Tuesday, March 18, 2014

I’ve Got the Runs: Ed Brubaker’s Captain America

Ed Brubaker’s Captain America, 2005-2013 (Vol. 5 1-50, Reborn miniseries, renumbered 600-624, Vol. 6 1-19, Winter Soldier 1-14, assorted one-shots, minis)

The latest Captain America movie, in theaters April 4, exists for two reasons: One, because the first movie and subsequent Avengers movie made boatloads of money. Two: Ed Brubaker.

Brubaker spent nearly a decade swimming in the deepest ends of the Captain America mythos. And he started by taking The One Thing That Was Never Supposed to Happen and executing it in a way that was fanboy-complaint-proof. Wait, who am I kidding?

Bru did his homework on Cap, mining decades of Simon, Lee/Kirby, Steranko, Stern/Byrne, Mark Waid and more to craft a dark, cool spy thriller starring colorful, easily-written-off-as-uncool characters such as the guy who talks to birds, the guy whose face appears in the abdomens of robots and the French guy who fights with his feet, wears lots of purple and has a pointy mustache. Brubaker doesn't hide from the ridiculous parts of Cap's past. Instead, he welcomes them, gives them a warm blanket and a bowl of hot soup and says "Come on in here, fella, let's see what we can do to get you on your feet."

It should be noted that Brubaker had great help in these endeavors from artists like Steve Epting, Bryan Hitch and Butch Guice, whose shadow-heavy lines helped strike the perfect high-espionage, low-cheese tone for the book.

"It's no secret that Cap, as a character, has had some great runs, but in between them he has also had some seriously not-so-great runs,” Bru writes in the forward to the first of three hardcover omnibi encapsulating his run. “What I cared about (was) the characters."

And somehow Brubaker manages to cram them all in: the Red Skull, Bucky, Sharon Carter, Nick Fury, Nomad, Falcon, Arnim Zola, Batroc the Leaper, Namor, the original Human Torch, Union Jack, Crossbones, Sin, Baron Blood, Dr. Faustus, Mother Night, Spitfire, AIM, Baron Zemo. Each with their own role to play in the magical history tour.

The run starts with Rogers at a low point, not long after the "Diassembled" storyline and the deaths of several Avengers (don’t worry, most of them got better, except for this guy). It’s the perfect time for the Red Skull to launch a multi-city terror plan involving a branch of AIM, his old henchman Crossbones and a cracked Cosmic Cube. Except he’s assassinated at the end of the first issue by the Winter Soldier, a “Cold War myth” revived by Aleksander Lukin, a Russian energy tycoon and former military.

In creating the Winter Soldier, Brubaker pulls a long-con retcon, rewriting Cap’s history all the way back to the Golden Age, but at no point did I roll my eyes like I did, say, when I found out Hal Jordan went crazy because he was possessed by a fear monster, or Xorn was real despite being made up or (insert your least-favorite retcon here).

Cap goes missing for entire issues, giving his supporting cast a chance to tell their (sometimes convoluted) stories. We see how Jack Monroe, the ’50s Bucky who spent the ’90s looking like Lorenzo Lamas in Renegade, lives his last months, and an entire issue is dedicated to Crossbones torturing Sin, the Red Skull's daughter, until she remembers who she is. PS: Crossbones and Sin come off like the Bane/Harley team-up the Batman writers never thought of.

Every few issues, though, all the puzzle pieces are put on the board at once, and you get to see Cap and Sharon, WS, Skull/Lukin and Sin/Crossbones all get in the way of each other, such as in issue 21.

The bulk of the run is collected in three hardcover omnibi. The first covers issues 1-25 and introduces the Winter Soldier and begins his redemption arc. The second covers issues 25-42 and starts with the death of Captain America and ends with WS assuming Cap's identity. The third covers issues 43-50, 600-601 (there was a renumbering), and the Reborn mini, and tells the stories of the new Cap leading up to the return of Steve Rogers and defeat of the Red Skull. Following those omnibi is the so-called "Heroic Age," the period during which original-recipe Cap served as "Commander Rogers," head of SHIELD, while WS continued in the stars and stripes. Not long into that period, new Cap's identity is outed, and WS is called to account for his Cold War crimes by both the U.S. and the former USSR.

One thing you have to wonder as you read on is whether the world will ever tire of these two men from the past – Cap and the Red Skull – imposing their World War II beef on the present, forcing Invaders team-ups, creating new Master Men, digging up old Doom Bots, forcing the past to repeat itself because it's the only world they understand. You can definitely see why, when Rick Remender took over the book, he decided to start with a story that involves almost no actual knowledge of Cap continuity outside of Cap good guy, Zola bad guy.

There is some repetition, which probably can’t be helped over eight years. There are at least two stories about small Midwest towns that are fronts for the science-terror cell AIM, one as Brubaker just begins tracing the Winter Soldier’s redemption arc, another in a backup strip not long before Fear Itself.

Brubaker’s run made such an impact that, not two years after his creation, the Winter Soldier appeared as a miniboss in the first Marvel: Ultimate Alliance video game. The soldier also appeared in a few episodes of Disney XD’s Avengers: Earth Mightiest Heroes cartoon, and Lukin’s Kronas Corp. building is part of the New York skyline in the Lego Super Heroes: Marvel Universe video game.

Final thought: The identity of the Winter Soldier was revealed fairly early in Brubaker’s run. Theoretically, his identity has been known to the public for nine years now. However, I took an informal, wholly unscientific Facebook poll, and there are still plenty of non-comics readers who don’t know, but who saw the first Cap movie, liked it, and plan on seeing the sequel. And while some of them have had the secret ruined for them by nerdy friends and spouses or by press for the movie, I prithee, let them be surprised. I mean, I thought it was obvious from the commercials that WS is the ski patrol guy from Hot Tub Time Machine, but I still wouldn’t mind seeing the movie with someone who, when they see the big reveal, drops their jaw in shock. I say let them have that moment.

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