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Cold War Kids Are Hard to Kill, a Sonnet

Splash Art: a detail from the cover to Suicide Squad #20. Interior Art: from Winter Soldier #15 and Suicide Squad #20.

While the Cold War might be over, for the creative teams behind Winter Soldier and Suicide Squad, the Cold War itself becomes a powerful metaphor.

Octave: Winter Is No Time for Childhood

It's maybe during the bar fight or maybe just after (Wallace Stevens might wonder on whether this is the power of inflections, or of innuendo) that I'm carried off to a different place. This isn't the usual self-loathing that I've come to love about Winter Soldier. It's issue #15 and writer Jason Latour has big shoes to fill, having stepped into writing duties on Winter Soldier, having taken over from Ed Brubaker. But right now, my eye is on artist Nic Klein. It's his work that transports me.

Brubaker is an honest legend in Captain America mythography. More or less a decade back, he rebooted the flagging icon. His take on the character was simple: ground the stories in the espionage thriller genre, provide a post-Cold War context for the more recognizable characters (supporting cast like Nick Fury, as well villains like the Red Skull), and tell the story of man who the past refuses to let go of. And along the way, the zany scifi of '60s Cap stories, the body-swapping threats posed by Baron von Evil for example (there was no Baron von Evil), became more sensible, more realistic.

Also along the way, Brubaker managed to resurrect Bucky, Cap's old kid sidekick. Not just any Bucky, mind (and there have been a few), but the original WWII-era Bucky, James Buchanan Barnes. But how could an ordinary American kid not injected with the super-soldier serum have lived as long as he had and barely aged? The story goes something like this. During the last days of the War, Cap and Bucky ran a secret mission that ended with Bucky getting handcuffed to a rocket already in flight. The rocket detonated over the Atlantic and everyone believed Bucky to have died. But Bucky simply lost his arm and was picked up by an ultra-secret Russian sub. He was then conducted to Russia, where, disoriented, he became a prime candidate for brainwashing. From then it was only a matter of time before he became the dreaded Winter Soldier, red right hand of Soviet assassins. Between missions he was kept in suspended animation, artificially prolonging his life.

Brubaker picks up writing duties on Winter Soldier even after leaving Captain America and Secret Avengers. The coda issue to 2011's Fear Itself, 7.1: Captain America reads as a prologue to Winter Soldier, but more so, reads like a throwing down of the gauntlet. James Buchanan Barnes had believed to have been killed during the events of Fear Itself. But this turns out not to be the case at all. Anonymously under the Brooklyn Bridge, in the presence of only Cap himself, spymaster Nick Fury and James' paramour Natasha Romanova, the Black Widow, he speaks of confronting the unguided weapons that only he can confront, human fallout from the Cold War.

This what Bucky was always about ever since he'd been resurrected in the Modern Era -- guilt, self-recrimination, a Cold Warrior out of time, desperately racing to ensure that players on the geopolitical stage don't backslide into the period of history he dreads the most. Writer Jason Latour does a superb job in keeping Bucky in his jaded optimism, but it's artist Nic Klein who adds something profound--a visual link to an entirely different genre.

Call them alt-comics or autobiographical or what you will, but there are comics that have absolutely nothing to do with superheroes or heroes and villains of any kind. Comics like Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library or Adrian Tomine's Summer Blonde or Daniel Clowes' Ghost World, comics that focus on the inherent strangeness of being human at the edge of history.

This genre of comics borrows from the raw power of the Underground Comix of the '60s/'70s, from the work of R. Crumb and Kim Deutsch. The artwork is garish, outlandish, earnest, openly cartoonish, summoning up the Vaudeville that comics once summoned up in the popular imagination. The themes are often psychosexual, speaking to the maligned nerd-culture which comics had become heir to -- those crazy kids that no one talks to who spend too much time smoking in their parents' basements. Alt comics drew on the power for social commentary inherent in the Undergrounds. Like the Undergrounds, they used raw, rabid, immediate art styles to illustrate that situations and their themes.

Nic Klein openly, unabashedly embraces these values in his work on Winter Soldier. And with that, opens the door to a radically different kind of reading of the Bucky Barnes character. This is the rise of the personal. A story that is as much about Bucky's blasted social life as it is about the self-recrimination at having been a Soviet assassin. And as much about the broken concept of society that prevents him from asserting goodness and normalcy as a kind of life pattern. With Nic Klein's clear, cartoonish artwork, it seems it's only a matter of degree between a broken down Cold Warrior, and a girl who, as in Clowes' Ghost World can only escape the deadendedness of her hometown by donning a latex fetish mask and driving around in a hearse.

First Tercet: Dead Will Rest, but not the Wicked

By the time of "In Control/Out of Control", the two-parter that introduces Barbara Gordon (erstwhile Batgirl, currently the information-broker Oracle) to the Suicide Squad, coauthors John Ostrander and Kim Yale had tempered their storytelling mode to a fine art. They'd begun nearly some 50 issues back (53 issues if you include the Deadshot limited series and the Suicide Squad Annual). And they'd embraced an older style of storytelling -- a heavy reliance on exposition to drive narrative and character evolution. And of course this seems at first like something deeply counterintuitive. Why load up on words? Surely the art of comics lies in its sequential images? (It doesn't of course, Will Eisner was wrong or quite possibly lied to us. The art of comics lies in forcing you to accept that one sequence, image or text, it doesn't matter, is incomplete and consequentially lies in forcing you into another sequence, text or image. Which is itself incomplete and forces you back into the former sequence).

But what Ostrander and Yale's creative choice turns out to be, is masterful. The real drama of the Cold War stories lies in prepping the mission. In knowing what can be known ahead of time, and what can't. And how the known quantities morph once the mission is active. This grand drama of the unknowable versus the unknown becomes a metaphor in Ostrander and Yale's hands. What if this condition of weighing the knowable against the unknown can become a way of navigating human relationships? Maybe it would look a lot like thinking in words, in overcoding the comics page with text to the point where reading the image sequence becomes a kind of liberation, a pure joy. But equally, where the joy of reading the image sequence is a cruel and savage one, because the images themselves don't naturally lead one to the next.

Volta: "We Left in Plastic, as Numbered Corpses…"

What incoming regular writer Ales Kot's Suicide Squad achieves, even as early as just the opening act, "Discipline & Punish", is a profound internalization of the condition alluded to by both Klein's visualization of Winter Soldier and Ostrander and Yale's exposition-driven, 80's-era Suicide Squad. Like the eponymous book by poststructuralist thinker Michel Foucault, Kot's "Discipline & Punish" conspires around the panopticon--a 19th century model for the prison in which surveillance is both perpetual and unknowable. Foucault used the panopticon as a metaphor for how historical forces have allowed the machineries of societal control to become internalized within citizens, even as the methods of punishment have become less barbaric.

Kot's first chapter of "Discipline and Punish" takes us on a tour of the Squad, allowing each member an introduction. But like Poe's "the Pit and the Pendulum," we gleefully share the perspective not so much of the victim, but of the viewer who is also the torturer. Amanda Waller, director of the Squad, proceeds to "discipline" each Squad member by confronting them with the core fears.

It's a throwaway line from an unseen "specialist" Waller's brought in (we discover their identity by the end of the book) that ties the Squad in with the broader issues confronted by Klein's use of "alt comics"-style artwork, and the exposition-heavy storytelling mode of the times past Squad. "Graves, right, the writer turned supervillain, like Hunter S. Thompson," the Specialist says.

At the same time that the Undergrounds launched their social commentary, Tom Wolfe noted a remarkable shift in American literature -- that in the hands of writers like Michael Herr and Hunter S. Thompson, fiction was being rejuvenated by writing modes borrowed from journalism. It was Hunter S. Thompson who, in inventing the "Gonzo" style of journalism, would go on to advocate for the surrealistic extrapolation of character flaws to be the basis of observational journalism. His books Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 stand as a testament to the power of this radical vision.

That Kot is able to draw these disparate strands together into a coherent whole stands as a feat of near-impossible genius. Whatever the idea of the Suicide Squad will become in the months that come, Kot's creative vision will no doubt ensure that it is as savage as it is honest. And that it wrestles with the meaning of social production of the self in a time when , despite social media, human relations already seem blasted.

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