Captain America #17. A typically fine issue of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America series: Cap has teamed up with Sharon Carter to investigate a small town in Iowa that is in fact an elaborate front for AIM. This is a delighfully Cold Warish spy set-up, the very sort of thing that Brubaker excels at, and he pulls it off with aplomb and with the assistance of artist Mike Perkins, who keeps the moody spynoir feel that Steve Epting and Michael Lark established previously.
And so, it’s no fault of this particular issue’s that I finally realized what’s been bothering me about Brubaker’s run on this series. And of course, it’s Bucky. But why is Bucky bothering me, you ask?
As most of you who bothered to keep reading after you saw that this post was filed under “Comixx” already know, Bucky was Captain America’s World War II-era sidekick—a plucky teen armed with nothing but gumption and a machine gun three-fourths of his own weight. His death near the end of the war, after an airplane explosion and a plunge into the arctic, is the primal trauma of Cap’s modern heroic career. When he reappeared in the 1960s, Cap’s anguish over letting his partner die was a major part of his personality, the angst that made him a character in the Mighty Marvel Mold. Over the years, as he’s partnered with other heroes, the sting of that loss has lessened a bit, and the memory of Bucky has tended to function more as a wistful marker of simpler times for Cap, who is after all a man from the 40s living in the allegedly more complicated modern world.
So, the big event in Captain America for the past year or so has been the resurrection of Bucky—Bucky, who was one of three deaths in the Marvel Universe, along with Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy, traditionally considered sacrosanct because of how central they are to the MU mythos. (Uncle Ben is so far the only of the trio to escape some sort of exhumation; Gwen wasn’t resurrected, but it was revealed that she had had an affair with Norman Osborne and bore his children, which have now grown up at an accelerated rate and want to kill Spider-Man, in a story that was called something like “Don’t You Feel Nostalgic for the Clone Saga Now?”, or “The Storyline that Saved Professor Fury $3 a Month.”)
I’ve held off on my complaints about Bucky’s return, because I didn’t want to be one of those annoying fanboys who’s always whining about some storyline that has totally ruined the character, etc etc. Of course, that whining fanboy is something of a straw man. Most stories of this sort (like the Gwen Stacy story) are bad not necessarily because they muck with established continuity, but because they’re such bad stories—lazy, poorly written, cheap-shock potboilers that do in fact complicate a character’s backstory and history all out of proportion to what they add or even to how enjoyable they are to read.
But for the most part, Brubaker has done a pretty good job with this story. He’s got a great handle on Cap and his rogues gallery, and he offers logical (well, comic-logical) reasons why Bucky is still alive, why he hasn’t aged, and why he has a mad-on for Cap. So, though plagued by nagging doubts, I’ve held off on bashing Brubaker too much.
Until now. Because I’ve finally figured out what it is that really bothers me about the return of Bucky, and it’s this: this return adds nothing to the Marvel Universe or to the Captain America mythos.
Here’s what I mean: as the “Winter Soldier,” Bucky is a dark, brooding, morally ambiguous figure who has spent most of the past half-century in a state of suspended animation and who is tormented by the atrocities he committed in his former life while under the control of one of Cap’s enemies. All this is well and good, and it would be fine except Cap already had a supporting character just like that: Jack Monroe, aka Nomad, aka the Bucky of the 50s: Jack Monroe, who got bumped off early in the current storyline so that Bucky Number One could take center stage. Jack Monroe, whom, you recall, was the partner of the racist, commie-bashing, mentally-unstable replacement Captain America of the 1950s, who spent most of the past half-century in suspended animation until SHIELD could cure his mental troubles, who did another stint as a mind-controlled pawn as the new Scourge over in Thunderbolts, and who operates as a dark, morally ambigious vigilante trying to earn redemption for his past sins.
Seriously, consider these images:
So, what I’m saying is that, for all it many strengths, the “Winter Soldier” storyline is in one sense a big-event comic of the most frustrating variety. Promising cataclysmic change, it nevertheless returns us to a status quo with the merest of superficial alterations. As he’s currently constituted, I can’t see any story featuring the returned Bucky that mightn’t have worked just as well with Nomad. And so, it feels a bit lazy to me. I recognize that Nomad’s backstory is complicated and it might be hard to clear the ground sufficiently to tell a compelling story with him—but could it really be any harder than finding a good reason for Bucky to return from the dead?
I really do like Brubaker as a writer—I enjoyed Sleeper, his Daredevil is off to a strong start, and he’s a great fit for Cap. And perhaps the problem is not Bru’s but the market’s—bringing back Bucky makes a big splash, gets Cap, a perenially underachieving title, written up in the comics press, and earns all kinds of free publicity that simply writing a great comic book story doesn’t. But ultimately I think he whiffed on this one: given the chance to give us something huge, he gave us something we already had, all warmed over and wrapped up in a shiny new package (and with a bionic arm!), but really still the thing we already had, with only the illusion of change.
I shouldn’t gripe. It just a matter of time before someone resurrects Jack Monroe, and then he and the Winter Soldier go head to head in a battle that can only be called The Man Who Would Be Bucky, and then they team-up to form the Bucky Brigade with Battle Star and that she-Bucky from Counter-Earth. No, seriously, we will see that. I give it no more than 4 years.