Wednesday, May 10, 2017

a primer on nick spencer's shitty politics

Nick Spencer is a freelance writer for Marvel Comics who decided to make Captain America a nazi for some reason. Over the last year or so, he's feigned shock at the negative feedback he's been getting from fans because...I don't know...censorship, or something? At least that's his most recent stance in what has been a yearlong parade of incoherent tweets and interviews about how his comic relates to the real world and how the people who criticize his art and politics are somehow stirring up real-life violence against him, oppressing creators, ruining comics for everyone, etc.

A thing I've noticed about arguing with Nick Spencer is that it's very boring, and also pointless. But at the same time, watching him argue with other people becomes a lot more interesting when you've made even a cursory examination of Spencer's past as a failed politician in Cincinnati, Ohio. His shitty politics have a bearing--even if it's not necessarily direct--on his Capt. America storyline, his incessant tweeting (particularly with regard to diversity issues at Marvel), his vocal critique of the badass patriot who punched nazi publicist Richard Spencer in the face, and even Marvel's attitude toward the Captain America blowback in general. The problem is that information about Nick Spencer the Politician is sort of a pain in the ass to find because we're talking about 2003 to 2005-era Internet...about politics in Cincinnati...much of which appeared on his campaign blogs, which he has since deleted.

I'm not here to offer any analysis about Capt. America because let's be real: I don't care. This post is just a quick resource for anyone who's interested in Spencer's political past, but doesn't feel inclined to dig around for it. Most of it is in Nick Spencer's own words.

Before we get going, a quick FAQ:

Are you suggesting that Nick Spencer is a nazi?
No. But I see fascist tendencies in his call to eliminate social services in Cincinnati to fund the rapid expansion of broken-window policing. 

What are his politics, then?
Spencer identifies as liberal these days, but in 2005, when he called himself a Republican, his political platform was rooted in elitism, white fear, and subjugating small-time criminals. The running themes I see now that he's "liberal" are a blind faith in authority, pathological self-involvement, and a weird persecution complex. 

Are you biased?
Yes! Nick Spencer is an asshole. 

I. Background
Nick Spencer ran for a seat on the Cincinnati City Council in 2003 and 2005. He lost both times, coming in 21st and 17th place, respectively. He had a website for both campaigns, got some press (local and national), and was part of a vibrant community of unhinged bloggers around the Cincinnati area.

II. Political Platform
This post focuses on Spencer's 2005 campaign, when his platform was eliminating human services in Cincinnati, beefing up its police force, expanding its jails, and ridding its streets of criminals and homeless people.

In terms of primary sources, first and foremost we have "Fighting for a Safer Community," Spencer's "detailed Action Agenda for taking on the criminals terrorizing our streets." This is an official document from his 2005 campaign. Note that all quotes in this section are from that doc unless otherwise noted, and the ital is always mine.

"Cincinnati's Neighborhoods are under attack," Spencer wrote. "As an Over-the-Rhine resident and business owner, I've seen firsthand what violent crime and drugs can do to destroy a neighborhood. I've gone up against the dealers and thugs in an effort to clean up my block and make it safe for my customers, my friends, and my loved ones. I'm tired of seeing this lawless disregard for order, and I won't rest until I've made all of our neighborhoods safe again."

Here's how Spencer proposed to make Cincinatti's neighborhoods more safe:
  • Hire more police. "On Council, I will propose adding at least 200 new recruits to the ranks of our police department, over the next 4-5 years."
  • Adopt Rudy Giuliani's broken-window policing strategies. 
    • Spencer wanted to crack down on "quality of life" crimes (which he sort of misdefined, but whatever). 
      • "When violent crimes are often the most noticed, the reality is that most violence springs from illicit trades referred to as 'Quality of Life' crimes. In order to prevent more homicides and shootings, our city must adopt a zero tolerance policy towards drug dealing, prostitution, car break-ins and theft, and curfew violations. ... I will propose increased penalties for drug and prostitution crimes, and will work with the police ttake back our neighborhoods through anti-drug barricades, undercover vice efforts, and crime sweeps."  
    • Spencer wanted to implement CompStat, the software that was developed under Giuliani in conjunction with stop and frisk and broken-windows policing in New York City. 
      • Here's Spencer: "The [CompStat] program collects, analyzes and electronically maps crime and quality of life data in breathtaking detail, helping the Police determine where to deploy their resources most effectively. The Cincinnati Neighborhood Support Center, a non-profit group, has offered to coordinate a full Compstat evaluation of the city. I will work to provide funding for this initiative...."
    • Spencer wanted to beef up police surveillance.
      • "I will push to give police and neighborhood safety groups the tools they need to disrupt and destroy the corner drug trade that's slowly killing many of our neighborhoods. Through new technology like surveillance cameras and gunshot sensors...we can reclaim our corners."
  • Expand jailing capacity. Once Spencer helped implement more aggressive policing of Cincinnati's most troubled neighborhoods (which were already quite aggressively--and ineffectively--policed), the city was going to need more room for all those newly minted criminals. 
    • No problem! Here's Spencer: "Criminals are being released for serious crimes like drug dealing and prostitution just moments after their initial arrest. I will work with the County Government to find a suitable site for a new jail facility...."
  • Totally defund social services. Spencer knew that those 200 new police officers he planned to hire weren't going to come cheap. His idea? Cut social services funding for the city in its entirety. 
    • "To help pay for these staffing increases ($8.6 million per year)...I will also propose elimination of the Human Services Budget (typically $4 million per year), with the dollars instead going to payroll for safety employees."
  • Displace squatters. Spencer wanted to create (or expand?) a "Blight Team" to root squatters out of buildings. 
    • "We must crack down on absentee landlords who offer safe haven to the criminals terrorizing our streets. ... I will work to expand and strengthen City Hall's Blight Team, which is responsible for targeting troubled buildings throughout the city and enforcing building and code violations."
  • Use eminent domain to relocate homeless shelters and services out of the neighborhood where he lived and worked. Per Cincinnati CityBeat, Spencer's 2005 campaign blog called on the mayor of Cincinnati to use eminent domain against Mary Magdalene House (a homeless shelter) and the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.
    • Here's Spencer: "It's time to stop playing around and get tough here. ... The city must use all of its powers to protect the civic and financial investments that have been made in the area. The glut of social services that encourage panhandling in the district must be addressed."
    • You read that correctly. Nick Spencer described organizations dedicated to helping homeless people as a "glut of social services that encourage panhandling." 

III. Gentrification Efforts and Racist Blogging
If you poke around the materials surrounding Nick Spencer's failed political career for long enough, you'll notice that when he touts his leadership in the community, he talks about "rebuilding" (i.e., gentrifying) Over-the-Rhine, the Cincinnati neighborhood where he lived and worked. Over-the-Rhine was of course at the center of the Cincinnati riots of 2001, which followed the acquittal of the white police officer who murdered Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black teenager. The riots left a big impression on Spencer--not as a symbol of racial inequity in his city, but for their economic impact on Over-the-Rhine (both in terms of property damage during the riots themselves, and the boycott of downtown businesses that followed). Economic prosperity was an important issue to Spencer, who (along with some other guys) owned an Over-the-Rhine bar called alchemize (lowercase a), where he used to spin tunes once a month under the moniker of DJ Nick.

In his writings, Spencer frequently attributed all the lawlessness and blight he saw in the streets of Over-the-Rhine to "thugs" and "prostitutes." This is how Spencer conceived of economic and racial disparities in the rapidly gentrifying area of downtown Cincinnati: (black) thugs and prostitutes vs. (white) business owners like him who had dedicated themselves to the virtuous cause of "revitalization" (i.e., making money). In his official campaign materials he's careful to totally scrub these issues of any mention of race, though anyone who knows anything about broken-window policing can read between the lines easily enough. But Spencer was much more explicit about who exactly he sees as the criminal class on his blog, where he frequently let his hair down and got racist af.
  • Here's Nick Spencer blaming a local shootout on a black radio station owner and a rap song (about racial profiling, of all things): 
Just to be clear, African-American Ross Love was a radio station owner in Cincinnati (though not at the time of that shootout, according to the blog where I found these Nick Spencer quotes), and "Ridin'" is a rap about police brutality against black people. They weren't related to the shooting in any way.
  • Here's Spencer blaming the same shootout on random black club owners: 
The above is just one example of how Spencer routinely characterizes black people as "drug dealers." These club owners didn't have anything to do with the shootout he's talking about, either.
  • Here's Spencer talking about his plans to spearhead a community effort to block the same black club owners from leasing a space in Over-the-Rhine:
  • Here's Spencer making fun of a black mother for worrying about the way in which the police handled the arrest of her 18-year-old child: 

"Hilarious." --Nick Spencer on police brutality

IV. Spencer's Persecution Complex
Nick Spencer wanted to terrorize, incarcerate, and otherwise displace poor people and small-time criminals first and foremost for business reasons, but he also believed that his personal safety was on the line. Personal safety is another running theme you'll notice if you take the time to look at what Nick Spencer has written over the years. Take, for example, this early 2005 blog post in which Spencer seems to believe that he was being pursued by a cabal of "drug dealer and hooker" assassins:

His paranoid campaign to paint (presumably) unarmed criminals as violent psychopaths who were hellbent on ruining his life continued through the remainder of his campaign. Check out this incredible excerpt from "Spencer Under Siege," a June 2005 article from CityBeat:

Note the invocation of an imaginary gun: "When the pimp reached into a corner trash can, Spencer thought that he was going for a stashed gun. He drove off before seeing what came up in the man's hand."

V. Conclusions 
The intersection of art and the political ideologies of creators is far from straightforward. I leave you to your own conclusions. I just want to state for the record that Nick Spencer's political campaign in 2005 involved a proposal to eliminate all human services in the city of Cincinnati in order to fund the brutalization, imprisonment, and/or relocation of the poor black people that he worried were devaluing his bar and threatening his safety. He also, behind the scenes, routinely lobbed ludicrous allegations of responsibility against black business owners regarding crimes that they plainly had nothing to do with. Ultimately, Nick Spencer "revitalized" downtown Cincinnati by getting evicted, stiffing contractors, and moving to another state to begin his new life as a comics writer. He now spends his days writing stories about how Captain America is a nazi and feeling persecuted by social justice warriors and comics critics on Twitter dot com.



  1. This... Really creeps me out. The villains in Sam Wilson: Captain America where racists and militarized police. I thought the writer was, y'now, a proponent of the exact opposite of what his actual politics seem to be.

  2. Hey, Kim! This is a great piece and very relevant to our interests. Can you email me at kaila [at] the Thanks!

  3. Wow.

    REALLY interesting after reading The Fix which is 100% about how corrupt and terrible the police are, and doesn't really have any other themes.

    (Also, I really liked it. But I'm a Miles Davis fan and generally assume any artist I appreciate is a terrible human being anyway.)

  4. Bravo. People talk about "comics journalism" as though it's a thing that exists. It doesn't! But with pieces like this around it's got a chance. Thank you.

  5. How in the world does Marvel end up giving this guy the reins to one of the most beloved comics characters of all time? I have to assume they didn't know this stuff was out there, as they have to know what a bad look this is. Not that that's an excuse - the information was obviously out there for someone willing to do the work.

    Now, if they hire Scott Adams to write Spider-Man I might have to rethink that assessment.

    1. Marvel's current president, Issac Perlmutter, politically speaking probably thinks Nick Spencer is the bees knees.

  6. His Hillary tweets reeked of being a neo-con and oligarchy sycophant. This reveal doesn't shock me in the least.

  7. I'm floored that Marvel would give this much wide ranging power to disrupt an iconic character to a freelancer. I wonder how many people there are at Disney right now, gnashing their teeth and angrily whispering to themselves, "end this, end this now, end this" as they watch the negative press pile up.

  8. I presume Spencer landed his cherry Marvel gigs the way people often do: he demonstrated reliability in producing timely scripts that captured some audience attention. Specifically, Spencer was the writer behind "Morning Glories", one of those inexplicably popular Image series that are basically cable television shows on paper... that shit ran for *50* issues, and he was already scoring periphery superhero gigs when that project started up, presumably off the back of his earlier Image works and/or whatever professional or social media connections he'd built up. I actually don't think anyone at Marvel bothered to look at his political career, or if they did they didn't really care; he'd demonstrated an ability at sustained, longform serial writing with some good return, and the calculus probably didn't go much further than that. This is basically the same way Brian Bendis got into Marvel, albeit much more quickly.

    As for why they did this storyline with Captain America - again, it's not so different from the sort of ultra-simplistic 'relevant' content Marvel has chased for a long while... the first "Civil War" being a prime example. I doubt anyone on the inside saw this as anything different from some good-ass pro wrestling storyline where the hero turns heel and then, once you've spent money on that, you get to spend money again on the catharsis of seeing him be good again. Whether Spencer's own initiative or an editorial product -- or, likely, a combination of both -- I can 100% see the right people at Marvel getting excited over the moneymaking potential; I think they only really see things in those terms, lashed forever to the simple generic structures on which they rely, and as a result could not see the implications of what they are playing with in terms of media-political iconography.

    Not that I have any inside info... but I suspect this is what happened.

    1. Moneymaking potential by capitalizing on HYDRA iconography and playing up HYDRA as having a rebel element inside of it. To sell HYDRA merch while ditching the Nazi associations? There is an audience for that.

    2. Joe, I'm always a lot less informed than you but fwiw I totally agree. A lot of people seem to think that Spencer (b/c he was writing Capt. America in particular, I guess?) should have been better vetted by Marvel. I don't really agree. But at the same time all indications are that Spencer has been a good cultural fit at Marvel (even as a freelancer), which is meaningful. As you suggest, even if they'd known, I doubt it would've stood out to them in any way.

      I think the stuff with the storyline just comes down to Marvel's total inability to read the room. The idea that any of those guys thought that fans weren't going to love this stuff is nuts. That Spencer has tried to make it into a whole thing about artistic integrity is pretty amusing.

      My own problem with Spencer has a less to do with his artistic choices and a lot more to do with the way in which he has gone about defending them.

    3. Yeah... to be clear, I don't disagree with anything you've written! But, some of the comments here reflect a general confusion (which I've also seen on Twitter) as to how this storyline happened and how Spencer was put into a position to write it, which I think is most readily explicable by just looking to how Marvel has operated in the past; inability to read the room is a good way of putting it.

    4. Yeah, totally. I see a lot of confusion, too. There always is, in the chatter surrounding Marvel controversies. Maybe someone will organize a roundtable someday…I think a real conversation would be interesting.

      With my post, a lot of the conclusions I’ve seen just seem broad or wrong, whether it’s ‘fire Spencer, he’s a nazi!’ or ‘that was 12 years ago, people change.’ I don’t really fault them for the hire. Whether or not Spencer should be fired--and for what--is sort of a matter of opinion, at least for fans. As a business, Marvel should consider the opinions of its market. Instead they refer to those opinions as ‘fan entitlement’ and ignore them, or belittle them, or condescend to them. Treating your customers with plain contempt like that…that’s never a great idea.

      I think the paradox that drives a lot of these Marvel controversies is that many fans make the mistake of thinking that a corporation has moral accountability for what they do with properties like Capt. America. They don’t, just by definition. (Nick Spencer…arguably, that’s where the moral accountability is.) But at the same time, just because Marvel’s a corporation doesn’t mean that its hiring decisions are getting made in terms of pure business.

      IMO there’s likely a business case for firing Spencer (for damaging their brand, with his work and his behavior and twitter, etc) but I don’t see it happening. Anyway I don’t presume to explain any of this to the likes of you. Just thinking out loud.

  9. Since when is wanting more police and having them deployed in a way to get criminals off the street a bad idea? I guess drug dealers and the other crime that comes with them are not a problem for most elitist liberals living in their ivory towers. Car break ins and theft are not a problem till it happens to you. Sure trying to shoe homeless shelters out of a neighborhood where people probably need help the most is more than likely going too far. I also think that we throw the term fascist around way too much these days. Most people that do seem to have a very tenuous grasp on history.

    1. Yeah, those right-wingers who see nothing wrong with criminalizing poor people because of their race and assuming you're under personal attack for something the few actual criminals involved would know nothing about really don't understand fascism when they claim it's a left-wing political approach. And the people who want to kill off social services in the name of turning their city into a police state targeting said poor people of color also fall into that category from what I've seen. Yep, a real problem.

  10. So let me get this straight, the dude didn't like the criminals who lived in his neighborhood, was (understandably) worried said criminals might hurt him (but that's just a "persecution complex") and when he saw a dude going for a gun and got the hell out of there, that makes the gun "imaginary" because he didn't wait to see it and be shot by it?

    Makes perfect sense!

    1. He didn't even see a dude going for a gun. He saw him reaching into a trash can. Reading comprehension isn't that hard.

      It also isn't the first time someone masks their attempts to get "petty crime" off the streets as an excuse to push poor people and PoC out of places they've lived for decades, just so they can make a little more scratch. It's called gentrification, my guy.

    2. "when he saw a dude going for a gun and got the hell out of there, that makes the gun "imaginary" because he didn't wait to see it and be shot by it?"

      We don't know if there was or wasn't a gun. So if anything, it's conjectural, if not imaginary. This is like saying, "I saw a shadow in my yard. Clearly, it was Bigfoot, but I didn't stick around to see it", and then expecting everyone to believe it was Bigfoot after all.

    3. Not to mention the author is directly comparing Spencer's predisposition to put himself in the role of the victim as a defense of whatever unpopular/offensive thing he wants to say.

  11. Bleeding Cool did a good response to this article that sheds more light on the claims Kim is trying to make and what actually happened.

    1. By Rich Johnston's own admission he was fed the info that piece from Nick Spencer himself, though it goes unacknowledged in the piece. The fact that Spencer is still defending those '05 views--and has now shifted to doing surreptitiously, through Bleeding Cool--says it all.

    2. So what part of that article is incorrect? It has a lot more context than your piece does.

    3. I would also love specifics (and numbers) on how the $4 million that Spencer wanted to repurpose for additional police hiring equated to (and I quote your own words) his desire to "eliminate all human services in the city", when Cincinnati's budget totaled at or over $1 billion for both years of the biennial budget 2005-2006.

  12. Reading this just makes me feel even more icky about Spencer.