Monday, August 07, 2017

Looking for the controversy in Captain America: Steve Rogers Vol. 1--Hail Hydra

One of the great benefits and/or detriments of reading Marvel's serially-published comics series in collected trade paperback format is that you generally miss out on the online conversations about particular issues of particular comic books as they are happening. Captain America: Steve Rogers Vol. 1--Hail Hydra, for example, collects the first six issues of one of the two Nick Spencer-written Captain America titles, and is where Spencer's long-term plans for the franchise take their controversial turn, a turn that ultimately leads to the currently-unfolding Secret Empire event series.

The controversy associated with this particular Marvel comic has to do with the plot itself, as opposed to the other sorts of controversies Marvel comics are occasionally embroiled in, like that thing with the X-Men comic, or everyone freaking out about hearing part of an out-of-context quote from David Gabriel, or publishing tentacle rape porn on the cover or whatever. As I have overheard on Twitter, and read in at least one pretty solid article explaining it all to me, this is the comic book story in which it is revealed that the original Captain America Steve Rogers, the superhero so patriotic that he wears the American flag for his work clothes, was actually a sleeper agent for Hydra, the Marvel Universe's Nazi splinter group.

This always confused me, as superheroes making heel turns is a convention not much younger than superhero comics in general. Any superhero who has been around long enough will make a heel turn at some point (and few Marvel heroes have been around as long as Captain America!), and these turns are always rather quickly undone. Even when it seems as if the heel turn is meant to be a permanent one--think Green Lantern Hal Jordan becoming Parallax--it gets undone. The logic behind the story seemed pretty obvious to me from a distance, as the more noble and good the hero, the more dramatic it is when he takes his heel turn (This is why DC seems positively obsessed with publishing stories in which Superman is the villain and other heroes have to fight him; generally these happen in out-of-continuity stories, but Superman has broken bad in the "real" DC Universe too, in the Dominus storyline circa 1998-ish...although, as is often the case, things weren't quite what they seemed at the time).

The other thing that confused me about people getting so upset about a pretty basic super-comic trope that is so obviously meant to be temporary and easily reversed is that the story preceding this one, the "Avengers: Standoff" crossover that involved the various Avengers and Avengers-related comics, had for its climax Captain America being dramatically altered by Kobik, a sentient Cosmic Cube.

(If you're unfamiliar with these objects, they are, like so much else of worth in the Marvel Universe, the creation of the Jack Kirby/Stan Lee collaboration. They are essentially wish-granting maguffins, capable of allowing whoever wields them to completely alter reality in any way, shape or form. Several classic Marvel storylines have revolved around bad guys like Thanos, Doctor Doom or The Red Skull trying to get their hands on them, and/or heroes having access to a cube and being tempted to misuse it.)

At the beginning of "Standoff," Steve Rogers had already lost his functional immortality, and had turned into something approaching the old man he should be as a World War II vet (he kept the totally ripped physique though, for some reason). Kobik restored his youth to him, and if Steve was going to suddenly become a bad guy, to suddenly be revealed to have actually always been a bad guy all along, well then, it was a good bet that Kobik did it to him. And, it turns out, she did.

Now writer Nick Spencer is obviously milking this Cap-betraying-everything-he-believed-in storyline for everything it's worth, drawing it out to the length of multiple trade paperbacks, involving the whole Marvel Universe (as line-wide event stories like Secret Empire dictate) and, in what may be much of what makes some readers uncomfortable, trying to put forward cogent arguments for embracing fascism, in an attempt to make his villains more than just cartoon mustache-twirlers.

But boil this plot point down to its essence, and basically Captain America got zapped with a gun called "The Villainizer," and the ultimate solution is almost certainly going to be the equivalent of someone switching The Villainizer to "reverse" and zapping him again.

I just couldn't understand why people were getting so upset about the storyline itself, and most of the arguments I was seeing had to do with the story working the way Spencer intended it to. Like, anyone who thinks Captain America allying himself with Hydra or fascists or Nazi-like groups is something the good Captain America would never do, well, that's the whole point, isn't it? What if instead of socking old Hitler in the jaw, Captain America was shaking his hand?

(I do understand that there are other reasons to be upset with Marvel around their promotion of the Captain America: Steve Rogers/Secret Empire storyline that had to do with marketing more than story content. For example, I understand Marvel sent local comic shops signage and other materials so that they could play along as if they too were secret fronts for Hydra, something that likely seemed pretty distasteful given the way Spencer was characterizing his new version of Hydra--ultra-nationalist, xenophobic, right-wingers of the sort that had just helped elect Donald Trump president of the United States of America, and were--and are--seemingly on the rise in Europe.)

So as I first started reading this collection, which includes Free Comic Book Day 2016 (Captain America) by Jesus Saiz and then the first six issues of Steve Rogers, drawn by Saiz, Javier Pina and Miguel Sepulveda, I was doing so with an eye for finding what exactly it is that so riled readers. I looked, and I looked and I kept looking, and, to be honest, I never really found it. Where the book is at its most politically relevant, it seems to be criticizing today's alt-right, as well as nationalism and racism in general, but from what I had seen online, most of the criticism leveled at the book and at Marvel was coming from the left (I should here note that Twitter feed is pretty liberal-heavy, perhaps even exclusively so. Maybe those to the right-of-center who read Marvel comics also hate this storyline; I don't know.). There is a speech near the end that I think may have bugged some people, but we'll get to that in a bit.

Maybe it's the next volume, , or Secret Empire proper where Spencer seems to embrace fascism  or starts to take potshots at the left, but there's nothing in here I could see as offensive. But let's look as closely as we can, shall we?

Free Comic Book Day 2016 (Captain America)
Art and color by Jesus Saiz

To illustrate the importance Marvel was placing on this story, they devoted one of their two 2016 FCBD giveaways to it. The other? Civil War II. Like Civil War II, this eventually leads to a modern Marvel event series of  the greatest scale at which the publisher engages:  A mini-series functioning as the event's backbone, a supporting miniseries and tie-in issues or story arcs appearing in pretty much everything else Marvel publishes.

My local comic shopkeep opined once that Secret Empire would probably have been fine if it were just a Captain America story-arc, and not blown-up to fit a Civil War II-sized event template. Given how much build-up went into it, I suppose it would have to be something sizable, but he was probably right; perhaps something along the scale of "Standoff" (which is technically a first act, or at least a prelude, to Secret Empire) would have worked better and annoyed fewer readers and retailers? Something involving the two Captain America books, the relevant Avengers books and maybe a handful of books that could use a boost of sales and interest?

In other words, a more franchise-specific crossover event, rather than a line-wide one.

This 10-page story (the back of the FCBD book featured a Spider-Man Peter Parker story that's not reprinted here) features acting SHIELD Commander (and Steve Rogers' girlfriend) Sharon Carter at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, a scene inter-cut with those featuring the Captains America fighting the reconstituted Hydra (they were seemingly wiped out by Sam Wilson in All-New Captain America Vol. 1: Hydra Ascendant). Carter is on the bridge of some helicarrier, feeding intel to the Captains while Rick Jones acts as their Oracle. A terrorist attack is imminent. Rogers is in Austria, beating up a a Hydra cell and using threats of greater violence to get the location of the attack out of the last one left conscious.

It's in New York City, where Captain America Sam Wilson, the new Falcon Joaquin Torres and actual falcon Redwing are on hand to foil the attack. But! At the same time, a hotel in Brussels is bombed, killing civilians. The Senate is mad at Carter, and then Captain America strides in to try to sell them on something.

Meanwhile, The Red Skull watches the TV news and sips tea served to him by his daughter Sin, who has her face again (Um, she lost her face and became basically a female Red Skull previously).

This new version of Hydra sounds a bit like a cross between the alt-right and ISIS, as difficult as such a thing might be to imagine (The one place those two diametrically opposed groups crossover in real life? Social media presence). This version of Hydra's politics are basically far-right, but their tactics are ones that, in the 21st century, are of the sort mostly practiced by terrorists whose general philosophy is grounded in some radical (and usually warped) version of Islam.

In this particular issue, we mainly see the tactics discussed, not any politics, of which the book is weirdly generic, presenting the new Hyrda "spreading a message of intolerance and a cruelty to a lost generation of young people looking for some sense--any sense--of encourages violence and savagery over the rule of law."

Spencer gives Cap a pretty good dig at congress, noting that while he and SHIELD failed to stop the second, secret prong of the attack, they all could do better, "Including the committee's members, who were on a six-week recess when this attack occurred." Burn!

Then Cap asks them to pass a formal declaration of war against Hydra, which is kinda funny in a not-at-all-funny way when one considers that congress was never receptive to issuing a formal declaration of war against ISIS upon President Barack Obama's request, but the U.S. still continues to operate against ISIS and other terrorist organizations under the increasingly legally-dubious September 2001 Authorization For Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which granted the president the authority "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons." ISIS didn't exist then, so a convincing case could be made that the presidents fighting them--first Obama, now Trump--are doing so without formal authority from congress, who are reluctant to "own" any part of military actions.

Maybe the Marvel Universe's version of the United States Congress is less politically cowardly than ours...?

The glimpses of Hydra agents we see, either in the field or in training, show that the group is entirely male, and mostly white, though there are a handful of black guys in there. Crossbones and a pair of two of the traditionally-garbed Hydra agents, in their green and yellow uniforms, are seen observing training.

Captain America: Steve Rogers #1
Art and color by Saiz

If the FCBD special was a prelude, this is the actual start of the "Hail Hydra" story arc, which backtracks a bit (we'll see Sin get her real face back, for example, and more on the business with congress). It is also the start of Steve's new origin story, or at least his new pre-origin story, as each of the issues that make up the rest of the trade will contain sections set in the 1920s, when Steve is still a very young boy in New York City.

These scenes all have more stylized coloring, all grays, blacks and browns with striking bits of red. In this issue's flashbacks, these first show Steve's father slapping his mother in the middle of the street in front of Steve, when suddenly a woman dressed like a flapper intervenes; she judo tosses Mr. Rogers, and introduces herself to Mrs. Rogers as Elisa Sinclair (Like a lot of the unfamiliar characters I encountered while reading, I Googled them later on to see if they were pre-existing characters or not; she seems to be a brand new one). In two later scenes in this book, she first takes Steve and his mom out to a fancy dinner and, as she's walking them home, she tells Sarah Rogers about "a sort of civic league" she's putting together, one where they "mostly just get together and talk about whats in the newspapers, or books we've read....Look for ways to help the community."

The flyer for the group? It features the Hydra logo--a red skull with six tentacles radiating from it--and the words "Secret Meeting; New York Chapter; The Hydra Society."
Looks legit.
Here and in later issues, Spencer is essentially trying to demonstrate how a woman like Sarah Rogers, suffering from crushing poverty and an abusive, alcoholic husband and worried about raising a child in a destitute slum, might conceivably be attracted to such a group, particularly when she finds a charming, wealthy patron. But it's kind of hard to get past that flyer. Is there no more benign a logo than a death's head and tentacles? And "hydra" doesn't exactly bring with it the most neutral of connotations, being a mythological monster or dragon and all.

The section of the issue set in the present has a lot in common with the plot of the FCBD special. Captain America is desperately trying to stop a Hydra terrorist plot, this one involving a suicide bomber on a train, while Sharon Carter and Rick Jones communicate with him via ear-piece. A couple of other patriotic heroes serve as back-up, but rather than Sam Wilson and company, it is Jack Flag and Free Spirit, two minor pre-existing Marvel characters I had to Google.

Meanwhile, Steve's narration tells us the story of the young man wearing the suicide vest, and how he fell in with Hydra. Steve does his best to talk him out of detonating his vest in the train engine, after Rick had remotely uncoupled it from the rest of the trains so no one other than Cap and the bomber are in danger, but he goes ahead and pushes the button anyway.

From there, Maria Hill gives Captain America and company the location of Baron Zemo, who they have been hunting since "Standoff." Zemo and the captive Cosmic Cube expert Doctor Erik Selvig are in the fictional city of Bagalia. The plan is to rescue Selvig and capture Zemo as they fly away in a jet above the city, but things go quite unexpectedly. While Zemo and Captain America are fighting, Jack Flag unexpectedly arrives and KOs Zemo. That's when Captain America, his narration boxes now dripping with equal parts regret and determination, grabs the young hero, hurls him out of the jet and turns to Selvig and says, "Hail Hydra."
So yeah, I'm sure that was a pretty big "Whaaaaaaa?!" moment the Wednesday it was released.

As for politics, Rick is locked in hacker vs. hacker electronic combat for control of the train Hydra was attacking, and his opponent had the user name of "Battlestar Johngaltica," to let you know where that particular Hydra agent falls on the political spectrum. The suicide bomber's life story is a sad one: Poverty, no education, crime, prison, drugs and, eventually, a meeting where The Red Skull speaks to a room full of Americans. Spencer devotes a full page to Skull's speech, and it's a long one.

I won't quote it at length here or anything, but rather than stock master race, Nazi stuff, Spencer has the Skull talking in the language of modern European nationalism. Having just returned from Germany, the Skull said what he found there was "an invading army...These so-called "refugees"-- millions of them-- marching across the continent, bringing their fanatical beliefs and their crime with them." He doesn't say the words "Muslim" or "Islam" or even place names like Syria, Iraq or the Middle East, but he doesn't have to...I'm assuming the reader will hear those words in his speech, and maybe, like me, wonder if those words should or shouldn't have been in the script after all. Is this another example of Marvel trying to publish a political comic that almost takes a stand, but backs down when it comes to the point of, like, drawing direct parallels to the real world?
Spencer has the Skull go on to note that Germany and America "did not see eye to eye" during the war, but that they had some things in common, like believing in the sacredness of borders and cultural uniformity, and he then goes on to talk about America being under siege in the same way Europe is (again, he never says "Mexican" or "Muslim") and even speaks scornfully of the political correctness of modern America culture, which brands anyone who speaks out against those laying siege to their culture as "bigots." This should sound awfully familiar, yes?

The bomber, by the way, fell in with a white supremacist gang while in prison, for protection rather than because of any genuine hatred in his heart, but once he joins Hydra, it seems to be a white supremacist-like organization, as he is forced to stand by and do nothing while his fellows beat a man to death "for no reason, other than the color of his skin."

Again then, Hydra is presented as falling somewhere between the far-right of American politics, using some language that would have sounded perfectly natural coming out of, say, Donald Trump's mouth during the previous presidential campaign or plenty of fixtures of the right-of-center media, and an actual neo-Nazi group, but, as the Skull sells it, it seems like nothing so much as it does a modern far-right European party reacting to the influx of immigrants and refugees following the Syrian civil war. (To be fair, Spencer also has the Red Skull speak a few lines that could be considered either leftist or libertarian, regarding the moneyed class' control of politics, but in our last scrambled election cycle, that was one of the few rhetorical targets shared by both Bernie Sanders and Trump.)

Captain America: Steve Rogers #2
Art and color by Saiz

Unlike the previous issue, this one is narrated by The Red Skull himself, and it basically lays out exactly how Captain America was made to turn, and how it is that it is being revealed that not only is he a Hydra sleeper agent, but he's always been one--not so much an "Everything you thought you knew about Captain America is wrong!" story so much as Spencer using a Marvel Universe maguffin to explain the story. As it was always safe to assume, it's the Cosmic Cube.

At some point in the past, denoted simply as "years ago" (there are no asterisks and editor's notes directing us to any past storyline in particular), Captain America threw his mighty shield at The Red Skull as the villain was reaching for his Cosmic Cube, in the process severing part of the Skull's arm and shattering the cube.

That is the cube that eventually gained sentience in a SHIELD lab, becoming the little girl Kobik. Because Kobik had a particularly affinity for him based on their time together, she sought out the Red Skull and, seeing what an opportunity this presented him with, he opted to nurture her, indoctrinating her into complete and total belief in his philosophy regarding Hydra.

At one point, in demonstrating her near-infinite powers, she "fixes" Doctor Selvig by rewriting his personal history so that he was now always a secret Hydra agent in service to the Red Skull.

From there, we basically get a the comic book equivalent of a villain monologue, as we see the events of "Standoff" from The Red Skull's point of view, and learn that it was he and Kobik who conceived of mind-wiping villains to put them in a sort of perfect prison, knowing how it would ultimately all blow up, and how the events would help Skull and hurt SHIELD in the long run. And, of course, during the moment in which she restores Rogers' youth and vitality, she does to him what she had previously done to Selvig, completely rewriting reality to alter Captain America.

In a very literal sense then, this isn't the "real" Captain America, but an in-universe reboot of the "real" Captain America into an alternate version of himself.

Honestly, seeing as it happened in the second issue of Spencer's series, it seems more perplexing still that anyone was all that upset over the storyline, as Spencer could hardly have been more up front about the fact that he was using as blatant and blunt a plot-device as possible to force the square peg of Captain America into the round hole of Hydra sleeper agent, and...and telegraphing that the same device could/would be used to revert Cap to his normal self at the end of the story. Again, this issue occurs immediately after the cliffhanger ending in which we learn that Captain America is a Hydra agent.

There's a scene where we see Red Skull laying in bed with Kobik, reading her a bedtime story about how awesome Hydra is, and she has a child-friendly version of the Hydra logo on her bedspread, a smiley face with smooth tentacles, which looks more like a happy jellyfish than a death's head seeking to grasp the whole world. Maybe Ms. Sinclair coulda used something closer like that for the logo of her 1920s Hydra book club...?

Captain America: Steve Rogers #3
Art by Saiz and color by Saiz and Rachelle Rosenberg

There's three story threads in this issue, set in different times. In 1926, we see Sarah Rogers at one of Elisa's Hydra Book Club meetings, where the hostess discovers that Sarah is wearing a scarf over her hair in order to conceal a particularly nasty-looking injury inflicted upon her by her husband. Later, near the climax of the issue, we see Mr. Rogers being chased, beaten and ultimately thrown into the river by two men, while Elisa watches.

In the present, there's a particularly peculiar scene that reminded me of many, many Star Wars comics. Cap strips off his shirt, paints a Hydra symbol over his chest and kneels before a blue hologram of The Red Skull. These scenes are so reminiscent of Darth Vader's holographic meetings with The Emperor that I can't imagine it is a coincidence. The content is even similar, as Cap reports to his superior what happened, The Skull rages at his subordinate's failures and, before it's all over, we see that Cap, like Vader, is totally plotting against his superior.

And, finally, in the recent past, we continue the story of what went down in Bagalia, which is what Cap is reporting to The Skull. It turns out that the fall didn't actually kill Jack Flag, but it's pretty touch-and-go, and he's unconscious, being loaded onto a stretcher. The locals, who, remember, are all villains, begin to show an interest in SHIELD being there, and the law-less land's "sheriff" The Taskmaster shows up to shove a sword right through Sharon's hand. Cap arrives just in time to beat the hell out of Taskmaster in a scene that demonstrates that Cap may be a few stripes short of a flag in a public way for the first time.

During the conversation between Cap and Skull, the latter berates the former for his repeatedly showing mercy and questioning Skull's ruthlessness--it appears that even as a bad guy, Captain America is something of a good bad guy. The cliffhanger reveals just how far Captain America is willing to go to challenge the Skull: It turns out he faked Doctor Sevlig's death in order to recruit him to help him overthrow the Red Skull so he can assume control of Hydra for himself.

See? Very Vader/Emperor, isn't it?

Captain America: Steve Rogers #4
Art by Javier Pina with Miguel Sepulveda and color art by Rosenberg

And now, I'm sorry to report, the inevitable happens: The mandatory Civil War II tie-begins, although interetsingly Spencer keeps Captain America on the sidelines, and, for the purposes of this book, the events of the Captain Marvel-vs.-Iron Man conflict is mostly seen through the prism of how The Red Skull and Cap regard the potential effects of Ulysses and the "war" on their own machinations. Meanwhile, in the pages of Civil War II, Bendis wrote Captain America as if here weren't secretly a Hydra sleeper agent. It's possible that Bendis didn't know what Spencer was up to, but unlikely. It seems like he simply chose to play Cap as so deep undercover that a reader of Civil War II wouldn't guess that something was off about Cap.

This is, again, a very busy issue with a lot going on in multiple timelines.

In the past, Sarah Rogers is packing and intent on getting her and little Steve the hell out of town, as she knows Elisa had her husband killed, despite the cover story that he was simply so drunk that he fell into the river and drowned. When Elisa confronts them and Steve is told to hide under the bed, one of Elisa's goons inadvertently kills Sarah, right in front of young Steve. Elisa finds him when he tries to run away.

In the present, Steve talks to Selvig in their new secret science base, and we see a flashback to how, exactly he acquired a secret science base. It involved killing The Red Ghost and his Super-Apes, which is a terrible thing. Hydra Cap may be more merciful than The Red Skull would like, but he has no compunction about slaughtering super-intelligent apes, apparently.

While he's talking to Selvig, we get reviews of plot points from the recent past, like the events of "Standoff," as well as checking in with what's going on with SHIELD (They're trying to figure out what to do with Maria Hill, exactly, while Sharon Carter is asking congress to sign some sort of super-Patriot Act that would give SHIELD broad, martial law-like authority to fight Hydra within the U.S.), what's up with Flag (he's in a coma; Free Spirit and Rick Jones are keeping him company in the hopes that he awakes), Steve knows where Kobik is and has all along (hanging out in the pages of the latest Thunderbolts series, I guess? This was before that was canceled?) and there's a reminder that the new Quasar character from "Standoff" is still a character that totally exists.

Despite Tony and Carol's mugs on the cover, in this issue we only see a few events from Civil War II, which Cap kind of talks over, so they seem to be here mainly as a marker of when this is going on in relation to the event series: There's the argument at Tony's victory (over the Celestial Destructor) party, there's Thanos (who Pina draws in a full broke-back position!) during the ambush sequence, and then there's Ulysses being discovered by the that order, even though that's not the order in which those events occurred.
Cap concludes with another dramatic reveal, which I guess every single issue in this run ends with: He asks Selvig to help him kill The Red Skull, so they can save Hydra from him.

There's little in the way of politics in this issue, and most of it is pretty vague--corruption is bad, etc--but Cap does seem to distinguish this new Hydra from his own vision of it. He says Hydra isn't "a collection of marauding thugs, preaching blind hatred and intolerance," and those words appear over a panel showing a trio of men firing automatic weapons at targets. There are three of them; two white guys in sleeveless undershirts, one with a clearly visible Hydra tattoo, and then a black guy wearing combat gear. The third oone of them is holding some sort of huge machinegun with a belt, and is disintegrating the cardboard target he's firing at.

Interesting that the last issue revealed that even as a bad guy, Captain America is less of a bad guy than his archenemy, and here it becomes clear that even when reality is re-written to put them on the same team, their essential conflict is still there. The reasons might be different now, but it's still going to be Captain America fighting The Red Skull.

Captain America: Steve Rogers #5
Art by Pina and color art by Rosenberg

As the image of Captain America and Iron Man indicates, this is another kinda sorta Civil War II tie-in, and it's one that...complicates the Civil War II narrative.

In the flashback sequences, we see young Steve Rogers being driven in a car by Elisa and her two goons, crying for his mom the whole way. She calms him down by telling him that he's very important and has a very special destiny, and his mother is merely very ill and needs time to rest...but if he is able to persevere he will see his mother again. She drops him off with two men who introduce themselves as Daniel Whitehall and Doctor Sebastian Fenhoff (Post-reading Googling reveals the former to be the real name of a Hydra agent named Kraken who first appeared during Brian Michael Bendis' Secret Warriors book, while the latter is the father of long-time Cap villain and Kirby/Lee creation Doctor Faustus) .

Behind closed doors, Fenhoff strenuously objects to at taking Steven in for...whatever they do at what looks like a weird private school for little boys. When he is unmoved by Elisa's argument that Steven has a strong aura and calls her a charlatan, she somehow makes Fenhoff start vomiting up blood, and then it suddenly stops, leaving no trace of blood on him, as if it was all in his mind.

In the present sequences, this is basically a behind-the-scenes version of Civil War II (I can't help wonder what one might have made of this had one not read Civil War II first).

At the Celestial Destructor victory party, when Medusa and The Inhumans introduce Cap and the others to Ulysses, he calls off a major terrorist attack in Sokovia by Hydra so he can learn more.

When Cap discusses Ulysses' ability to predict future attacks with Selvig, he worries what that means for his own agenda and Selvig convinces him he must kill Ulysses to prevent him from revealing Cap ("No-- No, he's a kid--" Cap objects). Nevertheless, after the Thanos attack Caps sneaks into New Atillan and activates the glowing edge of his new gimmick-packed shield, apparently contemplating killing Ulysses--and saving us like the last five six issues of Civil War II and God only knows how many tie-ins!--when Iron Man arrives at Ulysses' bedside, and he gets into his thing with the Inhumans.

Meanwhile, Cap and Selvig cook up a plan to distract everyone by giving Ulysses something bigger to predict than Cap's plans for Hydra; apparently, the pair mail a package to Dr. Bruce Banner, which leads to a quick greatest hits of scenes form Civil War II, narrated by Cap: Dead Bruce Banner, Clint Barton on trial, She-Hulk going gray, the warehouse meeting meeting with Iron Man and Captain Marvel prior to their coming to blows and, most relevant to to Hydra, Ulysses' false vision of random financial lady Alison Greene, who Ulysses predicted was a Hydra sleeper agent, and who Carol locked up without ever charging with a crime, leading to the first (and only real) battle of the so-called "civil war."

When Cap consults The Skull's hologram to make sure that Greene is no way part of a Hydra plan, he gets instructions from the Skull on whose "side" to take: Captain Marvel's as long as she's winning, then Tony's if he starts winning, with the ultimate goal of snatching Ulysses to deliver to The Skull.

I'm not sure how well this lines up with Civil War II exactly, but I'm going to guess "fairly poorly," given that it seems odd that it was Selvig and Cap who were able to convince Banner to start experimenting on himself via anonymous letter, and he was doing so for, like, less than an issue of Civil War II before the whole superhero community came down on him like a ton of bricks. (This also implicates Captain America pretty directly in Bruce Banner's death, but there's little to no reaction from him in this issue or those that follow, which seems colder-hearted than the Captain America who is here struggling with killing good guys...and even suicidal Hydra agents. Communist super-spies and super-apes, however...)

Captain America: Steve Rogers 6
Art by Pina and color art by Rosenberg

The final issue of this collection is also a Civil War II tie-in.

In the first of the three flashback sequences, Fenhoff reports to Whitehall via letter how he continues to fail to see any real worth in young Steve Rogers, given how weak and sickly he is, even compared to other boys his age.

In the later sequences, now set in 1934, Li'l Steve attempts to runaway, but is confronted in the woods by a guy in a weird costume who introduces himself as The Kraken, and then takes off his helmet to reveal himself as Whitehall (who, it may ultimately be worth noting, looks an awful lot like an adult Steve Rogers).The final one has Whitehall delivering a long-ish speech to Steve, which is the part of the trade where Spencer offers an argument for fascism and racial or ethnic-based control of society. If anything in this book could conceivably alarm readers, I assume it is this passage, although I suppose it's worth stressing that Kraken/Whitehall is a bad guy, and this is his sales pitch to win over Steve. (Like, this past weekend I read Drawn and Quarterly's 2015 collection of  Shigeru Mizuki's Hitler, and Hitler gives voice repeatedly to his beliefs about Germany, the German people and the non-German people of the world, but at no point did I ever think, "Huh, Mizuki must believe all this stuff coming out of his protagonist's mouth, or why else would he write a comic that has these words in it?")

Again, I don't want to quote the whole thing, given it's length, but Whitehall notes that Steve's desire to run away and to be free of the Hydra indoctrination program at "The Keep" is an understandable instinct:
The country you're from, they indoctrinate you at a very young age. Prattle on about individualism, couch it in flowery words like "liberty" and "independence." But what it really means is isolation.
He goes on to talk about how that isolation leads to freedom, and how the corrupt capitalist system and the bureaucracy that supports it keeps those at the top wealthy and happy, while the lie of the American dream breaks the poor, like those in the neighborhood Steve grew up in, and that can lead to rather devastating outcomes for people like Steve's own father.

He says he believes "we are only strong when we act together," echoing sentiments from Hilary Clinton's campaign (Her slogan was literally "Stronger Together") and the Supergirl TV show, where the "S" symbol supposedly stands for "stronger together"); it might sound a bit like socialism or communism, but it also sounds a lot like democracy.

As he winds down however, it gets darker:
That is mankind's destiny. Not to be shackled in bureaucracies that work to maintain the corrupt order, but led by the strongest and most tested among us. Those willing to purge us of the parasites that  drag us down, and eager to strike at all those who would do us harm. Because those are the real threats, Steven... 
And someday they will come for us.
He continues for another page, discussing Elisa, what she did to Steve's mom, assuring her that she can and will keep her promise to reunite him with his mother no matter how impossible that might seem, and ending by an appeal for Steve to help him save the world.

There are bits of this sequence that can, and probably should, make one squirm a little. However, I think that is mostly because of how well Spencer is writing the book.  It would have been very easy for him to skip this scene, to skip the flashbacks all together, and not devote any page-space at all to showing how and why Steve Rogers decided to embrace Hydra.

In the present, Cap continues to narrate events from Civil War II, which here begin with the fight atop the Triskelion, interrupted by Ulysses' vision of Spider-Man Miles Morlaes having killed Cap on the steps of the Capitol. Then we see him go with Tony and company to their hide-out, and he and Tony have a heart-to-heart on the rooftop, which is apparently elaborate bit of psychological warfare, or at least manipulation, to get Tony off-balance for the big day.

I don't know if this contradicts Bendis' Civil War II plot, exactly, or it just wasn't made as clear in that book as it is here, but apparently Captain America, Iron Man and maybe even Spider-Man all go to the Capitol together as part of a plan to test the predictions. (And props to Spencer, by the way, for having Rick Jones say out loud: "But seriously--No one here has seen Minority Report?")

When Selvig tries to talk Captain America out of going, he says that during the vision, he looked not just as his own dead body in Spider-Man's hands, but he looked around and saw that his death would be "for the glory of Hydra." Weirdly then, this brings up another part of Civil War II that looks like it will be/was changed by comics published after it. First Bendis' own Jessica Jones reintroduced Alison Greene as an actual villain because of the events of Civil War II, so that Ulysses' vision was right, in a way, and now we know there's actually a pretty damn good reason for Spider-Man and Captain America to fight one another, and it may be in the event series to follow.

So that's Captain America: Steve Rogers Vol. 1. I'm honestly not trying to be contrarian or obtuse here, but aside from maybe being creeped out by the Kraken speech at the end, I couldn't find anything within the text of the book  itself that scans as upsetting, controversial or potentially upsetting or controversial.

I'd appreciate hearing in the comments from anyone who felt otherwise, though.

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