There’s been a flood of criticism surrounding the purported revelation that the eponymous hero of Marvel’s new series, Steve Rogers, Captain America has purportedly always been a Hydra double agent. “Purported” because comic books have a way of playing up biographical twists only to undermine, qualify or outright retcon them later in the story line. And if the idea of retconning a plot point that is, itself, a retcon seems preposterous to you, well… welcome to the wonderful world of comics. Narrative continuity is a plus, but it’s never really been required.
A number of distinct strains of criticism have bubbled up over this, and earlier in the week, I found myself responding to one that caught my attention:
1. Since we're already on the topic, let's talk a minute about why "secret Nazis", i.e. Hydra, is an offensive bit of point-missing.
— Abigail Nussbaum (@NussbaumAbigail) May 25, 2016
Now, I should say at the outset that I agree with Nussbaum’s broader point, that dangerous populist movements, like fascism, don’t exactly operate in secrecy. Much of what it’s important to know about any such movement will be left strategically unspoken, a fact with particular salience in the current political environment, but a political movement can hardly be both populist and secret. And she’s also right in pointing out that fascism operates in part by stoking popular fears about just the sort of infiltration that is Hydra’s specialty. In certain circumstances, it makes sense to regard Hydra as a manifestation of those very fears, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say…
@Upstreamism The point isn't that Hydra is fascist. The point is that Marvel is.
— Abigail Nussbaum (@NussbaumAbigail) May 25, 2016
At least, not consistently.
Yet there was still the issue (admittedly less urgent) of whether or not Hydra, as a fiction, was missing that point. The answer depends on what you take to be the point Hydra’s creators were trying to make. Maybe, I suggested, it wasn’t the same one Nussbaum had inferred:
@NussbaumAbigail Are we sure Nazis, rather than, say, communists, are the jumping off point for Hydra?
— L. Rhodes (@Upstreamism) May 25, 2016
Nussbaum (and others) disagreed. The discussion went on a bit from there. I’m writing about it now not in order to argue that I was right and that she was wrong, but rather because, after a bit of back and forth, I began to think that maybe we had both bought into an interpretive fallacy about what sort of thing Hydra might be.
One way to look at our disagreement is to say that she was arguing the narrative point-of-view, while I was arguing the historical. The narrative explanation for Hydra’s existence—its “origin story” in comic book parlance—is convoluted, in part because successive retcons have ultimately pushed the lower boundary of its fictional history back to Third Dynasty Egypt. Its narrative function, though, has always been to connect Captain America’s heroics back to his original exploits as a symbol of America’s intervention in WWII. Thus, Hydra’s earliest retcon may have been the revelation that what was, in its first published appearance, a secretive criminal cult, was in fact a terrorist organization built from the ashes of Nazism.
In contrast to the narrative argument, my position was that the shape and intent of Hydra probably had more to do with the historical context in which it was created than with the details of its origin story. Hydra’s first appearance was in 1965, during the Cold War, when infiltration by the agents of communism would have exercised the American imagination more directly than the long-dead threat of Nazism. The analogy to communism is somewhat abetted by the fact that the precursors to Marxist communism had a history of forming secret societies (like the 18th century Amis de Peuple) some of which resorted to terrorist activities in their efforts to clear the path to a new social order.
Particularly since, as Nussbaum pointed out, Hydra didn’t really fit the fascist mold, it seemed plausible to me that its creation might have been a response to Cold War paranoia, rather than Nazism. Even the indisputable narrative ties to Nazism—Hydra’s most famous leaders, Baron Strucker, Baron Zemo and the Red Skull, were all former officers under Hitler—could be explained by the continuation of WWII-era anxieties into the Cold War era, an idea suggested by my recent reading of Stephen Ambrose’s Rise to Globalism. To Americans, wrote Ambrose,
Hitler was the personification of irrational evil, the madman who would, if he could, destroy the world.
Having accepted this image of Hitler, the American people and their leaders found it relatively easy to transfer the image to the man they regarded as Hitler’s successor, Joseph Stalin.
With that in mind, it’s relatively easy to interpret Sixties-era Hydra as an embodiment of the American assumption of continuity between Nazism and Soviet communism. And if that’s the case, then wouldn’t it be a misunderstanding to see Hydra as Marvel’s “thinly veiled allegory for Nazis?” Why would Marvel even need an allegorical proxy, when they could—and routinely did—depict their villains as literal Nazis?
The more I thought about this, though, the more I began to doubt the idea that Hydra functioned as an allegory for either fascism or socialism—or, indeed, as an allegory at all. There is a distinct tendency toward allegory in comic books as an idiom (as opposed to comic books as a medium, which tends to encompass a much broader range of artistic and literary techniques). As a character devised to foreground the virtues we associate with the national character at its best, Captain America himself stands out as a prime example. Which may explain some of the exasperation over Marvel’s decision to retcon the Captain into the ranks of Hydra—the move appears to break the raison d’être of the character.
The function of allegory is to put the abstract in our grasp by rendering it in concrete terms. Some of the earliest literary depictions of complex psychology were Renaissance allegories that represented the passions, virtues and vices as personifications interacting in relationships that reflected the customs of the era. Love climbs a wall to gain access to the garden of Delight, Reason and Desire debate the merits of taking one road or another, and so on. As a literary technique, allegory is more elaborate than your run-of-the-mill metaphor. Signification is so central to its purpose that readers who aren’t invested at the level of abstraction are apt to get left behind in a really thorough-going example of the form.
If comic book superheroes are frequently born as allegories, the comics themselves routinely break faith with the allegorical mode. In part, that’s because most popular comic books aim at more than just signification; they also want to thrill, amuse and, ultimately, lure readers into buying next month’s issue as well. Some runs are better than others at maintaining the allegorical mode, but they tend to be self-contained narratives guided by a single author—like the limited series of Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) and Frank Miller (Ronin)—rather than ongoing titles. A certain allegorical looseness is an almost inevitable consequence of serialization and open-ended narrative. The pressure of delivering new stories with familiar characters on a monthly schedule, along with the demand for novelty and surprise, insistently deform the correlation between the plastic representation and the abstract values to which they initially pointed.
So while, from the outside, Captain America may appear to be exactly the sort of static personification common to allegory, the years have actually made him rather unsuitable as a peg onto which to hang any single interpretation. He’s been frozen, impersonated, and thawed out, each more than once. He’s run for president, dropped the “America” from his name, lost his drug-induced powers and become a cyborg, only to ditch the mechanical exoskeleton after regaining his powers, this time as a virus. He’s been convicted for fomenting rebellion, assassinated, unassassinated, promoted to head of SHIELD, transferred to a black-ops unit, drafted into a militia, grandfathered into the AARP, and now (purportedly) into Hydra.
If all of those deviations and switchbacks were meant to contribute to an allegory for some aspect of the American character, it’s a byzantine and dysfunctional one at best. And if you can piece it into a coherent whole, then you have my admiration. It may be better, though, to simply to abandon allegory as an interpretive mode when dealing with the popular idiom of comic books. It’s simply too organic, too ad hoc, too slippery to maintain the correlations at the heart of allegory.
If we shouldn’t expect Captain America to maintain an allegorical correspondence to the national character he originally embodied, then it’s probably just as unlikely that Hydra would stand in strict relation to any particular ideology. Issue #1 of Steve Rogers, Captain America may depict the Red Skull stirring up xenophobic fervor among disaffected white supremacists, but völkisch ideology has never been a consistent element in Hydra stories. To the extent that the organization has inherited anything from its leaders’ Nazi backgrounds, that inheritance is mostly limited to global conquest, militarized scientific research, and a generalized sadism. Likewise, its secrecy and penchant for infiltration may reflect the tensions of the Cold War era in which the fiction was created, but there’s nothing particularly leftist about the group’s rhetoric or ambitions.
It’s possible that representation may be the wrong interpretive tool here. To the extent that Hydra stands for anything at all, it’s the subversiveness and proliferation of political evils in the modern world. But that’s as much a modus operandi as it is a ideological commitment. The important thing, from that perspective, is not why Hydra does the things it does, but rather the narrative reflex that operates in their stories. More than the protection of the Fatherland, or the revolution of the proletariat, what matters is simply, cut off one head, and two more take its place.
The same may interpretive shift may apply throughout popular comics. When we ask What sort of thing is Hydra? we’re really asking a larger question about serialized superhero comics in general. The question is not just about this one particular group of supervillains, but rather about one of the basic building blocks of the idiom.
So, for example, Captain America may have long ceased to represent any fixed set of distinctively American values. Rather, his stories will tend arc around the question of what sort of responses the character can encompass when thrown into any specific situation. Just as the narrative reflex that guides Hydra stories is the redoubling of a kind of serpentine evil, Captain America’s behavior is guided not by his status as the personification of some core American identity, but rather by the protection of some—practically any—conception of what it is to be American.
Which is to say that there’s an elasticity to the idiom of popular comics that’s mostly foreign to allegory. That elasticity is why Captain America can go through so many changes—subversive, cyborg, geriatric—without becoming utterly unrecognizable as a character. It’s why, short of bad writing or editing, he can be unmasked as an agent of the organization he’s been fighting his entire career, and still spring back into a rough approximation of his original shape a few issues later.
And, if not, there’s always a cosmic cube or two around for the retcon.