Saturday, August 12, 2006

Comics review: Winter Soldier tradeback parts 1 and 2 by Ed Brubaker

As I mentioned in my NPC posting below, I recently read Winter Soldier 1 and 2, the tradebacks collecting Captain America #1-12 (these are recent comics, Marvel relaunched Captain America recently to hilight the beginning of Ed Brubaker's run).

The Writer

I'm a big fan of Ed Brubaker who predominately did crime fiction when he was at DC, including runs on Catwoman and Gotham Central (the tremendous series that follows what it's like to be a regular human cop on Batman's turf- and it sucks).

As part of the ongoing war between Marvel and DC over creative talent, which first saw writers like Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns signed to exclusive contracts by DC, Marvel reciprocated by signing creators to long term exclusive contracts, one of whom was Ed Brubaker. The first task they gave him was the revitalization of one of Marvel's oldest and most important heroes.

To someone like me, who was already a fan of Brubaker's work at DC, it did not seem like a match made in heaven.

Ed Brubaker is certainly one of the most talented and original comics writers out there. But his works were always fraught with ambiguous heroes. Heroes who second-guessed themselves, who walked in the gray between good and evil.

I wasn't sure Brubaker's style would fit a character who has usually been portrayed to represent the best in us but he came through in spades.

The Story

Using the haunting memory of Cap's worst failure, the death of his sidekick Bucky at the end of WWII, Brubaker is able to instill loss, regret, second guessing and anger into the leader of the Avengers. And speaking of the Avengers, Brubaker uses another loss, the death of Hawkeye and the disbanding of the Avengers from the "Dissassembled" arc to further make Cap doubt that what he's doing is right.

Adding to the haunting quality of these losses are flashbacks, done in a black and white film noir style. As the story progresses, these flashbacks become more frequent, more vivid and more disturbing. Some of the things Cap remembers he isn't sure happened. And some of the things that are revealed are things we, the reader had never been told before.

Brubaker paints the Golden Age Captain America stories, where he is the bold hero and symbol of America, fighting the "good war" with his teenage sidekick at his side in a more realistic, much harsher light.

Brubaker represents these established comic book stories as the newsreel version of events. Through his flashbacks, we see campaigns filled with death and a "sidekick" who is a stealth and recon expert trained to do the things Captain America, a living symbol, cannot be allowed to, like slitting the throats of guards.

Brubaker takes a lot of chances in these portrayals and kills some sacred cows along the way, especially in the retcon of Bucky into an assassin but the way the story is told makes it work.

As if this weren't bad enough, it is revealed that Bucky isn't really dead. Like Cap, he was thrown into suspended animation but retrieved by the Soviets not the Americans. While Cap slept in the frozen arctic waters, Bucky was brainwashed, given cybernetic enhancements and turned into a Cold War assassin known as the Winter Soldier.

Now he's back and taking shots directly at Cap, attacking the graves of fallen WWII heroes, killing friends of the living legend. Nick Fury and SHIELD want Cap to kill his former partner while Cap is determined to save him, convinced there must be some humanity left in him.

The supporting cast

And speaking of Nick Fury and SHIELD, Winter Soldier brings in a host of the most interesting (and underused) supporting cast members from Captain America's long history. Besides Fury himself, WWII heroes Spirit of 76, the Patriot, the Submariner, the original Human Torch and Toro all make appearances in the flashbacks to the war.

In the present, other more recent friends of the living legend are present, including the Falcon, Union Jack, Iron Man and Nomad.

Each of these characters appears just enough to make their presence felt, with only the more important, Nick Fury and the Falcon getting much "screen time". This is excellent writing, weaving in interesting characters from the past and present without diverting too much of the story spotlight away from the main characters: Cap and the Winter Soldier.

The Villains

And speaking of the Winter Soldier, Brubaker brings in three antagonists to challenge our hero: Red Skull and two new faces, the Winter Soldier and Alexander Lukin. The two new villains both have the potential to become staple Cap villains for decades.

Lukin, a Russian "cold warrior" is the puppeteer pulling the Winter Soldier's strings, using him to kill the Red Skull, retrieve the Cosmic Cube (a mystical device capable of warping reality) and then unleashing him on Cap, who Lukin hates for reasons extending back to the Cold War and beyond.

While I won't spoil the ending, suffice to say that the Skull, Lukin and the Winter Soldier all end the story in a position to cause Cap further pain.

The Winter Soldier especially should prove to be an interesting villain for Cap, since he is a definite danger to him (having been given the same WWII training Cap was) and with cybernetics and advanced weaponry (like sniper rifles) to help give him an edge.

But at the same time, he fits with the themes of loss and redemption that have always been a part of Cap's story, since the Avenger wants to redeem his former partner, help him regain the sanity and heroism stolen from him. He's not just someone to be pummeled, he's someone to be saved.

All in all, one of the best comic stories you're ever going to read. Period.


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