This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 27, 2016.
If you aren’t already aware of the controversy surrounding Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, congratulations on not being part of comics Twitter. At the conclusion of this new debut, Cap throws Jack Flag (who was a superhero in some comics one time) off of a plane and declares “Hail Hydra.” Some people are very upset that Captain America, a creation of two Jewish artists before the start of World War II, is now a member of a Nazi spinoff group. Other people are very upset that these people are upset. And I’m sure there are other reasons that other people are upset about all of this, but you get the gist.
It seems pretty ludicrous that so many comics professionals are incapable of understanding that people are allowed to have their own responses to the material they consume. If someone finds something anti-semitic, that’s a valid response because they’re speaking to their own reaction. Even if you don’t have the same reaction or possess a different reading of the text, it doesn’t make their feelings inherently wrong. It’s possible to respond to this sort of disagreement through cool discussion and exploration of differing perspectives, but that’s not really hot on Twitter dot com these days. Instead the hot takes of Marvel fans (Marvel-ites?) appears to be heaps of condescension and Holocaust jokes. That doesn’t redeem the few people who thought sending hate mail or death threats to writer Nick Spencer, but it doesn’t make these other folks less giant, gaping assholes either.
But like I said, I didn’t really have a strong reaction to this particular cliffhanger. It read to me like a media-grab designed to be quickly reversed and suck up headlines on the day of DC Comics’ big relaunch. And so it appears the only winner in this particular debacle is Marvel Comics as everyone pays attention to them and reads their comic. While their distinguished competition screams “Look at us! We still love you!”, Marvel can laugh while cashing checks based on work they stole from Jack Kirby, not that anybody really cares about that part as long as Marvel is respectful about it. They even have creators who don’t work for them going out of their way to defend the publisher against fans reacting to what they’re reading, because god forbid someone in comics not like something they read. Heavens to Betsy, the entire medium might crumble under the weight of that negativity.
So let’s just assume take assholes whose brand of choice is condescension and Holocaust jokes seriously for a moment. This is a superhero comic and everyone should keep reading to find out what’s really happening. Sure, this cliffhanger looks bad, but how do we really know what’s going to happen unless we keep reading Captain America comics until the heat death of the universe? Okay. Fine. We don’t know why he said that. But should the people who were genuinely hurt by what they read keep reading just to find out, or even the people who seem to think it’s no big deal and took to their tweets to be very fucking passionate about that?
After reading Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 three times, I’m going to answer that non-rhetorical set up with five words: No because it’s fucking terrible.
Here are some other words in case you were wondering why that is. I’ve assembled them in the form of a list because I don’t have enough respect for this comic or my current self to bother turning them into an actual essay.
1. The Cover: This really should have been clue number one to readers this week that they could go ahead and skip Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. I’m going to dig into the coloring, faces, and action poses more soon, because they function inside this comic just as well as they do on the cover in that they don’t at all. It’s a brutally ugly, uninspiring collection of four characters running in the vague direction of the reader for reasons. They’re heroes, they look determined and they run. Because that’s what they do, I guess.
Beyond the lack of a compelling concept or execution on character visuals, there’s the hulking monstrosity in the background. The semi-photorealistic, semi-3D-rendered Capitol, white brick wall, and grass look out of place and lazily assembled. You can certainly tell what these things are, but good luck guessing why they exist. You have the US Capitol because America, in case Captain America wasn’t enough to help readers figure out what this comic might be about. The brick wall is there so Bucky had something to jump over, I guess, again.
2. The Colors: Let’s talk about the coloring work of Jesus Saiz who manages to render any visuals that might have worked in this comic inert through a job that can best be described as slapdash and amateurish. Looking at flashback sequences cast primarily in black and white with red highlights, it’s possible to think that have Saiz color his own work was a good idea. That goes out the window the moment more than three colors are required for a sequence.
Sources of light are a regular concern as Saiz work highlights human skin and clothing as though it were a highly polished substance reflecting the sun in an equatorial nation. There are not so much gradients based on how light fades across surfaces, but blotches which make the poor complexion of a drug addict appear to be the norm. Color is used in costumes to cover where linework was not applied, striping Captain America and Free Spirit’s outfits in an unnatural manner. If there’s an upside to this blemished book it’s that maybe more comics readers will start to appreciate good coloring after paying $5 to look at this.
3. Faces: I don’t really mean faces, Saiz draws faces that function with his style and can actually draw one at a ¾ angle unlike many of his peers, I mean Sharon Carter’s face. Saiz may be able to draw young, handsome action stars, but here he has to draw the visage of a woman older than 40 and the results are not good. You know that face your grandma makes when pinching your cheeks and preparing to give you a big kiss? Saiz’s exposure to only women probably consists solely of his grandmother and that’s literally the only thing she did based on how he draws Sharon Carter. There’s an odd, crushed aesthetic to her alarmingly smooth skin plastered over thickly inked wrinkles that rearrange themselves between panels. You could say it’s disturbing to look at, but fascinating is a better word for this.
4. Action: Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 presents its action sequence, which might be better defined as adventure sequences, in the same manner as most other mainstream superhero comics. That’s a nice way of saying they’re boring as hell. Characters are set in stiff poses and positioned to look like they know they’re being photographed. There’s never any sense of tension, especially when a body full of TNT exploding a few feet from Captain America is just enough to knock him off of a train. Stakes are non-existent and there’s no flow from moment to moment. You pick up superhero comics like this to see fights and big set pieces, so when they can’t deliver that, what the hell is the point?
This doesn’t need to be an essay because if you’re already reading Marvel or DC Comics then you’re bombarded with mediocre “action” on a regular basis already.
5. Over-Writing: There are a lot of words in this comic. It appears Nick Spencer thought he was supposed to write a short story, then his editors at Marvel decided it would be easier to stuff some images under what he turned instead of actually editing the man. There are some nifty rules of thumb about how many words you should limit each panel to, but in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 it appears they were taken as suggestions.
When characters dialogue, they appear to be aware of the borders around their heads and want to fill the space with bubbles in case of a high speed collision. Whether it’s Captain America’s abusive father and mother arguing or superheroes chatting in a cafeteria, they are determined to drone on as long as possible. Even in the midst of both action sequences, they continue to ramble to at one another with jokes (that never land) or bits of exposition. Any panels that do not contain dialogue bubbles are left to be filled with narration from characters feeling that there probably should be someone talking.
6. Dialogue: Nobody talks like the characters in this comic book. Nobody. This fault is pretty understandable if your basis for human interaction is observing how comics fans interact on Twitter. Based on Nick Spencer’s devotion to his Twitter campaign for Hillary Clinton this might actually be the case.
Characters continually state exactly how they feel and what their motivations are. The very thought of leaving any text as subtext drives a spike of fear through their hearts. Jack Flag winks at the camera and acknowledges he’s a complete nobody at Marvel Comics in the middle of a fight scene, while Rick Jones talks about usernames and brags like a 50 year old man’s conception of one of them gamers. Maria Hill is propped up like a straw man of the hawkish right so Sharon Carter can calmly assess and take down what she has to say. The words placed in speech bubbles never strive for any meaning besides what is on the surface and what is on the surface is brick-to-the-head direct.
7. Attempts at Social Commentary: The politics (and I suppose theme, if you really want to try and define that here) of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 are also based on a rough understanding of Twitter with a possible sprinkling of Reddit. Up until the final twist at the end of the issue, anyone who is not clearly a hero acts as a stand-in for caricatures of real-world problems or antagonism. As I already said, Maria Hill is a strawman for arguments of decency and decorum to bounce off of as she spouts militaristic soundbites for bad behavior.
A monologue by the Red Skull is lifted almost word-for-word from comments on a Trump forum. He runs through the greatest hits of this absurd political movement jumping from pushing out outsiders to ignoring political correctness. His entire speech is made unintentionally ironic considering the behavior of those defending this book to those offended by it. Ultimately he’s a clownish twist on truly dangerous principles that pose a real problem in the immediate future of many Americans. Rather than grapple with these concepts or why so many people are attracted to them, the story treats them as obviously dumb and evil then goes on its merry way.
Only one follower of the Red Skull is given any sort of personality or motive. Yet it’s the sort of made-for-TV Lifetime story that is so emotionally manipulative as to not be taken seriously. He stumbles from one tragedy to the next, drugs, prison, crime, loss of a loved one, until reaching so low of a point that he takes up with Hydra. Nothing is ever this man’s fault though. He was failed by society. And while these sorts of failings do occur on a frighteningly regular basis, Spencer has no time to address the complexity of the issues. One misled man is a tragedy, but the rest of these people are idiots. So this one figure in Hydra isn’t a character, but a puppet molded to fit the conflicting political needs of the writer.
Throughout Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 Spencer simplifies his political ideology to the point of absurdity.
8. The Twist: There’s nothing inherently bad about a cliffhanger or twist, but it helps when it’s earned, builds on something besides assumed empathy, or reflects a thematic point. This is the kind of cheap, last page cliffhanger that kids might have known to scoff at back in the 1970s. If you want a definition for hackneyed, here it is.
If you’ve actually read Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 and think there’s some hidden gem of quality I’m missing, please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, from start to finish, this comic looks like the reason so many people have become cynical about mainstream superhero comics. If this is supposed to be worth $4.99 and present a headline character to the world, then how can readers expect any of these series to be any good?
There’s a long list of names being given credit for this particular publication, but what did they all do? The comic is certainly well-printed, with all of its pages in order and staples cleanly connecting them. The price is clearly marked as is the bar code. There’s proper accreditation and an advertisement for the next issue. Did this bunch just forget to make a good comic to go with the presentation, sales, and marketing?
The only real hook of the entire comic is that damned last page and apparently that’s all it needs to receive attention. Here I am talking about it like an asshole instead of focusing on something good like The Omega Men #12or Afterlife with Archie #9. I want to apologize to those comics for mentioning them in this review too because they deserve better, and I fucking failed them.
If there’s one bit of hope to be found in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, it’s this: Even though the last page has set so many people at one another’s throats, the comic should also stand a chance of bringing them together. This comic presents a reading experience so lacking in any notable form of quality that anyone who bothers to pick it up ought to be able to put it down and say “That was fucking garbage.” Whatever your specific reason for stating it, it’s a clear conclusion. There’s no need to fight about why this comic is garbage when we can all just acknowledge this tire fire together and move on.
That would be the best possible outcome from this, forgetting this fucking thing ever existed.