Sunday, June 17, 2012

"The Death of Captain America" Omnibus by Ed Brubaker et al

The title of this second collection of Ed Brubaker's already-legendary run writing Captain America is something of a misnomer. Having already killed off Steve Rogers in issue #25, concluding the first omnibus but reprinted in this one for our convenience, Brubaker now sets about addressing the consequences of the death of the Sentinel of Liberty and establishing his replacement. What makes this sequence interesting is that for nearly ten issues we have no Captain America whatsoever. Brubaker instead explores the ramifications of the death of such a figure by diffracting the storyline across Steve's bereaved supporting cast in a series of related plot threads which are weaved together in a way which answers questions as much as it asks them. Sharon Carter, the Falcon and the recently-resurrected Bucky, with the later addition of the Black Widow, all have their roles in pursuing the story beyond the inconveniencing of the series' regular protagonist. The point is that while Steve Rogers is dead Captain America must live on, especially since the nefarious schemes of the diabolical Red Skull are still very much in motion.
Brubaker does a very good job of thoroughly developing this supporting cast into a leading ensemble so that despite the absence of Steve Rogers and indeed any kind of "Captain America" for many issues there's no sense of alienation from the actual substance of the story. Indeed despite the obvious triviality of comic book death and the inevitability of Steve's return it's a refreshingly mature style of storytelling in an inconsistent genre. While the characters are important it prevents the story from being excessively character-focused to the detriment of dramatic integrity. Steve is gone, but the fight must go on, and Brubaker pulls this off with his usual competence. Naturalistic dialogue peppered with useful but not condescending explanations and reminders of certain elements of Cap lore give the story a strong sense of continuity with the ever-ongoing Cap mythos but in a way that is digestible for those unfamiliar with every adventure in Cap's sixty-plus-year history. Some elements, like the reintroduction of William Burnside, aka "the Captain America of the Nineteen-Fifties" are done in a concise yet compelling manner, especially through his interactions with Sharon. Other aspects of the storyline, like Sharon's brainwashing, are less explained than they could be and seem to spring into being without a great deal of explanation beyond some undisclosed talent of Faustus. Sin and Crossbones, with the assistance of a new Serpent Society, continue to be annoying but Brubaker's writing makes these absurdist elements increasingly plausible.
A great deal of this is contributed to by the artwork. Pencils from Steve Epting, Butch Guice and Mike Perkins are all fairly consistent and layer a healthy dose of realism over the whole business which makes any potential silliness fairly easy to swallow. Someone I failed to credit when reviewing the previous Brubaker omnibus is colourist Frank D'Armata, whose colours, occurring in every issue in this collection, tie the entire series together in ways that I hadn't appreciated at first. His soft palette and painterly style are an essential component of the way in which these stories implore our suspension of disbelief. This is what I like about this series, and it's something I think benefits Captain America and Brubaker's style of storytelling in particular but could apply to many comics: a sense of solidity and rationality which makes the stories feel plausible and flow naturally. The writing and artwork are all very proficient individually, but the value of their application in this medium is how they come together to form such a complete whole. My one criticism in this regard in the art department would be Roberto De La Torre's artwork for issue #39: it's a somewhat more exaggerated and certainly more heavily inked issue which feels out of sync with all the other issues around it. It's a more impressionistic style which I feel conflicts somewhat with the tone and aims of the rest of the comic, although given the appearance of crazy Burnside-Cap in this issue maybe that's appropriate. In that regard I might also mention that I'm not sure Burnside's monologue is always written that well; he seems to think in the second person, which I suppose is interesting, but which I feel comes across as too much "tell" and not enough "show", as Burnside seems to be having a rather heavily character-expository discussion with himself for our benefit. It could be subtler.
Bear in mind however that these are minor quibbles. Brubaker's primary achievement in this storyline is the establishment of Bucky as the new Captain America. It would of course be impossible for anyone else to replace Cap and really feel "right" in the role, and Brubaker makes sure that we know it. Despite obvious misgivings, Bucky works as the new Captain America and he is well-established as a fitting bearer of Steve's legacy. Putting a character on a path to redemption is a tried and tested way of making them sympathetic and believable and Bucky's efforts to make up for the deeds of the Winter Soldier by becoming the new Star-Spangled Man provide some healthy if not entirely original character development. Giving Bucky an altered costume and a plainly different attitude and style means that we can read this series as Captain America without having to pretend that Steve is still around , although he of course haunts the storyline immensely. Steve Rogers as Captain America and "Bucky Cap" are two related but different entities, and it works as such. Bringing Bucky back and making him into Captain America also ensures that the sense of continuity is absolute: one of the two members of the original Captain America team is still very much the hero of the book.
Overall I'd recommend this second omnibus as a valuable follow-up to its previous instalment. If you just want lots of sequences of Cap beating guys up (although there is a fair bit of that) you're probably not going to get as much out of this story, especially if you only want Steve, but if you want a mature storyline with a healthy dose of intrigue and a strong cast then it's definitely worth continuing the adventure beyond Steve's apparent demise. If you want to see Tony Stark repeatedly looking like a complete moron this is also worth checking out, coming as it does right after the events of the Civil War crossover. As our eventual protagonist Bucky is likeable and vulnerable in different ways to Steve Rogers and is a worthy bearer of the shield. Brubaker plays to his strengths of fusing superheroic derring-do seamlessly with spy-fiction and political drama and the fulfilment of this with satisfying artwork is an encouraging continuation of a robust series.

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