Captain America: Winter Soldier by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, Michael Lark, John Paul Leon and Mike Perkins
A little before The Avengers came out in theaters, I found myself at Oxford Comics in Atlanta. I’d successfully jumped into Journey Into Mystery, thanks to recommendations from the Internet, and was hoping to jump into The Avengers. My source for the Journey Into Mystery had given me the number of a recent certain issue that I could use as an in, but I’d forgotten it. In the corner, I flipped through a few issues, hoping to just chance across it, but didn’t find it. What I did find was a few pages where the Avengers all described Captain America—specifically, some of them had a feeling he was cosmically linked to the American nation-state.
In my limited experience, it seems that the comics version of Captain America bears a much bigger burden of symbolism than his incredibly popular cinematic counterpart. And this makes perfect sense: in the comics, the fictional entity that is Cap literally experienced what is now widely considered to be the story of Steve Rogers. Introduced during World War II to audiences by socking Adolf Hitler on the jaw, Captain America comics enjoyed great success… as long as there were Nazis around. Without Nazis to punch, Captain America’s self-titled series ended in 1954, leaving him dead in the water for almost a decade. But, in 1963, the then-new title The Avengers brought him back when the team discovers that Captain America had been lost in World War II, explaining his absence, and find his frozen body. They revive him and elect him leader in short order.
Obviously, mainstream audiences and cats like me know this story through the films. But those early comics? Are still in continuity—to a degree—which means that the Steve Rogers you find in comic books is bearing the weight of a lot of legacy. We do see this in the films, particularly in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but we focus on Steve Rogers as a person there, mystified and haunted by what Captain America has become. In the comics, the line between man and mask is particularly blurred.
This is important to keep in mind if you, like me, are coming to the comics from the films and especially cherish their nuanced, tragic take on Steve. Ed Brubaker’s The Winter Soldier will be familiar to fans of the latest film, of course, which makes a perfect entryway into the labyrinth that is monthly comics. (My advice: pick a character to follow and dive in.) But there are key differences that make the same story outline read definitely, and I am not merely talking about the fact that the Falcon can still talk to birds. (I don’t know why I thought that had been written out of the comics.)
Namely, the villain is Aleksander Lukin, the protege of a Russian frenemy of Cap’s, and Bucky is young. The former is thematically interesting, because Brubaker sets up a very interesting parallel between Lukin and his second-in-command and Steve and Bucky as Lukin slowly loses his mind to a Cosmic Cube. And the latter sets up a totally different dynamic between Steve and Bucky. The film version of Bucky currently driving us all to tears is, in fact, a mix of two characters. The slightly older friend who stands up for Steve is inspired by Arnie Roth, a childhood friend of Steve’s. (The two reconnected when Arnie needed Steve’s help to rescue his boyfriend.) A younger Bucky, despite his explicit status as the Howling Commando who did the dirty work, puts even more of a burden on Steve, who has to play mentor to a kid and then attempt to reconnect with him.
But contextualization aside, how does the thing read? Setting the art aside—I may have guffawed when I was told that Grim Dad Steve was supposed to be somewhere in his twenties—it reads just as heartbreakingly, if a little more pat. The drawn out tension of the films may be due to some frankly ludicrous contracts (I mean, love a duck, Sebastian Stan is signed up for seven more movies!), but it speaks to the depth of the damage that has been done to the Winter Soldier. I want to see it play out and, perhaps, never be something to fully recover from, although I understand why it’s solved so readily here. There’s plenty to weep about here, including the Winter Soldier going off the grid for two weeks in the seventies to try and figure out who he actually is.
But I lost it when Steve, on his way to confront the Winter Soldier, simply tells himself that “He’s counting you… whether he knows it or not.” I am an ocean of tears, thank you, good night.
This story actually continues in Captain America: Red Menace, but the bulk of the Winter Soldier material is collected here.
Bottom line: Comics Steve is different than movie Steve, obviously, but it’s interesting to see how the differences play out to create a story that’s just as heartbreaking. Fine work.
I rented this book from the public library.