“I want you to know,” said John, “that you completely ruined Captain America for me.”
This was last summer at our local SF convention, Bubonicon. (Which, yes, is named after the bubonic plague. But that’s another story.) John and I belong to the same writing community here in New Mexico, so we chat from time to time. But we didn’t see this movie together, or even in the same city. Which made his complaint a bit confusing to me.
“Oh, about 20 minutes in,” he said, “my wife leaned over and said, ‘Hey! He looks like Ian!’ So all through the rest of the movie I kept picturing you up there fighting Nazis.”
Steve Stirling overheard our conversation. He joined us, nodding. “Yeah. Me, too.”
And so it became a running joke at last year’s convention. (A joke at my expense, naturally. But I refuse to carry a shield.) Fast forward 10 months to last weekend, when I shared this story with a visiting friend. Corry said, without missing a beat, “We saw it on video recently. I told my husband, ‘That’s what Ian looks like.'”
Now, if you ask me, these people are quite mad. There isn’t the slightest resemblance. But when I object, they’re always quick to clarify: No, we didn’t mean the strong, square-jawed, charismatic Captain America. We mean the early version of Steve Rogers. The pre-super-soldier-serum, pre-Vita-Ray Steve Rogers. Of course you don’t resemble the superhero, Ian. We meant the scrawny runt.
Aside from my desperate need for a solid dose of serum and Vita-Rays, I share little in common with young Rogers, much less his superheroic alter ego. I’ve never punched Hitler. Not even once. (I’m not saying I wouldn’t, but I’ve never had a chance.) I have, however, used Nazis and superpowers in my novels, which meant I was firmly embedded in the target audience for Captain America.
And Steve Rogers and I would surely agree on one thing: Nazis are a pain in the neck. For him, fighting them. For me, writing them.
I expended a fair bit of time and energy ruminating on the fictional superpowered agents of the Third Reich in Bitter Seeds (UK | ANZ). I wanted to tell myself an entertaining adventure story; something chewy and fun, like a good comic book. But I also wanted to tell a story that could be molded around the nooks and crannies of history. So I had to think carefully about the grim realities of the Third Reich, which forced me to consider carefully the portrayal of Nazis in my novel. And I did. I thought long and very hard about how to approach these books before I started.
Nazis can quickly overwhelm or derail a story in ways that many other historical baddies don’t. Once a writer decides to set a story in the Third Reich, or to use National Socialism as a piece of plot, the question of tone becomes fraught indeed. Consequently, media portrayals of National Socialism and its agents range across a wide spectrum. It stretches from the idiotically ineffectual television Nazis of “Hogan’s Heroes” all the way to the sickening historical reality of Schindler’s List, The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The farther a story lands along that spectrum, the more unflinchingly it tackles the darkest subject matter. The entertainment becomes less about humor, less about adventure, and more thought-provoking.
Near one end live the campy entertaining Nazis, such as those who populate movies like Iron Sky and the “Indiana Jones” franchise. Captain America’s nemesis, the Red Skull, lives somewhere in this neighborhood of the Venn diagram. Closer to the middle of the spectrum, the characterizations become less campy, less ineffectual, and more sinister. The idealists of The Boys from Brazil might belong here, or the infamous dentist from The Marathon Man. Even farther down the line, Nazis can be idealized yet riveting and deeply sinister all at the same time; just witness Standartenführer Landa of Inglourious Basterds.
So where do the agents of Bitter Seeds belong? Perhaps it’s not for me to say. But do I hope they’re not making small talk with Hogan’s Heroes. As I’ve said, Klaus, Gretel, and their colleagues are meant to be characters in what is (I hope) an entertaining adventure story. Something crunchy, like a comic book . . . but not quite in Red Skull territory. The goal was a story that gave a respectful nod to history even as it went off in its own direction.
Because all through the writing of Bitter Seeds and its sequels I was achingly aware of the horrible true history even as I did violence to it. In the end, I decided to approach the subject discreetly by attempting to make the atmosphere of the novels one where an atrocity such as the Final Solution could be unfolding just off the side of the page. That was my way of acknowledging how the story could never have been possible outside an environment where a horror like the Holocaust was taking place. (That might be why fellow writer Daniel Abraham once jokingly referred to Bitter Seeds as “Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Hellboy'”. I wish.)
The mad Doctor von Westarp carries out grisly human experimentation (which amounts, the vast majority of the time, to murder) in the service of what he believes is a higher ideal. His efforts eventually become institutionalized and formalized by the Third Reich. That backdrop to the story is meant to echo the Holocaust. And it’s no accident that von Westarp’s fictional farm is situated fairly close to the real-world site of Buchenwald. Early in the novel, we see that when von Westarp’s übermenschen need live targets upon whom to practice their powers, the SS sends over a truckload of prisoners from the camp.
In the end, I tried to split the difference between grim history and adventure fiction. I don’t know how well I succeeded, but that’s to be expected.
After all, I still don’t see the resemblance to Steve Rogers.