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Re-reading Captain America: The Winter Soldier Part IV: The Death of the Dream

After having so thoroughly enjoyed the second Captain America film, The Winter Soldier (click here for my review), I have been re-reading Ed Brubaker’s lengthy run on the Captain America comic-book series that inspired the film.  Click here for part I of my re-read, click here for part 2, and click here for part 3.

Following the murder of Steve Rogers/Captain America in Captain America #25, the focus of Mr. Brubaker’s Captain America run shifted dramatically.  Cap #25 kicked off a long story-arc, The Death of the Dream, that was divided into three parts, each six-issues in length.

The Death of the Dream: Act 1 (Captain America #26-30) — Mr. Brubaker tries a new narrative device in these issues, one which I thought worked really well.  He subdivided each issue into chapters, each with its own title, and each following a different character.  In this way, each issue follows multiple different story-threads as we follow the chaos that reigned after Steve Rogers’ murder and the many different characters’ responses to that act.  We see Bucky Barnes, who blames Tony Stark for Steve’s death and sets out to kill him, even though Tony has now been named the new head of S.H.I.E.L.D.  We see Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, who finds herself working for Tony against Bucky, a man who, we learn, she once loved before Bucky’s life as the Winter Soldier tore them a apart.  We see Sam Wilson, the Falcon, mourn Steve’s death both publicly and with Cap’s former allies in the super-hero Civil War, now hiding underground and led by Luke Cage.  We see Nick Fury, still hiding from the world, attempting to unravel the mystery of Cap’s death and Aleksander Lukin’s plot.  We see Lukin/the Red Skull and their secret machinations, along with Dr. Faustus and Arnim Zola.  We see the Red Skull’s daughter, Sin, wreaking havoc across America with her new Serpent Society.

It’s a great story, and I love the way Lukin/the Skull’s machinations have resulted in many heroic characters (Bucky, the Falcon, Sharon Carter, the Black Widow, Nick Fury, Tony Stark, etc.) all operating at cross-purposes.  It takes until the end of this six-issue story-line for our heroes to get any sort of clue as to what is going on, and to get onto the same page.  Even then, as usual for Mr. Brubaker’s story, they put together the pieces too late and, in the cliffhanger ending of issue #30, the still-brainwashed Sharon winds up taking out most of the good guys.

I love the idea of pairing Bucky and the Black Widow, and I loved the joint backstory that Mr. Brubaker created for the two of them (taking clever advantage of their both being very long-lived characters).  The first two years of Mr. Brubaker’s Captain America run really dug into the Steve Rogers/Sharon Carter pairing, and with these latest issues he brought another wonderful and central character pairing into focus, that of Bucky and Natasha.  This will be a pairing that will continue to be central throughout the remainder of Mr. Brubaker’s long run on Cap.

I also love the newly central role that Tony Stark plays in this story now that he is the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.  I love all the scenes with Tony in the S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ, as he discovers just how complex and difficult his new position is.  (“Is there anything you need, sir?” one of his agents asks Tony in issue #29.  “Yes… I need a day when there aren’t twenty crises to deal with… but I don’t see that coming any time soon” replies Tony.  It’s not a moment played for a chuckle, it’s a somber moment in which we can see that Stark has the weight of the world on his shoulders.)  I also love that Tony in this story is all about using his brains, not his brawn.  He doesn’t don the Iron Man armor until the very last pages of this story (at the end of issue #30).

Rather than alternating artists every few issues, for this story-line the Captain America team hit on a new strategy, one I found very effective.  Since each issue was divided into chapters, Steve Epting and Mike Perkins would each handle certain chapters.  So every issue would be split between the two artists, with the book shifting back and forth from artist to artist between chapters in each issue.  Normally I hate when artists shift within an issue, but because of the chapter structure being used, this worked really well, and it meant we got to see both artists every issue.  It was very effective.

All in all these six issues were a thrilling run, a must-read page-turner energized by the dramatic, Marvel Universe-shaking death of Steve Rogers in Captain America #25.  This type of exciting, I-have-no-idea-what’s-going-to-happen-next story-telling is exactly the reason it’s sometimes worth killing off a main character, even if the readers know that somewhere down the line that character is going to come back.

The Death of the Dream: Act 2: The Burden of Dreams (Captain America #31-36) — This middle chapter begins with both Bucky and Sharon trapped as prisoners of Lukin/the Skull.  Sharon is still under the mental command of Dr. Faustus, forced to do his and the Skull’s bidding.  Meanwhile, Faustus uses his hypnosis skills to try to re-activate Bucky’s old Winter Soldier programming, to turn him into a weapon for the Skull.  Bucky is able to escape but unable to rescue Sharon.  He is quickly captured by S.H.I.E.L.D., but easily breaks free (I love the sequence in issue #33 in which Bucky is able to mentally command his robotic arm, even when it has been separated from his body, to help him escape) and decides to return to his original intent before he was captured by the Skull — that is, to kill Tony Stark, the man he holds responsible for Steve Rogers’ death.

The center-piece of this storyline happens in Captain America #34, when Bucky, after having made peace with Tony (following a great, brutal fight between the two in issue #33), is convinced to become Captain America himself.  Bucky dons an altered Cap costume (designed by Alex Ross, one of the titans of the super-hero comic-book field) and sets out to publicly defeat the villains.  But the brilliance of Lukin/the Skull’s plan (and Mr. Brubaker’s story), is that the villains are difficult to defeat just by punching things.  As we learn in issue #34, the core of Lukin/the Skull’s plan is an economic plot to destroy the economy of the United States (an emotionally potent story-line during the economic downturn that was happening in 2008 when that issue was published) followed by a plan to discredit S.H.I.E.L.D. by using S.H.I.E.L.D. agents brainwashed by Dr. Faustus (just as Sharon Carter was) to murder innocent civilians protesting at the White House gates.

I liked this story-line of Bucky’s becoming Captain America.  It seemed a logical progression that this story had been building to since the very first issue several years earlier.  And I loved that, once Bucky became Cap in issue #34, it wasn’t like that magically solved anything.  In issues #34-36 (as well as many issues beyond that), we see Bucky’s struggle with his new role and his conflicted feelings about whether he was worthy of the role and whether he could ever live up to his dead friend and mentor Steve.  I also love the way the Black Widow continued to be a major player in these issues, assuming the role of the new Cap’s S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison just as Sharon Carter had done for Steve Rogers during the first two years of Mr. Brubaker’s run.  I love the Bucky-Natasha pairing and the way their relationship gradually developed.

This run continued to see a rotation of artists, with Butch Guice joining Mr. Epting and Mr. Perkins.  It’s a wonder this rotation of artists worked so smoothly, but it did, and often I didn’t realize the artist had changed until well into the next artist’s series of pages.  Mr. Epting remained the best of the bunch, and I was bummed that his work started appearing less-frequently towards the end of this six-issue story-line, but Mr. Perkins and Mr. Guice each contributed strong work.

At the end of this story-line, Cap and Natasha were able to foil a major branch Lukin/the Skull’s plot, centered on the chaos at the White House, but things still looked pretty grim for our heroes.  Sharon Carter remained a brain-washed prisoner of the Red Skull, and it was now revealed that she was pregnant with Steve Rogers’ child, a delicious further twisting of the knife.  Bucky had assumed the mantle of Captain America, but his attempt to make a heroic speech to the people gathered outside the White House, in issue #36, failed miserably.  Meanwhile, Lukin/the Skull and their many associates remained on the loose…

The Death of the Dream: Act 3: The Man Who Bought America (Captain America #37-42) — The Falcon learns that Bucky has taken up the role of Captain America, and tracks him down so they can work together to find Sharon.  Meanwhile, Sharon discovers that Lukin/the Skull has resurrected the Captain America of the ’50s, a mentally damaged man who was surgically altered to look and sound just like Steve Rogers.  (This is a great utilization of an obscure piece of Marvel Universe lore.)  Sharon is unable to prevent this faux-Captain America from being set loose by the Skull on a mission to kill the man who killed his former partner (Jack Monroe, the Bucky of the ’50s): Bucky Barnes, now the new Captain America.  While all this is happening, the Skull’s political maneuverings continue to move forward, as he secretly backs the creation of a new American political party, the Third Wing, that seeks to use the current economic turmoil (also created by Lukin, and one that eerily paralleled the real-life economic woes in America at the time) to gain political power.  The piece de la resistance: the faux-Cap comes forward to publicly announce himself as the new Captain America, and to back the candidacy of the Third Wing candidate for President.

Since the death of Jack Monroe, the Bucky of the ’50s, was such an important plot-point during the very beginning of Mr. Brubaker’s run, it’s delicious for the resurrected Cap of the ’50s to enter the story here to challenge Bucky, who had himself just stepped into the Captain America role.  Meanwhile, forty issues in, the still-rolling subplot of the Skull’s behind-the-scenes machinations somehow still is interesting.  Mostly, I think, because of our investment in Sharon Carter’s increasingly desperate attempts to shake off Dr. Faustus’ mental conditioning and to escape their clutches.  Issue #40 is a particularly juicy point in this story, as Sharon and Sin have an ugly physical showdown.  It looks like Sharon is going to kick Sin’s ass, and for a while she does, though the brutal last-page cliffhanger shows us that Sin has gotten the upper hand and she has stabbed the pregnant Sharon right in the gut.  For me, that is one of the most memorable moments in the story, it really shocked me when I read it for the first time.

Everything comes to a head in issue #41 and #42.  With action happening on many fronts, Bucky/Captain America, assisted by Natasha and Sam Wilson (the Falcon) are able to prevent the execution of a public official and to finally capture and apprehend Sin, while Sharon is able to thwart Lukin/the Skull’s attempt to use Dr. Doom’s time machine for a not-clear but certainly evil purpose.  After 42 issues it bothers me that this issue still left readers in the dark as to what Lukin/the Skull were trying to do with Doom’s machine.  (As I recall, this won’t be clarified until the Captain America: The Return mini-series down the road.)  But one aspect of their machinations was to separate the Skull from Aleksander Lukin, and in a very satisfying scene in issue #42, that is exactly what happens.  We see Lukin rejoice at finally behind freed from his hated adversary, the Red Skull, only to be shot to death moments later by Sharon Carter.  My only regret is that I feel we still don’t have clarity as to Lukin’s original plot to destroy Captain America, as seen in the first few issues of Mr., Brubaker’s run, before Lukin’s persona was merged with that of the Red Skull.  Why was Lukin using the Cosmic Cube to re-write Steve Rogers’ memories?  I wish we had gotten the full story.  Still, it’s incredibly satisfying to finally see Lukin so thoroughly defeated in this issue, even though the Skull survives to fight another day.  (Though, at the end of #42, we see that now, rather than being trapped inside Lukin’s head, the Skull’s consciousness has been trapped inside one of Arnim Zola’s robot bodies.  I love the image at the end of #42 of the Skull’s face on the Zola-robot’s stomach-view-screen.  Phenomenal.)

The end of issue #42 feels like a warp-up to many of the stories that Mr. Brubaker has been spinning since the very beginning of his run, but it’s a satisfying mix of resolution as well as tantalizing glimpses at stories still to come. Bucky has finally gotten a big win as Cap, but his journey in the role has clearly just started.  Sharon is finally freed, but she’s lost her baby and has been brainwashed by Faustus to forget she was ever pregnant — making her still something of a ticking time-bomb.  Meanwhile, the Skull is still on the loose with plans afoot.

This whole Death of the Dream story-line was an exciting continuing saga, a hugely compelling year-and-a-half of the monthly Captain America comic-book.  It reads even better on a re-read, when the various sub-plots that took years, originally, to come to fruition can be read all together in hours or days.  There are so many great characters in the book and so many on-going story-lines that I didn’t for a moment (either when reading these issues originally, or now during my re-read) miss Steve Rogers.

Phenomenal writing by Ed Brubaker along with his great cadre of artists make this a Captain America saga for the ages, and in my mind the definitive modern take on Cap.  I don’t ever recall these characters (Steve, Bucky, and the whole supporting cast) or the Captain America book as a whole ever being as compelling as they were during this part of Mr. Brubaker’s run.

Where would the story go from here?  I’ll be back soon with my concluding post on this portion of my Captain America re-read, the issues leading up to the celebratory Captain America #50.

The issues discussed in this post are collected in The Death of Captain America: The Complete Collection.

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