Thursday, January 1, 2015

Waiting for the Trade - Captain America

Happy new year all

Waiting for the Trade

By Bill Miller

Captain America: Winter Soldier ultimate collection
By Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting.
Collects Captain America #1-9 and 11-14
 

Why I Bought This: I mentioned this before but I actually avoided this book for a long time. I don’t think I picked it up until 2012 or so. Because let’s be honest, the idea of Bucky comes back from the dead as a cyborg assassin screams comic cliché/fan fiction—on top of which I never particularly gave a crap about Bucky to begin with. Chances are if you’ve read one flashback Cap and Bucky in WW2 story, you’ve read them all; most of them involve old scientists in castles behind enemy lines (according to Marvel, WWII was fought with more castles than the middle ages). The net result is Bucky has always been just a plot point in Steve’s backstory rather than an actual character so I’ve never particularly cared when other writers would dig up his corpse for some flashback story or heretofore unknown threat from the past emerging. Of course every review written gushed over Brubaker’s run in general and this arc in particular. Being the Cap fan I am I finally caved and bought this.


The Plot – Captain America’s world moves more fully into espionage and terrorism when a mysterious assassin known as Winter Soldier kills the Red Skull under orders from Russian general Alexander Lukin in a bid to claim the power of the Cosmic Cube forcing Cap and SHIELD to investigate.

(spoilers below)

 
Chapter 1 – Years ago the Red Skull met Russian general Alexander Lukin for the first  time as Lukin sold him weapons following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lukin also has a frozen cyborg in his possession that intrigues the Skull, but Lukin says he will only trade it for the Cosmic Cube. Skull notes he too is looking for the Cube and if he got it he certainly wouldn’t trade it. Cut to the present where the Skull has recovered an imperfect Cosmic Cube. He intends to jump start its power by burning several cities to the ground. Steve meanwhile is depressed about the death of Hawkeye and disbanding of the Avengers in “Avengers Disassembled” so Sharon Carter checks in on him. She also notes his tactics have been more extreme of late as he recently thwarted a hijacking of a train and in the process hospitalized and killed the perps. Steve goes home and we see the Skull has someone tailing him. Skull’s plotting is interrupted by a phone call from Lukin who offers to buy the Cube from him. Skull turns him down and is promptly assassinated by our mystery cyborg.

Chapter 2 – Crossbones is waiting on Red Skull to call. Cap is having nightmares about Bucky dying in battle in WWII. Fury calls Cap to the Hellicarrier where SHIELD has recovered Skull’s body. Their spy tech confirms this is really Skull but Cap has his doubts. Cap flashes back to how he was created to battle the Skull. Cap and Sharon find some leads at the Skull’s house that lead them into the sewers where they find Crossbones and some henchmen recruited from AIM however because of the darkness of the tunnel the heroes never see Crossbones. After the heroes win Crossbones overhears them talking about the Skull’s death. Fury’s forensic team learns Skull had a Cosmic Cube and now it’s missing. Crossbones vows to burn down several cities in memory of the Skull.

Chapter 3 – SHIELD is following more leads, while Cap keeps having World War II flashbacks that end differently than they historically played out. Union Jack reports Skull’s agents in London were murdered and the firebomb stolen. Cap and Sharon track down and beat up the responsible AIM agents, who stole the bomb because Skull’s henchmen within AIM stole it from them first. Cap and Sharon spend some downtime in Paris. Meanwhile in Pittsburg Cap’s former partner Nomad is murdered outside of a bar.

Chapter 4 –Lukin’s Cube has very little power but it has enough to help him in a corporate takeover meeting with Roxxon Oil. Cap receives a call from Fury that upsets him and he departs immediately. Fury then meets with Sharon to reveal the assassin may be Nomad as his prints were found on the rifle used to kill Skull though both feel that is awfully convenient. Cap is at Arlington Cemetery where the gravestones of two former replacement Caps have been destroyed. Cap is attacked by Crossbones while simultaneously having more weird flashbacks Crossbones beats Cap down but denies destroying the graveyard, saying he got a call from a Russian telling him where to find Cap. Bones realizes he has been setup as well and leaves. Sharon’s search for Nomad has her find the unknown cyborg, who drops her with one punch.

Chapter 5 – Fury tells Cap the most likely Russian suspect (based on Crssobones comments last chapter) is Lukin, who we are told heads the international Kronas Corporation. Cap then tells a story of a WWII mission in Russia under a Colonel Karpov whom Cap immediately dislikes because he tortures prisoners. This is also the beginning of the Bucky was an assassin during the war retcon. Anyway the mission goes south, Cap calls in the Invaders, and ultimately the Red Skull is found in the village of Kronas using a heat-beam laser. The village burns to the ground and the weapon is destroyed but the Skull escapes. After Cap left Karpov found the village’s soul survivor: a boy named Alex Lukin whom he would raise and train. Of course Cap doesn’t know that last part while Fury’s intel puts Karpov as 20 years dead. Cap heads off to deal with his escalating weird memory problems while Fury has a classified dossier that may “destroy Cap’s world.”

Chapter 6 – The mystery cyborg is in Philly setting a bomb and leaving Nomad’s body behind as a scapegoat. He also had Sharon tied up in his trunk. We meet some SHIELD agent whose been dating Sharon and is worried she hasn’t checked in for 24 hours. Cap goes to Castle Zemo and begins to remember being tortured with Bucky. His reverie is interrupted by some Nazis who disappear as suddenly as they appeared. Cap begins to suspect the Cosmic Cube is being used against him. He flashes back to Bucky’s death on the plane with new details. He gets ready to fly home and is hit with a mental image of Sharon tied up. Cap arrives in Philly and easily rescues her. When he unties her she tells him she’s seen Bucky (aka our mystery cyborg). Bucky could take a shot on Steve but Lukin order him not to. Instead Bucky detonates the bomb just as Sharon’s new boyfriend was attempting to deactivate it. The deaths caused by the explosion power up Lukin’s Cube.

Chapter 7 – We see what Nomad was up to before he was murdered. One year ago the super soldier serum in his blood began disintegrating. As a result his powers, immune system and sanity will all fade until he dies. He refuses to go to Cap and the Avengers for help. He eventually tracks down Bucky v4.0 (a baby he used to dress like the original Bucky and wear on a backpack while he fought crime in his 90s solo series) who is now in first grade. He learns there are drug dealers operating near her school and vows to take them down. For the most part he does pretty well except for when he has blackouts and loses weeks and months at a time. And then one night is waiting in a bar to meet with a source and Winter Soldier finds him and kills him.

Chapter 8 – In 1945 a Russian submarine hears the Germans broadcasting that they killed Cap and feel they are close enough to check it out. In the present Fury presents Cap with photos of Bucky alive today as an assassin and tells Cap that Bucky is the prime suspect in the firebombing of Philly. Cut back to Philly the night before and Cap evacuates some survivors and fights some AIM agents with their MODOC hive mind soldiers. In the present Fury unveils the entire origin of Winter Soldier as a mythical KGB assassin that is kept in suspended animation and only unfrozen for high profile missions. Cut back to Philly where Cap saw a glimpse of Bucky at the end of his fight though Winter Soldier did not recognize him and then disappeared. Back in the present Steve flips out and breaks stuff as he accepts the truth, then agrees to go on a SHIELD mission to capture Lukin—who they now fear has a functional Cosmic Cube. Fury also tells Sharon her boyfriend died in Philly. Flashback to 1945 where the Russians retrieve a one-armed unconscious Bucky from the English Channel.

Chapter 9 – Crossbones breaks into a military base and kidnaps a young girl. Cap and Sharon have tension over the mission because she wants justice for her dead boyfriend while Cap wants to save Bucky. Also this mission is off-book because Fury has no evidence against Lukin--indeed all the evidence points to Nomad. They assault the Kronas building on some private island off the coast of China. When the heroes make it to the boardroom Cap loses his temper attacking Kronas and screaming at him to tell him where Bucky is. Unfortunately the U.S. Vice President’s Chief of Staff and the Assistant to the Secretary General of the UN were both in a meeting with Kronas when this went down. They pull rank on Cap and Fury who are escorted from the building. Meanwhile Crossbones reveals he has freed the Red Skull’s daughter Sin.

Chapter 10 – Lukin is getting irritable and absent minded and worries the cause is contact with the Cosmic Cube. At his home Cap receives a top secret file on how Bucky was turned into Winter Soldier.

Chapter 11 – Lukin assembles a bunch of corporate heads to auction of the Cube to, but it turns out to be a ruse and he uses the Cube to brainwash them into signing over their companies to him. Later the Cube causes him to have an episode and when his assistant tries to help him pick up the Cube, Lukin goes all Gollum and murders him for touching the precious. Meanwhile Cap, Sharon & Fury discuss the file, with Sharon still believing Bucky should be killed. Steve leaves and recalls a mission with Bucky where they had to fight zombie soldiers and how horrified Bucky was that American soldiers were used by Nazis and forced to betray their ideals in life making Steve wonder if Bucky would want to be killed after what’s been done to him. Steve’s reverie is interrupted by the Falcon.

Chapter 12 – Steve talks over his troubles with Sam and the two also note the Cosmic Cube never seems to grant wishes they way various villains like the Skull expect, foremost among these examples being how the Cube ended up making Cap and Falcon partners. Lukin meanwhile tasks Winter Soldier with hiding the Cube. When Bucky leaves we see Lukin is hearing voices who disagree with him. Cap, Falcon and Iron Man raid an AIM warehouse. They capture a scientist and question him on how to track the Cosmic Cube. This leads them to another Kronas facility, though for corporate reasons Tony Stark can’t be part of an assault on Kronas. Cap radios where he is going to Sharon after he has already left so the politicians can’t stop him this time. As Cap and Falcon approach Winter Soldier gets a bead on them and despite a momentary hesitation Bucky pulls the trigger.

Chapter 13 – Winter Soldier misses the mark when Redwing warns the heroes to get out of the way. Cap’s shield then drives Bucky into retreat. Sam takes on the generic thugs giving Cap a clear path to the long awaited one-on-one showdown with Bucky. As they fight Cap tries to get Bucky to remember. When that fails he drops his defenses to allow Bucky to pull the trigger. Even that doesn’t work as Bucky shoots but Cap casually dodges and then uses his Shield to take Bucky down and retrieve the Cube all in one throw. Cap then uses the Cosmic Cube to restore Bucky’s memories. Sharon still wants justice for her friend but Cap convinces her to drop it. Bucky tells Cap he’d have been better off dead and in a fit off rage he grabs the Cube with his cyborg hand and crushes it. This causes cosmic energy to pour out that seemingly disintegrates him. Cap refuses to believe it, and indeed in the epilogue we see Bucky teleported himself back to Camp Lehigh. In the finale we see Lukin talking to the voices in his head and when he looks in a mirror the reflection that stares back is the Red Skull as their minds now share Lukin’s body.


Critical Thoughts: If you haven’t read it, believe the hype for this is indeed as good as everyone says it is. A good barometer is to watch the movie that bears its name. If you liked the film then you will like this book. Best of all there are plenty of similarities in tone but differences in details that you can watch the film and still thoroughly enjoy this as its own experience.

The plotting is really good. One thing Brubaker does very well is pace his reveals as he adds new intrigues or introduces additional players so that this builds and reads far better than most comic book stories. He is aided by Epting’s excellent cinematic art. All of the espionage elements are plotted quite well, but it is the Bucky reveal done in stages that really is superb. At the same time we got to see Cap’s reaction to it, so that the second act with Steve over the edge and furious at Lukin is really good. Best of all it feels in-character despite being new territory for Steve, which is the best kind of character-based story-telling.

I supposed one could criticize this story by saying ‘well it’s easy to build tension when you kill off longtime characters like Red Skull and Nomad in the first three chapters’, but as with any story it’s the execution that counts and in this case the way the murders unfold and reveal themselves show much more narrative skill than simple shock value. Nomad is a character that had not been relevant in a decade or two; and sure he is just killed in the cliffhanger of chapter three at first, but then Bru goes back in chapter seven and gives us a beautifully written standalone chapter on what the last few months of Nomad’s life were like. As for killing the Skull, of course it is a shock value up the stakes moment, but it also serves to deepen the mystery since otherwise he’d be the de facto prime suspect in any plot with this much scope and personal history for the protagonist.

I like the way Cap is written has having a network of resources. Cap is often written as the most respected hero in the Marvel Universe and an experienced soldier. So it makes sense that he would call upon Union Jack or Iron Man or Falcon if they could be of help to him in a mission. I think Cap’s often cooperative yet tense relationship with SHIELD is also portrayed very consistently with established history in this volume. Certainly the increased SHIELD presence fits into the espionage milieu Brubaker wants to project.

One thing I don’t like is the Bucky was an assassin in World War II retcon. It’s not so bad here, but future writers have portrayed Bucky as borderline psychotic in newer flashback tales. I have two problems with it. One, It undermines Cap’s character: as either he is a moron who doesn’t know what his kid sidekick is up to, or he is complicit in letting a minor carry out murders just so his own image isn’t tarnished—neither to me are acceptable for Steve. Second, it undermines the impact of this story that Brubaker is telling. If Bucky was always a psychotic killer then who cares if the Russians hypnotize him and turn him into an assassin? Conversely, if Bucky was a superhero in the past and now he’s been turned into a murder against his will that’s a lot more powerful dramatically and tragic for his character.

Grade: A+.

 

 

4 comments:

  1. I just recently read this story after watching the movie and this book lived up to the hype. As someone who isn't aware of much of Cap's mythology it was intriguing and I loved the Winter Soldier introduction. Brubaker's run was great overall but these first 13 or so issues are definitely the high point.

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  2. Whether or not one cares about Bucky before reading this is rendered moot by Brubaker MAKING you care about Bucky through the story itself.

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  3. It did sound silly when I first heard about it but damn Brubaker made it work. Loved the storyline. I first read Brubaker from his Daredevil run and it was good but his Cap stuff was excellent.

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  4. What, no love for Michael Lark? Though Epting did most of the heavy lifting, Lark's work in the flashbacks fit seamlessly into the narrative.

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