Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 was destined to be a highly anticipated comic by its name alone. The issue is the first time its titular character, the recently restored to youth original Captain America, has headlined a book in several years. On top of that, it was scheduled for release less than a month after the gargantuan success of Marvel Studios’ Captain America: Civil War. However, this past Tuesday that anticipation shifted into controversy when Marvel released the issue early, likely to compete with DC Universe Rebirth #1, and in turn revealed the shocking twist that ends the story.
Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 utilizes a dual-narrative structure, intertwining a flashback with a modern story. The issue begins in the flashback, establishing the setting as 1926 Brooklyn. A young woman, revealed to be Rogers’ mother Sarah, is being physically and emotionally abused by her husband right in front of her son. He’s physically incapacitated by a woman who identifies herself as Elisa Sinclair and offers to help them. Shifting back to the present we find Cap and his new team, little-used patriotic heroes Jack Flag and Free Spirit, battling Hydra forces who are attempting to suicide bomb a train. The team successfully rescues the train, but the young man still blows himself up.
The issue briefly shifts back to 1926 to show that Sinclair has taken the Rogers mother and son to dinner, treating them to a lavish meal. Back in the present, Steve meets with Sharon Carter and Maria Hill and is told that they’ve located Baron Zemo and his hostage Erik Selvig, both of whom have been missing since the end of the Standoff crossover. The team goes in and fight Zemo’s crew, eventually culminating with Cap finding Zemo and a bound and gagged Selvig on a jet. The villain gets the jump on the hero and almost throws him from the plane only to see Cap rescued by Jack Flag. The issue switches out of the blue back to 1926, and shows us Sinclair inviting Sarah to join her Civic League: Hydra. Back in the present, Steve is seemingly despondent at his rescue and tosses Flag out of the plane to his death. Captain America then proclaims “Hail Hydra” as an enraged Selvig looks on.
There’s a lot to unpack and discuss in Steve Rogers: Captain America #1, but the obvious place to start is, oddly enough, with the end. The seeming reveal that Captain America has actually been a deep-cover Hydra agent since he was a young boy caused a firestorm of controversy immediately upon its release. It’s led to countless op-ends, memes, social media outrage, a Time Magazine interview and even death threats for writer Nick Spencer. Personally, I’m a bit perplexed by all the outrage. Perhaps I’m too cynical about the comic book industry, but from a meta, outside the narrative standpoint, there’s no way this sticks. Either the story will reveal that Rogers is a triple agent, or operating in some anti-Hydra sect within the organization, or that when his youth was restored by Kobik she somehow altered his history. Beyond that, even if Spencer goes all the way with this story, there’s no way that it isn’t retconned the next time a big-time creator wants to work with the character or a Steve Rogers-helmed film is released.
As for how the twist works in the story itself, it’s too early to judge. My initial reaction was to think it made no sense as presented. For starters, the bound and gagged Selvig didn’t seem surprised by Cap’s actions, though clearly Hydra veteran Baron Zemo had no idea. Beyond that, I believe it will be very hard for Spencer to fit the reveal in with 75 years of Cap’s history without some kind of time travel changes. That said, I’m willing to let the story play out before I completely pan it. After all, I initially thought the concept of Bucky being not only alive but actually a Soviet assassin was one of the dumbest things I’d ever heard. Fast forward to 2016 and The Winter Soldier is one of the most beloved Marvel storylines of this century and the basis for two hugely successful motion pictures.
Putting the twist aside, I have mixed feelings on Steve Rogers: Captain America #1. The dueling narrative worked, though I would say that the 1926 flashback is the stronger of the two and I wish it had gotten a bit more pages. The book itself was also packed with political overtones. For example, in the midst of this fight, we get a smaller flashback showing how the suicide bomber was a child of a broken home affected by the recession who was recruited into the Hydra organization through a speech from Red Skull, the content of which could have been directly lifted from Donald Trump speeches. The Hydra organization itself is presented as a hybrid of American white supremacist groups and Isis. Personally, I liked these choices. However, I can see some thinking they were too on the nose. Character-wise, the issue is a bit hit or miss. Beyond the Cap twist, Carter, Hill, Flag and Free Spirit are given moments to shine, but in the end they all feel like glorified cameos. Flag especially is underutilized considering his supposed death is supposed to be a major emotional moment in the story.
Jesus Saiz’ art is the highlight of the book as far as I’m concerned. He does a great job with the modern day scenes, especially the action stuff. However, he truly shines during the 1926 flashbacks. The characters and backgrounds are beautifully rendered, to the point here I’d love to read a whole book drawn in that style. Beyond that, there may be a subtle story point in the flashback art. While the other characters are played in an almost monochrome palette, Sinclair has vibrant red coloring on her scarf, shoes, and hat that makes her standout from the environment almost appearing as she didn’t belong. While it could just be a way to make the character standout, I wonder if there’s more to it. Perhaps she stands out as such because she’s not natural to the period at all, some sort of temporal or alien entity whose travelled back in time and is changing the course of Steve’s life to cause the supposed Hydra allegiance.
Mainly due to its twist ending, Steve Rogers: Captain America has gotten more publicity than any other Marvel issue in recent years. For that reason alone I’d recommend it as necessary reading. Beyond that, those who enjoy politics and current events mixed with their superhero stories will enjoy it.