I suppose it’s possible that everyone suddenly cares about Captain America. I saw it happen once before, in 2007, when Ed Brubaker killed him. It was a madhouse in the comic store that day. Mostly it was a madhouse because people wanted to buy multiple copies, but there was one man who dashed in, his body twitching with crazed panic. He asked if Captain America was dead, and when I said that he was, the man screamed, “Oh no he isn’t,” shaking his head back and forth rapidly. “Captain America isn’t dead!”
That insane man was right, of course, and Captain America is no longer dead; nor is he a feeble aged man, as he was a couple months ago; now he is an agent of Hydra, and people are going ape nuts about it.
I think this is a little silly, because nothing that happens in comics really happens—I don’t just mean that the stories are imaginary, which is clearly true, I mean that everything that happens gets undone pretty soon afterwards. Getting upset about the last panel of a story reminds me of when Claremont would end an issue with Nightcrawler yelling, “Mein Gott! Cyclops is dead!” and then start the next issue with Nightcrawler yelling, “Look! Cyclops is alive!”—and in between those two panels everyone wrote to the letter col (“X-Mail”) expressing dismay that they’d kill a beloved character like Cyclops, etc. Even when I was ten I thought these letter hacks were naive and a little pathetic. And that was before DC killed Batman in a media frenzy, and he stayed dead for less than one month.
But I’m not here to rant about comic book plot twists—I do that enough at work. I’m here to rant about you, or rather about us. I’d meant to post a bunch of stuff this week about demographic signaling, but life got away from me, and now I regret it because our reactions to Captain America’s defection are a great illustration of everything I’d wanted to say, and I feel like I missed my window.
The gist: If you have expressed outrage at this Captain America story, you inevitably fall into one of two camps: either you are consciously signaling in order to get more clicks, or you are unconsciously signaling in order to cement your membership to a demographic.
No one knows what camp the writer who blames the plot twist on white privilege falls into (I didn’t follow the link, for Pete’s sake, but you can find an excerpt from Heidi MacDonald), but I’ll assume most of us are in the latter category. By far the most common outraged statement I’ve heard is that Cap should never work for Hydra because he was created by two Jewish cartoonists. It is, of course, hard to think of a famous superhero not created by Jews (psst! Wonder Woman), but sadly I know well that the names Simon and Kirby, let alone their ethnic or religious affiliations, are pretty obscure to the average American. How did it suddenly become everyone’s casus belli?
This is classic purity signaling: We like to dig deep into the history of something to find an impurity so we can ostentatiously reject it, thereby asserting our own purity.
John M. Robinson famously purity signaled by rejecting a term he falsely believed originated in a set of wars whose ultimate objective he disagreed with (this is an unusually stupid example). We could also signal our purity by demanding the firing of people whose politics differ from ours, etc. We could also just refuse to engage in offensive discussions or purchase offensive products. I know I make fun of these things sometimes, but purity isn’t bad, any more than signaling is bad. I’m not going to be attending any Bill Cosby shows any time soon.
But the reason the Jewish-creators narrative is so compelling is because it allows those who employ it to signal not only that they are, you know, opposed to Nazis, and sympathetic to ethnographic sensitivity (one of these narrows your demographic more than the other, and is therefore a more effective signal), but also to signal that they don’t care about what, to others, is the more obvious objection with the storyline. That the living symbol of the American dream is an evil Nazi terrorist!
Orwell once wrote:
It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.
With Captain America today, no one’s feeling ashamed (and no one’s stealing from a poor box, of course), but we are effectively signaling our priorities by ignoring what in some circles would be the more offensive reading. The fact that I heard far more Americans express concern for the feelings of two dead artists they’ve never met than for the equivalent of Uncle Sam eating a baguette indicates what circles I frequent and what demographic my friends want to signal their belonging to.
I’m not saying that you didn’t have genuine emotions. I’m not saying that your honest first instinct wasn’t “think of Jack Kirby!” What I’m saying is that your internal Balso-Snell life is inaccessible to me, but what is accessible is how you chose to express your emotions; and whether you like it or not, your expression (like your clothes, your syntax, your favorite movie, etc.) signaled your demographic.
Now this is where it gets good. Because even more than people offended by Nazi Cap I heard people offended by people offended by Nazi Cap. And these people expressed their emotions with some variant of: “If you don’t read Captain America, you shouldn’t have an opinion on it.” And then they (and by they I mean we) dragged up some comic history about the last time Steve Rogers worked for Hydra, etc. In this way we signal that we are TruFans and not some know-nothing. This is my actual demographic. We know that this storyline will not last forever, and we tip our fedoras to each other in recognition, exchanging the secret password. (The secret password is: “This fedora is a trilby.”)
Look, I did it myself! I started this post by talking about ’80s X-Men comics. I’ve read hundreds of Captain America comics! I love Mark “justice is served” Gruenwald’s run, but Kirby’s Annual #4 is one of my favorite superhero comics of all time! I signaled the heck out of this! I am a comics fan! I am more upset about the W—m— tease in Rebirth #1 this week than about Cap silliness. Look at me!
We tried so hard to signal that we are not like those casual, angry fans, but we were also signaling the whole time. Always, we are signaling the whole time.
It’s worth noting that we also seized the chance, by shaming those who disagreed with us, to exercise power over others self-righteously. Signaling and asserting power are pretty much the sum total of things we do, at least on line.
As for Captain America: The guy has battled Ronald Reagan and goaded Richard Nixon to suicide. His Liefeld reboot was so bad it murdered Mark Gruenwald. He made it through that, he’ll make it through this crisis, too.