It’s the kind of action I was expecting from Secret Avengers but that book seemed too laced with compromise at some level. I’d never mentioned it earlier, some things you just don’t speak about publicly. But there was a tinge of disappointment reading Ed Brubaker’s Secret Avengers. I’d begun reading the book for Moon Knight, to fill the gap after Gregg Hurwitz’s magnificent Vengeance of the Moon Knight. That book had itself been just a touchstone, for “everything we once were, and may yet again be”, as Dumas put it. Not of course, ourselves, but for everything comics once was. Vengeance of the Moon Knight was a high concept book, like the kind the 90s seemed to have completely decimated. Here was Moon Knight, a superhero who relished in killing, who may or may not be under the influence of an extra-dimensional, godlike entity. And this book was about his revenge. And his revenge was? Not killing. The Moon Knight’s revenge was messianism. That book’s concept was nearly as flawless as Rand Ravich’s Life from a few years ago, the drama about a cop seeking revenge against the system for his imprisonment.
I’d begun reading Secret Avengers for Moon Knight, because Vengeance of the Moon Knight was shutting down. But most of all, most of all, I’d begun reading Secret Avengers for Ed Brubaker. Brubaker’s Daredevil was superb, it was Carlos Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” in a world that was only just coming to terms with the Monkees. And Brubaker’s Captain America was even better. But in its own way, Captain America was laced with its own kind of compromise. The story of the Winter Soldier, of Bucky who’d been mind-wiped and turned into a Soviet-operated assassin, writhed beneath the surface of Captain America. It was the story of dark things done in the dead of winter, the story of compromises, of ideals getting bloodied, and walking back from that long cold dark we’ve had to make of our lives. But Cap really isn’t the right vehicle for that kind of story. No matter how dark things get, America is a cathedral to things much larger than ourselves. Cap’s not DC’s magnificent Unknown Soldier, nor should he be. But the Winter Soldier could be.
And that was the compromise. Even when Bucky himself took the mantle of Captain America. Even then, it wouldn’t be enough. But very nearly, we very nearly got to see that kind of story in the number issues following on from the final chapter of the Death of Captain America trilogy. It was in Man Without a Face that Bucky’s struggle against the monster-roaming-the-countryside-of-his-past intersected with Cap’s own unresolved things from just after the war. But that didn’t last too long. There were big things to knock down, the “Dark Reign” had to be ended, heroes had to re-assume their rightful places.
That’s where Secret Avengers came in. Right at that moment when the proper order to things was being reasserted in the Marvel Universe (Earth-616), and seemingly in our own world too. When the strange, petty, inhuman, vicious began finding its way back into the position of villain, of outsider. It’s that evil in human form that begins to haunt the landscape once more, that now needs to be put to rest. And that’s what a Secret Avengers is for. It’s for the things the Avengers themselves cannot do. It’s counter-insurgency on domestic soil, where the insurgents are bankers and lawyers and realtors who use the civilian infrastructure for the unthinkable. But again, how do you write a book like this during Marvel’s newly-minted “Heroic Age”?
The 300-pound gorilla in the room, the one I had always been too polite to mention, was exactly this. When will we see the really dirty work play out? When will the Winter Soldier be the Winter Soldier again, when will those unresolved, lurking threat be once more pulled into play again?
It’s there in the coda of Fear Itself #7.1: Captain America. It’s Bucky under a bridge, leaving New York. Natasha Romanova, the Black Widow in attendant, as too the ultimate spy Nick Fury. But who can say, the scene is much, much too dark and the characters themselves are hidden from mind’s eye. “So then…”, Bucky intones, and we already know we’re at the start of something. It’s that chopper ridden out this midnight, and it’s the knowing that the only way you’ll get where you’re going is down another long, dark of fighting monsters from a perennially unresolved past. “So then… There are things from the Winter Soldier days that I’m just remembering. Weapons left in the field… dangers I can still prevent. I think maybe that’s the path… a way to the redemption I’ve been looking for”.
When issue two opens, there’s a sense of finality, a sense of the interminable at least brought to bear. Finally, we can read the story of the Winter Soldier, away from the overarching company-wide mechanics of megaevents like Civil War or Secret Invasion or Dark Reign. Finally there’s a space and a pace to tell that story about doing the work that needs to be done, about ending the lurking threat of these monsters from the past.
Winter Soldier is a beautiful book, but not beautiful in a savage way, in the way that Shakespearean love sonnets are both savage and beautiful. There’s a gentility to Winter Soldier, something of Victor Hugo, of struggling not to reclaim, but to dissuade against our past that would undo us, claim us as its own. Artist Butch Guice’s thematic layouts help tremendously with making vivid this fine, ethical line. The moral difference between defending, and securing. The art is as much streetmap and schematic and blueprint and data-mined infomatic as it is traditional panels of characters posing while exchanging dialogue.
And by the time the second issue opens, there really is a 300-pound gorilla. This one has been cybernetically enhanced, and weaponized to the hilt. Bucky and Natasha must escape it before tracking down the remaining frozen agents from the Red Room experiments.
Much has been written about the games of attention and perception played around the famous gorilla experiment. And Brubaker makes elegant use of gorilla as a metaphor for exactly that. A subtle reminder that this is all about how you look at things, that even if the obvious is foregrounded, you might not notice it. And yet, there’s a deeper sense in which that gorilla is a metaphor. Not as a cipher for the unnoticed obvious, but as a the extreme danger that lies in weaponizing the past.
It’s not our past of course, but the great apes do recall our evolutionary past. And in all soberness, Brubaker bedecks this great ape with weapons made for humans to war against each other. The image is a seductive one. It’s all about unchecked manipulation, a war without borders that extends to all parts of the ecosystem, let alone all parts of the world.
This is the real threat that the Winter Soldier must contend with–the idea that we can weaponize the past, that we can make it unsafe for ourselves. The idea that there are people who will readily do this. And in this, finally, we can see the Promethean flash in Brubaker.
The “dirty work” that Brubaker presents us with, is not the dirty work envisioned by Tom Clancy and writers of his generation. This isn’t sanctioned military incursions on foreign soil where the President is shielded with plausible deniability. This isn’t predawn raids into some third-world somewhere. The dirty work is the underside of rapid progress of technology, its the putting down of the things that hold us back. In Brubaker’s hands, Bucky enters into the greats of literary characterization. Because he is wholly without the capacity to imagine the redemption he so ardently seeks. What would it look like? What would it look like if Bucky finally learns to let go of the past and learns to love again? But for Bucky there is only the precious now, threatened to be engulfed by a past that has long ago outlived its usefulness, a past that now threatens what tomorrows might come. This is A Touch of Evil, not The Dirty Dozen.