more recent fans kind of take "as-written" instead of being weird changes over the past ten years. One is that Cap has become increasingly trusted for murkier and murkier reasons, and that should be examined. It was a common refrain during Civil War that the anti-reg side was right, because Cap was on that side. In AvX, the Avengers were right because Cap was on that side. At the beginning of the Avengers World series, Cap is all jingoism and "This is an Avengers World," and some of us older fans were like, "that doesn't sound like Cap, it sounds like American foreign policy writ large." 

This is NOT okay
Dovetailing into this is the fact that Cap has gotten increasingly militaristic since September 11, and it's been sold as "realistic." Especially after he came back as Director of SHIELD, he's been used more and more as a military (or more accurately paramilitary) character, and less of a traditional superhero, and that's frankly been a little uncomfortable. The breaking point for me was when Ellis had him tacitly approve torture, but that could be written off as Ellis being Ellis if later stories like Dimension X hadn't implied him being somewhat comfortable with killing and Hickman's run hadn't basically turned him into a semi-fascist in pursuit of the Illuminati (not to defend that group, as they were an entirely different brand of wrong I kind of hated).

But the big problem here is that this is all coming from the point of view of a person who has been reading the character for literally twice as long as many current day fans have been alive. I have the background in this, I get what he's going for and why, I've watched Cap become increasingly less like Cap, I know that Marvel has spent a lot of time telling stories that say "Hydra's not inherently Nazis, it depends on who's running it," and all of the other stuff that they are legitimately saying in defense and then being mystified that people aren't accepting of it. Because the people writing these books are longtime uber-fans, and they think the readers are too, and they haven't managed to bridge that gap to the vast majority of people that just like Cap as a character or a symbol.

Because that is the majority of what the folks that Marvel is reaching out to are. They like Cap. Maybe they've only read comics for 2 or 5 or 10 years or maybe they've only seen the movies or maybe they've only watched Earth's Mightiest Heroes. They don't have the grounding in the character's history to either understand or appreciate what is being done with the story, and Spencer and Marvel haven't done enough fill-in to tell them "this is why
The proper response to actual fascism
we're doing what we're doing." And while normally that would be okay, if disappointing, their mistake has come at a time in history where corrupting a symbol of America into the thing that many people hate isn't going to fly. And that's even more troubling when, for example, hate groups grab onto that and start unironically using the new, fascist version of the character as a symbol.

For the record, if you look back at the letters pages in the Nomad era of Cap, or the Gruenwald Captain one, you would see similar types of anger, similar attacks on the writers saying they don't know what they're doing, that they're corrupting the character, etc. I understand why people are angry, and I sympathize. But I think Marvel's biggest mistake here was not Hydra Cap but making this a tentpole event, not that they're telling the story. There was no really good way to both tell this story and tie it back into the past of the character, both distant (the callbacks to the 70s and 80s) and the recent (the problems with the increasing militarism and "Cap is always right!") while also telling a compelling story, or at least not one that Marvel and Spencer were able to put together or even understood that they needed to do. And that's the kind of thing you have to be able to do if you want folks onboard.

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