“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” – Groucho Marx
- Captain America Hails Hydra: The Aesthetic Identity of a Comics Icon
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or have absolutely no interest in comic books (the latter being more likely), I hate to break it to you, but Captain America is now and has always been an agent of Hydra, the ancient evil organization once tied to the Nazis that he has otherwise fought against for the last fifty of his seventy-five-plus-year history.
In interviews, writer (and one-time politician) Nick Spencer — who has become much reviled in the comics community over the past year (http://www NULL.ign NULL.com/articles/2017/04/25/marvels-nick-spencer-on-captain-americas-betrayal-and-handling-fan-reactions)— has made it clear from the very beginning (Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 (May, 2016)) that comics’ most patriotic hero has not been brainwashed nor is he a doppleganger dispatched by some villain to disrupt the status quo. No, this Captain America is, was, and always has been a member of Hydra. And while the plot may be somewhat complicated (essentially, a sentient Cosmic Cube altered history), the end result is the same: Captain America — while still an idealist — is now a fascist, and the world of Marvel Comics is now victim of his burgeoning secret empire (begun with a book of the same name which debuted in April of 2017).
Over the past year, newspapers and magazines around the world have grappled with the implications of a villainous Cap, while fanboys and average citizens alike have made it known that messing with such an America icon would most certainly have Cap’s creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby rolling over in their graves.
Cap’s still the same guy that fought the second World War, was thawed from ice in the sixties and eventually become leader of the Avengers, only to take a bullet and die a martyr after Marvel’s first Civil War (of course, no one in comics stays dead). It’s just that writer Nicker Spencer has cast doubt over Cap’s motivations the entire time he was a “hero.”
In the now altered history, Cap became America’s sentinel of liberty with the support of Hydra. Since being thawed from the ice decades ago, he’s had a secret agenda in mind: to gain the trust of the nation — the world even — so that one day his machinations would put him in control of everything from an alien defense shield that encircles the planet to the military / police force that is S.H.I.E.L.D. (think Marvel’s global equivalent to the C.I.A.). What motivates this scheming Captain America? Service to Hydra, and world domination under his leadership. In that regard, Cap believes himself to be a savior of sorts — a man of singular vision who will rule fairly, but with an iron fist. World leaders and superheroes have failed society, this Steve Rogers believes, and humankind will benefit from the order and direction he and his version of Hydra will bring.
Some have said that Spencer has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of right-wing politics and populism that has risen of late in the western world. That said, the first issue of the series debuted in May of 2016, long before Trump was elected president, Britain planned to leave the European Union and elections throughout Europe became the platforms for debate about nationalism, safety, and the rule of law.
Is this new Captain America a symbol for such movements? Curiously, the right has rejected a fascist Cap, seeing in him the worst of liberal attempts to tear down patriotism and demonize law and order. The left, too, responds with rancor as a symbol to them of a more tolerant democratic ideal has been corrupted.
The issue raises questions of a fictional character’s nature and how he or she can become different things to different people at different points in history. Aesthetic identity — insofar as a fictional character can be said to have an identity (which makes for sticky metaphysics) — can support the argument that there can be an alignment of the cultural and the artistic to a point where art (even comic art!) can become “ours” or “theirs” — positioning an icon like Captain America as being in the service of special interests at any given point in time.
Time. It’s essential to the discussion of a fictional character with longevity. In the hands of different writers and artists over time, does a fictional character need to have a persistent identity over that stretch of time to continue being that character? To theorists, this state of being is called endurantism — where an individual is wholly present at every moment of its existence. Or can that character have distinct temporal parts to its existence — called pedurantism — and thus not be tied to continuity of existence?
Some philosophers would raise the “Ship of Theseus” debate at this point. And while that might take us far afield, give me a paragraph to explain. It goes like this: if a ship exists in one form at one time and is then taken apart plank by plank and re-assembled at a later time with pieces re-arranged for revised purpose, is it the same ship anymore? The general principle could be applied to this fascist Captain America. Remember, he’s not brainwashed nor is he a doppleganger. He is still Steve Rogers. More so, he has always been Steve Rogers AND a child raised and heavily influenced by Hydra. While in the hands of the Allies in the second world war, the Cosmic Cube once masked the true nature of Cap as a servant of Hydra. He was made to be a hero in what ironically turned out to be the actual alternate reality. When the cosmic cube revealed Steve Rogers’ “true” nature as an agent of Hydra all along, it was actually returning reality to how it should have been (the original Ship of Theseus). Was the re-assembled ship also Steve Rogers? To those adhering to pedurance theory, the answer is yes. His identity is tied to distinct temporal parts throughout the character’s existence. It can therefore be said that while Hydra Cap is the same (fictional) person, his identity is dependent on the Cap that he is at any given point in time. Identity is not fixed.
To a lesser extent, we’ve seen iconic characters change radically before at distinct temporal points. Sherlock Holmes has been a twenty-something genius in the nineteenth century, a middle-aged cocaine addict in the twentieth, and an unkempt eccentric of indeterminate age in the twenty-first. Batman has been both a level-headed and lauded superhero with a clear sense of justice, but also a reviled vigilante with possible mental illness.
In the end, who is Steve Rogers? In and of itself, that question presupposes that there is an end (and a single Steve Rogers). For characters like Cap who have been developed and modified over time by countless writers and artists, there will never be an end. Only slices of time in which that character exists. To complicate the matter, one could argue that every comic one reads, regardless of when it was written, is happening as it is read. Fixed points in time all happen at once to the mind.
Of course, Captain America as agent of Hydra could be nothing more than a marketing ploy — a none-too-clever way to sell more comic books. The alternative, however, has more than risk for the company of possible stagnant sales. It has the permanence that a character can never change — or perhaps more important, be challenged with change (even for the worse) and find their way back to redemption.
After Secret Empire comes to an end, let’s hope that the cosmic cube which started this whole mess doesn’t simply alter reality once again *, for it would be interesting to see one of America’s most enduring symbols find his way out of the darkness to do what heroes do best — fight against injustice regardless of cultural tides. To exist as different beings over time but retain their heroic traits no matter how misguided they may be. To transcend aesthetic identity and approach what every creator hopes for a character: a life beyond the pages.
Yes, Steve Rogers is fictional. And yes, we’re talking about comic books. But we’re also addressing core beliefs that human beings are capable of significant change over time, and that character is a trait as well as a fiction.
And to the architect of this tale, Nick Spencer, a special message: we’re counting on you to define who Captain America is, was and will be for generations to come.
Don’t blow it.
August 26, 2017: Oh well. SPOILER. Deus Ex Machina. Kobik, the sentient cosmic cube, restored the status quo. The “real” Steve Rogers returns, and in a punch-up all too typical for comics, beats the crap out of Fascist Cap. What remains to be seen in Marvel’s “Legacy” is if this returned Captain America can regain the trust of the nation.
If only real life could be this simple.Continue reading →
- Even Wilder: The Cultural Significance of a Comedic Frankenstein
With the passing of Gene Wilder — one of the best actors to ever to play Dr. “Fronkensteen” — Mary Shelley’s monster may never be funny again.
Not that the young girl — a few months shy of her eighteenth birthday — wrote the tale of a man who created a monster for laughs. On that stormy night two-hundred years ago when she was challenged by Lord Byron to pen a horror tale, comedy was probably the furthest thing from her mind. Her Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, the now classic novel first published in 1818., is arguably humorless. Shelley’s novel is one of tragedy after tragedy. At its conclusion, Frankenstein’s fiancé has been strangled by the monster, Victor himself dies (of exposure, exhaustion, ambition!) and the monster, who weeps for his maker, is last seen floating away on an ice flow. Not funny at all. Ironic in places, perhaps. Histrionic, which can be funny in a “people just don’t act like that” sort of way. But it’s not until Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder 1974’s Young Frankenstein that the story becomes pure comedy for the sake of the comedic. Or was it?
The first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel to stage, Richard Brinkley Peake’s 1823 Presumption! or, The Fate of Frankenstein (http://english NULL.unl NULL.edu/sbehrendt/texts/Presumption/presump NULL.htm) — produced not five years after the first edition of Frankenstein (and arguably a reason why the novel went to a second) — was the first to mute the creature, and in so doing, open the figure more easily to ridicule. The monster of the novel is well- read, well-spoken and almost erudite, but Peake’s creature is clumsy. And Peake doesn’t stop at stumbling pantomime. Within the play there is a ignoramus of a servant named Fritz (curiously, the name given to Frankenstein’s assistant in Universal’s 1931 classic with Boris Karloff) and his only slightly more intelligent wife; they sing lighthearted songs and are peppered as comic relief throughout the play. It’s as if Peake saw Shelley’s story as only working on stage if there were an infusion of levity. Melodrama only plays so far with an audience. And gothic melodrama? It was panned by the critics.
So why not go in the “other” direction? More to the comedic and an attempt to appeal to even wider audiences, Peake put together a version later in 1823 that was outright farce: calling it Another Piece of Presumption. Then the imitators started: there was Frank-in-Steam; or, The Modern Promise to Pay; a monster played by a dwarf in a burlesque version of the play; and then, perhaps the most over-the-top of adaptations from the time: Frankenstitch (the Needle Prometheus), about a tailor who sewed together pieces of several bodies to make his creation. Each was further removed from the source material. And while most were torn apart by critics looking for more by way of the ethical questions inherent to the subject of man creating man, audiences apparently loved the humor. Stage adaptations continued through the nineteenth century (http://knarf NULL.english NULL.upenn NULL.edu/Articles/forry2 NULL.html), from gothic melodramas to Richard Butler and Henry Chance Newton’s musical burlesque: Frankenstein; or, The Vampires Victim (1887), a flop that found the monster flirting with his feminine side. It ran only one week.
Why would audiences want a comedic Frankenstein?
Fast forward a little over 20 years and the moving picture would pick up the tale of the man who created a monster by none other than inventor Thomas Edison. His once “lost” 1910 adaptation of Frankenstein actually ends comedically — at least in the Aristotelian sense of the term. The monster, a hideous mirror-image of Frankenstein (literally) is a jealous type, not happy with his maker’s attention to a woman. But in the end, love conquers all and the monster’s image dissolves into the mirror. Frankenstein and his bride live happily ever after.
In practically every adaptation since, the monster’s luck with women never much improved. Similarly jealous of his maker’s bride, Boris Karloff’s quintessential creature in James Whale’s 1931 Universal classic ends up feared and hunted. But Dr. Henry Frankenstein (played to over-the-top 1930s perfection by Colin Clive) ultimately ends up in the arms of his beloved Elizabeth by movie’s end. The monster? Consumed in a fiery mill and presumed dead. Once again, all is right with the world. What seemed doomed to tragedy ends well.
Then Director James Whale makes one of the boldest moves in Hollywood history by turning the genre upside down with his sequel.
James Whale’s brilliant Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is a subversive film. Beyond the solid argument made by Gary Morris is his essay for the Bright Lights Film Journal (http://brightlightsfilm NULL.com/sexual-subversion-bride-frankenstein/# NULL.V8mtjZMrJBw), Bride of Frankenstein not only addresses sexual subversion and a challenge to traditional family values, it forces the audience to confront the notion that the most freakish among us may be the most human, and those in positions of power — the scientists and burgomasters — haven’t a clue.
There is humor in the subversion. From the pure camp of Doctor Pretorius to the played-for-laughs startles and screams of Frankenstein’s housekeeper Minnie, the audience has much to smile about in Bride of Frankenstein. And all the while, their expectations of what a horror movie should be — how it should end (i.e., resolve favorably) and that morality, normalcy and the nuclear family should escape unscathed — is subverted. No marriage here. “We belong dead,” says the monster as he pulls the switch to blow the set to smithereens. Roll credits.
Sharing more with Whale’s sequel than simply being a parody of the genre, Mel Brooks takes subversion one step further (or perhaps back) in Young Frankenstein. Those who would normally hold positions of power, the scientist and inspector, are here subjects of ridicule — and both we and THEY know it.
Wilder, in particular, revels in his character’s inability to comprehend the significance of what he has done and what he is doing. He is narcissistic and anxiety-ridden, nervous about his future and embarrassed as to his family’s past. But expose him to the temptations of his libidinous assistant Inga, the multiple machinations of his housekeeper Frau Blücher and the sheer insanity of his sidekick Igor (it’s pronounced “Eye-Gor”) and suddenly Dr. Frankenstein reclaims not only his heritage, but his passion for living. Ironic that this is found only through the resuscitation of the dead. Through the making of a child-like (yet well endowed) monster, Frankenstein becomes more human. Each laugh endears us more to both him and his creation. And the subversion? Whereas Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein subverts sexual mores and challenges the nuclear family, Young Frankenstein is simply, subtly (yet superbly) a subversion of audience expectation. We know the tropes of the genre: the dark and stormy night (“could be worse”…”could be raining”); wolves baying at the moon (“there wolf… there castle”); secret passages (“put..the candle…back).
Yet Brooks and company subvert our expectations from the smallest of punchlines to the biggest of payoffs — a truly happy ending.
In place of Shelley’s questions about the nature of man and the ethics of scientific inquiry, Brooks explores not what it is to be a man who makes a monster, but what it means to be someone or something so outside the norm that it is, ultimately, freed from norms. Free to be happy. Free not only to be how one was made but who one is capable of becoming.
It’s a message for all freaks and weirdos.
And yes, the doctor still ends up with a bride.
But even the monster gets the girl.