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The Death of Captain America Omnibus (Review)

I was impressed by the original Captain America by Ed Brubaker Omnibus, but I wasn’t as blown away by his run as almost everyone else seems to have been. A lot of my problems were outside Brubaker’s control – the big Civil War event in the Marvel Universe loomed large over the climax of his run – and, in fairness to him, he worked around it as well as he could have been expected to. His on-going run is continued in a second (albeit smaller) omnibus, succinctly entitled The Death of Captain America Omnibus, which does exactly what it says on the tin, following the events which immediately followed the climax of the last omnibus (even going so far as to reprint the last issue in that volume as the first one in this volume). It’s just over half the size of the early collection – even factoring in the reprint – but I’ll concede that I actually enjoyed it a lot more. Maybe it was the sense that Brubaker was delivering a pay-off to all the threads opened in the first part of his run, or that he was solidly unfettered by editorial mandate this time around, or even that the storyline was considerably more streamlined and focused – no matter what the reason, the vast majority of my (already admittedly small) qualms about the first collection are dealt with here.

That's gonna be a pain to clean...

It’s interesting to see Brubaker deal with the death of Steve Rogers. It bears particular comparison to the other great comic book death of the same time – Grant Morrison’s execution of the Caped Crusader in Batman R.I.P. (yes, I know he actually ‘died’ in Final Crisis). It seems that Brubaker has executed a smoother dance than his counterpart at his ‘distinguished competitor’ – he was able to keep the title character’s death in his own book, for example (even rejecting certain storylines that would undermine the threads in the character’s solo series).

Like Morrison’s rebirth of the Dark Knight in Batman & Robin, Brubaker also has the hero’s estranged sidekick take up the mantle in his mentor’s stead. However, Brubaker is more interested in the character’s psychology than Morrison. Morrison left only the mediocre Battle for the Cowl to offer a glimpse at Dick Grayson’s reasons for assuming the title, picking up his run with Grayson already comfortable in the cape (even flashing forward to it at the end of R.I.P.). In contrast, even though both the audience and Brubaker know that Bucky will assume the title, it takes ten issues for the arrival of a replacement Captain America.

The Buck stops here?

And those ten issues work very well, character-wise. Even in death, Brubaker recognises Steve Rogers as the glue which holds the Marvel Universe together. He shrewdly allows room for his characters to mourn and to grieve, and lets us explore the impact of his death upon his closest friends. I remarked in my review of his earlier run that Brubaker made the most possible out of the Civil War event, and here he plays a key role in the reconstruction – particularly in healing the damaged character of Tony Stark, who became a borderline fascist with hazy motivations at the service of the crossover’s gigantic plot. Like Matt Fraction’s work on The Invincible Iron Man, Brubaker manages to humanise Stark and soften him. It’s an interesting look at what would appear to be the emerging trend in Marvel’s books: after years picking apart and deconstructing superheroes to the point where they aren’t really heroes, it’s time for a reconstruction. Darker and edgier is not necessarily the same as good.

So, rather than taking apart the hero, Brubaker puts him back together, in the form of Bucky. Yes, it’s not necessarily an easy transition (and this is to the credit of both Brubaker as a writer and Epting as an artist that, even in their costumes, Bucky and Rogers are inherently different), but it works. This is very clearly a time for heroes and a time for hope, not a time for depression and moping and self-absorbed whining. Brubaker acknowledges that he is writing fantasy, with a few nods towards the darkness looming in the real world: rising prices on natural resources and the collapse of the mortgage markets, but he uses these as an excuse and a justification for optimism – not a reason to exclude it.

Ooohh... Shiny new Captain America...

The climax of the run takes place in the heat of the Presidential race. A borderline fascist candidate is riding ahead in the polls as the ‘Third Wave’ (any similarities to the term Third Reich are entirely intentional), preaching in a language of rabid nationalism and promising vague hope. It could seem hackneyed, but Brubaker makes it work in a sort of ‘it could happen here’ sort of way (similar to Philip Roth’s It Could Happen Here). It’s easy to be scared and frightened by the big bad world, but there are those who feed on that and who manipulate that fear.

It’s factors like that which justify the need for a Captain America, a larger-than-life hero who will sock fascism right in the jaw if needs be. It’s no coincidence that there are no Obama placards at the debate (instead McCain and Colbert posters dominate) – he is notable by his absence and distanced from this hate- and fear-mongering, as if rising above it (he will go on to become an important figure later in Brubaker’s run).

The arrival of the new Captain America gives the series a well-needed kick in the pants...

America, Brubaker seems to suggest, stands at a crossroads – each represented by one of the two versions of Captain America who claim the title. The former ‘Commie Smasher’, the Captain America of the fifties (the McCarthy Captain America) seems to represent the fear and confusion of modern America. Indeed, one wonders if – instead of communists – he’d soon start seeing terrorists everywhere. He’s strong and aggressive. Truth be told, he’s not entirely sure what he’s doing. Bucky represents the continuing flame of hope – the desire to make the world a better place. Occasionally insecure or misguided, he stands on the cusp of the future.

The 2008 election was a critical one. Things may not have reached rioting in the streets or anarchy in America, but there were certainly clear tensions bubbling beneath the surface (and, to be honest, they still are). Brubaker reflects that in his writing. He continues to develop his exploration of the notion of the privatising of state power in the twenty-first century (here giving us mercenary group Kane-Meyer), a strong thread from his earlier issues. It’s certainly an interesting idea, and one that has been dealt with in many other forms and places, but it demonstrates that Brubaker has a clear understanding of Captain America as an inherently political comic.

Better red than dead?

Steve Epting’s artwork is fantastic. The detail is incredible and the darkness seems to suit the tone of the work. This is an America where Steve Rogers is dead, having bled out on the steps of a courthouse. This is a world where senators conspire against their people and where America stands on the verge of a police state. These are dark times. I was a little uncertain of the murkiness of his work on the earlier volume, with its more pronounced science-fiction and fantasy trappings, but here it works. It really works.

It doesn’t matter that we know that Steve Rogers is coming back (even before he came back, we strongly suspected because… well, it’s comic books), because Brubaker is taking us on a journey. I get the sense that his handling of Rogers himself might not be definitive (though he certainly has a great handle on him), his Bucky will be. This feels like a journey worth taking, a story crafted with great love and affection for the character and the world. Brubaker uses the character and the concept wisely and consistently – it’s a great story, but it’s a great story with smart underpinnings. I am definitely on board for the next edition of Brubaker’s work on the character.

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

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