It looks like we have an official first meme of 2017, folks: certifiable neo-Nazi and generally awful person Richard Spencer getting punched in the face, particularly set to the tune of various songs. (I'm still waiting for the “move, bitch, get out the way” remix.) But with that meme, as with other memes, has come what's known on Tumblr as a Discourse: is it moral to punch neo-Nazis in the face?
To me, the answer seemed obvious. “Of course it's okay to punch neo-Nazis,” I thought when the Discourse first tumbled across my Facebook newsfeed. “For God’s sake, they advocate for genocide.” Besides, Captain America, that ineffable symbol of American idealism, was literally born punching Nazis. How, therefore, is punching Nazis not universally conceived of as the ultimate patriotic act? How did we get to this point?
How, indeed. It’s a question worth asking, precisely because there’s such a debate fomenting around it. To answer it (or at least try), I’m going to look at Marvel Comics’ history alongside cultural memory -- the stories we tell ourselves, in multiple senses of the phrase.
Marianna Torgovnick, in her 2005 book, The War Complex: World War II in Our Time, puts forth the idea of the titular “war complex” in relation to American cultural memory surrounding both World War II and 9/11. Two complementary ideas are crucial to understanding the war complex as it applies to the United States, both in the past and today -- the valorization of Americans and their national identity, and the othering of the enemy.
There’s no shortage of subversion of the first idea in Marvel’s comics and movies --especially where Captain America himself is concerned. However, the identity of the othered enemy has changed over time, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, and I’d argue that this shift has allowed a mass forgetting, a reordering of our national narrative that shoves Nazis aside in favor of largely stereotypical, one-dimensional representations of the people of the Middle East. Nazism has thus been neutered, in a way -- which makes it all the more dangerous.
That’s a long thesis, I know. Let’s begin with the first part:
Captain America, World War II, and American Idealism
Torgovnick states in the introduction to The War Complex that the events of World War II and its aftermath “place Americans in virtuous, heroic roles.” On the surface, at least, no hero seems to better embody that idea than Captain America, AKA Steve Rogers. Just look at the guy--he’s literally wearing the stars and stripes.
But punching Nazis wasn’t always the American legacy. The German-American Bund, a pro-Nazi political party, was at the death rattle stage by the time Steve made his debut in March 1941, but for much of the 1930s it was a not-insignificant political group, with membership numbering approximately 25,000. The Bund even showed up at Madison Square Garden, about 22,000 strong, for a rally in February 1939. That same year, a ship full of Jewish refugees was turned away in Florida. So at the time, a character who sucker-punched Hitler while effectively draping himself in an American flag was quite radical and subversive, to the point where his creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, got death threats and had to have police protection.
In the decades following World War II, Captain America had a bit of a rocky relationship with his country, to say the least. The 1950s brought McCarthyism, and in its wake came “Captain America: Commie Smasher!”; when McCarthyism fell out of favor, the storyline got retconned, and that version of Cap was “revealed” to be an impersonator.
In the 1970s, Cap got caught up in the Vietnam debate, and his storylines’ critique of America only intensified in the 1980s. Two issues from that decade depict Cap fighting an anti-nationalist villain with the incredibly-on-the-nose name Flag-Smasher. Despite the fact that, again, he literally wears America’s stars and stripes, Cap only condemns Flag-Smasher’s use of violence to achieve his goals--not his doctrine. It may seem odd that Cap gets away with so explicitly critiquing his namesake, but here’s the thing: with a few glaring exceptions, Captain America has always been a symbol of American idealism, not American reality. His disapproval of America, when he expresses it, comes down to I know you can do better than this, so do better.
With all this in mind, Cap’s first foray into the MCU, Captain America: The First Avenger, reads simultaneously as rose-tinted history and as a sly critique of national narratives. The movie, which takes place in 1942, completely glosses over the Bund and America’s rejection of Jewish refugees. The squadron of elite fighters Steve assembles, the Howling Commandos, includes SSR agent Peggy Carter, Howard-educated Black man Gabe Jones, and Japanese-American soldier Jim Morita. Torgovnick points out that even as the US fought an enemy who’d locked up an ethnoreligious group solely by virtue of their religion (which, to be frank, the Third Reich perceived as an ethnicity), they herded Japanese-Americans into internment camps based solely on their ethnicity. The movie avoids the subject of internment as well, except for one moment in which a white Howling Commando questions whether Jim Morita belongs in the group, to which Jim replies, “I’m from Fresno.” The movie subverts the American-hero narrative in one respect, though--its canny depiction of Captain America (not Steve, because there’s a difference) as a tool for national(ist) propaganda. Soon after his transformation from a sickly weakling into Chris Evans, Steve is sent out on tour. He becomes the face of war bond advertisements, complete with a gaggle of star-spangled showgirls and a guy dressed up as Hitler to fake-punch, a reference to that iconic cover. He is quite literally performing the exact sort of narrative Torgovnick talks about, that of the virtuous American hero--and while he plays to sold-out crowds domestically, once he goes transatlantic and performs for a group of soldiers, presumably to raise morale, they’re having none of it. They heckle him and throw things on stage and yell that they want the showgirls back. Steve only really puts his money where his costume is when he ditches the act, in both a figurative and literal sense--he sneaks out of camp to rescue an American regiment that had been captured by HYDRA.
(As a reminder, HYDRA is literally an über-Nazi organization, as in too Nazi for actual Nazis. Let that sink in. It’ll be important later.)
Marvel’s Americans and “Others” Post-9/11
Coincidentally (or perhaps not, I don’t know for sure), a new run of Captain America comics debuted just a few months after 9/11. The first issue of this series dealt explicitly with 9/11 and how Marvel’s array of heroes processed it, but issues #2-6 in the series depicted another, fictional terrorist attack. Though the town under attack was meant to be a middle-America Everytown, the storyline actually complicates the freedom/terrorism dichotomy; in a monologue delivered to some hostages, the terrorists’ leader states that his group is attacking these people, this town, because some of the townspeople work in a factory that manufactures bombs. It’s an indictment of American warmongering, and it still resonates even though Cap defeats the terrorists in the end. But while this particular storyline was surprisingly counterhegemonic, considering its timing, other Marvel productions weren’t quite so nuanced or subtle. More often, Marvel’s post-9/11 narratives focused on the ways in which America as a whole dealt emotionally with the events of 9/11.
Overall, fear and distrust among American citizens was a common theme in many well-known comics storylines of the ‘00s, dovetailing quite well with Torgovnick’s assertion that “apprehension for the future, most pointedly for our personal futures, seems or has come to seem a natural reaction to catastrophic events.” “Secret Avengers” pitted the title group against the shapeshifting Skrulls, who could disguise themselves as anybody, and created a situation wherein nobody could be completely trusted. “Civil War” is perhaps the best known of the ‘00s storylines even before the loose movie adaptation. In this event, the entire Marvel comics world splits over the issue of whether to force superheroes to register as agents of the US government and act only with their permission. This is a perfect example of the illusory trade-off Torgovnick describes at one point in The War Complex--decreased freedom for increased security. The official Marvel PR line was that the storyline was just about “the tension between national security and civil rights,” but many interpreted it as a rousing criticism of the Patriot Act, especially because our favorite walking symbol of American idealism was against superhero registration and the limits on freedom it would have imposed.
(Again, let that sink in. Captain America was opposed to superhero registration during “Civil War,” on the grounds that registration would limit people’s freedom and go against American ideals. We’ll get back to Cap later.)
So that’s pretty much how Marvel was dealing with Torgovnick’s idea of American virtue after 9/11--but what about the other side of the equation? What about the othered enemy? Well, in news that should surprise absolutely no one, given the rise in Islamophobic hate crimes (and, needless to say, the Annoying Orange’s whole Muslim ban thing), the othered enemy in post-9/11 Marvel works, as with a lot of post-9/11 media, is in at least one prominent case the Middle East/Arab peoples/Muslims or whatever godawfully inaccurate, Orientalist conflation thereof that white people have dreamed up this time.
(PSA, just because: Not all Middle Eastern people are Muslims! Not all Muslims are of Middle Eastern descent! That Venn diagram is not a circle! Also, “Arab” and “Muslim” don’t mean the same thing! Okay, I’m done.)
Though in recent years G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel series has garnered plenty of praise for its depiction of a nuanced Muslimah heroine, the first Iron Man movie is still probably one of Marvel’s two most prominent attempts to depict Middle Eastern characters--and it’s much worse than Ms. Marvel in that regard. The terrorists in that movie, a group known as the Ten Rings, are painfully one-dimensional, and the movie doesn’t even make them the main antagonists. Not only are the members of the Ten Rings not fully sketched-out characters (and, therefore, horribly easy to view as not fully human), but they don’t ever really get to act on their own terms. Obadiah Stane, by doing weapons deals under the table with them, becomes perhaps not the chief but a major architect of their actions, and the Ten Rings (and the Gulmiran refugees they brutalize, to boot) become a discarded side plot, a narrative stepping stone under Tony Stark’s iron boot. (I still can’t decide whether it would have made things better or worse to actually have the Ten Rings be the primary villains of the movie.)
So where does all that leave Marvel, and the rest of us, today?
Race, Shame, and the Act of Looking Away
There’s another comics cover from Captain America’s early days that isn’t nearly as well known as the Nazi-punching one. It’s the cover for issue #13, from April 1, 1942. This time, instead of punching Hitler, Captain America is punching a really, really racist caricature of a Japanese soldier. (You can look at it here, but don’t say I didn’t warn you--it’s awful. Downright viper-like.)
It makes sense that this cover would have appeared when it did. America was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, as evidenced especially by the little “REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR” blazon in the bottom left corner. But in another sense, since Western civilization in general already has such a long history of dehumanizing people who aren’t white (or who aren’t perceived as white)... well.
The thing about Cap’s Nazi-punching cover, the reason it was so controversial then and is so resonant in 2017, is that casting Nazis as the othered enemy is fundamentally different from doing the same to, say, Japanese people or Middle Eastern people. It’s not just because of race, either, although that’s a giant part of it. Showing Cap punching a Japanese caricature validated the atrocities America was just beginning to commit against Japanese-Americans (i.e. internment). But when Cap punched Hitler, he forced Americans to face up to their country’s Nazi-related ambivalence. Torgovnick refers repeatedly to the act of “looking away” from aspects of our own cultural history we don’t want to remember; she uses the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the horrors those events inflicted on the Japanese people, as an example. Back in March 1941, it was still popular to look away from Nazi ideologies, or even embrace them, as the story of the German-American Bund shows. But then star-spangled Steven Grant Rogers socked Hitler, and in the process he told people that Hitler and everything he stood for was unequivocally wrong. He condemned America’s seeming indifference to fascism. He made America, for one cultural moment, face its own shame.
But of course, shame is uncomfortable. It’s much easier to keep demonizing the Other, the foreign, the not-white, instead of facing up to our own dreadful history, our complicity in or perpetration of horrific injustices. It’s much easier to look away.
It would be unfair to say that Marvel’s failure to completely dismantle the America/other binary directly caused the present day’s political circumstances--Islamophobia and corresponding hate crimes, the rise of far-right politics around the world, or Donald Trump and the neo-Nazis who follow him in droves, like the world’s ugliest ducklings imprinting on their equally ugly mother. Marvel and its many properties are just one part of a whole media/cultural ecosystem. But it absolutely cannot be denied that for decades, (white) (Gentile) America has looked away from our own “unsettling histories,” as Torgovnick puts it, and that in turn has defanged Nazism. No wonder Nick Spencer, the writer for the new Captain America comics, retconned Steve’s backstory and made him a secret agent of HYDRA, all in the name of a “plot twist.” (I told you HYDRA would be important later.) No wonder the neo-Nazis have sneaked up on us—we’ve been looking away for decades.
So don’t look away any more. Face history, face reality. Look these modern evils in the eye--and then punch them in the face. It's what Cap would do.