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Captain America #8-9, 11-14: The Winter Soldier

Andrew Welsh

The stigma around the character of Captain America is that of a sort of dopey Boy Scout who is doggedly loyal to country and flag.

Captain America #8-9, 11-14

Publisher: Marvel Comics
Subtitle: The Winter Soldier
Contributors: Steve Epting (Artist)
Price: $2.99
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Item Type: Comic
Length: 32
End Date: 2006-02
Start Date: 2005-07

As comic book readers everywhere know, comic book action and danger is at best equivalent to laser tag. What I mean by this is that you really have to suspend your disbelief to experience any true sense of peril. In laser tag you can get shot a thousand times, but in ten or fifteen seconds you're right back in the game. In comics, if the hero is wounded or even killed, the conscientious reader doesn't get terribly upset because he or she knows that death in comics is about as permanent as the little scorpion tattoo that your nine-year old cousin bought at the store and now proudly flaunts, with sleeve rolled up and meager bicep flexed, on his delightfully defiant shoulder.

Until rather recently it has been conventional wisdom that nobody in comics stays dead except Bucky (Captain America's WWII sidekick), Jason Todd (the second Robin), and Spider-Man's Uncle Ben. The year 2005 left Uncle Ben the sole inhabitant of the land of the permanently dead while both Bucky and Jason Todd have frolicked back into vivacity. Having said that, it is interesting to draw some parallels between the renowned DC and Marvel sidekicks. Both were recruited to fight as teenage sidekicks, both donned the seemingly futile raccoon style masks, neither had any real super powers apart from amplified combat expertise, both died and left significant psychological scars on their respective cohorts (which would consequently have great effect upon both the Marvel and DC heroes' philosophies concerning sidekicks), and both have now been resurrected as antihero/villain characters.

All this is simply to say that no matter who you are, what powers you have, or which side of the comic book publisher divide you reside on, death has no real hold on any comic book character (which is somewhat disheartening since even being voted into an early grave did not keep Jason Todd from returning to life). While this does somewhat cheapen the reader's experience, it essentially ensures that neither Marvel nor DC will ever lose any valued readers as a result of a hero's inability to triumph over the latest super villain. While many are likely of the opinion that bringing Bucky Barnes back from the grave was rather tactless even for Marvel, I think it works. I like that the enthusiastically patriotic sidekick has been reformed effectively as a new character, one that is a lot darker and in many ways more multifaceted than the Bucky of old.

The Winter Soldier story arc is Bucky's return to notoriety, no longer a cheeky little fascist fighter but a hardened relic of the Soviet cold war. Unlike Captain America, whose revival was significantly displaced in time from his supposed death, James Barnes was rescued from the icy ocean waters by a Russian submarine fairly promptly after the explosion that was thought to have ended his life. The magic of the Atlantic worked just as well in preserving Bucky as it would for Cap years later, and before long the Soviet scientists had a one-armed amnesiac fighting machine on their hands. Being sneaky and underhanded, as enemies of America nearly always are, Bucky's rescuers quickly reprogrammed the confused American hero into an elite Soviet agent and assassin who would go on to wreak political havoc throughout the world, being put into stasis between missions to prevent aging and possible memory recovery.

The details of Bucky's resurrection are revealed to readers and to Steve Rogers via a nicely organized file full of scientists' notes, journals, and photos. For Rogers there is no longer any doubt about the Winter Soldier's true identity and the bloodshed for which he is responsible. This sets Captain America up for some major conflict and arduous decisions. He is pressured from all sides to do the unthinkable and kill his sidekick and best friend. As is his trademark attitude, however, Captain America feels that there has to be another way; a way in which nobody has to die.

The stigma around the character of Captain America is that of a sort of dopey Boy Scout who is doggedly loyal to country and flag. The guy does, after all, basically wear an American Flag as a costume. What I think is the really wonderful thing about these new Captain America books by Ed Brubaker is that they very much take Steve Rogers away from that image. He hasn't really played the grossly cheesy patriot part for some time now, but Brubaker really gives Captain America a distinct humanness and makes him an identifiable character. He has problems, he gets mad, he makes mistakes, and he even exercises! Unlike many other Marvel characters, Captain America is basically just a normal guy who happened to get some super soldier serum that gave him the equivalent of permanent steroids. Most other super humans have this and then some, but what really makes Captain America the icon that he is is his staunch integrity and unyielding compassion. What better way to illustrate this than for his weapon to be a shield, which isn't conventionally a weapon at all but the epitome of defense and protection.

In a time when unquestioning loyalty to government isn't quite the virtue that it once was, it is interesting to see Captain America being concerned much more with ideals than the actual upholding of the American administration. He is primarily a defender of life and liberty rather than of the White House, and I think this is really a reflection on American culture today. Just about anybody will support "American ideals" like freedom and justice, but the actual American administration is a lot less popular than they would enjoy.

The Winter Soldier story has a relatively real and down to earth feel to it that is refreshing. I say relatively because one can only get so "real" with super soldiers and cosmic cubes. This arc is driven largely by character interaction, though there are several first-rate action scenes with good 'ole Cap doing his mid-air splits while simultaneously kicking two guys in the face and bouncing his shield off of seven different surfaces (or heads) before it returns directly to his hands. Brubaker does a great job of writing dialogue that flows and generally feels authentic. Steve Epting's art compliments the writing and character's emotion well, making The Winter Soldier a sound story and an especially worthwhile read for seasoned Captain America fans and newcomers alike.

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