Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Captain America: Steve Rogers - Hail Hydra (comics)

Writer: Nick Spencer
Artists: Jesus Saiz, Javier Pina
Collects: Captain America: Steve Rogers #1-6 and FCBD 2016

This probably seemed like a better idea back when they pitched it in early 2016.

I'm not going to dance around any spoilers, because you already know the twist. It was all over the news. Even martians know the ending of issue one by now. Steve Rogers, Captain America, is an agent of Hydra and, thanks to the machinations of a cosmic cube, has had his memories altered so that he believes he was always a part of Hydra.

It's comic book-y as hell, but "good guy gone bad" stories are a classic trope for a reason. Even here, it's fairly well written and the story they're telling is kind of interesting. It is, after all, a story about how the most trusted, beloved figure in the Marvel universe, who everyone looks to for guidance or assistance, has been corrupted and how much damage he can do with that standing in the superhuman community. This one man could undermine the entire community, just because of who he is. That's compelling drama. Had they chosen anyone but Hydra, this story might have worked.

Unfortunately, media is not written or consumed in a political or societal vaccuum, so this book has some nasty implications that make it a difficult read.

There's the obvious issue, of course. When this was pitched, it was likely before everything blew up, but by the time the first issue actually released, we were neck deep in the primary season of 2016 and everyone knows how that went. The last issue collected here released two weeks before election day, roughly, and we all know how that went too, as well as how things spiraled downhill after that.

Marvel tries to pride itself on reflecting the real world in its spandex crime fighting, but there's a point where things can get a little too real. At the start of the last year of the Obama administration, the threat of white supremacists and fascists ending up with a foothold in the government probably felt like a remote possibility. By the time the last issue of this collection was out, it was a hairs breadth from reality. Reading this collection is an uncomfortable experience, because a symbol of America, one of the key figures to wear the colors of the country and represent it in pop culture, is running with white supremacists, with fascists, with Nazis.

Yes, Nazi's. I don't care what Marvel tries to say. They can downplay Hydras connection to Nazis all they want, but they're not fooling anyone. As a group, they've always had the mannerisms, the slogan, the actions and the atmosphere of Nazis. In the first Captain America film, they were a division of the Nazis outright. At this point in time, they're led by the Red Skull. The Red Skull. A Nazi agent since conception. There was even a miniseries where he was hanging with Hitler for a while there. There's no escaping this connection, whether they like it or not - and going by their interviews and how they've tried desperately to argue otherwise, they don't - and it means they've essentially had the symbol of America in their universe throw in with an organized, deadly, dangerous version of Neo-Nazis.

Worse still, the comic has a problem you might see occasionally in wrestling where the way everyone is written in the grand scheme of things leaves the villain correct in their gripes and motivations. When Steves thoughts turn to what a bunch of ineffectual, bickering children the other heroes are and how all they know to do is fight among themselves, it's hard to argue against, because he's absolutely correct. The last two issues of this trade are tie-ins to Civil War II, which is about the four hundredth instance of the Marvel superhero community splitting into sides and duking it out since the first Civil War. That's not really Nick Spencers fault, because it's how the greater universe is written, but it's a bitter pill when the corrupted hero working with Nazis kind of has a damn point. At this point, the heroes almost deserve to lose after going so long, in universe and out, without getting it together.

Like I said, it's uncomfortable all on its own; it's only compounded by what was happening at the time.

It's strange, because it's clear they knew they had a hard sell early and that people would not react kindly. The second issue, the one immediately after Captain America gives out a "Hail Hydra" on the last page of the first, it literally a "how it was done", almost as if to soothe fears and try to explain that no, it's not what you think it is, we know what we're doing, there's a plan. You might recall they tried a similar trick to pre-empt outrage and dampen it by having Peter the Whiny Ghost around in the early days of Superior Spider-Man, to annoying effect. That series worked out, but that has less real life baggage; it's sort of amazing to me that anyone greenlit this without someone saying "isn't this a bad idea?"

Can good writing salvage an idea like "Captain America throws in with Nazis"? I'm not convinced. But that's the conflict they have here. A decently written comic struggling against it's own ill conceived idea. It's the fact that it is decently written and somewhat compelling that I don't want to write it off. I gave Superior Spider-Man a chance, after all, and you might recall that it ended up being one of my favorite Spider-Man runs in a long time. But there's also the reality that this entire storyline is ending in an event series - because Marvel has not learned its lesson about diminishing returns, at least not when they started this - and those never end well. I think Siege was the last one I enjoyed. At least it knew to get it's shit in and get out in four issues, well before the fun wore out. I appreciated the brevity in an era when Marvel events drag on for nine plus issues.

I guess we'll see. I may see it through to the end, if only because it's not looking like a long storyline. They've got another trade before the event, Secret Empire, starts. I suspect they moved the conclusion up after things went downhill in the real world - I can't imagine they don't know full well the implications, with how things have changed since this story started - to get this out of the way, because it feels like something that might have festered a bit more in the background of the universe, in any other era. Or maybe this was always the plan and they've never met a bad idea they didn't like; they had Norman Osbourne running defense in the US for like two years worth of comics despite the fact that it made no goddamn sense, so who knows. Regardless, we'll see how it pans out. If the library stocks the rest, I might read and review it.

Now, after all that, it's worth addressing the art, because it's something I can feel good about with no reservations. It's clean, expressive and does its job well. There's an artist switch halfway through, as Javier Pina takes over for issues four through six, but he maintains visual continuity well enough that you might not notice. The only thing that stuck out for me was the depiction of Sharon Carter. She looks far older than the last time I remember seeing her. Is this a thing now? I haven't read a lot of Marvel over the past two years, so I'm not sure if something happened there. The last time I saw her show up was the Rick Remender run of Captain America. Maybe I'm just too far behind. In my defense, Marvel's kind of sucked the past couple years, in my opinion. I've had little interest in anything they were doing outside of whatever Jason Aaron is doing at any given time, which isn't much outside Thor.

The coloring in particular deserves a lot of praise. Whenever Steve Rogers goes too far or is in the midst of sinister machinations, the colors shift to a deep red background behind him - occasionally even bathing him in red light - which lends an eerie air reminding you of his true nature whenever it shows. An example is in the third issue. There's a lot of blue and other colors in each panel, but when Steve is on panel, beating the life out of Taskmaster for hitting Sharon, the deep red shows up. A page later, it's the same deal. Brighter colors while cleanup happens and Steve comforts Sharon, which switches back to red over Steve giving a sideways, troubled glance when it's announced someone he'd thought he'd killed has a pulse. It pulls back somewhat in the second half of the trade - Jesus Saiz colored his own work for the first half, which may explain it - but it's still there and still effective as a visual trick.

Flashbacks are another area the coloring excels. The tainted memories of a life led in service of Hydra are drained of every color but red, leaving the same sinister air as when the color is used in the present day. It's a nice visual tie between the two and lends a bit of flair to these warped flashbacks to Depression era New York.

All told, I'm really mixed on how I feel about this. It's an uncomfortable read from start to finish. But it's written well enough, with great art and coloring bringing it to life. I'm just not sure it can salvage an idea they probably should have thought about a little harder before they went all in. Whatever the case, it's something Marvel is going to have to live down for a while once it's over. It isn't exactly merit-less trash, so I guess it's up to you to decide whether or not you're down with reading about Hydra-Cap for a while. For me personally, it's not something I'd spend money on or have much interest in if the library didn't have it.

My Opinion: Skip It