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Captain America by Ed Brubaker Omnibus (Review)

There’s a lot of buzz out there suggesting that Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America might be the run on the character, the one for the ages – like Frank Miller’s tenure on Daredevil, for example. I decided that – with the movie coming out next year – it might be worth bringing myself up to speed on the character. While I haven’t finished Brubaker’s run (it’s on-going and I still have to read The Death of Captain America Omnibus), it is a very solid run, packed with great ideas. It’s a clever and well-crafted story that demonstrates that Brubaker has more in him than just gritty pulp like his fantastic runs on Daredevil and Gotham Central. On the other hand, I’m slow to call the run an instant classic – I’d rather finish his run before I make that judgement. Towards the end it feels like Brubaker’s own story has become somewhat derailed by the larger events looming in a shared universe. He’s still an amazing writer and succeeds in keeping the train mostly on the tracks, but one gets the sense that the collection would have been better if he had been granted complete control over it.

"Hey, Cap, what are we staring at?""You'll know it when you see it, Bucky; you'll know it when you see it."

Captain America is a tough hero to write for. As Brubaker himself concedes in the additional material at the end of this massive volume, there has been a recent trend towards ‘softening up’ and over simplifying the hero, turning him into an apple-pie-slice of Americana, who never kills:

… I think saying that a guy who was created as a super soldier to fight in World War II never killed the enemy is weird. “How is this possible? What good is a super soldier who doesn’t kill the enemy?” This was a war. … Then there was story recently where there was a conspiracy that maybe America had put Cap in the ice because he found out we were gonna drop the atom bomb and he was going to stop them. When I read that before my run I said, “Okay, I’m just gonna pretend this story never existed.”

Brubaker undoubtedly has his own conception of the character and doesn’t really care if it differs from what came before – and, in fairness, he’s right to. He clearly has a vision of who this character is and what he represents, and also what he has to be. Ed Brubaker’s Captain America is a soldier, because he has to be. And it feels right. In the opening sequence, he (admittedly indirectly) kills two terrorists and puts another in a coma. They were collateral damage and his decisions saved lives. It’s an honest approach to the character that is grounded in a pragmatic world view where America isn’t just the home of root beer and apple pie.

As the world burns...

The character has a history of being used as a propaganda tool (most notably his origins during the Second World War – he even got to punch Hitler, alluded to here), but Brubaker sees him as an opportunity to explore the American psyche. No, he doesn’t offer anything as hamfisted as Captain America doubting America’s current direction, instead exploring the character himself. The character and his supporting cast become players in a subtle examination of the current political woes facing the superpower.

It’s interesting to read the history of Captain America framed by Brubaker as a metaphor for recent American history – take for example the image of Captain America’s serum (the key to America’s victory in the Second World War) turning slowly to poison in Jack Monroe’s veins, corrupting him during the post-war period and making him “see enemies where none existed” during the era of McCarthy-ism and the witch hunts – an era revisited during the fascinating House of M crossover issue which allows Brubaker to imagine a world where Captain America wasn’t frozen at the end of the second world war.

America, $%#! Yeah!

Brubaker carefully and slowly deconstructs the American version of historical events, itself a distortion of the truth in the same way that Captain America finds his own past and memories being rewritten – for example, Brubaker devotes quite a bit of time to exploring his memories of the Maquis and the French resistance, shredding the popular notion that America singlehanded liberated the country (“… it was their day, not ours,” Rogers acknowledges at one point). Though that particular example may be a subtle shot at the jingoism demonstrated by the Ultimate Captain America in Mark Miller’s work The Ultimates.

Notice, for example, how the black-and-white images of the past – of forgotten heroes frozen in poses of glory or honour – slowly give way to shades of grey and colours as the truth emerges – be it the ‘death’ of Bucky (after several black-and-white flashbacks) or the reality of the uncomfortable liaisons made in time of war (with the Russians and their methods, which – however unpleasant – ‘get results’). To argue that Captain America is a simplistic hero is to argue that the recent history of America is simplistic – at his best Steve Rogers is but a prism through which these notions can be explored. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Brubaker has multiple characters dismiss the term “black and white” as an overly simplistic analysis of any situation.

Terror, cubed?

The collection opens with the ‘death’ of the Red Skull – a fitting bit of symmetry since the collection ends with the death of Steve Rogers. It seems that all the old foes are dying off, and the character finds himself up against a faceless amalgam of corporations and terrorist cells. The world is not as simple as it used to be – the enemies of America can no longer be spotted from afar. They don’t sport a noticeable red skeletal head anymore, instead they could blend in amongst us – among our leaders and those who hold influence.

Brubaker strips away the ideology from Captain America’s foes, one at a time – perhaps reflecting the era in which we live. Of course, there had been attempts to distance the Red Skull for the Nazi philosophy in the past, a concession to how times had changed, but here Brubaker clearly identifies the character as a cynical and jaded villain, using any ideology that may lead him to his ultimate goal – “to wrap his fist around this whole freakin’ world and squeeze it ’til it bleeds”. Even Lukin, with his dreams of a “socialist republic” (as it is dismissively referred to by the Skull), is a man who seems oddly bereft of any sort of underlying political ideology – he uses the infinite power of the Cosmic Cube not to remake Mother Russia, but to enlarge his own company, a very capitalist move.

Captain America gets Carter...

The Red Skull’s only ideology is terror – Brubaker has him deliver news of his resurrection at the end of Twenty-First Century Blitz by a taped video message and his heirs seek to pilot a plane into a skyscraper as a means of destruction, just two ways of underscoring the obvious parallels he is going for. Sure, there hints of murky corporate goings on underpinning Lukin’s financial empire (and his own misdeeds are excused or ignored by the establishment because of his control of oil), but there is no attempt at moral ambiguity here. Even in turbulent times, there is right and there is wrong. Brubaker concedes that there is a whole lot more, but that those two values are constant.

It’s refreshing to read that Brubaker rejected an alternative ending of Civil War where Cap left on a motorbike ‘to find America’ – such a suggestion is indicative of the way that the character can be fundamentally misunderstood, even by those writing him. Thankfully Brubaker realises that Captain America isn’t outdated just because he doesn’t know what myspace is or because he doesn’t care for Paris Hilton – despite his iconic backstory as a man frozen in ice and woken in a different time period, he’s never really a man out of time as somethings don’t grow old, or shouldn’t. The character’s values will never pass their sell-by dates, because they are inherently timeless. The whole point of having the character frozen and thawed out was to indicate that it was America which moved on away from these core values, not that Stever Rogers was left behind like a stick in the mud.

Um... spoiler warning?

Brubaker’s Captain America exists above partisan politics or the reality of government policy – as underscored during the Civil War crossover (“While I love my country, I don’t trust many politicians”) – a smart move which associates the character with the underlying identity of America, rather than with any administration or political perspective (perhaps the creators learnt this lesson from the disastrous period in the mid-fifties – later thankfully retconned – when the character spent his time as the McCarthy-endorsed Commie Smasher).

Still, the character is inherently political – which is why it will be interesting to see the international box office response to the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger movie – and the belief in the underlying principles of the country is a political belief, but Brubaker manages to cleverly disassociate the character from the turmoil which underscored American politics during the last decade, and which could very easily make a mess of the book – turning it into a political diatribe. On the other hand, ignoring the political climate in America would make the book seem irrelevant and would be a waste of the character. Instead Brubaker crafts a nuanced exploration of the American psyche through metaphor and simile.

Is this a "side" kick?

Of course Brubaker populates the books with references to the political schisms which have somewhat undermine American credibility in the world and to the fierce political in-fighting which has occurred (the Skull observes that “it’s almost enough to watch these American idiots battling each other, forgetting who their real enemy is”), but not in a distracting or on-the-nose manner. Particularly noticeable is Brubaker’s reinvention of Bucky, the former sidekick to Steve Rogers. As reimagined by Brubaker, Bucky is American foreign policy, a young boy sold to the public as a free-spirited optimistic and innocent young kid, but forged by necessity into something darker and sharper – a vicious weapon – now distorted by those opposed to America into something grotesque and obscene.

American foreign policy is not always as pretty as the higher powers would have us believe, being a powerful tool sometimes used to cynical ends, but it is prone to find itself distorted and abused by those who seek to damage the United States. Like Bucky himself, it becomes a powerful weapon against the authority which once wielded it, as skewed perceptions of American’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are used to fuel and arm the miltant terrorist organisations, the most powerful tool in their recruitment campaigns.

The run is never over the top...

Of course, the Civil War event intrudes a little bit on what Brubaker is going for here – it appears towards the end of this initial run and draws the attention of the story away from all the character and plot arcs that have been put in place over the previous year – but that’s probably par for the course, as Civil War will hardly be remembered as the most cleverly constructed event. For those unaware, the event was an attempt to add politics to the Marvel Universe by pulling that old ‘superhero registration’ schtick (yes, just like in all those X-Men arcs) and splitting heroes into the camps in favour of sacrificing liberty for security and those championing civil rights – in short, between fascists and good guys.

It’s a blunt analogy which tends to get lost in its own sense of self-importance, crashing the party. In fairness, Brubaker tries to do his best with the story and uses it as an opportunity to explore the psyche and philosophy of Steve Rogers, but it just feels like a waste of several issues. In the interview collected at the back of the volume, Brubaker concedes that he had no control over the arc, and was mostly trying to line up his own story with Civil War, so I can’t help but get the sense that this dance might have been better executed had Brubaker reached his own climax.

Death of the dream?

In fact, Brubaker’s run is pretty much about deconstruction and reconstruction of the American myth – what better way to end than with a shot of Captain America’s dead body? He opens his run with a fleeting reference to Rogers’ desire to join the space program, citing that as the real new frontier with Americans risking their lives for a true greater good.

One of the benefits of collecting the House of M tie-in as the last issue in this volume (even though it was the tenth published) is that we come right back around to that image, with a disenfranchised Captain America leaving Earth to set foot on the moon. Was the space race perhaps the best example of America’s true influence and power? The most benign and certainly the lest harmful? Is it symbollic of the sort of peaceful expansion that has been forsaken for the pursuit of global influence and resources?

And he lived happily ever after?

In fact, the House of M tie-in affords Brubaker the chance to reimagine the history of his character – most notably crafting a world where he was not absent during the McCarthy era and was proud enough to stand for those values at a time when the country needed him. The whole crossover event was based around the premise that each Marvel character was given their heart’s desire – it’s very telling that Steve Rogers’ greatest desire was as much to stand by his country in its time of need as it was to marry his sweetheart or set foot on the moon.

But that’s enough of the politics of the run. Brubaker obviously has a large fondness for the character, and demonstrates an incredible knowledge of his backstory. Part of me wonders would he not have been better served to start from scratch – he was writing a new series, after all – but instead Brubaker takes great pains to emphasise this particular saga as but a single chapter in a long and on-going narrative.

Starry, starry knight... Paint your pallet blue and white...

When he reintroduces key characters – like Cynthia Schmidt, the Red Skull’s daughter – he doesn’t downplay the hokey history of the Marvel Universe and offer a generic introduction, he instead gives us practically a whole issue (Red is the Darkest Colour) which documents the crazy aged/deaged/mindwiped aspect of the character. I’m a first-time reader of the character and largely unfamiliar with the mythos – while I can appreciate the fidelity to the original material, it can’t help but slightly take me out of a story which Brubaker seems to be pitching as 24-in-the-Marvel-Universe.

That’s odd, because the hokier elements of what Brubaker himself is writing – most obviously the dependence on the cosmic cube as a plot point – seem to work a lot better, probably because Brubaker is more comfortable handling his own material. Or maybe it’s because the cosmic cube seems to fit so well with the story that Brubaker is trying to tell: the cube offers its holder the chance to rewrite the world around them – what purer metaphor could there be for power, which in all of its forms is demonstrated by the capacity of an individual to affect or alter the world? The cube is just the concept at its purest. Surely you could make the same observation of America’s – or any other nation’s – foreign policy? The cube is just a stand-in for real power.

The Skull plots his foe's Doom...

In a way, Brubaker seems to be playing up the fantasy of the character – the ridiculousness. This is an interesting move, especially given his typical fondness from ‘grim and gritty’ fare (his Gotham Central was a key influence on The Dark Knight, for example). I know it’s more than just his respect for his predecessors, as he’s willing to play fast and loose with aspects of the character he isn’t too fond of (most obviously his resurrection of Bucky).

Maybe it indicates his flexibility as a writer, or maybe his pure affection for the character and comic. Perhaps it’s an attempt to somewhat lighten up what would otherwise seem a fairly drastic deconstruction of one of the flagship comic book characters. Maybe the flying cars and the giant robots distract a bit from the images of a young Bucky brutally knifing Nazi soldiers. Or maybe it’s all just good fun. In fairness, this is only initially jarring. Once the reader adjusts to the combination of these elements, it works quite well – and maybe this run should be embraced for what it is, a love letter to the character in all his forms.

Not rest for the heroes...

Steve Epting’s artwork is great, very grounded and quite grim and gritty (lots of blacks and darkness), though part of me wonders if Brubaker might have been better paired with a brighter artist to capture the more sensational aspects – there are times when I felt like I was reading Daredevil, but with flying cars and giant robots. That’s a minor complaint, the art is fantastic throughout. The drawings are truly beautiful, particularly the small intimate scenes (though the bigger action scenes aren’t half-bad either). It’s also worth taking a moment to single out the work of Javier Pulido and Marcos Martin on The 65th Anniversary Special, bringing a sort of classical comic book charm to a story featuring the Captain, the Red Skull and a giant killer robot with a brain in a jar. It’s a nice retro-feel which perfectly suits the mood the piece, the only chapter to be mostly set during the Second World War.

So, I’m impressed with the collection. I’m glad I bought it. However, I’m not entirely convinced that it represents a comic book masterpiece. Of course, I think it’s unfair on the collection to judge the entire run (which is still on-going, I might add) mid-story, so maybe I’ll have a different opinion when I re-read the saga after Brubaker has taken his bow. In the meantime, it’s a solid, nostalgic and clever use of an iconic character to tell a good story, with more than a little intelligent subtext going on underneath. I fear that I may provoke a lynching be saying this, but I actually prefer Brubaker’s Daredevil run.

If this is of interest, it might be worth checking out our reviews of the rest of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America Run:

2 Responses

  1. I have gone back and forth with Brubaker’s Captain America. Although I enjoyed Ed’s run up to this point, a lot of the character has been Bucky and not Steve (Steve died in #25). Therefore i think it is difficult to claim this is the best run on the character. Yes, Brubaker did bring CA into the current climate but is that in part because other writers in the past have “dropped the ball”? I enthusiastically enjoyed Mark Waid’s run followed by Dan Jurgens’ run (1998 3rd Series). Ultimately the premier run for me is seeing Steve sling the shield. There was a certain time in the run (identified on some of the reviews within this website) where Bucky Cap’ continuously whined and pined about filling Steve’s shoes. Several pages of several issues were Bucky needing reassurance from every Marvel character. That just isn’t Cap to me. Furthermore, I loved Steve Epting’s art work and loved the art work up to The Man with no Face. But I have to say the recent artwork doesn’t inspire me. Between the always wearing a turtle neck Steve Rogers, to the weird facial art on individuals, the art reminds me a a ’70s Noir flick (read: flat). Not wrong mind you just not my flavor. I do enjoy the espionage influence on the story line but again want to see Rogers going through it. I look forward to Steve reclaiming the title. Although I enjoyed the collection, I am actually trading in my HC from the Brubaker run. I am impatiently waiting the new number 1 (and people give DC a hard time for relaunching) and look forward to Steve Rogers cracking skulls and being what comes naturally…a leader!

    • Each’s own. It’s curious, I only thought that it picked up once we got past #25. But doctor’s differ. I don’t really like Matt Fraction’s run on The Invincible Iron Man. He gets the character, but his plotting is really quite weak, to be frank.

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