Secret Empire, or The Ignominious History of NaziCap

It's Spring, so it's time for Marvel to start another crossover event.

Actually, scratch that. At the rate the publisher's been starting new earth-shattering event series, a more accurate intro would be "it's Wednesday, so another Marvel crossover event is happening." The particular one we'll be focusing on is Secret Empire, the culmination of Nick Spencer's run on Captain America: Steve Rogers, the prologue of which was reviewed by our own Zachary. While it's mostly agreed upon that a creator's script quality drops for event series for whatever reason, Spencer's remained, for the most part, intact. Instead, it seems like he realized he's going to be known forevermore as "the man who turned Captain America into a Nazi," and decided to double down, sacrificing whatever quality of character he had remaining.

Now, some might protest me calling Steve Rogers's Cosmic Cube and Hydra-related mishaps as being turned into a Nazi. They will argue that Hydra is just a regular bad guy army, like Stormtroopers from Star Wars. Sure, the organization was only ever led by people identifying as Nazis, but it's not like they're lifting around their arms, yelling "Heil Hitler." Why, they're not even German, and everyone from movies knows only those people can be Nazis!

See? Completely not Nazi-related
I wholeheartedly disagree. Yes, the organization started out without any connections to Nazism both on a meta level--as Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created it as non-specific cultish evil organization--and in the fictional history of Marvel universe, where it's an ancient organization of evil, predating Nazis. However, as time went on, it became more and more deeply connected to the ideology, borrowing its iconography and rhetoric. As I mentioned above, the only characters ever in charge of Hydra were fanatical Nazis like Red Skull, Baron von Strucker, Baron Zemo and Madame Hydra, while newer members like Crossbones were intended as the group's version of a Neo-Nazi. Hell, for most of Marvel's history no other villain wanted to have anything to do with them; not Doctor Doom, not Kingpin, no one. Flag Smasher cancelled one of his plans after he found out it benefitted Red Skull in some way. And, famously, Magneto tried to kill the skull-faced Nazi. When a supervillain was willing to work with Hydra, like Norman Osborn, it was a clear sign of how un-repentantly evil they were.

And though Marvel is trying is trying to reframe Hydra as a non-descript evil organization, it can only fail. The group has been connected to the Nazi ideology for far too long and far too intrinsically. And it couldn't have picked a worse moment for it too, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and shows–-which more people are familiar with than comics–-openly equate Hydra with Nazis, to the point that, in order to make Baron Zemo more relatable, they entirely reworked his character, with him openly opposing Hydra. Hell, the currently ongoing Framework story arc on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. uses the organization to explore current US political climate, using it as a metaphor for the growing fascist influences.

Now that we've established that Hydra are Nazis and not, I don't know, alt-right or some other made-up nonsense, it's time to explain why it's disturbing that Marvel made Captain America, of all characters, subscribe to its ideals. While superheroes turning evil is a long, tired and generally unwelcome trope, it's another thing to turn them into Nazis. When it's Steve Rogers that this happens to, it's an exceptionally stupid move.

Captain America Steve Rogers was created by two Jewish creators, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, to openly oppose the Nazi ideology, at time when it was a controversial creative decision. The United States was maintaining an isolationist policy in regards to war going on in Europe, and there were many groups supporting the Nazi regime and subscribing to its ideology. Sure, there was a two page comic where Superman arrested Hitler and Stalin, written by the character's creators, but it was a fairly tame publication unconnected to its publisher, Detective Comics. Kirby and Simon took a more open, uncompromising stance towards Nazis, something that didn't earn them supporters in the American Nazi community--to the point that they received police protection.

So from the very moment of his inception, Captain America had a staunch anti-Nazi policy, courtesy of his creators. And it goes down to his designsure,the vast majority of early superheroes were white men, but Steve Rogers look exceptionally like an Aryan wet dream, a tall, muscular, blonde-haired and blue-eyed man. He's someone who, in the eyes of the Nazis, should join them and reap benefits of fulfilling their purity standards, not opposing them. By designing Cap that way, Kirby and Simon showed that you don't have to be part of a discriminated minority--a Jew, a Black person, etc.-to care for them and fight for their rights. So taking that character and making him a Nazi sends a different message, a message thatconsciously or not, it doesn't matterpromotes indifference towards the plight of others, and sees the privileged position of a white straight cis man and his lack of empathy as fact of nature.

And that's before we get even to the plot of the event series and Marvel's promotional efforts surrounding it. The publisher seems bent on convincing everyone that Captain America is still a hero, just forced to do bad things, to the point that it has issued a statement on ABC News. And yet, it's really hard to believe a character's heroic status when they create a totalitarian state, have one of their oldest friends killed and order a whole city of innocent people destroyed as an example. You know who else did that? DC's supervillainess Cheshire, who nuked a country to make a point.

And that's not to mention the pro-Nazi atmosphere surrounding it. The Free Comic Book Day short issue released this weekend ends on an image that made people who had the displeasure to first see it scream: Captain America effortlessly lifting Thor's hammer, Mjolnir. Even ignoring the inherent stupidity of having the item for some reason this twisted version of Steve Rogers is somehow still worthy of lifting it, we have the problem of the comic using–-consciously or not-imagery famously connected to Neo-Nazis. This group, like their German antecedents, is downright obsessed with vikings and Norse mythology, and the hammer of Thor is a symbol commonly used by them.

*vomit sounds*
But this seems to be par the course for a comic that started out regurgitating the tired, uninformed and just plain insulting alternate history trope: that Nazis were ever capable of winning WW2. No, Spencer, mate, Nazi Germany wasn't an economic powerhouse capable of any technological breakthrough with an unbeatable army. I'm from Poland; the Nazis had the numbers and the technological advantage when they attacked my country in 1939, and it still took them a month to beat us (with USSR's help), and the effort left them so exhausted they didn't attack Denmark until about a year later. There was no chance of a major scientific discovery, because Nazis ignored most of then-modern physics as "Jewish science" and the only remaining scientists (after people like Einstein fled) were mediocrities more interested in their careers than advancement of human knowledge. And the Nazi economy was a joke, barely held together and set to fall apart as soon as either the war or resources ended.

And yet Spencer continues to spread this harmful trope, creating a story where the Nazis were absolutely capable of winning the war, and the only way Allies won was thanks to Spencer's favorite deus ex machina, the Cosmic Cube. But that's not surprising, Spencer has time and again proven he doesn't condemn Nazis for their hateful ideology, treating them as equals to any other viewpoint. Sure they did some bad things, but in Spencer's understanding of the world they have the same right as the people they don't even consider human. After all, since the start of 2017 he's been more preoccupied with defending Nazis from being punched then empathizing with people suffering from their hate.

And it gets worse once the series gets started properly, because he keeps playing the "Nazis were extremely capable and well-organized geniuses" trope. As we find out in the first issue, after the Hydra took over it has, in the span of two days, created jobs, improved foreign trade and instituted single payer healthcare. It plays into the whole "at least Hitler made trains run on time" mindset that makes a certain type of person sigh with nostalgia over strong rulers  ignoring the reality that dictatorships aren't, for some reason, heaven on Earth, and people are emigrating there in droves.

And this is just two issues! Three, if you count the short FCBD comic! We still have 8 more to go until this is over. I shudder to think of the lows Spencer and Marvel will reach both within this story and in their attempts to justify.

Contrast and compare Kieron Gillen's Über published by Avatar Press, where the Third Reich barely manages to turn back from the brink of defeat thanks to sudden discovery of superpowers. Gillen describes it as "what if Nazis discovered the atomic bomb first," but even then the series doesn't bother treating Nazis as anything other than disgust. He also clearly presents the Third Reich as on the verge of collapse from both in-fighting and lack of resources, thanks to the amount of research he put into the series. Not only that, out of the Reich's three most powerful superhumans only one is an actual Nazi, and is presented clearly as a psychotic bully and, once tables are turned, a coward. Out of the other two, one only follows orders because she's motivated by revenge, and the other actually hates Nazis. And Gillen made it clear from the start that the series, which recently started its second and final volume, Über: Invasion, will end with the Third Reich falling, just like it happened in 1945.

Another fine example that does "superheroes as Nazis" well is Grant Morrison and Jim Lee's issue of The Multiversity, Mastermen, which imagines a world where instead of in Kansas, Superman landed in the Third Reich as a baby, and was raised as a Nazi. This led to Hitler winning the war (and let's face it, he only could ever win with a Kryptonian as his secret weapon) and a world-spanning Nazi empire. While it sounds similar to Secret Empire, unlike this series it's clearly set in an alternate version of the DC universe. Not only that, it also treats Nazis with contempt, opening with an image of a constipated Hitler.

But there's a difference between two great writers like Kieron Gillen and Grant Morrison and a man like Nick Spencer; when creating a story like that you have to be talented, skillful and have genuine character. And until the event is over and Marvel starts frantically attempting to pretend it never happened (like it did after turning Captain Marvel into a totalitarian dictator in Civil War II), I think we should read comics that will treat Nazis in the only way they deserved to be.

You let 'em have it, Hellboy.

Dominik Zine is a nerdy demisexual lad from northeastern Poland and is generally found in a comfy chair with a book in hand.