Sympathy for the Supervillain: How Far Is Too Far?

As part of the massive, soon-to-launch Secret Wars event, Marvel announced a tie in comic called Secret Wars Correspondence: Hank Johnson. The writer, David Mandel, describes the comic as following the daily life of Hank Johnson:

“He’s an everyman. …That’s the beauty of Hank Johnson—he’s you, he’s me, he’s your best friend. He just happens to work for HYDRA.”

The problem with this idea, as some responses have brought up, is the history of the fictional organization of Hydra, which has been since its inception tied very closely to a much more real organization: namely, the Nazis.

Hydra became famous in comics as led by the Nazi Red Skull, who was a close confidant of Hitler in the early Captain America comics. While Hydra has been distanced from the Nazis since – primarily because the Nazis as such lost – it is difficult to forget. “Hail Hydra” (with its obvious echoes) remains the slogan of the organization; while its ideology remains murky the end point is world domination and a fascist New World Order.

Furthermore, according to the Marvel announcement, “Johnson owes his allegiance to Marvel’s foremost terrorist organization not to ideology or megalomania” but to economic difficulty, a phrasing that bears uncomfortable similarity to the famous “just following orders” excuse. (Additionally, even the rationale sounds oddly familiar: economic depression was one of the factors that paved the way for the National Socialist Party’s rise to power.) That Mandel chooses to emphasize that Hank Johnson doesn’t really believe in Hydra’s mission also feeds into the harmful idea that all Nazis were fanatics, or even that all neo-Nazis are fanatics. People affiliate themselves with organizations like the Nazi Party for a variety of reasons, often practical rather than ideological, and many members of the Einsatzgruppen, the paramilitary death squads of Nazi Germany, were not ardent supporters of the Nazi party. Sincere belief is not the arbiter of horrific actions.

But what’s the big deal, some will undoubtedly ask. It’s just a comic. Does it really matter? Yes, it does. Nazis are far from just a historical artifact. Neo-Nazi activity is on the rise in Europe, and recently far-right groups have begun to gain power in the EU parliament. Violence against Jews and Roma, as well as other marginalized groups, is also on the rise. Against this background, it is troubling that Marvel chooses to publish a comic featuring a representative of a Nazi-esque group as its protagonist.

There has been a trend since perhaps the 1980s of complicating “villainous” characters, a trend that has arguably accelerated in recent years. Perhaps the most famous of these is Magneto (incidentally a Jewish character). Initially introduced simply as a megalomaniac who wanted to exterminate the human race, later issues gave him a history rooted in the Holocaust that provided deeper insight into his motivations. The story of Hank Johnson seems to be participating in a similar “humanizing” impulse.

There is a strain of scholarship that argues that Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of pure evil and prefer an ambiguity that positions the villain as not so different from the hero after all. However, the problem comes when that narrative has a direct cost. In the case of Magneto, with the insight into his perspective and motives the reader can identify with the anger of a man who has suffered lifelong oppression, not only for his mutant status but for his religious/ethnic identity. The Superior Foes of Spider-Man series, with a comedic style similar to that Mandel says he is aiming for, gives lives to C-list petty criminal supervillains – none of whom can be identified with a harmful ideology.

The problem with humanizing an organization that has been an obvious Nazi expy, and can still be read that way with ease, is that it threatens to minimize and erase the atrocities committed by an ideology that is still alive and well, and still killing people, today.

To sum up: why is Hank Johnson, Agent of Hydra, a story worth telling, while Scarlet Witch, an iconic Romani/Jewish character, was recently stripped of her identity in a retcon that occurred when she was (once again) turned evil?

Whose stories do we want to hear? Who are we choosing to recognize as worthy of humanization?

Further Reading: Why defending Hydra characters by saying they aren’t Nazis is a problem.

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