Saturday, 28 May 2016

Why Captain America Reeks of Desperation - The Many Failings of Marvel

They say the definition of madness is to keep repeating the same act, expecting a different result. If that's true, just about every damn fan of Marvel might as well be locked up in a loony bin by this point. Well, them and anyone at Marvel who thought pulling this stunt was a good idea.

Taking up the mantle of Captain America once more, Steve Rogers returned to the role which had made him a legend in the aptly named Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. For the first time in years we were going to see the man return to his old role, truly becoming the Sentinel of Liberty once more. Fans were understandably excited to see this taking place after he was put out of action for so long, and within hours of the comic's release they were talking up a storm about it on Twitter. A shitstorm, to be precise. Penned by Nick Spencer, the creative team decided to celebrate Cap's 75th Anniversary by giving him the single biggest retcon of his entire run. "How big a retcon?" You might ask, well, the kind which dates back to his very conception, changing his entire history.

They made Captain America into a Nazi.

Oh, not just any Nazi, but a full on "white men are the ubermensch!" Jew killing, baby eating, genocide promoting agent of Hydra. This isn't down to mind control. This isn't down to some twist or even replacement memories. Steve Rogers always was, and always has been, a fucking Nazi according to this, serving as an agent of theirs within the Avengers and working against freedom, liberty and the American way. There are many, many problems with this idea, with no end of logical, continuity and moral failings which have left many readers red with rage. Many fans are irate that this makes so many of the stories they loved or enjoyed a lie, and that his very persona was always a mask. Many others are irked at what is little more than cheap, lazy shock style "storytelling" which exists to do little beyond draw attention away from DC Comics' own attention grabbing controversy. Most however, are disgusted and disturbed that someone would take a character made by Jewish creators, used to express their own anti-Nazi feelings even in the face of death threats, and promptly turn him into a Nazi icon.

However, this reader felt something different when he looked at it. While it earned my disgust for that last reason, there was no hatred there, just extreme disappointment and apathy. This issue only proved that, once again, Marvel is incapable of learning from past mistakes or the creative rut it has fallen into.

You see, this isn't the first time Marvel has pulled a stunt like this. Hell, it's not even the twelfth by this point, and each and every time the results are the same - Mass fan backlash, a dwindling readership, and some very hurried retcons to try and fix it all as sales go down the drain. 

The earliest and arguably the most infamous example of this sort of villainous retcon was an old event known as The Crossing. In its pages Iron Man was revealed to be a spy for Kang the Conqueror, and that for his entire superheroic career he had secretly been a villain. This was "fixed" by an overly complex plot involving time travel which eventually led to Stark's younger self taking over from him, and the rest becomes a level of insanity people try to forget these days. The entire story and what followed in its wake was regarded as one of the biggest mistakes of comicbooks up to then, and an example of damn near everything wrong with early 90s comics. The problem is that these days apparently "mistake" stands for "guideline" in the minds of comics writers.

Time and time again, despite it often pushing down sales or just causing the characters' fans to hate the creative team, writers will keep pulling this stuff. Charles Xavier, one of the kindest men devoted to peace in the Marvel universe, was retconned into always being a monster who willingly wiped winds, destroyed lives and slaughtered others for his personal benefit. This was never fixed and, soon after Deadly Genesis established this, he was killed off by his protege Cyclops during a battle; just in time for Cyke to begin his own retcon driven villainous turn. Iron Man would then follow him twice over in recent years alone, first in Civil War and then in the atrocious Superior Iron Man; both of which so badly harmed the character that it took the literal erasure of his memory each time to put him back on track. Others would follow this to one extent or another, from Avengers Arena to Ultimatum to Avengers Disassembled, and even Superior Spider-Man in some regards. It just keeps happening over and over again, with the only outcome being more misery for those who stick with these characters. It has become an endless cycle, with the same errors made over and over and over again, without anyone ever learning from them.

But what's the point in all this, anyway?

The simple answer is attention. Marvel's mantra these days is that "there's no such thing as bad publicity" and they will roll on ahead with just about any plan they have in mind. No matter how bad, no matter how horrific, they will stick to it so long as it proves a reaction. After all, a cry of rage sadly carries more weight than a legitimate praise these days, and draws far more attention. As such, Marvel does something horrific, they get a reaction, and as they begin to lose attention of their audience they promptly do something worse to try and reel them back in.

However, drawing audiences based upon outrage and bile fascination is only half the point behind this. The other? Simply put, Marvel has an extreme case of identity crisis. While they might rule superheroics on the big screen, the comics themselves have become little more than fodder for film ideas. While they thankfully credit their sources of inspiration (unlike some, hello The Force Awakens) and adapt them openly, there's no denying that they overshadow the original source material. While certainly far more grounded, it's more accessible to the average Joe, gains them more moolah and has led them into a new golden age. As such, it seems that few know what to do with the comics themselves. Half the time they want to "upgrade" things to bring them in line with the cinematic universe, and the rest they want to go in their own direction. Unfortunately, Marvel is a company of extremes, so it ends up doing extreme damage while trying to follow either one at a time.

Let's take Nick Fury for example. While the grizzled war veteran has been around for decades, new fans only know him via his dark skinned Ultimate self and little else. How to they introduce him into the setting? Give Nick Fury a hitherto unknown dark skinned son who looks exactly like Samuel L Jackson. Then, give him the nickname of Fury, force the original character out of the picture and add some nonsense about the serum keeping him alive failing. Clunky, but it works, yet that's not enough for Marvel. Just to be sure that he was completely out of the way and never coming back, Original Sin retconned the original Fury to have always been secretly evil the entire time, and that the serum never worked. Instead he simply always used robot clones of himself. Then, whilst killing multiple characters and attempting to murder the Avengers, he made himself irredeemable and got shunted off to some dark corner of the universe. 

Original Sin also showed the other problem where writers will go to the complete opposite extreme, or at least led into it. During the fight, Fury suddenly attains knowledge out of nowhere of how to completely disarm Thor. By whispering a single unheard word into Thor's ear, the god of thunder is abruptly made unworthy and loses Mjolnir. Really, that's it, nothing more. This then led into the previously discussed event where Thor was basically kicked out of his own comic and Jason Aaron's pet was put in his place: She-Thor. Doing everything up to and including stealing his name, Aaron went about radically changing the world of the original hero and hyping the living hell out of his new replacement. This quickly devolved into full on defilement of the original canon, radically altering entire histories, personalities and motives of long established characters overnight, and dragging them into a plot driven by idiocy. The comic was desperately trying to be different, trying to be new, but in doing so it shattered the very bedrock it was built upon, caring little for the work of prior writers.

So, as an end result of this you have half the setting pandering to an entirely different audience, while the other half ditches all prior lore and rapidly becomes borderline unrecognizable. The end result is a setting which abandons any established fans and rewards loyalty with pain and betrayal, leaving no room for them in this shift. While this is speaking only from personal experience and fellow fans, there's a growing number of longtime jaded fans who have just given up on this setting. While they will still stick around for the odd Ms. Marvel or equally awesome middle tier comic, they no longer care about the setting as a whole because it keeps screwing them over. Just as Marvel has its own cycle, these readers have theirs: They start to hear about interesting Marvel events, slowly consider taking a look at a couple of A-list heroes, see something horrific which betrays the fans, and refuse to buy anything until it all gets sorted out. 

Now, Marvel still has plenty of readers to be sure, but any audience can only be pushed so far before then reach breaking point. Eventually some straw is going to break the camel's back and whether that's from the frustrated comments of former fanatical readers or yet one more betrayal, eventually something is going to cause a comic's decline. Then, given how heavily reliant they are upon big events, they may even stop paying attention to those as well.

Despite the open vitriol displayed by many people at this latest twist, a few have tried to defend this move by claiming it should be excused thanks to being planned out or thanks to the politics behind it. In this case it's how America seems to have emulated certain racist or blind undertones and has become its own worst enemy in some regards (make your own Trump joke folks). However, this is just another problem rather than any kind of solution. This is a classic case of a writer putting their personal message and idea before the story itself. Rather than sorting anything out, rather than establishing any basic concept or even considering how to establish it within the universe, we get a trite excuse before they bulldoze ahead with their plan. 

Imagine for a second that there was a Sherlock Holmes story, fully canon today and in-line with the originals, which involved subliminal messages and how it can affect the mind. The writer would announce that it would explore themes of psychosis, self-delusions and insanity, in depth and with great detail. Imagine then that the book not only treated Holmes as an abusive madman, but all prior stories were his own fevered dreams and he was in fact just a homeless man living in modern day London. It would indeed be in a prime place to explore the ideas; yet it only does so by crapping on the work of every other writer and effectively destroying the very series it's supposed to reflect. This issue of Captain America is the same, only working because the writer has decided "I didn't write it, so clearly it doesn't matter!" It's ultimately just lazy, refusing to respect the series or franchise in favour of personal ego. What's more is that, simply put, this is merely yet another smokescreen against criticism; another half-baked stab at political leanings made in order to prevent people from fully criticising it just as a bad story. The aforementioned Thor disaster did the same thing, adding on baggage to the comic to help make it seem like critics were attacking certain ideologies, not just a bad story by a bad author.

At the end of the day, events like this from Marvel are merely horrific acts to try and force people to keep reading. The modern day company is akin to a spiteful child, hungry for any attention he can get and willing to go the full mile in order to attain even a moment of his parent's focus. When one horrific act fails to get what they want, they will simply follow it up with an even worse tantrum. Who knows, if this issue didn't gain them the sales the needed, perhaps they'll drop all pretenses and simply have Steve Rogers eating roasted infants next.  Perhaps that will finally push people to start abandoning these comics and refuse to go back until they start treating their characters with some measure of respect.

Still, this is just one general and very jaded view on this latest twist in comicbook history, and the last few years of Marvel in general. If you have something else you want to add, whether it's a point missed or even just a contradiction, feel free to add it. After all, alternative views on events so controversial as this one always require more than once voice.


  1. I'm not even that against putting personal opinions in comics as we're all colored by our biases, but why destroy Captain America's continuity to do it?

    Why not instead of Captain always secretly being a villain, he work to fight against it? I'm not saying he should go an beat up Donald Trump, but rather focus on the enemy within then without. He should care about America the most of all, and that includes making sure America remains America. Explore political corruption, military practice, etc rather then some ham handed 'Oh look, Captain America is just as rotten on the inside as the USA!'

  2. The writer actually tried to do that with Captain America: Sam Wilson, but didn't do it very well. At all. Along with getting multiple facts completely wrong and skipping over details, he seemed to be putting his personal message first and plotlines second. As such, even the slightest political view was being delivered with the force of a six hundred ton hammer, and it just robbed the comic of any enjoyment.

    Spencer apparently isn't a writer who wants to explore themes, he wants to preach them and have his audience agree with his every word.

  3. The thing is, the story was already doing the enemy within stuff before we got the Cap reveal. Part of the book focuses on a guy who joins a HYDRA cell which is radically different from the usual Nazi stuff, instead being more like a modern day white supremacist militia group, and the Red Skull gives a speech to this group where he talks about the refugee crisis, political correctness, the bankers and so on (not hard to guess what he thinks of these).

    Like, the book had a nice foundation to look at a current issue about how fascist ideals are rearing up in modern times and Cap having to deal with seeing the same things he fought against in WWII in the nation he loves and represents. Instead we get this twist, which is done basically as shock value clickbait and despite what has been said by the writer, will almost certainly be retconned via mind control, a clone, or the like months down the line once the backlash hits hard or it's time for Marvel's next bit of clickbait.

    1. Indeed, between that and an overpaid moron declaring that the backlash is entirely due to "fan entitlement" i'm very tempted to do a follow-up article breaking down where this went wrong. That and possibly produce an example of where it went right and how this one screwed it up within a few pages.

  4. I have to admit I'm morbidly curious what DC and Marvel will do the next time they try to out-stupid each other.

    I just don't understand why controversy is seen as such a good thing to both companies, and in fact it's the main reason I'm not interesting in buying single issues. I don't want to read a story about somebody who was established suddenly pulling a 180 and becoming everything they weren't, not only is it incredibly insulting to the creators (and especially in this case is that true) it's also a slap in the face to any of their fans.

    Controversy sells, however last time I checked good stories also sell really well, and maybe if the writers were more focused on that we wouldn't have to worry about garbage like this. At the very least if controversy was a planned part in a story, it would have a planned beginning as well as a planned ending, rather than "We'll retcon this and see how it goes!"

    1. You pretty much summed up my exact thoughts there, and in all honesty it's these kind of desperate acts which are killing the industry. Global sales for the big two are down across the board, and by comparison the next two big ones (IDW and Dark Horse) are only a fraction of their size and with limited income. Over the next ten years, I honestly think we're going to see the industry as a whole crash and burn unless it undergoes some massive changes both in format and how they approach characters. Really, the latter shouldn't be that hard to do anyway. 2000AD has gotten away with solid character arcs and consistent storytelling for decades, Hellboy was the same, and even big twists with IDW have been vastly better handled than this. Just to give a quick indication - One big twist in the Transformers comics was the reveal that Ultra Magnus had been dead for years; and that his identity was being kept alive by others taking on his role, so he could serve as a morale boosting immortal figure.

    2. I'll admit I didn't read the transformers series, but from how you're describing it I actually don't think that's all that bad of a twist. Finding out that the character was dead the entire time but kept alive through the actions of others is sad but it could at least be reasonable in the long run.

  5. So we got the second issue. Turns out he was brainwashed. So the writer lied through his teeth.

    The only thing about it that surprises me is how quickly they backed down, makes me wonder if it was the plan or if the reaction to it made them change their minds. But did see an interview with someone from Marvel where he said he thought the backlash was mostly from non-comic readers who weren't familiar with the stuff comics do to their heroes, so think it was the plan.

  6. Stuff like this happening for so many years, over and over and over again, is why I don't read comic books.

    1. There are good ones still out there, and a lot of them to be sure, but I would not blame you if you didn't trust them because of these stunts.