01 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 058 - The Death of Captain America Omnibus

The Death of Captain America Omnibus
Writer - Ed Brubaker
Pencilers - Steve Epting, Butch Guice, Mike Perkins, Luke Ross and Roberto de la Torre
Inkers - Epting, Guice, Perkins, de la Torre, Rick Magyar and Fabio Laguna
Publisher - Marvel Comics. $64.99 USD

A common thread running through much of Ed Brubaker's work is redemption. Those who noticed this from as early as Lowlife and Deadenders up through current series like Criminal may have wondered what he could bring to Captain America. Cap is Marvel's Superman, not in terms of power but in leadership and impeccable moral fiber. Cap has rarely needed to redeem himself for anything, although now and then he takes it upon himself to try to redeem America's values.

Whether consciously or not, Brubaker's first two years on Captain America found him using Cap as the ultimate support system to help other characters redeem themselves. There is no character in the Marvel Universe who has given more idealistic speeches over the years, but Cap's best moments as a character are usually one on one, when he holds out a hand to help someone who's lost their way. This has happened with Hawkeye, Falcon, Nomad, and after an exciting two years of surprises, it happened for his first partner, Bucky. Or, it was starting to happen, and then Cap was shot and killed.

Death is rarely permanent in the world of superhero comics. Indeed, Bucky Barnes was one of the few Marvel Universe characters no one tried to bring back until Brubaker, probably because his death added a gravity to Cap and the otherwise boyishly gregarious exploits of the WWII depicted in Cap's Golden Age adventures. It's not for me to spoil anything that happens after issues #25-42 collected here. Whether Steve Rogers is dead or not is hardly the point, anyway. The stories here are about the redemptions of Bucky Barnes, former mind-controlled Soviet assassin Winter Soldier, and current mind-controlled SHIELD agent Sharon Carter, who killed her lover, Steve Rogers at the prodding of Red Skull and Dr. Faustus.

Reading this in collected form is a treat. After the shock of Cap's shooting, Brubaker doesn't offer any surprises on the level of the return of Bucky or the Red Skull's unusual sharing of his enemy's body, but he keeps a very consistent groove of just enough plot development per chapter, mixed with fairly strong character work. He's working with the inevitable but keeping it interesting. After all, if you're going to bring back Bucky and make him bad, there has to be a chance for him to become good again. As mentioned above, that's what Cap is all about, seeing that spark of goodness in someone and bringing it out again. It's just that this time, Cap's gone, and Bucky has to do it on his own. It's a very clever idea to have Cap have written a letter to Tony Stark to look out for Bucky. It not only shows how much more fatherly and compassionate Steve Rogers is than most superheroes, but it also gives Tony a chance to honor Steve's memory and mend some fences. Redemption all around. It's also pretty believable that the pragmatic, manipulative Stark would convince Bucky to take on the mantle of Captain America as well. As Bucky goes from murderously vengeful to honored, intimidated and eager to impress Cap's former partner The Falcon, it's impossible not to root for the guy. And the retcon of a past, unresolved love affair with the Black Widow is a terrific idea for both characters. Most writers haven't known what to do with her, romantically, aside from having her show up now and then to get her ex Matt Murdock to come out for some fresh air.

Sharon Carter's own redemption arc is a bit more problematic. Her horror at what she's done and her lack of control of her own body and mind are well done, and her comeback moments are fine, too. Why she had to wear the Sterankoesque '60s butt-hugging body suit, I'm not sure, and her brief pregnancy with Steve's baby was maybe a bit too much tragedy piled on top. It's more acceptable for Bucky to define himself by his relationship to Steve, because he was his sidekick and doesn't remember much of his life after that. It's a little different for Sharon, who has had many clearheaded adventures and lived most of her life away from Steve, so it would be nice if Brubaker would delve into her personality and history more rather than just seeing her as Steve's girl and a sleeper agent. That said, Brubaker has done an excellent job of making her, Bucky, Widow and Falcon a tight unit of caring professionals, so the groundwork is laid for many more good stories for them. And for that matter, who doesn't want to see Skull, Sin and Crossbones come back?

So, overall it's quite a successful continuation of an already acclaimed run. Cap's death and Bucky's return are not just gimmicks but the bases for compelling stories with good characterization. Brubaker works in some elements of the current Marvel Universe, namely Stark as SHIELD director and the Superhuman Registration Act, but there are no guest stars or digressions away from the main story. Helping keep the momentum up over the eighteen issues here is once again, Steve Epting, but he's also aided by Perkins, Guice and de la Torre, all of whom keep to the basic template Epting has created. That's pretty tough to do, so some credit has to go to editor Tom Brevoort for picking the right guys with complementary styles. Alex Ross and Epting came up with the final version of the Bucky Cap costume, and aside from a perhaps unnecessary shininess to it, it's mostly successful, the bottom black half symbolizing the darkness Bucky brings to the role while that same darkness highlights the chestplate/shoulders, which, as always, symbolize Captain America's ideals.

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