The latest debacle dragging the online comics community into increasingly toxic territory is the mess surrounding the new Steve Rogers: Captain America comic. Written by Nick Spencer and illustrated by Jesus Saiz, the new comic series opened with a shock when the title character revealed himself to be a deep cover Hydra agent after tossing his longtime ally Jack Flag out of a helicopter.
The online reaction was…not kind. As Marvel’s PR corps played up the idea that Steve Rogers was in control of his own actions and not a victim of mind control or impersonation, think pieces began to roll in from the blogosphere pointing out the flaws of turning Cap evil. Most prominent was the criticism that the move was anti-Semitic, as Captain America’s creators were Jewish and this move basically turned Cap into a Nazi.
Others expressed disappointment for Marvel going back to the well of cheap shock for mainstream exposure, especially as Cap was in the public eye thanks to Captain America: Civil War. Marvel’s PR can say how this Cap story was different from all of the other bait-and-switch stories, but many felt it was no better than any other bait-and-switch gimmicks, especially the other times Cap was brainwashed into becoming a Nazi for a story arc.
There was a nastier level of “discourse” going on, too. The online blowback seemed especially harsh for what was a pretty obvious bait and switch move, especially once Nick Spencer received death threats for the story arc. That sparked a pretty extreme pushback, especially by comics creators and other established pros who seemed happy to lump the handful of idiots spouting off death threats as representative of the people upset by the move. We saw lots of hand waving about how “this is how comics work”, while ignoring that a shock move can only be successful by creating shock.
On the flip side, anyone who didn’t understand why the Hydra Cap was a big deal was accused of being against wanting change in the comics industry, a remnant of the old guard afraid of progress and change. And many an eyebrow were raised when many creators and pros passed around an earnest article condemning death threats and “toxic fandom” while ignoring the writer of that piece’s own recent toxic online behavior. A prominent comics pro equated a well known blogger’s mild criticism to a death threat, leading to the blogger experiencing a series of nasty attacks. Frankly, a lot of people on both sides came off looking intentionally obtuse at best and cherry picked THE WORST arguments presented by the other side as if they were somehow the norm.
If you hopped on Twitter the day after this story broke, you’d think that comics fandom wanted Nick Spencer’s actual head on a platter and that comics creators were in full support of white supremacy. You had comics folk making shit Holocaust jokes, fans flicking off creators for pointing out that the storyline was an obvious bait and switch tactic, and a lot of people staring at their computer screens and shaking their heads. It was unequivocally a bad look for comics.
Jump forward to this week, and the nasty discourse has started up again. Yesterday, we found out that Captain America was only a deep cover Hydra agent because of false memories implanted by a sentient cosmic cube thanks to the Red Skull. “WE TOLD YOU SO” said the pro-Cappers, ignoring that a large majority of people against the change knew there was more to the Hydra Cap story than what met the eye.
The discourse got upped overnight because of two articles. The first was a poorly headlined Paste Magazine article that claimed Marvel “backtracked” on Hydra Cap after one month. The Paste piece’s intended focus was how Marvel’s PR changed its message after one month (which, to be fair, is what PR is supposed to do because Marvel didn’t want to give away anything), but to some comics professionals “backtracked” meant that Paste had claimed Marvel literally scrapped their original plans for the comics and rushed a revised issue out in the three weeks between issues. We don’t think the Paste piece implied that at all, but who ever let the facts get in the way of some good hyperbole?
The other piece was a Birth Movies Death article that used Twitter strawmen to prove how ignorant the anti-Hydra Cap side was. Supposedly, “Twitter” had claimed that 1) Marvel had caved to pressure and changed the Hydra Cap arc because of the outrage and 2) that Marvel had lied during the initial PR circuit by saying that Cap wasn’t mind controlled. The piece went on to explain in great (read: mansplain-y) detail about why both arguments were wrong, and was passed around as a definitive nail in the coffin for those who didn’t like the Hydra Cap story.
So now, we have comics creators boarding the latest “Comics Journalism is the Worst” train and ignoring a website’s pretty decent track record with comics coverage because of a poorly worded headline. We have a section of comics fandom who now think that Marvel, Nick Spencer and anyone who sides with them are the devil. And we have the poor schmucks in the middle, who maybe see both sides but are inclined to lean one way or another, but don’t really want to open their mouths for fear out of being branded “the enemy” by one side or another. It’s a mess, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.
One thing’s for certain: it’s hard to argue in good faith about comics anymore, and that bodes poorly for the online world of comics. Online comics discourse as a whole has become increasingly toxic and it’s killing the joy and enthusiasm both professionals and fans are supposed to feel about the medium. Part of this is the general nature of the internet, where snark, snap judgements, and cynicism rule over thoughtfulness, empathy and nuance. And part of it comes with the weird relationship that comes with cultivating a fandom. Companies want fans to get heavily invested in certain characters, but recoils when the fandom gets too invested. There’s no real solution to that without a total overhaul of these 80+ year old comics universes, which will never happen as long as there’s money to be made.
Although it’s a bit cliché to ask the internet to do better, perhaps change starts at an individual level. Showing basic empathy to your fellow human beings is a good start, whether it’s choosing not to pile on to someone already having a bad day (does Nick Spencer really need to hear how you hated his comic?) or acknowledging the feelings of others, even when those feelings don’t necessarily make sense. Approach discourse as a conversation instead of an argument, and choose to focus on the opposing side’s strong points instead of the weakest argument you can find. It’s very easy to find a stupid opinion on social media, but the reasoned opinions are the ones that make you think.
There will be more outrage in comics in a week, a month, or a year. But by challenging ourselves to see what the other side sees, we can improve our understanding and perhaps dilute some of the toxic nastiness that has seeped into comics culture.