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Friday, May 5, 2017

Panel Vision - History of Hydra

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There’s been a lot of chatter in the online comic circles lately about the fictional organization Hydra.  A lot of this has come out of Marvel’s big, 2017 comic event Secret Empire, a follow-up to Nick Spencer’s Captain America work where it was revealed Captain America was secretly a member of Hydra all along.  Admittedly, the real mechanics of Secret Empire are shaping up to be a lot more complicated than that, with one of the biggest issues of contention being the comics’ emphasis on separating Hydra from the Nazis within the fictional universe.  

This is a distinction made all the more complicated by the fact Marvel has been pushing “Hydra as Nazis” in the films since Captain America: First Avenger and even more so as part of the current Agents of SHIELD storyline about a simulated world ruled by Hydra.  With the comics and superhero fan communities abuzz over the topic of fictional fascists and what we’re allowed to feel about them, I figured it was well past time to do a deep dive into the actual history of Hydra. 

Hydra first premiered in the Marvel Universe in 1965 as an antagonist for Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD.  Even though a lot of the visual components were there for the team and definitely SHIELD, this was a very different version of Hydra from the one that would come to be established.  Their closest point of comparison in this form is SPECTRE, the James Bond antagonist organization that premiered in 1961 in the novels and 1962 in the films.   

For context, James Bond had just enjoyed his most successful film of the original series Thunderball that year, and Donald Pleasence’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld had become an instant icon of the franchise as a result.  Marvel, constantly with an ear to the ground in search of viable genres to crib from, hoping to turn Nick Fury and SHIELD into a sort of Americanized comic book answer to James Bond in terms of the high fantasy/sci-fi spy caper genre so giving them an antagonist like Hydra was a logically lateral move. 

This version of Hydra had the uniforms and the chant, but we really didn’t learn anything about them or their goals.  We knew they were bad and had limitless resources to equal SHIELD, but they weren’t sporting any kind of ideology or even a connection to previous characters.  Their leader was actually the incredibly non-descript Arnold Brown, who was killed that issue when SHIELD seemed to crush Hydra.  

They were clearly intended as just one-off bad guys, all of which changed a few years later as Marvel’s attempts at having a shared universe really started to take off.  In particular, it was 1968 when Marvel launched solo comics for Captain America, Nick Fury, and Iron Man.  These three served to create the sound basis for Marvel’s Earth-based spy/espionage/contemporary sci-fi material as their shared universes began to form into hierarchy and canon.  A big part of that was Marvel turning old one-off bad guys into reoccurring threats and larger organizations, which is what happened to Hydra.

By this point, Marvel had quite a few evil organizations and bad guys knocking about, especially ones tied to Cap and Nick Fury.  So, the decision eventually became to take Hydra and have it run by an old Nick Fury bad guy called Baron Strucker, a Nazi super villain from Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos a World War 2 set comic that preceded Nick’s career at SHIELD.  In addition to Strucker, they also decided to incorporate Captain America bad guy the Red Skull and his secret organization AIM, which had been returned to continuity and invented respectively in 1966.  

Now the idea was that Strucker and Hydra were the master organization and that Skull’s AIM was Hydra’s science division.  Throughout the ‘70s Hydra leadership primarily ping-ponged between these two and has passed to various other Captain America enemies like Baron Zemo, Madame Hydra, Arnim Zola, and MODOK.  The only significant change that happened was that Hydra’s organization eventually splintered, with AIM becoming their own organization, then things got weird. 

Bare with me here as this where things stop being explicated and we switch over to extrapolation from real world events, the convoluted mythology of Jonathan Hickman, and comics Marvel doesn’t own the rights to anymore.  So, in the late 2000s, Jonathan Hickman was just starting out his Marvel career and penned 2 comics that were meant to seriously alter the way we think about both Hydra and SHIELD.  The first book was Secret Warriors, about Nick Fury’s secret team of the children of low-level superheroes.  

This book ended up introducing the idea Hydra actually had origins stretching back to Ancient Egypt, though records tailed off at the Renaissance.  Most of that was passed over at the time in favor of the bigger revelation that Hydra was run by a council of leaders, each with a unique agenda thus explaining Hydra’s sometimes-contradictory goals or dominions. 

However, in 2010 Hickman wrote the book S.H.I.E.L.D. about an ancient secret society of real world and Marvel universes geniuses that acted as the precursor to the spy organization down through history.  The group, known as the Brotherhood of the SHIELD, was truly defined in the Renaissance but had their origins in Ancient Egypt, and so the plot thickens.  It turns out there was a parallel group known as the Brotherhood of the Spear.  

However, they fell under the influence of mysterious robed reptile people from parts unknown.  In case you hadn’t figured it out it’s heavily implied, though never really spelled out as this is a Jonathan Hickman book and one that’s rarely recognized, that the Brotherhood of the Spear became Hydra when it was corrupted by the Snake-People.  “But who are the Snake People?” You ask, well this is where Conan comes into it. 

Back in the ‘70s, Marvel owned the publishing rights to a bunch of fantasy characters because the big 2 had decided to try and diversify as their core market started getting a bit older.  The two flagships of Marvel’s fantasy line were Conan, the Barbarian, and Kull of Atlantis, a pair of Robert E. Howard creations.  Despite Marvel not owning the rights to these two, they still decided to basically grind up their shared mythos and blend it right into the Marvel mainstream, mainly by tying the big cosmic stuff to things established in Dr. Strange.  

The crux of this was 4 Elder Gods that ruled primordial Earth- Gaea, Oshtur, Chthon, and Set.  Set is most important, a villainous God of Chaos that appeared as a many-headed serpent and created an entire race of snake men to do his bidding.  For those still not seeing it- the Serpent-Men of Set, a chaos cult from the pages of Kull, are ALSO the snake men who corrupted the Brotherhood of the Spear in Ancient Egypt.

Now, while all of this is wonderfully complicated in how it involves elder gods and copyright law, let’s take things one-step further by bringing the real life Nazis into it.  So if you’re not that familiar with Nazis, a big part of their inner circle philosophy was that the German race was the descendants of a long lost Master Race called Aryans. 

This idea came from a now-defunct theory that there was a single race somewhere in the Eurasian steps that were the progenitors of all European white people, with the name “Aryan” coming from a random tribe designation in the area around modern day Iran, Pakistan, and India.  The thing is that at the same time all this race-based non-science was happening there was also a lot of ancient religion based non-science going on in the emerging field of occultism.  How do these two things go together and where does this fit in with the Serpent-Men? 

Well, the thing is that the Nazi leaders were huge into occultism as well as genetic quackery so when the two fields came together in a bizarre fringe theory, they immediately jumped on the idea.  Put forth initially by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott, the idea was that, based loosely on ancient Hindu texts, the Aryans were actually genetically superior survivors from the lost civilization of Atlantis. 

Now that means bugger all for us in the real world but in the Marvel Universe Atlantis was an entirely real thing and more than that it’s ancient history is laid out in the adventures of Kull, with one of its biggest components being the Serpent-Men of Set.  Putting this all together, the best chart to understand Hydra’s history is that after the Serpent-Men’s corrupted version of the Brotherhood of the Spear had fallen apart in the Renaissance, the trappings of their cult were scooped up by the Nazis as part of their obsession with Atlantis as a font of racial purity. 

I’m not really sure I have a point to make here other than that I really love how convoluted this mythology is and the way it all actually comes together even though it clearly wasn’t intended to.  If you were hoping for a nice, tidy and clear historical answer of “Hydra were always Nazis” well, I’m sorry, but that’s not really the case.  The actual Nazism of the group has always been more of a sliding scale, which is part of why we excuse characters like Bob, Agent of Hydra, and at the same time, their actual nebulous history with the ideology makes for a fascinating archeological mystery all its own. 

The ultimate truth of Hydra’s origin and identity is that they’ve never really meant anything; they were just bad guys to sub in and fight the hero that week.  Obviously I’m not trying to whitewash the Nazis out of Marvel history, Marvel’s been perfectly capable of doing that themselves since the very beginning.  Though, if you do want a catchy summation of Hydra’s history it’d be that whatever the greatest evil of the age is that’s where you’ll find Hydra, that was their identity from the start, after all: the bad guys. 

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