Captain America: Steve Rogers #4
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Javier Pina, Miguel Sepulveda and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
It’s time to make Hydra great again.
In a nutshell, that’s writer Nick Spencer’s latest mission for Captain America: Steve Rogers. After his controversial reconditioning as a secret Hydra double agent, Cap has been spinning a web of lies and deceit, but at the end of the day, Spencer still believes in the Star-Spangled Avenger’s innate goodness… even if it’s now pointed in the diametric opposite direction as before. But while Cap himself takes some interesting twists, Spencer’s premise doesn’t necessarily hold up under greater scrutiny, particularly as his fourth issue bounces across a cavalcade of supporting cast members.
Given Cap’s history as a highly trained Super-Soldier, it’s perhaps surprising that Steve Rogers hasn’t been portrayed as a more morally ambiguous character, and Spencer’s best moments in Captain America: Steve Rogers #4 are when he shows what kind of decisive brutality his character can inflict in the name of the “greater” good. Pitting Steve against the Red Ghost and his simian sidekicks gives this issue a strong momentum early on, particularly with a blood-drenched six-panel sequence of Cap beating the holy hell out of some apes that are twice his size. In this regard, Spencer takes a surprisingly cynical view of the Captain America metaphor - he’s no longer the bright-eyed idealist of the Marvel universe, but instead accepts clandestine violence as the cost of doing business.
That all said, while this warped view of Captain America takes a page from the Superior Spider-Man playbook, I might argue that Spencer plays his hand a little too soon, when he doesn’t necessarily have the hand to cover his bet. This issue’s big twist - namely, that Steve views Hydra as an inherently positive cause that has been corrupted by “a collection of marauding thugs, preaching blind hatred and intolerance” - feels like a sentiment that could fit right at home with Republicans who feel alienated by the Donald Trump campaign of today, but it’s hard to make a hard-and-fast moral equivalence between most political conservatives and the actual gun-toting terrorists that have characterized Hydra for decades. It’s hard not to compare this premise with that of Rick Remender’s Captain America series - whereas Remender used Steve’s upbringing in the Great Depression to show why he is such a tenacious hero, Spencer seems to suggest that Steve is inherently good, no matter the horrors of his upbringing. Unfortunately, the implication that Steve is a crusader “just because” feels like a hollow explanation, making his jockeying for Hydra feel unearned.
Additionally, while this comic boasts 30 pages of story, Spencer winds up having to burn that valuable real estate with so many subplots that it winds up hampering much of this book’s pacing. While Steve gets an A-story as well as a chilling flashback showing how he wound up under Hydra’s auspices, Spencer also throws in scenes featuring the trial of Maria Hill, Sharon Carter pushing a new surveillance bill, Rick Jones and Free Spirit checking up on Jack Flag, Kobik and the Thunderbolts, Thanos battling Captain Marvel and War Machine during the opening salvo of Civil War II — even a check-in with freaking Quasar as she has a cosmic awareness-induced freakout. Nearly half the book deviates from Steve’s compelling goals, and while I’m sure Spencer is seeding these plot points now to pay off for later, it doesn’t necessarily make for the most engaging of reads at this minute.
Meanwhile, the tag team efforts of Javier Pina and Miguel Sepulveda are not exactly seamless. Pina’s work looks as strong and sturdy as ever with Cap’s flashbacks, and anchored by colorist Rachelle Rosenberg, Pina passes the baton over to Sepulveda nicely, as the latter artist makes the fight sequence featuring Cap versus the Red Ghost look brutal but engaging. Unfortunately, once we delve into the talkier sequences, particularly when Sepulveda and Rosenberg aren’t able to drench their characters in moody lighting and dramatic shadows, the art does begin to hiccup a bit, particularly a scene with Free Spirit where she looks like she might be older than Cap himself. Sepulveda seems to be at his best when he’s able to draw some real superheroic images - his final splash page featuring the Red Skull, for example, looks superb - but he doesn’t quite have the more down-to-earth sequences as solid yet.
While Spencer’s sister title Captain America: Sam Wilson tackles timely political debates such as race, representation and police brutality, Captain America: Steve Rogers doesn’t have as clear-cut of a direction = and while that plays up the mystery-loving side of Spencer that we see in work such as Morning Glories, the long game might not move fast enough for some readers. Now that we have an idea of what this retooled Captain America is about, the slow drip of plot progression can’t help but be a little bit frustrating, particularly when Spencer’s other subplots feel more like checking off the necessary exposition rather than engaging in their own right. There’s something interesting about the idea of Steve Rogers serving as a secret crusader amongst one of the Marvel Universe’s most dangerous terror groups, but it’s missing some key ingredients to make it all come together.