[The following review contains spoilers for Steve Rogers: Captain America #1]
Steve Rogers: Captain America #1
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Jesus Saiz
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10
With these two words, Nick Spencer tries to make a case for two Star-Spangled Avengers in Steve Rogers: Captain America #1, banking on the hopes that a solid twist will elevate what is an otherwise fairly run-of-the-mill first chapter. Unfortunately, while this debut briskly introduces Steve Rogers’ new supporting cast, this series feels more perfunctory than prestigious, with the latest cliffhanger feeling too unbelievable to evoke much in the way of shock or awe.
Ultimately, the most damning thing that can be said about Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 is that nothing Spencer or artist Jesus Saiz deliver supersedes the terrific first installment of Rick Remender and John Romita, Jr.’s “Castaway in Dimension Z.” Reading this issue, I was shocked at the number of structural coincidences in the two books, as Spencer shows off Steve in action, followed by the establishment of his relationship with Sharon Carter, and concluded by a final rollicking action sequence. Unfortunately, though, Spencer’s basically been one-upped by a four-year-old comic at every turn — while Remender’s narration showed how Steve Rogers developed his heroic endurance, Spencer doesn’t really seem to dig too deeply into what makes his Captain America tick. When there’s a suicide bomber on a train, we know Steve isn’t in danger — but even in terms of a philosophical battle, he isn’t able to give more than just platitudes. The result is just empty punching, which Saiz doesn’t really elevate with his soft choreography.
The bigger additions to this story — namely, Cap’s support team — also feels like it’s still coming together. The sort of humor that works well in Ant-Man or Superior Spider-Man, for example, winds up feeling a bit grating when it comes to super-sidekicks Jack Flag, Free Spirit and Rick Jones, and given his malevolence in the recent Civil War film, watching Baron Zemo turn into a pathetic wannabe crime boss feels like a big misstep. Even S.H.I.E.L.D. director Maria Hill feels instantly dated when dropping obligatory pop culture name drops like watching NCIS at nine o’clock, or quipping that Steve’s latest operation “looked cool as hell on YouTube.” (Some of it, though, isn’t Spencer’s fault — it feels very weird to have a young Cap cozying up to a visibly older Sharon Carter, particularly since most of us just saw Emily Van Camp in the same role.) There are some bits, however, that do work better than others — particularly the way that Spencer humanizes the types of individuals who might be most susceptible to getting wrapped up into supremacist groups, especially when the telepathic Red Skull plays on people’s fears and nationalism.
Meanwhile, the artwork by Jesus Saiz feels like the wrong fit for this kind of book. Penciling, inking and coloring himself, it’s a little disappointing to see how flat Saiz’s characters come across — a scene featuring Jack Flag, Free Spirit and Rick Jones chilling over beers looks overly bright, and I’ll be honest, not only does his color rendering make his characters seem weirdly lumpy, but winds up looking a little weird that in this day and age, particularly with Sam Wilson having his own Captain America title, that every single person in this comic happens to be white. Beyond that, while Saiz’s designs are solid, his action choreography isn’t particularly memorable. Additionally, Saiz occasionally gets ahead of himself when it comes to inking in details — Sharon Carter’s face doesn’t really match her hair in terms of aging, for example, while Steve’s hair occasionally takes on a Bart Simpson-esque spikiness. Saiz fares best, however, with the flashback sequences, particularly his great contrasts with cool blues and warm reds making the 1920s seem particularly dramatic.
But at the end of the day, it’s the cliffhanger that everyone is going to be talking about, and ultimately, it’s that same cliffhanger that stopped me cold with Steve Rogers: Captain America #1. The idea of Steve Rogers being a secret Hydra agent doesn’t feel at all believable as a cliffhanger, be it from a character, continuity or even a logistical perspective. We’ve simply seen too many stories with Captain America as a stand-up kind of guy to ever believe that it’s all been an act for nearly a hundred years — heck, the whole Captain America film franchise is predicated on the fact that Steve’s greatest superpowers are his inherent decency and loyalty to his friends and the people he’s sworn to protect. The dissonance makes this kind of twist a tough one to swallow, because we already know that either this is not the real Steve Rogers, or he’s a brainwashed Steve Rogers who is going to inevitably fight his way out of this kind of programming. It’s like electric-blue Superman or turning the Punisher into an angel — it’s such a weird left turn you can barely believe made it onto the page, let alone possibly stick in any meaningful capacity.
While I know Marvel would like to try to flat-tire DC’s big shakeups over in Rebirth (this issue went on sale at midnight along with DC's big new releases), they’re going to have to try a lot harder than Steve Rogers: Captain America, which is an inoffensive but relentlessly average first installment. I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded comics reader when it comes to digesting a new status quo, but this feels either like a bait-and-switch or a very wrong-headed turn, given that this comes out on the heels of a movie where we know in no uncertain terms that Steve Rogers could never be an agent of Hydra. It’s a disappointing read, especially given that we know Spencer is capable of some great stuff, as you can see regularly in The Fix, Ant-Man, or even in slightly better work like Spencer’s Sam Wilson series. But this is a case where the hype won’t justify the book. Whether Steve Rogers: Captain America is a clone, under hypnosis or engaging in an undercover operation, it’s hard to take this twist — or this comic — at face value.