While we spend a great deal of time engrossed in the current crop of comic books, let us not forget those fantastic tales from the past that still sit in amongst our collections and are always worth revisiting...
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Art: Steve Epting, Frank D’Armata, Michael Lark & Mike Perkins
Matt C: Remember when James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes was still dead?
Just ten years ago Bucky Barnes was one of a handful of characters, alongside the likes of Ben Parker, Thomas and Martha Wayne and Gwen Stacey, who had shuffled off this mortal coil never to return, the idea of them ever coming back from the afterlife being almost sacrilegious. Resurrection had become so commonplace in the superhero genre that the death of a character had lost much of its impact. It was always assumed that character would return sooner rather than later, and there was only those select few that had reached an untouchable status where no creator would dare to attempt to resurrect them.
Enter Ed Brubaker. He’d made his mark on the comics world in the early part of the Noughties with a variety of titles for DC and Wildstorm, most notably Catwoman, Sleeper and the incomparable Gotham Central with Greg Rucka, so when it was announced he’d be working at Marvel, and his first task would be to take the reins of the Sentinel of Liberty’s ongoing adventures, big things were expected. Unsurprisingly, considering the quality of his output at that point, he delivered the goods. And then some.
Captain America is a character who’s proven to be quite resilient to a number of different interpretations over his seventy year history, ranging from punching Hitler in the face, to giving up the iconic shield when faced with government corruption, to becoming embroiled in bizarre sci-fi adventures at the hands of Jack Kirby. No matter the situation though, at his core he’s more or less remained the same, the man who will stand up for the little guy (as he was once one himself), the patriot who believes in the American Dream even when he has to accept the real world usually fails to live up to the lofty ideals he holds dear. He’s the hero who never gives up, never surrenders. Even when his world comes crashing down around him.
After a reinvigorating opening arc which saw Brubaker push Cap into an espionage-fuelled, post-9/11 world of dubious politics and often undefined enemies, he really went for broke in what was ostensibly the second chapter in a long storyline that would run for several years. Entitled ‘The Winter Soldier’, it would change everything.
Beginning with Captain America #8, the focus began to shift onto the mysterious assassin who’d appeared in previous issues. This assassin was believed to be working for a rogue Soviet General named Aleksander Lukin who was currently in possession of a Cosmic Cube, stolen from the corpse of the Red Skull. The question of whether this assassin was actually Bucky Barnes had been dismissed but it still persisted, to the point where Steve Rogers became determined to uncover the truth. That truth was dramatically revealed in issue #11, an immensely powerful read that stomped on the rose-tinted spectacles through which we viewed the Golden Age adventures of Cap and Bucky. It was arguably one of the finest, if not the finest, issue of Brubaker’s entire run. It’s easy to forget now, with all that’s come since, but before this point the notion that the so-called Winter Soldier was actually Barnes was not only at the forefront of Rogers’ mind, but the readers themselves. Was Brubaker actually breaking the rules and bringing back one of those characters that should never be brought back from the dead? And was he doing it in a such a smart, compelling, edge-of-the-seat fashion that not only was it not being perceived as a travesty, it was actually being regarded as some of the finest storytelling ever applied to the Star-Spangled Avenger across the decades?
The critical acclaim was near unanimous, and as we, the audience - viewing things from Cap’s POV - leafed through the files detailing the secret history of the Winter Soldier, the pain and anguish Rogers felt was made palpable. A man who had for so long mourned his friend after witnessing his heroic demise was now confronted by the fact that a warped, twisted version of Bucky Barnes has been murdering people in cold blood for decades. In issue #11 you can feel the rug being pulled from under Captain America and the highly effective manner in which the story is relayed makes it all the more powerful.
Lesser men would stumble at this point, but this is Captain America we’re talking about, and what pushes him forward here, even when colleagues are advising otherwise, is the idea that Bucky can be saved. Denial might have played a part in that but, again, this is the guy who would never, ever give up on his best friend.
‘The Winter Soldier’ is, inevitably, not a story with an especially happy ending, with Rogers employing questionable methods to reach a resolution, but this was Brubaker’s gift, bringing a dose of reality to the genre, acknowledging that things rarely get tied up neatly and nobody really gets to live happily ever after. He added poignancy to the proceedings by deploying well-timed WW2 flashbacks, and for a time it had many fans wishing he’d go the whole hog and do a period Invaders series. That’s not where his interests lay though; he was much more concerned with the juxtaposition between the 1940s and the present day, how some things had changed dramatically, and how some things – for better and for worse – hadn’t changed at all. Plus there was the supporting cast he’d put together, featuring Sharon Carter, Nick Fury, Tony Stark and Sam Wilson, whose modern sensibilities often clashed with Rogers’ approach to the world to varying degrees, and that dynamic - which the writer evidently relished - kept things consistently entertaining and unpredictable.
Along for the ride, and just as integral to the feel of the book, were the art team of Steve Epting and Frank D’Armata (with the occasional assistance of Michael Lark and Mike Perkins). Epting had been on the radar for many years before this point, but Captain America was where he really hit his stride, displaying a maturity and realism that practically demanded the reader to take things seriously, utilizing plenty of stern expressions and some thrillingly bone-crunching action which, when coupled with D’Armata’s muted, sombre palette, gave an eminently clear indication that lightweight fisticuffs were most definitely not the order of the day.
In many ways this tale set the tone of the series, especially in regards to what came after, from the headline-grabbing ‘Death Of Captain America’ and beyond. Against the odds, the return of Bucky Barnes to the Marvel Universe became one of the most celebrated developments at the House of Ideas since the turn of the century, so it’s no surprise that it – however loosely - forms the basis of the latest Captain America movie. After so many issues featuring this character across so many decades, it gets to a point where you wonder if there are any new ideas out there, anything left to say. Occasionally a story does come along that catches everyone off guard, cementing itself as an instant classic as soon as it hits the stands. In 2005, nobody was really expecting anything of this magnitude, and while that shock has dissipated over time, the quality of the craft on display hasn’t diminished one iota. This is simply one of the peak moments in one of the greatest Captain America runs of all time.