This is getting a little ridiculous. Almost laughable, even.
That’s what I thought when I read Captain America: Steve Rogers #17.
I hate saying that, because these days the Captain America books and Secret Empire are the books that I look forward to the most. I hate saying it because I think that they’re some of the best comics being written right now. Hell, they’re some of the best superhero comics to be published in a long time.
So what’s different about CA:SR #17?
First, a recap: Sally Floyd, the reporter who interviewed Steve during Civil War, lands a televised interview with Steve Rogers after the Hydra takeover of America. She asks him about the whereabouts of the president and other elected officials, about the status of mutants and Inhumans, and about the destruction of Las Vegas (at the end of Secret Empire #1). This last topic, which she was warned not to bring up, gets her thrown in jail at the end of the issue. Along the way, we learn some important pieces of information via flashbacks, including the horrific treatment of Inhumans in the internment camp that used to be New Attilan and a secret deal that Steve forged with Magneto in order to orchestrate the formation of a mutant nation in what used to be the northwestern U.S.
The problem is the ham-fisted way in which the book tries to identify the Hydra regime of Secret Empire with the Trump administration. For example, Steve’s defense of the “temporary” interment of Inhumans sounds suspiciously like the Trump administration’s defense of the temporary travel ban:
The problem with all this is that it turns into a game for the reader. Instead of inviting us to think carefully about what makes a society good (which is what the best politically topical stories do), CA:SR #17 practically demands that readers say, “Ooooh, that’s what what Trump says! We’re being run by Hydra, too! Resist!”
But the political themes in Spencer’s Captain America books have worked best when they’ve been more subtle and ambiguous than this. For example, throughout both CA:SR and Secret Empire, it has been tempting to see Hydra Steve not as villainous, but as morally confused and misguided. When he tells Selvig his vision for Hydra (in CA:SR 4), for instance, you can almost sympathize because you believe him when he says that he wants a free and secure society, a society where no one rules over another. That sympathy, that hope that the real Steve is still in there somewhere, prevents us from seeing the conflict of the Hydra Cap story in simplistic terms.
The effect of all this has been to encourage people to think. A good example of this (as I’ve argued before) has been the book’s critique of the imperial presidency. Instead of calling out the Trump administration specifically, the opening of Secret Empire and the first couple of story arcs in CA:SR have been so good because they encourage readers to think about the institution of the presidency, not just about one particular president that a lot of people happen to hate. If Trump is a problem, that’s mostly because of what we’ve allowed the presidency to become in the last eighty years or so. So the Hydra Cap story has been very good at helping us to think about the dangers inherent in the aggrandizement of the executive branch.
Where CA:SR #17 fails is that it becomes a caricature of the current administration. By beating us over the head with the Trump-Symbolism Stick, CA:SR #17 shuts down any thinking that the readers might do and simply asks us to say, “Right on! Trump is bad!”
Okay, fine. We get it. But the irony is that the more closely Spencer tries to identify Steve and Hydra with the Trump administration, the less effective his critique of contemporary American politics becomes. Are we really supposed to take it seriously when the internment of Inhumans is supposed to stand in for the Trump travel ban? If anything, the comparison only serves to make the travel ban look humane and reasonable, which is almost certainly the opposite of what Spencer intends. For crying out loud, the internment camp is run by Mr. Hyde, who performs gruesome experiments on the prisoners:
Maybe the travel ban is a bad idea. Maybe it’s even as morally repugnant as it’s harshest critics say. But the more closely Spencer identifies the travel ban with the internment of Inhumans, the sillier (and more offensive) the comparison gets. There aren’t any supervillains performing horrific experiments on Syrian refugees.
There’s still a lot of Secret Empire left. I hope that CA:SR #17 isn’t an indication of what’s coming.