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Captain America Lives! Omnibus (Review)

In celebration of the 4th of July and the release of Captain America: The First Avenger this month, we’re jumping into Marvel’s comic book alternate history and taking a look at the star-spangled avenger every Wednesday this month.

I have to say, I am genuinely quite pleased with how they’ve been chunking up Ed Brubaker’s well-loved run on Captain America for these oversized omnibus editions. Each of the three omnibus editions – Captain America, The Death of Captain America and, now, Captain America Lives! – represent an act in his over-arching story, with the status quo continually changing and shifting. The first set of issues closed with the assassination of Steve Rogers, while the second set saw Bucky Barnes assuming the mantle in Steve’s absence and defeating the Red Skull. So the third collection returns Steve Rogers to the Marvel Universe. Does it make me a bad person if I kinda don’t want the original character back so soon?

Stars and stripes...

From the outset, it’s clear that Bucky’s identity crisis is (mostly) resolved. While he’ll never be entirely comfortable in the role of Captain America, has accepted the title and started doing all sorts of super-hero activity. Indeed, the collection opens with two stories, Time’s Arrow and Old Friends and Enemies, which aren’t connected in any major way to the assassination of Steve Rogers, the plotting of the Red Skull or any of those big plots. Instead, these six issues (which form one larger arc rather than two smaller ones), give us an indication of what Ed Brubaker writing Bucky Barnes as Captain America might be like.

And they are good. They are very good. I would go so far as to suggest that they are the best issues of the entire omnibus, as they give Brubaker more of a chance to take Bucky a little further outside his mentor’s shadow. I really wish that there were more issues like this in this collection to be frank, as they feature exceptional characterisation and a fun international espionage feel, with China replacing Nazi Germany and Communist Russia as a viable source of potential foes for Captain America. There’s a nice pulpy conspiracy vibe going on as well (“So what doesn’t the UN want Captain America to know about?”), which plays to Brubaker’s strengths as a writer.

Ice to meet you...

However, things get a little overwhelmed once the story transitions out of this story and into setting things up for Steve Rogers’ return. It obviously seems longer when these stories are published month-on-month, but it seems like Steve was barely gone. We had one very large storyline which took up the entire previous omnibus about how difficult it would be to replace Steve, then one story in the present status quo, and then Steve is back to life again. It just seems like the potential was somewhat wasted. I do like that Brubaker is constantly setting up a new status quo (after all, Stan Lee once observed that comics work on “the illusion of change”, and that’s definitely what’s going on here), but it just feels like we barely have a chance to fully absorb everything that has happened before we’re asked to move on.

It doesn’t help that Captain America: Reborn has its fair share of problems. Is it just me, or did Bryan Hitch’s work look infinitely better (and clearer) in The Ultimates? When I heard he was working on this, I was excited, but his work here doesn’t meet those expectations. However, the artwork represents the least of the problems with Brubaker’s resurrection of Marvel’s icon star-spangled superhero. Quite simply, it doesn’t feel grand enough to serve as the climax of what has been a solidly entertaining run.

Rogers, that...

Part of the problem is the same one that Brubaker faced in writing the assassination of Steve Rogers. His saga is tied far too closely to the on-going storylines set in the Marvel Universe. I know I’ve talked about this (at length) before, but there’s really nothing more depressing than seeing a great writer’s work being undermined by editorial-mandated changes in areas that shouldn’t impact them. Brubaker’s superb momentum on the title was earlier derailed when Steve’s involvement in Civil War effectively made him a guest star in his own book as the plot built towards his eventual death. Here, the impact is more subtle, but no less disorienting.

It boils down to the involvement of Norman Osborn in Brubaker’s Captain America: Reborn. From the start, this story has been about the Red Skull and Captain America, with a small supporting role reserved for Victor Von Doom (if only because Brubaker clearly enjoys writing him). So it makes sense that the climax of the story, the return of Steve to the present, would be some sort of game of wits (and strength) involving the Skull and Captain America’s allies. However, Norman Osborn somehow gets dragged into the event, and ends up playing the role of the big baddie for the first half of the miniseries.

Capping off an interesting chapter in the heros life...

Osborn is only present because of the on-going Marvel crossover Dark Reign. I genuinely don’t have a problem with a branding like Dark Reign (aside from the really stupid premise), but it seems that Osborn is only really involved in this storyline because he was pushed to the forefront of Marvel’s publishing line by editorial mandate. For those unfamiliar with Dark Reign, the basic premise is that (after a few big mistakes by Tony Stark) Norman Osborn is made “top cop” of the Marvel Universe. Yes, this is the guy who was the Green Goblin, has a long criminal record and is pretty much psychotic. As a result of that particular storyline, which ran through a lot of Marvel’s publishing line, Osborn is the most powerful man in the United States. Unfortunately, that means he gets drawn into a lot of places where he doesn’t belong.

Don’t get me wrong, I had no problem with his appearances in The Invincible Iron Man (although I was unhappy with how the series handled such a fundamental shift in the status quo), but he just doesn’t feel like he belongs in this story. In fairness, Brubaker gives the character a good motivation for getting involved (“a reborn Captain America under my control, leading my Avengers… that would be a tremendous asset”), but it’s something more fundamental than that. This was the Red Skull’s big ultimate plan to defeat his arch-nemesis, so it feels wrong for Osborn to blow in at the last minute and turn the supervillain into his lackey. It just doesn’t feel like an organic conclusion to this story.

Out of the shadows...

Another problem with Reborn is that we’ve seen a lot of this before. A hero becomes unstuck in time, forced to live through various horrible experiences? When they reach the present, they find out that it’s a trap that will be used to destroy their allies? Sounds a lot like The Return of Bruce Wayne, doesn’t it? I know the two stories were conceived and published at the same time, so I wouldn’t dare imply that one is more original than the other, just that Grant Morrison is a better fit for this material.

Brubaker’s stories typically work better when they are relatively grounded (as much as superhero stories with giant killer robots can be, I suppose). Reborn sees Captain America going through its most overtly superhero phase as the character relives past events and the climax of the story features a whole army of MODOK drones with a giant Red Skull in the middle of Washington. These sorts of things don’t sit comfortably with the majority of Brubaker’s writing, to be honest.

Setting Reich what once went wrong?

However, it’s something more than that. In The Return of Bruce Wayne, Morrison gave his protagonist something to do. We were given a variety of stories in different settings which saw our hero gather the necessary clues to get home and save the planet. Here, on the other hand, as Steve relives the worst days of his life, he seems like nothing more than a passenger. “God,” Steve moans, “this is torture…” I don’t doubt that it is, but Steve just endures it. Over the course of the miniseries, Steve is entirely passive, counting on the heroes and the villains of the story to bring him home. There are literally two exceptions, involving a cliché message to his future self and the final issue, where he has to fight the Skull. For the bulk of the miniseries, he’s an incredibly passive protagonist.

That said, there are some nice touches. I like the way that Ed Brubaker tries to rebrand various events in Steve Rogers’ life in order to make them fit better with his conception of the character. Flashing back to The Kree-Skrull War, perhaps one of the more super-hero-y events of his career, Brubaker tries to pitch the conflict as just “another war in foreign territory”, bringing it more into line with Brubaker’s conception of Rogers as the ultimate and eternal soldier, as compared to any other superhero. While Thor and Iron Man might have looked at the skirmish differently, with their roots in mythology and pulp sci-fi respectively, Steve will always look on his life as a soldier serving his country. It’s a nice touch, and one which illustrates just how much Brubaker understands the character.

Cap Masters his foe...

There are a lot of similar touches scattered throughout the omnibus. I especially like the way that Brubaker demonstrates that there are somethings that Bucky will and will not do while inside the uniform – as well as the idea that the character’s past as the Winter Soldier is not as easily forgotten as it might seem. When Bucky finds out that the UN is hiding information from him, he muses, “So is that it? Do you think they know who I really am? Or what I used to be? Has that leaked out?” It’s a valid fear for the man attempting to make his mentor proud, and one which will come into play later in Brubaker’s run.

Those stories, Time’s Arrow and Old Friends and Enemies also allow Brubaker to write some of those iconic World War II characters that he is so fond of. He stages a rather wonderful reunion of the forties superhero team, “the Invaders” (or at least those members who are still alive). This sort of nostalgia is charming, feels fun and doesn’t intrude on the story. Regardless of whether you know much about that chapter of the hero’s past, you can still follow what’s going on, and it’s all explained.

Carrying the torch...

In fact, I love the way the collection opens with an extensive origin of Captain America illustrated by Marcos Martin. It tells you everything that you need to know about the character in order to read the collection, and perhaps gave me a bit of hope that Marvel was looking to make these stories somewhat accessible to readers. An illustrated introductory note at the start of an omnibus seems like a good idea (indeed, it was done before for Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men – but not as well as it is done here), especially as these hardcover editions are the perfect books to sell to those who saw and enjoyed the film. I was also quite impressed at how accessible Captain America #600 was, and I actually hoped I might be able to recommend this omnibus as something for somebody unfamiliar with the character’s seventy-odd year history.

However, Captain America: Reborn descends into continuity for the sake of continuity, as Steve is forced to re-live all these huge moments from his past, with little context provided. One minute a guy in speedos is throwing him around in a chunk of ice, the next he’s on a giant space ship with a guy who was called something else a minute ago. This problem is compounded by several factors. As I noted above, the story has a much larger cast than it needs. Osborn is the most obvious example, but whole bunches of heroes and villains like the Thunderbolts or the Dark or Mighty Avengers make appearances.

Damn illegal aliens!

The little caption boxes designed to introduce the characters are just as tedious here as they were in Utopia. “Falcon – on a rescue mission” and “Ant-Man – just looking for an excuse to leave” are blunt to the point of being patronising, don’t actually introduce any of the characters and seem like they are trying to be witty rather than informative. It’s quite distracting, and these sorts of touches just exist to bog the story down. In a way, the story reminds me of Kurt Busiek’s Avengers Forever. And not in a good way.

Still, Brubaker has a firm grasp on character throughout, even s the plot escapes him. And he clearly has an idea of where he wants things to go from here, as we get little threads building in the background. There’s a strange vision at the end of Reborn which seems to exist just to set up some future event (with Martians!). He also hints at a developing plot featuring the fifties Captain America (or “evil Cap” or “bad Cap”, as the Falcon pitches it). “This place is all wrong,” the fifties version of the hero mumbles, “this modern world…” It brings back the hint of the divide in American politics that Brubaker will explore down the line – there’s a nice touch where Brubaker has Osborn reference this divide as he accuses “the Left” of trying to vilify him. Captain America is an inherently political concept (as much as Marvel may try to hide from it), and it’s nice that the comic hints at it.

Happy birthday, Buck-o!

Perhaps the best thing that can be said is that Brubaker’s Captain America is always moving forward. It’s never static. I’ve actually enjoyed the way that Brubaker has transferred the title to Bucky, and perhaps – now that Steve Rogers has returned – we might get to see a bit more of that. And if we can’t manage that, I’d settle for more of Gene Colan drawing Second World War vampires, but I’m easy like that.

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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