Captain America: Winter Soldier Vols. 1 & 2, Captain America: Red Menace Vols. 1 & 2, Civil War: Captain America, The Death of Captain America Vols. 1 & 2
Ed Brubaker, writer
Steve Epting, Mike Perkins, Michael Lark, John Paul Leon, Marcos Martin, Lee Weeks, Butch Guice, artists
various page counts
I think you can count the number of times the title character smiles in this long, high-quality run of superhero comics by Ed Brubaker on one hand and have three fingers left over. Considering how that’s two different guys we’re talking about here, that’s really rather impressive. I suppose it’s not necessarily a particularly noteworthy achievement to have crafted such a uniformly bleak work of superheroics in this the age of SUPERHEROES IS SERIOUS BUSINESS, but what distinguishes Brubaker’s work from similar efforts by many of his contemporaries is not just a grimness of tone but a moderation of it. Brubaker appears in total control of the milieu he has developed for Captain America–as I’ve described it many times in the past, a perfect blend of countless Cap flavors, including World War II hero, post-9/11 symbol, black-ops badass, Steranko spy, and Star-Spangled Avenger, set in a world of super-powered espionage and terrorism. By tweaking the plot, the antagonist, the setting, or the combination of supporting characters just so, Brubaker can emphasize any one of those notes at any time. It’s the rare comic where armed corporate security forces opening fire on protesters can share space in a storyline with a severed cybernetic arm springing to life and incapacitating a roomful of scientists and neither feels ridiculous or out of place. (Wow, I just re-read the review I wrote of a couple Cap issues from this time last year, and it’s a little uncanny how closely what I just wrote echoes what I wrote then. But I guess masterful craft leaves an impression.)
In rereading the bulk of Brubaker’s run in a handful of sittings, though, it really is a certain sadness that emerges as the dominant impression. Brubaker’s Steve Rogers is a very lonely guy, held in awe by almost everyone who knows him but feeling like his adult life is a series of deaths and regrets. Nearly all of his supporting characters are similarly haunted by their violent pasts (and presents!). Brainwashing emerges as a recurring element, and perhaps as a metaphor for how we can’t control what our minds and memories give precedence to. Heck, the Red Skull actually kills his archenemy and doesn’t even take a single panel to gloat over it. To find another superhero comic this intrinsically unhappy with violent conflict you’d have to go back to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga–yet here as there the action is both thrilling and constant, and drawn with flair by really the originators of the new Marvel house style, Steve Epting, Mike Perkins, and several seamlessly slotted fill-in artists here and there. Strong, ultimately pretty unusual stuff.