Ryan: Sometimes, if a character is too interesting or too dynamic, they can take over a narrative. I call it the Dawson’s Creek conundrum, since that was a show that was hypothetically built around (and named after) the least engaging character. It’s not always a problem. It can be fun to have a character enter the story, take over for a bit and then step out, as long as the story knows that it’s happening. In Captain America: Steve Rogers 14, writer Nick Spencer and artist Jesus Saiz have a character taking over, but don’t cede the entire book to her.
Elisa is the center of the issue. We have three plots in this issue. First, Steve finds Elisa in her apartment in 1944 for a confrontation. Second, modern-day Elisa in full Madame Hydra mode gathers her council. Thirdly, Steve tries to sabotage Carol’s shield project and, when that fails, enlists Rick Jones to hack in to destroy. The storyline without Elisa feels dropped in from another book which is strange in a series called Captain America: Steve Rogers.
Her meeting with Steve in 1944 offers the most engaging visuals of the issue. Her reaction to his touch is to go full Hydra on him. Suddenly, red overwhelms the heretofore grey and sepia palette. In the upper left panel, Steve is ensnared somewhere in the background, while Elisa is begins to transform in the foreground. Again, this is Elisa’s story. Steve plays his part with limited knowledge, but he doesn’t have a full understanding of the greater plans. Elisa’s speech about her supervillain qualifications is a perfect precursor to the image of her true face. Saiz renders her face as a gaunt serpentine and alien form, her perfectly straight teeth somehow radiating menace. Almost as quickly, Elisa returns to her human form. Throughout the page, Elisa is the focal point. It’s her actions and her emotions that matter. Steve is almost an afterthought.
Much of this issue concerns Madame Hydra traveling the world to gather her council. While a good “getting the band back together” montage can generate excitement for what’s to come, there is little anticipation built here. There are six pages of Madame Hydra arriving in a place and within a few panels, offering them a spot on her team. While there is something to her individualized pitches, most of these moments feel rote. Perhaps that’s because Spencer doesn’t have a lot of time to establish the character, what’s missing in their lives and what Madame Hydra offers. It’s another instance of Elisa’s presence overtaking other characters. We learn more about her strategies for manipulation than we do about the people she gathers. While that is a worthwhile endeavor, by the sixth page it feels redundant.
When she goes to Gorgon, he barely speaks, but Spencer gives Elisa a speech that is designed to appeal to Gorgon’s vanity and thirst for vengeance. Beyond his physicality and the layout of his throne room, we learn very little about Gorgon here. Instead, we get to see another example of Elisa’s skill. She may be bowing and allowing Gorgon’s insolence, but Spencer has given us reason to know that she is in complete control here.
Spencer spends so much time building Elisa in this issue that it’s deflating when the issue’s climax is not her moment. She is simply playing another gambit in a life of gambits. She introduces Steve to his archenemy, the Red Skull. This is landmark for Steve, and intriguing to the reader, but for Elisa the moment is not imbued with any meaning. By not offering the reader a real conclusion to Elisa’s arc in the story, Spencer makes the entire issue feel like a middle chapter with only small advances to the plot and no individual impact.
Patrick, what did you think? I didn’t dig too deep into Saiz’ art. Did anything stand out to you in his handling of the three storylines? Do you have any thoughts about the shield storyline? Also, did Carol really forget that Maria Hill was no longer Director or was that some well-placed shade?
Patrick: My vote’s on well-placed shade and/or wishful thinking. Maria Hill may be difficult, but she’s a principled character, and her positions are both morally based and consistent. The Steve Rogers we know and love is — presumably — the same way, but his actions in recent months betray an erratic unpredictability that no one would ever guess is the result of extreme double-agent-ism. I think Carol’s starting to pick up on that, and with that little joke, Spencer is letting the audience in on Carol’s suspicions.
But I’ll totally agree that the shield story is the weak link in this issue. Captain America:Steve Rogers 13 was also a Getting the Band Together (Villains Edition) volume, so maybe Spencer and Saiz saw the same thing this month as kind of redundant. But for my money, Ryan’s totally right that by the six recruitment, Madame Hydra’s quest feels more rote than meaningful. It’s so interesting — each of these one-page scenes offers with Elisa offering the character some intangible affirmation. She offers violence, belonging, influence, vengeance, discovery and meaning, one at a time to each of her newly minted seats on the Council of Hydra. I’m not super familiar with every character in this line-up (just as I was not familiar with everyone Zemo collected last issue), so guess it is helpful to know what carrot each of them responds to. And it’s a cool rhetorical device to end every scene with “I offer you ____.” Ultimately, I think we feel the hollowness of that rhetoric.
And maybe that’s the point. Concepts like “belonging,” “vengeance,” and “meaning” are so grandiose as to be necessarily empty promises. This is how Madame Hydra is organizing hateful individuals and organizations under one multi-limbed banner: by promising that their hate makes them the same, and that they are stronger when united in that hate. What she’s really offering all of them is “reach” — an ability to take the intangibles they already value and project them to a global level. All of which has horrifying parallels to the real world and current Presidential Administration. Trump ran on a platform of fear and hate, and essentially validated anyone who thought they could simply hate their way to a better America. That’s all Elisa is doing — emboldening the people who are already actively making the world a worse place.
Which leads me back around to Elisa revealing that Red Skull is the traitor that led to Hydra’s downfall. I’ll confess that I don’t feel like we have enough emotional information to have a meaningful reaction to that. During the spool up to the revelation, Elisa is all like “this is someone who’s name you’ve only heard in whispers,” building near-impossible expectations. Ultimately, I’m not sure that there’s a character that could have filled that final splash page that would have had the desired effect — I’m just not emotionally invested in the well-being of Hydra, so whoever is working from the inside to take them down suits me just fine. Plus, we know that Red Skull is running a sort of independent counter-campaign of hateful organization in the present, so it’s not even like the motivation is surprising.
But for whatever the issue lacks in tight, coherent storytelling, I believe it makes up for it with its on-going, persistent sense of unease. Madame Hydra’s recruitment sojourn is profoundly icky, and each Council member she collects makes me sick to my stomach. I think there are moments in here where Spencer and Saiz try to temper that stomach sick with subtle reminders that the good guys are organized too, but they are so fleeting.
And organized and united in protecting the earth though they may be, they have no idea what’s actually coming their way.
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