In April 2017, Marvel Entertainment caused a stir by inviting comic-book retailers to dress their staff in shirts to promote a miniseries depicting a fictional group linked to Nazi Germany. 

The promotion, which coincided with the 19 April 2017 release of Secret Empire #0, offered sellers the chance to order shirts for its staff bearing the insignia for Hydra, a villainous organization that has at times been led by Nazi supervillains Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker and the Red Skull:

Stores evidently wished to also have the opportunity to make physical changes to their stores in keeping with the “crossover event” depicting the original Captain America, Steve Rogers, as he betrays his fellow heroes while revealing that he is Hydra’s “Supreme Leader.” At least one North Carolina-based retailer has rejected the idea, saying online that her store would not change its logos to promote the miniseries, saying, “My staff are LGBTQ, Jewish, or both.” 

The miniseries picks up from the Steve Rogers: Captain America series, which debuted in May 2016 by revealing that wartime hero Rogers (whose creators, Joe Kirby and Joe Simon, were Jewish) was secretly a lifelong Hydra operative and a follower of the Red Skull. Marvel Executive Editor Tom Breevort said at the time:

We try to write comics in 2016 that are about the world and the zeitgeist of 2016, particularly in Captain America. Nick Spencer, the writer, is very politically active. He’s a Capitol Hill head and following this election very closely. So we can talk about political issues in a metaphoric way. That’s what gives our stories weight and meat to them. Any parallels you have seen to situations real or imagined, living or dead, is probably intentional but metaphorically not literally

However, Entertainment Weekly reported on 7 April 2017 that both Spencer and Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso insist that the series has little to do with contemporary politics.

An employee for an Indiana-based store (who asked to be identified only as Mary) also criticized Marvel and Spencer for recasting Hydra as an ancient group that was taken over by the Red Skull even though it was opposed to the Nazi regime. In Secret Empire #0, a flashback scene describes the organization — not Nazis — as the opposition to the Allies, and also reveals that Rogers was always working for Hydra instead of having been manipulated.

Mary told us:

I think this move to state that, while being facists, Hydra aren’t Nazis is sensationalistic garbage. Just because Marvel tells us that Hydra aren’t Nazis doesn’t mean that the intent with which they were created suddenly goes away. Kirby and Simon meant for them to be Nazis.

As much as Marvel may want, that is not going away.

They murdered millions and I’m a lesbian who’s grandfather was held as a POW by the Nazis during the war, I’m not going to promote this book. I’m not going to glorify something like this so Marvel can make a buck.

While she did not receive Marvel’s promotional offer, Mary said, “the grand majority” of reactions from other retailers to the company’s outreach has been negative. She also noted what she called a “marginal” drop in pre-orders for Secret Empire, and an increase who have stopped buying Captain America-related comics or Marvel comics altogether.

She said:

Others were intrigued to see how it played out, but they seemed few and far between.

But what really got me the most were the kids who were absolutely beside themselves at the fact Captain America was a bad guy. That was hard.

The Steve Rogers series has garnered a mixed reaction since its debut; critics argued that the story was also questionable given Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter’s reputed ties to President Donald Trump’s administration. Perlmutter donated $1 million to a fundraiser during Trump’s campaign and was reportedly tapped to be an “informal” advisor to his administration on veterans’ affairs.

Writer Nick Spencer also came under criticism for decrying a physical attack against white nationalist Richard Spencer (no relation) in January 2017.

Sources:

Shiach, Kieran. “Secret Empire, explained.” Polygon. 18 April 2017.

Johnston, Rich. “Marvel Want Comic Store Staff To Dress Like Hydra During Secret Empire.” Bleeding Cool. 20 April 2017.

@NickiColey. “We’ve also been asked to change our store logos to Hydra symbols. My staff are LGBTQ, Jewish, or both. We are no longer hand-selling Marvel.” Twitter. 20 April 2017. https://twitter.com/NickiColey/status/855192572507107328

@sapphicgeek. “As someone who works in a comic store, Marvel can fuck off with this nonsense. My grandfather was an Allied soldier captured by the Nazis.” Twitter. 20 April 2017. https://twitter.com/sapphicgeek/status/855189506550624264

Holub, Christian. “Secret Empire creators preview Captain America’s assault on the Marvel Universe.” Entertainment Weekly. 7 April 2017.

Hayden, Erik. “Reclusive Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter Photographed in Public at Trump Event.” The Hollywood Reporter. 28 December 2016.

Huddleston, Tom Jr. “Why Donald Trump Gave Marvel’s CEO a Shout-Out in His Press Conference.” Fortune. 11 January 2017.