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
Artists: Steve Epting & Frank D'Armata
James R: Death in comics is a permanent punchline for us fanboys - the very nature of a business where sales always need to be driven up but the status quo needs to be kept means death is never the final chapter, more a temporary condition. When Ed Brubaker killed off Steve Rogers in the middle of his epic run on Captain America, I remember it being less of a shock and more a source of excitement - given how he had utterly rejuvenated the character and the book since taking over stewardship with Steve Epting in *gulp* 2005, it was clear that he had a master plan for the Sentinel of Liberty, and it was great to be along for the ride.
I haven't read this issue since its release in 2007, but after nine years it still packs a punch. What totally surprised me was that the death of Cap is in fact the epilogue to Civil War - I had absolutely forgotten that it was the conflict over the superhero registration act that saw Steve Rogers clasped in irons; my memory was that his arrest was part of the Red Skull (naturally) and Doctor Faustus' insidious plot. As always with Ed Brubaker, he makes writing good comics look easy - the assassination does tie in neatly with the ongoing plot in the title, and Brubaker gives us much more besides. In 32 pages he and Epting cover the build-up to the hit by showing us just who Captain America is, and what he means to those closest to him, before the fantastically claustrophobic and tense assassination outside the courtroom. The plot then shifts to arguably the true protagonist of the Brubaker/Epting run (more on that later), Bucky Barnes, as he attempts to track down the shooter with the help of Sam Wilson. And if all that wasn't enough, there's still time for one final twist, as one of Cap's closest allies is revealed to have had a hand in the dramatic events.
It's clear that Brubaker plays the murder of Captain America perfectly - we're told in the opening pages that "He never stopped fighting for what he believed in... Or what his country could be." After a century which saw four political campaigners for civil reform and justice gunned down (and three in public) it's entirely apposite that Steve Rogers should meet the same fate. There's also a strong emphasis on mind control (which harks back to a conspiracy surrounding RFK's assassin Sirhan Sirhan) and it's interesting that with hindsight, you can see the the influence of conspiracy thrillers such as The Parallax View and Three Days O The Condor. Those films then had a very definite influence on the Russo Brothers and arguably the greatest Marvel movie to date, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Speaking of the Winter Soldier, it's remarkable how quickly Ed Brubaker re-established James Barnes as part of the Marvel Universe. When I got back into comics in the very late '90s, it was often claimed that the three characters for whom 'dead meant dead' were Uncle Ben, Gwen Stacy and Bucky Barnes. When Brubaker and Lark brought him back they did so which such vibrancy that even the most hardened cynics were won over. Looking back now, it's clear that Captain America is only partly a comic about Steve Rogers - it's really an espionage tale, filled with some of the wildest villains from the character's history. It was fairly obvious following the death of Rogers that it would only be a matter of time before Bucky stopped being the Winter Soldier and assumed the mantle of the Sentinel of Liberty. He did so nine issues after this, and it feels like a natural progression. I am a huge fan of 'the protégé assumes the mantle' stories (for example, I loved it when Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder had Dick Grayson as Batman) and I would have been happy had this remained the norm. However, as I said at earlier on, comics demand the status quo be re-established, and it wasn't long before Steve Rogers returned.
This issue definitely felt like a fulcrum point. In an interview with Comics Alliance when he departed the book in 2012, Brubaker noted that he never intended to keep Bucky as Captain America for as long as he did but realised how interesting a post-Steve Rogers world would be to write, and you get a sense of those possibilities emerging in these pages. For me, that's when this run was at it's zenith - I remember being underwhelmed by the Captain America: Rebirth miniseries which brought Rogers back to then land of the living as it felt forced and not at all like the organic, measured storytelling seen here. It's also worth noting how good Steve Epting was (and is!) for every issue he was involved with in this run. Brubaker is lucky to have two excellent regular collaborators in the shape of Epting and Sean Phillips, and in the pages of Captain America Epting brought a very real feel and weight to the characters and situations.
Writing from a 2016 perspective, it's remarkable to see the ongoing success of the Marvel movies and TV series. There are a lot of different reasons for their critical and commercial popularity, but I always think the producers do a fine job of cherry-picking the best plots and arcs from the comics to adapt for the big screen. It's a testament to Brubaker that his fingerprints all over the Captain America movies and the Daredevil TV show. The preamble to issue #25 of Captain America reads "It is a dark time for America's superheroes." That may have been the case, but in echoing Dickens' Tale Of Two Cities, it was also a great time for mainstream comics. Nine years later, Steve Rodgers being gunned down outside the courthouse remains a truly iconic moment from a truly iconic run.