The cover of the first issue of Captain America portrays the iconic superhero punching Hitler square in the jaw. Dating from March 1941 — nine months before war broke out between Germany and the United States — Captain America was ready to fight fascism before the American public was.
The early issues of the series were devoted to Cap’s exploits in Europe, filled with an enthusiasm for taking it to fascists unmatched in the comic book world. The character’s birth by two Jewish comic book creators loomed in the background of those story arcs.
As one of Marvel’s oldest inventions, Captain America has changed through the years. He has not always been a model of progress, given that his history mapped to US Cold War politics a bit too neatly at times. But, despite periodic missteps, at least one could say that Captain America was no fascist.
Until now. Even if you don’t follow comic books closely, it’s been hard to avoid the news that Marvel just revealed that Captain America is — and always has been — a secret agent for Marvel’s fascist team of supervillains, Hydra.
Fans are distraught. This is not, they cry, who Captain America is or what he symbolizes. He represents truth-telling and right-doing, a hero who exists as an ideal (often free of reality) of what it means to be American. Fans want the Captain America in their heads, the one whose myth is always moving forward, despite any stumbles on the journey. While it’s still early, Marvel almost certainly won’t change course to please their readers.
“This is really just the tip of the iceberg in a larger story,” Tom Brevoort, executive editor of Marvel Comics told CNNMoney. “The most basic reason for doing this is to see if you’re paying attention and make readers long for the next issue.”
This quote is an inadvertent tell. The interview didn’t appear in CNN’s entertainment or arts section but in business news. Brevoort explains in plain English — which will surely be ignored in favor of pontifications on what this creative shift means for Captain America’s ongoing story — that this is about selling “the next issue.” He admits that the tail is wagging the dog: comic book storytelling is being driven by profit; the big twist is clickbait in a red, white, and blue uniform.
The news should remind us that comic books have always existed at a special confluence of art and business. Unlike television shows, movies, novels, or most other forms of narrative art, comic book companies — not authors and artists — own the story rights for characters. This situation has led to absent royalties and the generally shoddy treatment of their creators.
But the unique rights-ownership arrangement in comics also affects the stories they tell. Companies stretch and prod their characters to boost short-term sales, but they always snap back into form. As a result, comics have a perpetual sense of treading water because the business demands that superheroes never change too much.
In the late nineties, Superman’s death was met with horror before we all remembered that comic book heroes never stay dead for very long. All of this is because the tangle of trademarks, toy rights, and licensing in other mediums demand that all superheroes be chained to the apparatus of capitalism, regardless of how good or bad an individual story may be.
The messy business of comic books — cutthroat in nature, exploitative of its workers, disdainful of fans and character histories — exists parallel to the often aspirational nature of its stories. If what we get are not always the grand, four-color operas we’re promised, there always seems to be the hope of something so much more just out of reach.
This all adds up to a paradoxical situation. We — not just core comic fans, but also the general public, who have made Marvel and DC movies, games, and toys the cultural language of the past decade — feel restlessness. We want the stories to move forward, but never to betray their roots.
Captain America as a fascist is definitely forward motion — a surprise no one could foresee — but it betrays his myth. Fans on Twitter repeat that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby invented Captain America to be antifascist, so antifascist he must remain.
But Captain America does not now — and, as far as Marvel is concerned, never did — belong to Simon and Kirby. He belongs to Marvel. Simon and Kirby’s invention of Captain America as an icon of antifascism never enters into Marvel’s calculations. In fact, the Hydra plot twist is evidence that Captain America doesn’t have to be what he was: he is one of many mascots for Marvel Worldwide, Inc., and they will do with him what they please.
Pointing out comics’ corporate roots is not snobbish. But the anger at this turn in Captain America’s seventy-five-year storyline demonstrates that something has changed. Naked greed drove Marvel to fundamentally change Captain America’s ethos. That same greed will soon drive them to change it back. Everyone knows that the artistic merit of Captain America will withstand this plot twist, as it has survived all the rest.
But there is something new in fans’ reaction, a sense of weariness with Marvel’s ploy for more sales, a tiredness that now accompanies the anger. We’ve seen this in some form or another before — even as recently as Superman’s newfound penchant for mass destruction in the Zach Snyder movies — although maybe not quite so crassly.
The widespread realization that comic book companies are playing a shell game might mean that we can escape today’s hell of bad comic book movies, endless remakes, and edgy reimaginings of beloved characters. Comic book characters are, for good or ill, central to the global cultural landscape. With corporations of mammoth size and power exerting control over them, they demand our attention.
Fans may not be able to liberate Captain America from Hydra, but they can exert ownership over where their own creativity intersects with their passion for the form. Fan fiction is a decades-long attempt at claiming comic books for fans. It’s borne from the feeling that comic book characters, as actors in a story which never ends, do not belong to the corporations that legally own them.
This impulse says that the creativity superheroes inspire and the sheer pervasiveness of their cultural visibility mean that no corporation can lay sole claim to them. It is an attempt at liberating culture from its gatekeepers. The same is true with cosplay. These two expressions of fandom are not everyone’s cup of tea, but their existence is a small patch of vibrancy in a cultural landscape that sometimes feels less creative than it should.
Above this, we should remember that comic book writers and artists are, for the most part, fans. They have the power to demand creative control and better royalties from companies or to make worker-controlled publishing houses of their own.
That’s a heavy lift — to say that the grip of the Marvel and DC on the comic book imagination is viselike is an understatement. But it is not impossible.
If the recent Captain America reveal is too much for fans, either because it’s too naked a cash-grab or because it goes too far in redefining a long-established character, they can channel their frustration into a demand for something better.