Thanks to Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.
Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Artists: Steve Epting, Michael Lark
Issues: Captain America (2004-2011) #1-9, #11-14*
*Issue #10 is a one-off House of M tie-in, and I’ll discuss it when I write about House of M.
Aside from being the obvious major storyline that inspired the latest Captain America film, the massive 13 issue “Winter Soldier” arc also serves as an excellent jumping-on point for Captain America (as it should be considering it’s #1). Thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe I’m very interested in reading more about Captain America, and these issues provide a ton of World War II backstory, Cap working with SHIELD, Nick Fury and Agent 13 and several fun guest stars like Tony Stark and Falcon.
The biggest shocker comes at who the Winter Soldier actually is, which obviously I already knew thanks to the film (and the fact that this story is 10 years old). Being armed with that knowledge is a bit unfortunate and causes the big buildup in the first issues (“Out of Time”) to lose some of its edge.
The comic does do an excellent job exploring Steve Rogers’ past in the war and particularly his relationship with Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, which is easily the best hero-sidekick relationship I’ve seen (it helps that Bucky is only a few years younger and they’re both equal soldiers – Cap just has the super soldier serum). Entire flashbacks and pages (and really an entire issue) is spent painstakingly delving into Cap’s past with Bucky and the war, but it all works really well, and is especially helpful and entertaining for someone like me that hadn’t really read a Captain America comic before.
Unlike the film, the comic arc doesn’t involve the dissolution of SHIELD and the uprising of HYDRA. Instead the Red Skull is murdered by an unknown assassin and the main villain is a Russian corporate schmuck that gets his hands on the cosmic cube, that useful little all-powerful McGuffin device that even MCU fans will recognize by now. His main weapon is the Winter Soldier, whom we learned was originally Bucky Barnes – previously thought dead, and captured and psychologically programmed by the Soviets.
There’s a neat bit where they discuss the Winter Soldier’s programming, and how too much time in the field causes him to go off the grid and start subconsciously exploring his past, to where they can no longer use him in the US, and only activate him every few years for short bursts at a time. The idea that a lot of major assassinations and killings were done by this sleeper agent is pretty nifty, and the fact that it’s Cap’s oldest and dearest friend takes a huge toll on our hero, one that writer Ed Brubaker does an excellent job with.
The art and action are really fantastic as well, and I really enjoyed the darker tones of the entire book, almost coming off Noir-ish in most scenes. The realistic art style meshes well with the action sequences, as Cap is a natural fighter that jumps, dodges and punches (with the occasional homing shield-boomerang throw). Fans of over the top action or Cosmic level entities blasting each other may feel something missing here, but I really enjoyed the much more down to earth butt-kicking of our heroes and villains.
The supporting cast is also done decently well, though this is first and foremost Captain America’s (and Bucky’s) story. Agent 13, aka Sharon Carter (descendant of the original Agent Carter) is Cap’s primary partner in the field, and though they’ve got some romantic history their relationship is built out of mutual respect and that of soldiers working together, which I enjoyed (even if she’s annoyingly damsel’d at one point). Nick Fury also plays a big role as our primary info-dumping character, and someone we sympathize with as he tries to keep the harshest truths away from Cap for as long as he can.
Cap’s fellow superheroes are utilized sparingly; Tony Stark has a brief scene but ultimately he’s unable to help Cap in the finale. Falcon does show up to help (literally in a ‘hey I’m here to help,’ way) towards the end but he’s not given a whole lot to do. The story’s sharp focus on Cap and Bucky remained the primary hook for the entire run, and though I felt a bit too much time was given to flashbacks (it feels like at least half the panels were in the past) overall it worked really well.
The climax itself was a slight letdown though. There’s not much of a final fight (similar to the film, Cap drops his guard and just talks to the Winter Soldier after a brief scuffle) and ultimately uses the cosmic cube to ‘fix’ Bucky’s mind and restore his memories. After that Bucky teleports himself away by shattering the cube, and then we get a tease that the Red Skull is somehow living on inside our evil Russian friend.
Overall it’s a fun if subdued adventure, and I love the tight focus on the mystery behind the Winter Soldier and Cap’s guilt-ridden past with losing his friend. It’s a fantastic intro to Captain America and the writing and art are both top notch. I definitely plan on continuing the series, which eventually leads right up to Civil War.