Captain America #33 & #34
Ed Brubaker, writer
Steve Epting, artist
Marvel Comics, December 2007 & January 2008
24 pages, $2.99 each
What can you say about a series that in one issue sees a disembodied cybernetic arm spring to life and effect a prison break like the Addams Family’s Thing on steroids, and in the next sees protests over mortgage foreclosures and high gas prices lead to a brainwashed squad of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents opening fire on unarmed civilians outside the White House? Taken together these two scenes illustrate the best thing about Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America, which itself may well be the best thing ever to be done with the character: It blends all the disparate Captain America flavors—two-fisted World War II hero, star-spangled costumed superhero, Steranko superspy, gritty black-ops badass, American icon, Marvel Universe elder statesman, post-9/11 symbol of Where We Are As A Nation—into a smoothie of pure action-adventure satisfaction.
Of course, since his “death” (sorry, can’t help but put it in quotes) in the series a few months back, Cap himself is nowhere to be found in the book that bears his name, and everyone and their grandmother will tell you it’s a testament to the handle Brubaker has on the cast of supporting quasi-super characters–Sharon Carter/Agent 13, Bucky/The Winter Soldier, the Falcon, Black Widow, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Union Jack, Spitfire, the Red Skull, Doctor Faustus, Arnim Zola–that the book remains eminently readable. Everyone and their grandmother is actually wrong, but only because the way they’re framing the issue is so silly: I understand the expectations inherent in the concept of “title character,” but Brubaker is a skilled craftsman and so are his main artists on this title, Steve Epting and Mike Perkins, so the notion that the death of Steve Rogers–in terms of superhero secret-identity complexity, we’re not talking Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne here–would scotch the whole affair reminds me of that Seinfeld routine where he says that people who get passionate about their local sports teams are essentially rooting for laundry. No, what’s impressive about the continued quality of this series is Brubaker’s grip on the tone–how the absence of Cap has seemed only to intensify Brubaker’s abilities to draw from the strengths of all the aforementioned aspects of the character by extending them to his entire milieu. This sleight of hand is so deft that you’re so caught up with the cloak-and-dagger stuff involving various superpowered people infiltrating AIM and RAID and Kronas and so on that when the entirely organic-feeling results of those organizations’ schemes–the destabilization of the American economy via problems we in the real world are currently facing in slightly less intense forms–come to light, you’re just staggered by how appropriate it feels, even in a book where a major supporting character has the mutant ability to talk to birds. Heck, the guy even gets something interesting out of Mark Millar’s astonishingly stupid Civil War plot by playing the victorious Iron Man as a conqueror with a conscience.
The big hook in issue #34 is that Cap’s old sidekick and current ex-Manchurian Candidate, Bucky, has now assumed the Captain America mantle. I don’t really understand why his new suit is shiny, other than it gives designer Alex Ross an excuse to bathe his paintings of it in even more sourceless white glow than usual, but who cares? He makes an interesting candidate for the position because unlike Rogers, who could only grieve over the horrors of the world, Bucky, like America itself, has actually committed a few. Now he’s trying to make up for it, and hey, we can relate, I think.
The festivities in these issues are underpinned by Epting’s muscular, much-imitated noirish stylings. His action choreography is impeccably intelligible, his punches feel like physical things, and he clearly has a great time with the costumes, uniforms, and tech that give the book its superheroic sheen even as he dirties it up with unidealized faces and blacks galore. His Red Skull is intimidating as heck, too; thanks to the plotline, it’s once again a mask rather than a guy with a skull for a face, and those normal eyes peeking out from behind all that latex or whatever it is are reminiscent of those shots in Texas Chain Saw where you can see Leatherface’s peepers rolling around beneath the mask. He’s creepy, in other words, and makes a great enemy for one of the three or four best superhero titles on the market today.