Vice‘s video report from Charlottesville, Virginia, was a shocking depiction of white supremacist violence in America, showing neo-Nazis and white nationalists who traveled to the Unite the Right rally last weekend.
Christopher Cantwell was one of the most prominent figures in the video, a white supremacist leader who described the death of Heather Heyer as “justified.” Along with high-profile backlash against Cantwell himself (he’s now been banned from Facebook and Instagram, and posted a video of himself crying about anti-fascist protesters), some people noticed an interesting detail about one of his followers.
In some shots, you can see one of the white nationalists wearing a Hydra shirt.
Hydra is a Nazi-affiliated supervillain group from Marvel Comics, featured in the first two Captain America movies. It became a hot-button topic in comics fandom last year, after Marvel launched a storyline where Captain America revealed himself as a Hydra agent and built a fascist regime. Many readers drew comparisons between the rise of Hydra and the alt-right.
Secret Empire is Marvel’s big event comic for 2017, showing Hydra replacing the U.S. government. It was controversial from the start, partly because it subverted Cap’s anti-fascist legacy, and partly due to writer Nick Spencer’s handling of sensitive political topics.
As criticism grew, Marvel tried to distance Secret Empire from real-world politics. Spencer and Marvel editor Axel Alonso characterized Secret Empire as a classic hero/villain battle, with Cap as the villain. Marvel wanted to avoid comparisons with contemporary politics, but many fans saw that as impossible because the comic is blatantly allegorical. Spencer kept arguing with fans who accused him of making Cap into a Nazi, pointing out that Hydra isn’t technically a Nazi group, and it’s meant to be a fascist (yet somehow apolitical) organization.
Clearly, Secret Empire has a confusing attitude toward the “Are Hydra Nazis?” question. There’s a subplot where Inhumans are rounded up into internment camps, and Cap is definitely a Nazi-allied Hydra agent during World War II. At the same time, Marvel shies away from making Cap or Hydra explicitly racist. Hydra’s fascist government also employs a superhero team including Thor, Vision, and Scarlet Witch—the daughter of a Holocaust survivor.
Champions is still really bad. This week, the Champions try to rescue people from an internment camp who don't want to be rescued. pic.twitter.com/6UKgBieM3n— Kieran (@KingImpulse) July 5, 2017
This brings us to the presence of a Marvel shirt at a neo-Nazi rally. On the one hand, creators have no control over how their works are interpreted or displayed. Some people watch Star Wars and sympathize with the Empire. However, you can’t really compare Hydra to something like Pepe the Frog, a harmless cartoon that accidentally became a far-right meme. Hydra’s backstory is rooted in Nazi mysticism, and Secret Empire portrays it as a victorious and powerful entity with Captain America as the ubermensch at its head.
Before Secret Empire #1 came out, some retailers expressed discomfort with Marvel’s offer of free Hydra shirts and merchandise. “My staff are LGBTQ, Jewish, or both,” tweeted comic store manager Nicki Coley. “We are no longer hand-selling Marvel.” Another indie store owner, Danica LeBlanc, told the Daily Dot that “the message of hate is loud and clear.” At best, a lot of fans were unhappy with how Marvel responded to criticism over Secret Empire. At worst, they worried the comic would encourage racists within fandom, riling up an already tense environment.
Vice‘s Charlottesville video shows only one person in a Hydra shirt, but for Secret Empire‘s critics, it’s proof of what they feared from the start. It also reflects a trend on social media, where Hydra avatars are often an ominous sign. Despite Secret Empire’s mainstream success as a superhero comic—it remains a bestseller with widespread coverage across geek media—it’s earned more criticism than praise for its inevitably political content.
Secret Empire’s problems reach beyond the 100,000-or-so people who actually read the comic. As Spencer himself suggests, this is all about symbolism.
Much of the backlash came from fans who knew Cap from the movies, where he fought Hydra agents in WWII. This legacy is why Spencer chose Cap for Secret Empire in the first place. He wanted all the drama of an anti-Nazi hero becoming a fascist, without going all the way. The problem is, the painful symbolism of “Hydra Cap” made if near impossible to land a nuanced political story. While Secret Empire fans can argue until they’re blue in the face that it’s a complex superhero drama with an ensemble cast, its symbolic impact is much simpler and more visible.
Secret Empire earned praise from the neo-Nazi forum Daily Stormer, and one of its official T-shirts ended up at a white supremacist rally. Regardless of its intended message and content, Secret Empire will be remembered for making Captain America a fascist during the 2016 election, in the midst of a culture war in comics fandom. As a story about the power of political symbols, it backfired.