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Re-reading Captain America: The Winter Soldier

After enjoying the latest Captain America film, The Winter Soldier, I decided to go back and re-read the comics that had inspired the film.

Back in 2005, writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting collaborated on a re-launch of the Captain America comic book.  Their initial story-line would prove to be incredibly popular with fans, one that would define the Captain America mythology for years to come.  It was such a popular and influential story-line that it was a clear choice for the second Cap film to adapt.

Before then, I had never read the Captain America comic book series on a monthly basis, and I didn’t initially read this story monthly, either.  But after the first few months, I started hearing and reading more and more about Mr. Burbaker’s story-line.  Eventually I picked up the first two trade paperback collections, and I was immediately hooked.  Mr. Brubaker would go on to write Captain America for many years, and it was a great run.  But it’s that initial story that was the very best.

The Winter Soldier Volume 1 (Captain America #1-7) — The first issue is fantastic, immediately setting up the dynamics of the story and Cap’s status quo, and then turning the whole apple-cart over at the end of the issue.  Right away, we see several stylistic devices that will become emblematic of Mr. Brubaker & Mr. Epting’s long run on Cap.  There’s the balance of a story set in the present-day Marvel Universe with a parallel tale set during Cap & Bucky’s adventures during World War II that elaborates upon the present-day story and provides critical back-story.  There’s the beginning of the Red Skull & Russian General Lukin’s parallel secret evil plans, plans which will provide the backbone for the next fifty issues of story-telling.  And there’s Mr. Brubaker’s brilliant reinvention of the character of Bucky.

Mr. Brubaker’s “Winter Soldier” story is well-known for his famous resurrection of Cap’s former partner Bucky, killed during WWII.  Although death is usually a temporary thing in comic books, Bucky was one of the few characters to be considered permanently dead.  Mr. Brubaker raised a lot of eyebrows with his decision to bring back Bucky, but his story was so good that now, far from being controversial, this “Winter Soldier” story-line is considered to be one of the most central pieces of canon in Captain America’s history.  (It’s so important that it was a clear and popular choice to be adapted in the second Captain America film.)

But a huge part of what made this story-line work wasn’t just how he handled Bucky’s resurrection, but the subtle but important — and fiendishly clever — adjustments Mr. Brubaker made to Bucky’s established characterization, back when he was a kid fighting alongside Cap in WWII.  Rather than depicting Bucky as a brash innocent, Mr. Brubaker showed us, in these WWII flashback scenes, a Bucky who was a tough, extremely confident soldier.  Whereas Cap, as the popular public figure, always had to keep his hands clean, Bucky had no such necessity.  Mr. Brubaker showed us a Bucky who, while still being Cap’s honorable and heroic partner, was also willing and able to do the ugly things that were sometimes necessary to win a war.  This was a fascinating and compelling redefinition of this familiar character.

Equally critical to the success of this story-line as Mr. Brubaker’s stellar writing, was, of course, the artwork of Steve Epting.  Quite a number of other incredible artists contributed to Mr. Brubaker’s long run, but Mr. Epting was the one who got everything going, and he remained the book’s central artist for almost fifty issues.  I’d been a fan of Mr. Epting’s work for years prior to his run on Cap, but somehow his work took an exponential leap forward here.  I can’t imagine a more perfect artist for the book than Mr. Epting.  His eye for detail was incredible — this was an artist who truly seemed to be able to draw anything.  This careful attention to detail in his artwork gave the book a strong grounding in reality that was critical to the story.  As super-hero books go, this run on Captain America was very grounded in the real world.  Mr. Brubaker chose to have Cap closely tied to S.H.I.E.L.D. through much of his run, making his Captain America as much a spy/espionage book as a super-hero one.  I’ll get back to that in a moment, but for now my point is to praise Mr. Epting’s work.  He could make conversations between shadowy figures in darkened rooms incredibly compelling.  And when it came time for the super-heroics — such as Cap leaping from a flying car high above London, to land atop the flying craft of a bunch of evil-doers in issue #3 — man could Mr. Epting knock it out of the park.

The other critical artist in these early issues was the great Michael Lark, who illustrated most of the flashback sequences.  Mr. Lark’s evocative gray-scale work depicting Cap & Bucky’s heroics during the War was gorgeous and powerful.   As with Mr. Epting’s work, Mr. Lark’s pages have both a grittiness and a beauty to them.  There’s a simple perfection to Mr. Lark’s line-work that I hugely envy.  This is super-hero artwork at its best, folks.

I mentioned above how these comics feel as much or more like a spy/espionage story than a super-hero story, and that may be a key secret to their success.  Mr. Brubaker doesn’t shy away form crazy super-hero stuff.  The Cosmic Cube, for example, plays a major part of these early issues.  But I love how much of this story is played like a mystery, and how focused the story is on the behind-the-scenes actions of both the heroic and the villainous elements.  I love the way Mr. Brubaker emphasized Captain America’s ties to S.H.I.E.L.D. in these stories.  Rather than being a super-hero who just wanders around and happens to find trouble, Mr. Brubaker gives us a Cap who works closely with this spy organization to ensure that he’s able to stop new threats whenever and wherever they emerge.  This is an incredibly logical idea and, while I don’t think Mr. Brubaker originated this notion, I love how central he made S.H.I.E.L.D. to this story.  The idea of Cap working closely with/for S.H.I.E.L.D. feels so natural and so right that, here again, it’s no surprise that this idea was mined heavily by the Marvel cinematic universe.

Speaking of S.H.I.E.L.D., I love that Nick Fury and Sharon Carter are important supporting characters in this story.  With Sharon in particular, I love how Mr. Brubaker re-positioned this character as the main love of Steve Rogers’ life, as role she would hold in the series for almost a decade.

Following the thrill of issue #1’s reinvention of Captain America and launch of this new story, my favorite issue in this first collection is the last issue, Captain America #7: “The Lonesome Death of Jack Monroe.”  This is a brilliant issue, diving deep into the history of Captain America to give us the terribly tragic story of the final days of this supporting character, who we’d already seen get killed off a few issues earlier.  Mr. Brubaker takes the time to delve deeply into this character, really twisting the knife and letting us feel the pain of his sad and lonely death.  Really great stuff.

There’s really only one weakness that I can find in this first collection, and that is the subplot of Captain America’s experiencing weird flashbacks to events that never happened.  The implication is that Lukin is using the Cosmic Cube to mess with Cap’s mind, but we’re never really told (in this or any later volume) exactly what he was doing or, more importantly, why.  It seems like a weird, small-scale use of the Cube if indeed that’s what was going on, and while it causes Cap some personal grief, it never really affects Cap — and therefore the larger story — in any way.  There’s a lot of time spent on this mystery in these early issues, but it gradually fades away without our ever getting a definitive answer/explanation.  That’s a weird oversight in an otherwise masterful tale.

The Winter Soldier Volume 2 (Captain America #8-9, 11-13) — The story keeps right on moving into this next installment, in which we begin to see the direction of the story Mr. Brubaker is weaving as the identity of the Winter Soldier and the true fate of Bucky Barnes becomes the central focus.  Nick Fury drops the bombshell on Cap in the first issue of this collection (Captain America #8), and things just move like a runaway freight train from there.

The centerpiece of this volume is issue #11, in which we (and Cap) learn the details of what happened to Bucky following that fateful day in which Bucky “died” and Cap was frozen in ice.  Mr. Brubaker had to make this convincing for this story to work, and I think he was able to accomplish that difficult task extremely well.  This is a massive ret-conning of a key piece of Marvel U. lore, but everything in issue #11 unfolds in a way that not only makes sense, but that creates a compelling emotional story for both Steve Rogers and Bucky.  This is great stuff.

(It’s also, by the way, the key piece that I felt the otherwise very strong Captain America: The Winter Soldier film, was missing.  In the film, we never really got to know what happened to Bucky, to learn everything he went through that twisted him into the Winter Soldier, an cold-blooded, mindless assassin.  That made his return/resurrection feel a little more like an out-of-left-field plot device, rather than the natural unfolding of the story.)

Once Cap knows the truth about the Winter Soldier, he of course sets out on a single-minded quest to stop Bucky before he is able to do something terrible, and also to somehow save his former partner and help him remember who he truly is, all the while trying to somehow figure out and thwart the unfolding master-plot of General Lukin and the Kronos Corporation.   These issues in the second-half of the collection are thrilling page-turners, perhaps the very best issues that Mr. Brubaker would ever write on the title.  This is iconic, classic story-telling here, viscerally exciting and emotionally rich.

I also love how both Tony Stark and Sam Filson (the Falcon) entered the story in these issues.  I love the way Mr. Brubaker always made a point of keeping in mind Cap’s connections within the larger Marvel U.

At the end of this volume we get some resolution, but also the clear sense that there’s lots more story yet to be told.  Just the way the ending of a comic book story should be.

These volumes are extraordinary, truly one of the finest super-hero stories of the last decade or two.  With these issues, Mr. Brubaker and Mr. Epting would successfully re-define Captain America for this generation, making this at-times out-of-date character both hugely relevant to the modern reader, and cementing him as the center of Marvel’s super-hero universe.  That is an incredible feat, and these guys made it look so easy.  That’s the best thing about these issues.  Despite being at-the-time potentially controversial for overturning the famous death of Bucky Barnes, these stories and the characterizations of Cap and the other supporting characters feel absolutely natural and right.  This is the story against-which all other Captain America stories — and all other super-hero stories — will be judged for a long time to come.

It’s also the story that made me, for the first time in my life, a monthly reader of the Captain America comic book.

Following these issues I kept going to re-read the rest of Mr. Brubaker’s long run on Cap.  I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on his next story-lines, including the much-ballyhooed “Death of Captain America.”  See you soon.

The issues I wrote about in this post are collected in Captain America Vol. 1: The Winter Soldier Ultimate Collection.

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