Drew: To say that Captain America: Steve Rogers 1 rocked the comics world would be a profound understatement. It caused an uproar unlike any I’ve seen in my time writing on comics, and it continues to be a point of controversy nine months later. It set the tone for a Captain America story unlike any we’ve seen before, built upon one huge, jaw-dropping twist. The downside of kicking off a series with a twist that large is that it’s hard to match. Writer Nick Spencer has struggled admirably in this regard — and may have actually topped himself in Civil War II: The Oath — but a twist that required the rewriting of reality as we know it is a nigh-unreachable bar. Case in point: this issue’s return of Elisa Sinclair.
To be fair, I doubt Spencer would argue that this twist was meant to have anywhere near the same impact, but he and artist Andres Guinaldo do everything they can to make it land, anyway.
They really use every tool in the kit here, from dramatic lighting to reverse James Bond-ing her introduction, but that can’t really make up for how little we have invested in who Elisa Sinclair is. An earlier flashback reveals that she was a double-agent all along, though it seems odd that someone with no real allegiance to Hydra would call themselves “Madame Hydra,” so there may be more to the story. Perhaps she wants to take Steve Rogers (and Hydra) down, or perhaps she wants to keep Taskmaster and Black Ant quiet about his secret. I’m sure that will become clear enough in subsequent issues, but as a twist, this one leaves a lot to be desired.
As with the first issue, though, there’s a lot more than the twist ending. This issue, more than any other, has me wondering about the nature of the changes Kobik made to reality. We’ve already seen some “butterfly effects” that tell us that Steve’s history has been changed beyond his recruitment to Hydra — notably, that Arnim Zola turned Steve into Captain America, public knowledge that Spencer drives home with the issue’s opening newsreel:
That is to say: not every Steve Rogers story is canon in this new reality. It’s not just that he was a double agent all along, some of the stories we know simply didn’t happen.
It’s not entirely clear why this would be necessary from Kobik’s perspective, but the effect forces us to be aware of the fact that the “reality” of the Marvel universe has been rewritten, and thus, that anything is possible; past, present, or future. Spencer hangs a lantern on this fact as Erik Selvig ponders the changes that Kobik made to Zemo’s reality, asking “what new truths might emerge?” Of course, that establishes that the betrayal of trust — the part that so many fans reacted to (for better or for worse) in Steve’s “Hail Hydra” moment — is kind of ongoing. We can’t really take anything we know for granted in this series, which means we can’t really trust it, which I suspect makes it almost impossible to surprise us. It keeps us guessing, sure, but it makes the actual answers somewhat arbitrary.
So: why would Spencer emphasize that the audience can’t anticipate how reality has been changed? Unfortunately, I don’t have a great answer, but I suspect it’s because Elisa’s story is going to hinge on it — she does look like she hasn’t aged a day, and her life was rather dramatically altered by Kobik’s changes to reality. We’ll have to read on to see how any of that bears out, though I hope “reality was changed” doesn’t become a going concern for plot points as this series progresses.
I don’t know, Spencer, how did this issue land for you? I’ve been so enamored of the political and moral themes of this series that I kind of regret needing to focus on these more comic book-y metaphysical concepts. I have a lot of faith in this creative team, but the thought that more than just Steve’s allegiance has been altered suggests a fully-formed alternate reality, rather than just a surprise secret origin. Does that excite you, or do you find it as daunting as I do?
Spencer: It always seemed pretty clear to me that, in order for the HydraCap twist to work, Steve’s entire history as a character would need to be revamped from the ground up, so I’m not surprised that Spencer’s paying a bit more attention to that now. In fact, the flashback structure pretty much demands it. Those scenes aren’t just furthering the exploration of what causes extremism, a theme first raised way back in issue 1; they’re also showing us how being a part of Hydra has changed every facet of Steve’s history, and that was probably always going to mean digging more into what, exactly, Kobik did and how that’s effected the rest of the Marvel universe. In fact, that last idea is probably more important than ever now that this book is going to be launching into a major crossover event.
I’ll agree with you, Drew, that exploring these kind of comic book-y details distracts from Captain America: Steve Rogers‘ usual themes (between that, Steve’s fight with the Awesome Android, and the comedic stylings of Taskmaster and Black Ant, this is an unusual issue of SteveCap all around), but they sure do light up the nerdiest pleasure centers of my brain. I first noticed some irregularities in how Spencer handled Steve’s new backstory when we discussed The Oath, when Steve mentioned having the memories of his ‘other self’ inside his head, and this month Spencer further muddies the issue. We’re pretty clearly supposed to be wondering the specifics of how Steve’s past’s been altered, which can only mean that those details are going to be important to the story sometime soon.
So let’s dig into them a bit, shall we?
Last week we learned that the past Steve remembers might not necessarily be the past everyone else remembers, as demonstrated by the fact that Steve needed to remind/convince Zemo that they were best friends growing up. Selvig expands upon that a bit this week by mentioning the work Kobik did on the Pleasant Hill prisoners. She wasn’t retconning their lives; she simply changed their memories, altering the prisoner but no one — and nothing — else.
It appears that may not be the case when it comes to Steve, though. Maybe it was at first, but Selvig’s journal almost implies that Steve’s very presence may be altering reality, convincing Zemo to believe his version of reality, for example. On the other hand, maybe there is no difference, and Zemo is just pretending to believe Steve and secretly plotting his escape. That’s a betrayal that would certainly rock Steve’s world.
Regardless, I do think that Kobik has altered reality outside of Steve’s memories in at least one way. Steve’s flashbacks largely take familiar Captain America characters — Zola, Erskine, both Zemos — and recast them in new roles, but there’s one character who is original to Steve’s flashbacks: Elisa Sinclair. Nick Spencer created Elisa as figure who would introduce Hydra’s teachings to a young Steve Rogers, and I have a feeling that that’s exactly what happened in-universe as well: my theory is that Kobik created Elisa herself, as an almost self-insert figure who would introduce Steve to Kobik’s interpretation of Hydra’s teachings.
It would explain why Elisa is still young nearly 100 years after she first entered Steve’s life; it would explain her ranking and reputation within Hydra, as well as her implied prophetic abilities and her unusually strong interest in Steve; it would even explain why the Zemo family thinks she’s a spy infiltrating Hydra.
One of the ideas running throughout Captain America: Steve Rogers is that every major member of Hydra has a different idea of just what, exactly, Hydra should be. Steve’s Hydra is different from the Red Skull’s or even Zemo’s, and I’d bet that Elisa has her own vision for Hydra as well, one more in line with Steve and Kobik than the Zemos (we can even see Elisa separating herself from the common perception of Hydra in the scene above, although I don’t know whether to chalk that up to Elisa’s own obliviousness about her prejudices, or Kobik’s naivety about what Hydra actually is — I suppose it depends on whether you believe Elisa is a construct or not). Elisa isn’t a spy or double agent because she hates Hydra — clearly not — but because she wants Hydra to be something different than the Zemos do.
Taskmaster and Black Ant, along with Awesome Android, play an interesting role in this issue. Captain America: Steve Rogers hasn’t really had supervillains until now; its threats have been far more real, grounded, and visceral. Taskmaster and Ant are actually a welcome presence, not just because of their humor, but because they distract from, and provide a contrast to, the all-too real horrors of Hydra. I, for one, welcome that brief respite (I’ve missed Nick Spencer’s comedy stylings), but I’m curious to see the effect they’ll have on this series in the long run. Supervillains, Elisa Sinclair, Kobik’s various machinations; are these going to be just a small part of Steve’s story, or will they ultimately end up distracting from the themes of this series, or even eventually provide an avenue for the kind of cop-out ending most comic book stories that tackle social issues have to resort to? I doubt it, but I do think this issue introduces quite a few ideas that will be important to this series’ plot, if not necessarily its themes, for the rest of its run.
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