Do I have to give a spoiler alert for something that was broadcast across headlines yesterday? Well, in case you were sleeping, Marvel made a big change to Captain America yesterday, and in case you don’t know I’m giving you until the end of this sentence to get out.
All right. So the latest issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 retcons events so that Steve Rogers has been a Hydra agent all along. That’s right: Captain America is, and has always been, Hydra’s greatest asset.
I told my wife Gini about that and she said, flatly, “No.” And left the room.
Which was pretty much the Internet’s reaction. Never before have I seen so much hatred heaped on a comic book’s decision. But the #1 response to the hatred from turning, you know, one of Marvel’s greatest sources of moral certainty into a secret supervillain was this:
“Hey, we don’t know where this is going, wait for the whole story to come out before criticizing.”
Except there’s two reasons why that reasoning of “Why you should wait” is blatantly wrong.
First off, we probably do know where it’s going. Long-time comics fans have seen a lot of stunning changes to major characters – The Spidey we love is a clone! Superman’s two zappy twins! Batman’s been crippled, and Azrael’s taken over! Charles Xavier’s turned evil, Magneto’s turned good! – and we know ultimately there’s one of three options here:
Option #1: This becomes the new status quo, now and forever, which means we’re absolutely right to hate it as much as our initial gut reaction tells us to, or:
Option #2: As is more likely, this will be the new status quo for about three to five years, as long as editorial stubbornness holds out against the fans’ desires, and eventually we’ll see an awkward year-long storyline where this is all undone and this becomes That Awkward Storyline That Most People Would Like To Forget About Except That Hipster Writers Keep Reverting To This When They’re Out Of Ideas.
Option #3: As is even more likely, the plan is that this is all a dream! Cap has had hidden memories implanted by Hydra! It’s an alternate-universe introduction to the Evil Captain America that the real Cap will ultimately fight to show him what he could have become if he wasn’t so awesome! It’s the Cosmic Cube warping history! But whatever happens, it’s not real, it’s a bubble universe that passes at some point and hey, okay, sure, thanks for playing.
(And if it is #3, then fuck the Marvel Editorial Team for getting out there in TIME Magazine and USA Today and convincing the fans by saying, “Oh, no, this is really how it is.” Lying to mislead us didn’t work out for JJ Abrams in Star Trek II, and it would be similarly icky here.)
So it’s possible that the team has some new trick up their sleeve, one we’ve never seen before in eighty years of comics stunts, but it’s highly unlikely. Chances are very good that what we’re reacting to is entirely valid. Because turning Marvel’s paragon of moral certainty into a compromised spy is either a really ham-handed insult to Kirby and Simon and Schuster’s legacy (remember, two Jews literally created Captain America because they wanted to have the strength to punch out twenty-five Nazis), or it’s the exact sort of shoddy linkbait PR technique that was done largely for shock effect. (We’ll get to “What if I’m wrong?” in a moment.)
But let’s be honest: Anti-heroes are lazy fucking writing.
Anyone can write a character who is morally compromised. The storylines come quick and easy when you have a hero who does the wrong thing periodically – when they get backed into a moral corner, fuck it, they murder somebody and mourn! Oh, it’s easy! They get to do whatever they want!
The reason Captain America and Superman are hard to write is because creating adventures for a hero who must a) retain the high moral ground, b) be challenged, and c) win is, as Tailsteak once said, like writing a haiku. Yes, it’s hard to do that and make it interesting. That’s the point. That’s why Captain America is iconic when thousands of other similar heroes have failed – he’s one of the most heroic heroes ever.
Compromising his moral identity makes it a lot easier to tell stories about him, in the same sense that playing football gets a lot easier when a player carries a submachine gun onto the field. Maybe there’s still some strategy, but it’s not football any more. Writing a Captain America story involves finding the real tensions that tempt even a paragon to shave a few moral corners, putting enough pressure on that you can’t possibly see how he’ll get out of it, and then watching him do it.
The reason Marvel did this is because they know this isn’t how Captain America isn’t supposed to be, and yet either they see “Taking the thing away that made Captain America interesting” as a positive achievement – which is bad – or they’re willing to burn fans’ good will towards Captain America to generate cheap publicity over an event they know they’ll have to erase, which is even worse.
But! My own personal objections aside, let’s say that the team has found some way to thread the needle, and this new Captain America will become utterly amazing down the line. It’s happened. I was violently against bringing Barry Allen back in the Flash, back when Barry Allen had died to make a noble sacrifice for the world and Wally West had taken over for eight years – but damn if Mark Waid didn’t turn that into one of the greatest Flash storylines ever.
So let’s say it’s going to get good. Really good.
Should people judge the story by this first issue?
Fuck yes we should.
Look, part of art is knowing where the reader’s going to pause, and manipulating that expectation to be satisfying. One of the reasons the world is glued to Game of Thrones is because yes, it’s good for binge-watching – but the creators know that for many, the experience of GoT is tuning in once a week and waiting in anticipation for what happens next.
They set up their cliffhangers very carefully, because they know that most of their viewers’ expectations are shaped by when this chapter ends.
Narrative is governed by tempo. If a dear friend came up to you and told you, “I have a cancer problem,” and then disappeared for a week, leaving you to stew and wonder what had gone wrong, you’d be furious when they came back and said, “I was born in July! I hate my astrological sign! Ha ha!” But that joke, cheap and stupid as it is, might work if you gave them a second’s pause before dropping the punchline.
Writing is about rhythm. It’s about satisfying all the audiences that might watch this – LOST and X-Files were very satisfying to people who watched it chapter by chapter, but in the end they couldn’t pull together a coherent storyline, and that’s the opposite failure, and it’s just as bad.
So it’s not wrong to judge a story by how it’s satisfying in the short term. This is how it’s initially told. Marvel knows that at some point, this first issue of Captain America would stop and then people would have reactions to it that determined whether they bought the next issue. That’s how the biz works.
And they chose to go for shock value.
Which is, I should mention, fine. I don’t agree with this artistic decision, but they have the right to go for shlocky shock, just as DC had the right to turn Batman vs Superman into a grit-fest. But they set the tone for a storyline that people appear to be roundly rejecting, and you know what?
If I write a shitty first chapter to my next novel (coming out in September, I remind you!), it is not wrong for you to conclude, “Wow, I won’t like the rest of this book.”
Your conclusion might be wrong. Plenty of stories start out slow and build to brilliant endings. (I infamously had to make five running starts at Dune before I got hooked.)
But if you fail to read the rest of the book with the shitty opening chapter, that’s not a failure on the reader’s part. That’s a failure on the author’s part in drawing you in. Or it’s a marketing failure on the publisher’s part by giving you a cover promising shiny space unicorns and giving you an opening chapter with gritty military violence. Or it’s just a generic failure that’s really nobody’s fault because hey, the greatest epic poetry ever written won’t appeal to someone who hates poems.
But it’s not a failure on your part, because reading should not be an experience in “Who can chew this tin foil the longest.”
If you don’t like it, leave when you’ve had your fill.
Maybe this storyline is going somewhere unexpected and wondrous. But by presenting that first issue as they did, Marvel and crew set up an expectation that either a) this is pretty damn disrespectful to Kirby’s legacy, or b) this is the kind of tawdry stunt-PR crap that’s destroying comics.
Would I know how to fix this error in the first comic? No. That would depend on knowing where they are going with this. And even then, it’d be hella-tricky. But as I said, it’s not the reader’s job to make it easy on the writer.
And Marvel knew this would cause a shitstorm. It’s why they had stories ready to go in major media outlets. I don’t feel all that sorry for the hatred they’re enduring, because they had to know this was part of the cost of doing business. They’re not surprised, they’re braced, and they’re hoping this generates new sales. I can’t feel all that bad for someone who purposely triggered a barrage of social media. (Especially when the writer of this storyline seems to be sniggering at the rage trollishly on Twitter, but Twitter’s a remarkably hard place to read strangers’ state of mind.)
And in my heart of hearts, I hope that I’m as wrong as I was when Mark Waid brought back the Flash. I stopped reading after that first “Barry Allen is back!” issue, and later picked up the back issues when someone told me that wow, this was way better than he’d thought, and even if it was ultimately option #3 on the Menu Of Grand Comics History Changes, it was perhaps the best Option #3 that anyone ever did.
So I’ll hope this is a good story, in time.
But I’ll also argue that when they’ve only given you this issue to ponder for the next month, it’s not wrong to base your decision to dislike it upon literally everything they’ve presented to you.
Oh, and one last thing about the guy who wrote this storyline:
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.