Last night, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with a history teacher. He quickly became the victim of my inability to talk about anything other than comic book superheroes and he mentioned – even though he does not have an interest in the genre – that Captain America had recently become a Nazi. It is interesting that somebody who has no enthusiasm for the funny books was aware of this fairly brief interlude in Captain America’s biography: The Secret Empire story lasted for about a year (2017) and did involve a brainwashed Steve Rogers becoming the dictator of the USA under the spell of Hydra, an organisation that formed in the aftermath of WWII and does include Nazis in its membership.
Comic book superheroes do tend to revert to the status quo after a while, and the Sentinel of Liberty is back of the side of the angels now. However, he did a pretty good job of being ruthless and racist and dabbling with genocide. Of course, getting Cap into goose-steps and a fetish for purity took a major ret-con: reality itself had to be changed, but that’s never been a problem in the four colour action adventure.
For many of the more socially conservative young men who blog about comics, this was just part of a wider trend within the Marvel universe: Writers and artists with an apparently ‘progressive’ agenda are messing about with their icons. Nazi Cap is just another example of these social justice warriors ruining their childhoods and presenting a hard-left or identitarian agenda (see also: Captain Marvel, Ms Marvel, America Chavez, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur).
But Captain America is a special case. He is the symbol of the nation, espousing the values of the USA. Making him a Nazi is to make North America itself a Nazi state. And didn’t Captain America fight Nazis? He was giving Hitler a knuckle sandwich on the cover of the first issue of his own comic (while Superman was far more interesting in getting the hairbrush treatment off Eisenhower). Isn’t he meant to be a symbol of freedom, justice and the American way?
Captain America’s biography is a little more complicated than a simplistic dedication to patriotism and freedom. In the Civil War series (comic book, not the film), he opposed the introduction of a Registration Act for superheroes by the government. In the 1970s, he threw away his shield and cowl to become Nomad, after discovering that a conspiracy (also called the Secret Empire) went as high as the White House. Both of these plots followed contemporary politics: Civil War is frequently seen as a comment of the Patriot Act introduced after 9-11: the first Secret Empire echoes the Watergate scandal, to the extent that it is believed that the corrupt official was then-President Nixon.
The role of Captain America has been to reflect social changes and much as represent an idealised American Way: given his consistent battles against Sons of the Serpent (a KKK metaphor) and the Red Skull (a proper Nazi), he has been consistently on the side of a more leftist vision of society, while Marco Arnaudo makes a convincing case for his importance as an advocate for multiculturalism (The Myth of the Superhero, an enjoyable read). He also stood up for the mutants in 1986’s Secret War, and the mutants are Marvel’s special (and not really that impressive) metaphor for all and any oppressed groups.
In this light, making him a Nazi is all the more shocking, but it also plays into the use of the character to make political statements. I don’t think that Marvel were making a statement as blunt as ‘Trump is a Nazi’ (and given the language that is used by the alt-right about the left, it could be argued that a Nazi character could represent identitarians, from an alt-right perspective). But the conflicts in North America democracy are polarising, and the idea that Captain America had fallen to extremism made a nice parallel allegory.
But Captain America’s problem is the flag-flavoured costume, his status a ‘Golden Age’ character and the name. He sounds and looks one dimensional, and he was conceived in an ere when simplistic stereotypes were the norm. Like Superman, he is cursed with the moral purity of Golden Age heroism – not a problem that Batman has faced, and a little unfair given that Cap’s antics weren’t always Parsifal pure. There is a great adventure set in a theatre which seems to be playing with queer identity, and with his underage mate Bucky, Steve Rogers hung out at dance-halls. And he was a soldier. He killed people. But he gets called a boy scout, he is a patriotic totem – when he was killed in the 1990s (along with nearly all of the Marvel universe by a being called Onslaught) at the end of a crossover event, another hero commented that conservative America had lost its greatest icons. He looks the part.
But this ignores an important aspect of the Captain’s history. After WWII, he was not really relevant, so Marvel briefly made his title a ‘weird tales’, closer in style to the EC comics and including at least one story involving satan. Then he disappeared until the 1950s, failed to impress and disappeared again. Stan Lee resurrected Steve Rogers in the early 1960s, digging him out of a block of ice and installing him in The Avengers. This meant ignoring the 1950s’ tales, in which Captain America and his sidekick Bucky knocked about communists. Presumably, Lee reckoned that no-one would remember his atomic age adventuresand these issues only became a problem later on, when continuity and obsessive fans questioned their absence.
(1950s’ Captain America was ret-conned: it was this other guy, right, and he was pretending to be Cap and he was a bit too right-wing and mentally unstable. The real Captain America had been in a block of ice since 1945, and Bucky was dead).
This being the Marvel Age, Steve Rogers had problems. Although he has spent the 1940s cheerfully whomping Adolf and company, he didn’t adjust well to the 1960s. Fellow Avenger Hawkeye took the piss out of the old guy, and his appeals to discipline and order were received by the rest of the team with wry respect. And when he wasn’t fighting villains, he moped about the mansion, regretting the death of Bucky and wondering what his purpose might be. He even sent a job application to SHIELD so he could be a part-time spy, but Nick Fury ignored him for ages. Eventually, he went off to South America to fight Baron Zemo, a Nazi in hiding who had an accident with some glue. He even seems a bit upset when he crushes Zemo to death. Having an enemy at least gave him something to fill up his spare time.
There is also this splash page, which is one of my favourites.
It captures the difficult relationship between the team of boomers and this revived member of the greatest generation. Hawkeye has no respect, Cap takes no great pleasure in telling his war stories, and the way that the Scarlet Witch is positioned suggests that she is trying to… well, actually, she low-keyed crushed on him. But it is Steve Roger’s grim face that is most evocative. He is a man out of time, marked by the horrors of war.
Some of the more impressive Marvel adventures use Captain America as a symbol of America, and challenge those those values, like when he had a throw down with Flag Smasher and had to think about the meaning of nationalism and extremism (Arnaudo has a great chapter on this battle). But the most impressive recognise that Captain America isn’t just an allegory but a well developed character who is having a tough time, who does not really fit in the modern world. That is probably why that time he got turned into a werewolf wasn’t that weird. He is already caught between two identities: the extra hair makes little difference.
Having been a werewolf, Cap’s heel-turn could only go in one direction: he becomes a Nazi. There’s a longer discussion of the implications here, but I am intrigued by what this transition might tell us about comic book superheroes as modern mythology.
And that is my cliffhanger…