Content warning: This article talks about the Holocaust, Nazis, white supremacy and anti Semitic hate imagery.
Secret Empire. Two words that currently strike fear into the hearts of comic fans, critics, and creators — not to mention PR people at Marvel corporate — everywhere. The much maligned story of Captain America and his secret roots as a HYDRA plant, which began last year with Steve Rogers: Captain America and continues steamrolling sense and decency with this summer’s line wide event, has rarely been out of the headlines.
I’ve been very vocal on Twitter about my dislike for what I deem as “Clickbait Comics;” a lazy and cheap way of marketing comics by offending as many people as possible and relying on the “no publicity is bad publicity” mantra championed by a bunch of ad execs who died of cancer from smoking the same cigarettes they spent their lives promoting. Though I’m not a fan of the story, and even less of a fan of Spencer’s awful behaviour on social media, I’ve not written anything about it for publication, mostly because there are far better people writing about it — Naja Later’s piece on HYDRA Magneto and Kieran Shiach’s work on the series have been highlights.
On Saturday Free Comic Book Day happened, and the much discussed Free Comic Book Day Secret Empire #1 was released. One of the pages shows Steve Rogers holding aloft the hammer, Mjolnir, whilst a caption next to him claims, “–they were worthy.” Now this is offensive enough when you look back at what Thor’s hammer has meant in Marvel canon — that you must be good and worthy person to wield it, Mjolnir has been a moral compass of sorts — and Spencer is already crossing many, many lines with what he clearly thinks is some kind of edgy, potentially iconic imagery. But this isn’t just some subreddit level attempt at being cool. At this point Spencer is literally putting hate symbols into the pages of Marvel’s comics.
Now obviously outside of this issue or the context of Nazis in general, Mjolnir is not recognised as a symbol of violence and hate. So with the exception of the basic vile but Marvel-specific message that a Nazi affiliated agent is pure of heart and worthy, it might be confusing for some readers to understand why this image is so troubling.
The connection between white supremacist organisations and Norse iconography is long and well documented. It only takes a cursory google search to find many articles on the expansive history of the two — though after the X-Men: Gold #1 debacle we know Marvel’s editorial doesn’t appear to hold much stock in those. Remember that because we’ll return to that precedent setting moment later.
White supremacist orgs have long been stealing and appropriating other cultures’ iconography and repurposing it for their own gain — even in comics; on the same day that Steve lifted the hammer, Matt Furie killed off his now infamous Pepe The Frog in a FCBD issue after he was co-opted by white supremacists. Historically the most notorious and well known version of this is the Swastika, an ancient religious symbol, still used to this day by Hindus and Buddhists. That symbol was stolen in the 20th century by the German Aryan movement in Germany and was later taken on by Hitler as the most recognizable symbol of the Nazi party, becoming one of the most recognisable hate symbols in the world.
When we talk about the use of Norse iconography and white supremacy it’s important to understand that outside of white supremacist circles these symbols have other completely innocent and benign meanings. So in no way is use of them automatically violent or inciting white supremacy. But once these symbols intersect with white supremacy and Nazism in any kind of context, the conversation we are having must change.
Historically, Nazis and white supremacists have invoked the pagan Nordic belief system of Odinism to create an identity and false history for what is a relatively new name in bigotry and hate. This has manifested in many ways, not least in appropriating the imagery and iconography from Odinism and Norse mythology.
From their earliest days, contemporary white supremacists have been using Nordic mythology as a source for their own modern propaganda. One of the first incarnations of what would later become the Nazi Party was the Thule Society, an occultist group based on the idea that the so called “Aryan race” were the descendants of a long forgotten continent, a nordic equivalent of the lost city of Atlantis. The group took inspiration from the Greek explorer Pytheas’ description of what’s believed to be a northern part of the British Isles — Ultima Thule roughly translates from Latin as “most distant north” — and they began to believe that this mythical land was the ancient origin of an Aryan race.
During World War II, the Nazis used an ancient Nordic rune called Algiz — usually recognised to mean “man” — that had been appropriated in the early 20th century by Nazi groups, putting it on one of their flags and calling it the Life Rune. It became synonymous with the part of the SS that dealt with the implementation of the group’s violent Aryan ideals. The Othala Rune was another Nordic symbol that was used by the Waffen division of the SS, now a recognised hate symbol that has been widely taken on by modern white supremacist groups.
And here we find ourselves at a crossroads, because there is another symbol that the ADL recognises as a known hate symbol when used in the context of Nazism and anti-semitic ideas, and that symbol is Thor’s hammer. The beloved symbol of good in the Marvel Universe. The magical mallet that the Avengers playfully try and pick up during Age Of Ultron: the mystical icon which you can only wield if you are pure of heart and truly worthy. Yet in the dark heart of white supremacist groups and Nazis, the hammer has terrifyingly different connotations.
After Marvel’s definitive action against Ardian Syaf — sacking him after he placed anti-semitic political messages into X-Men: Gold #1 — they set a precedent that subliminal political messages would not be allowed at the company, a reasonable ethical standpoint for any corporation. The question is, does that rule only apply to an Indonesian Muslim creator who puts partisan messaging into their books, or does it also apply to a white American who is putting messages that can be equally read as anti-semitic or benign? Though Syaf was actively sending a message, there were many people who could have read the book and never noticed because those words and numbers would have seemed benign to them. Just as Thor’s hammer might seem innocuous in the hands of a Nazi in the pages of a Marvel book unless you know what that symbol means within that context.
Now in this case, there is obviously a definite question of intent. Syaf was — once exposed — open about his feelings, motivations, and political leanings. Spencer on the other hand has definitively stated that Captain America is not a Nazi, that HYDRA are not Nazis, and that his book has no political reference points. The problem with this argument is that the book is set in World War II, a REAL time in history, with REAL horrific ramifications. HYDRA replaces the Nazis as the Allies’ foes, becoming — ironically, after Spencer constantly demanding otherwise — a direct substitution for the real Nazi party. So how much does your intent mean when you’re writing a book set in a period of history where the Nazis murdered millions, and you hand a man who in your version of that history enabled that very genocide, one of the most notorious symbols of the Nazi movement?
To many readers this is just one more misstep in an ongoing saga of bad decisions at Marvel. To many more, it’s another heartbreaking moment from a company who no longer seems to care about them. To some this will simply be a new issue in a book that they are enjoying. But to readers who align themselves with white supremacy — whether they call themselves Nazis, alt-right, or anything else — this can be seen as a victory. A call to arms, seeing one of the most iconic superheroes in the world, now arguably a Nazi, holding aloft a symbol that they identify as their own, signifying white supremacy and all the horrific violence, genocide, and death that comes with it.