Captain America, Vol 5.: “The Winter Soldier” (Issue 1-14) by Ed Brubaker
There has been a long-standing rule for writers of Captain America: his sidekick Bucky must stay dead because his death is central to understanding the character of Captain America in the present. The basic story is that Captain America takes a teenaged Bucky under his wing in his fight against Nazis in World War II. In an explosion that nearly kills Captain America, Bucky Barnes dies. When Captain America is found years later preserved in the ice and is brought back to life, he is haunted by those he has lost, particularly Bucky.Bringing minor characters back from the dead and killing off major heroes to boost sales only to bring them back from the dead again is very common in comic books. Superman, Batman, and Captain America have all died — some more than once. Fans debate the artistic merit of using such a gimmick, as detractors label it. In fact, of great relevance to today’s review, “The Bucky Clause,” or “Bucky Rule,” says that nobody in comics ever stays dead except Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, Jason Todd, and Bucky Barnes. Recently, Uncle Ben’s grave has been disturbed and Jason’s is now empty. But who would dare bring back Bucky? Almost everyone up to 2004 thought it would be terrible to bring him back. But now readers are divided. In the hands of a writer such as Ed Brubaker, what could seem like the worst gimmick ever feels fresh and not just like a narrative cliché. In Brubaker’s first run on Captain America (2004. Volume 5. Issues 1-14), he brings back to life this long dead sidekick of Captain America: Bucky Barnes.
The importance of Bucky’s death to Cap’s character is one of the reasons why some people dislike Brubaker’s controversial decision to bring him back to life, a daring move for a writer to make within the first year’s run on a title featuring a major character like Captain America. Those of us who like what Brubaker has done are pleased because of the way he has brought him back to life. Instead of taking away the importance of Bucky to Captain America, Brubaker heightens and complicates that relationship by developing the concept of the Winter Soldier.
The backstory Brubaker creates for the Winter Soldier is told in issues 1-14. Brubaker has a wonderful way of giving bits and pieces of these flashbacks here and there, from issue to issue, instead of just dropping the entire backstory into one quick flashback. The story of the Winter Soldier is that Bucky, who was also flash frozen in ice (we are talking about comics remember!), was found and “resurrected by Department X, the Soviet Union’s secret science division and brainwashed to be their perfect cold war assassin — The Winter Soldier!” (as perfectly summarized on the first page of every issue of the current Winter Soldier series by Brubaker). So his story mirrors Cap’s in that it is a dark, reversed image of his previous father-figure: Captain America is brought back to the United States and put back in the public eye to lead the super hero group the Avengers in his bright red, white, and blue uniform, shield aloft, sans gun. The Winter Soldier is his dark doppelgänger: He is revived by the Nazis, he is brainwashed, he works solo, he carries guns, and he stays hidden as a secret spy and assassin working from the shadows.
Brubaker’s work in these fourteen issues is brilliant in that he shows varying reactions to discovering that Bucky Barnes is the Winter Soldier and therefore is responsible for countless assassinations on American soil during the Cold War. He is now discovered working for the evil Red Skull, a longtime enemy of Captain America, and most of Captain America’s associates think this deadly assassin should be taken down and killed, if necessary, as quickly as possible. Captain America, conflicted, makes the difficult choice to take the Winter Soldier alive in an attempt to save Bucky from himself. The subtlety and complexity with which this action-packed story is told make it worth reading.
Still, this basic outline of the story merely scratches the surface of why you should read this book. You’ll like this comic book even if you haven’t ever read a Captain America title or even if you think you wouldn’t be interested. Brubaker is primarily a noir/espionage writer, and he brings that sensibility to the story here. We get spy stories from the present and the past, and the artwork perfectly highlights these shifts not only by using black and white to visually designate past events, but also by featuring different artists in order to create different styles for different time periods.
Who should read this book? Well, if you like Captain America or Ed Brubaker, you’ll love it. But those of you who like war stories will be interested; if you like espionage and intrigue, this is for you as well. You do not need any prior information to read these comics. You can pick them up and get all the information you need as you go along. When I first read them, I knew hardly anything about Captain America, the Avengers, the Marvel Universe, or comics in general, for that matter. These comics were some of the first titles that I read. And I am glad that I did. There’s a reason why, after finishing my first set of nine introductory essays, this column is the first one dedicated solely to the review of a comic book: it was in these issues that I first met the Invaders — Namor, the original Human Torch, and his sidekick, Toro, all of whom worked with Bucky and Cap in World War II. I first met the Red Skull and learned about the cosmic cube. I met Nick fury and learned about SHIELD. I also met two of my favorite female characters in the Marvel Universe: Sharon Carter (Agent 13), who is Cap’s on-and-off again girlfriend, and my favorite spy, the Black Widow.
I could keep writing, particularly because I haven’t said enough about the realistic spare dialogue, one of Brubaker’s great strengths, and the excellent artwork in every panel. It’s an absolutely beautiful work of art, and I’d rather read it again than see any big action superhero movie. But since it has recently been announced that the next Captain America movie will be called the Winter Soldier, perhaps I’ll have the pleasure of enjoying this story both as a comic and on the big screen.
Trade Collections and Purchasing Options: Issues 1-9 and 11-14 have been issued two different times — once as a two-volume edition and once as a single-volume edition, both under the title Captain America: Winter Soldier. Make sure you get the correct information on what you are ordering. Issue 10 is not included in either the double- or single-volume collections because it’s a tie-in to another major Marvel (largely X-Men related) event called House of M. You won’t even notice it’s not there, and it would probably just confuse readers not familiar with (relatively) current Marvel events. You also have the option of purchasing issues 1-9 and 11-14 on Comixology for $2 an issue. Or you can look into a subscription to Marvel Unlimited (Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited or MDCU) for $10 a month or $60 a year. Brubaker’s complete run of Captain America is available on Marvel Unlimited, but Flash Player is required (so you can’t use the IPad). However, it works on the Kindle Fire if you set it for single page, full screen, and 40% zoom.
A Note On My Rating System: Most of the books I review will be in the 4-5 star range because, unlike this site’s aim to be comprehensive in reviewing as many books as possible by as many important fantasy (and many science fiction) writers as possible, I’m reviewing only the best of the best. For example, it’s helpful for you to know what Philip K. Dick’s best and worst novels are and why, but I’ll just skip Brubaker’s weaker comics. What I consider best is based on what I believe a team of artists is attempting to do in a particular comic book. Ed Brubaker’s Captain America, for example, is supposed to be a fast-paced action-packed comic and not a slow-paced, philosophic work like Daytripper. Basically, I’ll try to judge each book on its own merits.