Let’s give the Proverbs a week off and talk about Secret Empire. For those who haven’t followed, this was Marvel’s annual shitty summer crossover, this time with the premise that history has been rewritten to make Captain America a Hydra sleeper agent who has now taken over the US. So basically, “what if Captain America were secretly a Nazi?” This has been widely panned, even moreso than Marvel’s summer crossovers usually are. On the one hand, this is entirely appropriate, as Secret Empire is not only one of the worst-written crossovers in superhero history but also one of the most flatly evil. On the other, relatively few people have actually articulated this, with an alarming number of critiques of the comic instead being exercises in point-missing far almost as epic than the crossover itself.
Perhaps the most spectacularly off-base thing to be frequently said about the comic is that its premise is an insult to the legacy of Captain America co-creator and avowed Nazi-puncher Jack Kirby. It is difficult to entirely grasp the value system under which making a fictional character he drew forty-three issues of into a fascist is an insult to his legacy but the basic existence of Marvel Comics as a corporate entity built on the systematic exploitation of his labor is not. Certainly it is not a value system worth taking seriously. But it is a commonly expressed one, in a way that is revealing about what superheroes, as a genre, have decomposed into over the seventy-six years since Captain America’s creation.
The second spectacularly wrongheaded objection to Secret Empire is closely related, namely the idea that its premise is anything short of brilliant. Of course Captain America as a fascist is a sensible story idea. He’s a blonde-haired, blue-eyed “super-soldier” named Captain America. The concept has always flirted with fascism, as has the superhero concept in general, with its fantasy of puissant men in uniforms who will protect us from danger and change. Exploring that tension has often been brilliant, whether consciously and carefully as in Alan Moore’s Miracleman and Kieron Gillen’s Uber, or with reckless overenthusiasm as in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Steve Ditko’s Mr. A. As premises for crossovers go, it’s far better than “a superhero civil war over the ethics of predicting the future,” “heroes and villains switch places,” or “Secret Wars again.”
But premises aren’t everything, and Nick Spencer, the writer of Secret Empire, is spectacularly the wrong man for the job. To knock down one last bad argument about the series, this is not because he’s a borderline fascist. He was a centrist who ran for Cincinnati city council as a Republican in 2005 and drifted to the Democratic party in the wake of the Tea Party and Trump. His politics are shitty in almost the precise way you would expect from that, and indeed slightly shittier given that he’s a thin-skinned Twitter bully to boot. In most regards this is considerably preferable to being a fascist, but unfortunately not when it comes to writing Secret Empire. An actual fascist might at least turn in something with the gonzo pleasures of Miller or Ditko – something that can be respected and warily enjoyed. Instead we get something far more insidious – a comic that firmly believes it’s anti-fascist but is, in practice, conspicuously opposed to any effort to materially resist it.
In the interests of being scrupulously fair while skewering somebody, we should acknowledge that Spencer and Marvel were dealt a rough hand with the details of the book’s politics. They played this hand with maddening disingenuity, publicly denying that the book was about current events in a way that was even more transparently untrue than their denial that the story would end with the cosmic cube being used as a big reset button. But while the story is clearly about Trump, the buildup to it started with the Avengers: Standoff crossover in early 2016. Which is to say that it’s about Trump, but it was never planned to be about Trump’s Presidency. No doubt Spencer was assuming that Secret Empire would come out under the Clinton Presidency, its engagement with fascism being something between an alternate history and pissing on the corpse of an already defeated threat. Instead, however, he’s put in the unenviable position of writing a comic about how to resist fascism in the immediate context of the Trump administration, with the final issue dropping two-and-a-half weeks after Charlottesville. What was intended as a valedictory kick to a defeated threat was instead saddled with an urgency it had no hope of rising to. In the face of this the ending, with its nauseating focus on reaffirming the heroism of the various Marvel heroes, culminating in a double splash of them drawn in clean, iconic poses with a caption proclaiming them once again to be “Earth’s mightiest heroes,” is even more desperately pathetic than normal.
It is worth pausing, however, to fully appreciate the systematic magnitude of Spencer’s efforts to make this ending suck more. After all, over the year and a half worth of comics Nick Spencer wrote as part of this arc he naturally engaged with the question of how to oppose fascism several times before reaching his conclusion, offering up a variety of scenarios only to knock them down in favor of his ultimate endpoint. Indeed, given that Secret Empire is riddled through with portentious narration about how the heroes faced their darkest hour and fell but rose again to have hope and fell again and so on it’s difficult not to read it as a set of rejected answers leading up to the correct one.
In this regard, it is necessary to look at one of Spencer’s two lead-up series, Captain America: Sam Wilson which, as the title suggests, focuses on the adventures of Captain America as embodied by Sam Wilson, whose usual identity is as The Falcon and who is, significantly, a black man. Spencer used the bulk of this series for clangingly unsubtle political commentary, positioning Sam Wilson as a sympathetic progressive under constant criticism from right-wing media who must figure out how to make the world a better place within the limited power that being Captain America affords him. As Spencer writes it, this not only means trying to be effective in a hostile media environment, but repeatedly facing down more militantly leftist factions. The most infamous moment of this came in an issue where he created a throwaway bunch of costumed characters to satirize SJWs – an ethnically diverse team of two women and a guy who call themselves the Bombshells. Over the six pages these characters appear Spencer manages to work in them saying that they’re “here to teach you some tolerance or else,” proclaiming the campus a safe space for everyone except the right-wing speaker they’re throwing grenades at, monologuing about how “your silent acquiescence is what empowers abusers and the culture of hate,” throwing a grenade while shouting “consider this your trigger warning,” complaining that the heroes opposing them should be allies, shouting “your very presence is problematic in the extreme! I can’t even,” and finally referring to Sam Wilson as “Captain Patriarchy” come to “mansplain why our principled stand against hatred isn’t appropriate.” If it weren’t for the sympathetic black lead, you’d confuse it with a John C. Wright piece. Every other character treats them with utter contempt – even characters whose narrative function is otherwise to offer positions for Spencer to knock down as inappropriate.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the series Spencer concludes that resisting heavily armored private police that routinely beat suspects with any force is wrong, going to preposterous lengths to kill off the obscure 90s character Rage that he brings back in order to make that case. And, in the book’s most thoroughly jaw-dropping sequence, he has Sam Wilson conclude that he can’t possibly arrest the rich capitalists who have been bankrolling horrifying experiments to turn people into animal-human hybrids because they are too rich and it would damage the economy, a decision that gets an ostentatiously laid out double page spread to really emphasize the argument. The common link of all these impressively bad takes is straightforward: in every case, Spencer is steadfastly opposed to any vision of leftism that offers resistance or disruption.
It’s not a surprise, then, that within Secret Empire proper, the most obvious and significant rejected answer to fascist dictatorship is killing Captain America. A large portion of the story is spent following up on a plot thread from Civil War II in which people glimpsed a possible future where the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man kills Captain America. In Secret Empire the circumstances surrounding that future come to pass, with Spider-Man and a stable of other teenage heroes being actively trained by Black Widow for this purpose until, in a last-minute twist, it’s revealed that Black Widow’s plan this whole time has been to stop Spider-Man from killing Captain America so that he wouldn’t become a killer. This is, of course, one of the most obvious edge cases when talking about violent resistance to fascism – so much so that 18 U.S. Code § 871 forbids discussing it in the specific. But there are few thinkers worth taking seriously who would not advocate for a decapitation strike against a fascist organization run by a charismatic leader that is actively engaged in genocide and seeking to obtain cosmic artifacts of unimaginable power that would allow it to rewrite history in its own image.
So what does Spencer ultimately offer up as his approved response to fascism? A series of tactical surrenders leading up to the revival of the non-Nazi Captain America, conjured out of the memories of the Cosmic Cube, who then dutifully beats the stuffing out of Nazi Captain America. And while the dreadful narration reiterates over and over again that the correct response to fascism is to “stand and fight,” it’s hard not to notice that this is the first time the series has actually shown anything other than complete and utter disdain for the idea. Taken in the context of the rest of the series, it seems to declare that the appropriate response to fascism is to lie down and take it until God sends an authorized Nazi-puncher to stand and fight on your behalf.
This is unambiguously appalling. It transcends merely being a bad suggestion and is instead outright offensive, an account of ethical duty and resistance so completely bankrupt it cannot even rise to the level of having nothing to say. As practical advice, it is indistinguishable from absolute capitulation to fascism. As the culmination to an allegorical exploration of resistance it’s pathological – the ideology of superhero liberalism taken to its terminal perversity. And in the cavernous absence carved out by this thundering unsight what most immediately thrives is the book’s depictions of fascism. After all, there are a lot of them. Nazi Captain America is not positioned as a distant, abstracted threat viewed from the perspective of those opposing him. The book spends a lot of time in his head, reiterating how heavy lies the crown. And more than that, it spends a lot of time showing him in a series of dazzlingly imperious outfits stomping around and being imposing, generally flanked by a bunch of ostentatiously cool henchmen. Secret Empire eroticizes fascism in the same way it does violence, packaging it as the object for the reader’s titillated gazes. It doesn’t even deny its awkward boner – one of its early and controversial moments was the ending of its Free Comic Book Day preview issue, which culminated in Captain America lifting Thor’s hammer as the narration proclaimed him “more worthy” than the heroes. Yes, when he tries to do it again in the final issue he’s now unworthy, the setup to the revived Captain America lifting it up and smacking him in the face with it, but what is that even supposed to mean at that point? That fascist dictators are worthy to wield the power of Thor when they take over, but it’s only the unfortunate moral compromises they make while in power that corrupt them? I mean, I say that with mock authorial incredulity, but I can’t actually come up with a better interpretation of the text. That really is what it seems to say.
What makes this worse is, ironically, the very fact that the comic imagines itself to be anti-fascist. It would literally be a better comic if it had the courage of its (or any other) convictions and embraced its fascist instincts. For all that The Dark Knight Returns offers little more than an adolescent thrill at the imagined transgressiveness of asking “wouldn’t it be awesome if Batman weren’t too much of a pussy to shoot people,” it is at least a conscious expression of its instincts. Miller may be unaware or dismissive of the ethical implications of the basic politics of superheroes, or, worse, he may not be, but he at least clearly recognizes that those politics exist. Spencer, however, honestly seems to have no idea that the politics are even there. He has no comprehension that superheroes are not simply a neutral medium in which he can show a fascist getting overthrown and have it straightforwardly communicate that fascists are bad. He’s publicly masturbating to fascist iconography and doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.
Some of this – much of it, even – is simply that Nick Spencer is very bad at his job. But that only explains why Secret Empire serves as a straw that breaks the camel’s back. Yes, Spencer is too crap to avoid simply falling headlong into the worst pathologies of superhero liberalism, but he didn’t create those pathologies. All he did was surrender to them completely. The fact of the matter is that Secret Empire is bad in ways that are natural extensions of the genre, and, at least inasmuch as superheroes have become one of the bedrock genres of 21st century popular culture thus far, of that broader culture. Yes, the genre largely originates out of the collision of pulp adventure heroes and World War II and was initially heavily focused on punching Nazis, but its ability to illustrate effective resistance to fascism was based fundamentally on the fact that in 1941 resistance to fascism amounted to uniformed American soldiers attacking non-American fascists. Outside of the material context of a literal war against an external fascist threat, the basic fact is that a designated and uniformed bunch of special people whose role is to uphold the status quo through violence are a uniquely flawed framework for talking about fascism.
Typically when we think of occasions when a work of art issues a challenge such that any who follow must either answer or be shown as lacking, we think of visionaries and iconoclasts. But with Secret Empire Nick Spencer joins the exclusive ranks of those who have managed it through sheer incompetence. This is not merely an embarrassingly bad summer crossover that should serve as a vivid wake-up call to Marvel regarding the need to reexamine their approach to publishing. This is a comic so gobsmackingly and bleakly awful that it begs to be the epitaph for the entire genre – the point where we, culturally, accept that the superhero craze we’ve been living in since the turn of the century has run its course if this is what it does when written on all of its default settings. The gauntlet has been thrown down. From here, the onus is on anyone working with superheroes to demonstrate why the genre should even exist.
September 11, 2017 @ 8:22 pm
Given product placement in comics nowadays, with ads featuring the heroes with the products, I half expected Secret Empire to end with the heroes getting Hydra Cap to eat a Snickers bar, which changes him back to the good Captain America, followed by the tagline “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” Unfortunately, it turned out that this would have been a far better ending than what we actually got.
September 12, 2017 @ 3:27 pm
“Given product placement in comics nowadays, with ads featuring the heroes with the products”
Nowadays? Have you never heard of Hostess Fruit Pies?
September 13, 2017 @ 9:03 am
Have you, in fact, got milk?
September 11, 2017 @ 8:34 pm
Excellent post! So the way to fight fascism in the Marvel Universe is to wait for a single worthy strong leader to rise up and do it alone? So fight fascism with fascism that pretends it’s not fascism. Ok.
One small note on Thor’s Hammer. The last issue implies that it was hydra/cosmic cube magic that changed the inscription on Mjolnir so that Evil Cap could lift it. I think the intended message was that fascism wins through deceit, but putting the original lifting of the hammer in the FCBD issue was perverse. It ensured that thousands more people would see and read the original “fascism is worthy” message when only the 60-70K people who bought issue ten months later would see the resolution. There are thousands of kids out there who, because of free comic book day, have only read the issue of this comic where fascism is most worthy.
September 12, 2017 @ 9:13 am
I wonder if perhaps we’re reading too much into the hammer lifting moment. Clearly the initial idea for this crossover was “fascism is evil”. So at the very beginning of the story, before Spencer starts to warp this message into something sinister, the reader should be operating on the basic pop culture assumptions about fascism. Fascism is bad, Captain America is good, and so evil!Cap lifting the hammer is clearly a “world-gone-wrong” moment.
Or at least that’s what I would assume during that scene. The hammer declares A Bad Man worthy of wielding it; there must be some evil magic at work because this situation is just wrong.
September 11, 2017 @ 9:39 pm
Re: the Bombshells and “your silent acquiescence is what empowers abusers and the culture of hate”: This, but unironically.
This is such a good engagement with political media that it annoys me, because I don’t give a shit about anything Marvel is putting out with the exception of Squirrel Girl. Your writing simultaneously interests me in Captain America and makes it clear that these stories mostly aren’t worth reading, and puts forth a damn good case that superheroes in general are reactionary by default and past their time at best. At least when we’re talking about garbage-fire episodes of Doctor Who, I know I’m invested in it either way, for better or worse.
Oh god, are we going to get Doctor Who and the Antifa Menace? Please, Chris Chibnall, I don’t expect a whole lot from you, but in the name of all that’s good, please let Thin Ice be the last word on that front.
September 11, 2017 @ 10:37 pm
I’d never seen that SAM WILSON double-page spread before. It’s amazing that a single page manages to combine both an economic-essentialism and a view of Great Man History together essentially turning the argument into one for the existence of capitalist aristocracies.
It doesn’t understand anything. Does Spenser think that if Rupert Murdoch was arrested tomorrow, half-the-world’s news would cease to exist; that corporations are entirely dependent on the people who run them; that they run the economy, not the systems they manage? And if he does, who does he think will forclose the houses, the bankers who are all in jail? It’s terrible politics from the sort of man who was a George Bush Jr Republican.
September 12, 2017 @ 7:11 pm
I had seen in before – in Marvel Legends, which at this point I’m basically buying for Jane!Thor – and yeesh. Spencer seems to be going for “Hey, the world’s complicated and there are no easy solutions”, only he decides that’s the “mature politics” approach in advance and doesn’t stop to wonder if maybe there are solutions.
July 25, 2020 @ 1:31 pm
what’s Marvel Legends?
April 4, 2022 @ 12:19 pm
Marvel Legends was a UK reprint magazine that had Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. Like all Panini’s UK Marvel reprint mags, it stopped publishing Because of Covid, and like most of them it never came back.
September 12, 2017 @ 8:58 am
Wow. This crossover… I can’t even find the words to describe how gobsmackingly bad (and evil) it sounds. Thankfully you tore it down so thoroughly that there’s nothing more to add. Bravo.
Given the fascist roots of the idea of superheroes it seems to me that the only solutions they can ultimately gravitate towards are war and/or dictatorship. It’s a wonder there aren’t more superhero storylines where the good guys decide that they need to start a war to boost the economy or get rid of all evil or something. Or maybe there are and I’ve just been lucky enough not to encounter them.
Perhaps the best way to put the genre to rest would be a story in which all grand cosmic villains are finally defeated and our heroes, left with no one to fight, finally realize that right now they are the biggest threat to humanity left. And so they lay down their weapons and leave, never to return. Shame it will never happen.
October 27, 2017 @ 7:38 pm
Don’t listen To this Guy. This post a one pile of Bullcrap. Secret Empire was well done event with problems being set durning toxic political climate. And last Panel is Anti Joy. It should NEVER HAPPEN!
September 12, 2017 @ 10:46 am
One more stray thought: this analysis of “Secret Empire” reminded me of “Ice”, an important Polish SF book by Jacek Dukaj. (Massive spoilers follow, although the book is still not available in English, so…). A world where history “froze” around 1908, when the eternal winter started. It’s 1926 and there was no October Revolution, no World War I, no massive social upheavals. Main characters spend the majority of the book struggling to “unfreeze” history. But when it finally happens, it turns out that the world is now a mess of civil wars, broken economies and social unrest. So of course the protagonist decides that the best course of action is to freeze the world again – this time with himself at the top as the ultimate benevolent dictator.
This is pretty much presented as a happy ending.
September 12, 2017 @ 3:59 pm
It’s the straight-forward nihlism of that sort of premise combined with an unrealised belief in the eternity of the status quo that I just can’t understand.
September 13, 2017 @ 8:43 am
Well, this book feels more like a power fantasy of someone who is painfully aware that progress cannot be stopped in real life. “If only I had the power to stop any and all change… Look how great life would be!”. And even then there’s the undercurrent of horror in that story. The main character knows he could easily become a monster. It’s a shame he ultimately decides “nah, I’ll be fine”.
The same guy wrote another book where the perfect symmetry of the cosmos gets broken, which in turn causes the invasion of curious otherworldly beings of pure chaos. It’s not that difficult to spot a theme, eh?
(Fortunately he seems to have gotten over it in later works).
September 12, 2017 @ 1:03 pm
I assume the point of these big events is to get people reading some of the tie-in comics in order to get the whole plot.
Thing is, personally I see these big events start and think “I can’t be bothered to buy issues of half a dozen different comics, most of which I won’t really enjoy, just to follow a plot”. Especially when I know that at the end of the ‘event’ everything will be back to normal pretty much (there might be a couple of differences, but there’ll probably be footnotes to explain them in future issues).
The whole idea behind these ‘events’ seems to be based on an old idea of who comics fans are, and ignoring a lot of people who might otherwise buy the odd book.
And Captain America being a Nazi? Who cares when you know it’ll all be swept under the rug? Anything that happens will be ignored by the larger continuity.
September 12, 2017 @ 4:03 pm
Cynical advertising drives these events, especially when the event has to be understandable as a chain-of-events in the main book so it can be sold as a trade paperback later, which really means all they are trying to do is interrupt the stories of the other comics to sell another one.
It’s funny really, just how blatantly commercial the comic book and video game industries are. It’s almost like geek culture has never actually been able to see as a whole the exploitation of labour because of the toys. Considering what’s going down with PewDIePie at the moment, I’m convinced that’s the case.
September 14, 2017 @ 9:49 pm
the comic industry would much rather press the hard core ~40k of fans they have for a sales boost once every few months than ever dream of mass appeal again.
September 12, 2017 @ 6:17 pm
Since I’d only been reading USAvengers, it’s hilarious how the SE tie-in in USAvengers takes the exact opposite tack. It’s a nice touch that even the characters who believe in a non-lethal approach to superheroing, like Excalibur (Faiza Hussein), Squirrel Girl and Outlaw have no compunction about fighting Hydra by smashing up equipment or robots, or using non-violent crowd control weapons. It’s not an ideologically thoughtful story, but it seems to understand better what readers want in this day and age.
September 12, 2017 @ 7:18 pm
That doesn’t surprise me – whatever Avenger title it was Abnett was writing during AXIS came very close to getting that concept to work, which I wouldn’t have thought possible.
September 13, 2017 @ 5:56 am
I followed it second-hand, and your reminder that this was conceived in a pre-November 2016 world sheds a pretty starkly revealing light on the finale: Cap’s reemergence, which was crucially an inevitability due to what the villains were doing – in fact, the heroes’ resistance was not only irrelevant, but actively hampering this conclusion, and had the Nazi Cap been killed presumably the real version never would have been restored – represents a revelation of America naturally beating back the emergence of fascism in its midst and restoring the status quo, through the time-honored cyclical process of a superhero emerging to beat the shit out of it.
In other words: stop complaining so much about Trump, rocking the boat is just making it worse, just wait for Clinton to be elected because that’s what’s obviously going to happen, and the Real America will therefore essentially reassert itself as everything automatically goes back to what it must be. It’s an active, if likely semi-unwitting argument for disengagement with the political process outside of voting in presidential elections, and in that regard it’s obviously from word one a failure even on its own dubious terms as a metaphor for having lived through 2016, nevermind what it’s actually become outside its original intended context.
September 13, 2017 @ 6:47 pm
Hi Phil, hope all is well with you. Can’t find an email for you on your site, but curious to ask when I can pick up more Tardis Eruditorum on Kobo. Sly McCoy is next, no? Regards, Alex
September 13, 2017 @ 6:54 pm
Early next year.
October 9, 2017 @ 2:25 am
I guess a curt reply is at least a reply.
September 14, 2017 @ 5:00 am
Spencer clearly likes writing villains (like Poor Man’s Antman Black Ant and Poor Man”s Death’s Head Taskmaster) more than heroes.
The biggest problem is that Spencer does not understand allegory. In fact, none of Marvel’s current dim-witted roster of awful writers do.
The current Attack on Titan manga arc has a Nazi allegory, but Isayama uses aspects and parallels, because good writers make the reader figure out the allegory. Same with JMS’s Vorlon and Shadows in Babylon 5; you’re required to figure it out. The allegory should never be in your face, as Spencer does.
Let’s not solely focus on Spencer’s stupidity.
We can thank Jason Aaron for the Mjolnir nonsense; he had diluted the meaning of it long before this with the “Gor was Right bollocks”.
Aaron’s neutering of mystic Marvel is continued by Spencer, who turns Chthon into Cuckthon, aa the most dangerous of the Elder Gods, possesses Wanda (again), and then proceeds to do…absolutely nothing.
Even when Odinson is in his presence he does not even roast the Asgardian even once, not even a sly “nephew”. We get a nasty rape joke from Woke Waid, though.
Eliza is supposedly Chthon’s Waifu, yet she dies in an explosion , despite supposedly being an Elder God herself. She also seems more interested in HydraCap than poor Cuckthon.
Chthon’s motives remain a mystery still, after the event. At least, unlike Wanda, he got some dialogue, and even a little bit of agency.
Elsewhere, Miles beats HydraCap with stupid ease, and everyone goes round in circles for months.
It’s clear that Spencer, before higher ups intervened, wanted to use this event to make Sam the default Cap. Elevating a character by denigrating another is cheap, lazy, and spiteful writing, but it’s become the norm ever since Bendis made it acceptable with hus misogynistic spectacular, Avengers: Disassembled.
But above all, let’s thank Ike Perlmutter, the man who made this possible by sacking a ton of editorial staff in 2011.
September 15, 2017 @ 4:56 pm
Thanks for this great post.
I had been considering writing something similar for my blog, entitled something like “SECRET EMPIRE FAILED IN EVERY WAY BUT ONE (Nazi Cap Makes Total Sense),” but having read this, it feels like you basically did that already.
I wrote a couple of things about the Captain America: Sam Wilson series that looked at with a bit of a generous eye, but as the series went on, it got more difficult to retain any generosity, and I even have a forthcoming chapter in an anthology called “False Masks: Whiteness and the American Superhero” that calls the Sam Wilson book an inadvertent exercise in Afro-Pessimism.
Anyway, you can read the two posts at the links below
The Captain White America Needs
The Captain Black America Needs
September 15, 2017 @ 5:32 pm
I don’t find fault with your assessment of Spencer’s Cap work but I do find “superheroes are violent fascists upholding the status quo and preventing change” to be completely unnuanced and as boring as “why doesn’t Batman use his fortune to help the community instead of beating up poor people.” It smacks of contempt.
September 15, 2017 @ 5:40 pm
Well, three things.
1) I don’t actually say that. I say that the idea inherently flirts with fascism, and I stand by that, but “superheroes are violent fascists” is a simplification.
2) I do have contempt for the genre at this point.
3) While I see the flaws in that commentary on Batman, it’s sound to point out that there are some pretty messed up assumptions about the nature and causes of crime embedded in Batman as a concept.
September 18, 2017 @ 8:59 pm
“I do have contempt for the genre at this point.”
When you get down to it: I want to like Ms Marvel, I want to like Harley Quinn, I want to like Squirrel Girl. And on a good day… I do.
But… How long is until Marvel/DC does something to cock it up? How long until their writers/artists have to take a break from making good stories and start polishing the proverbial turd for their tie-ins for next years version of Secret Empire? And will Marvel/DC ever actually appreciate the hardwork done to keep them alive, or just see something that they can defang and flatten into being a film that the original creators won’t get a penny for?
As it stands, as good as those stories can be, they exist within the context of a genre dominated by two companies that deserve to burn, both on the strictly gnon level of “if you cock up big enough then no amount of genius or whatever will save you from the grave you’ve dug for yourself” and on the moral level of “how can you treat the people who you owe everything to so badly”
I’m reluctant to admit it, super heroes having been a part of my life since I was 5 and flicking through my Mum’s old X-Men comics, but yes, I think I have contempt for the genre at this point. I wish I didn’t, but I can’t see how anyone wouldn’t.
September 17, 2017 @ 1:44 am
I have long been dissatisfied with the concept of Superheroes because of the flaw inherent in their concept: they have all this power and they don’t do anything with it but uphold the status quo. Even Reed Richards, who invents wondrous things that would change the face of the earth, barely lets any of his technology out into the world. Superman’s Metropolis, which appears to be a genuine city of tomorrow that benefits from the work of S.T.A.R. labs, does not let any of its technology do anything to improve the crime-ridden shadowy hell of Gotham.
There was a storyline after “No Man’s Land” where Gotham was GOING to be rebuilt as a modern metropolis, but it turned out that Lex Luthor was involved with the lands as part of some scheme, so the whole thing had to be nixed and Gotham became what it had been. No Man’s Land had exposed the flaws inherent in Gotham’s system, someone was promising to remake the whole place, and the writers set the whole thing up to make sure that Batman said no. What a waste of time.
The world of superheroes is way too creatively sterile. The only two settings I have seen that imply technology is moving forward are Astro City and “All Star Superman”. As for the rest? The superheroes Save The World but they don’t change the world and they don’t even let the technology of vast alien empires change the world.
As for why the genre gets written this way, I think the plot of The Incredibles reveals the terrible secret when Syndrome says “When everyone is super no one will be.” The audience is supposed to think that’s bad. The story is set up to think that it’s bad. Hell, I thought it was bad. I thought it was a terrible, evil, dastardly thing for Syndrome to take away the Specialness of the superheroes. Almost as bad as unleashing an uncontrollable machine upon a crowded city. A metal monster does violence to a city, but Syndrome’s true purpose did violence to the heart of the genre itself. Syndrome’s purpose was…to introduce the possibility of merit and equality into an inherently unequal genre.
Superheroes have to be Super, not just heroes. They have to be so far above the power of the common people that the only way to reach that level is to be touched by the hand of a higher power, be it in the form of cosmic rays, lucky genes, or a lightning bolt. If they are just heroes, well, Anyone can be THAT. A real superhero has to have something fantastic no mere mortal could ever hope to have. If he has no powers of his own, like Nick Fury or Tony Stark, well then, give him some absolutely fantastic bit of technology, like a flying aircraft carrier or a suit of flying armor. Even the heroes closest to the common man, like Peter Parker or the Runaways, have something Special that they did not earn, but were given by lady luck.
In the case of Captain America, he was given superstrong muscles and an unbreakable shield, and both of these things are impossible to replicate. There will never be another supersoldier; there will never be another vibranium shield. Captain America is the only one of his kind, along with his shield. The impossible-to-replicate power-granting miracle is the overwhelming majority of origin stories.
Fascism, at the very least, pretends to give dignity to the common man while duping him into joining its armies. Facism is a movement that depends on a vicious and desperate popular will. Superheroes, what the hell do they need with the common people? Only to save their lives, never to change things in a way that would reduce the need to do so in the first place.
Now, it’s possible to create a world in which superheroes HAVE changed things for the better all around, and humanity is living a golden age. But you still have to preserve the Super concept to have a superhero story. You could go the Astro City route, and put ordinary people living ordinary lives amidst wondrous technology that they KNOW about but don’t make much use of. Or you could write a story where the civilization is highly advanced and the ordinary people are at a power level above our own, but then to preserve the Super concept you’d have to make your hero even MORE special than them. It can be done, but it’s difficult, and most superhero writers have preferred to keep their heroes closer to earth. It’s become a feature of the genre, by now, that Superhero stories are centered around Earth, around America, around New York, around the places the writers know.
Reed Richards hasn’t managed to get humanity to Alpha Centauri yet because his genre is earth-centric and his writers are chicken.
Now, you can call the superhero concept fascistic, and it’s true the whole thing developed out of exploring the Ubermensch concept in the same era where the Nazis were turning the Ubermensch into a violent figure, and Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster’s first Superman was explicitly an evil, fascist figure. But as for the execution over eighty years, it’s eight decades in which the Super Heroes have done jack shit to even live up to their fascist concept, because Fascists, at the very least, are for some kind of change, and these jerks don’t even let THAT happen.
The whole “super” concept by now feels aristocratic. With a fascist society the common man can pretend he has an important part in it. In aristocracy? Forget it, peon, you’re a peasant and I will always have more power than you. Don’t try to change anything except by my say-so.
(The “Villain” is the one who tries to change things without the say-so of the superhero. In French it just means “peasant”. Funny how that works.)
In short, calling Superheroes fascist implies an instinct for change and an ability to pretend that their leadership is an expression of the popular will. Superheroes are almost never written with these traits.
September 18, 2017 @ 10:06 am
An interesting and well-explained point of view. Thank you.
I wonder if the main extradiegetic reason why superheroes uphold the status quo is the fact that in the real world, people who can do much more than others (the rich, the connected, the influential) are usually only interested in protecting their own power. Telling stories about worlds where these ‘super’ people decided to help others, as superheroes do, already feels utopian. To have them actually change the world for the better would be pure wish fulfillment.
September 19, 2017 @ 4:27 pm
I think it has more to do with the limitations of the format. Superhero comics, for most of their history, have existed without continuity because they were distributed via news stand. There’s no way to guarantee a repeat audience for an ongoing story with that sort of distribution channel, so a story has to begin and end within 12 pages. Without continuity there’s no easy way to move the story setting forward.
Even when you make it possible by establishing continuity, you run into the question of what happens when you DO move things forward. Is there a goal? Is there a conclusion? Do you WANT a conclusion? Games Workshop has avoided moving Warhammer 40K out of its current stasis for this precise reason. They don’t want a conclusion to a genre that is meant for an endless set of stories; likely as not, DC and Marvel don’t want a conclusion either. Their foundations are a group of characters who aren’t supposed to end.
It’s the same as with any other genre that relies on serial storytelling — if you want to keep The Adventures of Spaceman Spliff going eternally then the setting itself has to be eternal.
September 20, 2017 @ 8:24 am
You’re probably right. The deadly power of conclusions is also what kills many TV shows, especially those heavily based on character interactions.
September 18, 2017 @ 1:34 pm
Um…Siegal and Schuster’s Superman is pretty left leaning in his first few issues. He grabs a war profiteer and shows him the effects of his weapons sales in his first story, imprisons a bunch of socialite dilettantes down a coal mine in the third story so they can experience the working conditions of the downtrodden miners, saves wrongly convicted felons and the like. Sure, once the newspaper strip starts and we get the world of Krypton it gets a bit more white male Utopian, but to claim that Siegel and Schuster were fascist ? The clues are in their names, Eve.
September 18, 2017 @ 1:53 pm
Eve is referring to “The Reign of the Superman,” an illustrated short story Siegel and Shuster did for a fanzine in 1933.
September 19, 2017 @ 4:42 pm
He loomed over Metropolis! He snarled at the innocent citizens below! That was the last we saw of him because Siegel tossed everything but the cover into a fire. What a pity, but the character wasn’t Clark Kent anyway. He looked like the Ultra-Humanite and he sounded like Ayn Rand.
September 20, 2017 @ 11:36 am
I could be remembering wrong, but I’m pretty sure special collections at the University of Florida holds the complete story.
October 27, 2017 @ 8:13 pm
Oh My GOD this Article is stupid. First of all. If bought up somebody twitter, you’re losing me automatically. I don’t care about people political leanings until they are harmful or racist. Twitter is a garbage anyway. I care about things like Frank Miller openly saying racist things durning Comic Con. You’re literally person who this book tries to satirize. Cool Armor? Oh Yeah. I would totally go with goverment that have Ernim Zola, or Gorgon in it’s ranks. And No Nick Spencer is not a Bad Writer. Bad Writers don’t write masterpieces like Superior Foes of Spider Man or his run on Ant Man. You are so narcissistic that you don’t get a Theme of a Story. ,,Those who play with the devil’s toys will be brought by degrees to wield his sword.” Stevil is presented as normal Steve Rogers. And that’s the point! What if a person that is a paragon of good was given too much power, or revealed that he is not really as people think. Landscape after Civil War II was really anti-heroes, they just keep fighting each other instead of a Villains. Here comes Steve Rogers and promises to fix everything. And people buy this. That is another theme. ,,Question Everything”. In SE Omega, Stevil says that people will eventually go back to people wanting to get him back. Steve says that he wanted save a Childr Child was scared of him. And Steve says that is very good news. He was always anti centralized authority. He started first Civl War because of this reasons. And hopes that maybe, just maybe people will finally learn a lesson.
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