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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06 December 2009

Daily Breakdowns 045 - Incognito

Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips
Published by Marvel Comics. $18.99 USD

With Incognito, Brubaker and Phillips attempt to put a spin on their classic deep cover superhero/villain epic, Sleeper. Instead of a basically good guy finding his morality eroded by undercover work with supervillains, we have a supervillain forced to turn on his boss and put into witness protection, a target for the bad guys if they ever discover he's still alive. To keep him under the radar, Zack Overkill has to take powers-canceling drugs that make him just like any other shlub. Brubaker emphasizes this by making Zack a mailroom guy in a corporate office, a low level peon until he just can't take it anymore. It's not so much that this is a specific riff on Sleeper; it's actually similar to most of Brubaker's work as far as having the lead character be a guy who (like Holden Carver or Tracy Lawless) just likes to turn his brain off and make a big fucking mistake, often followed by another, and another.

In those scenes of Zack among the normals, it's most similar to Mark Millar's/J.G. Jones' Wanted in how the reader identifies with the character's life of joyless drudgery and wants him to have the opportunity we don't have, to break out of it and bust things up. It is pretty fun when Zack gets to do this.

Unlike Sleeper, Brubaker doesn't try as hard to give nuance to the villains. The leader, Black Death, is pure evil, and the eternally youthful Ava Destruction is a total psychopath. Even the characters on the "good" side, like Zoe Zeppelin, are manipulative and pretty flat. As the names suggest, Brubaker is working with a broader, more pulp-influenced style here on the edges, although again the main character is written in standard Brubaker style, with lots of terse but self-examining inner monologue.

There's a good deal of copy in the collected edition that tries to tie the story to the pulp traditions of Doc Savage and others, but those elements aren't much more than window-dressing in the execution. That is, some of the peripheral character names and back stories are fun and all, but while I'm not complaining, there is not much in the way of growth or stretching for Brubaker here. Nor is there for Phillips, though it's appealing to see him draw more outlandish characters and his painted covers are excellent. Oddly, I was a little disappointed that nothing in the story itself gave me the same feeling the cover of the collected edition did, which has a very American Psycho feel. Whoever that guy is on the cover probably has a good story to tell. I liked the story here fine, though, and there are some fine scenes as Zack deals with the humans and post-humans in his life, and how he handles the revelations of his past. If they do more, I'm in, but as Brubaker has set a high standard with past Phillips collaborations, I'm hoping he digs just a little deeper next time.

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