When I was young, I knew my family was different. We didn’t celebrate Christmas, which was weird because everyone at school did. Instead, every November or December, we’d get out the menorah and light the candles. We weren’t very observant Jews, because we lit all the candles on the first day and then we’d trade gifts and that was it. But it was still different from everyone else I knew.
When I was in my teens, I wanted to learn more about my background, so I decided to go to Saturday School at the local temple. (Saturday School was like Sunday School, only for Jews.) Every Saturday, I would be dropped off at the temple, go around to the classroom, and be taught some aspect of the Torah. I barely remember anything from it, because I quickly realized that it was boring as fuck. After a few months, I decided to quit and I’ve been pretty happy with that decision ever since.
In high school, I became an agnostic and then an atheist. I’m still a Jew, though, because Judaism is an ethnoreligion — it’s an ethnicity and a religion, which is why you can say things like “Jewish atheist.” In fact, quite a lot of Jews are atheists. It was in high school that I also became actively interested in comic books, because, well, I was a lonely nerd and that was the thing to read. They presented a world quite different from where I was living and I needed that.
But Captain America was one of the few characters that I had no real interest in. He always looked boring, with his blonde hair and square jaw. I didn’t care to read any of his comics; instead, like many people during the ‘90s, I read about the X-Men. And it was there in the black-and-white pages of the giant omnibuses I bought, I found someone who was like me: Kitty Pryde, Shadowcat. She was Jewish, too! Hell, she fought off Dracula with a Star of David!
She was pretty much the only Jew I found in comics, but that was okay, because I was moving on from X-Men to more indie fare: Doom Patrol, The Sandman, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, and more. I finally found Vertigo and devoured the British writers of the late ‘80s. I read Moore’s V for Vendetta and Watchmen and then went back and read The Complete Ballad of Halo Jones (which I still contend is Moore’s best work) and then I read everything I could find by Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison.
It was only late that I found Captain America and I found him, ironically, when he died. It was the publicity around his death that made me read Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier and then Red Menace and then the three-volume Death of Captain America. This Cap was still the blonde and square-jawed hero I thought he was before, but now he was trapped in this world of intrigue and espionage. And when he was replaced by Bucky, that just made it more interesting. It was awesome.
I’ve learned a lot about comics history since then. I know that Cap was created by two Jews — Joe Simon and Jacob Kurtzberg (better known as Jack Kirby) — just like Superman was created by two Jews (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster). I can tell that they made him punch out Hitler even when the German-American Bund was a political machine and they received death threats and hate mail because of it (enough so that it even got the attention of Mayor LaGuardia).
However, Captain America himself was never Jewish. He was never even coded as Jewish, because what Simon and Kirby wanted was a hero that was the Aryan ideal (blonde-haired and blue-eyed) punching out Hitler. So Nazi Germany was taking it in the chin from someone who they wanted on their side. So Cap was blonde and he had blue eyes and he didn’t look like someone who was Jewish.
When Cap was reintroduced to readers in The Avengers #4, it was also by two Jews, but this time it was Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Still, again, he was not made or coded as Jewish, although for a time, he did have an explicitly Jewish love interest, Bernie Rosenthal.
When Cap said “Hail Hydra” at the end of the first issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers, I wasn’t outraged or disgusted. Cap was never a symbol of Jewish identity to me. He was always a symbol of America and the American Dream, so the twist ending was more about a subversion of that American Dream than it was any sort of antisemitic statement.
(Also, let me be clear here: the comic is not antisemitic. To be antisemitic, it has to include prejudice or hatred against the Jews. The comic does neither of that and Cap being Hydra is not portrayed as a good thing, but rather as a very bad thing. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are antisemitic. Captain America: Steve Rogers is not.)
(Also, I can’t believe this needs to be said, but don’t fucking send death threats to Nick Spencer. Just don’t.)
I felt pretty much the same feeling I got when reading Superman: Red Son or The Multiversity: Mastermen. It’s the writer showing how the American Dream can be subverted and twisted.
In The Multiversity: Mastermen, Grant Morrison shows us an alternate universe where Superman landed in Nazi Germany instead of Kansas and was raised according to the Third Reich. He was the reason that the Nazis won World War II and the present day is a utopia for Aryans and a dystopia for everyone else. (Morrison made sure that each member of the Freedom Fighters was from a different minority.)
Similarly, Superman: Red Son was about Superman if he was raised in Soviet Russia and went on to conquer the world for them. I don’t believe either of them, however, were ever claimed to be antisemitic, even though Superman was created by two Jews. Perhaps this is because Superman was never as political as Captain America was or perhaps this is because they weren’t part of the main continuity.
But, needless to say, the ending to Captain America: Steve Rogers doesn’t bother me. It’s shocking, but it’s shocking in the same way that Steve Rogers’ death was shocking. It’s shocking in the way that pretty much all twist endings are shocking, in the “Nothing Will Ever Be the Same Again!!!!” way (even though, as pretty much comic book fans know, things probably will be the same again). Whether or not the story can actually say something about Captain America and the American Dream, well, we’ll see. I surely hope so.
Or, as Mark Waid wrote:
By the way, if you are worried about this storyline, you should probably read this interview with Nick Spencer, where he lays out when they started to come up with the story and why. I especially find this quote interesting:
Look, everybody who’s working on this story loves Captain America. I know that it may not seem like it today. But this book is edited by Tom Brevoort, who has been protecting this character’s legacy for a very long time now. He’s not gonna let me do anything that he thinks is going to endanger that character’s legacy and how the character is perceived. It’s always difficult when you’re at this point in a story, because you don’t just wanna tell people, “Everything’s gonna work out great!” Because that certainly may not be the case here. But what I think I can say with confidence is that with this story, our intention and our hope is that in its own unique way, it reinforces what everybody already knows about Captain America, which is his power as a symbol and what that means.