Written PostRe-reading Captain America: The Winter Soldier — Part II: Twenty-first Century Blitz!

Re-reading Captain America: The Winter Soldier — Part II: Twenty-first Century Blitz!

After enjoying the second Captain America film, The Winter Soldier, I decided to go back and re-read the comic-books that had inspired the film.  Click here for my thoughts on the beginning of writer Ed Brubaker’s long run on Captain America, illustrated so gorgeously by Steve Epting.

Those first fourteen issues represent a brilliant reinvention of the Captain America comic-book series, in which Mr. Brubaker figured out exactly how to tell a classic, potent Captain America story for the modern day.  I think Mr. Brubaker’s characteriziation of Steve Rogers/Captain America is absolutely perfect, giving us a man who is unceasingly heroic and noble but one who still feels the burden of his past and who remains somewhat not-at-home in the modern-day world.  I love how closely Mr. Brubaker tied Cap to S.H.I.E.L.D., giving us a Cap who in many ways was basically the greatest Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who ever was, and allowing Mr. Brubaker to tell super-hero stories that also felt like spy stories, with all the darkness and complexity you’d expect from that type of tale.  (This tone, just as much as the plot of the Winter Soldier resurrection arc, was clearly a huge influence on the second Cap film.)  I love the way Mr. Brubaker structured his stories, often telling parallel tales between the present-day action and Cap & Bucky’s exploits back in WWII.  And, of course, I was impressed by the way Mr. Brubaker pulled off the resurrection of Bucky, the one comic-book character I never ever thought they’d bring back.  What could have been cheesy was instead the basis for a complex, thrilling, years-long story.

All of this would have been moot had Mr. Bubaker not been so capably assisted by his partner Steve Epting, who did the best work of his career as the main illustrator for those first 14 issues.  I truly don’t think super-hero comic-book illustration gets any better than the work that Mr. Epting did in that initial run.  Just gorgeous, staggering work.

I expected this Winter Soldier story to be a fairly contained tale, but after originally reading those first 14 issues, it became clear that although Mr. Brubaker had wrapped up some story-threads, he had a much longer tale in mind.  Those early issues were just the tip of the iceberg of a sprawling epic that Mr. Brubaker had planned.  It’s been huge fun to re-read.  Let’s continue onward, shall we?

Red is the Darkest Color/Collision Course (Captain America #15-17) — Mike Perkins steps in as the artist for these three issues.  Issue #15 doesn’t feature Captain America at all, instead focusing solely on the villain Crossbones and his attempt to deprogram a young woman he knew to be the Red Skull’s daughter, nicknamed Sin.  I don’t know the complicated back-story of these characters and thankfully I don’t need to, as Mr. Brubaker quickly establishes everything we need to know: somehow, this woman has been made to think she’s a normal young American woman, but Crossbones knows the truth, so he abducts and tortures her in an attempt to release the terrifying murder persona hidden within her.  This is a brutal, brutal issue, and one that is very effective at setting up these two side characters as a potent threat for Cap and his allies.  Issue #15 is one of the stand-outs of Mr. Brubaker’s entire run, a very unconventional story for a super-hero comic.

While Crossbones and the newly re-awakened Sin begin a rampage across the country, Cap and Sharon Carter are searching for Bucky, trying to pick up his trail after his memory was returned to him at the end of the previous story.  This two-parter in issue #16-17 is called Collision Course, but it will be a while yet before Cap and his allies will be able to confront and defeat the Red Skull’s minions.  These issues are great on their own, but in terms of the larger story they are more about moving various pieces into place.

Mike Perkins is a great artist and while his art can’t help but pale somewhat next to Steve Epting’s amazing work, he’s a suitable and very capable fill-in artist for these issues.  His style meshes fairly smoothly with that of Mr. Epting, and like Mr. Epting he’s able to capture any of the myriad situations that Mr. Brubaker gives him to draw.  Soon it will become apparent that Mr. Perkins wasn’t just a fill-in artist, but a regular part of the team who would be rotating with Mr. Epting in order for the book to continue to be published on-time.  I’m not sure if the Captain America team were early innovators with this approach or just riding the wave, but about a decade ago when these books were published, this idea of rotating artistic teams on some of the major Marvel and DC books became very popular, a good way to maintain artistic consistency and keep the books coming out on time, while recognizing that few of the top artists seemed able to keep up with a monthly publishing schedule anymore.  (That’s not necessarily a criticism.  As print quality improved, artists were able to do better and better work, with far more detail in every page and every panel than in years past, and this took longer.)

Captain America 65th Anniversary Special — This special issue, illustrated in a pleasingly retro style by Javier Pulido and Marcos Martin, is set in 1944 and helps give context for the scene at the end of Captain America #17 in which we learn that Bucky, after regaining his memory, went in search of a now elderly woman.  Here we see the woman as a young member of the French resistance and how she and Bucky fell in love.  This is a fun stand-alone adventure, in which Cap & Bucky & the Howling Commandos stop the Red Skull and a huge robot.  It’s also a wonderful piece of backstory, giving added resonance to the action of issue #17.  I love this method of story-telling by Mr. Brubaker, giving us the end of the story before we read its beginning.

Twenty-first Century Blitz (Captain America #18-21) — Steve Epting returns for this tale, set in England, of Cap & Sharon Carter team up with Union Jack and Spitfire to try and stop a terrorist assault on London, masterminded by Aleksander Lukin/The Red Skull.

I’m not sure I ever quite loved the idea of the weird mental merging of former adversaries Lukin and the Skull, and even on this re-read it’s not my favorite plot twist in this saga.  I preferred the two villains as separate characters rather than as one bizarre merged character (with the Skull existing inside Lukin’s head, eventually taking him over entirely). But Twenty-first Century Blitz is a great story, thrilling and exciting, with lots of super-hero action and behind-closed-doors spy-intrigue.  This is a prime example of the blending of genres that Mr. Brubaker does so well, and that he so innovatively brought to his run on Captain America.  I love the tone of these stories, and I also love that the villains are really smart, with our heroes several steps behind all the way and scrambling to catch up.  (I always prefer a SMART villain than a dumb bumbling one.  It makes stories far more exciting, whether we’re talking about comic-books or books or TV shows or movies.)  I love how, even though Cap & Bucky are able to defeat all the henchmen by the end of the story, we (and they) realize that, in the end, Lukin got exactly what he wanted.

I love how Mr. Brubaker, in just a few pages, is able to make B-listers Union Jack and Spitfire into wonderfully interesting characters.  Re-reading these issues now makes me wish we’d gotten to see more of them in Mr. Brubaker’s run.  I love the connection to the 1944-set events in the 65th Anniversary Special (with Lukin/Skull activating a robot very similar to the one Cap & Bucky fought back in ’44)

It’s great fun, in issue #20 & 21, to see Cap and Bucky (now the Winter Soldier) reunited and fighting bad-guys together.  I like how Mr. Brubaker is now clearly telling both Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes’ stories, in a parallel manner, in this Captain America book.  Things are really building for Bucky to take center stage a few issues down the road…

C’mon back next week for Part III of my re-read, as I discuss the super-hero Civil War and the Death of Captain America!

The issues discussed in this post are collected in Captain America: Red Menace vol. 1. and vol. 2.