Nick Spencer’s Captain America run has seemingly been designed from the start to court controversy, though the Captain America brand has never shied away from that, with then-President Nixon being a major player in the original Secret Empire story by Englehart. He (along with Rick Remender) began by passing the mantle on to Sam Wilson which and began drawing inspiration from hot-button political issues. It’s often clunky and Spencer makes little to no attempt to keep his own political leanings out of a story that runs the gamut covering policing, immigration, racial tensions, government corruption, the surveillance state, and corporate malfeasance. Regardless of how you may personally feel about any of the issues addressed, it’s certainly not boring and frankly pretty fitting for a story involving a black man inheriting the mantle of Captain America in present day America.
As if that wasn’t enough for Spencer, he then gave us the reveal heard round the world as a newly-young-again Steve Rogers revealed that (thanks to the Red Skull’s use of the Cosmic Cube to alter reality) he was and always has been an agent of HYDRA which angered a whole lot of people (some enough to send Spencer and other Marvel folks death threats). Months of internet arguments ensued over whether HYDRA were really Nazis (answer: yes? no? maybe? kind of?) and what Captain America ‘being a Nazi’ means in reagrds to his Jewish creators and to what the character represents in American pop culture. Spencer has chosen to argue that HYDRA, like so many other aspects of comics, has outgrown and moved past its roots as an offshoot of the third Reich. On some level, I agree with him. My initial memories of HYDRA as a child are of world domination-focused green-suited minions with no real philosophy other than a desire to provide cannon fodder for the Avengers. Though their introduction in the MCU made their Nazi origins pretty apparent, they also quickly separated themselves from the Reich in the first Cap movie. No matter the specific interpretation you go by, any attempt to connect the modern incarnation of HYDRA to the racist and intolerant ideals of the Nazis is tenuous at best.
So after almost a year of setup Secret Empire, the culmination of Spencer’s run, is nearly upon us and with the slew of new information and solicits for the series came a fresh wave of outrage when a line of ‘HYDRA-ized’ variants featuring an array of heroes and villains in HYDRA costumes included Magneto, a Jewish holocaust survivor. So obviously this is some, as the kids say, ‘problematic’ imagery. Still, there’s a few things to consider- first off, let’s take variant covers with a grain of salt. Variants, especially themed-runs are not conceived by the creative team behind the book, but by an editorial wing of the publisher and tend to have little-to-nothing to do with the actual contents of the book. Additionally according to Spencer and Mark Waid, big-two creators often don’t even see most variants until they’re asked to sign one at a con. So was doing the Hydra-Magneto cover a bad choice? Yeah, probably. But does it have anything to do with the story? Probably not. Is it worth sending people death threats on the internet and calling them antisemitic? Nope, not even a little.
So here’s the thing- if you’re upset that Captain America is secretly an agent of HYDRA thanks to reality being altered by the Red Skull with the cosmic cube…good. You are supposed to be. It is supposed to be scary and troubling and all of those other bad feelings. That’s the point of the story, but it is still just a story. A story where (once again, for emphasis) a villain with a bright red skull for a head uses a glowing cube to alter the reality of superhero to make him join the bad guys. You can’t conflate the very real issues of white supremacy, fascist regimes, and institutional racism with how those things are dealt with (or not dealt with) in comic books because the genre elements change everything. Arguments about the fact that Cap ‘would never’ join HYDRA don’t matter in the least because the story takes place in a universe where REALITY CAN BE ALTERED BY A GLOWING BOX. The one upside though, is that at the end of this story we know that goodness will triumph. It’s a superhero comic. I mean, that’s why we read these things right?