Thursday, August 17, 2017

Is there a science teacher in the house?

Before I discuss one of this week's weirdest comic books, I'm afraid I just have to get this out of my system first, if you will all indulge me.

So the above image is a single panel of Dark Nights: Metal #1, written by Scott Snyder, penciled by Greg Capullo, inked by Jonathan Glapion and colored by "FCO" Plascencia. In this panel, we see the entire Justice League flying through outer space together. Green Lantern Hal Jordan is wearing a Green Lantern Corps ring, which encases him in a force field and allows him to travel through space. Presumably, it either traps enough oxygen in there with him to allow him to breather, or it generates oxygen. It's a pretty versatile piece of super-alien technology. The three other human members of the League--Batman, The Flash and Cyborg--are similarly allowed to travel through space thanks to the ring. As you can see, they are in a ring-conjured construct in the shape of a spaceship.

The remaining three members--Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman--are shown flying alongside of Jordan, outside of the ship. The only thing they have to protect them from the vacuum of space is a little see-through mouth guard like thing; these likely supply them with oxygen, as well as allowing them to speak to one another.

So here's my question: Are Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman able to travel through a vacuum like that without dying...? Please correct me if I'm wrong, and I likely am wrong, since all I know about what happens to organisms exposed to space comes from movies, comics and mostly-forgotten comments made by barely-remembered grade school science teachers, but I thought if one was in a vacuum, the lack of oxygen and the extreme cold were only some of the things that could kill you. I thought the vacuum would also suck out all of the air inside of you, and maybe all of the liquids inside of you and maybe the organs inside of you...? It was my understanding that you would basically explode if you were in a vacuum.

Superman seems cool. While I've seen him wearing full space-suits before, I've also seen him wearing a little mask like the one above and I've also seen him flying through space with no protective wear at all. I'm assuming he's simply so strong that his body can withstand the rigors of space travel and hold itself together. The cold wouldn't be cold enough to hurt him, since almost nothing can hurt Superman. And he doesn't really need to breathe oxygen, since his body is powered by solar energy, rather than the chemical processes that keep humans alive. Also, he can fly, so propulsion shouldn't be a problem for him.

Wonder Woman though, that seems like a stretch. Sure, she's plenty strong and has a high degree of stamina and invulnerability, but it's not comparable to Superman. Even if we imagine that her demi-god powers are such that they would allow her body to keep itself functional in one piece in space, and even if we imagine that she's strong enough that the cold of space wouldn't freeze her, she still needs oxygen to breathe. Even if the mouth piece is pumping oxygen into her mouth and nose, wouldn't it just get sucked right back out of her ears and pores and so on...? Like Superman, she too can fly, so there's no problem for her there (Unlike Superman, I'm having trouble thinking of a single instance of Wonder Woman flying through space without the benefit of a ship or a giant kangaroo).

And then there's Aquaman. I know he was massively powered-up by the New 52 reboot, to the point where he is basically as strong as Golden Age Superman, but no matter how tough and how strong they say he is these days, his body can't possibly be strong enough to survive a vacuum, can it? (The excuse for his super-strength and high degree of invulnerability is that Atlanteans basically hyper-evolved to survive in their environment, so that he must be super-strong and nigh-invulnerable to survive and even flourish at depths where the pressure of the ocean would crush just about anything.) Similarly, while he is fairly immune to heat and cold, space is, like, really cold; can Aquaman really withstand the cold of space? Aquaman also needs oxygen to breathe, whether he gets it from the air or from water. Again, the mask might be giving it to him, but how's he keeping it...? Finally, Aquaman can't fly; how is he moving through space...?

Now, all of this is easy enough to no-prize away. I imagine that Green Lantern is actually projecting a field around all of them, despite the fact that we can't see it...the Lantern rings can project and construct light constructs that a comic book reader's eye can't always see. In fact, they have to be all under the influence of the ring to a certain degree, as otherwise they couldn't travel through space in that manner very far (I think it was Geoff Johns who introduced the idea of the Lanterns' rings opening wormholes to allow them to travel through deep space in an efficient manner, but maybe someone had thought of that before). So maybe there's a giant field of oxygen all around all of the heroes, and Capullo and company just didn't render it visible (It's also possible that those face masks create super-thin, sheathe-like space-suits that can't be seen by the human eye, not unlike the ones in Guardians of the Galaxy 2).

So I'm not really arguing with the panel, I just want to know what the vacuum of space does to human beings. And Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman.

Thanks in advance for any help you might be able to offer in setting my troubled mind at ease.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Some Marvel trades I've recently read:

Captain America: Sam Wilson Vol. 4: #TakeBackTheShield

Is this the first comic book with a hashtag as a title? It seems like surely someone must have used a hashtag as the title of a comic--or the sub-title, I guess?--by this point, but, if so, I'm having trouble thinking of one right this moment. That particular hashtag is one that we've been told is trending on the Marvel Universe's Twitter, powered by a right-wing, conservative media effort to somehow force the former Falcon Sam Wilson, who Captain America passed the shield and the codename to when he was turned into an old man, to stop being Captain America now that the original is back to being a young man again.

The effort has been just one of the many ways in which writer Nick Spencer has depicted elements of America reacting negatively to Sam's attempts to be a more political, more engaged, more representative Captain America and, of course, simple good old-fashioned American racism. In essence, Spencer has been writing Sam Wilson-as-Captain America as Barack Obama-as-president, at least in terms of the shit he has to deal with while just trying to do his very important, very stressful job. Surprisingly (and thankfully, given how easily a series with such a premise could be sanctimonious and, worse, boring), Spencer has often been able to play the tensions for laughs, as Sam finds himself caught in the middle of an America where he's not left enough to please the left, nor right enough to please the right. Not unlike Obama was.

I'm actively dreading the end of this series, and Sam's resumption of The Falcon identity, which seems to be something that's in the process of happening now...certainly it will already be past-tense by the time we get to the near, already-solicited future. Not only is the premise great and the action/comedy/political tone engaging, but Spencer's constant attempts to craft "ripped from the headlines" stories, like a particularly crazy iteration of the process the Law and Order writing room used to use for story ideas, keeps the series fresh and, well, weird. I know I've been talking and writing about the politics of Spencer's Captain America books a lot lately (here and below), but while one has to parse his other Captain America title, this one defies parsing. There are some stories where the book and/or Spencer don't seem to be taking a stand of any kind, other than to make fun of least, that seems to be the case in issue #17, which we'll get to in a bit. There's something South Park-ian about that...which I mean as a compliment, although maybe not-so-much (Please note I haven't seen an episode of South Park since the Bush administration, and that comparison may not be the least bit relevant anymore).

In a somewhat palpable sense, this volume seems to be marking time, waiting for the Captain America: Steve Rogers to complete it's build up to Secret Empire so that the climax of the multi-book, multi-year epic can begins.

Both Captains America team-up to take on Flag-Smasher (Confession: I love Flag-Smasher), a hostage situation that results in a death...and Steve talking to his Hydra cohort Docter Selvig about his villainous plans. Then Joaquin invites Sam and Rage to see D-Man wrestle in an attempt to bring the pair together "through the power of wrestling" after their conflict in the previous volume. Then Misty gets a spotlight issue in which she borrows Cap's shield and takes on The Slug over an extremely weird criminal plot that could only happen in the Marvel Universe, with its superhero reflection of our own world (there's a great visual gag in here featuring Lady Stilt-Man, by the way). And then, in the most bizarre of the stories, The Falcon and Rage team-up to first confront and then save an Ann Coulter analogue politically aligned with the book's Bill O'Reilly analogue, who is given a heavily protested speech about how immigrants are the worst at a college campus.

In this superhero political cartoon, the most vociferous of the Berkeley protesters are played by, well...
And check this out:
Yeah, see, Spencer is kinda hard to parse on this book, isn't he?

What's worse is that while the issue is mostly a superhero action comedy take on real, real-world issues, with The Falcon serving as the exasperated middle between The Bombshells ("Her very presence is damaging to those who have suffered-- --and for that she's gotta die!") and the not-Ann Coulter, it then ends with a resumption of superhero drama, ending with a cliffhanger that threatens the pleasant enough status quo of the issue.

The art chores on these four issues are divvied up between Paul Renaud (Issues #14 and #17) and Angel Unzueta (#15 and #16), the latter of whom gets an assist from Szymon Kudranski on the latter issue.

If four issues seems like too few for a trade, don't worry; there's also a reprint of a classic Captain America comic by Mark Gruenwald, Kieron Dwyer and Al Milgrom. From 1988's Captain America #344, "Don't Tread On Me," it has The Serpent Society attacking Washington D.C., and turning then-President Regan into a snake-man for a time.

Its relevance to the trade will be obvious as you read, given that it features Battlestar and D-Man, and this story is in fact referenced in Sam Wilson #15, right down to Unzueta using one of Dwyer's poses. It's a fun comic, although I imagine I would be annoyed to see it here had I paid $17.99 for this trade collection of just four issues of a $3.99 comic and the reprint, which isn't used a bonus so much as justification for the price point. Luckily, I just borrowed this from the library, so I can't care much what Marvel charged for it.

Captain America: Steve Rogers Vol.2: The Trial of Maria Hill

Writer Nick Spencer did a pretty fine job of slowly unraveling a new, cosmic cube-created origin for Steve Rogers via flashback in the first six issues of Captain America: Steve Rogers while simultaneously revealing Cap's layered agendas, as both a secret agent for Hydra and an agent with his own plans to take out and replace Hydra leader The Red Skull. In this volume, also drawn by Jesus Saiz and Javier Pina, things get much, much more complicated, and maybe not necessarily in a good way.

On the flashback front, Spencer and company are now covering the years 1935-1940 or so, and the limited palette of black, white and red that color artists Saiz and Rachelle Rosenberg were using has now become black, white and Hydra green (They do break out the reds for drama occasionally, though). The years are significant too because the earliest of the revised flashbacks, which occurred when Steve was still a toddler and thus didn't seem to screw around with his previous timeline too drastically, now depict his schooling at some weird Hydra compound (where he makes an unlikely best friend) and then goes on to reveal Steve's life as a young man, his continual rejection from military service in the U.S. Army and his association with "Project Rebirth," which goes very, very differently here. We're now at a point where the previous history isn't just "here's some stuff that might have happened that readers were unaware of" to "Basically What If...? territory".

In the present, both of Captain America and The Red Skull's machinations are approaching byzantine. Skull and Hydra embroil their movement in a sort of civil war that grants them a degree of territory (and which moves their real world analogy away from some sort of weird alt-right/ISIS hybrid into more of an "ISIS, but with Nazi ideology" area), while Steve is engineering some plan involving a massively destabilizing Chitauri invasion and maneuvering between and around Captain Marvel, SHIELD, the Skull and the U.S. government. Meanwhile, the Maria Hill's-in-trouble-for-"Standoff" plotline and the effort to pass a hyper-inflated version of the Patriot Act move forward.

(What's really weird is that the stakes have gotten so high and plot elements now include things like alien invaders and a global force field that we're well beyond some sort of Real World Plus milieu, and yet here in the actually real real world the actual president of the real United States of America is using Twitter to provoke a nuclear-armed dysfunctional nation state, so I guess it's hard to actually accept things like this as "unrealistic" anymore. "Alien invasion" didn't sound any more unlikely than "President Donald J. Trump stumbling into a nuclear war in Asia" like, two years ago, you know?)

Much of the narration is delivered in the form of Cap talking to the person he has stashed behind the forbidden door in his ally Dr. Selvig's lab/base, and while it's kinda sorta a big surprise, the biggest surprise is on the last page, when Taskmaster finds a recording of the shocking moment from the first issue.

While I'm intensely curious as to how we get from this point to events that I am somewhat aware of unfolding in the Marvel Universe at this very moment, and what various players in this drama will do, and, in particular, what Cap's "new" origin will be, and the explanations given for why he was so deep undercover for so long if he's always been a Hydra double agent (like, why not strike during the first Civil War or Secret Invasion or whatever?), I can certainly see why so many Marvel fans might be sick of this storyline. All the plotting that was fairly engaging for six issues is growing tiresome after five more issues, and I still haven't gotten to Secret Empire proper yet.

As for the politics of Spencer's storyline, there were a few bits of interest in this volume. Of some note is a few lines of dialogue near the conclusion of this trade, wherein we see who Cap has been telling his story too, and he says this:
I understand how it all sounds right now--
--You probably think I'm insane. Or brainwashed. Or, maybe you just think the cosmic cube changed me, that I'm the aberration, and not--all of this.
Just Cap being aware of the possibility that Kobik re-wrote him into a Hydra agent seems like kind of a big deal, almost as big a deal as his suggestion that it isn't the cube that is ultimately responsible for his actions...which might be something for fans who care deeply about the character to freak out about, if that were the case. (As I said when discussing the first volume though, Spencer's scripts seem to indicate as bluntly as possible that the cube made Cap a fascist, so I guess if there's a twist of any kind, it will be a big deal.) The fact that the person he's speaking to isn't convinced, however, also makes me question the nature of Kobik and what she/it did to alter Cap and Selvig; did she just change their memories, rather than time itself? (I guess that would be an easier lift, although difficulty shouldn't be an issue for a wishing does make Spencer's job slightly easier though, in terms of having to explain all of Marvel history in this new reality via flashback or whatever.)

The second item is something I'm pretty sure was raised during the online arguments regarding Nazi Cap that I was only dimly aware of. There's a scene set in the past when the cabal of Hydra leaders that have been participating in Steve's revised origin gather to discuss the coming world war, and parts of the scene seem to be written precisely to address the differences between the real-world Nazis and Marvel's Nazi-splinter group Hydra, which has for a long time been little more than a generic bad guy organization.

At a torch-lit meeting, Daniel Whitehall/The Kraken, Elisa Sinclair, Sebastian Fenhoff and Baron Zemo argue the pros and cons of Hydra aligning itself "with Germany and The Axis Powers in the battle to come." Zemo, who was already offered a position with the Nazis, is all for it. He articulates the plan like so: "We will infiltrate their ranks and install our own lieutenants, who will then use their influence to forge a formal partnership with The Reich."

Elisa, who has some sort of limited ability to predict the future, argues that Hitler is not "the one we've been waiting for," as Zemo puts it, but rather just "a power-hungry madman with a blood lust that will not be sated...and if we align ourselves with him, it will consume us as well."

They ultimately outvote her, but the argument is pretty clearly articulated that they are doing so not because of any particular ideological reason, but simply because they think Marvel Germany's military build-up and collection of magical artifacts means they are the safest nation to bet on in the event of world war.

"If The Fuhrer does turn out to be as...unsavory as Elisa suggests, who is to say we don't simply remove him from power when the time is right?" Fenhoff sums up. "Let him build an empire across Europe and then claim it for our own. He is a means to an end."

Given that Spencer was and is writing these chapters on a monthly-ish basis, and thus subject to more-or-less constant input from Marvel readers as well as his editors--it's not like he's unplugged in a cave or cabin somewhere, he's online as he's working on these scripts--it's hard not to read the scene as a sort of response to all the concern regarding Captain America comics or Marvel embracing fascism or Nazi ideology or whatever the specifics of the online arguments about the storyline were and are (And yeah, let me state for the record how insanely fucking weird it is to be reading superhero comics about Nazis and writing blog posts about said super-comics while literally as I type this reports are coming out of Charlottesville about real people dying and being injured as a result of demonstration by actual white supremacists openly carrying and waving actual Nazi flags).

Perhaps I am overthinking it, but the specifics of the scene--the general aim is clearly to demonstrate that Adolf Hitler isn't the one Hydra was waiting for, but that Steve Rogers was--seem to have been written so as to act as a way of distinguishing Marvel's Hydra from Hitler's Nazi party. I imagine, however, that it is a distinction without a difference. Decades of Marvel comics and multi-media adaptations have painted Hydra as simply a fantasy version of Nazis, and that is something that has been ever more pronounced since Captain America: The First Avenger was released. Spencer himself has spent so many issues assuring readers that Hydra isn't just a bunch of green-suited crypto-fascist generic bad guys, like AIM or The Hand with different uniforms, that to suddenly include a scene divorcing them from the Nazis seems a little weird.

Welcome, perhaps, but still weird.

Mockingbird Vol. 2: My Feminist Agenda

The second and, sadly, final collection of writer Chelsea Cain and pencil artist Katie Niemczyk's too-short Mockingbird series isn't quite as good as the previous volume (reviewed at the bottom of this post), but that's not exactly surprising: That first, five-part story arc was pretty damn brilliant, and about as close to a perfect comic book as I've seen Marvel get in...well, pretty much ever, I guess.

Cain, Niemczyk and inker Sean Parsons have some challenges to deal with here, of course, namely that one big problem Marvel's whole line had to deal with: Civil War II. The title character's ex-husband Clint "Hawkeye" Barton played a significant, if random and ultimately kinda pointless, role in that shared setting-reshuffling narrative, and so Cain and company pretty much have to deal with it in some way, shape or form. Cain decides to lean into it.

Bobbi  Morse receives a cruise ticket from an anonymous stranger, along with a message telling her the sender has valuable information that could help the case of her ex-husband, who is at that point on trial in New York City for shooting Bruce Banner to death with a bow and arrow in Utah. Of course she smelled set-up, but she wanted to get out of town anyway.

This particular cruise, on The Diamond Porpoise, is a nerd cruise ("Is there some sort of convention on board?" "Those are the nerds, ma'am") and it's headed for the Bermuda Triangle.

Things get very, very weird very, very fast. Bobbi's informant is disguised by a rubber horse mask, her other ex Hunter (and lots of corgis) are also on board and, by the end of the first issue, the informant is found dead, in what looks like a pretty impossible locked-door mystery (or it would be in our universe; in the Marvel Universe, locked doors only narrow the list of potential suspects by their powers and/or technology). The killer turns out to be yet another man from Bobbi's past, one I had no idea she was ever involved with, and though there aren't asterisks and issue numbers included in editor's boxes, all the information needed to get and/or to enjoy the story is provided. If it seems completely random, well, it's no more so than, say, the guy selling Northstar figurines he carved out of wood, or the myth of the mer-corgis.

As was demonstrated previously, Cain is not only surprisingly, even shockingly good at writing comics (not as easy a thing to master for anyone who has spent a life-time working professionally in an entirely different medium, like prose), but she's better than most Big Two writers as letting the imagery fill in the blanks, finish her sentences and provide her punchlines. There is a remarkable amount of content in these three issues that uses the fusion of words and picture to convey information that is not at all what one might expect from a comic (like the elaborate flow chart for dealing with a particular character that fills up a splash page in the insane last issue of the series, for example, or the excerpt from Hunter's Boy Scout's Field Guide To Tracking, or that restraining order, or the revolving character design sheets for Bobbi's exes, and on and on).

I'm pretty disappointed that this book, which is maybe the ultimate expression of the recent Fraction/Aja Hawkeye-model of books Marvel has been releasing for the last few years, has been canceled. I'm even more disappointed that so much dumb shit, blatant sexism and frankly vile bullying that appeared online about the book and about Cain herself towards the end, apparently because of the phrase on Bobbi's gag t-shirt on the cover of the final issue and, I don't know, maybe because it was a comic book about a lady, written and drawn by a lady? (It drives me crazy when people complain about feminists and feminism, because those people tend not to have any idea what the word "feminism" actually means or refers to, but good on Marvel for using that cover for that of the trade instead of the perhaps more all-encompassing covers for #6 or #7, and, of course, for using "My Feminist Agenda" as the sub-title. That said, the harassment Cain had to deal with is as distressing as it is depressing, and I wish I knew how to fix it; I hate that so many comics fans are so terrible that they drag the industry, or at least some of the more visible parts of the industry, so far down.)

On the other hand, I'm kind of amazed this book existed at all. Obviously the character's appearances on Agents of SHIELD upped her Q-rating to the point that Marvel would want to exploit it (see recent attempts at Deathlok and various Agents of SHIELD comics, all of which were also pretty quickly canceled), and just as obviously Cain is the sort of prestige "get" that the Big Two love to give gigs to, but, man this was just so different from anything else Marvel was publishing--weirder, wilder and more idiosyncratic than any of the many other superhero comedies of late (Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Patsy Walker, Howard The Duck, Unbelievable Gwenpool, various Rocket and/or Groot books, those millions of Deadpool comics).

Because three issues isn't enough to fill a $16 trade paperback, this volume also includes a pair of New Avengers issues from the second Brian Michael Bendis-written volume of the series, circa 2011/"Fear Itself." While these aren't exactly Mockingbird stories, she does play a sizable role in them, although there's very much a feeling of "we now join our story, already in progress" to them (Victoria Hand's around, Carol Danvers is still Ms. Marvel, Spider-Man's in his white Fantastic Four costume, etc). The issues are drawn by Michael Deodato and Howard Chaykin, and they don't make a whole heck of a lot of sense on their own like this. It might have been more useful for Marvel to maybe reprint some the issues that Cain's arc references, but I guess whenever Marvel is in doubt, their reflex is to just stick Bendis-written Avengers stuff in the back of a trade.

Spider-Woman Vol. 3: Scare Tactics

Spider-Woman has got to be neck-and-neck with Invincible Iron Man and maybe the various Guardians of the Galaxy books for the title of "Hardest Fucking Marvel Comic Book Series To Figure Out How To Read."

Let's review. Marvel launches a new Spider-Woman monthly series out of their "Spider-Verse" event; it is written by Dennis Hopeless and drawn by Greg Land. The first four issues, a tie-in to the event, are mostly overshadowed by an Internet small-c controversy about a variant cover provided by Milo Manara. He is an excellent artist, and I suppose there are arguments to be made against and in favor of Marvel hiring him to provide a variant and approving that particular image, as well as his repurposing of some older art as the basis for that image, but whatever one's opinion, I think we can safely all agree that the cover image did not go over particularly well. Those issues are collected as Spider-Woman Vol. 1: Spider-Verse.

For issue #5, Jessica Drew gets a brand-new costume--her first, ever, which is kind of remarkable given the hero's long life and how often superheroes get costume updates--and the book gets a new artist, Javier Rodriguez, as well as a new supporting cast and a change of direction. Marvel has renumbered series for less, but they decided to collect Spider-Woman #5-#10 as Spider-Woman Vol. 2: New Duds.

Then, seemingly at random, Marvel relaunches and renumbers Spider-Woman with a new #1, despite keeping the same creative team, same costume, same direction. The reason was apparently that Marvel relaunched everything following event series Secret Wars. In some cases, even though the serially published issues were being renumbered, Marvel kept the volume numbers on the trade paperbacks, because why make it harder for someone reading these things in libraries or from bookstores to not be able to figure out how to do so? (Think Ms. Marvel or Unbeatable Squirrel Girl). That was not the case for Spider-Woman; Hopeless and company's Spider-Woman #1-#5 is then collected as Spider-Woman Vol. 1: Baby Talk. So now there are two trade paperbacks entitled Spider-Woman Vol.1 by writer Dennis Hopeless.

But wait, there's more! That's followed by Spider-Woman Vol. 2: Civil War II, so now there are two Spider-Woman Vol. 2s, both by the same creative team, and, finally, the series was canceled (shocking, I know!) after the comics contained in Spider-Woman Vol. 3: Scare Tactics.

So, the proper reading order is: Spider-Woman Vol. 1, Spider-Woman Vol. 2, Spider-Woman Vol. 1, Spider-Woman Vol. 2 and Spider-Woman Vol. 3, although given that the first of the two volumes 1 is part of "Spider-Verse" and has little to do with what follows, you could probably start with Spider-Woman Vol. 2; the first Vol. 2, not the second one. Obviously.

In a futile attempt to try and distinguish one run of Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez and company's Spider-Woman from another, they added a sub-title to the post-Secret Wars title, Shifting Gears. It doesn't appear on the cover of the comic books or the trades tough, just in the fine print and on the spines. Marvel has added these phantom sub-titles to a lot of their post-Secret Wars books to apparently avoid confusion. I don't know how well they work, but my guess is somewhere between "not that great" and "not at all."

This is all fresh in my head at the moment because the night before writing this, I read Spider-Woman Vol. 3: Scare Tactics. It felt like I was missing something, since the last time I read Spider-Woman, Jessica had just discovered she was pregnant, and now here she is with a baby, but I--quite reasonably, in my opinion!--assumed that since the last collection of the series I read was volume 2, and this was volume 3, I couldn't have missed anything. Unless Marvel had started publishing collections with decimal points in their numbering, which is possible.

Anyway: I don't think this should be this hard.

So Vol. 3, which is actually volume five, or maybe four, is dominated by a Spider-Woman Vs. Hobgoblin story, plus a rather cute little epilogue issue. Veronica Fish has taken over art duties, getting an inking assist by Andy Fish, and the color art comes courtesy of Rachelle Rosenberg. Throughout Hopeless' run, Jessica Drew has basically appropriated a bunch of Spider-Man villains and supporting characters, some in pretty original ways--what with villain Porcupine becoming Jessica's sidekick/partner/babysitter/love interest and all--and in this arc, she's forced into combat with a whole mess of even more minor Spider-Man villains, plus one of Spidey's bigger ones. You know, the guy on the cover.

I'm no better at keeping track of Goblins than I am at keeping track of Spider-Women, but this appears to be the original Hobgoblin, whose relationship to the original Green Goblin I couldn't even begin to guess at. He has a slightly cooler costume and a worse color scheme, but he also has all the cool gadgets: The bat-shaped glider thingee and the pumpkin bombs.

While Jessica Drew is out fighting crime--there's a pretty well executed scene where she takes down The Blizzard--and Ben Urich is babysitting her kid Gerry, The Porcupine has a meeting at a bar where various lame-o villains hang-out. The gist of it is that he had made a deal with The Hobgoblin, who has been selling lame super-villain "franchises" in the form of costumes and codenames to bad guys, and Porcupine is there to tell him he wants out of their agreement, as he's planning on going straight now.

Hobgoblin shakes his hand, says no hard feelings, and then, later that night, The Hobgoblin and a bunch of villains arrive on a rooftop to murder Porcupine. It took me a while to figure out who all these villains were, and some of them I still don't know for sure; like the big, bear-themed guy I thought was The Grizzly? He's actually, as Jessica explains at one point, "Bruin, the bear super villain who's not Grizzly." (Who's the guy with the unicorn symbol on his chest? Is that The Unicorn?)

Once Jessica learns what happens, she jumps on her motorcycle, rides to the bar, beats the crap out of everyone there like she was Daredevil in an old Frank Miller comic, and, unsurprisingly, draws the attention of The Hobgoblin. She's in no shape to handle him and his gang of bottom-feeding Spider-villains alone, but perhaps she can with some help from a pair of allies she had thought she had lost (one in this volume, one in the Civil War II arc that I hadn't read yet because Marvel has weird ideas about how numbers work).

In the final issue, Jessica throws a party to introduce her superhero pals to her new boyfriend, The Porcupine (Spoiler alert! He's not dead! And is he the baby's father? I still don't know! I guess I missed those volumes, but seems like!). Carol and Ben help her decorate, and the drama is basically divided between The Black Widow being kind of a B about Jessica Drew slumming as a PI (instead of living up to her full potential by being an Avenger) and dating a D-List Spider-Man villain (or is that too generous a letter for the list Porcupine belongs on?), the Porcupine's anxiety about meeting a whole bunch of Avengers (including Spider-Man) and the baby demonstrating that he has already developed his mom's wall-crawling and venom blast powers.

The sentiment of this issue is pretty sweet, but I have to admit it's a little weird to see so many of these heroes all on the same page on the heels of the events of Civil War II (For example, Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel are both there; in fact, a lot of people who came to blows with Carol are in attendance). I imagine that the issue was already drawn before the end of Civil War II was known by Fish and/or Hopeless, though. With the exception of Spidey and Black Widow, few of the characters present actually have any lines, so the script may have just called for "a bunch of superheroes," without specifying who should be there.

But, for example, there's a really big lady there that looks like she's meant to be She-Hulk, but she has pale Caucasian skin and brown hair, rather than her normal green (or, now, gray, I guess). She's called "Jen Walters" at one-point, so I guess Fish must have just drew She-Hulk at some point, but they were able to color her not-green before publication...? There's a long-shot where Iron Man appears to be there too, which would, of course, be impossible. Jen's coloring aside, the scene works just fine for the purposes of this book, but likely reads a little weird if you spent too much time thinking about Civil War II and any of its many, many tie-ins which, um, I may have.

This collection contains perhaps the best artwork from Fish I've seen to date. It's always been pretty okay, of course, but it seems clearer, crisper and cleaner than ever before, and it wasn't at all as jarring a switch from that of Rodriguez as I thought it might have been. I already mentioned the sequence with The Blizzard, but all of the super-villain fights are pretty great, and Fish manages to draw all of those charmingly lame super-villains in such a way that there's a sort of stripped-down elegance to their goofy costumes.

Also, 8-Ball is there. I love that character, although it looks like he's a woman now...? Doesn't matter; it's still a great costume. She is shown shooting pool with...actually, I have no idea who that guy is, but he's brave to play pool with someone who has pool-related powers.

Aside from the broad work on the action and the character acting though, Fish has plenty of little moments that are of interest. I really liked that when Spider-Woman first meets Bruin in the bar, he's shown walking out of a restroom with a little white bear head on a placard by it. I guess he and Grizzly get their own bathroom?

Later, there's a scene featuring a "casual" Hobgoblin, with his hood off, and I don't like the way he looks there, like, at all, but it's still an interesting look, even if it's not a great look for him.


So it wasn't until after I read this and then spent a few paragraphs complaining about Marvel's numbering of the collections that I saw this collection has one of those weird flow-charts explaining what order to read runs of collections in. "Want to know the best way to explore the Marvel Universe? This guide will show you where to begin!" it reads. I would just like to reply that the best way would be for Marvel to quit fucking relaunching their series with new #1 issues and, when they do, to not also renumber the collections.

Anyway, this chart instructs one to "Follow The Adventures of Spider-Woman In These Collected Editions!" There's a "Start Here" next to Spider-Woman Vol. 1: Spider-Verse, which shows how fruitless this flow-chart is. Remember, that's a tie-in to Spider-Verse, so maybe start there...?

Then you read Spider-Woman Vol. 2, then Spider-Woman: Shifting Gears Vol. 1--Baby Talk, then Spider-Women (which wasn't even on my radar as a comic book I would want to read, let alone need to read to follow the adventures of Dennis Hopeless' Jessica Drew) and then Spider-Woman: Shifting Gears Vol. 2--Civil War II.

I guess the existence of these charts is a sign that Marvel at least realizes that they have a problem and are trying to address it, but this seems like a too-late patch to a problem that would have been easy enough to fix at an earlier point.

Star Wars Vol. 5: Yoda's Secret War

That's right Yoda, despite the fact that this series is set between the end of the original film and the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. Writer Jason Aaron manages this focus on Yoda in one of the more convoluted ways imaginable, and I can't help but wonder why this isn't just a stand alone miniseries. There's just a brief check-in with the ongoing narrative of the series. In the last volume, the special forces team of Stormtroopers captured C3-P0 after the Star Destroyer heist, and hear they rather amusingly discover that the loquacious droid is way too easy to interrogate; the human rebels reluctantly decide to let the Empire have Threepio, as he is just a droid, but R2-D2 commandeers an X-Wing, and essentially sabotages Luke's ship, so he can't pursue and try to stop him from mounting a rescue solo.

That cliffhanger is then abandoned for, like, five issues. Finding himself stuck in his X-Wing, Luke decides to pull out Obi-Wan's journal and resume reading it. In the past, this has provided Aaron an excuse to do short, fill-in like issues starring Obi-Wan, but here Obi-Wan is relating a story that Yoda told him. So, to review, this is the story of one of Yoda's "secret" adventures from around the time of The Phantom Menace, as told to Obi-Wan, who is telling it to Luke via his journal.

Luke has little to do for much of the story, then, aside from sitting in the cockpit of his ship, reading (I wonder if this whole journal idea is meant as a rebuke of Ryan Britt's essay about literacy in the Star Wars universe, in Luke Skywalker Can't Read?). Obi-Wan has even less to do, getting a page or two to remind us that he's telling the story; in one scene we see him meditating on Tatooine, writing the story through the power of The Force, as if he's dictating it to The Force ("Living Force; take a memo!"). Near the end, Luke rather impulsively attempts to follow the clues in the journal to look for the planet the Yoda's Secret War took place at, and there he provides an epilogue, faces The Beyonder and gets a cool new black and white costume that will turn out to be an evil symbiote.
The specifics of the war involve a group of children fighting a group of adults over strange and powerful blue rocks that are somehow extremely strong in The Force, as if they were Force-sensitive living things. Readers should figure out what's going on pretty quickly.

The arc is drawn by Salvador Larocca, an artist whose work I am not really a fan of, given his use of photo reference. It is more pronounced and hard for me to look at in this series, than in, say, Invincible Iron Man or Darth Vader, as there are fewer frozen mask faces and more human characters. For example, there's an early scene in which the rebel heroes debate their options regarding C3-P0, and Larocca gives them the exact faces, expressions, postures and posing of various stills from the various movies, and they don't all fit together (and it's hard not to be distracted by them).

His Yoda is similarly drawn from (over?) images from the films, and Larocca apparently culled images from both trilogies, as sometimes he looks like the puppet from the original films and sometimes he looks like the CGI character from the prequels. I suppose what Larocca does here can be appreciated as some kind of elaborate work of collage, but I can't bring myself to do so. It's cold, sterile and lifeless, and what he does isn't obvious enough to be seen as, like, visual sampling, but goes over like something of a trick.

It's kind of too bad then that Marvel collected Star Wars Annual #2 here then, as it is pretty damn different, and superior in all of the ways "Yoda's Secret War" is inferior. Written by Kelly Thompson and drawn by Emilio Laiso, this 30-page story is about Princess Leia...but only sort of about her. The actual protagonist is Pash "Bash" Davane, a former engineer reduced to crate-hauling after the war came to her home planet and wrecked the joint. Pash is neither sympathetic to the Empire nor a believer in the rebellion, and she's no fan of Leia, the reasons for which leads to the parts of the book that are "about" Leia. She's tried to live on the sidelines of the war to the best of her abilities, but is essentially forced to make a choice between which side to support.

She chooses the good guys, obviously, and the book is basically a team-up between the two ladies. Pash, as designed by Laiso, is a pretty interesting character. She's big--very big--and well-muscled, to the point that when she meets Leia's friends at the end, she's got to slouch and stoop to look Luke in the eye, and she has to tear the sleeves off of one of Han's shirts to have it fit her. There are additionally some pretty fun jokes about how tiny Leia is...she is tiny, of course, not just in relation to Pash, but, well, Carrie Fisher was only 5'1, a full foot shorter than her love interest in the trilogy.

Paired with a smart-ass robot that only she can understand and suddenly woke to the rebellion, Pash seems like a character who might be around to stay...which is a good thing. I'm not as deep into the so-called "Expanded Universe" as many fans, but I've come to the belief that the best such comics and books are the ones that are close enough to the film's characters to seem like they are relevant and therefore matter, but not so close that they run the risk of tripping up the franchises stars or causing narrative problems. I think Thompson gets it exactly right here, and that's not terribly easy; unlike Dark Horse's Star Wars line, Marvel's has been focused almost entirely on characters from various films (Darth Vader, which kinda sorta transitioned into Doctor Aphra, seemed to do the best job of following the films' slipstream without getting tangled, in large part because of all the new characters in those books, and the fact that they were placed in Vader's shadow).

By contrast, I'm not sure how I feel about Luke reading about Yoda, a character whose presence in Empire was kinda dependent on Luke knowing nothing about him other than his name and location. (Personally, I didn't like Yoda's presence in the prequels at all, as, watched in order, the Yoda scene in Episode V is ruined, and he seemed to have aged two million years in the, like, 20 years between Episodes III and V, but whatever.)

Additionally, it was just plain refreshing to see good old-fashioned drawings of the characters, old and new, after 100 pages or so of Larocca's work, to see Laiso's Leia and know that is what the character looks like in a particular artist's style, and the expressions and poses are coming from the artist's hand, not a particular frame from a particular film.

Star-Lord: Grounded

I lost track of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy comic proper just after Secret Wars, with what Wikipedia is telling me was the first collection of the fourth volume of the series (Guardians of The Galaxy: New Guard Vol. 1--Emperor Quill), although by then my grip on the franchise was already pretty loose, as I had barely followed any of the many, many spin-offs, with just about every character having their own title for a while, plus there being a short-lived Guardians Team-Up comic for some damn reason.

As it turns out, one need not know what the hell is going on with the Guardians to read, understand or enjoy writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Kris Anka's Star-Lord miniseries (I don't know if it was advertised and promoted as such--I wouldn't be surprised if Marvel failed to mention that it was a limited series--but this reads like an original graphic novel). All one really needs to know is that Peter Quill and his teammates are all temporarily stuck on Earth following the dumb events of Civil War II (wherein their ship was destroyed when they arrived to help Carol Danvers abuse civil liberties), and he's on the outs with his fellow Guardians.

What is a space-faring, half-human superhero to do when he's stuck on Earth for the first time since childhood? If it were up to Quill, lay around drinking beer shirtless, but SWORD Alpha Flight's Abigail Brand gives him a cellphone programmed with the numbers of his known terrestrial associates (Just Howard The Duck and Kitty Pryde) and makes him go outside.

This proves to be something of a mistake, as he ends up making a scene at a museum, getting in a bar brawl with Old Man Logan and some bad guys and given some 100 hours of community service by New York City prosecutor Matt Murdock. That public service takes the form of hanging out with a particular old man with a secret, while working as a bartender at The Bar With No Name, one of the apparently several (you read the above review of Spider-Woman, right?) where the city's low-level lame-o supervillains hang out.

It's difficult to talk too much about the plot without spoiling any of the surprises, but suffice it to say that everything is connected in a somewhat remarkable fashion, so that Zdarsky wastes almost nothing in the narrative, with even things that seem like minor jokes later playing important parts of the story. Lacking his regular ensemble cast, even in a solo title Quill pretty quickly amasses one, and it includes not only the senior citizen he's hanging out with and said senior citizen's son, but also Dardevil, Logan and so such bar regulars as The Shocker, Diamondhead and 8-Ball (who here is a man; are there two 8-Balls in the Marvel Universe now, or is the one in Spider-Woman Lady 8-Ball...?).

It is funny, but it's also extremely well-written, with the choices that seem frankly random (Logan, for example) eventually coming off as perfectly organic (Tangent: This comic was a particularly good example of how weird it is that Marvel killed off the "real" Wolverine shortly before introducing the one from Old Man Logan into the Marvel Universe proper, as there is pretty much nothing at all differentiating the pair except their hair. This could very easily have been Regular Wolverine; all that would have been different would have been his hair...and maybe Zdarsky wouldn't have made that joke at the end, but, on the other hand, maybe he would have, as both Logans are super-old men, it's just the dead Logan was always drawn not to look so old).

Anka's art is as excellent as always, and is a major selling point for the book. I think it's well worth pointing out that the way he draws Peter Quill, and the situations Zdarsky puts him in, are somewhat remarkable in that they treat him the way superheroines have been treated for years, but superheroes almost never are. Not only is Star-Lord shirtless in this, like, a lot, but often times he is shirtless because whenever he's in a fight, he has a habit of getting his clothes torn off of him. When he's confronted by a villain in his apartment, he's just wearing a pair of very small shorts, and Anka draws him from various angles so you can see all his curves and muscles. Even during a sad scene, when he's taking a shower, the imagery is somewhat exploitative, with steam and water just covering the amount of nudity that would make this a Mature Readers book instead of a "T+" book.

Subjecting a male character to the traditional "male gaze" that, say, Mary Jane Watson or She-Hulk or whoever would get is sometimes played for laughs, sure, but it's also subversive and, well, welcome. Anka is a really good artist, after all. (I imagine this has more to do with Chris Pratt playing him than it does the comic book character's own history, but Star-Lord here is presented as an all-around sexy hunk, not unlike the way Thor Odinson was presented as a hottie in-universe more after Chris Hemsworth started playing him in movies.)

The six-issue, 120-page story is followed by an annual, which is a pretty damn weird thing for a six-month miniseries to have. Drawn by Djibril Morissette and written by Zdarsky, it has a very, very different tone. Quill has crash-landed on a space western planet, which isn't terribly interesting looking compared to the similar setting the characters in Fiona Staples and Bryan Vaughn's Saga are currently spending time in, that isn't quite what it seems. Here's a hint: Bruce Banner is there.

As a "it was all a near death experience...or was it?" story it would be fine, although throwing Banner in there like that kind of colors that take (Hey, this is at least the second time I've seen the Hulk undead since the middle of Civil War II....!). While it is somewhat connected to the main story via a few panels of a nightmare Quill has, it sticks out, being so far removed from the otherwise clockwork tightly-plotted, at least two jokes per page, Anka-drawn "Earth-Lord" story that precedes it.

If for some strange reason you would like to continue reading my babbling about various Marvel collections, I also reviewed Champions Vol. 1: Change The World and Invincible Iron Man: Ironheart Vol. 1--Riri Williams for Good Comics For Kids.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Guest review: Heathen

By Meredith Tomeo

When Heathen begins, we learn two pieces of information. First is the legend of Brynhild, the leader of the Valkyries who defied the will of Odin and, as punishment, was banished from the land of the gods and cursed her to marry a mortal. The next thing we learn is the story of our protagonist Aydis, a young, Viking living out her days in exile for kissing another girl, a transgression normally punished by marriage or death.

I first heard of Heathen from a tweet sent out by the series’ author/artist Natasha Alterici urging people to check out the debut issue of her new lesbian Viking comic. I didn't need to hear anymore to know I would like Heathen, as lesbian Vikings are relevant to my interests. And with the release of volume one (collecting the first four issues) I've been able to confirm that yes, I do like this comic.

Heathen is set in a world where gods, immortal warriors and talking creatures roam the same lands as men and women. Aydis, spared from an execution by her father and no longer under the thumb of the men who rule her village, has taken on a quest of her own. She's determined to break Brynhild’s curse, a dangerous journey across treacherous terrain ending with a leap of faith through a fiery barricade.

The act of bravery impresses Brynhild, who sees a kindred spirit in Aydis, a young woman seeking her own path. Aydis catches the eye of another Valkyrie, Freyja, who whisks her off to a paradise. She offers Aydis a life free from man’s laws and out of the line of Odin’s rage, a  place where she can live and love freely, without judgement or derision. It's a tempting offer, but Aydis refuses.
Aydis wants to help Brynhild fight to make the world better for others, not necessarily for herself. Freyja understands the warrior desire, so parts ways with Aydis, offering instructions that will aid Brynhild.

Brynhild, for her part, has reconnected with the last mortal to "break"  her curse. Odin’s punishment was cruel and eternal; forcing Brynhild to marry a mortal, only to have the curse reset when that mortal dies. Brynhild is sent back again to live her life in painful solitude, doomed to repeat the cycle forever. But Brynhild has had enough, she's ready to shake off the shackles of Odin’s petty revenge for good.

Alterici’s art style pairs well with her narrative. Her vivid dialog fills the space of her sparse backgrounds. Most panels merely have the suggestion of landscapes or buildings, instead focusing on the characters and letting their expressive faces telling the story. Her color palette doesn't stray too far away from black, brown, gray and taupe, and it gives you the impression that you're reading from an aged and fading document.
These first four issues definitely had a lot of setup, establishing the characters and their motivations. I'm hoping now that the pieces have been put in place, the next issues will have a little more action. Alterici is definitely capable of conveying dynamic energy in her art. One sequence that stands out involves Aydis fighting a god in the form of a bull, and in another, Brynhild leaps off a galloping horse into a throng of mobbing villagers. I'd like to see a few more battles, maybe someone wielding a large ax of some sort.
There's a lot to like about the main character, Aydis. She's a fierce, fearless warrior who, even though she was cast out by her own people and has no reason to care about others, has a drive to protect those she can. Alterici has created a steadfast and loving young woman. She refuses to make apologies or excuses for the way she desires to live her life.

Aydis and Brynhild are two women who have had their lives derailed by the oppressive reign of man. With nothing left to lose, I get the sense they will wreak havoc in their quest for freedom. It may not be for themselves, but it will be with the hope that other women won't have to suffer like they have. Needless to say, I'm very much looking forward for what's in store in the next issues.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Comic Shop Comics: August 9th

Detective Comics #962 (DC Comics) This is the conclusion to the "Intelligence" story arc, the Jean-Paul Valley/Azrael-focused story that has felt really, really off to me, in large part because it is one of those very clear examples of the "worst of both worlds" aspects to DC's constant continuity reboots. You know, stories that are completely rooted in particular DC Comics stories from the past, while also being on the other side of a reboot meant to erase those very same stories in order to de-clutter continuity and let creators move forward and, one assumes, attract new readers. So there's a tangible tension between what those creators want and what the publishing strategy will allow.

And what James Tynion IV pretty obviously wants to write about more than anything else is the Batman comics of the early 1990s.

I hate to use the word "fan fiction" when describing comic book writing, particularly when it comes to these sorts of corporate super-comics, because it becomes a blurry, almost meaningless term (Like, of course writer James Tynion is a fan; why the hell would he be doing this if he weren't?). And anyone writing Batman today is going to be writing something somewhat fan fiction-like, as they didn't create Batman...or, in almost every case, none of the characters in the narrative).

That said, however, the fannishness of this arc is pretty overwhelming. It's climax involved a slow build to Jean-Paul Valley from the early '90s Batman comics suiting up in his old "Az-Bats" costume from the "KnightQuest" story arc for just one action scene; it is essentially a climax built to accommodate an homage (and one that lasts just long enough for Azarael to show off all of that costume's features). Meanwhile, the writer's shipping of Batman and Zatanna continues apace (granted, Tynion's not the only one to want to see a relationship between the two, nor the first writer of Detective Comics to incorporate it into his run), and there's even a panel where Batwoman declares her desire to be in a relationship with Zatanna, which is really just a jokey aside, followed by Cassandra Cain essentially saying "Same" (Actually, Cass' response to Batwoman saying "I want to marry her" is "Yes").

That, and throughout this entire arc I've been getting a really weird Neon Genesis Evangelion vibe--perhaps inevitable when encountering any sorts of fusion of science-fiction nonsense and crypto-Christian religious gibberish--and it gets even stronger when robot angel monster Ascalon does a cover version of the Human Instrumentality Project, and there's even a panel where he holds Zatanna's magical orb that visually echoes a frame from the conclusion of Evagelion the movie.

I'm...glad this arc is over. Maybe now Tynion and Detective can move on to telling fresh, new stories with these characters, rather than awkward hybrid homage stories. Let's see, according to the solicitations, the next issue features a Spoiler/Anarky story and then there's an arc called "A Lonely Place of Living"...


Gotham Academy: Second Semester #12 (DC) DC made some mistakes with this series that seem easy to armchair publisher in retrospect, but it was cool of them to keep publishing so long after it was clear that the market couldn't support the title and it was headed for cancellation. In fact, DC let it run a lot longer than I would have expected, as basically the entire last dozen issues were a sort of concluding final arc, and it's not hard to imagine writer Brenden Fletcher and his writing team of collaborators having had to condense it into, like, four-to-six issues instead.

Perhaps it will find an audience in trade format, in bookstores and libraries, and we'll see more of these characters and this particular corner of Gotham City in the future? If not, Fletcher, Becky Cloonan, Karl Kerschl and company introduced us to a bunch of interesting new characters (especially Maps, who I ship with Damian, and I've never shipped anyone with anyone before!), an interesting new setting and they gave new life to a bunch of pretty random villains from Batman '66.

There is more story left to tell, as I think that Headmaster Hammer's secret or past life was never thoroughly explored, but I would be shocked if we don't see at least some of these characters popping up in future Batman comics, and, perhaps, an official Gotham Academy miniseries in a few years time or so.

Justice League/Power Rangers #5 (DC) Okay, this has gotta be shipping late as hell, because I had honestly forgotten it was still going on. Like, when Kimberly showed up wearing a Hawkgirl mask? I originally thought she was Hawkgirl, because I had forgotten the Rangers lost their power coins and were using bits of costumes and weaponry from the Justice League junk drawer. So let's see...I reviewed the first issue in January, meaning this should have wrapped up in June. Instead, the fifth issues is shipping this month, and the sixth is slated for next month. Huh. I wonder what happened?

Well, it should go without saying that the series has lost its momentum, and even though there was never really much in the way of suspense conclusion--would Brainiac and Lord Zedd succeed in killing all our heroes and/or destroying their alternate Earths? Would Power Rangers and/or Justice League continuity be changed forever, in this a one-off, out-of-continuity, novelty storyline? At this point it is a simple matter of writer Tom Talyor and artist Stephen Byrne running down the clock.

Alpha 5, who turns out to still be alive after all, gets a lot of panel-time in this issue and lectures Brainiac on what true sentience is. I found myself a little disappointed that there is no Captain Marvel Shazam involvement in the crossover, as Byrne is coloring Alpha quite golden, so the robot's got a golden lightning bolt on his red chest, and he looks like some kind of Shazam-bot, like maybe The Wizard of The Rangers' Earth gave his powers to an annoying robot instead of an orphan...?

Alpha does do something unexpected involving powers and fighting on the last two pages, but, sadly, it is not saying "Shazam!", growing a cape and flying around punching monsters in the mouth with the strength of Hercules.

Maybe next time. If DC and Boom don't decide to go in this direction with a sequel, of course.

True Believers: Kirby 100th--Groot #1 (Marvel Entertainment) "True Believers" is what Marvel has been calling these $1.00 reprints of older comics they have been publishing for a while now, usually as something of a promotion to what they are doing in other media or what's going on in the Marvel Universe. This being Jack Kirby's centennial, and Jack Kirby having created or co-created the first 50 or so Marvel characters you might be able to name that aren't Spider-Man or Doctor Strange, they are apparently publishing a suite of a dozen such reprints devoted to his work (DC, meanwhile, is publishing over-sized specials featuring most if not all of the noteworthy characters Kirby contributed to their fictional universe, like this week's The Newsboy Legion and The Boy Commandos Special #1 by Howard Chaykin; I think I'm gonna trade-wait that event, and hope there is a trade).

In addition to comics, I'm fairly interested in monsters, and Kirby's monster comics for pre-Fantastic Four Marvel have always been a source of fascination for me, even though I am mainly familiar with them from their post-Kirby appearances in Marvel's superhero universe, which absorbed them. I would love a nice, cheap, easy entry point into those Stan Lee and Jack Kirby monster comics of yore, but Marvel has mostly collected them in expensive collections (a rare and welcome exception was the recent Monsters Unleashed Prelude trade paperback, which featured the first appearances of some dozen or so Kirby monsters, as well as more recent stories starring Elsa Bloodstone, Fin Fang Foom and Devil Dinosaur, presumably because all of those characters played roles in event series Monsters Unleashed).

So a $1.00, comic book-format reproduction of a pair of Kirby monster stories is pretty much exactly what I would want...especially since Marvel stopped publishing those phone book-like "Essential" collections. Hell, I'd buy something like this on an ongoing, monthly basis, but I understand there may not be enough of us in existence to make it worth Marvel's while to publish such a book.

So, this! It includes the cover story from Tales To Astonish #13, "I...Challenged Groot, The Monster from Planet X!", as well as that from Journey Into Mystery #62, "I Was a SLave of the Living Hulk!" Both of these characters, the latter of whom became Xemnu The Titan rather than The Hulk after Bruce Banner's gamma bomb mishap, are interesting to pair together, given that they are basically rough drafts for characters who would go on to great and rather surprising multi-media fame, after some considerable creative twists and turns (Kirby and Lee of course went on to reuse the "Hulk" name in another creation, whereas Groot's current take as a one sentence-spouting member of a spacefaring super-team including Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon is mainly the responsibility of Keith Giffen, Timothy Green and company thanks to their 2007 Annihilation Conquest--Starlord miniseries, although please correct me in the comments if I'm wrong; I only read parts of the various Annihilations).

I just read the Groot tale in the aforementioned Monsters Unleashed Prelude trade (review forthcoming someday soon...maybe...hopefully). It's actually pretty amusing how little the two Groots have in common, something I'm pretty sure I've seen explored in more recent Marvel space comics. This Groot is a typical (for these stories) alien conqueror with fantastic powers. Not only is he very loquacious--his "I am Groot!" is followed by "Monarch of Planet X! I come to take an Earth village--your village back to my planet! We want to study you, to experiment on you! Blah blah blah blah!"). He also "controls" all wood, which is a pretty lame power unless you are fighting Golden Age Green Lantern, but there are a couple of really fantastic scenes in here, like when he brings the trees to life, and they rush upon humans on outstretched root legs.

Xemnu, like Groot, is also a talkative giant space asshole. In his case, he escaped a prison planet and crashlanded on earth. Once awoken by a simple electrician--who somehow loaded the unconscious titanic creature onto his truck solo--Xemnu uses his powers of mass hypnosis to command the entire population of earth except the electrician to build a giant space rocket for him, one so big it will destroy the earth when it blasts off! The electrician pulls a fast one though, and saves the day. To think there was a time when we didn't need the Fantastic Four or the The Avengers to save the earth, electricians and effete biologists could save the world by themselves without a single super-power (Oh, if you haven't read it yet, I'm not trying to trash talk biologists; the man who kills Groot is Leslie Evans, and his wife Alice is always belittling him for not being as manly and rugged as guys like that wonderful George Carter).

Both monster designs are particularly cool, with Xemnu a bizarre fusion of masses of hair and randomly-placed circuitry. There are a few quick views of the prison planet he escaped from too, which further allowed Kirby to draw whatever crazy creatures were in his head that hour.

Filling up the back of the book are some of the variants from Marvel's recent "Kirby Monster" variant program: Groot by Mike and Laura Allred, Xemnu by Dan Brereton, Blip (I think) by Simon Bisley, Fin Fang Foom by Walter Simonson and Laura Martin and Orrgo by Mike del Mundo.

Not bad at all for a buck!

Monday, August 07, 2017

Looking for the controversy in Captain America: Steve Rogers Vol. 1--Hail Hydra

One of the great benefits and/or detriments of reading Marvel's serially-published comics series in collected trade paperback format is that you generally miss out on the online conversations about particular issues of particular comic books as they are happening. Captain America: Steve Rogers Vol. 1--Hail Hydra, for example, collects the first six issues of one of the two Nick Spencer-written Captain America titles, and is where Spencer's long-term plans for the franchise take their controversial turn, a turn that ultimately leads to the currently-unfolding Secret Empire event series.

The controversy associated with this particular Marvel comic has to do with the plot itself, as opposed to the other sorts of controversies Marvel comics are occasionally embroiled in, like that thing with the X-Men comic, or everyone freaking out about hearing part of an out-of-context quote from David Gabriel, or publishing tentacle rape porn on the cover or whatever. As I have overheard on Twitter, and read in at least one pretty solid article explaining it all to me, this is the comic book story in which it is revealed that the original Captain America Steve Rogers, the superhero so patriotic that he wears the American flag for his work clothes, was actually a sleeper agent for Hydra, the Marvel Universe's Nazi splinter group.

This always confused me, as superheroes making heel turns is a convention not much younger than superhero comics in general. Any superhero who has been around long enough will make a heel turn at some point (and few Marvel heroes have been around as long as Captain America!), and these turns are always rather quickly undone. Even when it seems as if the heel turn is meant to be a permanent one--think Green Lantern Hal Jordan becoming Parallax--it gets undone. The logic behind the story seemed pretty obvious to me from a distance, as the more noble and good the hero, the more dramatic it is when he takes his heel turn (This is why DC seems positively obsessed with publishing stories in which Superman is the villain and other heroes have to fight him; generally these happen in out-of-continuity stories, but Superman has broken bad in the "real" DC Universe too, in the Dominus storyline circa 1998-ish...although, as is often the case, things weren't quite what they seemed at the time).

The other thing that confused me about people getting so upset about a pretty basic super-comic trope that is so obviously meant to be temporary and easily reversed is that the story preceding this one, the "Avengers: Standoff" crossover that involved the various Avengers and Avengers-related comics, had for its climax Captain America being dramatically altered by Kobik, a sentient Cosmic Cube.

(If you're unfamiliar with these objects, they are, like so much else of worth in the Marvel Universe, the creation of the Jack Kirby/Stan Lee collaboration. They are essentially wish-granting maguffins, capable of allowing whoever wields them to completely alter reality in any way, shape or form. Several classic Marvel storylines have revolved around bad guys like Thanos, Doctor Doom or The Red Skull trying to get their hands on them, and/or heroes having access to a cube and being tempted to misuse it.)

At the beginning of "Standoff," Steve Rogers had already lost his functional immortality, and had turned into something approaching the old man he should be as a World War II vet (he kept the totally ripped physique though, for some reason). Kobik restored his youth to him, and if Steve was going to suddenly become a bad guy, to suddenly be revealed to have actually always been a bad guy all along, well then, it was a good bet that Kobik did it to him. And, it turns out, she did.

Now writer Nick Spencer is obviously milking this Cap-betraying-everything-he-believed-in storyline for everything it's worth, drawing it out to the length of multiple trade paperbacks, involving the whole Marvel Universe (as line-wide event stories like Secret Empire dictate) and, in what may be much of what makes some readers uncomfortable, trying to put forward cogent arguments for embracing fascism, in an attempt to make his villains more than just cartoon mustache-twirlers.

But boil this plot point down to its essence, and basically Captain America got zapped with a gun called "The Villainizer," and the ultimate solution is almost certainly going to be the equivalent of someone switching The Villainizer to "reverse" and zapping him again.

I just couldn't understand why people were getting so upset about the storyline itself, and most of the arguments I was seeing had to do with the story working the way Spencer intended it to. Like, anyone who thinks Captain America allying himself with Hydra or fascists or Nazi-like groups is something the good Captain America would never do, well, that's the whole point, isn't it? What if instead of socking old Hitler in the jaw, Captain America was shaking his hand?

(I do understand that there are other reasons to be upset with Marvel around their promotion of the Captain America: Steve Rogers/Secret Empire storyline that had to do with marketing more than story content. For example, I understand Marvel sent local comic shops signage and other materials so that they could play along as if they too were secret fronts for Hydra, something that likely seemed pretty distasteful given the way Spencer was characterizing his new version of Hydra--ultra-nationalist, xenophobic, right-wingers of the sort that had just helped elect Donald Trump president of the United States of America, and were--and are--seemingly on the rise in Europe.)

So as I first started reading this collection, which includes Free Comic Book Day 2016 (Captain America) by Jesus Saiz and then the first six issues of Steve Rogers, drawn by Saiz, Javier Pina and Miguel Sepulveda, I was doing so with an eye for finding what exactly it is that so riled readers. I looked, and I looked and I kept looking, and, to be honest, I never really found it. Where the book is at its most politically relevant, it seems to be criticizing today's alt-right, as well as nationalism and racism in general, but from what I had seen online, most of the criticism leveled at the book and at Marvel was coming from the left (I should here note that Twitter feed is pretty liberal-heavy, perhaps even exclusively so. Maybe those to the right-of-center who read Marvel comics also hate this storyline; I don't know.). There is a speech near the end that I think may have bugged some people, but we'll get to that in a bit.

Maybe it's the next volume, , or Secret Empire proper where Spencer seems to embrace fascism  or starts to take potshots at the left, but there's nothing in here I could see as offensive. But let's look as closely as we can, shall we?

Free Comic Book Day 2016 (Captain America)
Art and color by Jesus Saiz

To illustrate the importance Marvel was placing on this story, they devoted one of their two 2016 FCBD giveaways to it. The other? Civil War II. Like Civil War II, this eventually leads to a modern Marvel event series of  the greatest scale at which the publisher engages:  A mini-series functioning as the event's backbone, a supporting miniseries and tie-in issues or story arcs appearing in pretty much everything else Marvel publishes.

My local comic shopkeep opined once that Secret Empire would probably have been fine if it were just a Captain America story-arc, and not blown-up to fit a Civil War II-sized event template. Given how much build-up went into it, I suppose it would have to be something sizable, but he was probably right; perhaps something along the scale of "Standoff" (which is technically a first act, or at least a prelude, to Secret Empire) would have worked better and annoyed fewer readers and retailers? Something involving the two Captain America books, the relevant Avengers books and maybe a handful of books that could use a boost of sales and interest?

In other words, a more franchise-specific crossover event, rather than a line-wide one.

This 10-page story (the back of the FCBD book featured a Spider-Man Peter Parker story that's not reprinted here) features acting SHIELD Commander (and Steve Rogers' girlfriend) Sharon Carter at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, a scene inter-cut with those featuring the Captains America fighting the reconstituted Hydra (they were seemingly wiped out by Sam Wilson in All-New Captain America Vol. 1: Hydra Ascendant). Carter is on the bridge of some helicarrier, feeding intel to the Captains while Rick Jones acts as their Oracle. A terrorist attack is imminent. Rogers is in Austria, beating up a a Hydra cell and using threats of greater violence to get the location of the attack out of the last one left conscious.

It's in New York City, where Captain America Sam Wilson, the new Falcon Joaquin Torres and actual falcon Redwing are on hand to foil the attack. But! At the same time, a hotel in Brussels is bombed, killing civilians. The Senate is mad at Carter, and then Captain America strides in to try to sell them on something.

Meanwhile, The Red Skull watches the TV news and sips tea served to him by his daughter Sin, who has her face again (Um, she lost her face and became basically a female Red Skull previously).

This new version of Hydra sounds a bit like a cross between the alt-right and ISIS, as difficult as such a thing might be to imagine (The one place those two diametrically opposed groups crossover in real life? Social media presence). This version of Hydra's politics are basically far-right, but their tactics are ones that, in the 21st century, are of the sort mostly practiced by terrorists whose general philosophy is grounded in some radical (and usually warped) version of Islam.

In this particular issue, we mainly see the tactics discussed, not any politics, of which the book is weirdly generic, presenting the new Hyrda "spreading a message of intolerance and a cruelty to a lost generation of young people looking for some sense--any sense--of encourages violence and savagery over the rule of law."

Spencer gives Cap a pretty good dig at congress, noting that while he and SHIELD failed to stop the second, secret prong of the attack, they all could do better, "Including the committee's members, who were on a six-week recess when this attack occurred." Burn!

Then Cap asks them to pass a formal declaration of war against Hydra, which is kinda funny in a not-at-all-funny way when one considers that congress was never receptive to issuing a formal declaration of war against ISIS upon President Barack Obama's request, but the U.S. still continues to operate against ISIS and other terrorist organizations under the increasingly legally-dubious September 2001 Authorization For Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which granted the president the authority "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons." ISIS didn't exist then, so a convincing case could be made that the presidents fighting them--first Obama, now Trump--are doing so without formal authority from congress, who are reluctant to "own" any part of military actions.

Maybe the Marvel Universe's version of the United States Congress is less politically cowardly than ours...?

The glimpses of Hydra agents we see, either in the field or in training, show that the group is entirely male, and mostly white, though there are a handful of black guys in there. Crossbones and a pair of two of the traditionally-garbed Hydra agents, in their green and yellow uniforms, are seen observing training.

Captain America: Steve Rogers #1
Art and color by Saiz

If the FCBD special was a prelude, this is the actual start of the "Hail Hydra" story arc, which backtracks a bit (we'll see Sin get her real face back, for example, and more on the business with congress). It is also the start of Steve's new origin story, or at least his new pre-origin story, as each of the issues that make up the rest of the trade will contain sections set in the 1920s, when Steve is still a very young boy in New York City.

These scenes all have more stylized coloring, all grays, blacks and browns with striking bits of red. In this issue's flashbacks, these first show Steve's father slapping his mother in the middle of the street in front of Steve, when suddenly a woman dressed like a flapper intervenes; she judo tosses Mr. Rogers, and introduces herself to Mrs. Rogers as Elisa Sinclair (Like a lot of the unfamiliar characters I encountered while reading, I Googled them later on to see if they were pre-existing characters or not; she seems to be a brand new one). In two later scenes in this book, she first takes Steve and his mom out to a fancy dinner and, as she's walking them home, she tells Sarah Rogers about "a sort of civic league" she's putting together, one where they "mostly just get together and talk about whats in the newspapers, or books we've read....Look for ways to help the community."

The flyer for the group? It features the Hydra logo--a red skull with six tentacles radiating from it--and the words "Secret Meeting; New York Chapter; The Hydra Society."
Looks legit.
Here and in later issues, Spencer is essentially trying to demonstrate how a woman like Sarah Rogers, suffering from crushing poverty and an abusive, alcoholic husband and worried about raising a child in a destitute slum, might conceivably be attracted to such a group, particularly when she finds a charming, wealthy patron. But it's kind of hard to get past that flyer. Is there no more benign a logo than a death's head and tentacles? And "hydra" doesn't exactly bring with it the most neutral of connotations, being a mythological monster or dragon and all.

The section of the issue set in the present has a lot in common with the plot of the FCBD special. Captain America is desperately trying to stop a Hydra terrorist plot, this one involving a suicide bomber on a train, while Sharon Carter and Rick Jones communicate with him via ear-piece. A couple of other patriotic heroes serve as back-up, but rather than Sam Wilson and company, it is Jack Flag and Free Spirit, two minor pre-existing Marvel characters I had to Google.

Meanwhile, Steve's narration tells us the story of the young man wearing the suicide vest, and how he fell in with Hydra. Steve does his best to talk him out of detonating his vest in the train engine, after Rick had remotely uncoupled it from the rest of the trains so no one other than Cap and the bomber are in danger, but he goes ahead and pushes the button anyway.

From there, Maria Hill gives Captain America and company the location of Baron Zemo, who they have been hunting since "Standoff." Zemo and the captive Cosmic Cube expert Doctor Erik Selvig are in the fictional city of Bagalia. The plan is to rescue Selvig and capture Zemo as they fly away in a jet above the city, but things go quite unexpectedly. While Zemo and Captain America are fighting, Jack Flag unexpectedly arrives and KOs Zemo. That's when Captain America, his narration boxes now dripping with equal parts regret and determination, grabs the young hero, hurls him out of the jet and turns to Selvig and says, "Hail Hydra."
So yeah, I'm sure that was a pretty big "Whaaaaaaa?!" moment the Wednesday it was released.

As for politics, Rick is locked in hacker vs. hacker electronic combat for control of the train Hydra was attacking, and his opponent had the user name of "Battlestar Johngaltica," to let you know where that particular Hydra agent falls on the political spectrum. The suicide bomber's life story is a sad one: Poverty, no education, crime, prison, drugs and, eventually, a meeting where The Red Skull speaks to a room full of Americans. Spencer devotes a full page to Skull's speech, and it's a long one.

I won't quote it at length here or anything, but rather than stock master race, Nazi stuff, Spencer has the Skull talking in the language of modern European nationalism. Having just returned from Germany, the Skull said what he found there was "an invading army...These so-called "refugees"-- millions of them-- marching across the continent, bringing their fanatical beliefs and their crime with them." He doesn't say the words "Muslim" or "Islam" or even place names like Syria, Iraq or the Middle East, but he doesn't have to...I'm assuming the reader will hear those words in his speech, and maybe, like me, wonder if those words should or shouldn't have been in the script after all. Is this another example of Marvel trying to publish a political comic that almost takes a stand, but backs down when it comes to the point of, like, drawing direct parallels to the real world?
Spencer has the Skull go on to note that Germany and America "did not see eye to eye" during the war, but that they had some things in common, like believing in the sacredness of borders and cultural uniformity, and he then goes on to talk about America being under siege in the same way Europe is (again, he never says "Mexican" or "Muslim") and even speaks scornfully of the political correctness of modern America culture, which brands anyone who speaks out against those laying siege to their culture as "bigots." This should sound awfully familiar, yes?

The bomber, by the way, fell in with a white supremacist gang while in prison, for protection rather than because of any genuine hatred in his heart, but once he joins Hydra, it seems to be a white supremacist-like organization, as he is forced to stand by and do nothing while his fellows beat a man to death "for no reason, other than the color of his skin."

Again then, Hydra is presented as falling somewhere between the far-right of American politics, using some language that would have sounded perfectly natural coming out of, say, Donald Trump's mouth during the previous presidential campaign or plenty of fixtures of the right-of-center media, and an actual neo-Nazi group, but, as the Skull sells it, it seems like nothing so much as it does a modern far-right European party reacting to the influx of immigrants and refugees following the Syrian civil war. (To be fair, Spencer also has the Red Skull speak a few lines that could be considered either leftist or libertarian, regarding the moneyed class' control of politics, but in our last scrambled election cycle, that was one of the few rhetorical targets shared by both Bernie Sanders and Trump.)

Captain America: Steve Rogers #2
Art and color by Saiz

Unlike the previous issue, this one is narrated by The Red Skull himself, and it basically lays out exactly how Captain America was made to turn, and how it is that it is being revealed that not only is he a Hydra sleeper agent, but he's always been one--not so much an "Everything you thought you knew about Captain America is wrong!" story so much as Spencer using a Marvel Universe maguffin to explain the story. As it was always safe to assume, it's the Cosmic Cube.

At some point in the past, denoted simply as "years ago" (there are no asterisks and editor's notes directing us to any past storyline in particular), Captain America threw his mighty shield at The Red Skull as the villain was reaching for his Cosmic Cube, in the process severing part of the Skull's arm and shattering the cube.

That is the cube that eventually gained sentience in a SHIELD lab, becoming the little girl Kobik. Because Kobik had a particularly affinity for him based on their time together, she sought out the Red Skull and, seeing what an opportunity this presented him with, he opted to nurture her, indoctrinating her into complete and total belief in his philosophy regarding Hydra.

At one point, in demonstrating her near-infinite powers, she "fixes" Doctor Selvig by rewriting his personal history so that he was now always a secret Hydra agent in service to the Red Skull.

From there, we basically get a the comic book equivalent of a villain monologue, as we see the events of "Standoff" from The Red Skull's point of view, and learn that it was he and Kobik who conceived of mind-wiping villains to put them in a sort of perfect prison, knowing how it would ultimately all blow up, and how the events would help Skull and hurt SHIELD in the long run. And, of course, during the moment in which she restores Rogers' youth and vitality, she does to him what she had previously done to Selvig, completely rewriting reality to alter Captain America.

In a very literal sense then, this isn't the "real" Captain America, but an in-universe reboot of the "real" Captain America into an alternate version of himself.

Honestly, seeing as it happened in the second issue of Spencer's series, it seems more perplexing still that anyone was all that upset over the storyline, as Spencer could hardly have been more up front about the fact that he was using as blatant and blunt a plot-device as possible to force the square peg of Captain America into the round hole of Hydra sleeper agent, and...and telegraphing that the same device could/would be used to revert Cap to his normal self at the end of the story. Again, this issue occurs immediately after the cliffhanger ending in which we learn that Captain America is a Hydra agent.

There's a scene where we see Red Skull laying in bed with Kobik, reading her a bedtime story about how awesome Hydra is, and she has a child-friendly version of the Hydra logo on her bedspread, a smiley face with smooth tentacles, which looks more like a happy jellyfish than a death's head seeking to grasp the whole world. Maybe Ms. Sinclair coulda used something closer like that for the logo of her 1920s Hydra book club...?

Captain America: Steve Rogers #3
Art by Saiz and color by Saiz and Rachelle Rosenberg

There's three story threads in this issue, set in different times. In 1926, we see Sarah Rogers at one of Elisa's Hydra Book Club meetings, where the hostess discovers that Sarah is wearing a scarf over her hair in order to conceal a particularly nasty-looking injury inflicted upon her by her husband. Later, near the climax of the issue, we see Mr. Rogers being chased, beaten and ultimately thrown into the river by two men, while Elisa watches.

In the present, there's a particularly peculiar scene that reminded me of many, many Star Wars comics. Cap strips off his shirt, paints a Hydra symbol over his chest and kneels before a blue hologram of The Red Skull. These scenes are so reminiscent of Darth Vader's holographic meetings with The Emperor that I can't imagine it is a coincidence. The content is even similar, as Cap reports to his superior what happened, The Skull rages at his subordinate's failures and, before it's all over, we see that Cap, like Vader, is totally plotting against his superior.

And, finally, in the recent past, we continue the story of what went down in Bagalia, which is what Cap is reporting to The Skull. It turns out that the fall didn't actually kill Jack Flag, but it's pretty touch-and-go, and he's unconscious, being loaded onto a stretcher. The locals, who, remember, are all villains, begin to show an interest in SHIELD being there, and the law-less land's "sheriff" The Taskmaster shows up to shove a sword right through Sharon's hand. Cap arrives just in time to beat the hell out of Taskmaster in a scene that demonstrates that Cap may be a few stripes short of a flag in a public way for the first time.

During the conversation between Cap and Skull, the latter berates the former for his repeatedly showing mercy and questioning Skull's ruthlessness--it appears that even as a bad guy, Captain America is something of a good bad guy. The cliffhanger reveals just how far Captain America is willing to go to challenge the Skull: It turns out he faked Doctor Sevlig's death in order to recruit him to help him overthrow the Red Skull so he can assume control of Hydra for himself.

See? Very Vader/Emperor, isn't it?

Captain America: Steve Rogers #4
Art by Javier Pina with Miguel Sepulveda and color art by Rosenberg

And now, I'm sorry to report, the inevitable happens: The mandatory Civil War II tie-begins, although interetsingly Spencer keeps Captain America on the sidelines, and, for the purposes of this book, the events of the Captain Marvel-vs.-Iron Man conflict is mostly seen through the prism of how The Red Skull and Cap regard the potential effects of Ulysses and the "war" on their own machinations. Meanwhile, in the pages of Civil War II, Bendis wrote Captain America as if here weren't secretly a Hydra sleeper agent. It's possible that Bendis didn't know what Spencer was up to, but unlikely. It seems like he simply chose to play Cap as so deep undercover that a reader of Civil War II wouldn't guess that something was off about Cap.

This is, again, a very busy issue with a lot going on in multiple timelines.

In the past, Sarah Rogers is packing and intent on getting her and little Steve the hell out of town, as she knows Elisa had her husband killed, despite the cover story that he was simply so drunk that he fell into the river and drowned. When Elisa confronts them and Steve is told to hide under the bed, one of Elisa's goons inadvertently kills Sarah, right in front of young Steve. Elisa finds him when he tries to run away.

In the present, Steve talks to Selvig in their new secret science base, and we see a flashback to how, exactly he acquired a secret science base. It involved killing The Red Ghost and his Super-Apes, which is a terrible thing. Hydra Cap may be more merciful than The Red Skull would like, but he has no compunction about slaughtering super-intelligent apes, apparently.

While he's talking to Selvig, we get reviews of plot points from the recent past, like the events of "Standoff," as well as checking in with what's going on with SHIELD (They're trying to figure out what to do with Maria Hill, exactly, while Sharon Carter is asking congress to sign some sort of super-Patriot Act that would give SHIELD broad, martial law-like authority to fight Hydra within the U.S.), what's up with Flag (he's in a coma; Free Spirit and Rick Jones are keeping him company in the hopes that he awakes), Steve knows where Kobik is and has all along (hanging out in the pages of the latest Thunderbolts series, I guess? This was before that was canceled?) and there's a reminder that the new Quasar character from "Standoff" is still a character that totally exists.

Despite Tony and Carol's mugs on the cover, in this issue we only see a few events from Civil War II, which Cap kind of talks over, so they seem to be here mainly as a marker of when this is going on in relation to the event series: There's the argument at Tony's victory (over the Celestial Destructor) party, there's Thanos (who Pina draws in a full broke-back position!) during the ambush sequence, and then there's Ulysses being discovered by the that order, even though that's not the order in which those events occurred.
Cap concludes with another dramatic reveal, which I guess every single issue in this run ends with: He asks Selvig to help him kill The Red Skull, so they can save Hydra from him.

There's little in the way of politics in this issue, and most of it is pretty vague--corruption is bad, etc--but Cap does seem to distinguish this new Hydra from his own vision of it. He says Hydra isn't "a collection of marauding thugs, preaching blind hatred and intolerance," and those words appear over a panel showing a trio of men firing automatic weapons at targets. There are three of them; two white guys in sleeveless undershirts, one with a clearly visible Hydra tattoo, and then a black guy wearing combat gear. The third oone of them is holding some sort of huge machinegun with a belt, and is disintegrating the cardboard target he's firing at.

Interesting that the last issue revealed that even as a bad guy, Captain America is less of a bad guy than his archenemy, and here it becomes clear that even when reality is re-written to put them on the same team, their essential conflict is still there. The reasons might be different now, but it's still going to be Captain America fighting The Red Skull.

Captain America: Steve Rogers #5
Art by Pina and color art by Rosenberg

As the image of Captain America and Iron Man indicates, this is another kinda sorta Civil War II tie-in, and it's one that...complicates the Civil War II narrative.

In the flashback sequences, we see young Steve Rogers being driven in a car by Elisa and her two goons, crying for his mom the whole way. She calms him down by telling him that he's very important and has a very special destiny, and his mother is merely very ill and needs time to rest...but if he is able to persevere he will see his mother again. She drops him off with two men who introduce themselves as Daniel Whitehall and Doctor Sebastian Fenhoff (Post-reading Googling reveals the former to be the real name of a Hydra agent named Kraken who first appeared during Brian Michael Bendis' Secret Warriors book, while the latter is the father of long-time Cap villain and Kirby/Lee creation Doctor Faustus) .

Behind closed doors, Fenhoff strenuously objects to at taking Steven in for...whatever they do at what looks like a weird private school for little boys. When he is unmoved by Elisa's argument that Steven has a strong aura and calls her a charlatan, she somehow makes Fenhoff start vomiting up blood, and then it suddenly stops, leaving no trace of blood on him, as if it was all in his mind.

In the present sequences, this is basically a behind-the-scenes version of Civil War II (I can't help wonder what one might have made of this had one not read Civil War II first).

At the Celestial Destructor victory party, when Medusa and The Inhumans introduce Cap and the others to Ulysses, he calls off a major terrorist attack in Sokovia by Hydra so he can learn more.

When Cap discusses Ulysses' ability to predict future attacks with Selvig, he worries what that means for his own agenda and Selvig convinces him he must kill Ulysses to prevent him from revealing Cap ("No-- No, he's a kid--" Cap objects). Nevertheless, after the Thanos attack Caps sneaks into New Atillan and activates the glowing edge of his new gimmick-packed shield, apparently contemplating killing Ulysses--and saving us like the last five six issues of Civil War II and God only knows how many tie-ins!--when Iron Man arrives at Ulysses' bedside, and he gets into his thing with the Inhumans.

Meanwhile, Cap and Selvig cook up a plan to distract everyone by giving Ulysses something bigger to predict than Cap's plans for Hydra; apparently, the pair mail a package to Dr. Bruce Banner, which leads to a quick greatest hits of scenes form Civil War II, narrated by Cap: Dead Bruce Banner, Clint Barton on trial, She-Hulk going gray, the warehouse meeting meeting with Iron Man and Captain Marvel prior to their coming to blows and, most relevant to to Hydra, Ulysses' false vision of random financial lady Alison Greene, who Ulysses predicted was a Hydra sleeper agent, and who Carol locked up without ever charging with a crime, leading to the first (and only real) battle of the so-called "civil war."

When Cap consults The Skull's hologram to make sure that Greene is no way part of a Hydra plan, he gets instructions from the Skull on whose "side" to take: Captain Marvel's as long as she's winning, then Tony's if he starts winning, with the ultimate goal of snatching Ulysses to deliver to The Skull.

I'm not sure how well this lines up with Civil War II exactly, but I'm going to guess "fairly poorly," given that it seems odd that it was Selvig and Cap who were able to convince Banner to start experimenting on himself via anonymous letter, and he was doing so for, like, less than an issue of Civil War II before the whole superhero community came down on him like a ton of bricks. (This also implicates Captain America pretty directly in Bruce Banner's death, but there's little to no reaction from him in this issue or those that follow, which seems colder-hearted than the Captain America who is here struggling with killing good guys...and even suicidal Hydra agents. Communist super-spies and super-apes, however...)

Captain America: Steve Rogers 6
Art by Pina and color art by Rosenberg

The final issue of this collection is also a Civil War II tie-in.

In the first of the three flashback sequences, Fenhoff reports to Whitehall via letter how he continues to fail to see any real worth in young Steve Rogers, given how weak and sickly he is, even compared to other boys his age.

In the later sequences, now set in 1934, Li'l Steve attempts to runaway, but is confronted in the woods by a guy in a weird costume who introduces himself as The Kraken, and then takes off his helmet to reveal himself as Whitehall (who, it may ultimately be worth noting, looks an awful lot like an adult Steve Rogers).The final one has Whitehall delivering a long-ish speech to Steve, which is the part of the trade where Spencer offers an argument for fascism and racial or ethnic-based control of society. If anything in this book could conceivably alarm readers, I assume it is this passage, although I suppose it's worth stressing that Kraken/Whitehall is a bad guy, and this is his sales pitch to win over Steve. (Like, this past weekend I read Drawn and Quarterly's 2015 collection of  Shigeru Mizuki's Hitler, and Hitler gives voice repeatedly to his beliefs about Germany, the German people and the non-German people of the world, but at no point did I ever think, "Huh, Mizuki must believe all this stuff coming out of his protagonist's mouth, or why else would he write a comic that has these words in it?")

Again, I don't want to quote the whole thing, given it's length, but Whitehall notes that Steve's desire to run away and to be free of the Hydra indoctrination program at "The Keep" is an understandable instinct:
The country you're from, they indoctrinate you at a very young age. Prattle on about individualism, couch it in flowery words like "liberty" and "independence." But what it really means is isolation.
He goes on to talk about how that isolation leads to freedom, and how the corrupt capitalist system and the bureaucracy that supports it keeps those at the top wealthy and happy, while the lie of the American dream breaks the poor, like those in the neighborhood Steve grew up in, and that can lead to rather devastating outcomes for people like Steve's own father.

He says he believes "we are only strong when we act together," echoing sentiments from Hilary Clinton's campaign (Her slogan was literally "Stronger Together") and the Supergirl TV show, where the "S" symbol supposedly stands for "stronger together"); it might sound a bit like socialism or communism, but it also sounds a lot like democracy.

As he winds down however, it gets darker:
That is mankind's destiny. Not to be shackled in bureaucracies that work to maintain the corrupt order, but led by the strongest and most tested among us. Those willing to purge us of the parasites that  drag us down, and eager to strike at all those who would do us harm. Because those are the real threats, Steven... 
And someday they will come for us.
He continues for another page, discussing Elisa, what she did to Steve's mom, assuring her that she can and will keep her promise to reunite him with his mother no matter how impossible that might seem, and ending by an appeal for Steve to help him save the world.

There are bits of this sequence that can, and probably should, make one squirm a little. However, I think that is mostly because of how well Spencer is writing the book.  It would have been very easy for him to skip this scene, to skip the flashbacks all together, and not devote any page-space at all to showing how and why Steve Rogers decided to embrace Hydra.

In the present, Cap continues to narrate events from Civil War II, which here begin with the fight atop the Triskelion, interrupted by Ulysses' vision of Spider-Man Miles Morlaes having killed Cap on the steps of the Capitol. Then we see him go with Tony and company to their hide-out, and he and Tony have a heart-to-heart on the rooftop, which is apparently elaborate bit of psychological warfare, or at least manipulation, to get Tony off-balance for the big day.

I don't know if this contradicts Bendis' Civil War II plot, exactly, or it just wasn't made as clear in that book as it is here, but apparently Captain America, Iron Man and maybe even Spider-Man all go to the Capitol together as part of a plan to test the predictions. (And props to Spencer, by the way, for having Rick Jones say out loud: "But seriously--No one here has seen Minority Report?")

When Selvig tries to talk Captain America out of going, he says that during the vision, he looked not just as his own dead body in Spider-Man's hands, but he looked around and saw that his death would be "for the glory of Hydra." Weirdly then, this brings up another part of Civil War II that looks like it will be/was changed by comics published after it. First Bendis' own Jessica Jones reintroduced Alison Greene as an actual villain because of the events of Civil War II, so that Ulysses' vision was right, in a way, and now we know there's actually a pretty damn good reason for Spider-Man and Captain America to fight one another, and it may be in the event series to follow.

So that's Captain America: Steve Rogers Vol. 1. I'm honestly not trying to be contrarian or obtuse here, but aside from maybe being creeped out by the Kraken speech at the end, I couldn't find anything within the text of the book  itself that scans as upsetting, controversial or potentially upsetting or controversial.

I'd appreciate hearing in the comments from anyone who felt otherwise, though.