Mar 24, 2014

The Winter Soldier: I Want to Have Brubaker's Fictional Comics Babies

The Winter Soldier
I Want to Have Brubaker's Fictional Comics Babies
Captain America Month
Ben Smith

Slightly inappropriate homosexual sentiments aside, Ed Brubaker is one of my favorite writers working in comic books today. Ever since he began at Marvel, working on a lower tier character named Captain America (If this doesn't get Ben hate mail, I give up. -Duy), I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything he’s produced.

Of course there is the partnership with artist Sean Phillips, which almost always produces gold (Criminal is simply amazing), and there was also The Marvels Project and Secret Avengers. Whatever contribution he made to the legendary Immortal Iron Fist cannot be appreciated enough by a diehard Fist junkie like myself. Any fan of the Fraction and Aja Hawkeye book should be able to understand the sheer brilliance of that Iron Fist book (I want to adopt Aja, I don’t care how old he is, we have a spare Thomas the Train bed).

But arguably his crowning achievement at Marvel was his seven plus year run on Captain America. A run that couldn’t have started more spectacularly with the introduction of the Winter Soldier.

I’m not going to discuss these comics in my usual level of detail, because frankly that just sounds exhausting, but there will be spoilers ahead. You have been fairly and justly warned.

As I’ve stated before, I was never a big fan of the Avengers or their family of titles as a kid, so when I read this book my love and knowledge of Captain America was low. I considered him the de facto leader of the Marvel universe, and equally as boring as that type of character sometimes tends to be. Brubaker not only had a deep and long-lasting love of the character, having grown up reading him from base to base as an Army brat (or was it Navy?), but he did the best thing any writer could possibly do, and that was spread that love of the character onto the readers. I was not immune, and I caught the Captain America virus as quickly and thoroughly as the any number of viruses Duy catches on his “walk” home from work.

One of the great things Brubaker did was establish a strong and interesting supporting cast. The way he was able to slowly establish Sharon Carter as the love interest in the book was impressive. Even more impressive since, unknown to me, she hadn’t really been a factor in the books since the ‘70s, until the mid-‘90s. Realizing that, years later, was somewhat surprising, because she just seemed to be so perfect in that role.

On the other side of the playing field, you can’t have Captain America without the Red Skull. Much like Magneto with the X-Men, I’m perfectly fine with the Red Skull playing a frequent role in the Captain America books. He cannot wear out his welcome to me. Brubaker basically uses him as a supporting character over the first 40 or so issues of his run, which is an excellent way to handle it, I think. Interestingly enough, he does this by “killing” the Skull in the first issue, and established former Russian General, Aleksander Lukin, as the main antagonist. Cleverly enough, it’s eventually revealed that the Red Skull lives on in Lukin’s head, thanks to the Cosmic Cube he was holding at the time of his “death.”

Here’s a great flashback scene from World War II, where Captain America makes sure the cocky Russian general knows who’s going to be calling the shots in battle, which is how I like my Cap.

(Also a key moment for the modern day story, as the general was a mentor of Lukin, and Lukin’s family was killed as a result of said battle.)

Crossbones and Sin were two characters I had absolutely no history with, and they proved to be two entertainingly psychotic figures. Crossbones just has that very appealing design, with the military vest and the skull mask. (The skull mask seems to be a very tricky thing to pull off. It works for me on Crossbones, but not so much on Taskmaster. I can’t dissect the formula, but maybe it’s the hood. Or maybe you just can’t go full skull, but then again, Red Skull works for me too.) I love it when artists draw freckles on the characters, I just think it looks so adorable, and Sin benefits from that.

Nicky Fury (I have no clue if Ben made a typo there or if it was intentional. Either way, I like "Nicky Fury" and am not fixing it. -Duy) would play a prominent role early on, and I prefer that approach to the supporting cast of Captain America more than anything else. I really don’t need scenes of Steve Rogers trying to pretend he’s normal with his neighbors, or dating Bernie what’s-her-face (Rosenthal! She's a lawyer now! And she was a Stern/Byrne! I can't take Smith anywhere! -Duy). Just make Cap’s supporting cast other heroes. It works best to me.

This is even more evident following Steve’s “death,” when Brubaker expertly weaved The Falcon, Tony Stark, and Black Widow into the ongoing cast, truly making it an ensemble book. Them being able to go for basically a year without a Captain America in the Cap book was pretty impressive.

That brings us to the defining legacy of Brubaker’s time as writer of the Captain America books, and possibly of his entire time at Marvel, The Winter Soldier. Brubaker was able to successfully do what many other previous creators had attempted to do, and that was revive Bucky and make him a relevant character in the modern era. In the process, he shattered the old adage “at Marvel, only Uncle Ben and Bucky stay dead.”

This was done so expertly that I don’t think anyone that has actually read it can objectively say otherwise. It proved so popular, that it has already become the storyline of the second Captain America major motion picture.

Like I said, I was never a big Captain America fan, so I didn’t understand the viewpoint that some fans have about Bucky being dead being so essential to the character of Cap. It was the subject of many Stan Lee soliloquies when they revived the character in Avengers #4, but it’s not his driving force for heroism in the way Uncle Ben is for Peter Parker. It was never a sacred egg for me, other than I always considered Bucky to be pretty lame, and why would you want to resurrect him. So, essentially, that becomes step one.

Brubaker turned Bucky into the ultimate deadly covert soldier. He was the advance scout sent ahead of the team to silently eliminate as many threats as possible. While this level of violence and realism is often a deterrent to me in my advancing (get off my lawn!) age, it worked perfectly here. It was World War II. The Gruenwald-ian notion that neither of those guys killed any hostile combatants is frankly insulting to the real men and women that had to fight in that war, or any war.

One of the great things about resurrecting Bucky, was the way Brubaker slowly rolled it out. Instead of it being the big splashy reveal in the first issue of the newly relaunched title, he teased it out over the course of the beginning arc.

In this early scene between Lukin and the Red Skull from Captain America #1, we get our first glimpse of the unknown Winter Soldier. Something you might not even notice without the knowledge of what is to come (I certainly didn’t).

Later, we get a hint that there might be someone out there with a grudge towards the men who replaced him as Captain America, William Naslund and Jeff Mace, when Steve discovers that their gravestones have been vandalized.

When Jack Monroe, the Bucky of the 1950s (and Nomad to us 90s kids! -Duy), is ambushed and killed in a parking lot, his “Do I know you?” question to the unseen killer was another early clue.

Sharon is later ambushed in Philadelphia by the same man sporting a metal left hand.

Nick Fury provides the first hint at the existence of The Winter Soldier, with a file on his desk and a heavy heart about what it might mean for Steve.

The big reveal comes in Captain America #6, when Bucky is identified as the mysterious assassin named The Winter Soldier.

Captain America, and the readers, were left to wonder if this was yet another fakeout. But as the subsequent storyline revealed, Bucky was recovered by the Russians following the accident with the drone plane. They revived him, brainwashed him, and then used him as their ultimate secret weapon, taking out key targets throughout the years of the Cold War, before being returned to cryogenic stasis.

Steve was able to restore Bucky’s memory using the Cosmic Cube, and the long road to redemption began, eventually leading to Bucky taking over the role of Captain America following Steve’s “death.” Bucky proved to be a fairly popular Cap, with many fans preferring he kept the role once Steve returned.

Steve Rogers' death was the first comic book death to really capture the attention of the mainstream media since the Death of Superman in the ‘90s. Other subsequent comic book deaths would be spoiled in the newspapers following Steve Rogers, including Johnny “The Human Torch” Storm and Peter Parker (twice).

This has led to a popular sentiment among online fans that they’re tired of the sensationalist meaningless deaths. As I’ve argued before, the deaths are never meaningless if we get real emotions from them, and most importantly, if they make for entertaining stories. There aren’t many stories that can claim to be more entertaining than this mega-epic Brubaker put together.

No more evidence is needed for proof of that, than when all the fans that were simply “outraged” at the return of Bucky, or the death of Steve, were many of the same fans that wanted Bucky to stay as Cap after Steve’s resurrection.

If you can turn a fanbase around like that, then you have something truly special, my friends.

You can get started on Ed Brubaker's Captain America run with these three trades:

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