Ed Brubaker et al, Captain America (Marvel, 2005- ), $2.99, monthly.
By Jared Gardner
I am not old enough to remember the first Captain America. But I am not ashamed to say that I am indeed old enough, if not to remember, at least to coexist along with the second, his rebirth in Marvel Comics from suspended animation in the pages of my beloved Avengers. And I can say with all gravity and seriousness that from the start in those heady mid-1960s days, I never much cared for the man. He was dull, dry, and dour—he felt, even then, as if he did not quite belong in my mighty Marvel bullpen. I dismissed him early in my comics-reading career as a flag-waving bore and was done with it. So, you will be correct in imagining, I was not among those (were there any?) who found themselves agitated about the much ballyhooed Death of Captain America storyline a couple of years ago. It smacked of a weak retread for a new decade of that so-called “death” of D.C.’s version of the humorless comics icon, Superman. We would spin the media up for a few months to question “what does it all mean,” and then slowly start the process of rebirth and healing. But, oh, Ed Brubaker. That alone gave me pause.
It was a long pause. In fact, only this past month did I finally sit down to start reading through the last four years of the book Brubaker has been writing since 2005, helped immeasurably by the beautifully produced Omnibus edition of the first 25 issues of Brubaker’s run on Captain America vol. 5. And I do admit freely in retrospect that I underestimated the series, at least after Captain America finally got himself executed by his brainwashed girlfriend. The series up to that point was fine, but not all that gripping: bogged down and deflected endlessly by various Marvel “events,” especially the Civil War which completely railroaded the energy of Cap’s adventures in his own book in the months leading up to his demise, the whole reads like an intricate conspiracy-laden film noir that continuously loses site of its conspiracies. What exactly is Lukin trying to accomplish by blowing up all those bombs again? Why does Faustus turn on Red Skull? Which of these A.I.M. guys (or their off-shoots) are working for whom? The only truly moving part of the narrative from my vantage point was the recovery of lost Bucky, the Winter Solider as he had been known while under the mind-control of his Soviet handlers, and the forgiveness he is shown despite the many sins his well-trained gun committed.
Which is why I have enjoyed and admired this series so much more since Steve Rogers’ demise. Part of the conceit of Brubaker’s retelling of the Captain America myth in the issues leading up to Cap’s death is that the story we thought we all knew about the duo’s adventures in WWII was darker, necessarily more violent and expedient than we were ever told. And it was young sidekick Bucky, not Cap, who was put in the position of doing that which America’s icon could not be caught doing: assassinations, sneak attacks, a quick shot to the head. After Cap’s assassination it is a shaky and barely redeemed Bucky who must find his way toward picking up the shield and the mask of the man he loved and lost so many decades ago. And his struggle to find his way into that new identity is deliberately and movingly addressed.
And, I’ll admit it: I can’t stop thinking about Agent 13, Sharon Carter—perhaps because she and I both came into this world in a warm spring day in 1966. Like Bucky, she must live with the memory of crimes she committed and yet is not responsible for—in her case, the assassination of the man she loved (or thought she loved—it is never finally clear how much of her newly-rekindled romance for Steve Rogers is due to Faustus’ control and how much is of her own volition). Like Bucky, she must live forever in the shadows, no longer a part of S.H.I.E.L.D. but neither free nor willing to go it alone. I can only hope there is a major role for her in the series going forward.
There has been much speculation as to when Steve Rogers will be reborn. In the world of comics, and especially of Captain America, such speculations are of course not far-fetched: Cap’s arch-nemesis, Red Skull, has been reborn more than he has been killed, and of course Steve Rogers himself is the ur-messiah figure of the Marvel universe, reborn from those Norman Rockwell days of 1945 into the wild and crazy mid-60s, an adventure from which he never finished recovering. Still, I admire the hell out of Brubaker for not rushing into anything here. There is always time for resurrections. Rogers, presumably, isn’t going anywhere. In the meantime, Captain America has never seemed so dark and dangerous. And this one has a well-earned sense of humor. The Captain is dead. Long live the new Captain America.