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Cullen Bunn’s Run on Captain America & … (Review)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Following Ed Brubaker on a Captain America book was always going to be tough, even if Brubaker had simply been providing the story for his last couple of Captain America & Bucky issues. Indeed, Cullen Bunn took over for Brubaker on one of three on-going Captain America books; with Brubaker still writing Captain America and Winter Soldier. As such, Bunn is somewhat trapped. He can’t really continue Brubaker’s still-unfolding story, but he can’t strike out with his own bold direction like Rick Remender would on a relaunched Captain America.

So it’s no surprise that Bunn’s thirteen issue Captain America & … run feels fairly indistinct. It’s a competently-produced piece of comic book writing, but it doesn’t stand out in the way that it needs to, feeling neither weighty nor fun enough to make the book stand out from the crowd.

He always said Cap was a dinosaur...

He always said Cap was a dinosaur…

Cullen Bunn is a safe pair of hands. The guy seems to be the default “placeholder” writer for a title when a publisher has no idea what to do with it. If there’s a big relaunch or reboot planned at some point, or if there’s a high profile writer waiting for an assignment to synch up, or even if you just want to keep a title spinning after the departure of a celebrated creator, Bunn is very much your man. Bunn was the writer who took over the rebooted Venom following the departure of Rick Remender. He was also tasked with writing Wolverine when Jason Aaron left.

And, to his credit, Bunn kept those series ticking over, even if he never really stood out in the way that – say – Kieron Gillen stood out while taking over for Matt Fraction on Uncanny X-Men or J. Michael Straczynski on Thor. There is a sense that Bunn’s train has come in. As well as consistent publication of his indie work since the mid naughties, Bunn has recently secured himself two high-profile on-going titles at the main publishers, writing Sinestro and Magneto from their first issues.

He's melting, melting... oh, what a world!

He’s melting, melting… oh, what a world!

That said, there is a sense he inherited the Sinestro book from writer Matt Kindt. Kindt wrote the lead-in prelude issue published during DC’s Villains’ Month, and there were rumours and speculation that Kindt was to be attached to the series. Still, Bunn is starting Sinestro from scratch, and – along with Magneto – it represents an opportunity for the writer to demonstrate his own vision and skills.

Bunn did not have that freedom writing Captain America & …. Re-naming Captain America & Bucky, while keeping the original numbering, the team-up book seems intended to be a low-key background book in the Captain America publishing line that was still being driven by Ed Brubaker. Brubaker, of course, had earned this – his run on Captain America is widely ranked among the best long-form stories in the character’s history. It was Brubaker’s success that allowed the line to expand to include various spin-offs and tie-ins.

Jumping right in...

Jumping right in…

So, while Brubaker is still writing Captain America and The Winter Soldier, Bunn’s options are somewhat limited. He can’t do anything too radical or too bold, anything that might be seen to intrude upon or upset Brubaker’s story as it was beginning to wind down. The notion of writing a Captain America team-up book is a good one. The character is one of the most iconic characters in the Marvel Universe, and had recently returned from a high-profile death. As such, pairing him with some of the most colourful characters in the shared universe is a great idea.

And Bunn seems genuinely energised and excited about this. In his afterword, the writer mentions that this was an idea that had been gestating for quite a while. He talks about old notes jotting down exciting combinations of characters to team up with Steve Rogers during his superheroing adventures. As it stands, we get a fairly conventional line-up of characters who share history with Captain America – Hawkeye, Iron Man, Namor, Black Widow.

Awaiting her Doom...

Awaiting her Doom…

There are, however, two major problems with Bunn’s Captain America & … run. The first is that he seems to have difficulty writing Steve Rogers. In the early issues, he writes Steve Rogers as a decidedly stuck-in-the-mud paternalist character from a lost age. (Losing subtlety points for pitting the defrosted Captain America against literal dinosaurs.) There’s a sense in the Captain America & Hawkeye arc that Steve Rogers is essentially your-grandfather-as-a-super-hero, stopping just short of “kids these days…” and “back in my time…”

So the dialogue between Captain America and Hawkeye feels a little cringe-wrothy, as Bunn tries his hardest to make it seem like the least fun father-and-son outing ever. “This isn’t a lesson, Hawkeye,” Captain America assures the Avenger who has been around for decades at this point – even in universe. “You don’t have anything else to prove to me. But everyone can use constructive feedback every now and then.”

... and Hawkeye!

… and Hawkeye!

One of the more fascinating things about Brubaker’s work on Captain America was the way that Brubaker could make it clear – time and time again – that Steve Rogers was a man out of his own time, but without making it seem forced or unnatural. Marvel comic book time moves much slower than reality, but Captain America has been living in this version of America for several years at this point. It feels a little awkward to keep drawing attention to how he’s really old and out-of-touch with popular culture.

(“Did you just say ‘swagger’?” Tony Stark asks at one point. “I know you were frozen in ice for a while, but what year do think this is?” It doesn’t feel like naturalistic dialogue between two people who were (and are again) very close friends. This seems like conversation that might have been made a week or two after digging Captain America out of the ice. Many of the earlier sequences in Bunn’s Captain America & … would work a lot better if they were set almost immediately after Captain America was thawed out.)

A hornet's nest...

A hornet’s nest…

This sort of characterisation really doesn’t work – feeling rather two-dimensional. “Save your orders for the rookies, old timer!” Hawkeye protests at one point, which seems like dialogue lifted directly from a Stan Lee script written (and set) during the sixties. At the same time, Steve Rogers himself feels a little too stiff and stoic. “I don’t get it… how is it that men like you… like Spider-Man… can joke at times like this?” he asks.

And yet, during later stories, Bunn swings too far the opposite direction. As if realising that portraying Captain America as a two-dimensional stern father-figure was a bit too heavy-handed, Bunn tries to make his dialogue seem more modern and naturalistic. When two Secret Empire henchmen begin to sneak up behind him, Rogers deadpans, “Come at me with that shiv, you’re going to wish this was an alternate reality where the Earth was ruled by proctologists.” That sounds more like a Wolverine line than anything Captain America would casually throw out.

Soldiering on...

Soldiering on…

To be fair to Bunn, he does seem to realise this and tries to counter it. The thirteen issue run gets a lot stronger in the end, as Bunn shifts the focus off Steve Rogers and on to his guest stars. In Captain America & Namor, the emphasis is placed on the Atlantean King and his own secret history. In Captain America & Black Widow, it’s the Black Widow who is confronted by her alternate self, and whose own experiences with slavery inform her reaction to the multi-universal trade of super-powered slaves.

These issues work well, and seem to play to Bunn’s strengths – as a writer, he tends to work better with morally ambiguous characters than he does with straight-up heroes. His Steve Rogers never sounds exactly right, despite the fact that he spends the thirteen issues trying to get the tone right. When he shifts the focus away from Captain America, the comic works quite a bit better. (Having the wonderful Francesco Francavilla delivering the art on the Captain America & Black Widow arc certainly helps.)

Cutting loose...

Cutting loose…

The other problem with Bunn’s short run is that it never feels quite as much fun as it should be. After all, Captain America & Hawkeye introduces us to the concept of a shady corporation that is, to quote Hawkeye, “trying to weaponise dinosaurs somehow.” It’s a wonderfully cheesy only-in-a-superhero-comic plot point, and one that feels delightfully absurd. We should be seeing Captain America riding a T-Rex or engaging in goofy homages to King Kong.

Instead, the plot never commits to that level of full-on absurdity. We get some continuity shout-outs and a lot of exposition to retroactively justify that set-up, but the comic never feels bold enough to just grap the goofy superhero high-concept and jump on in – trusting that “weaponised dinosaurs” is a strong enough concept that the readers will probably follow you down that particular rabbit hole.

The ball's in his court...

The ball’s in his court…

There are a number of very smart ideas in Bunn’s run, but never a sense that Captain America & … is pushing them as far as they might stretch. The run is underpinned by an idea that seems quite similar to the “Council of Reeds” that Jonathan Hickman proposed during his contemporaneous Fantastic Four run. Given that Bunn talks about how long he’d been planning the run, it’s not a problem of itself.

The problem is that Bunn never embraces the idea as completely as he might. Hickman’s “Council of Reeds” is an idea that is fun and clever and opens up all sorts of storytelling opportunities. Bunn’s idea here feels much less intriguing and much less compelling. There’s never a sense of the storytelling potential that a multiversal corporate entity offers. There are nice touches – Bunn offers us the first person narration of various employees – but nothing that amounts to anything particularly memorable.

A tough sell...

A tough sell…

The ball's in his court...

The ball’s in his court…

That’s the real problem with Bunn’s Captain America & … The comic has some nice pulpy ideas, but never seems entirely sure how to pull them off. There’s never a sense of strong vision behind the comic, and many of the ideas later in the run (the Captain America & Namor and Captain America & Black Widow) team-ups seem to exist primarily to play into future books and storylines.

There’s no real substance here, which is a shame – because Bunn has good ideas and a nice grasp of comic book storytelling. If Captain America & … tightened up a bit and learned to relish the comic book absurdity of Bunn’s stories, it would be a much stronger piece of work. As it stands, it just feels like marking time.

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