Writer: Ed Brubaker (#1-14), Jason Latour (#15-19)
Artists: Butch Guice, Michael Lark, Nic Klein
Issues: Winter Soldier (2012) #1-19
When I originally set out to read through the Winter Soldier and Captain America comics of the 2011-2012 period, I organized my reading order by the published trade paperbacks and omnibuses, as I usually do. I read through all the issues included in the Captain America: Return of the Winter Soldier omnibus, which included Captain America (2011) #11-19, Captain America And Bucky #620-628, and Winter Soldier (2012) #1-14.
But all I want to really talk about is how amazing the Winter Soldier series is.
Winter Soldier is technically a spin-off of Captain America. Ed Brubaker, premiere architect of the modern Captain America series, first invented the character as a surprise villain during one of his first arcs in Captain America (2004).
The Winter Soldier was revealed to be a brainwashed and reprogrammed James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes – one of the most infamous of the “tragic side character killed to embolden our hero” characters in Marvel history, along with Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben.
Brubaker turned what could have been a shlocky excuse to drudge out a sacred character from Cap’s past into not only a compelling villain, but later a complex and fantastic hero.
Later when Cap fell following the events of Civil War, Bucky took on the mantle of Captain America. When Cap returned, Bucky still wore the suit with pride while Cap ran the Secret Avengers. Later he was brought to trial for his crimes as a Soviet secret agent, and sentenced to prison in Russia.
I won’t rehash the excellent, lengthy character arcs that Brubaker had formed for Bucky over the last decade, but suffice to say it’s been good stuff. And the Winter Soldier series represents some of the best Brubaker’s ever written.
All you need to know to jump into the series is that during the events of Fear Itself, Bucky appeared to have been killed. Turns out that rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated. Bucky used the opportunity to go off-grid, resuming his work as a secret agent and working with SHIELD and his partner, Black Widow.
The first 14 issues represent one long continuous story as Bucky learns that other Soviet sleeper agents like himself have been awakened and are up to no good. He and Widow have to use their shared knowledge and training to track them down.
“The Longest Winter” (1-5) is a mostly traditional superhero story with a nice mix of political espionage. Widow and Bucky track down the rogue agents and discover a sinister plot by the Red Ghost and the deposed former Prime Minister of Latveria, Lucia von Bardas.
Of course you can’t have a story about Latveria without a little Doctor Doom. A well written Doom is one of my favorite characters in Marvel comics. Brubaker absolutely does the megalomaniac character justice.
Our heroes are forced to team up with Doom to unravel a political plot that aims to start a war with Latveria. Doom is hilariously awesome and I loved every moment.
“Broken Arrow” (6-9) explores a dangling thread from the first arc. The last sleeper agent was awoken years ago, but never found. And of course Leo Novotkov is the most dangerous of all. When his programming suddenly kicks in, he murders his handler and begins targeting the Winter Soldier and everyone around him.
It’s a fun little serial killer plot with a ton of awesome action sequences. Instead of having its own resolution, it immediately bleeds into the final arc of Brubaker’s run, “Black Widow Hunt” (10-14). Natasha is captured at the end of the second arc and forcibly reprogrammed like in her own prior spy days.
Bucky is forced to track down his partner and lover. The Black Widow is anything but fridged, given a healthy amount of screentime as a villain and some pretty amazing action scenes. Bucky even has a stint where he briefly lets himself be brainwashed in order to try and save her. A bunch of heroes and Avengers play fun cameos, including Captain America, Daredevil, Wolverine, and Hawkeye.
The final showdown with Leo is far too easy and anti-climactic, but Brubaker had one final masterstroke to unleash, a heart-breaking piece of revenge that drives Bucky and Natasha apart forever.
Those 14 issues span an excellent, incredibly fun story that feels like Brubaker was at the top of his game as much as his seminal eight year run with Captain America.
The art is equally phenomenal. Veteran comic artist Butch Guice had previously collaborated with Brubaker on Captain America (2004), drawing much of the 2008-2010 era. He has a deft, shaded style that expertly evokes quiet, dramatic scenes as well as high-speed chases.
Awkwardly, Winter Soldier would continue for another four issues, despite Brubaker moving on and even penning a lovely farewell letter at the end of issue 14.
Continuing the series without Brubaker felt a little like Emmitt Smith going to the Cardinals after 13 seasons and three Super Bowl wins with the Cowboys. “Electric Ghost” (15-19) is surprisingly not too bad, but it goes in a weird direction.
New oncoming writer Jason Latour spends a great deal of time introducing an enjoyably grouchy supporting character in aging secret agent Joe Robards, as well as a fascinating new villain. The titular Electric Ghost has a backstory that echoes much of Bucky’s and Natasha’s. She even has an entire issue dedicated to her twisted revenge tale backstory. Unfortunately the series ends an issue later, so we’re left with an awkward story that wraps up just as it starts unfurling.
If we just look at those 14 issues (which is all you’ll find if you read it from a TPB or omnibus), we have an outstanding, meaty, action-packed spy story that does an great job showing off Bucky (and Widow) being utter badasses at what they do. It’s also dramatic and compelling, with fun villains and even funner cameos. The ending in issue 14 is absolutely gut-wrenching, and a very bold way to conclude the series.
I still haven’t read his work on Daredevil or Immortal Iron First yet, but Ed Brubaker is easily one of my favorite comic writers. This run on Winter Soldier is his last work for Marvel before he went to develop his own stories for Image Comics, which I absolutely need to dig into. If you at all enjoyed Cap’s comics in the modern age and particularly Bucky Barnes, Winter Soldier (2012) is highly recommended.