Friday, August 12, 2011

"Captain America Omnibus" by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting et al

I feel a little weird doing another Captain America-related review right after the film review but I was a little lost for other content upon which I could meaningfully comment. What's more, I've never reviewed a comic. I've done TV, film, video game and even a novel now but the comic medium has so far escaped my scrutiny.
As I mentioned in my last review, I have an inconsistent relationship with comics: on one hand I find them engaging and compelling as a unique storytelling medium and on the other I lament their tendency towards trashiness and pulp. I've been a reader of DC comics for a while now and it's easy to see the disparity when from one moment to another you can have Batman solving hardboiled detective cases in a seamy criminal underworld rife with interesting psychology and social critique and then he's teleporting up to the Justice League space station to hang out with various aliens, robots and wizards from beyond the plausibility event horizon. I'm not saying the speculative elements are inherently lowbrow, just that you can see the world of comics has a somewhat fragmented narrative perspective which can easily become silly and meaningless.
However before I picked up the herein reviewed Captain America Omnibus I had never read a Marvel comic apart from a few unappealing scraps from Free Comic Book Day 2010 featuring Iron Man and Thor flying to the moon and smashing up some lunar holiday resort apparently just to be dicks or something. The Captain America Omnibus, however, had received a lot of good press, and intrigued by its appealingly large size and colourful cover I grabbed it and read it over a couple of days.
I've got to say I'm fairly impressed. The Omnibus contains the first 25 issues of Ed Brubaker's run as writer, the fifth volume, and while it's by no means some kind of masterpiece it constitutes a solid, thoroughly entertaining and intriguing piece of work. The characterisation is good, the plot is cleverly interwoven without becoming too lost in continuity, and it's all brought to life by Steve Epting's artwork, which has a robust and distinct quality which makes every page very enjoyable to view. It really just feels like a well-rounded package. Of course here in Australia it's a little on the expensive side, coming in at eighty-five dollars, and that may seem like a bit much to some people. I'm inclined to agree but at the same time I don't begrudge it the expense because it's so weighty and solid and the quality of the comics is such that it feels valuable and worthwhile. I'm trying to be positive here without using too many superlatives because that's the kind of work the Captain America Omnibus is: a really well-put-together comic and a good read.
It makes some nice statements about the problems of letting private corporations wield too much influence over the government and it has an interesting argument to make about the viability and meaning of heroism in our modern world of implication, liability, blame-shifting and media scandal. One unfortunate aspect is that the storyline, while relatively self-contained, is at the end fairly interrupted by the Marvel "Civil War" and, to a lesser extent, "House of M" crossover events so you feel like Cap's adventures are mostly happening in another story and he's only occasionally reappearing in his own stuff. It makes the end where he is apparently killed feel a bit fragmented and like the really important plot which is meant to make these later events really meaningful happened elsewhere. This is a similar problem in earlier chapters where Nick Fury's gone AWOL in another comic line and now he's a hologram and stuff and because none of it is explained in the Captain America storyline it can seem jarring and a little like we've missed part of the action, especially considering how important Fury is as a character earlier on. At least, however, they provide a quick synopsis before the chapter when any major plot developments have taken place for Cap in other publications and I think Brubaker does his best keeping it together in what must be one of the more frustrating elements of the corporate nature of the medium where your character sometimes may have to been commandeered by another writer for a different story. Nonetheless I almost feel like "Civil War" should have been included if it wasn't for the fact that it was by a different author and apparently was kind of crap.
Besides the Death of Steve Rogers, which is more the focus of the next omnibus, this storyline is also famous for resurrecting the original Bucky Barnes, Cap's wartime sidekick whose death had been a long-standing untouchable scenario in a comic book environment where usually death is more just like being asleep for a long time and woken up in a contrived manner. Bucky's return as the mysterious "Winter Soldier" is done pretty well, and along with the other spy thriller type narratives present in the omnibus it's a compelling tale of Soviet intrigue and mental conditioning. Brubaker does a good job of forming unsettling parallels between Bucky's role in the Second World War as a saboteur and bloody-handed assassin against the Nazis and his use by the Soviets in the Cold War against their old allies. It gives us a nice sense of ambiguity. Cap's anxiety over dealing with this reborn Bucky encapsulates the notion of how things have changed since the apparently black-and-white days, in the moral as well as filmic sense of the Second World War, and also how they may have stayed the same.
It's also good to see the excessively villainous Red Skull, about whom I complained at length in my last review, get shot and killed early on even if it's possibly just all apart of some dastardly plan to avoid being implicated. That being said, the moments I probably enjoyed the least were the ones featuring Red Skull's two cronies: his daughter Sin and Crossbones. While Crossbones was quite good earlier in the piece once he teams up with the deconditioned Sin and goes on a rampage he loses some of his interest value. Sin is a dull cackling sadist much like Red Skull and the earlier teases of ambiguity from Crossbones unfortunately become much harder to sympathise with later on. That's why the ex-Soviet corporate villain Lukin functions well as the antagonist because he's not of the same breed of unambiguous monster as Red Skull and his henchmen, and his consternation surrounding the use of the Cosmic Cube is actually played for sympathy and the fact that he tries to rid himself of the cube is a nice aversion of the typical 'bad guy controlled by their McGuffin' scenario. The fact that he becomes somehow 'possessed' by Red Skull though suggests that maybe Power does always corrupt. It is, again, somewhat ambiguous. Where do we draw the line between the meaning and the narrative? Can we distinguish between Lukin's actions and Red Skull's? I guess the point is the answers aren't always clear, especially with the twist towards the end where a brainwashed Sharon Carter is the one to pull the trigger on Steve.
It's also worth mentioning the added material apart from the main Brubaker storyline. There's the 65th Anniversary special, which does tie into the plot and is a nice rendering of a 40s style strip with simplistic retro artwork while maintaing a mature manner. The Winter Soldier special isn't bad either, with a nice spotlight on Bucky, but it's perhaps hampered a little by the silly New Avengers or whoever they are who fight with him. This is similar to incidents with Cap in other chapters where Falcon, who flies and talks to birds, or Spitfire who has flight and super-speed, invade the otherwise relatively sane and plausible world of S.H.I.E.L.D. operations. I know flying aircraft carriers and hovercars aren't super-realistic but they fit with the spy-fi feel while the incursion of some of the weirder Marvel heroes and mutants seems a bit off. The team up with Iron Man, alternately, seems reasonable. I guess that's just a consequence of a shared universe. The "House of M" special, included for completeness, is a good little one-shot too and its inclusion is doubly effective in how well it contrasts with the main storyline. Returning to the weirdness, we also have bits where the Doctors Doom, Faustus and Armin Zola turn up which can also seem a bit silly. Overall though they mostly just grant the impression of a wider world and broader palette of characters.
Anyway to avoid waffling further I'd say that the Captain America Omnibus deserves a reputation for quality. I'm not saying it's flawless or a work of artistic genius, but it's well-told, pleasingly visualised and compelling to read. It maintains a good balance between action and ideas and it has a strong and consistent storyline. I found it to be a very effective entry point into the world of Marvel comics and worthy piece of evidence that the medium does have the potential for satisfaction.

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