SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for “Captain America: Steve Rogers” #11, which is on sale now.
Since the release of “Captain America: Steve Rogers” #1 last May, the series from writer Nick Spencer and artist Jesus Saiz has given the star-spangled Avenger a slow-burning, villainous makeover. It was revealed in issue #2 of “Steve Rogers” that the hero’s past has been altered by the reality-warping Kobik, a Cosmic Cube that’s taken the form of a little girl and has been manipulated by the Red Skull. Through a series of flashbacks in every issue of “Steve Rogers,” the Captain’s origin in the ‘1920s and 1930s has been updated, affected by the subtle machinations of Kobik.
We’ve seen how a mystery Hydra agent recruited Steve Rogers’ mother into the organization at a young age, thus bringing Steve into the Hydra fold in his formative years. Everything from Steve’s upbringing to the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death have been altered to increase the soon-to-be Captain America’s allegiance to Hydra. Even Baron Zemo, one of Captain America’s archenemies, has been retroactively reimagined as Steve Rogers’ best friend, though judging by the speech Steve lays on Zemo, who has spent the last several issues imprisoned by Cap, it remains questionable just how far reaching Kobik’s restructured reality stretches. You would assume that Helmut would remember his friendship with Steve, but Zemo’s silence throughout the speech, coupled with Steve’s increasingly impassioned attempts to convince Zemo that they should trust each other implicitly implies that perhaps Cap’s friend has been less directly impacted by Kobik’s manipulations than Steve believes, perhaps even hinting at the flaw in the new reality that will eventually lead to its unravelling.
The one thing that this alternate timeline hasn’t touched yet is Steve Rogers’ transformation into Captain America, which is where Issue #11 comes in.
The issue’s flashback sequence starts off in 1940 at Project Rebirth headquarters, the government operation that used Dr. Abraham Erskine’s Super-Soldier serum to transform the scrawny Steve Rogers into Captain America.
Believing Steve to be a friend and ally, Dr. Erskine invites the young man over to his house for a quiet night of dinner and listening to records. What Dr. Erskine doesn’t know is that Steve has been sent by Hydra to kill him — and he brought a gun. As Abraham prepares dinner, Steve prepares to pull the trigger.
Dr. Erskine can sense that Steve doesn’t want to pull the trigger, though; it’s written across his cowering face. This young Steve may be a Hydra agent, but he isn’t mentally ready to murder a kind man like Dr. Erskine.
“I have to do this,” Steve says. “These are my orders — I have to do this.”
Dr. Erskine tells Steve that there is good in him, and that’s why he was chosen to be the recipient of the Super-Soldier serum. “You are many things — but you are not a killer,” says Erskine. “Find the part inside yourself that knows this is wrong — this is not what you were meant to do, Steve.”
Steve briefly — one panel — flashes back to the death of his mother. His mother tried to defy Hydra and run away with Steve, to get him away from the organization’s influence. It didn’t work, though, and Hydra tracked her down, killed her, and took Steve. When Erskine tells Steve this isn’t what he was meant to do, Steve realizes that even if that’s true, it’s what he has to do. He can’t escape Hydra. He closes his eyes, prepares to fire — and a gunshot rings out.
But it’s not from Steve’s gun.
Instead, Helmut Zemo arrived at Erskine’s place during the confrontation and pulled his trigger. Steve, stuttering, says he couldn’t kill Erskine. Zemo tells Steve that as far as Hydra is concerned, he did. Zemo then asks where Erskine keeps his notes on the Super-Soldier serum, and Steve tells him that it’s all in his head; Abraham didn’t keep notes. Fortunately for Hydra, Zemo came prepared with a device capable of stealing secrets from Erskine’s dying mind.
With the secrets stolen, Steve wants to go back to Hydra with Zemo. That’s not what Hydra wants to happen, though. “You have been chosen to be their Super-Soldier, Steven,” says Zemo. “Events will proceed in that direction.” Steve wonders how Project Rebirth can continue without Dr. Erskine, and Zemo tells him that the Allies have captured a Hydra scientist that will be able to carry out the procedure — Arnim Zola.
If the name Arnim Zola sounds familiar, that’s because he’s one of Captain America’s most notorious foes. Originally a Nazi biochemist, Arnim Zola survived into the modern day because he transferred his brain into a giant purple and orange robot, one with a massive monitor on its chest that projected Zola’s likeness. Just like with Baron Zemo, the Cosmic Cube has altered Steve Rogers’ past and turned one of Captain America’s greatest enemies into an ally.
The issue ends as it began, in 1940 at Project Rebirth. Steve stands, ready to receive the Super-Soldier serum, and that’s where Arnim Zola enters and tells Steve that he’s about to become “Hydra’s greatest spy” — although Steve doesn’t exactly look thrilled with the new gig. You can see the worry on his face, similar to the worry he felt when he tried to kill Dr. Erskine.
We now know that in Steve Rogers’ altered mind, Hydra is responsible for every formative event in his life. Not only did they recruit his mother and later whisk him away to school, where they essentially raised him. Hydra has also taken credit for Steve’s transformation into Steve Rogers. Hydra’s control over Rogers is total. We also know now that Steve has been operating as a Hydra spy within the U.S. government even before his transformation into Cap.
Now that we’ve seen how Steve remembers the defining moment of his origin, it’ll be interesting to see how much further into Cap’s origin “Steve Rogers” will go. Will we see Hydra Cap’s World War II missions? Will we see his final mission as Captain America in World War II, a mission wherein Steve’s partner Bucky was killed by the father of Steve’s “best friend,” Zemo? And will we get to see this version of Steve join the Avengers, or did Hydra play a part in Steve’s memory of his rescue from his icy grave?
This storyline is now rocketing towards its next phase, which arrives this spring in Marvel’s massive “Secret Empire” storyline. That story will see Steve’s secret as a Hydra agent outed to the world as his plans reach their final stage. “Captain America: Steve Rogers” #12 arrives in stores on February 22.