With 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!
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artists: Steve Epting, Mike Perkins, Roberto De La Torre, Jackson Guice
Issues: Captain America (2004) #22-42, Winter Soldier: Winter Kills #1
Steve Rogers is dead. Long live Captain America!
You’d think that when your title character is murdered it would bring an end to that series. Steve Rogers’ Captain America is a legacy that will not be so easily snuffed. In the hands of skilled writer Ed Brubaker and one of my favorite comic artists Steve Epting, The Death of Captain America is a massive twenty issue collected volume that tells the epic and satisfying arc of Steve’s void in an increasingly panicked country on the brink of anarchy.
The Legacy of Captain America may have been a better title for the trade, as the eponymous death happens early on in issue #25. The first three issues (#22-24) are direct Civil War tie-ins, offering some side plots starring Agent 13, SHIELD and Cap. Most tie-ins are not great but Brubaker does a masterful job making these interesting while not derailing his own lengthy main plot that he’s been carefully constructing since the first issue.
There’s a several month gap between #24 and #25, and Cap’s series is briefly replaced with a single one-off issue called Winter Soldier: Winter Kills. It’s our first real glimpse into the mind of James “Bucky” Barnes and nicely foreshadows his future role as the new protagonist of the series. James is an amazing hero to root for; he’s got the tragic past in spades, he’s already lived a lifetime’s worth of memories and his moral fiber is deliciously sinewy. It’s revealed in an earlier Civil War tie-in that he’s directly working for Nick Fury (who’s been off the grid for years now) as a spy and adjusting to a somewhat normal life. Mostly we get a lot of flashbacks to World War II from Bucky’s point of view, and it’s a fascinating look at someone who idolized Steve and what he stood for more than anyone.
The death issue has become one of the more infamous comics in history. Hats off to Marvel for managing to create a huge media blitz and keep everything under wraps until it released. Steve’s on his way to trial after surrendering at the end of the Civil War, finally seeing that the cost was too high to keep fighting. He’s initially shot by Crossbones armed with a sniper rifle in a nearby building (very Kennedy), and then a brainwashed Agent 13/Sharon Carter (that would be Peggy’s niece) finishes the job with multiple gunshot wounds to the gut.
It’s a very stark and shockingly realistic event, made all the more powerful by Epting’s fantastic art. Every character looks real without dipping into crazy Uncanny Valley territory, and the heavy use of shading creates a wonderfully bleak and serious tone that has endured throughout the entire series up to this point.
Steve’s death created a mini-event in of itself, as the death of such a major character created shock waves in the Marvel Universe. Most of it is handily contained in the limited series Fallen Son, when various heroes mourn Steve’s death and go through the five stages of depression.
“The Death of the Dream,” covers the first six issues following his death. Brubaker takes his time exploring his supporting cast and continuing to set up the intriguing plot. Every couple pages in each issue is given its own title and jumps around to different characters and events, creating a sporadic and scattered tone that fits well with everyone feeling lost after Steve’s death. Winter Soldier wants revenge on Iron Man. Falcon and Agent 13 hunt down Red Skull. Tony Stark finds Steve’s last will and testament and brings Black Widow on board. Sharon reels from her murderous act and continued brainwashed programming and we see the further machinations of Red Skull, Arnim Zola and Dr. Faustus’ evil alliance in bringing about this whole sequence of events.
It’s an interesting way to write what amounts to Act 1 of the lengthy story, and things are a bit slow until the next six issue arc. In “The Burden of Dreams,” Winter Soldier is freed from Dr. Faustus’ grasp (where he was being unsuccessfully tortured and programmed) by Sharon only to be swiftly captured by Iron Man and SHIELD. He breaks free and much of issue #33 is the two having a knock-down drag-out fight in the helicarrier. It ends with Bucky ripping off Iron Man’s helmet and pressing a gun to his head, as Stark holds his hands on either side of Bucky’s head, repulsor’s ready to liquefy his brain.
The two come to an understanding once Tony shows him the Steve’s letter, which beseeches Tony that someone needs to continue on his legacy. It doesn’t take much for the Winter Soldier to agree, mostly as he doesn’t want anyone else to do it, and in issue #34 we get our first glimpse at the new Captain America suit, worn by Cap’s old sidekick.
Bucky, former Winter Soldier now reluctant new Captain America takes center stage as the new protagonist of the series, with Black Widow as his primary partner and love interest. At this point the main plot really starts rocketing ahead as Sharon is firmly in the clutches of evil, Falcon supports Bucky/Widow, and the entire country goes through a rocky phase of near anarchy in the wake of the Civil War and Steve’s death, as well as the savvy political maneuverings of Red Skull. The Skull has been sharing a body with evil CEO Aleksander Lukin since the first trade volume, and he flexes his powers of influence in some startlingly realistic ways, subtly drawing the American people into a frenzy before unleashing his master plan – a presidential candidate in his backpocket.
Brubaker’s style and overall tone of the series is very grounded in reality. Despite obviously taking place in a world of hundreds of super-powered people, alien invasions, dimensions, time travel, etc, Brubaker’s Captain America series has always focused on very relatable politics, people and situations. All of the supporting cast are just normal people with high amounts of training and badassness; no energy spewing death-dealers like in the Avengers, and it’s incredibly refreshing. Brubaker touches on this several times whenever Bucky engages someone in a fight – he’s not a super-soldier and a particularly tough battle will leave him exhausted and with broken ribs, making his struggles and battles all the more exhilarating.
Red Skull’s master plan is revealed in the final six-issue arc, “The Man Who Bought America.” Sharon Carter, former Agent 13 and Steve’s love interest is our window into our evil trinity, and Brubaker spends plenty of time letting us into the inner workings of this evil cabal hellbent on overthrowing the American government. A big part of Red Skull’s plan is to activate a former character in Cap’s past – the Captain America of the 1950s, later retconned to be an insane Cap-wannabe also known as The Grand Director.
Since the familiar story of Cap being frozen and flung forward in time creates a paradox with Cap running around briefly in the 50s fighting communists, it was retconned as an impostor who worshiped the original Captain America, even surgically altering his face and voice to mimic Steve Rogers. I had to look it up on Wikipedia but credit to Brubaker for smoothly explaining this odd character within the comics. He becomes a fairly major villain for Bucky and company though he’s definitely portrayed as a tragic, manipulated figure.
Speaking of tragic figures, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with how Sharon’s arc is treated. First, she’s directly responsible for Steve’s death, though she was brainwashed by Dr. Faustus and acting on his orders. The events understandably haunts her, and we get uncomfortable shots of her crying in the shower and revisiting the scene over and over in her mind. She soon joins up with Dr. Faustus and with a shred of herself intact she frees the Winter Soldier. From there she’s psychologically tortured and rendered a slave to Dr. Faustus. Eventually she mounts an escape and fights with Sin, who had previously battled and been injured in a fight with Bucky but she’s quickly subdued again. Oh and she was also pregnant with Steve’s child but loses the baby in the knife fight with Sin when she plunges the knife into her own belly to stop the Red Skull from getting it. That is…pretty messed up.
Thankfully she finally gets to do something during the climax. As Falcon and Widow mount an attack on the AIM base she escapes and shoots and kills Lukin/Red Skull (while an also escaped 1950s Cap kills Zola). It’s a violent but triumphant moment, but her whole storyline made me fairly uncomfortable for the most part, and I feel like her victimization as played up for dramatic effect is a tiresome trope. It’s also painfully obvious that Black Widow replaces her as Protagonist’s Love Interest as the only other woman of note in the entire series (besides Sin, Red Skull’s one-dimensional daughter). Credit to Epiting, however, for drawing the women just as shadowy and powerful as their male counterparts.
A major part of the climax is Bucky coming to terms with being the new Captain America. While everyone else attacks the AIM base, he goes to the presidential debates to foil an assassination attempt by Sin, becoming a hero in the process. Bucky, like Steve, cares more about doing the right thing than being a hero, though he begins to grasp the gravitas and power that the uniform wields.
Ultimately the country needs Captain America, especially a country teetering on the edge of economic collapse and anarchy. Brubaker really plays up the chaotic aspect of people in the streets, angry at the government, and peaks when Faustus’s other brainwashed SHIELD agents open fire on a group of protesters. Stark himself is used sparingly in the second half of the book, and the only time he’s actually in his suit fighting is during the one on one match with Winter Soldier before he recruits him.
The good guys win at the end and things wrap up nicely – almost too nicely. Skull and Zola are downloaded into another of Zola’s endless robots while Faustus betrays them in the end (activating Sharon’s GPS tracker which leads to the final assault) and escapes. Bucky is the new knife and gun-wielding Captain America (with a slightly different uniform that nicely shows off the old triangular shield of the 40s) and presumably continues to work for Stark and SHIELD without ever having to officially register (Bucky’s terms).
The Death of Captain America is one of the best trade paperbacks I’ve ever read. Right now I’d put it just under Planet Hulk on my personal list of favorites. Both gave their writers well over a dozen issues to tell massive and satisfying stories – in the case of Cap, 18 total issues jumping out of Steve’s death.
Even more impressive is that the plot threads had been layered in since the first issue back in the Winter Soldier volume. Brubaker not only had to craft a story without his title character, but created an all new one to take the mantle, and dare I say I loved everything about how James “Bucky” Barnes is portrayed. The supporting cast is fantastic, the villains are evil without being too cheesy, the world and story are grounded in political upheaval and government control and the action is always exciting and satisfying. Though you’ll definitely want to read the first volume, Captain America: Winter Soldier (and possibly Red Menace) first, The Death of Captain America comes as one of the most easily recommendable comic book stories and collected volumes I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.