Lockdown has begun here in England, and for those wondering what to do, my suggestion is to read some comics! It’s a rubbish situation, but we might as well make the most of it. And why not start with the sentinel of liberty – Captain America!*
Today’s post will be looking at the Winter Soldier arc. The basis for the movie, and the beginning of the monumental Captain America run of the 2000s. We’ll examine the titular character (but which one..?), the context of the comic, and of course, review it. Read on for more!
Published by: Marvel
Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Steve Epting, Michael Lark, J.P. Leon & Mike Perkins
Collects: Captain America #1-9, 11-14
WHAT’S THE STORY?
Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run is one of those comic book runs that people will always go to first when looking for or talking about Captain America stories. If you check the ‘Captain America’ reading list on Marvel Unlimited, pretty much all of the selections are just stories picked out from this one run.
The book we’re looking at today, Winter Soldier – Ultimate Collection, is an omnibus that features two interconnected stories. The first is Captain America: Out of Time, the start of Brubaker’s run that sets the style and the stakes for what’s coming. The second is Winter Soldier. There is an issue missing where the story tied into the then-ongoing House of M comic, wherein the Scarlet Witch recreates reality after suffering a breakdown, but it’s not relevant to the story being told here, and thus is excluded from this ‘Ultimate Collection’.
Over the years, Brubaker’s run would have many twists and turns. It would tackle many parts of Captain America’s mythos, from war stories, to spy stuff. It would revitalise villains like the Red Skull, Arnim Zola and Crossbones, and feature supporting characters ranging from Nick Fury to Union Jack. Basically, if you wanted to just read one run to ‘get’ Captain America. This would be a solid choice.
After the Winter Soldier arc, Brubaker would go on to deal with the fallout of Civil War and (spoiler – but this was over ten years ago now) Cap’s death. What it means to live in a world without Captain America, and the struggle of someone else taking up the moniker and dealing with the pressure that comes with the shield. Anti-spoiler – we’re not talking about Falcon’s time as Captain America. And, as is the way with comics, he would eventually deal with Cap’s triumphant return.
It’s been a while since I read the whole run, but from memory, Brubaker does start to lose steam after he’s clearly told the stories he wants to tell and then starts spinning his wheels a bit after Marvel changed the majority of their writers round, but kept him where he was.
SO! If you are thinking of making the effort to read this run, I would say read from the start and jump off around where things tie-in to Fear Itself, the Asgard-meets-Nazis invasion of America (it’s weird) when Steve Rogers is forced to reclaim the role of Captain America. It’s a neat enough jumping-off point.
Real Name: James Buchanan Barnes
First Appearance: Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941)
As the United States of America prepared to join the Second World War, thousands of young American men enlisted to do their part for the good of the world. Among them was Steve Rogers, a sickly young man who would become the test subject for ‘Project: Rebirth’, and would subsequently be transformed into the heroic Captain America.
But Rogers would not be alone in his colourful war-based adventures and was soon introduced to ‘Bucky’ Barnes, an orphaned army brat who would be his new partner – a symbol of the American Youth fighting back against the Nazi menace.
Yet, despite Bucky’s jovial appearance, in truth, he was highly trained in stealth, combat and assassination, willing to do the jobs too dirty for the Captain. And so, when he and Rogers were believed killed by an explosion above the English channel, Bucky was found and revived by Russian intelligence, who reprogrammed him to be their prize assassin. Although Bucky eventually escaped their control, the blood on his hands from decades of assassinations cannot be washed away. Now, Bucky Barnes is a ghost, striking from the shadows in the guise his captors gave him – the Winter Soldier.
WHAT’S THE PLOT?
The Red Skull has been assassinated!
As Captain America is called in to investigate the death of his arch-nemesis by S.H.I.E.L.D., he discovers a series of plans already put into play that could shake the world to its core.
Adding to the list of Cap’s problems is the disappearance of the wish-granting ‘Cosmic Cube’ that was in the Skull’s possession, as well as the truth behind the Cold War assassin known as the Winter Soldier.
It’s a series of secrets and lies that will change the way Captain America operates in the 21st century, and alter Steve Rogers’ life forever.
I’ve read a fair amount of the 21st century Captain America runs, and this one is definitely one of the strongest. If not the strongest.
It perfectly blends the modern-day action and espionage storytelling with the harsh realities of the second world war through various flashbacks and side-stories. Rather than playing up the more ridiculous aspects of the war that have come about from the Marvel Universe setting, Ed Brubaker instead reminds you of the horror and the dread and the darkness that would have been prevalent throughout.
Yes, Captain America ran around in a colourful costume with his teenage companion. But in truth, that companion spent a lot of time shooting, stabbing and garroting people when he needed to. There was friction between the soldiers of different countries working together. There was anguish at those lost, and those who had betrayed them. There was a struggle to balance the showmanship of the role of Captain America, and the harsh reality that was the life of a second world war soldier.
It’s all told beautifully, and really makes Captain America come across as more human, and worldly at that. Often, he’ll seem like the perfect man – the action hero with a speech for every occasion. And while that is still true, this comic highlights how much more to him there is underneath all of that. The weariness that comes with being a man out of time, someone who’s had to fight their whole life and lost so many.
This bleeds through into the modern-day stories, where we see, in many ways, the Captain has just traded one war for another. Throwing Captain America back into the world of espionage allows Brubaker to expertly highlight not just Captain America’s strengths, but also his weaknesses. His occasional anger, his disappointment, his anxiety.
In short, Brubaker manages to find that perfect balance between writing Captain America as a symbol and a human being. He’s contradictory, both perfect and imperfect at the same time.
This extends to other characters as well. Each has their own unique voice, and the world they inhabit is clearly informed and well-researched. You buy into the bureaucratic aspects, which even manage to stay captivating due to the thrilling context.
It’s just all-around great writing, which is probably why, like the film of the same name, this was the story that got a lot of fans hooked on Captain America, if they weren’t already.
All of this is complimented perfectly by Steve Epting’s art. His really brings life to the murky world that these stories take place in, with his style working equally well in both the espionage and war sides of the story. Furthermore, he grounds some of the more unrealistic elements, making seemingly outlandish things seem relatable, and not too cartoonish.
The only issues I could hold against this comic are that occasionally, due to time constraints or different story focuses or whathaveyou, occasionally Epting is replaced on the art, and while his replacements are decent enough for those single issues, they don’t seem quite as affecting when surrounded by Epting’s work.
Secondly, a bit of buying advice – don’t just buy the first volume, whether that’s sold as Winter Soldier Vol. 1 or Out of Time, because then you’re just getting half a story. A very good half of a story, but half a story nonetheless. The first volume gets you used to the world so that when the Winter Soldier arc kicks off proper, you’re already fully immersed. Without it though, you’d just be left kind of hanging.
That’s obviously not Brubaker or Epting’s fault though.
All-in-all, I give Captain America: Winter Soldier a…
I’m not really sure why WordPress has started putting white boxes around my thumbs up but I’ll figure it out.
Anyway, thanks for reading! What did you think of Winter Soldier? Let me know your thoughts on both the comic and the movie in the comments below!
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*It’s just occurred to me that I’m releasing this on what is meant to be a very big day for America.
Hopefully, we’ll actually find out who won the election at some point.