Nick Spencer’s current run on Cap grabbed a lot of attention last year by revealing that Cap has been a Hydra agent his entire life, and a loyal Nazi (for the record Hydra was not written as a Nazi organization in the Silver Age, but a straight knockoff of James Bond’s SPECTRE. Which doesn’t affect the current debate, but is worth mentioning, as I keep seeing people who should know better say that it was Nazi from the start). This got more attention when Spencer insisted this was not mind control or an imposter, etc., it was real! And it turns out it was, in a sense: a reality altering Cosmic Cube has retroactively made it real.
Only now Spencer has gone a step further and revealed that it’s more than a retcon because the entire MU is a retcon: Captain America’s treachery won WW II for the Axis, but an Allied Cosmic Cube created the good Cap we know and the happy ending. So Captain America really was a Nazi, just not in the not-real continuity we all thought was real.
First off, I haven’t read the books.
Second off, even though I know it will be undone eventually, I still think the outrage is justified. Even if it’s retconned later, the stories in which Steve murders and betrays America for the Reich happened. They won’t vanish when reality is fixed. As Repeaters points out, even if you erase the bad things you do, you still did them. So yeah, turning Cap into a Nazi icon is uncool (the first link above suggests it’s a satire on fan reaction to Sam Wilson becoming Cap. I don’t believe it’s anything so subtle).
But it will be fixed. No amount of declaring “This was the really real reality” will actually make it so. A year from now or whenever, it will turn out that reality was just another overlay on the original reality and we’ll get back to normal. Even if Spencer keeps the MU the fake reality, someone else will restore it, much as the efforts to make Peter Parker a clone and his supposed clone Ben Reilly the real Peter flopped with fasn.
The point of my post, though, is that what this teaches is us is how hard it is to set up really life or death stakes in comics these days. To believe there’s anything that won’t be undone or retconned away, any character that won’t get resurrected no matter how dead they are.
As I said Sunday, when Crisis on Infinite Earths came out, there’d never been anything like it. Wolfman and Perez (and everyone else who contributed ideas or plays for the “post-Crisis” universe) really did set out to make serious major changes, actually kill major characters, and they succeeded. But as DC and Marvel kept churning out big Earth-shattering events, the changes became routine. As characters got resurrected, or legacy heroes had to give their identity back, it was harder to take all the big talk seriously. Claims that, for example, Final Crisis would be incredibly serious — look, they killed Martian Manhunter in the first issue — only elicited yawns, at least from me. Likewise, the Batman: Superheavy protestations about how Bruce Wayne can never, ever, ever, ever become Batman again aren’t intriguing, they’re just annoying. There’s nothing that can stop Bruce from resuming his identity.
Likewise Spencer isn’t really raising the stakes, he’s just creating an extra hurdle to Cap getting back to normal. It’s a plotting challenge, not a cosmic dilemma.
I was going to draw some broader meaning from that for writers, but I can’t think of one right now, so I’ll leave it at that.