Actual Nazi Steve Rogers: How to Save the American Superhero

With this morning’s news about BREXIT, and the ever forward march of racist nationalism, I decided it was time to talk about Captain America. Steve Rogers, the man most people know as Captain America, is a HYDRA Agent/Nazi. This is now part of the official marvel canon. As you can imagine, this has made a lot of people angry, and has widely been regarded as a bad move.

There’s more to this story than you might have realized, though. Sure, it’s about the control of modern mythology, the massive amount of power wielded by copyright holders, or the unforgivable racism exhibited by a lot of Marvel fans. But there’s more to it than that.

Come explore with me.

Seriously?

First, some background: Steve Rogers is a comic book character created by Timely/Marvel in the 40s. He has traditionally fought evil as Captain America. Sometimes that evil is just nazis. Other times, it comes in the form of HYDRA, a group composed of former Nazi leaders. He was written by two Jewish men, partially to whip up support for the US entering WWII. He’s supposed to represent everything that is Delicious about America.

Recently, Steve Rogers was unable to act as Captain America. This prompted Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon, to take up the mantle. Sam Wilson is black. This caused many, many racists to absolutely lose their collective shit. Sam Willson is still starring in his own series of Captain America stories, and he represents a continuation of the spirit of the Original character.

Look at that Majestic slice of humanity.

In response to the giant, racist backlash against the decision to make Captain America a young black man instead of an unfrozen 80 year old, Marvel and the current Author of Captain America got together and decided to bring Steve Rogers back. They brought him back as a secret HYDRA agent. Captain America: Secret Nazi. Essentially, the hero that these racists deserved. It’s almost a delicious commentary on the kind of people who would get upset that Captain America’s shield was being carried by a black man. Almost, but not quite.

So now Steve Rogers works for an organization founded by this guy.

See, Captain America is a modern American folk hero. He exists in the kind of cultural commons that were once occupied by the likes of Paul Bunyan, Robin Hood, or even the greek Pantheon. Traditionally, these heroes would exist in multiple, competing, mutually exclusive stories. Each told by a new party. All of them coming together to form something akin to a Canon. Heck, even The Bible followed this model, until the Council of Nicea convened to decide what was “officially” the bible, and what wasn’t.

Imagine someone made Robin Hood steal from the poor to make a political point. Now imagine that someone had the legal authority to claim that was the One True Robin Hood.

Well, Marvel’s copyright on the Captain America character turns them in to the modern equivalent of the Council of Nicea, and they’ve just decided that Steve Rogers is officially a Nazi. If this had been a non-canon mini-series (like the Delicious Superman Red Son), no one would bat an eye. If this had been a non-canonical installment, one of many competing depictions of Steve Rogers, I’d applaud it. But that’s not the case. As is, everything Captain America has ever represented is tied up in the idea that he is also an agent of Hydra.

Officially, now, Steve Rogers is a Nazi. No one but Marvel can do anything about it.

And, let’s face it, it’s a comic book. Nothing is permanent, but this will always be a part of the character’s history moving forward.

Let’s sum up:

  • Steve Rogers, that character created specifically to fight against Nazis, is now a Nazi.
  • Marvel’s copyright and trademark on the character mean that no competing, non-nazi version of the character can exist.
  • Marvel made Steve a Nazi to prove a valuable point, but did it in such a way that it hurts as much as it helps.

There’s a fun little twist in all of this, though. Captain America is a rip off of an earlier character that has since fallen in to the Public Domain.

The original character was called The Shield. He wore a Red, White, and Blue jumpsuit, and carried an unbreakable shield. His first appearance predated Cap’s by 14 months, and Captain America was so similar to The Shield that Timely/Marvel was legally forced to do a redesign.

I can’t make this stuff up. Just look:

The Shield January 1940.

Captain America March 1941.

Honestly, though, that’s just the top of the Public Domain Patriotic Super Hero Iceberg. We also have:

Even Captain America has an appearance that has fallen in to the Public Domain. This time, he was a gun wielding District Attorney/Vigilante named Grant Gardner, working to bring down crime at home, in a Republic film serial.

Grant Gardner is Captain America (or something?)

So, while we can’t do anything about Actual Nazi Steve Rogers, there’s a lot we can do about the fact that many (most?) of America’s modern folk heroes are controlled by ageless corporate behemoths. Since so many of these characters have their basis in, or share striking similarities with, Public Domain heroes, there’s nothing stopping us from re-inventing the modern American Folk hero from our own cultural commons.

Wouldn’t it be delicious to have a way to use a folk hero to comment on a specific moment in time, without forever marring the reputation of that hero as a Nazi? Wouldn’t you love to see a comic where The Shield has to fight Grant Gardner’s Captain America, after he veers from patriotism to bigotry?

Our Public Domain is not nearly as rich as it should be, or as it could be, but it does present a deep well of collectively owned content from which we can draw to tell new and different stories.

It’s up to each and every one of us to protect our cultural icons and folk heroes, and ensure that they represent our diverse community, and not just the interests of corporate monoliths. Many of you are already writing fanfiction to make your favorite franchises more representative of your own views and morals, and that’s awesome. You can expand on that by working with characters that are in the Public Domain, freeing yourself from the dubious legality (or outright illegality) of working with copyrighted characters.

We can create things, together, while righting the wrongs of corporate missteps.


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Written on June 24, 2016