On Tuesday, May 9, Public News Service reporter David Heyman was arrested in Charleston, West Virginia while trying to ask Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price a question about the latest Republican healthcare bill. The complaint against Heyman claims that he “tried aggressively to breach the security of the secret service,” and that he’d caused a “disturbance by yelling questions.” The charge was willful disruption of state-government process, and bail was set at $5,000.
On Wednesday, Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for Montana’s congressional seat in this week’s special election allegedly body-slammed Guardian political reporter Ben Jacob, who’d also asked about the Republican healthcare plan. These two incidents demonstrate the contempt that some politicians feel for journalists, and mirror the events that unfold in the pages of Captain America: Steve Rogers #17, which was written months ago, but feels like it was scripted this week.
Written by Secret Empire architect Nick Spencer, and illustrated by Andres Guinaldo and Ramon Bachs, this issue sees the return of a face from Captain America’s past; Sally Floyd, who interviewed Rogers twice during the superhero Civil War. Both instances are presented as brief flashbacks at the beginning of the issue, but these callbacks to Civil War: Frontline #9 and #11 are more than a plot device. They invite readers to go back to witness a Steve Rogers who saw the world from a different perspective, as shown in the following panels from issue #9.
The first set of panels presents the same morally pure Steve Rogers who puts the good of the country, and the good of the people, before the government. The Superhero Registration Act strikes him as a totalitarian measure, and he therefore believes that the only right thing to do is to fight against what considers a dictatorial government.
The present day Rogers, in contrast, has manipulated the government into granting him the powers of a dictator.
The second two panels show Floyd delivering a history lesson, and in retrospect, making a prediction of what’s to come. The Rogers of today is very much a patriot who is fighting for the wrong cause. However, he is also inhabiting a reality in which history has been re-written by the losers, as the Allies created the Cosmic Cube to reverse Hydra’s World War II victory.
There is a remarkable status shift between that first interview and the third one, which takes place in the pages of Captain America: Steve Rogers #17. During that initial meeting, Floyd walks out because she is unhappy with Rogers’ answers. In the present day, Rogers is the one who bails because he doesn’t like her questions.
It isn’t only Hydra Supreme that is hostile to Floyd, and to the press in general, but also the country’s populace. Floyd is forced to concede, “Plenty of people were happy to say ‘Hail Hydra.” That’s how much they’d come to hate people like me—and how much they trusted a charismatic leader like him.” Her observation reflects a real-world trend; according to a Gallup poll from late-2016, Americans’ trust in journalism is an at all-time low with only 32 percent saying they have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the press.
Another shift in the dynamic is that Captain America — or more precisely, his people — set up the interview, rather than Floyd. The purpose is propaganda and Rogers’ lies are transparent, and as he unspools his version of the truth, we are shown what actually happened in flashbacks.
Sally is also given marching orders by Doctor Faustus. She is told that the interview is to be “a free-wheeling conversation,” and that nothing is off-limits — until he whispers, “There will be no questions about Las Vegas.” Is this an instance of control? Although does not appear to be hypnotizing her, is he seeding the idea of going there by telling her what she can’t say?
Faustus is referring to the destruction of Las Vegas, which we saw at the end of Secret Empire #1. Retaliating against resistance strikes originating in that city, and spearheaded by former members of the Avengers, Hydra’s forces levelled the desert resort town, leaving nothing but a crater in its wake. One of the images shows the devastation in progress, as Hydra aircraft blow up the ersatz Eiffel Towel at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel. This single, oversized panel evokes World War II and suggests that this is very much the same Hydra that Captain America was engineered to fight when Doctor Erskine gave him the Super-Soldier Serum.
Another extended flashback reveals the secret origin of New Tian, the independent mutant homeland on Californian soil, as the mutant uprising that coincided with the Hydra takeover of the United States is shown to have been engineered by Captain America. In a single stroke, Rogers not only neutralized a threat to his consolidation of power, he also created a new enemy state to further fuel the state of perpetual war necessary to his totalitarian regime.
We learn that Rogers travelled to Madripoor in the company of Gorgon, and a consort of ninjas of the Hand. He confronted Magneto, mapped out the contours of the mutant state, and outlined the way it would come into being. All of this was hush-hush, of course, and the only condition was that Magneto remain in hiding and presumed dead. To lead New Tian, Rogers to chose Shen Xorn, the twin of a mutant who once impersonated Magneto, perhaps to add insult to injury.
More disturbingly, Rogers presented Magneto with a “token of his sincerity,” the head of the Red Skull. As morbid as the gesture may have been, it also demonstrated the steadfastness with which Captain America is pursuing his goals. As readers saw in Uncanny Avengers #22, Rogue destroyed the sliver of Charles Xavier’s brain the Red Skull had grafted to his own, and which had been crucial to Rogers’ plan. In this sequence, we realize that, despite the setback, Rogers found another way to control the mutant population.
Captain America: Steve Rogers #17 presents a litany of horrors as it explores the machinations behind the Hydra takeover, but the most poignant of its narratives is the story of Brian McAllister, the Inhuman we first saw in the opening pages of Secret Empire #1. McAllister, who has the ability to duplicate objects which he sees, was arrested for failing to register with his local observation committee — the type of thing that Rogers fought against in Civil War — and was taken to the Inhuman “holding center” on New Attilan.
Gestating duplicates in his stomach, McAllister regurgitates them, often against his will. The fact that he can’t fully control his ability renders even crueller the muzzle he is forced to wear upon his incarceration. Upon arriving at the internment camp, he is greeted by Naja, a fellow Inhuman who offered him hope, and is introduced him to Iso, the Inhumans’ interim leader, who was deep in prayer for the return of the royal family.
Despite all the death and destruction that we witness in this issue, the most devastating sequence in McAllister’s adjustment to his internment. When Naja asked the muzzled prisoner his name, he scribbled it on paper. In response to how he’s feeling, he scrawled, “SCARED!” Beautifully rendered, these three panels show the utter devastation of being silence, and also foreshadow the fate of Sally Floyd when she mentions the forbidden subject of Las Vegas.
The message in Captain America: Steve Rogers #17 is clear. The greatest evil is the loss of one’s voice. It is the first thing taken away by a totalitarian regime because it is a pre-condition for democracy. Thankfully, Nick Spencer has a very powerful voice.