Book Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier Comics

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I love comics. I love them wholly, weirdly, unapologetically. My third-grade teacher wrote my parents a note commending my use of “omnipotent” as a vocab word one week; little did she know that I’d picked it up because the Silver Surfer had used it while beating the crap out of Thanos in that month’s issue. Words and pictures and the madcap brightness of the Marvel Universe have always been a cornerstone of the imaginative parts of my life. And what I love about Marvel Comics–and while I enjoy DC, if I have to choose, I’m a Marvel guy, through and through–is that ANYTHING can happen. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created a strange magic that felt fantastic and amazing and incredible and–this a sentence of bad half puns. You get where I’m going.

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Over the decades, though, a few rules emerged, unofficial as they were, about what was and wasn’t allowable in the Marvel Universe. As characters were killed and resurrected to create big stories and ratchet up tension, there remained a holy trinity of characters that had to stay dead: Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben (his death taught Peter that big lesson about power and responsibility), Peter’s first love Gwen Stacy (the Green Goblin dropped her off a bridge, changing Spidey forever) and…Bucky, Captain America’s WWII-era sidekick.

When Captain America was revived by the Avengers from a block of ice in 1964’s Avengers #4, it was revealed that Bucky had died in the same explosion that sent Cap into suspended animation. And writers, over the next four decades, used the guilt and drama of Bucky’s death to drive Cap forward. As with the other two members of the holy trinity, comics writers would occasionally tease us with the possibility of bringing Bucky back, but it was always a clone, or an alternate reality double, or a female version from a duplicate earth located on the other side of the sun.

All of the above ridiculousness, by the way, happened in various books under various wacky writers. But Bucky always stayed dead. And then, along came Ed Brubaker, who, right at the top of an epic 50+-issue run, introduced us to the Winter Soldier, a former soviet agent who had spent decades assassinating key officials in the Marvel Universe (including Wolverine’s pregnant wife!) and weaving in and out of established history. It was hinted this figure was Bucky, but we all figured that Marvel would blink. Bucky had to stay dead.

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Not this time, though. Now, I think the movie trailers and support material has spoiled that part rotten–Bucky was back, Ed Brubaker’s epic run, beginning with the collections The Winter Soldier, parts 1 and 2, embraced that taboo completely and galloped with it. And suddenly, Captain America was something other than a big blue boy scout, which has been a problematic image issue for the character for decades. Brubaker chose to “Tom Clancy” the character up, providing a framework of high-stakes espionage and shadow governments and supporting characters who all had their own motives and surprises and skills and twists along the way.

The first volumes, with art by Steve Epting, are a treat. The entire run is delightful and dark and really gets inside a whole bunch of what makes Cap tick, beyond just being a man out of time. I don’t think the characterization of Cap in the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe would have been possible without the groundwork and explosive storytelling Brubaker laid out in his five years of work on the character.

Now, I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, so I’ll just give you a list of five reasons why Brubaker’s work improved Captain America:

1.It let him be a soldier. Writers have often danced between the raindrops of discussing Cap as a warrior, willing to kill if need be. Brubaker embraced that difficult discussion and made it clear that the weight of wartime forged Cap into who he is, complete with the internal moral struggle of killing when necessary.

2.It gave him back a love interest that mattered. I’m not going to say much about Sharon Carter (also in the new film, played by Revenge’s Emily VanCamp), but she quickly becomes the focus of the long-range story Brubaker is telling, and viewing Cap through the eyes of a woman who loves him–and can kick ass in her own right–reveals a great deal.

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3.It’s set squarely in the Marvel Universe, fantasy and weirdness included. We have deaths, resurrections, body-hopping, death robots, angry gods, Nazi experiments, time-travel, reverse-time-travel, and more. It would be so goofy under another writer’s hand, but Brubaker leans into the tropes of Marvel and treats it like it’s the world outside our window, and it works.

4.The stakes are high and you feel you could lose someone important. Brubaker makes you care about everyone–villains included. And somehow, you know no one–not even Cap–is safe. Brubaker is unafraid to kill his darlings, and he does so. And it’s heartbreaking at points, but it’s a big part of making you care.

5.Cap is a person you want to take out for a beer and follow into Hell. Brubaker makes Cap approachable and idealistic all at once. A big part of that is his recognition of Bucky as a player for the other team, and how we all start rooting for him, somehow, to save his fallen comrade. Cap tries and fails desperately, again and again, at attempts to save Bucky’s soul from the terrible things he’s done as the Winter Soldier.

But he doesn’t stop trying. And that leads to some beautiful moments later in the run.

My advice? Pick up all of Brubaker’s run. It’s all on Amazon, in collections that bundle up six issues at a time or a whopping 25 issues at a time. Read it one chapter a night, if you can (22 pages in a sitting) — that way, it preserves the suspense and joy of putting the comics down and coming back to them, month after month.

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