You might have seen a version of this question play out on social media in recent months. It started with a meme of Richard Spencer — a white nationalist — being socked in the face by a member of Antifa — an extra-legal group that wears a sort of uniform, including mask, and takes to the streets fighting against (perceived, at least) injustice.
The simple answer is yeah, Superman would punch a Nazi, and so would almost all of the creators of our favorite comic characters, most especially Jack “the King” Kirby. Despite this being a somewhat common sense answer, it’s caused a lot of contention.
The Punch Heard Round the World — or, at least, everywhere on Twitter — sparked an argument about whether or not violence was ever okay, especially against speech, even hate speech. Comic creators quickly got involved. Some, like Warren Ellis and Space Goat Productions (which is publishing an upcoming anthology called Nazi Puncher) were for punching Nazis. And some… were against.
One of the most famous of the comic creators who came out against punching Nazis was Nick Spencer, the current writer of both Captain America series as well as Secret Empire, a comic about how Captain America is secretly a member of Hydra, a Nazi-associated supervillain secret society. Spencer argued that punching Nazis is a slippery slope, and as some people say he himself is a Nazi, he’s rightly scared that he’ll get punched.
But he didn’t stop there. Spencer continued arguing against all forms of violence, even saying that the creators of our favorite comic superheroes wouldn’t want us to punch Nazis. He said that believing cape comics are a call to vigilantism is a sign you need some professional help.
So is he right?
Jack Kirby, the co-creator of Captain America, once said that his politics boiled down to “If a guy liked Hitler, I’d beat the stuffing out of him and that would be it.” Snopes dedicated an entire article how pro-punching-Nazis the man was (spoiler alert: he was very). The famous first cover of Captain America shows Cap whopping Hitler in the face while covered in a costume version of the flag.
Granted, Jack Kirby was the type who regularly got into fights for fun (and to study how others fought) but a lot of the other comic creators of the time were making their views on Nazism pretty clear.
For instance, Superman, created by Jewish writer Jerry Siegel and Jewish artist Joe Shuster, was manhandling Hitler before we were in a war with him. Joseph Goebbls even called Superman Jewish, which he meant as a bad thing. William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman as a direct attack against Nazis (although he’d probably be against punching them, thinking it too “masculine”).
Undoubtedly, the early comic creators were very much against Nazis — even to the point of fighting them in the streets if need be. But stories must also stand apart from their creators. What do comics actually say? Are comics a call to street level vigilantism?
Cape comics are about vigilantism. From the tallest to the smallest (which in this case could even be the same person), every single superhero engages in vigilantism. Comics do like to play with whether or not that’s a good thing — there’s been two comic book civil wars about it, and there are innumerable Batman stories that ask whether he's responsible for the masked monsters terrorizing Gotham — but for the most part, the story eventually comes down on vigilantism being A-OK.
Of course, in most cases, superheroes intervene when a crime is committed. Richard Spencer wasn’t committing a crime when he was punched; he was just loudly proclaiming that white people were superior and questioning whether Jewish people were really people. Mind-numbingly evil, but not actually illegal, at least in the country in which he was saying it.
To figure out what comics think about this, we would need to look at people who operate in the bounds of the law, while doing disgustingly horrible things. Somewhat unsurprisingly, there is a surplus of evil characters in comics who operate inside the law.
There are corrupt businessmen (perhaps most famous of which is Lex Luthor), there are leaders of hate movements (such as the villainous preacher William Stryker from the seminal X-Men comic God Loves, Man Kills), and there’s those who sow dissent in order to create mayhem and havoc — although, since it’s comics, sometimes these people are doing their evil deeds with tools such as H-rays or the power of a psychic cadaver’s brain.
Throughout comic history, heroes have taken (a rather violent) stand against all of them. Superman began his career — his first issue even — breaking into the governor’s mansion, beating a domestic abuser, before moving on to terrorizing lobbyists. In the 2011 New 52 reboot, his first act as Superman was to hold a businessmen over a ledge and threaten to drop him if he didn’t change his ways, before running away from pursuing police.
Superman’s not alone. A lot of superheroes fight people who aren’t technically doing anything illegal.
Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right
Of course then we come to an even bigger point. Being a superhero in and of itself is illegal, but it’s the moral thing to do. Comics deal with the idea of superheroes being illegal head on. That’s why Spider-Man and Batman spend half their time fighting police. The Marvel’s original Civil War arc is just one of many comics dealing with the idea that state-sanctioned violence might be legal — but if you’re truly a hero, you’ll fight injustice no matter what. And during Civil War, the side of the heroes was led by none other than the Star Spangled Man with a plan.
And really, doesn’t this all come down to Captain America? He began his career punching Nazis, one of his creators made a hobby of it, and it’s his current writer who has made waves by asserting that comics aren’t a call to vigilantism.
Captain America has always stood for what’s right, not what’s legal. Captain America would punch a Nazi. He’s given up his identity, and planted himself like a tree, showing that he stands for nothing but the dream — because Cap knows that sometimes the establishment is wrong and needs to be fought. When the establishment is corrupt, Captain America will be there, standing against it the tide of evil, shield up, ready to fight.
Cape comics are about being the best you can — holding true to your values and learning to never give up, even if all the odds are against you. Heroes, as Aunt May put it, are in all of us, teaching us to be noble, and stand for what is good and true. When you see someone hurting, you help them; when you see someone in danger, you defend them; and when someone falls, you avenge them. You protect people and you care about them — and sometimes, yeah, that means getting your knuckles bloody.
But let’s get down to brass tacks — cut out all the fancy talk and feelings. Would Superman punch a Nazi? Would Captain America actually fight a member of the alt-right?
We’ll let Captain America actor Chris Evans field this one. After an alt-right man punched a woman in the nose, his identity was revealed online as Nathan Damigo. Chris Evans retweeted an image of the man saying, “I hope I run into Nathan.” Go get ‘em, Cap!
Tara Marie is just a girl in love with Spider-Gwen. Follow her @gtaramarie — you know, if you feel like it.