This annual was the third and final installment (after 1991’s Daredevil and Punisher annuals) in “The Von Strucker Gambit,” in which Baron von Strucker sends three bounty hunters to track three superhuman agents who escaped from Hydra after being subject to experimental treatments. Captain America does not appear in either of the first two parts of the story, and he’s joined only by Nick Fury here; the annual also includes several shorter stories (none of which feature Cap) and profile pages (one of which we will see at the end of the post).
The annual begins with an uncredited two-page origin of Captain America, which covers the standard ground of Steve Rogers’ virtues making him the perfect candidate for Project Rebirth.
“Golly, Doc, thanks! But… what happened to my nipples?”
I suspect Mark Gruenwald provided the script for this, because the panel below emphasizes, not only that Steve Rogers had to start training his “body that does his spirit justice” from scratch, but also that he needed to maintain it with regular exercise, as we see John Jameson mention in Captain America #386. (And the face in profile looks like Mark Bagley’s work at the time.)
The recap (or reCap) ends by reinforcing his role as a symbol of American ideals, in combat against the Red Skull and the Nazi threat in general as well as modern-day threats to those ideals alongside the Avengers.
(Note the bit about the cause of the suspended animation, drawn from Captain America #384.)
Then the main story begins, written by D.G. Chichester and illustrated by Mike Manley, and narrated by Cap himself. Unfortunately, it starts with a goof: We know Steven Rogers has no middle name, “Grant” being part of the false memories implanted in him by the U.S. Army, as explained in Captain America #247. (And don’t even ask me what “free agent of the armed forces” is supposed to mean.)
But here he is, bursting into the Double Helix lab to investigate a break-in, only to find one of the escaped Hydra agents, Cassandra Romulus.
Even though Cap can tell that Romulus has military training, he notes that his own training is of a different kind, or at least that he uses it in a different way…
…one in which the innocent victims are always the first priority.
Soon, Nick Fury shows up on the scene, and the two old friends compare notes as the guard is wheeled out on a gurney, with Nick fuming about Hydra’s recent massacre of SHIELD agents and Cap concerned about what Nick may do if he’s not thinking clearly (especially since Romulus was one of the Hydra agents during the attack on SHIELD).
To help calm matters, Batman shows Gordon a clue he found and tells him the next step in their investigation.
When Cap and Fury find the head of the lab, they find him rather starstruck… about one of them, at least, and the other is none too happy about it.
Despite Fury’s scowl, Cap accepts the adulation and moves quickly to the task at hand, but he isn’t going to like what the doctor has to tell them.
Cap’s memories go back to the beginning of
the annual his career, and he experiences a rare instance of reconsideration.
We’ve seen Cap have moments of “there but for the grace of God go I” when he considers that the Project Rebirth process could have gone wrong, such as after he defeated his 1950s doppelgänger in Captain America #156, but I don’t remember ever seeing him consider his choice to undergo it (though he has, on occasion, bemoaned the loss of private life that it entailed).
Just then, Romulus bursts into the doctor’s office in search a serum that will reverse Hydra’s experiments on her, followed by von Strucker’s assassin Dakini. After a protracted battle among all four combatants, Romulus defeats Dakini, and when she tells Cap she regrets her choice to submit to Hydra’s experimental procedure, she elicits sympathy from a man who also once made an irreversible choice (whether or not he regrets it).
Of course, Nick is not pleased that Cap let Romulus go, especially without getting information about Hydra from her first, but Cap knows this is more about revenge, and he lets Nick know that in no uncertain terms.
However noble and compassionate Cap’s sympathy towards Romulus may have been, in the end she returns to Hydra, where von Strucker congratulates her for her excellent “performance” before she destroys the serum that might have cured her. She swears “hail Hydra,” but with a touch of hesitation in her voice… so perhaps her words to Cap weren’t performance after all?
I’ll end this post with one of the pictorial features in this issue, drawn by Ron Lim and Danny Bulanadi, showing Cap’s supporting cast. I always find it interesting which characters they choose to include in these: Besides the obvious (Falcon and Nick Fury), we have the entire Avengers support crew; Rachel and Bernie; Nomad (who has his own short story in this annual, leading into his ongoing series); and D-Man… I guess this bodes well for him, last seen in the Arctic ice!
Captain America (vol. 1) Annual #10, May 1991, “Call of Duty”: D.D. Chichester (writer), Mike Manley (pencils and inks), Ed Lazellari (colors), Rick Parker (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Collected in: Captain America Epic Collection: Streets of Poison